Home > Past, Present, Future - Caymanian Architecture

Past, Present, Future - Caymanian Architecture

Cayman's built environment is developing at a dizzying pace. With buildings now reaching ten storeys and designs becoming ever bolder, are we in danger of losing our architectural heritage? Architect John Doak reflects on traditional designs and how we can best preserve and honour this aspect of Caymanian culture.

What does architectural heritage mean?

Architectural heritage refers to the historic homes and public buildings that tell the story of how design and construction has evolved in any given place. Cayman’s architectural heritage can be seen in Government buildings such as the Museum, Elmslie Church, the Town Hall and Library in George Town as well as in some neighbourhoods in West Bay, Bodden Town and East End.

Why is preserving our architectural heritage important?

Our historic buildings teach us about the lifestyles of past generations, how people lived and how their lives were influenced. This architectural heritage is part of our national identity and culture. If it is not preserved, the very essence of what ‘Caymanian’ is, is in danger of being lost.

How has traditional Caymanian architecture evolved over the centuries?


In the 16th century, before the islands were permanently settled, passing visitors built temporary thatched cabanas, crudely framed with fallen branches and draped with palm fronds.


Once a permanent population was established, from the mid 1700s, stronger, more durable dwellings were built. The walls were framed from hardwood and set on foundations of ironwood that once grew abundantly here. Between the wall posts, a basket weave of cabbagewood wattles created a mesh, to which lime plaster was then applied to form the exterior walls. Floors were either finished in a lime daub, with mill-sawn timber or wood salvaged from shipwrecks. Roofs were originally thatched with palm fronds, and later with wood shingles, and windows were simple openings in the walls with wooden shutters.


The cabin came about in the late 19th century when factories in the US began to produce pre-cut lumber, which Caymanian seamen would bring back to the islands. The rectangular houses were set above the ground, framed up very quickly using 2x4 timber and finished on the outside with ship-lap boarding. Zinc sheeting was used to roof the houses. Porches and roofs were elaborately decorated with trimmings, coining the term gingerbreading, and the veranda became a universal feature on the front of the house where neighbours would visit and catch up on island news.


The bungalow style reached Cayman in the 1920s. Unlike its cabin and cottage predecessors, it is completely asymmetrical in layout. The homeowner could have rooms wherever he wanted them - no two houses were the same. The distinctive features of the bungalow are a shallower roof slope, wide roof overhangs and a square-ish porch at the front flanked by oversized columns.

The upstairs house is essentially a two-storey version of the bungalow, cabin or cottage. These homes were built by the George Town merchant families around the turn of the 20th century.


Since the Flowers family began to mass-produce concrete blocks 40 years ago, fewer homes are built in timber. Nowadays we see a profusion of bungalow and sprawling ranch-style houses being built, reflecting Cayman’s international mix of residents.

What traditional design elements can be seen in today’s structures?

Although the trimmings and fanciful details have given way to a cleaner, low-maintenance style, elements suited to a tropical climate are still used. These include overhanging roofs with verandas oriented to catch the breeze and provide shelter from the rain, and louvred shutters for privacy and shade. Pastel colours and hardwood boarding are also being brought back to add warmth and ‘homeliness’ to minimalist designs.

How does JDA help preserve heritage designs?

Over the years we have been involved with a number of “rescues” where an old home has become dilapidated or is threatened with demolition due to its location. In those circumstances we have literally lifted the house onto a low loader and moved it to another location where it is restored or repurposed. We moved a home from Savannah to Pedro St James where it now serves as a gallery for arts and crafts and we relocated a wattle and daub house (now converted into a guest house) in South Sound within the same property. We were involved with the complete reconstruction of Pedro St James Castle in association with a historic buildings consulting firm from Canada and we assisted the Cayman National Cultural Foundation with the preservation of Miss Lassie’s house in South Sound.

Can existing heritage homes be adapted to modern living?

Heritage homes can be adapted for modern living, particularly if you favour an eclectic style that mixes modern with traditional finishes, fixtures and furnishings. Older homes tend to be rectangular with four small rooms but these can be combined to create larger, open-plan spaces and they can be expanded in any or all directions with wraparound verandahs and additional bedrooms. However, most older homes were built from wood so, whilst being simple to adapt, will require a lot of maintenance.

How can we build modern homes that respect Cayman’s architectural heritage?

On an island with no covenanted design codes and a resident population that includes 140 different nationalities, it is inevitable that new designs will tend towards a more ‘international’ style. Indeed, preserving our cultural heritage doesn’t need to be interpreted so literally that new homes should all look like those heritage homes.

What is essential in the design and construction of Cayman’s future buildings is a fundamental appreciation of the Caribbean climate, and using materials and construction methods appropriate for this often-harsh environment. Indeed, most of Cayman’s professionally qualified architects work in association with offshore firms providing the local knowledge to inform developers of the most appropriate solutions.

For more information contact, John Doak of John Doak Architecture:


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