Green and pleasant lands: eco-friendly Caribbean living

Eco-friendly design is both a modern idea and an old tradition in the region, Lisa Allen-Agostini discovers

  • Artist's house and studio. Photograph courtesy Jenifer Smith Architects
  • Trinidad & Tobago’s Environmental Management Authority’s  proposed new green building. Photograph courtesy ACLA:WORKS
  • Gingerbread houses were green before the concept was invented. Photograph by Ariann Thompson
  • The Cove Industrial Park in Tobago. Photograph courtesy Gregory Salandy
  • The National Library in Port of Spain has a central atrium to keep it cool. Photograph by Marlon Rouse
  • ACLA:WORKS’ new offices in Port of Spain. Photograph courtesy ACLA:WORKS
  • Assumption Catholic church in Maraval, Port of Spain. Photograph by Ariann Thompson
  • Artist's house and studio foyer. Photograph courtesy Jenifer Smith Architects

Even Barbie wants to build green. In May last year, Mattel, the company behind the iconic toy, partnered with the American Institute of Architects to announce a competition to design Barbie’s dream house using “the best sustainable design principles”.

But what is building green?

“Green architecture should be understood as architecture which responds to the environment in a sustainable way, responsive not purely in tectonic terms or in terms of energy consumption, but holistically – in the context of society or culture, the economy, and nature,” said Trinidadian Mark Raymond, the lead architect on the (green, naturally) Ministry of Information building in Port of Spain.

Green – that is, environment-friendly – architecture isn’t just about saving money and conserving resources, but about building spaces that are good for the people who use them. Green buildings have been found to improve the sales, productivity, health and happiness of their users and inhabitants.

Trinidadian architect Gillian Fraser, a board member of the Trinidad & Tobago Green Building Council (GBC) and the managing director of Carbon/Green International Sustainability Consultants, argued that most architects in the region naturally want to build green.

Raymond put it this way: “What has been hailed recently as green architecture represents…for some architects common sense and a means of working which they have pursued diligently for many years.”

Green design is showing up in residences as well as big public building projects, but you wouldn’t always know it, because there is no regional green certification for buildings and the cost of getting foreign experts to certify a building is high – in fact, it’s the major cost in building certifiably green. “It’s the manpower cost of having a commissioner come in and verify the systems,” explained Mandilee Newton, a Jamaican-born LEED-accredited architect practising in Trinidad & Tobago. “It can start anywhere from US$200,000 for a simple commercial building. And all the stakeholders have to be involved, not just the client and the consultants – it’s everybody: the contractors, the suppliers and installers.”

It’s definitely a drawback that the initial cost of building green can be high. Architect Gregory Salandy, a Trinidadian whose firm is designing the Cove Eco-Industrial Park in Tobago, said, “You’re going to recover the cost…but you’re only going to see it through the life cycle of the building. For most developers and clients it would be somewhat cost-prohibitive to do very green buildings up front.” He added, “What is needed is some policy to help subsidise or offset the cost, an incentive for the client – tax relief or a rebate – in promoting the idea of being green. Also, all projects by the government should have some sort of green policy as well.”

Getting the government to see green is high on the agenda of the Trinidad & Tobago Green Building Council (GBC), said Chris Dohm, who is a LEED-accredited business development director at Carbon/Green and a GBC board member. Without government incentives – and a government research-and-development agenda for going green – it will be hard to get the private sector to buy in. We’re not naturally altruistic, he believes; payback 20 years down the road isn’t going to persuade the average client to spend extra to build sustainably.

Making it harder in Trinidad & Tobago is the fact that the country’s energy costs are among the lowest in the world: nearly ten times lower than the Dominican Republic’s, for instance, according to 2007 figures from the US Energy Information Administration, and four times cheaper than Jamaica’s, said Newton.

Still, in a tropical climate, air conditioning is the biggest cost in running a commercial space; having to worry about the electricity bill can make a client consider a more sustainable design. “We all work on budgets, and if your energy bill is $25 or $30 million and putting together a more energy-efficient building can save you $5 million, it’s still saving,” Dohm said.

Getting the region to adopt more consistently applied green standards in building won’t be child’s play, with all respect to Barbie’s dream green home. And it will have repercussions. As small-island states, the countries of the Caribbean have a vested interest in protecting the environment, and construction is the most resource-intensive industry there is. Building green is not a pipe dream but a requirement for survival.

Designed by Trinidadian architect Jenifer Smith, this artist’s house and studio on Trinidad’s north coast is exposed to the elements and offers views of the coastline, the sea and the surrounding rainforest.

The intention was to minimise the excavation/fill, to collect rainwater for use all year round and to use solar energy as the main source of power. Construction, which took three years, cost approximately TT$3.5 million.

Rainwater from the two main sloping roofs is collected, via gutters and downpipes, in an 18,000-gallon cistern below the central hall. It’s then filtered, treated and pumped to storage tanks high above the “dormitory” to supply the sanitary fixtures by gravity feed.

The roof is angled towards the south, in the optimum position for the solar panels.

The timber-framed dormitory building has louvred doors and windows, which are closed at night for security, but still allow natural ventilation.

Materials mostly came from renewable sources in the region and were selected to weather well with minimum maintenance. The local craftsmen employed on the project each added their own expertise and experience to the way the design was implemented.


Landmark library

High-profile green buildings in the Caribbean include the landmark PCJ Building in Kingston, Jamaica, and the National Library in Port of Spain, Trinidad. Colin Laird, the library’s architect, said in a short telephone interview that the building is green, in his opinion, because it fits in with neighbouring structures like the Red House (the seat of Parliament) and Woodford Square, in addition to its being oriented to maximise shading, its optimal use of natural light, its central atrium that keeps the building cool, and its use of local materials. Additionally, he explained, the building, opened in 2003, uses mostly water from the aquifer under the city and only the drinking water comes from the city’s piped supply. He estimated it uses only 60 per cent of the energy that a similar building ordinarily would.

Caribbean Beat editor Judy Raymond wrote of the library when it opened, “The library building practically begs people to lime there. There are overhangs on the shady sides of the building, the east and the north, offering places to sit out of the sun or… a dry spot to shelter. That’s exactly what a public building in this part of the world should do.”

The high cost of energy has been a push factor in places like Jamaica, Barbados and Grenada, where solar power is being explored. Barbadian homes routinely sport solar water-heaters on their roofs; Grenada has legislation for solar-power buy-back from consumers who use it; and Jamaica has solar photovoltaic systems in several public sites, including three hospitals.

In St Barts, a small island in the French West Indies that depends on fuel-burning motors for electricity, the Villa Plein-Sud has installed solar panels and wind turbines to supplement its needs if it has to go off the grid during a hurricane, for instance.

One client who has bought into the green dream is the Tobago House of Assembly, which was scheduled to break ground on its Cove Eco-Industrial Park in Lowlands by the end of 2011. Gregory Salandy said the park would comprise six factory shells, each 6,000 – 10,000 square feet in area. Twenty to 24 start-up companies could share the first factory shell for light industry.

“What makes a park more ecologically friendly is the sensitivity with which you design, taking into consideration items such as rainwater harvesting and sustainable design on a macro scale, so that the park itself is a microsystem. We will have a lot of alternative energy sources – natural gas, solar power – and storm-water runoff will be collected into retention ponds. The buildings themselves will have a very green envelope.” The plan includes outdoor dining areas and footpaths, to encourage users to interact more with the natural environment.

Salandy, who interned with Colin Laird years before going into his own practice, said that as far as he can ensure it, all his buildings make the most of orientation for optimal shading, and use low-impact materials and natural lighting where possible.

Our great-grandparents were green

Many of the revolutionary concepts in green architecture were achieved by our great-grandparents in the structures they built using wood, brick and tapia – which is perhaps the ultimate in sustainable building materials: mud plastered over a wooden framework.

Mark Raymond explained, “A careful study, for example, in Woodbrook and the second stage of the development of the St Clair Estate, reveals buildings whose verandahs and orientation are responsive to the trajectory of the sun during the day. The bedrooms are generally arrayed in a linear plan to mitigate the effect of the solar gain from sunlight on the masonry or nogging walls, ensuring that they were cool at evening or night-time.

“Buildings in the nineteenth century, whether vernacular or popular dwelling or civic or colonial structures, had to develop means of harnessing natural systems and resources to modulate architectural environments without mechanical systems such as air conditioning – that was inherently sustainable and environmentally friendly by contemporary standards, rather than being self-consciously ‘green’.”


Build first, go green later

Retrofitting green features is an option for many clients, said Newton, who is on the GBC board. Most construction projects are not new buildings but renovations to existing structures. Green retrofitting (a word that means augmenting or adjusting existing structures or systems) is “not expensive if you work it into the capital needs for the building.”

A consultant she knew gained great savings for a client by retrofitting a green feature in a commercial building’s parking lot. The fans there were running 24 hours a day, even though the building was in use only half that time. “He spent US$500 and bought a sensor to put onto the fans. The money he saved in electric costs in one year was phenomenal.”

Double-glazing is more energy-efficient than using single sheets of glass, but its efficiency can be matched by using film on glass instead, at a lower cost.

Changing incandescent bulbs for fluorescent lighting is another simple energy-saver often used in green retrofitting. Fraser said energy auditing – measuring how much energy a plant or process uses – would encourage clients to see the benefits of going green.

Taking the LEED

What standards and measurements should be applied by a regional green certification body?

The two biggest international systems for certifying buildings and accrediting building and design professionals are BREEAM in the UK and LEED in the US. BREEAM is the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method, established in 1990. LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, and it was established in 1998 by the US Green Building Council.

The systems differ, and LEED proponents say it covers a broader range of climates than BREEAM. There are only a handful of LEED professionals in the region. Salandy argues that neither BREEAM nor LEED should be the basis of a regional system. “I don’t necessarily believe that models such as those can be applied to our context, because there are different criteria, just geographically speaking, that we can never use.”

“LEED, BREEAM and other systems attempt to codify and create procedures and measures for the design of environmentally sensitive buildings, but also generate anomalies,” Raymond noted. For example, compliance points can be awarded for providing bicycle shelters in buildings to encourage cycle use. So you could earn points by providing bicycle sheds in Port of Spain, “even though it is not the culture here (unfortunately) to ride bikes,” he says.

What makes it green?

Experts agree there are some basic elements of green architecture. They include:
•    energy efficiency
•    appropriate site
•    use of low-impact, sustainable materials
•    water conservation
•    good indoor environmental quality.

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
The views expressed on this website are those of the the authors and do not reflect those of the Direct Support Grants Programme.