The island of Dominica is known for being the adventure island and also for embracing small structures, typically defined as a space of 400 square feet or less. These traditional wooden vernacular homes, boutique hotels and eco resorts, and private residencies have become quite the trend among homeowners.
Despite their diminutive size, these small homes are as luxurious and expansive as the lavish nature that surrounds them all. Ecolodgic cottage is one such small home, situated just outside the coastal village of Soufriere. Homeowner Henri Rohrer, an artist, and his wife Kathleen who built their house themselves wanted to create a more sustainable home.
“I wanted to create a small structure, simple yet strong, using eco-friendly building materials,” says Rohrer. “I don’t have any formal architectural training. I’m learning by doing it although I’ve been building and renovating my homes as long as I can remember.” The house consists of two separate pavilions—simple and symmetrical in design and layout. While one approaches the house from a garden path, the outward appearance gives little indication of the spaces that lie within. It enhances our anticipation but nothing prepares us for the delight and surprise we feel when entering the smaller pavilion.
We find ourselves in a small, beautifully proportioned living room filled with two kinds of natural light. One is bright and exciting coming from windows and openings, the second is soft, diffused and sensuous, filtered through pastel-coloured glass cleverly incorporated in walls. “I used many hundreds of recycled glass bottles. I cut them and assembled in pairs for stronger effect.” This bijou house can be compared to a jewel box, made with stained glass and prisms adding magic to its appearance.
The house, while small, is full of surprises. Kitchen and bedroom are located symmetrically on both sides of the living room and are accessible through slim arch openings.
“Modern architecture is very square,” says Rohrer. “Rounded arches give more interest to the wall, which then becomes more alive.” Both rooms have concave ceilings, an eye-catching and unexpected designing feature. ” I wanted the arched walls to give an impression of their thickness like in Danish military forts I saw on the island of St Croix,” he explains.
Very thick wooden bolted doors add another element of solidity and sturdiness of design and construction. Perhaps the most unusual feature of the design is the long and narrow vertical windows in the kitchen and bedroom that give a strong sense of symmetry and balance. It is amazing how much light goes through this narrow crack illuminating the space. Entering these white-arched rooms with slit-like windows feels uplifting, and like stepping into some undefined religious sanctuary.
This house has a deceptively simple plan with brilliant organisation of space, which gives a sense of spaciousness despite its small size—the whole pavilion has less than 400 square feet. The bathroom is a separate building accessible from the main house by roofed passage. Behind it, there is an outdoor open-to-sky shower. Bathing in the open under a tropical sky can be a very sensuous experience. This is the house for the senses: there is a play of light on the living room wall, the sound of birds, the gentle breeze bringing the fragrance of flowers.
The second pavilion is bigger and has a slightly different feel. There is a curious duality in planning: one side is grounded, firm and impermeable, with small windows punctuating the solid wall; the other side is transparent, inviting, full of light and almost entirely open to the garden. This is a single-space house combining living room, bedroom and kitchen together.
The roofed sun-room is the heart of the house—an outdoor extension of the living area, great for entertaining and dining. From here you can see the lush surrounding garden and sweeping vistas of the valley beyond. This is a Caribbean house created in intimate relationship with nature, with a living area that extends into the landscape. As in the first pavilion, there is an outdoor shower under a canopy of coconut palm.
Henri and Kathleen are strong supporters of sustainable living and their house reflects that. Electricity is completely solar; rain water is collected from roofs; vegetables and fruits come from the organically run garden. The unusual feature in the garden is a green canopy made of passion fruit plants spread between supporting guava trees. The space underneath is deliciously cool, a haven of dappled shade providing welcome respite from the heat, and an opportunity to cool off in a hammock.
There is striking simplicity and elegance of interiors in both pavilions. “Less is more.” This famous motto of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, pioneer of minimalist architecture, could be used to describe Rohrer’s aesthetics on every step. “Simplicity is really difficult to achieve,” Rohrer says. “You have to go through a long process of eliminating what’s not essential and not needed.”
He is an advocate of sustainable use of natural materials: lava rocks from the site, timber, recycled metal. The bedroom’s closet doors are made from roseau reed grass, much stronger material than bamboo. This plant, once abundant, gave name to the capital city of Dominica. “I love using recycled materials,” he notes. ” Most of all tiles are re-used. I also like the way wood and metal age with time. It adds character to a house.”
The rooms are scarcely furnished with natural timbers and simple fabrics, with lampshades made by Rohrer from recycled electric fans and rice paper. Colourful accents give rooms a sense of balance and generate visual intrigue: black and white photographs, quirky everyday objects arranged in unexpected ways, family memorabilia.
This small house has been an inspiration to its visitors, and among the latest were guests from “Airbnb” (it is a website which lists and finds lodgings for people worldwide). Ecolodgic is low profile and unpretentious, yet created with as much thought, skill and care as any other, bigger architectural project. Henri and Kathleen have achieved elegance, space efficiency and sophistication of details in their unique house that sits comfortably like a jewel box in a tropical landscape.