COMMENTARY: Building back differently

Tropical Storm Erika by Roger Burnett
Tropical Storm Erika by Roger Burnett

A Building Back Better Expo slated for later this year is expected to do “extraordinary things” in terms of recovering from tropical storm Erika. While we await that initiative, I would like to suggest how we can Build Back Differently.

My earlier DNO commentary Culture Made Visible covers many points that are relevant to this commentary. To avoid repetition I refer you back to that document: CLICK HERE

My suggestions for building back differently are nothing new. In essence, it is how your grandparents would have built back a hundred years ago. Granted, your grandparents would have had an easier task. For the most part they would have been dealing with the vicissitudes of nature and not with disasters compounded by the follies of man. They were also better placed to get up and get on with the job using the materials at hand. There would have expended more sweat but experienced less stress. Human nature is remarkably resilient: within every man, woman and child there is a basic need to begin building back as soon as the dust has settled. Not to sit around waiting.

In your grandparent’s day, very little time would have been spent attending meetings, but more time would have been spent on actually doing the job. For the most part, meetings are a colossal waste of time and hamper creative thinking. Practical solutions are more likely to be developed by a skilled man at the work bench rather than a collective at a meeting. Nowadays, the word workshop conjures up images of boring power-point presentations in hotel conference rooms rather than tools, benches and wood shavings. To build back differently, we need fewer consultants but more craftsmen.

The insight of Dominicans with a life-time’s experience on the ground is often more reliable than advice from overseas. The problems at Antrim – and by knock-on effect, the devastation at Check Hall – are the result of dismissing sound local knowledge in preference to the flawed advice of an overseas consultant.

Dominica has more natural building resources than any other place on earth. With the exception of steel and cement, we have to hand 90% of the materials needed to re-build. What we lack is the vision and skills to use these resources to their best advantage. The materials that we commonly disdain: native hardwoods, bamboo, stone and clay are the very materials sort after elsewhere for the homes of the affluent avant-garde.

Enlightened architects and planners avoid cutting into hillsides and felling trees. Many of the problems related to land instability can be traced back to forestry clearance and indiscriminate use of the back-hoe. Rivers resist being diverted from their natural course and in their lower reaches they demand space rather than restrictive training walls.

Building back differently may not necessarily mean total relocation. Families have tenacious roots set deep in the land. They were put down by generations past and, regardless of nature’s vicissitudes, they will remain for generations to come. In the aftermath of Tropical Storm Erika, some land will remain untenable into the distant future. However, other areas remain firm. An assessment has to be made to differentiate between the two. Relocating to a “nice piece of flat land” may not be the best solution.

In terms of infrastructure, a major objective should be to reduce vehicular mileage. Driving to work each day from one end of the island to the other makes no sense. Your grandparents lived within walking distance of their place of work. Nowadays, innovated use of Information and Communications Technology can enable many office tasks to be done from home.

The design of major civil engineering works should not be restricted to the drawing board. It is the application of practical knowledge that counts. Fifteen years ago I was asked to survey the second oldest cast iron bridge in the UK. It was designed and built 200 years ago by a local foundry. A single span of 92 feet crosses a river as vulnerable to flooding as the Roseau River. The bridge remains in good condition to this day.

In building back differently Dominica need not follow the lead of others in all things. Our grass is greener and the envy of the rest of the world. We must be wary of mowing it down to accommodate outside influences. In the 1970’s the British Virgin Islands adopted a logo that proudly proclaimed, Yes, We’re Different. Now is the time for Dominica to take up that mantle and run with it.

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  1. Not a herd follower
    April 12, 2016

    Some worthy points raised by Roger Burnett and Reader

  2. R.Linton
    April 11, 2016

    Well said Burnett.

  3. The Link
    April 11, 2016
  4. Bwa Bande
    April 11, 2016

    Some good hints here

  5. Reader
    April 11, 2016

    Mr Burnette, you are more than right. However, as a 25 year old Dominican artist, I’ve realised that our people have no eye for design. And by design you know what I mean. Not beautification but design- planning physical structures to effectively meet their purpose, withstand time, using the best material, while being aesthetically pleasing. Again, our lack of design is seen with the airport and many other infrastructural works in Dominica. Where are all the engineers and architects of Dominica? Why are they silent? Why haven’t we come to understand that Dominica needs to adopt a green policy? It seems like the people managing this product have no idea of what the product actually is. CNN reports a whole new industry in the bamboo trade which African countries are taking advatage of. Many are moving over to bamboo furniture, buildings, clothing and so much more. Maybe Dominica can get on that train. Maybe the owners of Rosalie Bay and Manicou River should be consulted.

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