Cindy O’Hara studied architecture in Canada, France and Spain and has almost 20 years of experience in the Cayman construction industry. She embraced green building practices very early on in her career as she fundamentally believes in sustainable architecture.
In an age of increased environmental awareness ‘it’s not easy being green’ is a refrain that is heard all too often. It is easy, however, if the sustainability is built in from the beginning.
Cayman Enterprise City, the special economic zone that aims to create the third pillar of the local economy, is a huge undertaking. On completion of the first three phases, the built area will cover some 500,000 square feet of leasable space. However, at the heart of this major construction project lies a commitment to sustainability.
Cindy O’Hara, managing director of Design Cayman, and the Caymanian partner in Cayman Enterprise City has always strived to incorporate environmental sensitivity into her architecture. As she moves into her new role as Director of Design and Development for Cayman Enterprise City, she will continue to follow that principle.
By designing the planned special economic zone with sustainability in mind, it will be possible to create something that will not only utilize local resources (human and natural), thus boosting the local economy, but also a place that through various design elements will have reduced energy costs in the long term.
Ms O’Hara explained that the project has to appeal to an international clientele, but she also wants it to have its own Caymanian identity. “We have to be both globally distinctive but at the same time it’s important to ensure that while people are in this space they feel they are in the Caribbean,” she said. Although she does not plan to use iconic Caymanian designs, elements of local heritage – cut-stone, indigenous plants, hardwoods – will be incorporated into the overall design.
Rather than outsourcing a project of this size to a massive US-based firm, Ms O’Hara is keeping it local as much as possible. She has already begun to reach out to other Caymanian consultants and construction firms to join in with the project. She hopes this will be a truly collaborative effort of local architects, construction firms and professionals involved in every aspect of design and development. While styles will inevitably vary throughout the development, the palette of materials will be the same throughout, creating an element of consistency that will tie the whole project together.
Ms O’Hara’s vision is one of much more than office buildings: she wants to create a community – one that will be filled with communal outdoor spaces, waterways and roof gardens – a place that people enjoy spending time in. Plans will be worked around existing trees and indigenous flora will be added to the landscaping.
The development, which will be built in a roughly circular shape around a central water feature, will aim to optimize air flow, incorporate indigenous plants and create shady piazzas and public areas. Large canopies and verandas will blur boundaries between inside and out and green walls planted with ferns will insulate buildings and blend the natural with the man made. “Almost every inch of this place is an opportunity to work outside. Our inside-outside attitude to this has been a driving force of the project,” said Ms O’Hara.
By creating many small, narrow buildings, Ms O’Hara explained, natural light can penetrate the whole building, reducing the reliance on artificial lights. By placing buildings close together they also shade one another, which has a cooling effect. The smaller size of the planned buildings also means Caymanian construction firms will be able to complete them and they will be faster to build.
The development is being planned with LEED (Leaders in Energy and Environmental Design) certification in mind. Ms O’Hara was the lead architect on the recently completed Government Administration building – the first building in the Cayman Islands slated to receive this certification – and she hopes that Cayman Enterprise City might also one day receive this rating.
LEED certification is a time-consuming process requiring assessments by external consultants, so although Ms O’Hara is not working towards certification at the present time, she has incorporated the principles into her designs. “It is far easier to do it at the outset than to adapt a building later on,” she said.
The development will not be completely off the grid because, she says, the current cost of solar PV (photovoltaic) technology currently outweighs the cost of energy. However, they have committed to powering the exterior elements (LED lights and water pumps) with renewable energy and rain water will be harvested and stored in cisterns.
Striking the right balance between what is good for the environment and what works within the budget is the challenge in building sustainably. Often the most economical product is the one that is worst for the environment, but the one that is good for the environment is the most costly: finding the compromise is the trick. “People think that being green or sustainable is some mystery, but it just means being practical,” explains Ms O’Hara. “Meeting a budget is just as important as being sustainable.” Although it sounds complex, she says, at the end of the day it is as simple as choosing to do something, rather than choosing to do nothing, to reduce one’s impact on the natural environment.