Our Little Grass Shacks (You Doubt My Veracity?)

Our Little Grass Shacks (You Doubt My Veracity?)

by Vivian Williamson-Bryan 

I’ll be leaving soon and the thrill I’ll enjoy
is not the island moon or the fish and the poi 
but a little brown girl in a little grass skirt
in a little grass shack in Hawaii

Grass shacks – in Hawaii or the Virgin Islands – are all well and good (and not being the Suzy Homemaker type I think they have lots of good points, e.g., a certain laissez faire attitude towards cleaning is sort of expected) but tastes in domiciles have become more sophisticated since Arthur Godfrey clued America in to the joys of a simpler lifestyle. Television and magazines, and, of course, the miracle of air travel for the masses, have opened wide our isolated islander eyes to the conveniences and style enjoyed by the residents of other places. Our little clapboard houses (the successor to the little grass shack), once objects of lust and desire for those desiring to own the roof over their heads, have suffered the fate common to things supplanted by the new and improved versions – scorn, neglect, and finally, abandonment. (If you had the opportunity to see old photographs of Frenchtown with its conglomeration of tiny wooden houses covering the hillsides and then compared it to the present day’s soulless concrete structures you might wonder if progress is all that it’s cracked up to be. There really are ways to combine space, a strong structure and modern plumbing with a sense of panache. Truly.)

In an earlier article I explained the many reasons for the high cost of buying or building a house in these islands. Now, perhaps, you’d like to know just what that house might look like (we’re not talking Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous here – we’d all pick something a few brackets beyond our grasp if given the opportunity – this is real life we’re talking about today, not a trip to the wishing well).

Let’s look at the outside first. More than likely you’re looking at thick concrete walls (that thick concrete acts as a wonderful insulator besides being nearly impervious to the invasions of one of our local plagues – the tropical subterranean termite, a more tenacious creature than any other of its species. And, of course there is the “security blanket” factor mentioned in that earlier article), painted in anything from safe but boring shades of white (bone white is the huge seller here) to screaming tones of pepto pink, lime green, or cerulean blue. These colours might sound a bit over the top (and they would be in New England) but remember that the strong tropical sun is a great foil for their vibrancy. Add to the mix some contrasting trimwork in bright colours (purple, deep teal, red and emerald have all been spotted) and you’ve got a house that would stand out as belonging to an eccentric nutcase if its address was somewhere in the Midwest instead of somewhere in the Caribbean.

Topping this colorful confection (or concoction if the owner’s colour sense isn’t quite what it might be) is another chance to express one’s true self. Unlike the dreary greys and browns found under less sunny skies, our choices range from silver and dazzlingly bright white (these are the best for reflecting the intense sun of these latitudes) to bright blues (trendy right now) and the traditional red. The most popular shape is the hip or four-cornered roof with a steep pitch that often rises 6 ft or more between the eaves and the peak – an extremely efficient design for getting interior heat up and away (as I’m sure you’re noting, the quest for coolness is one of the major factors in house design here). As for the eaves themselves, basically there are two schools of thought – wide ones that provide shade and rain protection and contribute to a house’s general comfort (but are loved by hurricanes as something they can really sink their teeth into to rip off a roof), or almost no eaves (this was the safer choice of earlier generations) for just the opposite effect. I guess if you like the benefits, “you takes you chances!”

Before we trot off indoors – out of the sun – take a look around at the landscaping. Not many lush, green lawns to be seen in this part of the world! Our undependable rainfall puts paid to that idea. But, if you think about it, we’re not missing much. We trade in weekly stints with a lawnmower, nightly watering duties – with the accompanying guilt factor of all that precious water sinking into the ground – and all the other joys like reseeding, resodding, fertilizing and such that are incumbent with having that rather useless expanse of velvety green. Lie on it and you’ll stain your clothes. Picnic on it and you’ll have uninvited 6 legged guests. Walk on it too much and you’ll have unsightly bare spots. Only if you’re into cricket or croquet might you have an argument for one. Not that I’m advocating pouring concrete over everything – far from it. Pick a nice little ground cover or even some hardy semi-wildflowers – nice and green and no hassles. You’d be amazed at how easy it is to dispense with the “expected thing.” You might even start a trend in your neighbourhood.

An outdoor feature that you might be expecting but probably won’t find is a pool. Unlike Florida, Texas and the other hotter parts of the US, where pools dot the landscape like mushrooms after a rain, we don’t need those maintenance-heavy symbols of the good life. Why chlorinate and skim when we can be at some of the world’s best beaches in a matter of minutes?

One last thing that’s probably caught your eye. It was your understanding that we were looking at a typical residence – and typical here means one floor living. What’s that area on the lower level with a door and windows and stuff? Well, in 99% or so of instances it’s a rental apartment. Just the thing for taking the sting out of mortgage payments and, besides, what else would you suggest for that space in front of the cistern? (If you’re not clear about what a cistern is, again see that famous earlier article.) Picture it this way: as in any place with a steep terrain building styles compensate to bring the main living area to ground level. In some places open air basements are the answer. This is really the same thing. The rear of the house, built into the hillside, is the cistern part. The front of the “basement” is the rental apartment. Pretty clever solution, huh?

Ok. That’s it for outdoor reconnaissance. Time to go in and cool off.

Probably the first thing that will strike you about island houses is the relatively small size of the rooms. They are small (the average 3 bedroom, 2 bath house is only 1300 -1400 sq ft – awfully cozy by stateside standards). But in an ideal climate that enables most of one’s living to be done outdoors, why waste money and material on closed in spaces that are used only when necessary? Most islanders prefer to spend their at home waking hours outside on the deck or gallery. Normally this is where you’ll find the best view (almost always ocean of some sort), the best breeze, the best of everything. I know, I know, technically we’re back outside again but this is different – decks and galleries are considered as part of the living space – as much a room as a dining or living room (which functions they serve here).

The small interior space (actually it seems a whole lot bigger than measurements might indicate – those great high ceilings, you know) is really quite sufficient for our needs. We don’t need volumes of closet or drawer space since we have no bulky winter wardrobes to accommodate (not that we don’t have any winter wear – most islanders have a few things put aside for trips north – we can usually be spotted on the plane by our sadly dated cold weather attire, no doubt souvenirs of previous trips and since they never seem to wear out…). Nor do we need storage for out of season blankets and comforters. In comparison to other places, the tropical lifestyle is quite streamlined!

We also don’t need lots of floor space for cumbersome, overstuffed furniture. Island tastes run more to rattan, wicker and wrought iron – all visually light choices, well suited to the trepidation a tropical climate wreaks on furniture. Other contributors to the general feeling of spaciousness are the unbroken expanses of tiled floors (carpeting harbours things – something you don’t want to do in the tropics – besides chopping the space up into little areas and feeling hot), lots of windows (louvers have proved the most popular over the years – an obvious choice since they allow for the most air circulation) and sliding glass doors. (There is one little problem that occurs thanks to all this glass – try finding good spaces to hang pictures!)

On the more utilitarian side, ceiling fans are the cooling aid of choice (most natives are convinced that sleeping in air conditioning is conducive to ill health – though most would revolt at the thought of working in a business establishment without it). In many of the newer houses, even bathrooms are being designed to take advantage of cooling breezes – open air showers are enjoying quite a vogue (one of the advantages of our hilly, bushy terrain is privacy. I wouldn’t try it in suburbia. Besides, you just might freeze your buns off.) Another feature that is relatively new is the indoor laundry room – a task usually relegated to the outdoors in the past (much nicer place to work really).

See, I guess we’re not that exotic after all. We may be a tropical paradise, a little off the beaten track, but we live pretty much like the rest of the world in that we’ve adapted to our particular climatic conditions (note the A frames of the Rockies and the Alpine countries; the thick walled, heavily shuttered houses of Provence. They adapted, too). Comfort and convenience have become paramount – as they have everywhere. But the idea of the little grass shack is still there somewhere. And still kind of appealing.