John Hix on how winter getaways to the Caribbean turned into an opportunity to build energy efficient housing and hotels in Puerto Rico.
1. Why did you decide to open a studio in Puerto Rico?
In 1989 I designed and built Casa Triangular as a winter retreat on 5 tradewind facing acres on the Island of Vieques Puerto Rico. Though I was busy in the early 90’s designing custom homes and institutional buildings in Ontario’s countryside, getting away in the winter was very energizing.
Architectural design, as most architects know, is often feast or famine. When I was not busy in Ontario, I built another house on our property, we bought 8 more acres and the result over the last 25 years is our small sustainable hotel Hix Island House. Creating a hotel with no glass windows or air conditioning and open to nature has been a productive venue for attracting clients staying at the hotel . Being unique among most hotels, it was something to write about. I began receiving requests for warm climate houses and secured a Puerto Rican architectural license. I observed how buildings were built in block, concrete and plaster and with the support of very good structural engineer in San Juan, began designing for others.
2. Explain your focus on ecotourism principles.
Architects should modulate climatic forces with a building’s form and skin rather than relying on vast amounts of commercial energy to make hermetically sealed buildings habitable. When I taught at Cambridge University, I formed a student group called The Autonomous House. When I taught at the University of Toronto, my course was Climate and Architecture. So eco-tourism came naturally to me.
3. Focusing on the ease of construction, explain the construction process in the Caribbean using your work in Puerto Rico, Bahamas and St. Lucia as examples.
Warm climate buildings taking advantage of air movement are much easier to design than Canadian buildings that must deal with extreme temperature, both hot and cold. The perfect Caribbean structure must be heavy and strong to combat hurricane winds and seismic shifts. Therefore light wood construction is not a good choice and there are ravaging termites. As far as working in various locations Puerto Rico, Bahamas, St. Lucia: observe how the locals build, then form the house in a more meaningful sculptural way as it relates to the persistent climate in that region.
4. Explain the schema for the Casa Maaskant in St. Lucia.
Over my past 25 years visiting the Caribbean in the winter months, I have developed many details that I use over again. The clients requirements and the topographical settings are different; this results in a different look, but the DNA is the same. Casa Maaskant was formed for my clients’ use but also as a multiple rental when they were back in Ontario. It has the main house and master suite and three rental lofts each with efficiency kitchens. Sited on a peninsula battered by high winds, in this case too much trade wind, walls jut out of the structure to protect openings and patios.
5. Why are most of your clients, as of late, outside of Canada?
The market for our hotel is mainly the USA. 5% Canadians, 5% Europeans, 90% USA.
6. Beyond the obvious use of solar panels, what other energy strategies are used to make energy efficient housing in Puerto Rico?
I think that this would be best explained by describing our hotel, the features that attract my hotel clients that eventually hire me. Hix Island House Hotel was completed in June 2014 after some 20 years of measured construction. Five hotel buildings of differing shape: Casas Triangular, Redonda, Rectangular, Solaris and La Casona harbor 19 lofts open to climate yet retain privacy on thirteen acres. The lofts feature unglazed framed Caribbean views and outdoor showers that accentuate being at one with Nature. The buildings’ orientation enables reliable trade winds to flow across beds eliminating the need for air conditioning.
Solar panels generate lofts’ electricity for fans, lights and refrigerators. Rainwater is stored and heated by the Sun. Bathroom sinks and showers irrigate the gardens. The hotel’s two solar driven swimming pool’s produce no electrical cost. Silver and copper ions flow into the water requiring minimal chemicals and a refreshing swim.
Employing climate forces (Sun, breeze, rain) minimizes our costs for commercial water and electricity, costs that plague warm climate boutique hotels and are attractive to homeowners.
7. In many of your projects, you design concrete awnings above windows. How did you come up with that design and how are they fastened to the structure?
I wanted more protection from windblown rain in our own house La Casona. Initially I thought of using a roll out canvas awning which was more expensive than a 5’ concrete overhang. The concrete overhang has many obvious advantages over canvas in a sun drenched high wind environment. Now the largest overhangs are 7’. They are 9” deep at the wall and taper to 2.5” and are a reinforced concrete cantilever.