Seagrape House, Cayman Islands
Nestled in foliage on a golden stretch of Cayman coast is a house that refuses to stand out: homage to the Caribbean vernacular with a radical green twist.
Words by Juliet Austin. Photos by Martyn Poyner, courtesy of John Doak Architecture.
Never has the metaphor of 'homecoming' played out so symbolically as in the awardwinning seaside residence of Graham and Janet Morse. After fifteen years blue water sailing, the ocean gypsies hung up their sailing boots and charted a new course for Grand Cayman – the perfect small island on which to make a big impact. Here, their sea dreams would become the bricks-and-mortar reality of Seagrape House – an ecofriendly, solar powered home with common sense at its foundation.
The philosophy was simple: any fixed abode must embody the deep respect for nature so central to their worldview. “As yachtsmen, we understand what it means to be close to nature,” they explain. “We have learned to treat the planet with care… to tread lightly.” So began the two-and-a-half-year quest for Eden: a landscape of unrestrained wilderness, tangled branches, shady canopies and birdsong; a place of duality, where the roots of permanence still possessed the beyond-the-horizon thrill of new adventure.
Channelling insights from their travels – the traditional West Indian plantation houses of St. Kitts and Jamaica, the tropical splendour of Grenada, and the remote simplicity of French Polynesia – a phase of intensive planning began. With fastidious attention to detail, a local ‘crew’ of philosophically sympathetic professionals was assembled: renowned Caribbean architect and ‘imagineer,’ John Doak, construction manager, Alan Veeron of Smart Construction, and landscape architect, Tom Balon of Vigoro Nursery. Armed with the Green Building Bible, an information gathering mission included visiting exhibitions, attending renewable energy seminars and investigating innovative systems to support a sustainable lifestyle in the Tropics. The result? An architect’s brief covering every aspect of their future energy efficient, environmentally friendly home.
Drawn to a 1.3-acre lot in Frank Sound, paradise was found. “The property fronts onto a breathtaking stretch of golden beach,” Doak explains. “Mature seagrape trees, sculpturally gnarled from decades of growth and evolution, extend up from the shoreline and over a storm ridge to form a magnificent canopy of shade and privacy.” Sited to the west of a rocky knoll and oriented to the southeast at an angle to the shoreline, the design retains a vital connection to the sea. Capitalising on patterns of light and shade, the cooling effects of vegetation and, adds Doak, “the influence on the senses of smell, sound, sight and touch,” Seagrape House rose organically within its tropical context, capturing prevailing breezes and delivering breathtaking panoramic views of the coast and reef protected sound.
Completed in September 2011, the home melts into its surroundings, giving the impression of having stood for a lifetime. Using a combination of open areas, untouched woodland and intimate recesses woven together by Cayman stone paths, flagstones and timber accents, native species such as sea lavender grow alongside jasmine, fruit trees, ferns and frangipani. “The garden is designed to cradle the house, making the property seem larger than you would expect,” states Balon. “The trick was to integrate all the natural trees and the beauty of what exists with the landscape.” Insisting that no tree be sacrificed during the build, natural vegetation was hand cleared, with mature birch trees and silver thatches painstakingly relocated and construction taking place backwards from the beach to facilitate access. “The builders dropped the house literally within two feet of some of the large seagrape,” Balon reflects. “It can be done. It just takes good planning and management.”
With an elevated entrance onto the second floor via a grand double stairway reminiscent of classic Caribbean great houses like Grand Cayman’s Pedro St. James, the living areas spill out through French doors onto an expansive fifteen-foot-wide verandah overhang with foliage-framed views beyond the property’s boundaries out to the sparkling bay. Embraced by a dreamy wraparound walkway punctuated by crimson geraniums, clusters of potted herbs and the omnipresent tangle of green, an intimate lanai provides a stylish transition between outside and in. Open to the elements, yet sheltered by traditional bead board ceilings, pale marble travertine tiles are cool underfoot, delivering the ultimate in barefoot bliss. The effect is of a sublime tree house, complete with darting swallows, pretty bananaquits and squawking parrots feasting raucously on juicy seagrapes.
An eloquent expression of Caribbean culture, interiors are characterised by a timeless colonial aesthetic present in its tray ceilings, rich wooden hues, troves of antiques and European furnishings and impressive collection of Victorian watercolour paintings. Yet, while the home’s easy classicism distils the essential spirit of the old West Indies, the design incongruously integrates sophisticated state-of-the-art technologies and renewable energy systems. With the home winning the coveted 2011 Governor’s Award for design and construction excellence, Alan Veeran comments, “Systems are not visible from the ground, therefore, Seagrape enjoys the platform of being a high tech home that keeps its traditional ambiance.”
Practical to a fault and refusing to sacrifice a single creature comfort in the name of sustainability, energy efficient doors and windows ensure that the sealed envelope of the home maximises comfort. Air-conditioned year-round, the elegant 5,800 squarefoot interior is cooled by geothermal air conditioning that utilises ground source heat pumps in a vertical closed loop system. “The water circulating through the underground pipes draws excess heat from the house and allows it to be absorbed by the earth,” states Veeran. “This system also eliminates the need for a water heater as it produces hot water.”
Built of locally procured materials – 68 tonnes of steel, stucco, natural stone and insulated concrete – the architectural scheme expertly marries functionality with style. Split-level accommodations, accessible via a residential elevator, come in the form of ground level guest accommodations, providing space and flexibility whilst housing the home’s technological ‘command centre’ – three rooms protected from risk of flooding by watertight submarine doors. Fostering the illusion of a cosy apartment-à-deux, the main living area is topped by a spacious rooftop studio featuring wallto- wall bookshelves, hickory wood floors, framed family portraits, vertiginous ocean views and access to the home’s forty-eight PV solar panels, currently providing forty percent of the home’s electricity.
"We have learned to treat the planet
with care… to tread lightly."
Taking further advantage of renewable energy resources that save the owners approximately $2,000 per month, a desalination plant takes seawater from a 200-foot borehole and produces 1,600 gallons of fresh water in ten hours. Stored in two 5,000-gallon cisterns, fresh water and harvested rainwater irrigate the home’s verdant grounds.
A paradigm of self-sustainability, acquired – one assumes – from years spent at sea, Seagrape House heralds a new era in Caribbean construction with the promise of the best of both worlds. From its rocky outcroppings, idyllic treetop vantage and mesmerising ocean vistas to its financial savoir-faire and high tech proficiency, it stands: a beacon inviting us all to come home along a path less travelled.
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