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Sustainability in island Design

Written By Neomie Tavernier, B.Arch, LEED Green Associate, RA, BIA 

Images Supplied By Leslie St. John and Elements Architecture Ltd. 

We live in a world where there is global concern and discourse on “sustainability”: from what we grow and consume, to what we use, to where we live and beyond.  If we want to live long and healthy lives - and more importantly - if we want to leave a world that can sustain many generations to come, then we must “be kind” to the world that we have. Whether or not we agree on the cause, the change we’ve seen in our environment has been significant and not necessarily sustainable. This makes the discussion about how we can help the world heal a valid one. 


What is Sustainability? 


The Oxford Dictionary defines sustainability as “the ability to continue or be continued for a long time”. In an environmental context, it is alternately defined as “the use of natural products and energy in a way that does not harm the environment”. To be agents of sustainability, we simply must avoid doing harm and foster regeneration. 


Long before “sustainability” and “green” became buzzwords, they were the foundation of island design. We live in countries which have developed more slowly than the first world and we have retained strong connections to our historical practices and culture. We who exist in the industry of design here have grown with a respect for our environment that is innate and true.   


We have evolved given our knowledge of technological developments but our sense of living with the environment remains steadfast: strong island design is in harmony with the earth around us; whether it be the limestone in Barbados, the trees from our forests, or the stone and sand from the volcanic islands. This is not to say that we do not utilize other materials, but we rely on what we have available. We do not have ready access to many new technologies, whether due to proximity or cost, and this reality is a dynamic we cannot ignore. This is true throughout the industry for different regions around the world; it is part of what distinguishes design from one place to another.   


Our tropical climate enables us to live both inside and out all year round, another reason why island design endeavours to make connections and find balance between the built and natural environments. Balancing the requirements for human comfort and safety from the climate (such as the occasional storms that plague our region) is where true sustainability resides. How do we create safe spaces for people that also respect the lavish natural beauty we have been blessed with in this region?  Out of necessity, this beauty sustains our local economies and deserves respect; it also provides life-giving sustenance. It is with great responsibility that we must consciously select materials that are locally accessible and renewable, using only what we need as we try not to devalue our surroundings. 


The years have taught us that when we ignore simple methods of traditional island design, our environment humbles us in the worst of ways.  We have seen simple forms stand up to raging winds and spaces which remain cool and comfortable with no mechanical assistance.     From understanding basic sun and wind patterns for our region we know how these natural elements interact with our roof pitches, our placement and sizes of wall openings, the orientation of space and the strength in our building connections. How island people live and use space also has a pivotal role in what makes these spaces work, whether they are small or large, the family gathering is the heart of our homes. It should be every designer’s intent to create space that is functional to the needs of the family and somewhat timeless as families grow and change. This not only speaks to designing residential architecture but all types of architecture - private or public - can be framed around the families we create at work, at school, at church and throughout our communities and places of interaction. Architecture is to be experienced and requires a human connection.  


This is not to say that we cannot have our own styles or follow trends, but that we must be sensitive to the creation of space that connects us to our environment and each other. As we aim to build stronger, we must not create disconnection.  


As designers, we want to explore new and interesting things; we want to create our own identity. We are at our best when we remember the basics: Every design must respond to place and space, both from within and without - nothing exists in a vacuum. When we find the balance between the built and the natural, we find the sustainability that has existed throughout time in island design.  This key tenet is one which we, the experienced professionals, work hard to instil in the minds of the next generation of designers. 

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