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.
COLLABORATING FOR CHANGE
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