Raise the Roof

Thatch2

Yesterday evening, I watched a truck filled to the brim with groundsmen and bundles of bright greenery drive past the main plaza of Chan Chich Lodge. I thought nothing of it until I spoke with Crist this morning. Little did I know, this truckload of fan-shaped leaves was a major component of the contextual design and functionality of the property, and therefore, a huge element of my internship in sustainable hospitality development.

Today was a roof repair day.

The roofs of the cottages on site are constructed using a traditional Mayan style of layering young bay leaves on top of each other, starting around the perimeter and working in and up to create four slabs. Over time, the sun dries the plants to a sandy brown color and hardens them into a durable barrier. An entire roof is never redone at once. Instead, only weak spots are repaired. What is needed is cut down from the surrounding forest, and the old leaves are decomposed and recycled back into the earth: the epitome of closed loop system sustainability.

This practice dates back to ancient Mayan civilization. The men would go into the forest and cut down young, green bay leaves— but only a week and a half before or after a full moon. Why?

According to Migde, an always-cheery server and bartender at Chan Chich, a small bug vacates the plant during these periods, making the leaves stronger and longer lasting. Cut the leaves down at the proper time, and a roof could last anywhere from 6 – 12 years; cut the leaves down at the wrong time- when the bug is still in the plant- and a roof could last only months. Specifically, portions of the roof in the shade will last 6 – 8 years, because the combination of shade and humidity deteriorate the leaves faster. Parts of the roof in the sun can last up to 12 years.

Chan Chich practices this Mayan tradition on most of the guestrooms today. Each cottage has about 12 -15 layers of bay leaves to protect our birder and nature enthusiast guests from the elements. The thatch roofing was one of the attributes that drew me (and I’m sure several of the guests) to the property, and I look forward to incorporating this technique into my summer projects.

Back at school, I learned about sustainable building and facilities design, including types of roofing systems, passive building processes to reduce resource use, and even credit allocations for LEED Certifications. The cottages and structures here, however, bring a whole new meaning to the term sustainable! It will be interesting to challenge my Western-based building knowledge with the practices native to this region.

In some ways, not having to think about the implications HVAC and other modern systems will have on a structure could make building designs simpler. However, in its own way, the commitment to the distinctive local traditions carries a heavier load.

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