God Save The Green, Necker Island BVI
Eco-hero, Sir Richard Branson's adventure into virgin territory on Necker Island, BVI.
Words by Juliet Austin. Photography courtesy of Virgin Limited Edition.
Congratulations, Branson. I predict that you will either go to prison or become a millionaire.” Such were the prophetic words of Richard Branson’s childhood headmaster and… you have got to give it to him, he was spot on. Armed with the bullet-proof support of his family and his ballsy joie de vivre, the rebellious fifteen-year-old Branson stepped out into the world ready to seize his destiny without so much as a backward glance. What few could have foretold however, was that, along with his meteoric success and transformational business acumen, the soon-to-be Sir Richard would also become one of the world’s most influential humanitarian activists: an inspirational leader, luminary philanthropist and tireless crusader for the green movement – all from his hammock in the Caribbean.
Purchasing the 74 acre Necker Island in 1978, the first of two private islands in the British Virgin Islands archipelago, it is dizzying to consider that Branson first dipped his toes into the untested waters of entrepreneurship at sixteen, with his publication, Student, proving that this enigmatic maverick was an astute reader of people and a savvy gauge of emerging trends. By twenty-two, his chain of Virgin Records stores signalled the launch into the stratosphere of the Virgin brand, and a few years later landed him in the slammer for signing an anarchic new music phenomenon, The Sex Pistols, whose single, God Save the Queen, is described as having precipitated, “the last and greatest outbreak of pop-based moral pandemonium.” Sealing his fate as a serial non-conformist, the fearless British entrepreneur, rule-breaker, record-breaker and self-made billionaire continued charting his own course, spurred on by an unapologetic “screw it, let’s do it” mentality passed on to him in the auspicious wisdom of his ninety-nine year old grandma: “You’ve got one go in life, so make the most of it.”
Building the bottom-heavy Virgin empire, the hip and edgy image of the self-professed adrenaline junkie daredevil ensured that Virgin debuted on the international stage doing it differently. Which other airline offered in-flight massages, ice-cream with the movie and exercise facilities? What other product launch featured the company CEO driving a tank up to their chief competitor’s sign in Times Square and firing? With his signature long tresses, permanent smile and Shakespearean goatee; his trademark affability and media savvy, Branson is notoriously hard to read, yet he takes every opportunity to offload kudos onto his five-hundred strong workforce, telling David Sheff of Forbes, “My interest in life comes from setting myself huge, apparently unachievable challenges and trying to rise above them… I never went into business to make money. It all comes down to people… people, people, people.” That is, people… and a singularly novel way of viewing a challenge. Once, when asked what he would do if he was down to his last dollar, without skipping a beat, Branson replied: he would sign the bank note, sell it for double, and continue thus until he had made a worthwhile profit. No surprise then that his approach to saving the planet is similarly unorthodox. Figuratively donning his green tights and eco-hero cape, Branson takes every opportunity to challenge the destructive kryptonite of global warming and environmental degradation using Necker Island and his newest $13.2 million acquisition, Moskito Island, as testing grounds for green innovations. As the man who has it all so insightfully states, “All you have in life is your reputation.”
And, he has not been shy in putting his money where his mouth is, in 2006 pledging to invest profits from Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Trains – to date an estimated $3 billion – into research for environmentally friendly fuels, and in 2007, issuing The Virgin Earth Challenge, a new global science and technology prize awarding $25 million to any individual or group capable of demonstrating a community-viable design for the net removal of anthropogenic, atmospheric greenhouse gases. With the Caribbean in his sites, Branson seems adamant that there is another way. As he stated in Business Week, “It is… inexcusable for the Caribbean to need to use dirty fuels anymore when it has all these natural resources on its doorstep.” Opening up his islands as green micro-laboratories, Branson’s team of experts includes Harvard lecturer and alternative energy consultant, Ken Kao of Kao Design Group. Having conducted research into the role of technology and experimentation in the art of building at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich, his role in Branson’s utopia is twofold: to collaboratively develop a renewable energy master plan, incorporating innovative, ecological designs that work in harmony with nature, and to determine the viability of clean, renewable energy sources and bio fuels that ultimately reduce the islands’ carbon footprint.
Engaged also to design Temple House, the Branson’s private residence on Necker Island, field sketches morphed into computer models incorporating a site study of buildings and micro climatic environmental conditions. According to Kao, “Careful on-site field work conserved significant native bioresources, augmented by plants to revitalise the local ecology.” Composed of meticulously situated Bali-inspired pavilions designed to passively cool via use of prevailing breezes, high performance roofing and shading, the temple pavilion boasts enviable 360° panoramic views. “Natural wood cladding exteriors visually blend into the native vegetations,” says Kao, “while interior construction incorporates an innovative structural straw board, fabricated from agricultural waste straws, which is naturally termite resistant.” Nestled within the saddle of the island ridge, the residence harmonises with the natural landscape, “capturing spectacular vistas from sunrise to sunset.” With terraces overlooking the flamingos’ salt pond to the east, the curving vanishing edge pool to the west, “expands the water view to the distant horizon.”
In a stroke of genius, an adjustable building envelope adapts to changing conditions offering interior spaces protection from passing showers and full-on storms while embracing indooroutdoor living and taking advantage of breezes to “offer low-energy spot cooling of the micro-climate, such as within the master bed….” Kao continues, “[We] aim to incorporate well-developed vernacular solutions, integrate best design practices, [and] transfer and adapt emerging technological advances.”
Truly, Necker does have the feel of a sanctuary held in the embrace of Mother Nature herself. Built of native stone, local timber, coral rock and sustainable hardwoods, its to-die-for accommodations are favoured by a host of rich and famous Hollywood elite, rockstars and royalty. The Great House rises up in king-of-the-castle splendour, forming the apex of Devil’s Hill and appearing somehow organically hewn from the rock itself. Featuring twelve rooms characterised by four-poster beds swathed in billowing mosquito netting, pure white linens and sun-worshippers’ terraces, every aspect of life is governed by the ever-present brilliance of sea and sky. A cavernous living/dining area, lit by vast skylights where sunlight floods in, dreamy be-cushioned reading nooks, heavenly daybeds and heady viewing platforms provide every opportunity to examine your navel to the sound of the waterfalls washing seductively into the moon-shaped infinity pool or the rise and fall of the ocean tides. Branson’s utopia is completed by six bamboo-clad, Balinese-style villas, each unique in design. Luxuriate in a private plunge pool, or play king of the porcelain throne in an outrageous, wall-less bathroom that is completely open to the elements. And, when your daily ablutions are complete, zipline directly down to the beach for an afternoon’s kitesurfing. Such is the sweet life of Richard Branson.
With plans underway to develop a completely carbon-neutral, ecological resort on Moskito Island to include energy power from wind turbines and solar panels, use of bio fuels for all motorised transport and organic, locally sourced food, Branson’s green dream is slowly but surely taking hold. In a region gripped by rising fossil fuel and fresh water costs, Sir Richard is forging the way to a brighter future. If, as Plato, suggested, “The measure of a man is what he does with his power,” then this habitual rule-breaker can add Caribbean eco-hero to his list of credits. Let us all be upstanding – God save the green.
Nestled within the saddle of the island ridge, the residence harmonises with the natural landscape...
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