The residents of St. Kitts are diverse – many coming from Europe, the Middle East, the US and Russia. St. Kitts and Nevis offer a citizenship by investment plan that allows dual citizenship with land/property purchase. My first experience building on St. Kitts was with an unforgettable Russian family. The homeowner spoke NO ENGLISH. She was potentially buying and developing land and wanted to meet with me.
In our meeting, through an interpreter, she politely asked about our services, fees and timeline. She then wanted to see a floor plan of the proposed house … huh? Yup, no program, no warning – can you work on a schematic overnight and present something at lunch tomorrow? Russell Fortenberry, Bennett Hofford’s senior project manager, had accompanied me to the meeting to discuss the construction end of things. He chuckled as I struggled to find the words to explain how unusual her request was at the time. But I agreed to try … saying no is a big issue for me.
So, back to the hotel room I went to cobble something together on trace paper with the scale, ad markers and Pentel pens I brought in my drafting “triage” kit. At lunch the next day, I presented a loose floor plan based on a cursory understanding of my potential client’s wish list. To my relief, she really liked it and she asked, in Russian, “what does it look like? Can you show me something tomorrow at lunch?” Uh – ok. (There’s that inability to say no again.) Back to the hotel room and back to work. The next day, I came to lunch with a colored schematic elevation of the villa, with palm trees, monkeys (which are everywhere on the island), and the hope that this was to her liking … it was. We negotiated a reasonable fee for architectural services and agreed to begin immediately. 42 months later, the villa was completed. 42 months… The cultural difference, negotiation tactics, decision-making process and strategies are very, very different in Russia compared to the US. Combined with language barriers, living in different parts of the world, and the ‘island time’ Caribbean work pace, one can imagine the significant hurdles in front of us.
The construction methodology is different in the Caribbean: mostly reinforced concrete and concrete block with wood roof structures. Some projects are built on reinforced slabs, some on pilings if located on unstable soil or near the water. The tropical storms and hurricanes in this part of the world are no joke, and our houses have to withstand category 5 storms.
This project took us to St. Petersburg and Moscow for meetings, where we learned more about our cultural differences. Our client learned some English and I some Russian. The learning curve was considerable, but the end result is incredible. The client even brought in her own team of Russian masons to fabricate and install the voluminous and intricate stonework inside and out – these masons have stayed on St. Kitts and are now working on our other projects. What was learned throughout this process would prove invaluable for upcoming projects.
It’s been almost seven years now, and we are now a preferred architect in Christophe Harbour, having completed a number of villas on St. Kitts and Nevis (one carved into a mountainside), with two more currently under construction. I travel to the island every 4 – 6 weeks and have found a groove with Bennett Hofford Caribbean Construction and my good friend Russell Fortenberry, arguably one of the best builders I’ve ever worked with.
We all continue to learn newer, better ways to serve the client, adapt to different cultures and local methods, adjust to the ever-changing climatic conditions, which severely tests our quality of construction. The challenges are different than the east coast of the US, but similar in our mission to provide the best architecture and construction for our clients. My partner, Dick Morehouse, once said “every job is practice for the next” … indeed.