In the autumn of 2006, I suggested to my wife Kathleen and our children Sara and Tim that we invest an inheritance in a holiday house. I live in the Highlands of Scotland 35 miles east of the Queen’s summer residence of Balmoral. The sea has always been important to my family and so, I looked first at a fisherman’s cottage 20 miles south of Aberdeen. The sky-high property prices of oil-rich Aberdeen ruled this out. The Orkney island of North Ronaldsay was next but this was ruled out as too cold, too stormy and too difficult to get to. Next was the Spanish island of Tenerife and the village of Los Gigantes. This was a contender but was ruled out as there was too much property for sale, confirmed by the recent collapse of the Spanish housing market.
Islands hold a fascination for me and I have dreamed of living in the Caribbean ever since I read Treasure Island as a boy. I was born in Lagos, Nigeria and brought up in Hong Kong in the 1960’s where my late father was an executive with Shell. Hong Kong was an idyllic and exotic place to spend my teenage years. There was school, sunshine and hurricanes, only we called them typhoons!
Then in December 2006 we rented a friend’s villa at Lance-Aux-Epines, St George’s, Grenada, West Indies—even the address is romantic! I rose at dawn on my first day and could not believe the view. Every morning of our three-week stay my wife and I walked to a rocky outcrop to watch the sun rise. I fell in love with Grenada and its people and the scenery so reminded me of my childhood.
For three weeks we scoured Grenada for the right site or house. Nothing was suitable.
Desperation set in; with only four days left we still had found nothing suitable. Then while on our regular morning walk I noticed a tiny sign, “Lot for Sale” and a phone number. It was not ocean front but it was in a good area. “It would do at a pinch,” I told my wife. I called the number and to cut a long story short, the lot was the exact same ocean-front place we walked to every morning to watch the sun rise. Kismet or what! We did the deal on a handshake and flew home just before Christmas 2006, the proud owners of half an acre of Grenada. Happiness!
A good lawyer is essential, so I commissioned Margaret Wilkinson of the Wilkinson Chambers in St George’s as our attorney. Margaret, who was immensely helpful and efficient, arranged our residency papers. I also interviewed local architects to act as my project manager/advisor. This was essential as I run a busy practice in the UK and would not be able to visit more than twice during construction. Lennox Archibald of Solid Designs was appointed and came well recommended and qualified.
Friends in the UK and Grenada cynically said that work rate would be slow and costs would rocket out of control if I was not there full time. I disagreed; architecture is my business and the secret is do your homework and appoint the right team. The good project manager was essential. Even if I had been there full time I would still have employed a local Grenadian as he has the contacts and local knowledge to “fix things” .
So to the design and I knew that this would be the biggest challenge to date. I regularly work on multimillion-pound projects but this was my first Caribbean house and I wanted it to be right. I ask my clients for a “dream brief” regardless of cost.
From this I design the “ideal” house and then adjust this until the client’s desires meet their budget. My brief was:
• The design inspiration was a West African village
• Three good sized double bedrooms; a master and two guest, all with ocean views
• All shower/bathrooms to be en suite
• A “Caribbean Great Room” containing sitting and dining areas and a kitchen with high ceiling, ocean and garden views and direct access to the pool
• A “moon tower” to watch the sun rise and set and the moon out over the ocean.
• A pool, not too big, ideally with an infinity edge.
• An ocean swimming deck and sunbathing area.
• A sumptuous tropical garden full of scented tropical flowers, fruits and birds.
• Secure off-street parking.
• Utility and storage areas.
• An eco-friendly building with water harvesting, solar water heating and PV electricity.
• Cost in the region of EC$550 — $675/ft. sq. (£202/ft. sq. or £2,186/m. sq) to include the pool, terraces, car port, paths, and site works.
I work initially with paper, pencil and cardboard models and then transfer the design onto computer. Having lived in Hong Kong and Africa, I understand hot climates and respect the power of hurricanes but I have no experience of Caribbean construction. Lennox was invaluable and dealt with the building licence, hurricane codes, quantity surveying, civil engineers and many other agencies. Building approval only took a couple of months to be approved.
Grenadian law requires the public to have access to the foreshore, so this ruled out an open-plan style of house.
Virtually all the domestic building damaged in Katrina/Ivan that followed the government’s hurricane codes suffered minimal damage; those that did not were destroyed. A simple lesson: do not ignore hurricane codes.
I dislike air-conditioning, so I used the tradewinds to cool the house. All east facing Caribbean islands enjoy the tradewinds but this can be intrusive above two mile/hour and with it comes salt spray and high humidity. This was the most difficult part of my learning curve to master and it required carefully selecting suitable materials. I addressed this by listening to local builders and designing out as much metal as possible—concrete walls, cedar roof, greenheart timber and yacht standard stainless steel ironmongery.
Lennox advised that my first design was too close to the ocean and was dropped. This resulted in a second design which was by far the best. This met the brief but proved to be too exposed to the trade winds. It would have been perfect further in land on a ridge and so very reluctantly was dropped.
The final design moved the house back from the ocean edge and introduced rocks to the windward side to deflect the tradewinds over the house. We added a walled garden, so the house created a “wind shadow,” allowing the more delicate tropical plants to thrive which otherwise would suffer wind burn. I reluctantly dropped the infinity pool and created a grotto pool instead. This would prevent excessive evaporation. When designing, you must work with Nature, not against her.
In the spring of 2007, we flew to Grenada to interview and inspect the work of four contractors. It is vital to view the work of your contractors to make sure they have the management and financial resources to complete the project. Ian St Bernard (Judah) of Best Quote was appointed and work started in July 2007.
The secret of a smooth project is simple: Allow the architect to complete ALL of the working drawings before work starts. Do NOT change the design on site; if you do, you hand the contractor a blank cheque. Invest in a project manager and you will come in on time and on budget.
Lennox emailed a detailed project report with photos every Monday. If there were any questions, these were discussed and then resolved. I wanted to support the island economy, so imports were minimal or from neighbouring islands, so I designed and commissioned all of the furniture, kitchen, closets and most of the light fittings from local crafts people.
Only towards the end of the project did we encounter problems. There were some supply difficulties unique to an island economy. For instance, I specified greenheart timber for the doors and windows and there was a shortage that delayed their completion and installation. I also bought and paid for floor tiles that were then sold, so we had to wait for restocking.
The house is now within a week or two of completion. There have been a few mistakes but these are minor and in any case, it would only be noticed by a fussy architect like me.
We incomers from the cold north are losing the art of enjoying life. We are too impatient, we don’t take time to talk and pass the time of day, we are not as courteous as we should be; we should “chill” . I have found doing business Caribbean style different but to my liking; have mutual respect and you’ll do fine. We have an expression in Scotland: “We’re aw Jock Tamson’s bairns” —we are all the same under the skin.
But the language! Now that will take me a little longer to master.
Would I do it again? I can’t wait! Now that I have cut my teeth and have a good, honest and reliable team, I am looking for my next site.
Find the right site for you. If your site or house does not “speak” to you, do not buy it
Buy in a prime location and your investment will be secure
Employ a competent team, property deals overseas need a good trusted lawyer, architect and project manager.
Have the house designed down to the last detail BEFORE going to tender. This way you keep the costs under control
Do NOT change the design on site; if you do, costs go out the window
Set your budget and stick to it
Employ a good contractor, inspect his work and speak to his clients
Do your homework and understand the local climate, culture and economy
Work with and not against Nature—what works on an inland site won’t necessarily work on an ocean front site
Research and understand the local materials and use them
Look at how local buildings are made, these have evolved over many years, usually for very good reasons, find out why and adapt this for your design
Ask advice—as an incomer you will not have the answers
Always respect the skill of your tradesmen. Ask how and why, they may do things differently from you—you might learn something
Import as little from outside the island or the region as possible. Island economies are delicate and as an incomer you have a duty to spend as much as you can in your new community
If something goes wrong, work round it, don’t look for someone to blame