"Good" house design
So, let's say that you are going to build a house on STX. What are some of the design features you really should think about? BTW, I've read the Bongo Bongo blog - very useful. Now, I know everyone is going to say "it depends on your needs, desires, budget, location, etc". Fair enough; but, based on your requirements, what do you think? Here, as a starting list, is some advice from KJ:
--Don't want the house oriented directly toward the west (our condo is and it's miserably hot in the summer)
--Don't need as much air conditioning as we thought, as long as there is good cross ventilation
--Don't need as much interior space--outdoor living is such a treat here (something we didn't get much of in the northeast)
--Don't need a huge kitchen, we grill a lot and our cooking seems to be much simpler here
And, I'm thinking that the following could be considered:
- should you have a separate generator for power outages?
- high ceilings will allow heat to rise and keep people cooler at floor level
- are solar cells on the roof practical (given hurricanes, and that roof water is drinking water)?
- are wind mills practical for power (how did the original settlers handle hurricanes)?
- do wood houses get eaten by termites; therefore, concrete or block is better?
- storm shutters are a must because of hurricanes?
- does everything metal in the house rust within a few years - so buy cheap electronics?
- there is no way to keep ants out so build a sealed pantry for food?
- is gas cooking better because of power outages?
- 95% of the time, winds are from the east, so have windows on the east+west side of homes for ventilation
And, some related questions:
- is there a preferred house location, considering hurricanes? I'm guessing that other than tucked into a hillside, there is not a better side of a hill: whether you're on N.S,E,W side you're still vulnerable because hurricane winds can come from any direction. Have I got this right? Has this been your experience?
- are there any locations on the island where wells produce drinkable water?
- how tough is it to maintain a cistern? Should the cistern be bigger than 10Gal/roof_sqft?
- how tough is it to maintain a septic tank+field?
- do any of the advertised books on this site address any of these house design questions?
Just a start....
1 generator is a good idea.
2 vaulted ceilings are the norm for top floor.
3 If WAPA starts to pay for unused power it might be worth it.
4 Wind mill I would say no.
5 Concrete is the way to go.
6 Storm shutters are a must.
7 If you are close to the water rust might be a problem.
8 Ants spray perimeter of house once a month.
9 We are doing electric inside gas for outside kitchen. Then you have that for power outs.
10 When you buy a lot think about where the wind is going to come from.
11 Hurricanes that's why you want concrete.
12 Yes wells work but if you are to high it can be very pricey. Its pricey anyway.
13 Septic works best if you add enzymes every now and then to eat your solids and a separate gray water tank is nice for laundry because bleach will kill the enzymes, then you will get backups.
14 Don't no about the books.
Good house design is probably a matter of opinion. I'm nearing completion of a quest house. A lot of the premise of good design is having a good site. I chose mine because the view and the breeze are to the north and northeast so no ac is needed and the larger areas of glass don't cause a huge solar gain. The cistern is on the smaller side as I hit hard rock. It is coated with Block Aid and should be cleaned yearly. A septic tank should be pumped @ every 2 years with no garbage disposal, more often with one.
My walls are nine feet high and the ceilings are open so it's @ 15 feet to the ridge. My roof system includes 2 inches of urethane foam between mold proof sheet rock and plywood with an elasomeric ceramic coating to reflect heat.
I will use gas for cooking, a tank less electric water heater and Energy star appliances with a WAPA service and a 7KW backup generator.
I built of poured reinforced concrete that should hold up to @ 200 MPH winds. The rafter are anchored in concrete, the rafter connections are joined with metal plates and the roof sandwich is attached wit 5 inch screws.
I'm at 185 feet above sea level, the higher you are the harder it blows. I will build 2 inch wood shutters for all the openings and hope for the best.
Good housekeeping and diligence can control most pests.
I used to have a bookmark for VI building codes-- can't find it. I recall that the cistern size is codified. If I remember correctly, 10 gal per square foot of roof for single story homes, 15 gal per sq ft for two story homes. Local architects/builders should be able to tell you.
My site is 850 feet above sea level. You saying that about the wind blowing harder the higher you are makes me think about no wood at all. My wife really wants the mahogany rafters. Alexandra do you think a big box would hurt resale or the value. God I don't want to go back to DPNR. Its only the third floor but don't want it to rip off and fly away.
We have a concrete roof with wood ceiling & rafters inside & tall ceilings do seem to keep things cooler. I do miss the sound of rain on the galvanized roof but not enough to do without the 11" of concrete to protect me. I don't ever want to go through a storm like Hugo or Marilyn again.
Oh, and there is a type of subterranean termite that will attact concrete. Get the best hurricane shutters you can afford & if you can also afford it, get a whole house generator & build it its own concrete housing and maintain it well.
Nickel is a good material for faucets & showers since it doesn't corrode like the cheaper kind.
Trade are the rafters just for looks? Is the roof flat with beams because I cant figure how you could pour on a slant?
Wow! Thank you (a million times) for the voices of experience.
My lot is at 300 ft, just over a local hilltop, on the north side of the hill. I want to keep the house high so that I can see both the north and south shores (well, oceans, not actual shorelines). So, I'm considering building straight out from road level on a steel truss. I wonder if I can support concrete slab + concrete (external) walls + concrete roof (wouldn't that be nice)?
I've also been thinking that winds will be higher, the higher on the hill you are, because I think the winds get compressed as they go up hill (the winds that hit the low parts of the hill travel up the hill and add to the winds that are at the higher hill altitudes). I wonder if a wind block could be constructed on the downhill side of the house to catch some of these winds and direct them into the rest of the winds to partially deflect the winds over the house?
At about 1 mile from shores, I wonder if I get significant resistance from salt air rusting?
You can buy the VI Zoning, Building and Housing Laws and Regulations from Lexis Nexis (www.lexis.com, isbn 0-327-13651-0, $31). It says 10 gal/roof_sqft, but I wondered if people recommended bigger? Anybody know if I can approach zoning inspectors with initial ideas for homes, to get advice (ie, I'd like to put my underground cistern within the 20 ft setback area, under the driveway... I wonder if I can bug them with this question... and a few thousand more)???
Any recommendations for builders and/or engineers that can help to sort out these questions?
Does everyone have fans in every room? Or, if you have high ceilings maybe you don't want to mix the higher hot air with the lower cool air???
Bombi, is the foam in roof to insulate from outside heat? If so, that's an excellent idea. I can't tell if folks are insulating outside walls to keep heat out of the house.
Trade, wow! wood rafters can hold 11" thick concrete!?!?!?! I've been trying to find the load bearing ratings for various materials: wood, steel I-beams and concrete... no luck yet... my intuition must be way off.
And what about outside areas:
- do you have overhangs for shade? If so, how do you protect these areas/overhangs from hurricane winds?
- can you collect outside area runoff as gray water for plant watering and laundry?
I'd like to find out what the soil/rock conditions are like where I want to build. I found a geological map of the island that is very interesting. Unfortunately, in 4th grade, when they spent 3 days going over the various rock types, I probably didn't get a whole lot out of it. Does the university have geologists that can help to educate the local residents? Someone suggested that I should just dig down in a few areas and get soil/rock samples to have analyzed... does this make sense?
So many wonderful topics! I'm excited that I'll probably know more about this island, than anywhere else that I've lived (I know, that can be good... and bad).
I have been told by several people that the size of the cistern, ( in addition to the code) depends on where your house is. If it's on the East end or South shore, you want as large of cistern as you can possibly afford. If you are on the West end , but especially on the North Shore, you can get by with the minimum size. My friends that are on the North Shore say that when or if they have to buy water, it is only sometimes once a year at the cost of about $300. At over $1.00 per gallon to build a cistern that is pretty cheap. With our house to be on the North Shore, I would rather sometimes spend an extra $300 a year than to spend an extra $40K to $50K for a cistern.
I know that the condos above Christiansted, probably 400ft above sea level and over 1 mile away, have problems with their steel fence rusting.
I would check with a good insurance company first to see what they want. When I talked to them, I found out they charge more if you roof overhang is more than 12". You can have your patio / porch overhang farther as long as it doesn't attach to the roof.
What color is the rock / soil on your land look like? Many of the areas on the island have a brownish rust color rock that the locals call "rotten rock". This is supposed to be good to build on, as it is easy to excavate and makes a good base. There is also something called "blue bitch" which is stronger, but very hard and expensive to build on.
I have a list of good and bad contractors. I would share them with you in private. I will not put them on the board, as the good / bad are other people's opinion. Not my first hand knowledge.
When are you planning on building?
The wood & rafters inside are decorative but look just like the ones we had when we had galvanized. The ceilings inside are very slanted with the highest part in the middle of the condo & lowest on the outside edges. The outside roof doesn't look as slanted as the inside does. They had to do a lot of tests to see if the building could hold the roof. There are overhangs outside but not as wide as they were with the old roof.
Hi Terry: thanks for all of that info:
- Yes, I've seen the "blue bitch" pictures. I must have mostly "rotten rock" because the road that borders my property is cut into the hill, and you can see all brown, layered shale-like rock. The pictures that I saw of the blue bitch looked like it was really random, like veins running through a hill. So, I'll still dig in a few locations, but at least now I know what to look for. BTW, the geological map shows my lot on the edge between the "Caledonia Formation" and Igneous rock.
- interesting about the outside area overhangs. I'll have to study various house designs on my next trip to STX. I guess older houses don't necessarily follow current ideas; but, if they're still around then they've done some things right.
- believe it or not, I might not be building for 10 years. I need to get my 2nd child through college (please go in state, PLEASE go in state) and then pull equity out of the current house when I retire. I'm hoping that if I can afford to build with savings and equity in today's dollars, then 10 years from now I still should be able to (I'm assuming that house building costs will increase in pace with equity increase). But, I figure that I should use these 10 years as wisely as I can: there is a lot to learn and consider, so I'm in the learning phase.
Yes, I can only imaging what Hugo and Marilyn were like. I've never been in the midst of a real hurricane. I see wooden homes, and I see wooden homes on wooden stilts. I just don't understand how these survive 100+ MPH winds and debris.
- Oh great, termites that attack concrete!?!?! I guess, in reality, we humans are here just for the delight of bugs!
Just an opinion. If you look at the West Indian style of building and use it as your design basis and how these old buildings with their thick walls have survived age and storms you will be very close to the ideal house. Personally I like to see homes that respect the culture and not manifestations of someones ego.
When you use building techniques that are out of the ordinary it tends to get expensive and difficult to find the right people with the right skills.
My roof system is a good example. After the rafters were installed on the hip roof, mold proof drywall was fastened face down to the tops of the rafters, then 2 inch foil faced foam was glued and nailed to the rafters, then 3/4 inch T&G plywood was screwed down through the whole sandwich wit 5 inch screws every 4 inches.
No one had seen it done before but when it was done all the workers thought it was great. The insulation greatly lowers the transfer of heat to the inside.
I appreciate your inputs. I realize that much of this is subjective, but there is always an element of "fundamentals", and many of us off-islanders or new-islanders may not even be close to realizing the fundamentals. So, again, much appreciated.
I also participate in an architectural forum to seek the wisdom of those folks. I'm just an electronics research engineer, so there is much for me to learn about house design, hurricane proofing, geology, cisterns, retirement living, etc, etc, etc. I really admire architects. It seems like one of the few professions where brute science and art have to play equal and powerful roles (I guess plastic surgeons also balance the two)... tough to balance the two. I have gotten many good ideas from them (ie, if I have to build on really steep land, then keep the house long and shallow so that it doesn't cover as much of the steepness). BTW, to understand the steepness better, I'm getting a topo survey. I'll then use Google's SketchUp 3D model app to create a 3D model of the lot. Then I can play with house designs to see where I need stilts (steel truss) and how long (and ugly they'd be). Since I'll be retired I REALLY want to keep the house on one level... I already hate steps and I'm only 51 and exercise every day!
I really like your roof design. How do the workers walk the roof to install the foam after the drywall is up? It seems like there is a high probability off accidentally missing a rafter and stepping (or falling) through the drywall. The drywall is on top of the rafters, right?
I am so excited to see everyone taliking about this subject. I spent two years gathering info both here and other places. It is a challenge no dobt about it but I figure its worth it. EngRMP keep in mind that you will be restricted by the abilities of the builders and material available locally. Its hard enough to be a trendsetter on the mainland but here it is nearly impossible. It is good you are starting early with your research, by the time you are ready to start building you should have all the known issues addressed. I wish anyone who would build their home in the VI all the luck in the world. Island folk are truly the last pioneers. Their are alot of people here who have alot of knowledge. I am so glad this forum exist. On a side note. I decided I would be too overwelmed to try and figure it all out myself so I got in contact with the guy who designed Bongo Bongo. Wow what a great guy!!
There is a wonderful older book out: "Caribbean Style" by Suzanne Slesin and Stafford Cliff et al. c.1985 ISBN#0-517-55611-1. It catalogues the various architectural influences on houses great and small in the Caribbean. I think a lot of the photos are from the early 1980s, and I wonder sometimes about the state of some of the Haitian buildings, but it really is a nice way to dream about indigenous architecture.
I'm in the northern Virginia area, so if he (John Maize) is still in Annapolis I could pop down there and visit with him also. I don't think I'll ask him for a cost estimate though :), based on Bongo Bongo!
I'd like to find someone (maybe John) that I can periodically bounce ideas off of, to help shape the house design.
I have met a friend of a friend, who moved to STX 30 years ago. He was a builder in New York. He decided not to be limited by local materials and abilities. Instead, he brought his crew over and filled a shipping container with a "house kit". I'm not sure it makes sense to bring a crew over and pay for lodging and food for a year. But, I might consider material to be shipped. But, really, I would prefer to help the local work force... I'm going to be part of this community, so I'd like to "be a part of it".
Hi East Ender,
Thanks for the book reference. I'll see if I can find it in my local library. Now that I have a better idea of some of the issues with building here I might be able to appreciate this book better.
You are more than welcome. BTW, there are local architects who may have an idea or two about buildings! 😉
Do you also insulate the walls?
And, do you use ceiling fans in your rooms?
Hi ENGRMP, The walls are poured concrete so there is no insulation but I did coat the south facing wall with a ceramic roof coating then the finish paint. The coating reflects the heat. Ceiling fans are a must to keep a breeze especially in the summer. If your house is sited intelligently you shouldn't need AC.
Very clever to coat the outside of the wall.
And, I guess you could use your 2" foam on the walls, but, at STX latitudes the Sun stays pretty high in the sky; so insulating the roof is going to be far more effective.
I'm considering a house design on STX that would make the driveway only about 25 ft long (just past the setback zone). So, the house is relatively close to the road (not a busy road) and our parked cars would be easily accessible from the road. In northern Virginia I wouldn't give this another thought, but is the crime bad enough in STX that this is just asking for all kinds of trouble? Will the temptation to break into these cars just going to be too high? Should I be concerned about the house being this "easily accessible"?
EngRMP - this isn't likely to create a greater likelihood of crime. 25' or 40' or 100' of driveway is minimal difference, a few seconds walk at most. What part of the island? Your particular neighborhood would have more effect on likelihood of becoming a victim of such types of crimes.
Thanks for the help. Marienhoj area. It seems like there is (currently) only one way in and out, so there is no through-traffic. To me that would suggest that anyone coming in gets noticed by everyone in the neighborhood (although currently there aren't many homes). Therefore, I'm guessing that any thinking criminal would prefer to practice their trade elsewhere. Am I being overly optimistic... or way too paranoid?
I wouldn't expect high crime statistics in Marienhoj.