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Smart Design

Smart Design Then & Now

Before there were solar panels or wind generators, before there was an energy crisis—even before there was electricity available to every home—buildings were being constructed in the Virgin Islands that worked in harmony with the natural systems of the Caribbean environment.

Throughout the islands, we find historic structures dating from the 18th and 19th centuries. Some have left only a trace of what they were, some are in ruins, and some have been well-preserved and are still in use. These buildings were designed to be sustainable in the truest sense of the word.


Early residents understood the need to build in harmony with the natural conditions of this place. Concerns such as sun exposure, wind direction, storm water runoff, rainwater collection, and hurricane resistance all had their effect on design choices. Careful attention was paid to site selection, building orientation, building forms, water control, and construction materials. These issues still concern us today, and a responsible approach to resolving them is a major component of the green building movement and LEED design.

Site selection
Historically, sites were chosen that were relatively flat and easily accessed. Without the use of modern excavation equipment, foundations had to be dug by hand. The gentler the slope, the less excavation was required. And so the earliest structures were sited on the tops of knolls and hills, at the base of the mountain, or along the shoreline rather than on the steep mountainsides.

Of course, the function of the building also played a big part in the choice of location. Warehouses were aligned directly with docks along the waterfront to receive cargo from ships. Retail and commercial buildings lined the main street at the opposite end of the warehouses, slightly higher in elevation than the waterfront and less susceptible to flooding in a storm surge. And residences were typically on a second floor above the stores or up a stepped street on the hillside for better breeze and harbor view.

Buildings were oriented to capture the natural cooling from our famous trade winds. These breezes typically come from the east, with variations in strength and direction during different times of the year. With the strong sun on the east, south, and west facades, the addition of porches created shade for the main structure. This kept the interiors of the building cool and protected door and window openings from passing showers.


Building forms
Many vernacular West Indian designs developed as a collection of structures, individual buildings of varying sizes connected by courtyards and covered porches. The smaller structures could be built over time, as resources allowed, and the individual pavilions could be adjusted to fit the unique terrain of each site. This also created a cascade of smaller roofs that proved to be much stronger under storm conditions than large singular roofs.

Hipped roofs not only gave more volume and height to cool interior spaces, but the form itself gave the best resistance to the force of hurricane winds. The slopes of the roof deflected the horizontal forces of the wind and reduced the danger of uplift. Roof overhangs were also eliminated to reduce damage from storms.

Water Control
Because there are few natural sources of fresh water (or none) throughout the islands, rainwater was collected from the rooftops and contained in cisterns. In some places, the hillside was paved with stone to capture even more rainwater, which was collected in larger cisterns at the bottom of the catchment. Natural guts were avoided where storm water drained rapidly down from the mountainsides on its way to the sea, and areas that were prone to flooding were left undisturbed.

Building Materials
Before reinforced concrete or concrete blocks came along, structural walls were thick mass masonry, built from stone that was readily available. For more precise work around door and window openings, coral blocks were cut to shape and brick was set to create corners, lintels, and arches. Much of the brick was brought over as ballast on ships—an early example of recycled materials. Roofs were framed in timber, and the hipped roof form came into play again by allowing larger spans to be covered with shorter framing members.

Windows and doors were developed to address the demands of the environment. Solid wooden shutters on the exterior of every opening could be closed on short notice of an approaching storm. Interior louvered doors and windows allowed breezes to flow through while keeping out the heat of the sun and giving the residents inside a little privacy.

These are all simple and practical design elements found in traditional Caribbean architecture, and most are still being used today in modern projects. Over the years, they have been redefined and developed in all kinds of creative ways, giving the architecture of our region its distinct, elegant, and often playful character.

Today, we have all the wonderful benefits of modern technology, and no one is looking to return to the days before electricity. Instead, we are learning to produce the power we need without depleting and damaging our environment. This technology continues to be developed and to become more practical to put into place. In the USVI, federal and local government programs are encouraging homeowners and businesses to increase the amount of energy supplied by renewable sources.


Much like the advent of concrete, excavation equipment, or impact resistant windows, renewable energy systems are allowing the buildings designed for the Caribbean to evolve to the next level. And the underlying design basics that we have been using for centuries will still be there to create responsible, green buildings in the Virgin Islands.

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