Words by Sian Seys-Evans, Project Architect – OBMI British Virgin Islands

On September sixth of last year, the British Virgin Islands were hit by a storm never seen before.

Hurricane Irma, the most powerful Atlantic hurricane ever recorded swept through the islands with average winds of 185mph and gusts of 215mph.

A couple of weeks later, Hurricane Maria seconded it, causing even further destruction. Besides huge material loss, the aftermath provided a need to re-examine architecture on the islands, so our isles could be more resilient and smarter when it came to deadly hurricanes.

Hurricane Irma did and didn’t force a rethink of architecture. Yes, it was a huge eye-opener on what can happen when a major natural disaster ploughs through a community—its built environment, and natural landscape. It also showed us the perils of poor architectural design, construction, and outdated buildings in regard to current building codes.

At the same time, it revealed the protection that a properly designed, programmed, and engineered property can provide.

Although the hurricane laid bare the vulnerabilities of BVI structures and designs, it was a chance to review what withstood, encouraging of the strength of good design.

As a reaction to the weaknesses we identified during and after the hurricane, we saw a dire need to refine areas of product specification and how these products are fixed to structures.

Where appropriate, OBMI recommends specifications in line with Miami-Dade standards, because U.S. based codes in hurricane zones are more stringent than local BVI codes, which many times are not sufficient.

We’re also providing additional detail when fixing components, especially in areas such as outdoor decking and guttering, so these can perform better in severe storm situations.

Another critical area is the oversight of a certified professional during the construction phase. Whether it be an architect, project manager, or engineer, professionals ensure that what the client agreed on and paid to be built is being accomplished in compliance with building codes.

Although safety always comes first, it is important to reassure and encourage clients not to let the experience of Hurricane Irma limit their creativity.

This is where I—as a project architect—reinforce that buildings designed and engineered by certified professionals working to appropriate codes with information properly compiled, coordinated, and constructed by a competent contractor with oversight by a third party such as an architect, project manager, or engineer, ensures adherence to the drawings.

There is no need to radically change architectural design in the Caribbean, as long as we take the learnings gained from Hurricane Irma when it comes to refining designs and processes for withstanding our natural threats.

In retrospect, post-Irma clients still want the same as before. They’re looking for functionality, aesthetic attraction, durability, quality, practical cost, and reasonable time frames, all providing added value to the property.

Nonetheless, the key point is safety. Both daily and during extreme natural hazards, it’s important to feel safe if another mega storm comes our way.

Presently, clients are asking for safe rooms—concrete on all four faces with hurricane rated systems at openings and independent ventilation and communication—and the ability to operate off-grid and independently if the need arises.

I stress that no home should be dependent on safe rooms. A properly designed and constructed home should provide all the safety necessary. The moral of the story is to safely bet on good design, because as we all know but sometimes forget, life and peace of mind are priceless.