How build­ing in tune with the en­vi­ron­ment can help the Caribbean cre­ate more re­silient in­fra­struc­ture


The dev­as­tat­ing 2017 hur­ri­cane sea­son was a wake-up call for the Caribbean on many lev­els, but one of the most cru­cial is­sues in the af­ter­math was re­cov­ery – how to re­pair and re­place crum­bling in­fra­struc­ture with some­thing more re­silient.

The storms pushed in­ad­e­quate build­ing prac­tices into the head­lines, but in­ef­fec­tive in­fra­struc­ture is a long­stand­ing prob­lem in the re­gion. Heavy rain­fall of­ten re­sults in flood­ing and washed out roads; high winds down power lines; rough seas erode coastal sites. Build­ing in tune with the nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment can solve these prob­lems in a way that is sus­tain­able, low im­pact and cost-ef­fec­tive.


“Green in­fra­struc­ture, low im­pact devel­op­ment, these are big key words but it’s re­ally just com­mon sense,” says Tom Hook, Prin­ci­pal at B+H Ar­chi­tects which develops green in­fra­struc­ture strate­gies for de­vel­op­ments all over the world. “The re­silient land­scape is about a sys­tem that is nat­u­ral; you use things like parks, open spa­ces, streams and per­me­able paving.

They be­come fea­tures and ameni­ties on the site but they are also act­ing as storm man­age­ment tools.”

One of the Caribbean’s big­gest chal­lenges is wa­ter, ac­cord­ing to Hook who says ef­fi­cient drainage sys­tems are para­mount in re­duc­ing the dam­age from hur­ri­canes and trop­i­cal storms. He has worked with ho­tel op­er­a­tors around the globe to de­velop smart strate­gies that di­vert wa­ter flow into ap­pro­pri­ate ar­eas. “Make it an amenity,” he says. “The rain has to go some­where so have streams run­ning through the prop­erty, a park or an open space. Let them flood when it rains be­cause it’s bet­ter there than in a build­ing. You can have those ar­eas where wa­ter drains and you can also cre­ate un­der­ground cis­terns to col­lect the wa­ter to use it for ir­ri­gation or other things.”

Hook, who has con­sulted with the Ritz-Carl­ton in Saint Lu­cia on a green in­fra­struc­ture master­plan, says the is­land’s unique ge­og­ra­phy can pose a chal­lenge for de­vel­op­ers. “Saint Lu­cia is tricky be­cause of its to­pog­ra­phy; you have a lot more runoff. You have to look at where the wa­ter is run­ning to, and en­hance that.”

B+H Ar­chi­tects has a num­ber of tools in its ar­moury when it comes to chan­nel­ing run-off in­clud­ing green roofs that use veg­e­ta­tion on the top of build­ings to ab­sorb rain­wa­ter, bioswales to nat­u­rally col­lect and filter stormwa­ter, and re­ten­tion ponds to col­lect ex­cess run-off. The ar­chi­tects per­form site anal­y­sis and cre­ate mas­ter­plans to min­imise the im­pact on lo­cal habi­tats and ecosys­tems, while en­sur­ing man-made fea­tures are pro­tected from ero­sion, flood­ing and other nat­u­ral events.


In the past, lack of re­sources, in­vest­ment and political will stymied ef­forts to up­grade in­fra­struc­ture in the Caribbean. Tight­en­ing purse strings are of­ten used as an ex­cuse, but Hook says eco-friendly build­ing prac­tices are ac­tu­ally more cost-ef­fec­tive than tra­di­tional meth­ods. “From the projects we have done, we’ve seen that it is cheaper to do it that way, or al­most the same cost. This is not a cost is­sue. This is not new tech­nol­ogy like so­lar or wind power where it is ex­pen­sive and the re­turns are years down the line. This is an easy so­lu­tion that is nat­u­rally based.”

Re­search from the IMF shows that in­vest­ing in pub­lic cap­i­tal re­silient to nat­u­ral dis­as­ters can boost GDP in ECCU coun­tries by as much as 11 per cent. Yet gov­ern­ments are of­ten un­will­ing to take on the chal­lenge of long-term struc­tural in­vest­ment. Once ob­tain­ing of­fice, they tend to fo­cus on short-term is­sues in a bid to secure their po­si­tion with the elec­torate, fail­ing to think be­yond the next elec­tion.

Hook is hope­ful that change will come from the pri­vate sec­tor. He would like to see his work with big name, in­ter­na­tional brands such as the Fair­mont and Mar­riott chains build mo­men­tum and help spread the word. “It is un­for­tu­nate that we can­not get this mov­ing; it would re­ally ben­e­fit the Caribbean so much. Some­times it takes a cou­ple of suc­cess­ful projects for peo­ple to see the dif­fer­ence.”

And it’s not just large-scale projects that can ben­e­fit; small bou­tique ho­tels can also take ad­van­tage of the green in­fra­struc­ture ap­proach. Hook says: “We are not only work­ing on mas­sive projects, we can do it with every­body and any­body. The more you

do, the more it helps. The lit­tle things add up and make a big change.”

Last­ing change re­quires a change of mind­set how­ever, and this shift will only be achieved with con­sid­er­able buy-in from the pub­lic sec­tor. Gov­ern­ments can do much to en­able a more en­vi­ron­men­tally-friendly ap­proach so that re­silient build­ing be­comes the norm, rather than a niche en­deav­our. Hook wants to see Caribbean-wide stan­dards and guide­lines to give the sec­tor some clar­ity on what’s in­volved and of­fer de­vel­op­ers and ar­chi­tects more op­tions when it comes to site plan­ning.


With weather events in­ten­si­fy­ing, re­silient in­fra­struc­ture is fast be­com­ing a ne­ces­sity for the Caribbean. Poor build­ing prac­tices are an eco­nomic li­a­bil­ity, not least be­cause they can have neg­a­tive reper­cus­sions for the Caribbean’s bread and but­ter in­dus­try – tourism. De­layed re­cov­ery af­ter hur­ri­canes damp­ens the tourist trade in the short-term and, over time, gives the im­pres­sion that the re­gion is closed for busi­ness. In ad­di­tion, poor en­vi­ron­men­tal man­age­ment has a di­rect im­pact on the re­gion’s big­gest sell­ing points, its pris­tine white sand beaches and clear turquoise wa­ters.

“The Caribbean needs to think about these things,” says Hook, who has a per­sonal con­nec­tion to the re­gion. “The Caribbean is a place I’ve en­joyed al­most my whole life. I’ve been vis­it­ing for­ever and it is a spe­cial place for me.”

He is op­ti­mistic that change is on the hori­zon how­ever, ad­ding: “It is go­ing to hap­pen, it has to hap­pen, and hope­fully it will hap­pen sooner rather than later.”

Sus­tain­able ar­chi­tec­ture is about more than just the aes­thet­ics. In­te­grated sys­tems based on sus­tain­able prin­ci­ples can mean sig­nif­i­cant bot­tom-line sav­ings for both de­vel­op­ers and the com­mu­nity

Green roofs can im­prove stormwa­ter man­age­ment by re­duc­ing runoff and im­prov­ing wa­ter qual­ity. They also con­serve en­ergy, mit­i­gate the ur­ban heat is­land, in­crease longevity of roof­ing mem­branes, re­duce noise and air pol­lu­tion, se­quester car­bon, in­crease ur­ban bio­di­ver­sity by pro­vid­ing habi­tat for wildlife, pro­vide space for ur­ban agri­cul­ture, pro­vide a more aes­thet­i­cally pleas­ing and healthy en­vi­ron­ment to work and live, and im­prove re­turn on in­vest­ment com­pared to tra­di­tional roofs

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