BVI Building 101
How to avoid breaking the law before breaking ground
If you’re thinking of building a home here in the British Virgin Islands, you’ll need to know about the various legal and regulatory requirements you are required to satisfy. These requirements aim to control development, for the good of the environment, the safety of the building occupants, and the long-term success and sustainability of your investment in property.
Properties like this one in Virgin Gorda are faced with a long list of building regulations. Photo courtesy of OBM International.
The regulatory paper trail, for a non-Belonger, starts with the Land Holding Licence, which contains a short but very crucial description of the physical makeup of the buildings: the number of bedrooms and bathrooms, any swimming pool or guest house, and a simple summary of the building materials. The drafting of the licence may be the first official step on the ladder to owning property in the BVI, and as such, it will probably be written quite some time before any design work is done. But it’s very important to ensure that the description is an accurate summary of what you intend to build, as no deviation from this will be allowed when applying for Town and Country Planning approval.
When the design gets underway, the architect needs to ensure that the requirements of the Town and Country Planning Department Land Development Control Guidelines are met. These guidelines govern most general aspects of the design, including the density per acre, the minimum setbacks from the property boundaries, the parking and roadways, building heights, and water and sewerage provisions. If the property is on or near the coastline, an Environmental Screening Form will need to be completed and submitted to the Planning Department for them to determine whether or not an Environmental Impact Assessment will be required. The screening form looks at social and economic as well as environmental issues in some detail, to flag any potential hazards or problems and to determine the terms of reference and scope of the Environmental Impact Assessment, if required. Typically, this will only be needed in the very largest residential, commercial or resort schemes situated in the coastal zone.
In larger subdivisions or residential estates, there will often be a set of fairly extensive covenants assigned to the title of the land, setting out the requirements to be met by lot owners, which aim to enhance and protect the value and desirability of the overall development. These covenants are usually a welcome addition to the standard legislation, giving an extra level of assurance to homeowners that their neighbours will be building attractively and harmoniously. As well as dictating general requirements such as noise and waste control, the covenants are likely to cover most areas of the design and construction, from fences, driveways and landscaping, to drainage, building materials, heights and colours. Often, buildings will be required to be further from the property boundary than stipulated by the Town and Country Planning Department; setbacks of 20 and even 40 feet may be called for, to ensure that buildings retain a good distance from each other, to increase privacy and avoid overlooking and overcrowding.
The building needs to be designed and built to meet the requirements of the BVI Building Regulations. Once the detailed design and construction documentation is underway, the architect will work with a structural engineer, to ensure that the best practices are followed in designing for hurricane and seismic activity. The structural engineer will design the structure of the building – the footings, walls, roof and retaining structures – to satisfy current international engineering codes. This could mean that the structure of the building may start to look excessive in comparison to buildings built in the US or Europe, but given the significant risk of damage from natural events, it’s a necessary precaution. The engineering drawings, along with the detailed architectural, electrical and plumbing layouts, need to be submitted to the Building Authority for approval for construction, prior to any work starting on site.
Once this approval has been given, you’re ready to break ground. Many people come to the BVI to escape the often overwhelming and seemingly excessive levels of regulation and control, so prevalent in European and US society. But it’s reassuring to know that here in the BVI we have a sensible level of legislation in place to ensure that development is done properly.