In 1993, having completed my long-anticipated circumnavigation of the Earth in Finback, my Maine-built sloop, I returned to New England and the reality of the area’s harsh winters and lovely, short summers. I had spent many years in the tropics, sailing and working in such diverse areas as French Polynesia, Equatorial Africa and the Middle East. I knew the Caribbean well, having experienced most of it, and it was with some anticipation that I accepted a friend’s invitation to have a look at the Dominican Republic, one of the few countries in the area that I did not know.
Intending to stay two weeks, I was quickly entranced by the lush, mountainous island of Hispaniola and it’s varied population, and after extending my stay several times, I bought some land next to the sea just outside a town called Cabrera on the island’s north coast. The coastal plain there was a flat shelf of porous, risen reef, rich with almond and mara and mahogany trees, backed by karst-like mountains of the coast range. Life in the area was unhurried, and on Sundays, one could hear many voices raised in happy praise from Cabrera’s numerous churches.
Having spent half a lifetime as an architect, I realized that, in this new environment, I had much to learn before commencing design of my own house. For weeks, I studied the patterns of wind and associated weather systems. I erected poles of varying height to measure wind-flow over my land. I built small fires and watched the smoke trail up the ocean-front bluff. I took many photographs. Some of the undergrowth was cleared and some left where I thought it would give my house a measure of protection. I sketched many possibilities and quickly settled on one. Villa Lazy Heart, it would be known, was to be a house of separate casitas, joined by covered terraces, clad in local hand-cut coral stone. To enter, one would cross a bridge over a fishpond with papyrus and water hyacinth on either side, and having pleased the eye briefly with visions of koi and water lilies, one would look up and through an arched opening at green lawn and rollers cresting and breaking on the reef just offshore.
Since that autumn of 1996, I have evolved a system for design in this corner of the world and after more than twenty successful villas, I believe strongly in its merit. It is a system built upon a foundation of discovery. I made some mistakes early, though they were mistakes not of layout or siting, but of materials selection and use. Over the last 15 years, I have conducted many tests of various materials and products, mostly on the four houses I have done for myself. In each, I narrowed the list of negatives and expanded the volumes of plusses. The locals thought it was quite peculiar to hang stainless steel hinges in a sea-side tree for 6 months, or to leave pressure-treated lumber where the termites could have a taste…or not.
In the Caribbean, we live outside. Our best friend is also our worst enemy…the wind may cool the house in settled weather or carry away the roof in a tropical storm. A house must welcome the one while resisting the other with cunningly concealed structural strength. We must have abundant shade and spaces that may be sealed from the outside. Roof overhangs should be generous and roof pitches able to shed water in all wind strengths. Where possible, all rooms should have cross-ventilation and the ability to control airflow.
My job is not to build a monument to myself or to someone else’s ill-conceived notion. Rather, the realities of budget and time, when viewed against a client’s needs, will create the first template we will use. Then, the client-architect team must determine use, relative need and relationship of all spaces. Style is discussed and integrated into the developing villa. Gardens, walkways, pools, and terraces are finalized. And throughout the process, details, those all-important statements of individuality, are refined and blended into the whole…cabinetry, tile, window and door hardware, towel racks, mortar color…indirect lighting, niches, wine-racks, beveled glass, the turn of a winding-stair handrail…
Your dream is my challenge.
Eric M. Urbahn