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Bermuda's Architecture and Water Supply

White-washed roofs make this island's homes and other buildings unique

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By Keith Archibald Forbes (see About Us).

white-washed Bermuda roof

Bermuda Architecture rules and regulations require all buildings including private homes to have white-washed roofs to catch rain, as there is no central water supply. 

Also refer to the books 

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Architecture in Bermuda

Limestone quarryBermuda architecture today refers to the style, not the construction. It follows closely the style often referred to as British Colonial, found throughout the Caribbean (800 miles to the south) Then, much of the construction was local, including the limestone (instead of concrete block), all roof slates, and native cedar wood. Nowadays, all construction workers in Bermuda must by law be Bermudian, and the concrete block and some roof slate they use is made locally. But practically everything else - such as wood timbers and tools they use - is imported. Native cedar wood, which once supplied roof slates, structural supports and an impressive range of locally made heavy and light furniture,  is now both rare and expensive, heavily decimated during the blight of cedar trees that began circa 1948. 

Bermuda architecture began as English stone architecture of the mid 17th century, modified to suit local environmental or building conditions and is known as UK colonial architecture. It is basically the same kind used in the Bahamas and other Caribbean islands too. When the modification - use of Bermuda limestone - was the main ingredient, local homes large and small had some uniqueness. Now that Bermuda limestone is no longer used, much of the uniqueness has gone.  Nowadays, Bermuda homes and cottages not built of Bermuda limestone look pretty much the same as many homes in the Bahamas, Florida, Georgia, North and South Carolina and the stone buildings in the islands of the Caribbean 900 miles to the south of Bermuda.

Smaller, older, private dwelling homes are basically English cottages, built by the original settlers and adapted to the specific and unique conditions existing in Bermuda, such as the limestone shown below. Larger Bermuda homes, including many properties now hotels, are also mostly English in architecture too, more in the line of mansions instead of cottages, in some cases, instead of English, along the lines of Scottish manses. Local Legislation protects 800 historically important buildings built of Bermuda stone from 1619. There are many handsome examples of stately 17th and 18th century homes. Bermuda's historic homes follow closely the storeys and rooms of British Colonial. There are still quite a few of them still standing island-wide, not only in the Town of St George.  But there are very few, if any, listed farmhouses and farm buildings because Bermuda long ago gave up agriculture as a principal economic exportable crop. By UK and USA standards there are no period terraced houses in the Town or City of Hamilton. They must be white roofed and painted in pastel hues, with paint and sealer approved by the Chief Medical Officer of the Bermuda Government. But they have been perfected for local conditions by Bermudians. 

Once - but no longer - most buildings in Bermuda were made inside and out of native coral limestone sawn from the ground, from a quarry. As shown in photo. No other building material was available for over 350 years.  Some Bermuda homes feature stone for the house quarried on that same site, (for example, The property known as The Quarries on Pitt's Bay Road in Pembroke Parish). It was also used for internal walls because local cedar and palmetto roofs could not withstand mid Atlantic storms. The roofs were made of inch thick local shingle limestone slates and laid on over cedar beams. They were - and still are - in terraced layers to make rain water fall into a water tank built underground but as part of the house and its foundations. One of the most famous of local architects is Will Onions. In all his designs, he reflected the traditional spirit of the well-proportioned Bermuda home with external chimneys and buttresses, Flemish gables, low overhanging eaves, top-hung shutters, U-shaped courtyards and butteries, a large drawing room with fireplace and wooden floors, dining room with fireplace, a master bedroom with fireplace, additional bedrooms likewise, French doors from the master suite and the living room that opened onto a large porch with loads of character; and, whenever possible, furniture made from Bermuda cedar. Today, and since the 1950s, concrete block has largely replaced the limestone, which has become very scarce and also very expensive. But concrete block is not as porous as limestone. With concrete block, homes today are hotter in summer than the older type and need to be air conditioned (very expensively compared to North America and Europe) in ways never needed in the old days.

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Architects in Bermuda must be Bermudian or working for a Bermudian architectural firm, cannot operate independently if they are not Bermudian. They must  be registered under the Architects Registration Act 1969. All architects registered and practicing in Bermuda - over 100 in 2020 - must be members of the Institute of Bermuda Architects. There, they are listed both by individual name and by name of firm. 

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Bermuda Residential Building Code 2014

See https://planning.gov.bm/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Bermuda-Residential-Building-Code-2014.pdf 

Both a guide and specification document for contractors and home owners alike on all matters concerning traditional residential construction. Rigidly enforced, partially to ensure homes can withstand major storms. Individuals and entities wishing to bring new building products into Bermuda must first contact the Senior Building Inspector of the Department of Planning of the Bermuda Government to determine if the product meets local standards.  Recently, innovative construction alternatives have included faux roof slate - imported - to replace or repair Bermuda slate and steel frame dwellings and faux lumber (PVC) to replace or improve or with a better price than the local product.

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Before refrigeration and before ice was imported or manufactured, most local homes had a separate structure, a strange-looking building called a buttery, always detached from the house. This is an old British expression that meant a place for making or storing butter and milk, or storing butts of wine, but became a pantry or larder. The name continued in Bermuda for a minaret shaped structure that was used to store perishable and other food in hot weather. They were well-ventilated, with no no wood used except for doors and windows. They were reached by a long flight of stone and red-brick steps. Today, those properties still with a buttery - no longer a feature of a modern home - are often used as a studio apartment or beach house or bathroom or tool shed. Some butteries are very small, others are much larger.

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Cesspits for sewage 

There is no central sewage piping system in Bermuda for any domestic homes. All domestic properties not within the City of Hamilton (and thus not connected to the city's sewage system piped to Hungry Bay in Paget) must have their own deep dug-in and properly approved cesspits, as far away as possible from water tanks and not where there are water lenses. They must be built as an integral part of the dwelling house or condominium. Cesspits have to be cleaned out commercially by a private contractor every so often. It is not a Bermuda Government service for the real estate taxes paid. There are a huge number of private cesspits in Bermuda per square mile.  Occurrence of nitrates in ground water is only one component of sewage contamination. Detergents, pharmaceuticals, micro-organisms, etc. are also discharged into cesspits and boreholes. It will be necessary in Bermuda to find new ways to meet increasingly stringent and wide-ranging international wastewater standards.

Local solid limestone rock beneath all properties does not permit any central sewage piping systems in densely-populated tiny Bermuda (only 21 square miles or 58 square kilometers) such as are common abroad in many much larger countries.  

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All parts of the house depend on the reliability of this, especially bathrooms. When outages occur from gale force winds because only relatively few homes and streets have underground electricity, electric water pumps feeding water from water tanks do not work and consumers cannot access the water. Some homes have portable compressors. A serious disadvantage is if the property needs major electrical work. It could involve months of stress and strain in high humidity, most of the property being unusable in terms of electrical conveniences. All this is at a very high local cost compared to North America and Britain. Consumers are not allowed to fly in electrical contractors or electricians from other parts of the world who are not Bermudian.

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Book: Understanding the Bermuda Roof. Leading to its Effective Repair. Written and Illustrated by Sanders Frith-Brown for the Bermuda National Trust.

Recently, innovative construction alternatives have included faux roof slate - imported - to replace or repair Bermuda slate and known as Dura Slate (at duraslate.com). All wood supporting a roof is now imported. 

Roofs are whitewashed

  Bermuda roof slate, damaged in hurricane Bermuda white roofs

They are made from specially imported Bermuda roof slates, shown in photo at left. Not yearly as is often assumed, with no specific time fixed by law. It can be three to four years apart. It depends partly on air pollution, common in an island with 3,500 people per square mile and more autos per square mile than anywhere else in the world despite the restriction of one per household unit, plus the air pollution caused by the fact each dwelling  and commercial property has a cesspit, and mildew. Houses waiting 3-4 years can look dreadful and the water in tanks or cisterns below the house may be bad from not being limed by the whitewash, the purpose of the latter. Water is in tanks see below the houses. In Bermuda, the government does not provide a central water supply so the taxes Bermudians and other residents pay do not include any charge for water and waste water (unlike in USA, UK, Europe, etc). See Water and Water tanks, below.

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Sash windows

Most early Bermuda homes from the later 1600s had them and many still do. The prevalence of sash windows in Bermuda architecture is entirely because of Englishman Robert Hook (born 18 July, 1635, died 3 March 1703 in London) who invented them then. But Bermuda sash windows were unique in at least one major respect - their frames were made from Bermuda cedar, then in abundant supply, now scarce. Cedar sash windows can still be seen in some fine local houses.

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Wastewater disposal

See under Cesspits for sewage.

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Water, dangers if not inspected and treated, size and care of water tanks

All private dwelling units and apartment complexes must by law have their own water tanks to collect and store rainfall, mandated in size by local building and planning regulations. Without rivers or a rainy season, no fresh water lakes and no public water system for fresh water or waste water (sewage), Bermuda depends on the weather for water. Without regular rain, home owners and commercial properties will have problems. With a solid limestone rock base, piped in water is not feasible, except in certain commercial areas. The supply of drinkable and/or well water is not is not and never has been a Bermuda Government service for the real estate taxes paid. Homes can store about 14,000 gallons per bedroom completely independently of any other building. But with Bermuda Government import duty averaging 30 percent at wholesale and the resulting impact on retail prices of all building materials and plumbing fixtures, a major disadvantage is the huge extra cost of building water tanks that property owners in most other countries do not have to endure. 

Care must be taken by homeowners and landlords to regularly inspect water tanks at all homes and buildings and ensure they are certified as free from infection.  This is to prevent a specific strain of salmonella from getting into Bermuda’s drinking water system. It happens regularly and can make unsuspecting guests very sick. A research team has discovered that feral chickens and pigeons are the main carriers of salmonella mississippi. Although chickens cannot access rooftops, they can pass on the disease-causing bacterium to other animals, such as pigeons and lizards, at shared feeding grounds, which can lead to the contamination of water tanks and the spread of salmonella mississippi to humans. Some adult Bermudians who had lived here all their lives might have developed some immunity to bacteria in tank water but others are at risk, especially bottle-fed infants whose formula was made using untreated water, and those with compromised immune systems. 

It has been found from the testing of human stool samples that salmonella poisoning accounted for almost half of the gastroenteritis cases in Bermuda, with some 70 per cent of those salmonella cases involving salmonella mississippi. Gastroenteritis is a public health concern on the Island, with an annual incidence of one episode per person per year. Birds play a major part in the transmission of salmonella mississippi and the study bore that out.  With feral chickens, birds, frogs, rats, a high prevalence was found. Chickens pass it on to other birds that share feeding grounds because they all poop where they eat. The other birds that can fly will get on to rooftops and then rainfall washes that poop into the water tank and then people drink that water. If it’s not treated, people get sick from that water. The researchers also tested tap and tank water samples from 102 randomly chosen households, most of which were untreated. The samples were not tested for specific pathogens but for general “coliform bacteria” that would indicate the possible presence of harmful, disease-causing organisms in the water. Nearly all tap and tank samples — 88 and 89 per cent, respectively — contained coliforms. A questionnaire on use and treatment of rooftop-collected water from those households discovered that 65.7 per cent did nothing to treat their water. 

100 per cent of all Bermuda residential households use the water for cooking, 89 per cent for drinking and 100 per cent for cleaning dishes. Most Bermudian residential water is contaminated by bacterial faecal indicator species. Depending on the indicator, between 67 per cent and 90 per cent of tap samples surpassed government safe drinking water standards and few households treat their water. Drinking water is likely a source of gastroenteritis.  Householders should take simple steps to protect themselves and their families, including chlorinating tank water regularly, boiling water for a minimum of three to five minutes, or installing a UV treatment system. Brita and similar filters do not remove bacteria. The aim is not to scare anyone as drinking water is a healthy lifestyle choice, but to make people aware that untreated tank water could cause illness.

Common drinking water myths:

Bermuda's Public Health (Water Storage) Regulations require all tanks used for drinking water to be cleared of sludge and properly cleaned not less often than once in every six years. Those who breach the regulations and are convicted in Magistrates Court can be fined $168 for a first offence and $420 for a subsequent offence. The offender can also be fined $33.60 a day for each day an offence continues.  The Department of Health advises the public to disinfect tank water because bacteria and other micro organisms from the environment can contaminate the water in your tank. Your roof catchment not only collects water but also any dust, dirt, leaves and fecal matter from birds that wash into the tank as it rains. The advice is to either: bring water to a rolling boil for five minutes; chlorinate the tank regularly using half a cup of unscented bleach per 1,000 gallons of water; or install an ultraviolet light or distillation system. Fecal matter contains bacteria that causes diarrhoea so failing to disinfect the water can leave it unsafe to drink. In 1998, bosses at the Marriott Castle Harbour Hotel had to carry out an extensive cleaning programme on their main water tank after hundreds of guests became violently ill from drinking contaminated water caused by a leaking sewage pipe, leading to several lawsuits. A study of acute gastrointestinal illness (AGI) in Bermuda carried out between late 2011 and early 2012 found that it was a significant public health issue, with a yearly incidence rate of one episode per person per year. The survey of 861 people found that none believed drinking water to be the cause of their AGI. The predominant pathogens isolated through a laboratory survey of stool samples were salmonella (47.8 percent), campylobacter (23.9 percent) and norovirus (15 percent). According to the 2013 Environmental Statistics Compendium, gastroenteritis accounted for 11.10 percent or 658 cases of the environmentally-related diseases in Bermuda in 2012. To clean a tank, professionals drain the water and then use a pump to remove any trash, using a vacuum to suck up any remaining debris. Most tanks of a small to medium size cost about $400 to $650 to clean.  

Water filtration and purification: possible through several local firms. Bermuda’s water mostly found in water tanks is hard and not the cleanest. It contains a bunch of particles. It is very hard and untreated can damage a lot of equipment like coffee makers, dishwashers and restaurant equipment.

Water tanks and their size depending on number of bedrooms - the most common source of water for home and apartment buildings - are often found under bedrooms, living rooms or patios but are not allowed under bathrooms or kitchens. Bermuda relies on the combination of rainwater falling on roofs and piped to more than 21,000 water tanks and groundwater extracted from underground lenses  for more than 90 percent of its entire water supply. Rainwater by itself is nowhere near sufficient, at a volume of 1.4 million gallons overall yearly, to supply all of Bermuda's demands in one of the highest populations anywhere in the world per square mile. 

Building regulations require the minimum water tank or tanks size in water capacity to be dependent on number of bedrooms. A small 2-bedroom cottage will have a proportionately smaller water tank than a larger property. 

Some commercial and domestic properties have wells, to supplement the rainwater supply. There are over 3,000 such wells. All must be licensed by the Health Department of the Bermuda Government. They can be used only for flushing and washing purposes. It is illegal to drink water from these private wells because of the potential for contamination from many sources including nitrates from cesspits. Routine periodic tests are made to ensure standards are maintained to protect public health.

Rainwater can be used immediately but groundwater - large pockets of water under the ground - can take two years to go from rain to lenses. The largest lens is in Devonshire Parish - where there are three reservoirs at Prospect - and is about 10-12 feet thick, supplying about 750 million gallons. Other lenses are in St. George's Parish, Southampton Parish and Sandys Parish. The total capacity of all the water lenses is  several billion gallons. It sounds like a lot but it is not. The capacity of the system is limited by the amount of water that can be taken out of the ground to sustain the lenses. These limits restrict production of groundwater to a maximum of 1.1 million gallons a day. Just one place - King Edward VII Memorial Hospital - uses more than 25% of all Bermuda Government-produced water.

Brackish water, as groundwater is often called - is heavier than water that does not have salt in it so the pure water floats on top of the brackish water. Rain falling on the ground seeps through the soil and the limestone, to the water lens at sea level. The rain water collects under the central parishes in what is called the central lens and is held in the rock like water in a sponge. Until about 1992, most of the Government water going into public supply was untreated apart from chlorination. The World Health Organization standard for nitrates was then met. The water is pumped up from wells to the water purification plant in Devonshire. The first stage of water purification is called aeration, in which the water is sprayed or trickled through air. The oxygen in the air removes gases which cause unpleasant odors and tastes. The next stage is called sedimentation. Chemicals are added to the water and turn into tiny, sticky globs which cause or attract bacteria and other impurities to stick to them. The water is then pumped to cartridge filters to remove the larger particles. The next stage, electro dialysis, is based on the fact that when salt (sodium chloride) is dissolved in water, it breaks up into electrically charged particles called ions. Sodium ions carry a positive charge while chloride ions carry a negative charge.

The water is passed into a large chamber that holds compartments in which two types of membranes are alternately layered and separated by spacers. One type of membrane allows only positive ions to pass through, while the other allows only negative ions. One of the end compartments has a positive electrical pole (anode).  The other end compartment has a negative electrical pole (cathode). When an electric current is sent through the water, the negative ions are attracted to the positive electrical pole and the positive to the negative. The salt in every other layer is drawn off, leaving fresh water. This is then chlorinated before it is stored and distributed. The overall result, for Government-treated water bought by private homes to supplement what they are sometimes not able to get from rainwater alone, is of a high standard.

The quality of tank water depends largely on how well the property owner maintains the water system including the roof and tank.  The Department of Health of the Bermuda Government recommends, among other things, that he roof should be power-washed or wire-brushed when dirty, or no later than once every two years, to remove old paint and fungal growth. Then it should be washed with undiluted bleach before applying an approved roof paint; the tank should be cleaned at least every six years. But this means emptying it first, then refilling it. Some properties have not had their tanks emptied, cleaned and refilled for 20 or more years. The health of occupants is at risk. Also, there is a danger that tanks not emptied and cleaned periodically will develop a slow leak, which will render the landlord or tenant liable to buy water, possibly frequently; disinfecting the water using 2-4 ounces of bleach for every 1,000 gallons of water in  the tank. (Water in the tank is calculated by length times width of the tank times depth of water times 6.25 to get volume in gallons); and, if galvanized piping is used in an older property, as it will deteriorate and corrode internally due to the "soft" rainwater, it will need to be replaced.

In some respects, Bermuda has certain advantages by having water tanks for each house, but the disadvantages outweigh the advantages. One disadvantage is that rainwater that goes from the sky into a water tank is not purified like treated water. Another is that if the roof is dirty or pipes from the roof are rusted or corroded or leaking, this too affects the water. A third is that the supply of piped in water is not a Bermuda Government service for the real estate taxes paid.

Via a pressure tank, water is pumped to baths, shower stalls, toilets, hot water heaters, bathroom and kitchen taps and outdoor hose connections. Another problem that homeowners elsewhere do not have to endure is that when domestic buildings run short, private sector water trucks holding 800 Imperial gallons have to replenish domestic water tanks with water consumers buy from water truckers (about 45 in number in 2007) who in turn buy it from  one of the Bermuda Government reservoirs or Bermuda Government owned sea water distillation or reverse osmosis plants. The truckers obtain 25 percent of their water from private sources and holding tanks, and 75 percent from Government reverse osmosis and desalination plants, and the water lens, which has extraction limits imposed by the Environmental Authority. Government has constructed of a 500,000 gallons per day reverse osmosis plant that helps meet the Island's water needs well into the future. A $10 million Tynes Bay Seawater Reverse Osmosis (RO) Plant was completed in 2008.

The cost per load of fresh water for residential water tanks is paid by the homeowner or dweller. Some fresh water is trucked in from a seawater reverse osmosis plant. The price of a load of water is now over $100 per load, obtainable from private sector suppliers of water. At times of seasonal general or specific house water shortage, the Government urges the public to adopt the following conservation measures:

Some hotels and office buildings in or near the city of Hamilton get potable water from underground lenses piped to them, but through a private business and at additional cost. Sea water is first filtered through multimedia and polishing filters to remove the largest particles. Then it is pumped under very high pressure (800 to 900 pounds per square inch) through special modules comprising a series of membranes that allow only water molecules to pass through and not the dissolved salts. 99.5% of the salt is removed from the water which is then chlorinated to destroy any bacteria there may be in the water. The desalted, sanitized water is stored in reservoirs at high elevation.

Before it is bottled for distribution to consumers, the water undergoes further purification. Particles of calcium and magnesium are removed by adding minerals like potassium and sodium. This is to prevent scales or minerals from building up in the equipment when the water is distilled. Then the water passes through charcoal filters to remove the chlorine. It is distilled, heated to 210 to 217 degrees Fahrenheit, turns to steam, cools and condenses, leaving impurities behind. Then the fresh water is bottled for distribution.

Imported bottled water is very much in demand. But be aware bottled water contains no fluoride, and generally more adults suffer from a fluoride deficiency, which can lead to tooth decay. Instead, it is recommended you fill your glass with water purified by a Brita or PUR or similar water filtration system which will keep your water free from impurities commonly found in USA/UK/Europe, etc but not Bermuda piped-in tap water, but still allow you to reap the benefits of fluoride.

Bermuda’s fresh ground water resources, in the form of & lenses, remain the main source of water delivered by pipelines and trucks to supplement household rain water supplies. Water sold by licensed suppliers in Bermuda is for the most part treated by reverse osmosis – a filtration process which removes 99% or more of virtually all pollutants, ranging from pesticides, through nitrates to salt. As a further safeguard, ground water which has been treated at these facilities is subject to testing by the Health Department. Well water must not be used, or provided, for potable purposes unless it has been supplied from a source which has been licensed by the Health Department. Chemical and bacteriological analyses have shown that ground water continues to be of wholly adequate quality as a source of water to be treated for public supply. Persistent, heavy contamination of ground water is known to occur in only a few areas of limited extent, which are not developed by supply wells. The cause of this contamination has been historical leakage of petroleum fuels from pipelines and storage tanks at various facilities throughout Bermuda. Monitoring and remediation of these sites has been underway for several years.

The supply of water from any well - commercial or private - for drinking purposes is unlawful without treatment and a licence from the Health Department (Public Health Act 1949). Treatment of well water is necessary to ensure that contaminants are removed and drinking water standards are met. This law is a very important precaution, because any natural body of water is susceptible to contamination. Bermuda’s ground water, for example, is particularly vulnerable to contaminants that are present in waste water, which is discharged into cesspits at the majority of homes in Bermuda.

Nitrate is a ground water pollutant of concern, globally, and is attributable to waste water disposal and/or fertilization of agricultural land. It is potentially dangerous to infants, in whom it can cause a condition which interferes with the ability of blood to carry oxygen. The World Health Organization drinking water standard for nitrate, of 10 milligrams per liter, is exceeded in Bermuda’s ground water where there is the highest concentration of cesspits, in densely housed areas. This leaves no doubt that human activities impact on ground water quality in Bermuda; and that use, or provision, of untreated ground water for potable purposes poses an unacceptable health risk. 

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Authored, researched, compiled and website-managed by Keith A. Forbes.
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