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Caribbean Eco Home

How to Build a Caribbean Eco Home

In recent years there has been a huge shift in environmental awareness and people all over the world are looking for ways to make their lives more sustainable. Green Building, Eco-Design and Environmental Planning are all buzzwords of this current age and there has been an explosion in technology and methods to build eco homes that have a positive, rather than detrimental effect on the environment. This article focuses on the ways to go about building an eco home within the Caribbean region, although many of the ideas and information can be obviously applied to other regions of the world.

Living in the tropical islands of the Caribbean is a dream for many people and those who decide to relocate often buy plots of land rather than a ready made house. So the challenge is to design and construct an eco home that is comfortable, meets all the occupant's needs and budget whilst being environmentally sustainable.

Select the Land

The first task is to choose the land. Buying a piece of pristine forested land may seem like the ultimate way to get back to nature. However in reality it is not all that ecological to construct in an undisturbed area where you will be a huge intrusion to the natural ecology of the place. Instead look for land that has already been disturbed, cultivated or with secondary forest growth. If there is primary forest on your land, designate that as a conservation area and stick to the other parts of the land for your building.

Look for the placement of trees on the property. Having a good selection of trees provides wonderful natural shade and is good for cooling the area, providing natural ventilation which will enable you to avoid installing air conditioning. However make sure that you do not have trees hovering so near the house that they are a hazard during hurricanes.

Caribbean Eco Home

 Caribbean Eco Home - Mountain Land near Morne Trios Piton, Dominica

'Feel' the Land
Much of our environmental imbalance has been caused through our disconnection to nature and misunderstanding or ignorance of natural processes. Simply scanning maps and surveys is not enough to truly understand a site and be sensitive to its needs. It is a vital part of the planning process to connect physically with the area and get a true sense of the place. Spend as much time as you can on the site and walk the land simply observing and listening to it. Feel the flow of air, observe the symbiotic connections, patterns, light and your own feelings in relation to it all. Ideally an ecopsychology Nature Connection Workshop would be included as part of your planning and development process.

Use Caribbean Experts

DIY is increasingly popular but with something as important as the initial planning and designs for construction don't skimp on getting properly trained local professionals in for the job. Ultimately it will save time and money from unnecessary mistakes and results in a far more comprehensively thought out eco-building. If you are working with a site that will encompass more than just a house, get a landscape architect at the outset to do an overall site plan before you go into the architecture and engineering of the building. Someone with a good experience in site planning will offer you variations that maximize the utilization of natural resources and can offer you a phased approach to a large project. They will also be aware of details such as how can you maximize the air flow through your building which will make a huge difference to your finished Caribbean eco home. Shop around and find someone who is aligned with your vision so that it can be a collaborative effort.

Assess Your Spatial Needs
A very obvious way to reduce your eco-footprint is to build a smaller home that uses less land space. So ask yourself - what do you use your home for? Do you work from home? Do you like to entertain? Will you need a large kitchen? It is important to design functional spaces - there is no point in having a large open living area if you do not really sit there or utilize it.

Give yourself a wide veranda which is covered enough from rainfall so that you can sit outside and enjoy sunsets, moon rises and the gentle breeze and ambience of a tropical evening. This will enhance your connection to nature and provide you with all the excellent health benefits of being outdoors.

Rounder homes have been shown to be more hurricane resistant but the planning and construction will be more challenging and expensive.

What Materials are Available?
With the site planned and designed, a selection has to be made about what to actually build your Caribbean eco home from. Find out what materials are available locally and look at traditional designs and building techniques to learn from their pros and cons.

Wood houses are always a popular eco-selection and if you have already cut trees on the property these may be suitable for construction. If not, make sure that the local wood you are buying has been sustainably harvested and investigate what chemicals it is treated with.

Bamboo is a wonderfully fast growing plant which makes it very sustainable and it is available on many Caribbean islands. However the varieties vary widely and many types are often not strong enough to be used structurally. There are a few inventive techniques that include reinforcing it with steel and concrete at the ends and building with it but make sure you get someone with expertise in this area or only use it for less structural parts of the buildings,

Stone is strong and natural but, as with the wood, check where the stones are sourced from. If taken in large amounts, dredging stones out of rivers can destroy delicate ecosystems.

Cob housing which is a mixture of clay and straw is beautiful, organic and can be hand built but it may not be suitable for areas with high rainfall.

For roofing you will need to decide if you need a material suitable for water catchment. (see water conservation section) Thatch roofs are beautiful, made from renewable resources but will need to be replaced regularly

Concrete is a building material with high embodied energy and the less you can use the better.

Assess Your Eco Home Energy Needs

What are your energy needs? Assessing at the outset what you use your home for will help make it a more efficient in energy sourcing. This is especially important if you intend to be off the grid.  Decide if you want to be completely off-the grid or connected to the mainstream supply as back-up. If you work from home you may need constant electrical supply for computers in which case you may likely need a back-up generator. Back-up diesel generators can be converted to run on used vegetable oil if you are wiling to go through the simple conversion process and collect and filter used oil from restaurants.

Make an inventory of your appliances and if possible find out the energy use of each. Some things like a fridge are on constantly, so if you are buying new appliances make sure you source the most efficient ones possible.

Look at what kind of lighting you require at night. If possible keep lighting to a minimum which will help your energy use and less lighting also has great health benefits, connecting us to our natural circadian rhythms. Solar lamps which charge during the day and release light in the evening are easily available for the outside of the house.

What cooking system will you use? Stoves that run on gas cylinders are common in the Caribbean but there are other options such as solar ovens, wood fired oven and even biogas systems which use the methane from animal manure!

Caribbean Eco Home

 Caribbean Eco Home - Industrial Sized Wind Turbine

Solar Energy and Alternative Technology

In a region so saturated with sunlight it makes sense to use systems that are able to make use of all that free energy. Solar hot water systems can be designed and installed quite inexpensively - just make sure they are placed in a site where you receive maximum sunlight energy. Decide if you need a back up for rainy days - do you require an additional electrical system or will you be comfortable to make a bath with a few kettles of boiling water when the weather is cloudy?

In small Caribbean nations there are not really any opportunities to sell excess energy back to the grid so you will need to store the excess energy in batteries. A good energy assessment at the outset will give you a good idea of how much power you will need to generate. Get a climate assessment done to find out how much sunlight and rainfall you get and the variables in temperatures.

Other possibilities are wind turbines and hydro systems if there is a river on the site. These can be done on a small scale so don't get put off thinking you have to have an entire wind farm or a huge dam for your needs! Do some research into alternative technologies and find out what others in the same area are using. There are many innovative projects happening in the Caribbean that are a rich resource for learning so find out more!

Water Conservation
Water is a vital necessity and also an increasingly scarce resource so you need to find out where your source of water is. You may be connected to a mainstream supply or be lucky enough to have your own source of water on the property. If the latter is the case assess how you can utilize that resource sustainably and what filtration systems will need to be put in place to make it suitable for drinking.

It may be possible to supply all your water needs by collecting rainfall. In this case the roof will need to be designed in such a way that all water is channeled through guttering into large volume barrels with sealed tops (to prevent mosquitoes) Installing low flow showerheads and taps can save large amounts of water.

Reusing water is a great eco-option and installing a simple grey water system can dramatically reduce water consumption. Grey water refers to water that has been used for washing dishes or bathing and is not the same as toilet water which is known as black water and must be properly channeled into a system designed to deal with sewage (see waste management). A grey water system can be fitted from your sinks to irrigate your plants or used to flush the toilet. There are many different systems and it's worth investigating a variety of options.

Waste Management Systems
Most homes in the Caribbean have their own individual septic tanks rather than having waste channeled in to a mainstream sewage system. This will need to be a carefully designed part of your project.

Installing a low flush toilet will assist in saving water and filling up your tank less. If you are unable to obtain one of the newer designed toilets put a brick in the cistern of your toilet to reduce the amount of water consumed for each flush. 

A more radical alternative is to construct a completely no-flush toilet. This was common in recent Caribbean history with most people having a pit latrine and many who remember these are highly skeptical of anything similar. However a modern designed no-flush or compost toilet does not need to be a smelly, fly infested affair. A carefully constructed deep pit can hold waste and be sprinkled with sawdust to absorb the smell. There are many options so be open-minded and take a look. You will of course need to comply with local planning regulations and most times these types of installations are prohibited from being installed near any source of fresh water.

Plant an Organic Garden
Growing your own food is a smart and sustainable option - even a few herbs in pots are a good start. Plan your vegetable gardens according to what you will grow, climate and space. The common-sense approach of Permaculture zoning techniques recommend planting foods that require the most attention closer to the house and hardier crops and trees further away. This will save your own personal energy and allow you to keep a close eye on fragile crops such as lettuce and other salad vegetables that may be prone to pest attacks!

Companion planting reduces the risk of plant diseases and infestations so research what plants work well with each other. A range of natural botanical sprays can be made with locally sourced spices, garlic and peppers to ward off anything that threatens your precious plants.

Designate a space for compost that is not too close to the house but not so far away that it is an inconvenient chore to empty it.

Research native varieties of non-food plants and make sure you use them. There are many exotic species now prevalent in the Caribbean which may look lovely but can have a potentially devastating effect on local flora and fauna.

Chickens and goats are common as livestock animals in a Caribbean garden. Sometimes they are there to use for eggs and milk but others keep animals simply to provide nutrient rich manure! If you do choose to keep them make sure you have enough space and make the necessary plans for building them a cover, tying them or letting them roam free. 

Furniture and Indoor Décor
There are many very talented craftspeople in the Caribbean islands and sourcing from local artisans provides support for these skills to continue and boosts the local economy. It also ensures that your Caribbean eco home will have a unique feel to it rather than the cookie-cutter look of buying everything from a store. Ask questions about what materials the person uses to bond and varnish and find alternatives when necessary.

If you need to paint the walls check to see if you can get a paint that is low in VOC's (volatile organic compounds). Likely these will need to be imported as most islands only have traditional paint supplies which are quite toxic.

Your Choices for Life...
Even after you have the most eco-home possible your habits within the home are important for continued sustainability. Look at the products you use and avoid harsh chemicals, switch off lights and appliances when not in use, monitor water consumption, eat local produce and most of all enjoy living a life that is healthy and in harmony with the Earth.



Caribbean Eco Home Article
by Terri Henry - Caribbean Land & Property                                                                    Copyright 2008


Caribbean Eco Home

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Caribbean Eco Home

Last Updated On 15 Nov 2019