I remember sleeping then being woken by a cold draft – soaked. It’s hard to believe, but back in March of 2015, I lived in an old, almost dilapidated, “tenement yard” in Portmore, Jamaica with about 20 other persons. On some days there were more and on others, less. Still, it was different from other houses in Portmore. For instance, we had no flushable toilet, but instead, a pit toilet in the back was where we would handle our business.
There was no bathroom, only a series of bricks in random order that formed a three-sided enclosure. However, what stood out the most was the roof; a piece of zinc fence that had withstood countless hurricanes and storms and contributed a great deal to a truly horrific experience. To keep out the rain, I installed a bright blue tarpaulin to catch the water. When it was almost full, I’d reach up to pour out the water.
One night it poured and unfortunately, the tarpaulin couldn’t withstand the weight of the water and ultimately gave way. I was angry of course because my bed was soaked and my IT project got destroyed, but what bothered me the most was that there was nothing I could have done about my living situation.
It was at that moment that I decided that one day I would build the ideal house for my family of six, which would protect us from the elements and last a lifetime. This idea sparked my interest in sustainable buildings, mainly because, though the Caribbean’s emissions of greenhouse gases are nowhere as high as the big players such as China and the US, our tiny percentage does contribute to global warming and climate change.
Consequently, the development of stronger and more frequent hurricanes, destructive earthquakes, record-breaking temperatures, more prolonged droughts and flooding are causing more deaths. Some people may believe, but the truth is that we all play a part. It isn’t going anywhere, and 2019 is the time in our civilisation when we have to deal with it.
With a construction boom throughout the region and around the world, it is crucial that we all play a part in making the world greener and try our best to mitigate the challenges of climate change. There’s nothing I can do at this moment but to inform, for as a struggling 21-year-old college student, I can’t build a house – though I do have some beautiful buildings in SimCity – you can. These are my suggestions:
So, you’ve watched some YouTube videos, and now you believe that you’re ready to build your own house. However, building a house is not the same as installing a cabinet. With so many factors involved, firstly, you have to get a professional on-site to analyse the land because, for all we know, there could be a huge karst – a gigantic hole in the ground – below the surface.
With massive floods occurring more frequently; liquefaction, land subsidence and expansive soils will become a more significant problem in the Caribbean. Also, more extended periods of drought will force governments to seek groundwater, and as a homeowner, one must ensure that the waterbed has not been disturbed during construction. Hence, I stress the importance of hiring civil engineers, architects, and geotechnical engineers to test the land before building the home of your dreams.
As climate change continues to impact the world, traditional construction techniques just won’t cut it. In the Caribbean, most, if not all, of our infrastructure is made of steel and concrete. Not only does concrete production create greenhouses gases, but the mixing process also releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. A more sustainable alternative to using concrete is the rammed earth technique. Rammed Earth construction uses raw materials such as clay and limestone, to construct foundations, walls, and stairs. I recently travelled to Trinidad and Tobago
where I met an environmental guru, Gillian Goddard, who was using this technique to build her dream home. After learning about the topic, I now consider myself a rammed earth specialist and must proclaim the benefits of rammed earth.
Rammed earth uses little water which is excellent for the conservation of the world’s most precious liquid. Furthermore, rammed earth has excellent insulation properties when built with high thermal mass, which is key for the Caribbean’s hot climate. Unlike concrete, rammed earth gives off no harmful emissions and is suitable for noise reduction and insulation. To top things off, the material does not burn so a house built from rammed earth is completely fireproof; termites and other pests are also non-existent in a rammed earth home.
Historically, rammed earth buildings made of 60mm to 100mm thick have withstood countless earthquakes and are still standing. Houses in Mendoza, Argentina are proof of this whereas their other modern brick buildings fell flat. Now, I know there may be some, but a fun fact is that the Great Wall of China is the most massive rammed earth project to date. Google how old it is.
I am not a certified professional by any means, but I guarantee you, no house in the world is disaster-proof. None. However, there are measures that we can put in place to reduce the effects. If you are building in an area that is flood-prone ensure that the building is elevated on steel or wooden piles – we are staying away from concrete but if the need exists then green concrete is an alternative.
With the stronger winds from hurricanes and the impacts of earthquakes of higher magnitudes, you should ensure that each part of your house is connected to the other. It sounds simple, but you will be surprised how important it is. In 2017, 90% of all roofs in Dominica were destroyed by Hurricane Maria.
The roof is the most susceptible to strong winds, and this pressure will create a lateral force that can lift the ceiling off a house. Once that happens, the entire building is likely to fail. Hurricane ties wrapped around roof trusses are great construction materials and need to be a staple in our foundations. Theses ties prevent the roof from sliding, racking and dislodging from the house’s foundation.
Hurricane clips are also excellent materials as they reduce lateral forces from winds during intense storms, so parts of your house do not relocate to your neighbour’s. Another issue is overhangs. I know in the Caribbean, we love our verandahs. Sitting under them, eating and sharing stories are part of the Caribbean identity but some serious sacrifices have to be made.
Longer overhangs create more surface area which then creates more wind uplift and increases the likelihood of separation of roofs being separated from their foundations. Therefore, the use of truss roofs over roofs with rafters will reduce uplift in extremely windy weather conditions.
Another thing that makes a big difference during natural disasters are those tiny metal connectors called screws. A beautiful innovation they are as they are more efficient they are than nails. Cross-bracing, though not always aesthetically pleasing, are great supporters for large scale apartment complexes because they limit the movement of buildings during an earthquake, thus reducing damages and casualties.
Foundations are also critical because they ensure that structures are securely positioned in the ground. Again, I stress the importance of hiring professionals because it is not a jolly moment when the plates of the earth start to dance, and your house is its partner.
As mentioned before, water is indeed the world’s most precious liquid. However, climate change has allowed for a shift in climatic events, such as lengthy droughts throughout the region, which
make this precious liquid more scarce over time. As a homeowner, there are measures that you can put in place to ensure that you are conserving water within your household. One of the most useful strategies is rainwater harvesting. Rainwater harvesting is simple: instead of allowing water to run off when it rains, you store it for reuse. Like rammed earth, rainwater harvesting has been done for millions of years, and the same procedure is used today. The rain will collect in channels on your roof that force the water down and into a storage container.
The storage container can be as simple as a rain barrel or as elaborate as a large canister for larger households. Therefore, as the lengthy droughts continue throughout the Caribbean and more natural disasters damage our waterways, you and your loved ones will have access to water.
Natural disasters don’t only damage our water supply, but also our electric supplies. As more hurricanes and earthquakes pass through the region, there will be an increase in power outages. After experiencing three storms within three months of period in 2017, Puerto Rico ’s residents were without electric power for periods of up to 10 months. With solar panels, energy can be harvested from the sun.
Having so many solar panels installation companies in the region offering their services makes it is quite easy to get these sparkling magic rectangles on our roofs. With the year-long access to sunlight, this needs to become a staple in households throughout the region. Countries like Jamaica have invested heavily in this form of energy production with 15-18% of their electricity grid being provided by renewable energy.
The Vision 2030 has plans to increase this provision to 30%. Solar energy is 100% clean energy and has no adverse effects on the environment, unlike its competitors, diesel and natural gas, that emit tonnes of greenhouse gases.
Furthermore, investing in panels that are made from recycling materials is even better; for example, the Digicel headquarters located in Kingston, Jamaica that is arguably the greenest commercial building in the Caribbean. By utilising solar, wind and geothermal energy, we will be able to reduce our carbon footprint. There are also so solar panels that work as channels to catch rainwater, so you really would be killing two birds with one just one tiny stone.
These are some suggestions that I believe are the most affordable and safest ways to make your home both sustainable and environmentally friendly. Maybe we are too late to stop the effects of climate change, but as I have said before, mitigation is key. If you are still in doubt about building a home today, give me five years to graduate from Howard University with a bachelors degree and, hopefully, my masters in Construction Management, to get my own construction company up and running.
Building homes that can protect their residents and the environment is the contribution that I want to make to the Caribbean, and I hope that you will consider my recommendations. Everything I mentioned in this article will be in the home that I’ll build for my mother. It was Dancehall artist Masicka in his 2018 song, Stay Strong, who said “Mommy, when you couldn’t find the money, me cool with this. Me swear to God, me muss buy har house with a pool in it,” but I can guarantee you that my mother’s house is going to get way more than a pool!
Jhanelle Davy holds a passion for urban planning, sustainable development and politics. She is currently studying Civil and Environmental Engineering at Howard University. She has experience in the construction industry and sustainable urban planning research. She has plans to be an urban planning and public policy consultant while sitting on the board at the Urban Development Corporation.