frank harmon architect, raleigh, n.c.
From the very beginning, Raleigh, N.C., architect Frank Harmon, FAIA, knew that designing a house in the Bahamas would be a test of his design and organizational skills. "It's definitely a challenge to design something you can't visit when you want to," he says. "It's just so good to be able to be on the site all the time." But his clients were interesting, articulate people with a passion for innovative design, so he took a deep breath and jumped in.
The resulting house drew glowing reviews from the judges, who selected it as project of the year. "The house is completely appropriate for its site and context. It goes toward a person and a place—it's not all about type and style," said one judge. "Architects can learn from that." The judges also appreciated the way the project addresses important issues such as green building, weatherproofing, and indoor-outdoor living. "It covers everything," commented one.
Harmon designed the three-story residence from the top down. Fresh water is scarce in this part of the world, so local building regulations required that he incorporate a rain-collection system. He came up with the idea of an inverted roof that would function like an upside-down umbrella, directing rain through a central spout that runs down the center of the house and into two 8,000-gallon cisterns on the ground floor. The roof's upside-down pyramid form also helps cool the home naturally: Its shape forces the air beneath it to flow more quickly than that above it.
The architect describes the roof as a "wood-and-steel hat on a masonry cube." To ensure that the hat doesn't fly off in high winds, local contractor Ivar Unhjem pinned it to the second and ground floors with steel beams and reinforced concrete columns. The masonry cube consists of stucco-finished concrete blocks strengthened with steel bars, a typical Bahamian construction method. The reinforced concrete extends down through the foundation, which Unhjem built into a dead coral reef.
Because the home's third floor pops up above dense foliage to give it 360-degree views of the Atlantic Ocean and the Abaco Sea, Harmon located the main living spaces on that level. The second floor houses the master and guest bedrooms, and the ground floor contains a workshop and the rain cisterns.
Designing so far from the site presented a number of practical problems, but Harmon and his team fired back with equally practical solutions. Intern Vinny Petrarca traveled to Scotland Cay twice to supervise and participate in construction, each time staying for several weeks. To avoid the 50 percent tax the Bahamas imposes on imported materials, the 10-person building crew obtained as much as it could--stucco, wood, and concrete block, for example--from local sources.
Harmon had a chance to see his hurricane-thwarting measures tested in September 1999, when Hurricane Floyd ripped through the Bahamas. The house stayed intact; the hat didn't budge.
project architect: Frank Harmon, FAIA, Frank Harmon Architect
general contractor: Ivar Unhjem Construction, Marsh Harbor, Abaco, Bahamas
project size: 3,000 square feet
site size: 0.5 acre
construction cost: US$100 per square foot
photographer: James West/J West Productions