Sustainable Building in the Caribbean – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

Sustainable Building in the Caribbean

Think you’re having a great summer? Three architecture majors, Kirby Benjamin ’11, Alexandra Chase ’11 and Ronald Martin ’11 are spending 10 weeks in the U.S. Virgin Islands on St. John. They’re not spending a traditional vacation relaxing at a resort, but rather living and working at Maho Bay Camps where they have the opportunity to learn and document sustainable design in eco-tourism.

The campgrounds include a modest line-up of 114 eco tents and 12 studio apartments where guests can experience sustainable living, all located on the hillside of the national park. Guests in the camp’s tents share five bathrooms, for which spring water is collected to reduce the amount of municipal water usage.

The students have been working in the maintenance department and put themselves to work helping with the site’s repairs and refurbishing it for the upcoming season. The trio has been able to repair tents, porches, stairways, boardwalks, doors, screens, and support beams while working to design and build cabinets, shelves, mosaic countertops, chairs, and handicap boardwalks. Working in the maintenance department has provided firsthand experience for the group and insight into what it takes for the entire complex to function in an eco-friendly way. Among the main tasks of their internship is the production of 20 to 25 pages of sketches for presentations to the HWS community upon their return in the fall semester.

“As architects, we have come to understand the importance of the building site locations. Part of our responsibility here at Maho Bay is making sure the structures and repairs don’t interfere with the environment. Maho Bay has a unique way of building with the environment -instead of through it -which is why the entire campground is elevated,” Benjamin says, explaining that there are no concrete foundations, in order to allow for the natural erosion of the island.

Assistant Professor of Architecture Kirin Makker, who held this internship shortly after she finished architecture school, feels that this experience of living and working  with the maintenance and management of a place with an extreme environment, and on an island, where energy resources and materials are scarce, is extremely valuable.

U.S. Virgin Islands

“The combination of these kinds of conditions made me appreciate the building process in ways someone regularly building in the United States cannot, where energy is easy to get, materials are easy to get, and building sustainably is not a needed piece of the formula for getting a structure up,” she says. 

In addition to building sustainably, a core goal of the internship is for the students to gain cultural sensitivity and competency. While structuring the program, Makker wanted her architecture majors to experience the value of working for people who might have different ideas than those where they are coming from.

“It’s the best way to learn how to preserve one’s ethics about design and building (universal, green, efficient, cost saving, adaptive) without offending the client’s culture. It’s not an easy lesson to learn and almost impossible to teach in the classroom, but the ability to design, present, build, or ‘sell’ an idea to different cultures is one of the most important things to try to learn, ideally before going to professional school,” she says.

Benjamin is from Carlisle, Pa.; Chase is from Albuquerque, NM; and Martin is from Rockport, Mass.