While on a family vacation several years ago, my husband and I did the most frivolous and impulsive thing imaginable. We bought a piece of land on a Bahamian barrier island called Elbow Cay. My oldest son came back from a fateful jog and told us with great enthusiasm about a wonderful piece of land he had discovered in a pristine cove at the very north end of the island. We immediately went out to see it, contacted a real estate agent, and began the convoluted process of purchasing the property.
This took many months. During that period not one, but two hurricanes visited the island. They succeeded in denuding all of the buttonwoods on the lot, but other than that all else remained of the pristine beach and property. This convinced us that we were fated to own this little piece of nirvana. So began our long, drawn-out quest for a beach house in the Bahamas.
Many people warned us of the obstacles in building on a barrier island in the Bahamas. We were told Bahamian contractors would be difficult to find and unused to working with architects. Costs would be prohibitive since everything would have to be imported from the United States. This would involve shipping items from Florida to Marsh Harbour and then barging them over to Elbow Cay. On top of shipping charges, duties would be placed on all imported items, even though no building materials are available on the islands. It would be genuinely impossible to get a fixed price for construction. None of these warnings dampened our enthusiasm for the project, however. We were convinced we could overcome all challenges. After all, we had an architect (me) and a landscape architect (my husband) on our side. Were we ever wrong!
local conditions We began the process by selecting a contractor who had come highly recommended. This choice was mistake No. 1, as we soon discovered that several other people on the island had had very dubious experiences with him. We then decided that the prudent thing to do was to get a bid from the only other recommended and available Bahamian contractor (unless we wanted to wait two years to build our project). He, in turn, presented us with a bid that was much more reasonable, so we decided to go with him. Little did we know that the alternative bid didn't include nearly half of the required work! So much for my being a smug architect who could control costs. At this point, we had absolutely no leverage to do anything about it, as he was the only game in town. And so began the bottomless-pit building project that was to have been completed in nine months. Seventeen months later, the house is finally complete, though it cost twice the amount we had intended to spend on it. And to think that I have been a practicing architect for more than 20 years!
Building on a barrier island is indeed no easy feat. There's no local supplier to go to when one is short on materials. There's no heavy equipment, such as pile drivers, bulldozers, and concrete mixers. There's only a sand path to our lot, so access is very challenging too. All materials are barged in to the north-end dock and then unceremoniously dropped onto an open truck and delivered to the house site. Electric power is notoriously interrupted every time the wind blows significantly. Because our site contains no bedrock, the contractor had to dig down eight feet, mostly by hand, to find sand firm enough to hold the piers that would support the house. It took more than three months just to get out of the ground. All rebars and reinforcements have had to be coated steel, as everything corrodes on this beachfront property. Every nail, screw, and fastener is stainless steel.
compromising position Upon one lovely inspection visit to the island in March, the contractor announced to us that the project was literally making him sick, because the structural drawings were so very confusing and overdesigned. I had a very competent structural engineer from Philadelphia design the structural aspects of the project, so this revelation was surprising.
What we hadn't realized was that Bahamian contractors, for the most part, are not used to such detailed structural drawings; because of their years of experience building on hurricane-prone islands, they tend to build intuitively. Thus a battle began between the two and I was caught in the middle. In order to keep the project moving, we somehow managed to do a bit of what the contractor wanted and a bit of what the structural engineer wanted. I have no clue if the house will survive 150-mile-per-hour winds, but of course that is why we have hideously expensive hurricane insurance.
We had initially designed a masonry fireplace, only to discover that the sole mason on the islands who knew how to build one was tied up for a year and a half. As the fireplace was an integral part of the project, we had to abandon that idea and opt for a prefab version (even though the concrete foundation for the masonry one was already in place). So on and on goes the saga of “missed opportunities.”
Lessons learned: Should I ever decide to repeat this experience, I would certainly be present throughout the entire construction process (rather than just visit once a month). I would also work with a general contractor from the very beginning, while establishing the design and details of the house, and I would use a local engineer. I would advise other architects working in an unfamiliar part of the world to make sure they have architectural representation on site at all times and to educate themselves fully in the capabilities and common practices of local builders.
Though our simple beach house became a complex nightmare for the builder and owner, in the end all will be forgotten due to its position on such a marvelous site. Even with the doors in the wrong places, sections of buildings that are too high, and details that have been done differently than intended, this house will serve as a wonderful vacation spot for our seven children, their various spouses, and our 14 grandchildren.
Susan Maxman, FAIA, is the design principal of SMP Architects in Philadelphia.