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Expanding Eden

by Barrie Evans

Architects' Journal, 11 September 2003

Cover image shows 'Guesthouse on Bequia'

'Cullum and Nightingale has created a beautiful, contextual beach house in a Caribbean palm grove '

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'Some people have all the luck. Even if it's not yours, designing a beach house on Bequia, one of the Grenadine islands in the Caribbean, is a not-to-be-missed opportunity. Richard Nightingale of Cullum and Nightingale is not complaining.

'A steeply sloping site running down to the beach contains, halfway down, a small two-bedroom house, once owned by Anthony Eden. The client wanted more space and considered options for extending it and building anew, perhaps further up the slope with its panoramic views. But the lure of the beach won out. It is little populated - the fence has been removed and a rope strung between posts to suggest a boundary. This is an atmospheric location and includes a coconut palm grove, within the which New Eden House is located. The grove setting and the house's massing help to reduce its impact. The three-storey building is broken into connected wings - two for living / sleeping, one veranda, one stair, each under a floating monopitch roof plane. This fragmentation also helps promote air flow.

'Intimate connection with the trees was carefully worked. Nightingale visited the site just as construction was beginning, laying out the building himself with string and pegs, making final adjustments to the design in response to detailed topography and minimising the number of trees cut. One corner of each main room opens up, reducing formality, addressing the trees and beach prospect. Living rooms and bedrooms have folding glazed screens at these corners, allowing a controlled environment if they need to be closed, backed up by comfort-cooling, though the intention is to reply as much as possible on openings and sea breezes. (Temperatures are often in the 30s with high humidity.) Other rooms open at the corner with pairs of screens that slide into recesses in adjacent wall. Each screen has two leaves that can operate separately or together: one leaf is of slatted timber with integral insect mesh, the other is glazed.

'A further thread of this integration with the palms has been to include them thematically in the design. Some board-marked round (faceted) concrete columns of this concrete-framed (hurricane resistant) building echo the lower bare stems of the trees. Randomly spaced timber balusters to balconies cast shadows remarkably like those of the palm fronds. Some of the furniture - much of it designed by Nightingale and built locally - picks up this rhythm, too. And in a neat touch, after some experimentation, palm fronds were laid out on the floor shutters, so leaving leaf-imprint patterns on ceilings (now painted white).

'With the skewed plan, multiple openings and intense shadows creating many shifting views, there is already a lot going on. But what of the bright colours characteristic of the Caribbean? As construction progressed, the colours of the trees, sand and sea, and the intense light, together seemed enough. The house has been left as concrete frame, rendered blockwork, white concrete screeds and oiled timber, which will weather to silver / grey. Little metal is used in this corrosive environment, though there are stock blue-grey corrugated aluminium sheets on the roof planes. But as highlights, there are painted concrete window surrounds, often also with painted shutters, which shift the focus from the flat planes and can be glimpsed from many points in the building.

'The existing house is linked to the new one by steps down the slope, made gentle in rake by linking them to the top floor of the house, with a bridge ending in the final flight. A small drawbridge here allows the new and old houses to be used separately or together. The new house has a further entrance on the ground floor and from here a small bridge leads over a shallow watercourse and on to a beach hut.

'As might be expected, the logistics of building here are not straight forward. Local labour is realatively low cost but all materials have to be imported. (There is no water either, so a 60,000 gallon concrete rainwater tank now merges into the hard landscape.) Local executive architects were engaged. As for programming, the local understanding was that nothing could be built here in under a year - the client wanted completion in eight months. Incentives were offered to the local builder selected: an opening down-payment to get him started but then increasing percentage retentions at each stage, all ending in a 10 per cent bonus for finishing on time. The job was finished much to time and budget, both because of this and because the contractor was willing to explore and work with the ideas of the building. While Nightingale sees this as a local building in its design and construction, to the locals it was relatively strange, needing patient communication.

'It is not clear whether delight or envy is the stronger reaction on seeing this house. In its response to its climate and setting, and the easy-going culture, it captures the spirit of the place.'