By Murtland Haley
Before Independence in 1966, Guyana, then British Guiana was a colony of Britain. Berbice, Essequibo and Demerara were controlled and occupied by the Dutch, Spanish and French before being ceded to the British in 1814.
In 1831, Essequibo-Demerara and Berbice were combined as one colony, British Guiana. Based on the occupation and colonisation of Guiana by these European nations, much of the initial architectural designs would have been influenced by European style and culture. The buildings bearing these qualities which have survived until today can be described as historic.
Therefore, Guyana’s architectural legacy would be a combination of architectural styles from these colonisers. However, since Britain was the last to leave, Victorian architecture dominated. These styles would have been altered somewhat to accommodate the climatic conditions specific to Guyana.
One element of that history as it relates to architecture is the “Demerara Window”. Off the bat, many may not know exactly what the Demerara Window is; at least I was clueless when I first heard the name. In reality we see Demerara Windows almost every day on most colonial-styled buildings.
I was one such person who took this specific feature for granted. However, I was surprised to learn a few years back about the window, its design and the benefit it afforded home owners who used them.
My initial introduction to the window was through an encounter with a friend who is now a Graduate Architect, Mishal Thomas. At the time, Mishal was giving me some basic information about building materials. For example, she said clay blocks help homes to remain cool especially during the day.
On the matter of building homes in a climate where the temperature is high and rising, she said that the ‘Demerara Window’ also helps in that regard, at least it did so in the past. After conducting some research into the component, I figured out how exactly this window was used to keep homes cool for its occupants.
It has been described as an ingenious invention to cool the inside of a house. With its louvres and perforated sides, the window effectively blocks direct sunlight from entering the house. There was a twelve-paned sash window, which was often found behind a sloping top hung shutter which was the Demerara Window.
The effect of the window is amplified when blocks of ice, a container of water or a potted plant is placed on the base which is at sill level. With either of these additions, the warm air from outside is cooled when it passes into the building.
The window was made using Pitch Pine since the wood was less susceptible to movement in the
hot conditions when compared to local wood. The window had a sill height which is supported on two ornamental brackets which can be a flat extended window board with slots at the bottom or a board with upturned edges located on its three outer sides.
It is believed that this cooler was only found in homes of the wealthy. However, over time, the component became a feature of houses owned by poor families. These windows were fitted primarily on the second or upper floors of the house where the bedrooms and living space were located.
Today, modern homes are rarely equipped with this model of window, at least not for its cooling effect as it was before. Now it is primarily used for aesthetic purposes. Most homes now are being built complete with electronic air conditioning units which provide a cool interior for residents to escape the blistering heat on the exterior.
Without AC units during the colonial period it is amazing that the architects and builders could have invented an apparatus to adapt and address the need for a cool home while living in a tropical climate. Similarly, since there were no refrigerators in those days, water and other liquids were cooled using earthenware jars.
Some notable buildings in Georgetown which have these windows are the Inter-American Development Bank in High Street, Kingston; Austin House, which is the home of the Archbishop of Guyana; the Ministry of Education, Department of Culture and the Walter Roth Museum on Main Street.
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