COMMENTARY: Building codes with a difference

The picture shows work in progress on a tenon and stopped chamfer: a carpentry device that I doubt is mentioned in today’s building codes. Many of my tools bare my father’s and grandfather’s initials. They have been in daily use for over a hundred years.

Up until recent times building codes were not specified by government agencies but lodged in the minds of craftsmen. Experience handed down from father to son, enabled them to build resilient structures from the materials at hand. Skill was an essential component in establishing the longevity of our built heritage.

At this point in time Dominica could benefit from re-establishing these lost arts. Homes built from concrete and plastic are a poor substitute to homes built from our own resources. Stone, lime mortar, hardwood and bamboo are the most resilient materials known to man and these we have in abundance. Buildings constructed from these materials survived Hurricanes David and Maria and storms in earlier times.

The challenge in the short term is to provide temporary housing for those made homeless by Erica and Maria in materials that will not leave a permeant blot on the landscape. Rather than concrete and plastic from overseas we should be innovatively searching for ways to utilize the windfall of fallen trees that Maria has left behind. The end result need not be “third world”. An up-market housing development in the UK is utilizing imported wood from palm trees. In the States and elsewhere in the world fallen trees are also being utilised as a viable building material.

Our objective should be to avoid despoiling the island for future generations. Timber can revert back to the soil: concrete and plastic cannot. Housing development should conform to the contours of the land, rather than making the land conform to housing. Furthermore, if our homes and surroundings lack beauty our lives will be lacklustre. We can do without a Dominican version of Pete Seeger’s “Little Boxes”.

Dominica has all the resources to become the world’s foremost self-sufficient small island state. It will mean a major shift in our lifestyle: an acceptance of what Dominica is capable of sustaining. The change cannot be achieved by academic achievement but by putting into practice skills that demand hand and eye coordination. And the change cannot happen overnight. Skills are difficult enough to acquire, and they become all the more difficult to learn when there is no one left to teach.

I began my training at my grandfather’s workbench and went on to serve two apprenticeships. The master craftsmen that I worked under not only taught me my trade but they also instilled in me a love for the broad spectrum of the arts. Hence, a skilled workforce embodies many of the social benefits that we presently sadly lack.

At the same time we must embrace technology. The loss that I presently feel the most is computer and broadband. Yes, I’m limping along with a “tablet” and cell phone reception but it’s not the same. The internet is our most valuable learning resource. Before Maria, with on-line advice from experts worldwide, I was near to a breakthrough in processing banana stem fibre, both for paper making and for a thread more valuable than silk. Now the initiative is on hold until communication improves.

My vision for Dominica’s future depends on a combination of traditional skills and new technology. The two are not poles apart but compatible and for building codes with a difference we need to embrace both. The spacing of rafters alone will not solve the problem but understanding how earlier generations of craftsmen built with the resources at hand will go a long way to finding a solution.

And let me remind the skeptics, it was Albert Einstein who said: “If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it”.

For DNO followers of my on-line diary, the latest posting shows my studio and gallery restored after the onslaught of Hurricane Maria. It can be found at:


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  1. hmmm
    December 8, 2017

    is not just the codes . cause dca codes are already designed to protect against hurricanes . when you have housing coming and stop someone building an illegal house then the person calling there parl rep and then getting the decision overturned .thats what needs to be stopped in dominica. the amount of houses built in dominica without an approved plan is the root of the problem.and then getting a stop building order reversed by simply calling your parl rep ? how are building codes gonna help when there is literally no law or constitution holding the country together

  2. Dan
    December 6, 2017

    Yours is the most inspiring commentary I’ve seen here since Maria.
    Determine best practices for the different kinds of construction you’ve described, and codify them. Enforce the codes by making sure the people who are building houses know what they’re doing.

    ..and for Pete’s sake, don’t let the government build their version of a house for everyone.

  3. Roger Burnett
    December 6, 2017

    I look forward to meeting you when you are next in Dominica.

    • Roger Burnett
      December 6, 2017

      Sylvester, This was meant to be tagged to your post but the invitation also applies to anyone interested in creative ways of doing things.

      • sylvester Cadette
        December 6, 2017

        Thank you for Your kind invitation. I look forward to hear ore about your experiences on Sustainable living and environmentally friendly activities including renewable energy

  4. sylvester Cadette
    December 6, 2017

    Sir Your postings always inspire me to research and open up new trends of thought and new knowledge. Thank you for such great contribution. When next I a in Dominica I would like to visit your studios and have a chat. I work with the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) – the UN Specialized Agency for Information and Communication Technology (ICT). part of our mandate is addressing “ICTs, Environmental Sustainability and Climate Change”

    Again let me thank you for all the information and knowledge you share

  5. Paul Rossnof
    December 6, 2017

    I fully agree with you Sir.

  6. Steve Schaefer
    December 6, 2017

    I have a lifetime of experience owning and operating a s,all mobile sawmill. There are very inexpensive options that would facilitate the utilization of salvaged timber.
    Small scale, low technology simple to operate machines that can produce valuable hardwood lumber.
    I’d like to offer my help in persuing this idea if needed.

    • Roger Burnett
      December 6, 2017

      Steve, l hope your offer gets the attention it deserves.

      Taking the saw mill to the tree is the answer for Dominica’s terrain. Hundreds of years ago sawers would did their saw pit under a difficult to access felled tree and cut it into planks on site.

  7. derp
    December 6, 2017

    sad to say these words will go unheeded, all they see the fallen trees as fuel to burn and smoke up the area, the fallen trees could even be used as mulch by grinding them down which can be reintroduced into the topsoil, which serves as valuable nutrients for the soil….

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