Hi Everyone! Do any of you happen to know if there are building codes on the island for types of structures? We have been playing with the idea of building a home there if we make it beyond a year. We were going to do the same thing up here and have designed a home to build ourselves. I think the design would be perfect for the islands. Is it still going to be possible to do most of the work ourselves and bring in people for the wiring and plumbing ect?
Of course all this hindges on finding jobs and making it beyond a year without pulling our hair out.
There is a book you can get from Government House that has all the zoning codes and building codes. They charge about $25 for it. You will also need an engineer to stamp your plans before you can apply for a building permit.
Most islanders do build their homes themselves, so that isn't something that will get you some raised eyebrows. Do be aware that nearly all homes on the islands are concrete structures, made either from masonry brick or poured concrete. Many people coming from the mainland plan to build a wood framed house and that isn't always the ideal choice here.
Things to take into account when you evaluate your house plan:
air flow is of vital importance. Through the house and in the closets, etc.
roof tie downs must be strong enough for at least 200 mph winds.
you will need a cistern, the larger the better, especially if you build in the dryer areas of one of the islands.
You need less indoor house here and more outdoor living space than is typical on the mainland.
You want lots of windows towards a view and/or a breeze.
You probably want galleries and patios outside that will be used more than your living room inside.
You want high, vaulted ceilings to keep things cooler, less stuffy, and to allow lots of air flow. It also makes the interior seem bigger, which is a nice effect.
Tile the floors here! Wall to wall carpeting may be the norm on the mainland, but with humidity, sand and insects, it doesn't work well in the islands.
Expect lots of salt corrosion and plan your building materials to counter that whenever possible. e.g. use a ceramic outdoor light fixture rather than a metal one. Stainless steel appliances are also more than just a fashion statement in a marine environment. Vinyl windows are a better choice than metal framed windows. Laminate ceiling fans absorb moisture and split the blades open... try wicker bladed fans for both decor and functionality without the frequent repair needs. There are lots of things that fit in this category of planning your home.
I wish you the best of luck with your project. Have you selected an island yet?
You are fantastic. That was exactly the information I was looking for. The plan we have right now fits most of the things you suggested. The only accommodation will be concrete compared to wood frame.
If anyone thinks of anything else, please let us know!
Concrete block is not hard to work with if you're handy. Much easier to work for a DIY'er with than poured concrete, if it's available. If you can get the footings and slab poured you could probably do the rest with some care and proper tools.
This is 6 years of architecture school and 10 years in the business talking - consider your plan and it's orientation to the sun and prevailing winds. Try to plan rooms so that they allow flow-through ventilation that follows the prevailing (Trade) winds. Design long overhangs on the roof on all sides but north to provide natural shading to interior spaces. In sunny climates the color of materials makes a huge difference. White or light materials might cause a reflective glare but they will absorb less heat. If you're planning on A/C you'll wnat to insulate very well on all sides, including the ceiling. Also do design for insects. Patio spaces are great but you may also want some outdoor respite from bugs.
Just some random thoughts - good luck with your project!
I'm no building contractor and I don't know whether or not this island problem still exists but do be careful about poured concrete to the extent of ensuring that the sand used in the mix isn't sea sand. A "cheap" contractor mix, it doesn't last, rots out the rebar over time and causes innumerable problems.
Correct me if I'm wrong, smartbomb, but don't the majority of "DIY" homes here use cement block which are then filled in with poured concrete?
Just my late-night tired two cents!
And, some folks put a "hide-y hole" in their building plans. Self sufficient strong-hold where people and pets can hunker down & live during a hurricane.
I am currently sitting finishing my plans for our house. I have been a contractor for nearly 15 years in the states, and the building codes on the island are actually more stringent then in most states that I have worked.
The permit process is long from what I have been told, 2-6 months. There are actually several bodies that must approve your plans depending on where you build (Coastal Zone Management). I am actually hiring a local to assist me in the process of permiting. Politically, they know who to go to and what to do.
There is a document that the lady helping me supplied that gives detail as to what is required on plans. You must have a local surveyor and design professional stamp the plans.
The code is based on the International Building Code. Pretty standard in most states now.
Yes, concrete block is generally filled with steel reinforced concrete. But generally speaking, DIY poured concrete of any kind is a bad idea, especially in a place like USVI where there are serious seismic and wind considerations. quality of materials is only one consideration. There is also working time of the batch, adequate mixing of the batch, curing, etc. A DIY'er with some masonry skills could lay the block but would still need a truck pour for footings and foundations, slabs. It's just too much material to realistically lay with small equipment.
The way I'd stage a project like that is to get a truck pour for the footings/foundation, then lay your block and have another truck pour for slabs and block cavities.
$.02 from another general contractor...
Yes, we've talked about the issues with poured concrete on threads in the past. Even with a truck bringing in the poured concrete, you don't always get concrete that is up to construction standards. The working time is an issue for getting the truck to remote parts of the island with time left to pour the concrete. Some contractors simply add more water to the mix to thin it down and this weakens the final product. There are additives that can and should be used to extend the working time rather than simply watering it down. There is also a problem with the kind of mix used, as some of the contractors buy grout pumps for pumping the concrete and these aren't strong enough to handle the correct concrete mix so things are adjusted to suit the pumps.
Let's get a little technical:
First, most concrete has to be worked/placed within 90 minutes from first mix of the catalyst components. This will limit where/how cement gets to any property. Last time I visited STj, there was a concrete plant just outside Red Hook. So, a Coral Bay pour needs to be a fast pour!
Ideally, there will be a batch plant somewhere within 30 minutes of the pour site. (The St. John Westin contractors brought in a portable batch plant for their construction, so I hear.)
Also, concrete placed in CMU walls is actually called "grout", since it has no large aggregate components. To be "pumpable", most grout mixes are 50% more sand and 50% less cement than concrete.
Also many fewer standards associated with grout than with concrete. It is generally a structural element by mass and weight, not with horizontal shear resistance, hence the rebar elements in raised CMU walls.
And, as Alexandra stated, most Contractors will do what they need to for material placement. So, don't design processes and designate standards that will have to be compromised without exception.
I've thought long and hard about this, and feel that pre-cast tilt walls poured & finished on STT than trucked to STJ seems to be the better way to impose concrete standards and speed construction.
Anyone know whether this is being done?
fly-by: Wow! CPA, entreprenuer, bar builder, contractor... you certainly are a rennaissance man.
Thanks, JNR. It comes with a restless heart and an inquisitive mind.
I currently own three companies (specialty construction, investment management, and consulting.) My consulting side is for business expansion/business case development for another 25 or so companies around the globe.
High energy level, lots of interests.
But, need to slow it down, and get to the point where I can enjoy what my real passion has been since I was a child. Sailing.
Yes, FlyBy, the structural integrity of concrete pumped into cinder block walls is of less dire consequence than concrete poured as cast walls. The real danger comes when contractors use the same quality mix to pour concrete roofs. This should definitely not be "grout" quality. For those who intend to use cast-in-place concrete pours for walls and roofs, be sure you do your due diligence on the type of equipment your contractor will be using. It may be that you're not getting the structural integrity in the end that you were expecting when you chose your construction method.
Fly-by, I thought you were a restaurant expert. You don't mention that in your resume.
Do you know of any? Or, do you know of any companies that are using concrete extensively for the major structural elements?
I belive the technical term for grout is the finish material used in tiling jobs. I think you're referring to "mortar", which is very different from grout. Grout uses a fine aggregate (fine sand/stone dust) and portand cement, mortar a larger aggregate (sand) where concrete uses a variable aggregate for extra strength. Mortar is used to bond blocks together but they are commonly filled with concrete and rebar for extra stiffness.
Regardless, the logistics of casting and rigging tilt-concrete isn't really in the territory of a D-I-Y'er, going back to Angel M's original post. From a seismic perspective, hollow concrete block has less than half the lateral strength of filled reinforced block. In a seismically active area like USVI i'd highly recommend spending the extra $ on reinforcing and filling the block.
Everything you said was correct. except the long overhangs, or eves. They are prone to catch the wind, and blow your roof of in a storm. thats why most of the homes here have small overhangs, and no carports hardly at all like you see in the states
Hello Angel, I was reading your message regarding designing/ building your own home in St. John. My family owns a condo at Sapphire Resort in STT and have been visiting the Island 4x a year for about 22 years now (not to mention my mother used to live there 30 years ago). I am graduating from Endicott College in May 2006 with a Bachelor's degree in Interior Design. I am currently working on a 1 year thesis pertaining to designing/ building tropical and hurricane resistant villa in STJ and I am looking to move there in 4 months upon graduation to focus on design work on the Islands. If you would like any help/ ideas with designing your home, please let me know!Thank-you and I look forward to hearing from you...
Glad you posted that note about the size of the roof overhangs. I caught it too but since my only experience with this subject is surviving a massive home remodeling, I was a bit hesitant to question someone with so much experience.
After reading a book about Hurricane Hugo's flattening of STX that was subtitled "The Night the Roofs Went Flying", I've become a fanatic on the subject of hurricane-resistant roofing. When we redid our roof, we added in additional rafters and secured them to the outer walls of the house first with metal tie-downs before sealing them with poured concrete. As several folks whose roofs survived Hugo said they had also used up to seven coats of a waterproof sealer (two-three seem to be typical) on the roof and believed that also helped saved them, we're going to follow that recommendation as well.
One final issue with overhang size is insurance. I was told by one agent I talked to when we were house hunting that the size of the overhang is taken into consideration by insurance companies. This agent had expierience with people whose homes have long overhangs being required to add additional tie downs before they could buy a policy, and has also seen people denied coverage because the long overhangs were considered too much of a risk in high winds.
PS -- Maybe it was just another event in our string of non-typical experiences (like having our phone and electricity turned on within 48 hours of requesting service, and our cable and internet live within hours), but it took only a few days for us to get our building permits. Our longest delay came from waiting for an inspection before we could pour a foundation -- it took almost five days to get the inspector out here after submitting the request.
Wow, I love this site. Great info. guys. And Alexandra sounds like someone I should definitely talk to when I finally make it down. Plan on eventually buying a fixer-upper and/or land and then build or remodel accordingly.
Have studied quite a few homes in Cozumel, Cayman, Bahamas. One of the best designs I saw involved double-CMU outer walls (8'tall) with concrete slab/rebar running into all the CMU, and then concrete, not mortar, poured into the CMU. On the main four corners were red-iron "I" beams in the CMU with red iron headers running between all the beams to support the roof. The CMU were then floated with a concrete/plaster mix and painted. The roof was made of pre-poured 4" thick concrete panels. Each was approx. 14' long and 6' wide. The panels I've seen here on the mainland, but was surprised to see on a house in Cayman. Must've been a contractor....
Regarding homeowner's insurance, I called several agencies while in STT recently. I plan to build there in the foreseeable future and wanted to know if there was anything I could do in the planning stage that would reduce my policy premium.
In a nutshell, here's what I was told:
1. They will only write policies on all-masonry homes
2. The house has to be built to code (seems obvious)
3. The only rate difference (lowering) is for homes that have hurricane shutters for EVERY window
What is your opinion on concrete roofs? I've been talking to my architect about having a concrete roof. From an aesthetic standpoint, I think that's what I prefer. It also seems like a bonus in terms of hurricanes. Roofs with traditional rafters, even if the roof is anchored into the foundation, seem to be stripped of their outer material during hurricanes. Seems like concrete would be superior in this regard.
I guess the main concern for concrete roofs is the inevitable cracking that occurs with normal settling. When you throw seismic activity into the equation...
Are concrete roofs more prone to leaks?
The home of my dreams has a flat roof. We're working on ways to have a roof that isn't truly flat but appears to be flat (maybe a really low-angle hip roof hidden behind a parapet). Although it flies in the face of common sense for VI building, I really want to explore my options for a flat-appearing roofline. I may end up abandoning this roof style, but not before I look at all possibilities.
Would anyone who answers Jule's questions about concrete roofs please comment of the cost difference between using concrete and sealed wood as your roofing materials?
I had quite the surprise in seeing (and paying for) the added labor and logistics it takes to lay electrical wiring and plumbing in the walls and floor of an all-masonry home (compared to a wood frame house). My brain hurts when I think of what it would take to wire a concrete roof.
There's one other concern that came to mind when I considered concrete roofs - albeit far more minor than seismic activity -- and that's retrofitting ceiling fixtures. With wooden rafters, all that is required for us to add a ceiling fan is drilling out a groove for the wiring in the appropriate beams, laying in the wiring, sealing it up with wood putty and repainting. How hard would it be to add electrical fixtures to concrete roofs if you didn't add a drop ceiling inside the house?
Am also eager to hear the discussion about flat roofs. I like that look, too, but wonder how you can make it work on a home that relies on a cistern for its water supply.
Ever curious, I am the...
A concrete roof is the best way to go, bar none......if you can afford it and have the connections. I've seen many island homes that have concrete tables built to the floor, concrete countertops, etc. The more, the better. As far as cracking, there is that potential. However, most of this will occur around the wall/roof connection the way they are designed. You would then only have to remortar or even possibly caulk these cracks. If you do experience cracks in the middle of the ceiling, these can fixed also. I'd rather have a roof that leaks than no roof at all....after a bad 'cane.
As far as electrical, etc. All of the conduit can be run outside of the concrete, attached to the concrete roof inside with concrete anchor bolts. Just have to use galvanized, code-approved, electrical conduit. Same with ceiling fans....you can move and patch old holes. Just a little harder, but how many times do you plan to move ceiling fans, lights? Probably not much.
When I reach that point....everything I build will be made of concrete, within reason. You can call it my island bunker 😉
A few years back, while downing an R&C at the bar in Cuzzin's, I met a guy who told me when he built his house on STT he made the cement roof slightly inverted. The pitch was down towards the center of the house with the drain to the cistern near the center. He claimed that the forces generated on the roof by winds was downward instead of up. He also claimed better water collection with this design. I can't verify any of this , but thought it was interesting.