The Schooner Bay miracle

Steve Mouzon, New Urban Network

Score one for Schooner Bay! The eye of Hurricane Irene came right across DPZ's new town of Schooner Bay in the Bahamas late last week, and except for a few outdoor ceiling fans, the buildings sustained no damage at all. Sustained winds were 125 miles per hour, with gusts up to 130. This is all the more remarkable because of the way Schooner Bay is being built… it's following patterns of ancient wisdom that are illegal in every hurricane zone in the United States.

Years ago, when Seaside was hit by its first hurricane (Opal) and sustainaed almost no damage, hurricane experts called it the "Seaside Miracle," and studied it for several years thereafter. Opal's winds were probably 100 miles per hour at Seaside. It'll be obvious shortly why, beyond just Irene's higher wind speed, this should be considered the Schooner Bay Miracle and studied as well.

All of the photos in this blog post were taken by Schooner Bay staff less than 24 hours after the hurricane passed through. You can still see Irene's angry waves breaking against the ironshore in the first image to the right.

For a bit of perspective, Irene brought great devastation to other parts of the Bahamas, including this second image taken just a few miles away from Schooner Bay at Elbow Cay. As you can see, two of the houses have been completely destroyed and washed out to sea. The cause of destruction here was due to a very common error of oceanfront construction: building on the dunes. Schooner Bay took a completely different approach, heavily planting the first dune with native dune vegetation to strengthen it, then building a secondary dune with material dredged from the harbor. No houses have been built above this second dune yet, but it wouldn't have mattered, because the second dune was completely untouched by Irene. The seawall at the harbour handled the storm surge in textbook fashion with no damage whatsoever.

Schooner Bay's architecture is an important part of the story as well, as much for what they're not doing as for what they are doing.

What's the first thing you think of when people talk about hurricane construction? Probably the Miami-Dade hurricane code windows, right? Guess what? Schooner Bay isn't using them. Quite the opposite: because of high Bahamian import duties, they're making all their own windows onsite!

So how did these homemade windows manage to withstand Irene's fury with not one broken pane? The same way homemade Bahamian windows have withstood countless storms before her for centuries: the homeowners simply shut their shutters. Schooner Bay shutters are typically solid instead of louvered, so they can take a serious lick from wind-borne debris, protecting the windows behind them, which remain untouched by the storm.

The windows are only the beginning. All houses built to date at Schooner Bay have been built of poured concrete. You can see several under construction in the fourth photo, most with the concrete structure still exposed because the stucco work hasn't been done yet. Reinforced concrete is quite simply the strongest way to build. And many buildings in the Bahamas have been built of concrete or masonry for a very long time, for this same reason. But there are wood cottages in the Bahamas as well that have survived countless storms, so Town Founder Orjan Lindroth is looking into the best ways of building strong wood cottages to complement the predominant concrete construction.

Take a look at the roofs in the fourth image. See how most of them are hipped, and how they're built at a simlar pitch? Hurricane experts now tell us that hips are the strongest roof forms because each roof plane supports its neighbors. And pitches between 8:12 and 9:12 strike a balance between shallower roofs that fail in uplift and steeper roofs that fail in overturning. Gables are permitted, but only where the house is built of concrete or the roof span is very short.

It's interesting to note that Bahamians knew all these things long before "hurricane experts" ever existed. Their system was very simple: when you crawl out of a house that's been destroyed and see your neighbor's house that's still standing, you say "I'm going to rebuild like that!" And so the best ways of building emerge naturally in a place from centuries of testing into something I call a "living tradition."

Well before construction began at Schooner Bay, Orjan commissioned a new kind of pattern book to guide the architecture. Until then, pattern books had focused on random collections of historical styles. In short, they were necessarily more about fashion than function. But A Living Tradition [Architecture of the Bahamas] begins each pattern by telling homeowners and builders not only what to do, but also "We do this because…" In doing so, it opens up the rationale behind each pattern, allowing everyone to think again… and allowing architecture to live again. And crafting an entire language of architecture around what works best for this people, and in this place, creates an architecture with far more meaning than mere style and fashion, and one imprinted indelibly with the region of the world it inhabits.

The benefits of living traditions are legion. For example, many of the construction workers at Schooner Bay were fishermen just one year ago. But because they weren't just told what to do but also why to do it ("We do this because…") they caught on quickly and now perform better than many long-time construction workers that would have to have been untrained and then retrained in this new living tradition.

All of this sounded like really cool (possibly even Utopian) theory: building a highly sustainable place with fishermen based on ancient wisdom; using homemade windows in a hurricane zone. But now, the theory has passed the test of a strong Category 3 storm. What can be more sustainable than keeping things going in a healthy way, long into an uncertain future? This is real sustainability.

Steve Mouzon is principal of Mouzon Design, an architecture and urban design firm, based in Miami Beach, Florida, and author of The Original Green, book and blog.