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.

| January/February 2010

burgamy bathroom

Indoor and outdoor bathrooms feature Sonoma tiles and local stone from a nearby quarry.

Photo By Daniel Nadelbach

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.

elderberry, echinacea, bee hive


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