Building In The Bahamas

1 / 10
The finished home is ample reward, but a lot of challenges were met before the story could be written.
2 / 10
We installed four sliding glass doors and 18 windows.
3 / 10
"Most people here build with cement block, and no one around want this kind of job."
4 / 10
"Nothing get built which no hurricane going to blow down."
5 / 10
The "back yard," a nice place to sit and savor the view.
6 / 10
When water and Charlie were both on site, the pace of construction sped to a crawl.
7 / 10
Map of the Bahamas.
8 / 10
Diagram of the floor plan for Gans Bahama home.
9 / 10
The rock shower bath, yet another adventure in contracting.
10 / 10
Diagram of the form detail for Gans Bahama home.

Tackling the task of building my own home on the island of
Eleuthera brought me face to face with any number of
unexpected challenges when building in the Bahamas . . . and rewards.

Building In The Bahamas

In July of 1978 I arrived on the Bahamas “out island” of
Eleuthera for a week’s vacation. For six days I played, and
on the seventh I bought land–so hard had I fallen for this
gorgeous place with its friendly people. A native said he
had a one-acre lot to sell and led me down a road to a
point where we faced a wall of “bush”: dense, semitropical,
wild, green growth. He laid his machete to it and cut a
path another 200 feet to the edge of a very high cliff.
It was the sort of spot where you could easily imagine no
man had ever stood before. Straight down below me lay the
Caribbean Sea, clear as tub water straight to the bottom.
There wasn’t another house in sight all up and down the
cliffs to the east and west. “Now under here,” he was
telling me, “there’s a cave that reaches back under the
cliff: I always thought if I built a house here, I’d blast
the rock out to where I could see water down there, and I’d
have a living room with a glass floor.”

Thus began an adventure of building in the Bahamas that has changed
my life and probably prepared me to handle any building
problem, delay, or frustration known to man as well as a
few known only to God and the Bahamas.

Stranger in Paradise

I returned in June of 1979 prepared to stay the summer, as
I’d left my job and wouldn’t be starting a new one until
the fall. I walked down the same road and stood once again
before a wall of bush, now fully grown back over the path.
Everything else was exactly as I’d remembered it.

First thing: how to clear the site. The only bulldozers and
grading equipment on Eleuthera were those owned and
operated by the government to build and maintain the single
road that ran the entire 110-mile length of the island.
Like the rest of the island, my property was composed of
solid limestone and flint lying under a thin but rich layer
of topsoil from which sprung the thick, constantly renewing
vegetation. Clearing this bush was no job for a city boy.

“You need to find a Haitian fellah,” Fat Pig told me. Fat
Pig was a gentleman who lived in the town down the road
from my homesite. He was neither fat nor porcine, but this
was the name by which everyone in town addressed him. His
response was always immediate recognition, without a trace
of wryness, humor, or indignation.

I found a Haitian fellah, but he spoke very, very little
English. I took him up to the property and offered him my
machete, newly purchased at the General Supplies Store some
25 miles south in Governor’s Harbor. The Haitian ran his
iron-skinned thumb along the edge of the blade, waved his
hand in refusal, turned, and walked away.

The next day, at what I considered the first light of dawn,
I walked from my rented house in town to the property to
begin, in the cool of the day, the job of clearing the bush
myself. I found the Haitian crouched at the edge of the lot
with a neat swath already cut down 180 degrees before him. His
long, curved, cutlass-style machete moved steadily in his
right hand, while large clumps of grass and brush flashed
briefly in his left before landing in heaps. He
acknowledged my presence with a slight lift of his
head, nothing more. I noticed his blade was shiny silver,
and it looked sharp as a Wilkinson. When I lifted my own to
inspect it more closely, I discovered new machetes were
sold with a blunt edge, and mine was still square as a
bastard file. In fact, I didn’t even own a bastard file
with which to sharpen it. In two days, working alone, he
cleared the entire acre of all but the few mature trees I
wanted to keep, and he heaped the brush–which had been
helpless before that blade–into neat piles, while singing
in Creole to no one in particular the whole time.

Commission Mission

A savvy Bahamian lady in town, connected by marriage to a
prominent family whose name was on almost every business
(including liquor, dry goods, grocery, gas, real estate,
and insurance), befriended me–as I am sure she did most
foreigners. She advised me that a set of building plans
would help speed approval of my dream house by the island’s
Planning and Zoning Commission. The commission was a
recently established institution whose principal function
was to make certain “nothing get built which no hurricane
going to blow down.” The other unstated function, she
didn’t mind telling me, was to determine which contractor
among the commission members would prefer to build the
home. Construction work by foreigners was not the usual
rule.

I wasn’t a builder at the time, but I had stage-managed a
good many off-Broadway plays in New York City, where I was
living. I placed a call to a set designer friend in the
city through the town operator down at the switchboard
(“hours of business nine until nine”) and asked him to draw
up a set of hurry-up floor plans and elevations from my
verbal description. Then I sent a sketch “air mail”
(carried by a returning tourist). When my city friend had
drawn the plans, my Bahamian friend would detail the
mandatory steel reinforcing and the hurricane clips and
steel-reinforced belt course around the top of what would
be 10 inch-thick rock and concrete walls. I abandoned the
see-through living room floor early on, but it would make a
brief, if chimerical, appearance later.

The plans arrived in 10 days, with a bill for total
“architect’s fees” of $200. Praise be to the theater
network! I submitted them (in triplicate) and commenced
construction of the first building of my life-an
outbuilding-pending approval of the plans for the “main
house.” This first structure was to be a small stone
cottage on which I’d learn and practice construction
methods–I called it my “mistake house.” I’d also live there
while working on the main house. The commission returned
the plans after five weeks’ study, covered with many
colorful stamps of approval and marked with cigar ash. I
asked the messenger, who happened to be the son of one of
the commission members, what had transpired in that
smoke-filled room. “Well sir,” he said, “I believe it
require some time to figure out first what it was you were
trying to build. Then, once they could see what it was, I
believe they said if you want to mix all that cement and
lift all that stone for those walls, you could go right
ahead and do just that. Most people here won’t build with
anything but cement block, and no one around want this kind
of job.” That was how I became a builder.

Once the land was cleared, I needed power and water at the
site. I enlisted Charles Pierre, the reliable Haitian and
my new friend, to dig a trench for water pipe from the main
road some 400 yards away. Charles borrowed a pickaxe–he
called it a “grabhold” but made it sound like
“grubhoe”–and set to work through the hard ground and rock
up the road. He finished in 2-1/2 days, in 95 degree Fahrenheit heat,
working alone . . . singing. A 6 inch-deep slit trench lay
there just straight and true as a line snapped along the
earth. The Commissioner of Waterworks in Governor’s Harbor
then took two weeks to approve my permit application to tie
into the main island road’s 6 inch waterline. In the meantime,
a fellow named Screed from town delivered two 50-gallon
drums of water daily in his pickup truck. When the crew
finally made it out to connect the saddle, tee, and shutoff
valve for my pipe, they left without installing a water
meter, since none was in stock. And, in spite of the
commissioner’s awareness of this omission, I have enjoyed
unmetered water ever since.

Getting water to the site was easy compared to getting
electricity. You can’t get what there isn’t any of, and
there simply was no electricity nearby. The town had only
been electrified in 1965, and the power lines hadn’t made
it out my way. The winds were steady but not strong enough
to power a windplant. Solar technology was still too
expensive, and I had no stream for hydropower. Then I met a
pilot who flew frequently to mainland Florida. We settled
on a special charter flight: He removed the seats in his
plane and replaced them with a cement mixer, generator,
wheelbarrow, and other tools needed to start serious
construction–including my very own grabhold!

Hurry Up … and Wait

Progress is ill defined on this island. A good practical
definition might be, “As much as all unexpected natural and
human conditions and events allow you to get done. That
which bears no relation to your expectations or plans.”
While it seemed a great deal was going on during the first
half of the summer, the signs of progress were slim: a
cleared lot, a quarter-mile water pipe with a faucet
sticking up out of the ground, a footing dug for the
“mistake house,” and a crew of mason, carpenter, and helper
picked out from town.

The day the plane arrived with all the construction gear,
the island ran out of gasoline. None was expected for 10
days, when the boat was to arrive. So I settled the duty
bill of some 35% value added tax with the customs agency
and prepared to get along without electricity that much
longer. My framing and form–building lumber was also on a
boat–one that had been due weeks before from the mainland.
I wondered if the wood was on the same boat as the
gasoline, but was informed this was a foolish speculation.
Lumber and gasoline, “for safety reasons,” would not be on
the same boat. Two boats, for sure.

Inexplicably full of optimism, I arranged the next week for
delivery of several loads of rain-washed sea sand and a few
more of a substance called “quarry.” This mixture of
limestone rubble, rock, and sand, which comes out of the
ground naturally premixed, was an ingredient in all the
concrete prepared on site. Sensing the imminent arrival of
construction materials, I finally asked Screed, the truck
driver, if he could also bring me a pallet of 100-pound
bags of cement (42 bags, $8 each). “No problem,” he said.
“Just as soon as they reach. Supposed to be on the next
boat.”

The lumber landed first, so I started assembling the forms
for the rock and concrete with hand power. The house would
be built with wooden forms of varying length, 24 inches high,
placed parallel and 10 inches apart. After getting them plumb and
level, and positioning reinforcing steel and wooden door
and window frames, we’d place smooth facing stone flat
against the inside of the front form and pour concrete in
back of the stone to make the bulk of the wall. For the
next layer, we’d place a new set of forms atop the first
round.

Under normal, even remote, circumstances in the United
States, this would have been a very efficient, practical,
and rapid method of house building. In Eleuthera, however,
I wasn’t getting too far too fast. I kept reassuring myself
that the experience, and not the schedule, was important.
At some point, time had to come back to my side.

During that very hot summer, the cement mixer arrived with
no instructions for assembly; the generator came without a
muffler, which made communication impossible whenever it
was running; the town pump ran out of gasoline seven times
(but I wisely purchased a can and habitually hoarded 2-1/2
gallons); it rained so much the main waterline pump house
at the foot of the hill just north of town flooded four
times and the pumps short-circuited, thus cutting off water
for two to four days at a time; the warehouse 25 miles away
in Governor’s Harbor ran out of cement almost as many times
as I made trips to buy it (no telephone at the warehouse);
and when cement was in supply, progress was limited by the
diminishing capacity of Screed’s wearing-out pickup truck
to deliver barely half a pallet to the construction site.

When I was temporarily out of something–be it sand,
cement, water, or power–there remained only one job that
could keep alive that familiar, civilized feeling of
progress: gathering stones. I pried, pulled, and piled up
enough stones from my property, the road, the bush, the
marshes, and the surrounding banana and pineapple fields to
build the mistake house and the main house.

The Chimerical Floor

Since there are no sewers on Eleuthera, it’s the owner’s
responsibility to dig his own cesspit and cover it with a
slab of concrete. I had to find a way to carve one out of
the solid rock of my bluff: Dynamite was recommended. I
received instructions on obtaining the highly illegal stuff
and arranged clandestine meetings with a gentleman easily
mistaken for a pirate. We exchanged a few dollars for
dynamite sticks, caps, and wire. And whenever I was ready,
he said, he’d lend me his car battery for detonation. I’d
never handled dynamite before, and the thought of all that
explosive power beneath the shirts in my dresser drawer
kept me awake a few nights.

Charlie was identified as the best man to drill the holes
for the charges. They were to be 3 foot deep, drilled through
solid rock with a 7 foot-long, very heavy iron spike.
(No air compressors here.) It looked like Goliath’s
javelin.

Charlie’s technique was humbling to watch. He dribbled a
little water on the spot where he wanted to start the hole,
and then added a few more drops as it deepened slowly into
the rock. My Haitian friend stood above that small hole all
day long, day after day, raising that iron spike and letting it fall straight down
through his hands–a human pile driver. I ached for him but
knew it was the only way to get the job done. I had to
remind myself often that Charlie was earning more each day
than he could have earned in a week in his
impoverished native land.

A Bahamian named Ghost Willie, from another village, heard
of this endeavor and rolled up one day in a whirl of dust
and a beat-up 60s station wagon, air hissing out of a leak
in one tire. Willie was quite drunk on rum and full of
excited offers to “blow the pit” for me. He had a car
battery, all right, and suggested we tie my 10 sticks to
one blasting wire and set it off all at once. I quickly
painted a mental picture of a cesspit as wide as the open
sea and a glass-floored living room, after all, created in
one step. Fish could swim straight through the kitchen. Of
course, there would be no cliff, so my view of the sea
would be at eye level. I steered the weaving and brave
Ghost Willie back to his car, fixed his flat, and sent him
back up the road with many thanks. That night I hid the
dynamite out in the bush.

Acceptance

On my early morning walks from the rented house in town out
to the building site, I received much encouragement from
townspeople along the route and from farmers starting out
on foot to their fields far from their homes. It seemed
there was new respect for the young white fellah who was
building a different kind of house all out of native stone
and who had stayed here all summer to do it.

The walls of the mistake house did rise quickly . . . once
everything was at hand. As the forms climbed higher, I
sought more help–both human and divine–to keep on lifting
and placing the facing stones, buckets of concrete, and
filler rock. Charlie and I broke out “Eleuthera champagne”
(Beck’s beer) when we’d smoothed off the reinforced “belt
course” at the top of the walls around the perimeter of the
small house. No more cement mixing! Two days later, the
generator overheated and threw its piston right out of the
cast-iron engine block, forcing my return to hand power to
build the roof. I finally understood why these were called
the out islands: We were always out of something. As we
shared our “champagne” and toasted our real progress, I
hoped I would never be out of Charlie.

My last week on Eleuthera was almost unbearably hot. The
earth, the air, the breeze, and the seawater were all too
warm to offer any relief from the heat that rolled sweat
off of you while you simply stood still. The daily, cooling
afternoon rains had inexplicably stopped, and moisture
built up steadily in the air. Nobody was working outside,
but I still had to install the door and two windows, and
shingle the roof of the mistake house.

Over beers one night at the Old Man’s Bar in town, the talk
turned naturally to the heat wave. Some Bahamian
friends–Mr. Cool, Boy Lee, The Professor, and Fox–all
cautioned me not to shingle that roof–small as it was–until
the tongue-and-groove sheathing was “wetted” by a good
rain. Otherwise, bad luck. I agreed the V joints would
probably swell and tighten to a sound fit with a little
moisture. But time was running out on me, and I doubted
roofing contractors on the mainland hoped for rain before
shingling. Charlie agreed it would be better to wait, but
he also offered a ritual Haitian inducement to rain: “Slit
the throat of a young rooster at the peak of the roof. Rain
come before the next new moon.”

I gave Charlie’s advice deep consideration. Arising early
the next morning, I affixed a nozzle to the garden hose,
aimed it high over the roof, and got the boards good and
wet. Shingles went on the next day.

And Then . . .

Every year for the next four years, I returned to Eleuthera
during the sensibly cool month of January to work on the
main house. I’d spend four weeks of refreshingly calm
isolation living in the cool little mistake house, which
served as equipment storeroom in my absence. With a crew of
seldom more than two or three, we dug the footing trenches
by hand; mixed all the concrete for the walls; placed all
the stones; sawed, bent, and placed the reinforcing steel;
and made the 4 by 8 window and door frames by hand (using
lap joints, dowels, and glue).

It wasn’t until January 1985 that money, time, and manpower
permitted us to roof the 2,000-square-foot main house,
including its second-story loft and guest bedroom. Six days
a week for four weeks, six of us put up the partial second
story, built in the floor joists for the decks and
balconies, and raised and shingled the roof. This time the
rain came all on its own.

During this seven-year adventure, I don’t know if I’ve
learned much from particular mistakes, or just learned to
adapt to a whole new set of scaled-down expectations
enforced by nature, the calm and peaceful Bahamians, and
this peculiar island latitude. But I do know that I am
decidedly different than I was when I started. I listen,
think, and mentally complete a project now before I pick up
the first tool.

For the first six months of 1986, my wife, our 18-month-old
son, and I went down to Eleuthera and, with a crew of now
close Bahamian friends, finished the interior of the main
house. We installed four sliding glass doors and 18
windows, built 30 feet of birch kitchen cabinets, and
continued the cool and native feel inside with much
hand-placed stone, white plaster walls, and whitewash on
louvered doors, open-beamed ceilings, and 8 inch tongue-and-groove pine paneling.

Over the years, two more small gasoline generators
succumbed to exhaustion, and we finally built a generator
house on the garden side for a four-kilowatt LPG
twin-cylinder beauty with a heavy-duty muffler and remote
electric start. The on/off button is next to my nightstand.
Then in March 1986, the utility poles finally marched to
within a quarter mile of us, and we ran the 220-volt lines
ourselves, pulling the wires through the 1-1/2 inch PVC pipe
all the way up the hillside to that “close” pole. I think
it was the most tiring job of all. Perhaps it was also
difficult, even when offered the wonderful convenience of
“town power,” to let go of that hard but still delicious
remoteness so rare in this world.

Difficult, but not impossible. As soon as we were hooked
up, we ordered the biggest refrigerator in the Sears
catalog–complete with ice maker. These days we keep
Eleuthera champagne cold and ready for the drop-in guest–a
welcome feature of life without telephones. Every visitor
from town now agrees that thick stone-and-concrete walls
make for a nice, cool house on a hot day. The ocean breezes
help too.

Of course, the main house wasn’t completed without a few
more mistakes–and controversial design features–but I have
become experienced enough over the years to know how to
cover them up or even highlight them. They’re architectural
touches now, and make visitors real envious.

Take the stone shower in the master bathroom. It took a
while to find stones smooth enough to face the walls . . .
and a while more to convince Dr. Black, the mason, that a
stone shower was at all practical. Finally he relented:
“You just bring the stones. I’ll make it look good.”

As he was pointing up the last few crevices in his very
fine job–certainly the first stone shower he’d ever
built–Charlie ambled to quietly, as is his way, and watched
intently for some time. He seemed transfixed by the
glistening chrome and black shower valve nestled quite
professionally in the mortar and stone. I came up and
proudly asked him how he liked it. Charlie had learned some
English over the years, and he nodded slowly, indicating
the valve handle. “That for satellite dish?” he asked.

Editor’s Note: Jonathan and Luralyn Gans now rent their
guest bedroom and the mistake house as a bed and breakfast.
You can inquire about accommodations by writing to them at Gregorytown, Eleuthera, Bahamas.

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