Cool Wisdom from Traditional Caribbean Houses

A breath of fresh air! That’s what I felt, literally and figuratively, when I walked into the beautiful wooden home of a Bequia acquaintance. We had come to see the quaint, chattel house-like studio up the hill, but fell in love with the open great room of the main house. Its awesome airiness derives from a tall doors, 9’ outside walls, 4’ x 4’ glass-less windows, the shade of a deep wrap-around porch, and a steep, spacious ceiling uninterrupted by the partition walls—all made of bright-white painted white wood.

Bequia Wood House

“It’s based on an old Martinique farmhouse,” our hostess informed us, which inspired me to do some research. It turns out that such “habitations” of Martinique are among the oldest examples of domestic architecture in the Eastern Caribbean, with many features that make them ideally suited to our climate.

“During colonization, builders learned from trial and error how best to adapt the Creole house to the moods of the Caribbean climate: how to deal with its breezes, sunshine, rain and hurricanes. Too often these elements have been disregarded [in more recent construction],” according to Dr. Lennox Honychurch in his paper for UNESCO’s symposium on Caribbean Wooden Treasures. “Whether they are built from wood or stone, these handsome houses have stood the test of hurricane winds and earthquakes for over 300 years to prove their worth.”

Modern Building Heats Things Up

My friend’s house seemed cooler than a masonry house because its design made it so. Compared to traditional wood and stone, according to Dominica architect Elise Johnston-Agar’s paper for the UNESCO symposium, “new… materials such as concrete block are porous and trap hot air. Thin plywood sheets directly under galvanized roofing do not absorb the heat that inch-thick boards did. Reduced verandas allow more direct sun to hit more wall surface and enter windows. Glass windows provide no shade at all and limit the amount of openings for air circulation. Lower roof slopes trap hot air, especially when no dormers provide convection, not to mention the reduced stability under strong wind forces. These factors create spaces that require cooling systems greater than a fan, tremendously increasing energy needs.”

Cooling Lessons from History

L'Habitation Clement

L'Habitation Clement, Martinique

If you’re building a home in the Caribbean today, consider learning from traditional builders: “One interesting feature of Hurricane David, which hit Dominica in 1979, was that the older, steep-sided hip roofs, constructed in the nineteenth or early twentieth centuries, stood up better to the 240 km/hour winds than the flatter roofs constructed since the 1950s. The angle of these roof and the internal beams held together by wooden pegs, mortise and tenon joints, resisted the wind force and changes in air pressure that tear buildings apart during hurricanes,” writes Dr. Honychurch.

From pre-Columbian times, “the Taino and Kalingo/Carib Indians always put a low overhang on the windward side of their thatched houses to fend off the rain but still allow the breeze to cool the inside of their homes. During colonization, settlers learned to place their bedrooms along the eastern side of their homes for the same reason and to channel air through the house by way of at least one large corridor running from east to west. Wooden louvers or jalousies were widely used as a solution to the problem of how to admit air while keeping out the glare of sunlight. Shaded hoods cover the window helped keep out both sun and rain.

“The verandah had a dual purpose, acting as an extension of the drawing room and a shady zone for air to cool before entering the house itself. Well-tied hip roofs were found to best withstand hurricanes and verandah roofs were attached to the house separately so that during storms they could be swept away without taking the main roof with them. Inside the house, decorated spaces across the top of partitions allowed air to circulate from room to room.”

(See my post on Oliver Messel for photos of tradition-inspired homes on Mustique and Barbados.)

Traditional Wisdom for Bequia Building

  • High hip roofs
  • Solid wood under roof
  • Wrap-around verandahs (8’ miminum)
  • Slender wood columns/posts on porch
  • Deep overhangs (3’ minimum)
  • Tall exterior walls (9’ plus)
  • French doors, especially louvered
  • Transoms above doors
  • Open slats or decorative panels above walls (See my post on fretwork.)
  • Shaded window hoods
  • Louvers
  • Huge window openings (think, 4’ x 4’)
  • Partition interior walls
  • Wood
  • Solid stone
  • Bedrooms on eastern end
  • East-west corridors

Questions or Suggestions?