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Architect About Town

Building methods Thai'd to coconuts

Architect About Town - Special to the Fort Myers News-Press

I have a “Coconut Theory.”

Coconuts? Isn’t this column supposed to be about architecture? Since I returned from Thailand this summer, however, I can’t stop thinking about coconuts.

There, the coconut is integrated into every part of life. The nut or more appropriately, the seed, is found raw, frozen, cooked, juiced, shredded, roasted, oiled, milked and dried. The sweet sap from the seedpod provides delicate palm sugar. The hearts, from the tender young shoots, are tasty vegetables, and the fat and oil of the coconut have proven medicinal benefits.

The shell of the seed is made into utensils and bowls, musical instruments and furniture. The husk is used as charcoal or to stuff mattresses, and like the fronds, can be used for thatching roofs. Parts of the tree are used to make mats, rope, lumber and other building materials.

Coconut oil as bio-fuel has already been found to be a cheap and eco-friendly replacement for diesel.

Every part of the coconut is precious. The coconut plays an important role in the environment, health, food security and livelihoods of the Thai people.

By why mention the coconut in an architectural column? 

My fixation on the coconut has led me to think about building in Southwest Florida in the recent past: the materials and the methods. A generation or two ago, our parents and grandparents arrived here, bringing with them their knowledge and experience of building from another place. Generally, they put up buildings just like back home.

OK, perhaps the style of the building wasn’t the same as back home. Here, it was possible to use barrel tile roofs and stucco, which reflected an ideal of living in a warm climate. Using lighter colors and furniture that resembled bamboo, it was possible to live the dream of a resort lifestyle, while ignoring the realities and opportunities of the climate. Construction methods and materials remained the same. 

If it worked there, it was sure to work here.

Or so it was believed. Time and experience have made it apparent that the construction approach brought from other places didn’t work in this humid and wet climate where the wind and rain can blow at 130 mph and the sun’s rays can melt the asphalt on a roof.

Construction practice is beginning to respond to this place. Codes ensure we strap our buildings together to minimize the damage caused by strong winds. 

And energy is becoming a critical factor. We insulate our buildings not to keep the cold out but to keep it in. But experience is teaching, as insulation increases, the ingress of heat is reduced, but so is the ability of a building to breathe, and dry out — imperative to preventing mold in a humid climate — and thereby increasing the dependency on mechanical systems, i.e. air conditioner units and de-humidifiers. New buildings must be airtight and gaps in existing buildings filled to maximize the efficiency of these mechanical systems. 

More energy-efficient buildings come at a price. Buildings here demand good materials and good workmanship. More than ever, with the increase in energy costs and a decrease in availability, it must become the norm.

Perhaps then, with costs rising and increasing fuel and transportation prices, locally available materials make sense. Now is the time to identify possibilities here and cultivate them.

Southwest Florida is searching to diversify the area’s economic base and reduce dependency on real estate and tourism. Investing in the research of local building materials makes sound economic and environmental sense.

Can a coconut be used to insulate a building? The Thai people have learned to use it in a cementitious board made from coconut coir, cement and water. High insulating properties make it an energy-conscious building component. What about bamboo and soybeans, which grow prolifically in Florida?

With time comes a greater understanding of place and how to live with the climate, just as time and local knowledge makes the most of a valuable local commodity in Thailand. With experience, we gain insight into the best methods to build.

The coconut is a reminder of the benefit of understanding local resources and living in harmony with the place we live.

Joyce Owens AIA RIBA