Still standing: the ti kais of Dominica

[Cover image credit ©Dora Papp]

Surviving Storms | CCC team members have been busy working to establish the ti kai collective a group of Dominican architects, vernacular heritage campaigners and architecture students who will undertake the first ever survey of Dominica’s distinctive ti kais (‘small houses’).

The collective is made up of Dr Adom Philogene Heron (CCC lead researcher), Olive M. Bell (practicing architect), members of SHAPE Dominik (heritage NGO), Jeanne Royer (a Dominican architecture student studying towards her bachelors in Havana, Cuba) and 4 student interns (studying architecture & engineering associate degrees at Dominica state college). The collective is also partnering with Polly Patullo of Papillote Press (a UK and Caribbean-based publishing house) to produce the first ever book on Dominica’s ti kais as the outcome of the survey.

The survey, entitled Still standing: the ti kais of Dominica, brings together photography, inhabitant oral histories and architectural drawing to document small vernacular dwellings that were designed with a deep sensitivity to local weather patterns, materials and disasters. 

ti kai Dominica

Indeed, Dominica’s 400-year ti kai history is a rich one. It weaves Amerindian knowledge of local hardwoods and weather (Taylor 1938), French design features and African dwelling practices (Honychurch 2020). As Olive M. Bell, the collective’s lead architect notes, ‘there’s an unspoken oneness’ between the ti kai and its natural environment. Ti kais were constructed using hardy, slow weathering local woods (e.g. bwa bande, bwa riviere and bwa sept ans) and oriented on an east to west axis with windows that welcomed the rising sun and cooling winds. Yet, when they switched to hurricane-mode their shutters could be closed and their small form could withstand heavy winds and rain. Indeed, Bell adds, the ti kai ‘works with the hurricane, it allows the hurricane to be’.

ti kai Dominica

And such deeply intuitive and resilient ti kai features include: 

  • a high-pitch hip, hip-gable or gable roof, enabling fast rain run-off and minimal hurricane-wind lifting
  • a shingled roof, and later a separate porch, limiting roof detachment in high winds
  • a sturdy dowel-joined structure (fusing with weathering to create a single, stronger form), as well as braced walls, a collared roof and a small rectangular footprint – which enable the structure to flex and hold together in hurricane winds or earthquakes. 
  • raised stone or wood pile foundations afford anchorage and reduce flood exposure 
  • and jalousie blinds and shutters mitigate window damage. 

Furthermore, ti kais boast intricate Antillean fretwork, colours that bring an everyday joy and yard-gardens – with fruit trees, ‘provisions’ (green banana, yams, plantains, dasheen etc.), seasonings and bush teas – that offer food security, spaces for conversation or serenity, as well as local remedies. 

Olive Bell, in conversation with Adom Philogene Heron and Polly Patullo, remembers growing up in a ti kai in Giraudel, a village that sits high on a mountain ridge in south west Dominica. Here she remembers life in the family’s rural lakou (‘the yard’) in which she lived with many siblings in her mother’s 2 room ti kai (internally divided between the sham, bedroom and la salle, living room). Also on the two-acre plot was her grandmother’s house and a small outside kitchen and latrine which they shared. It was a life outdoors, ‘a life of abundance’, Bell remembers; adding that this: ‘is where architecture was rooted for me, because it was a way of being. So, I cannot be at odds with nature’. 

It was here she endured hurricane David in 1979, feeling the storm’s great force as it passed throughout the day, causing widespread destruction to farms, buildings, forests and infrastructure. And yet their ti kais were virtually unscathed. They sheltered in her mother’s house, before the children ran further down in the yard to check on their granny, to ‘be with her’ throughout the remainder of the storm. Of Granny’s home she notes that, ‘the house felt like it shifted…but nothing happened to it’. And Bell even speculated as to whether the fact of Dominica’s ti kai’s being built with, rather than against nature causes the tempest – whom she refers to as ‘a certain kind of energy’– ‘to almost pass it sometimes’. To move around the ti kai and leave it unscathed. However you envision their survival one thing is for sure, Dominica’s ti kais were built with a deep respect for the power of the storm.   

On Thursday the 25th March 2021 Olive, Adom, Marica Honychurch (SHAPE President) and Jeanne visited Dominica State College to present the project to Architecture and Engineering students and invite their participation. The students were given a task to go out and find a ti kai, interview its inhabitant(s) about their experience of past storms, take some pictures of the structure and draw up some simple plans of the building. There was a lively discussion with inspired reflections from students and lecturers. And enthusiasm for the upcoming fieldwork stage is palpable amongst the collective as we set out to begin the island-wide survey across 8 communities.

2 thoughts on “Still standing: the ti kais of Dominica

  1. I loved reading this article. The Ti Kais, as found across the Caribbean, I was born and raised in, where I left for school, church, visit
    relatives and return to played a major part of my socialisation, morals and confidence building.
    Humble maybe, but beautiful.
    Thank you for the memories

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