Mother Earth Living

Serendipitous and Sustainable: A Virgin Islands Home Saves Water

A Virgin Islands home proves the advantages of proper siting and water conservation—and it was a lot of fun to build.
By Kim Wallace
January/February 2010
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Sited to fit the hilly landscape, the Burgamy home is nearly invisible from the nearby national park and ocean.
Photo By Daniel Nadelbach
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When Michael Burgamy and Char Sloan Burgamy thought they had found the perfect beachfront cottage on the island of St. John in a Wall Street Journal ad, they immediately called their real estate agent. Bad news: The beachfront land for sale, located within the boundaries of a national park, didn’t include a cottage.

Disappointed but still intrigued, the Burgamys made a trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands to check out other available homes—and the land. As soon as they saw its stunning ocean views and vast foliage, they knew it was the perfect site for their dream home.

“That’s how it started,” Char says, “with a little bit of serendipity.”

Meeting nature’s demands

The Burgamys chose local architect Doug White, a Virgin Islands resident for more than 30 years, to design their home. Intimate with the area’s terrain, White knows the importance of proper siting to take advantage of solar energy and natural ventilation.

Building in a tropical climate demands a solid marriage of free-flow design and hardy construction. The hot, sometimes stormy island weather requires hurricane-resistant homes that invite in cooling trade winds. For the Burgamy residence, White also had to fit a house large enough for visiting adult children (and spouses and grandkids) into a hilly, beachfront site.

White crafted a U-shaped concrete house with open rooms and large windows, set upon a series of terraces that step down to the beach. The open-air design cools the house naturally, and the local concrete, sourced from about 50 miles away in Puerto Rico, provides a strong, hurricane-resistant structure. White incorporated salvaged stones into the retaining walls and a series of planters up the hill. Native plants surround the house and shade it from the sun.

“When you’re in the house or on the veranda, you feel very close and connected to the beach, yet have sufficient distance and elevation to be protected from occasional storm surges,” Char says.

Storm surges often cut off St. John’s electrical grid from its substation on St. Thomas, causing frequent power outages. A 1.5-kilowatt solar system supplies backup and also powers the home’s Energy Star appliances and sophisticated sound and lighting systems.

Conserving water

Water conservation is serious business in the Caribbean, where the only natural water source is rain. For Michael and Char, who have always been water-conscious anyway, designing for water conservation just made sense.

All rainwater that falls on the driveway, pool deck and galleries goes into a graywater cistern; rainwater from the roof falls into a freshwater cistern. A Metlund D’MAND tankless hot water system also helps reduce the Burgamys’ water use, and they love the instant gratification of the on-demand system. “When you turn on the water, you don’t let it run and wait for it to get hot,” Michael says.

A beautiful...sewage system?

The home’s sewage treatment system, developed by NASA environmental engineer Bill Wolverton, is a small-scale biological wetland that duplicates nature’s waste-cleaning processes and encourages plants, animals and microorganisms to interact with the sun, soil and air to improve water quality. Microbes in the plants’ roots aid in the purification process; pathogens in the sewage serve as food for the microbes, which convert wastewater into nutrients for the plants.

Integrated into the landscape design, the Burgamys’ wastewater ecological treatment (WET) system provides terracing that divides the pool deck from the beach area and provides water for the immense plants and vegetation. “You would never know that it was, in fact, the sewage treatment system for the house,” White says.

Constructed wetlands can effectively remove pollutants from wastewater and stormwater. The WET system’s treated wastewater is an alternative water source that reduces the demand for fresh water.

Living the dream

Guests are always welcome at Michael and Char’s island home. “We wanted to create a home where we could spend quality time with our friends and our children and their families in a beautiful, relaxed, comfortable tropical setting,” Char says. “In this busy world, our time together with loved ones is often measured in hours, short visits now and then, with the pressures of daily schedules always in the background. When we are in the islands together, life slows down to a pace where we really are enjoying the moment and each other’s company.”

Green building on St. John

Architect Doug White helped form the Island Green Building Association (IGBA) in 2004—two years after he designed the Burgamys’ house—when the need for island-specific green building standards became obvious to him. “We wanted to focus people’s attention on the fact that anything you do on the land can go down into the water and have a negative impact on the reef,” he says.

The IGBA provides practical recommendations to owners and builders about environmentally appropriate design, materials and site development practices to reduce the negative impacts of erosion and pollution. The association’s Tropical Green Building Certification Program awards points to homes that incorporate smart site planning and design; climate-ready structures; responsible water management; energy conservation; recycling; minimal light pollution; and natural and native landscaping.

A chat with the homeowners

Why St. John?

Char Sloan Burgamy: It was just right...everything was right. It certainly helped that it was a U.S. territory. It was a lot less complicated.

How did you pick the colors for your house?

Char: I sat out on the beach one day when the house was under construction. I had a Benjamin Moore color fan, and I had a whole bunch of paper clips. I paper clipped every color I saw around me…the sky, the water, the sand, the plants, the trees…for about two hours. The color scheme came from that. We wanted it to have a very Caribbean feel.

What’s the best part of island life?

Michael Burgamy: Cooking, exercising, reading, and enjoying cocktails and dinner on the veranda with friends.

The good stuff

Architect: Doug White, (340) 690-0217; dougwhite@attglobal.net
Builder: Bob Schmidt, Zenith Development, (340) 776-3213
Interior Designer: Laura Hooker, Design by Laura, (303) 916-0795; laurahkr@gmail.com
Lighting designer: Jefferey Knox, Luminous Designs, (817) 726-0791; jfknox@earthlink.net
Landscaping: Alfredo’s Landscaping, (340) 774-1655
House Size (square feet): 5,060 within walls; 7,370 under roof (includes all outdoor verandas and decks that are under the roof)
Bedrooms: 3 plus an exercise room and a study
Bathrooms: 4; all include both indoor and outdoor showers
Cost Per Square Foot: (excludingland and landscape) $515

Energy

Cooling System: Natural ventilation, ceiling fans, air conditioning (split units in each room)
Electricity Source: Grid-tied utility, backup photovoltaic system and net metering, backup diesel generator
Lighting: Low-voltage, compact fluorescent
Appliances: Energy Star
Insulation: n/a

Building materials

Exterior Materials: Local poured concrete
Interior Materials: Portland cement plaster

Water

Water Conservation Systems: Potable roof rainwater runoff stored in cisterns; rainwater that hits driveway, pool deck and patios collected and stored in a graywater cistern for landscape drip irrigation system; blackwater recycling; wastewater ecological treatment (WET) system constructed biological wetland treats sewage and feeds landscape drip irrigation system
Fixtures: Two solar hot water heaters, low-flow showerheads
Water Conservation: Metlund D’MAND System

Construction

Waste Reduction: Reused native stone for retaining walls and landscaping, drainage channel and bridge
Recycling: Recycle 100 percent of potable, gray and blackwater; recycled brick used for paving
Construction Methods: Conventional

Landscaping 

Site and Land Use: Minimal site clearing; landscape design incorporates and facilitates natural drainage patterns on site; construction of drainage channel and sediment basin/berm behind a manmade sandy area that absorbs runoff water, preventing it from entering the bay; retained all natural vegetation along beachfront and planted additional native plants to prevent beach erosion
Plants: Native plants and xeriscape tropical exotics used to prevent beach erosion and to process sewage. Plants include sea grapes, palm trees, mother-in-law’s tongue, bromeliads, spider lilies, asparagus ferns and croton plants

Certification

n/a

Natural Home assistant editor Kim Wallace daydreams about escaping to the Virgin Islands.


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