By: Carole McMichael
Anyone acquainted with the expression "island time" knows there are places in the world where life and work have a whole different rhythm--one that most Americans never encounter. One such place is the island of St. John. The smallest of the U.S. Virgin Islands, two-thirds of the 28-square-mile island is a U.S. National Park. Surrounded by nature, the land is a prime location for those who want to build a dream home for enjoying island time.
Most of the homes on St. John are constructed of masonry or poured concrete because the island's residents have to worry about termite and salt damage, as well as hurricanes and earthquakes. Concrete is the only logical choice for these homeowners; however, the local builders' technique of forming houses with plywood instead of removable forms greatly lengthens the construction process.
When developer Rick Meyers decided to build a cast-in-place home on the island, he called on Rich Kubica, who had constructed more than 150 basements for Meyers's Michigan developments. Kubica, a foundation specialist for K-Wall Poured Walls Inc., designed and patented the E-Maxx Thermal Wall System. He's developed it further with EMI Construction Products, the company that manufactures and sells it.
"E-Maxx is an extremely fast and simple way to install insulation inside of removable form systems, such as Wall-Ties and Forms, Durand and Western Forms," says Kubica. "It uses rigid polystyrene foam that can be put on the inside or outside face of the wall--or both. It is so customizable that ICFs can't compete with me below grade because I can start and stop insulation where I want and pour the whole wall at once.
Kubica says that in Traverse City, Michigan, most consumers are hesitant to build their basements using ICFs because of the added cost of drywall and wiring in the basement.
"An alternative is putting E-Maxx on the outside of the walls," he says. "We run it from the top of the basement ceiling 4 feet down, then stick inexpensive foam up to where the E-Maxx stops. The area where the space would experience the most heat loss is insulated." This way, says Kubica, the owner can finish the basement at a later date when he can afford it. "The energy-conscious homeowner can spend $1,000 and get a nice warm basement, versus spending $6,000-plus having to drywall, wire and waste all the plastic studs on the outside of the forms," he says.
Taking on the island
For Kubica, the choice to accept the St. John project was an easy one. According to him, builders in Northern Michigan work hard eight months out of the year and then lose money for four months. Filling in those four months on St. John was a welcome solution. But, as it turned out, building a concrete home on St. John was to become an adventure in more ways than one.
St. John locals don't refer to houses by their street addresses, but rather by their own special names. Meyers's home is called Dancing Dolphin Villa. The 2,400-square-foot villa follows a traditional island design with a lot of arched windows and arched sliding glass doors. The interior and exterior walls are plastered; the concrete floors finished in tile. The two-story house has a walkout basement that opens onto a balcony and a first floor.
Homes on the island lack central heating systems because the lowest recorded temperature here is 68 degrees. For cooling, some residents use window air conditioners, but, since homes are built with open designs, most rely on the breeze. Some homes have shutters, but no windows. Residents and visitors can enjoy the beauty of the Caribbean waters from anywhere on the island--including shower enclosures and stairways, which are built outside of the homes.
The landscaping around Dancing Dolphin Villa is designed to blend with island flora, using palm trees, native bushes and flowers to frame the driveway, steps and decorative patios. The home also incorporates a large amount of native stone, and Kubica says the owners mounted unique objects, such as seashells and stones that look like geckos and starfish, into the walls. Huge cypress rafters are fixed into the poured walls, extending out to make an overhang. The rafters meet in a peak and hook onto a column bolted to the concrete floor. "No hurricane will take this roof off," says Kubica.
The adventure begins
Most custom homes have a particular feature that is the "design challenge," but for Dancing Dolphin, the main challenge was building on St. John.
Kubica says he and the two workers he brought from Traverse City thought that if setting up walls and pouring a basement usually takes a week at home, it would take a week and a half on St. John. To his surprise, "It took five weeks. There are two ready-mix plants on the island, but they have to get their cement from Cuba and their sand is shipped in from Florida. Everything you do here is a monumental undertaking. It is hard to get concrete, hard to get rebar and hard to get to the job site. If something breaks, it is hard to get it fixed. You have everyone working against you and they don't even know it."
When we order concrete, they say, 'We can get it to you in two weeks.' We smartened up and started ordering it two weeks in advance, but then we would go to the job site ready to pour and get a call that they had run out of cement yesterday--it would be another two weeks. It was a great lesson in patience.
Kubica's solution to delivery delays was to work on more than one project at once. "We expect to pour at a certain time, but if they cancel, we move to work on the other job. If we get blown off when we are ready to pour on the second [job], we go back to the first to strip the forms and set the second level. In spite of everything, we completed the villa at least 50 percent faster than anybody else could, using their methods, and ended up with a better foundation and better walls."
The Wall-Ties system
Kubica looked at a number of removable form systems and chose the Wall-Ties and Forms Housing System for the villa.
"I think they have the best, most user-friendly housing system," he says. "We pour the walls and ceiling in one monolithic pour. The advantage of using Wall-Ties on the St. John house is that it is time-consuming to get concrete delivered and other systems have to do a house in two pours--the walls and then the ceiling. Besides being faster, the monolithic pour makes it a much stronger home. When we are done, we have a concrete vault with doors and windows in it."
Because of the villa's many doors and windows, typical of the housing style on the island, Kubica needed a system that offered many small forms as opposed to the large forms that he uses on Traverse City projects. The Wall-Ties system also allows him to form openings rather than hang wooden bucks. This option gave an important advantage on the St. John project, partly because formed openings are so precise, but also because the job sites on the island are so tight and clustered, builders need to keep openings to walk through after walls are poured.
Work in progress
Kubica shipped cranes, forms, bracing and assorted construction vehicles to St. John. The work site rested on a very steep hill made up of rock and heavy, red dirt. At first, the cranes couldn't set baskets down in the 32-foot hole dug for the cistern and basement, so the workers were forced to dynamite steps into the side of the mountain and climb down to the site. When they could use the crane, they had to bolt the crane truck to an anchor so it wouldn't roll down the mountain.
The crew didn't bring all of the equipment they were going to need to the job site--they could bring only what they would use for that day, storing the rest at an off-site location. Otherwise, there was no room to move. When they were done with something, it would go back to the staging area. Kubica says that simply moving dirt posed a space challenge. When they dug a hole, they couldn't haul off the dirt, so that meant it inevitably ended up where someone else wanted to work.
"Because there are no wells on the island, they catch rainwater off the roof and let it flow through pipes into a concrete storage tank," says Kubica. "The first step was to pour this great big watertight tank, backfill around it, then pour the basement floor." Next, the builder poured basement walls and the ceiling (the floor for the main level) all at once. He then stripped the walls and moved the forms up to pour the first-floor walls. All floors and walls are heavily reinforced with steel rebar, which first was fabricated into a grid so that aluminum forms could be set over it.
To attach the ceiling forms, explains Kubica, he fixed an L-shaped ledger corner to the inside of the form and pinned aluminum panels to it overhead. Then he put in place special beams and jack posts to hold the form structure solid. "The forms don't need much bracing," he says. "We put a horizontal scaffold board across the top and some aluminum bracing about every 15 feet, just to keep it straight after the pour. The beauty of the forms is that they are straight up and down on their own and won't set up any other way. The braces, which fit in an unoccupied hole in the form, hold it plumb."
The concept of a concrete mix on St. John was another eye-opener for Kubica. "On the island," he says, "you get concrete. They break bags in the truck by hand. If you ask for 6,000 psi concrete, they say, 'What?' When we first started pouring, I requested a 6-inch slump. The ready-mix driver said, 'Do you want it hard or soft?' After building two homes here, we have learned to trust the concrete because they have been doing it forever."
"The islanders have also perfected a way to preserve concrete," he says. "Sometimes they have to get it from St. Thomas. They batch it there, put it on a barge, cross over to St. John and unload. It might take two hours to get to us, but it is still good. In eight hours, it is rock hard--harder than the concrete I get in Michigan. I have never had a problem with the concrete."
Since the Dancing Dolphin Villa project, Kubica has sent a member of his Traverse City team to run permanently an island company, Caribbean Custom Concrete, owned by Kubica, his wife Patty and Meyers.
For the first project, Kubica hired three local workers to work with the two men from his Traverse City crew. He says that five or six guys on a crew have always been enough for his projects--the small crew is also an indication of the ease of building with removable forms. "We only trained the crew for a day," he says. "They were so happy they didn't have to work with plywood. The more technical stuff--forming windows and doors, making the walls plumb and square--takes a lot of training, but just setting up the forms is inserting Pin A in a hole in Form B. Once we showed them the forms, they couldn't believe no one else on the island used them--they are so much faster."
Building on St. John continues to be a learning process for Kubica. "Their degree of quality and precision is way off from ours," he says. "We pour level, straight, square and plumb," he says, but island builders consider the poured wall "just rough framing." For them, walls can be off an inch here and there because they plaster over the wall and make it look straight. According to Kubica, plaster is the builders' finish-product. But now, "The plaster guys love the forms because we have made their job so much easier," he says.
In addition to the crew, Kubica has hired a lot of local help and uses many local suppliers. "If you work here," he says, "you need to support the local economy. The hard part is finding a local guy with enough technical expertise."
"We went to St. John with some spectacular ideas based on what we know from Michigan. Some of the stuff they do there is not necessary and there are better ways, but we didn't have a choice. We learned that the first year. Still, we did employ some of our own ideas, so we were able to succeed in some areas. In other areas, we dealt with it. If you can do two houses a year here, you are a superstar." And so Kubica will continue the adventure of building on St. John--no matter the setbacks, it still beats spending winter in Michigan.
For more information, visit k-wall.com.