50 Years of BVI Architecture

Symbio Villa

When Roger Downing sailed into the British Virgin Islands in 1969, he was on the hunt for a place with potential. The 30-year-old British architect had already worked stints in the Middle East and Bermuda, and he was eager to launch a company of his own in a location that had room to grow.

Downing quickly found what he was looking for. The BVI’s natural beauty and sparse level of development convinced him to settle on Tortola, and within three months he had set up his firm, Roger Downing and Partner Company, in an office in Road Town.

Now, 50 years later, that firm stands as one of the pioneering businesses in the BVI, with a project portfolio intertwined with some of the territory’s touchstone developments in tourism, government and education. And though Mr. Downing passed away in 2012 at the age of 72, the company continues to develop a wide variety of projects under the leadership of his son, Thor. “As an architect, he established his presence,” wrote Orlando Smith, the former premier, in a tribute to Roger Downing after his death. “His designs have become a significant part of this territory’s landscape and vary from the understated to the more ‘avant-garde’ look of some of his later projects.”

The Early Years

Born and raised in Southend, England, Downing graduated with his architectural degree in 1962 and then cut his teeth in the industry on banks and palaces in Abu Dhabi, Doha, and Bahrain. After several years he shifted his career to Bermuda, where he met Miles Outerbridge, an engineer who operated a firm on the island. Outerbridge was interested in expanding his business to other locations, and when he and Downing had an opportunity to work as crew on a yacht heading to the BVI, they took it.

“[My dad] was offered to be part of Bermuda society and be part of the firm that he was with,” says Thor Downing. “And he could really see his path ahead of him, and he was like, ‘Well that’s going to be boring.’ He always wanted to do something different. And he wasn’t frightened of travelling.”

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Outerbridge agreed to go into business with Downing in the BVI and act as his partner from Bermuda. Their fledgeling firm didn’t get much work in the first few years, focusing on small projects like residential decks.

Rapidly, however, their business expanded into commercial and high-end resort work, and in the 1970s and 80s, RDP completed designs for multiple banks, as well as structures at Little Dix Bay and Peter Island.

Roger and his wife Jana (1941-2009) also devoted time to putting down roots in the community, working with numerous civic organisations like Rotary and the BVI Diabetes Association.

“The whole thing was working with the community as tightly as possible all the way through, forever,” Thor explains. “And that was essential to them, and to us. It’s obviously flowed on.” In 1980, the company designed one of its signature projects: Necker Island, which had been purchased the year before by Sir Richard Branson.

“There was nothing on the island, and we started by selecting a site and building a dock, then utilities, and ultimately the Great House on the hill,” writes Mr. Outerbridge. “It was supposed to be used as a recording studio for Virgin Records, but Mr. Branson liked it so much that he kept it as his home.”

Modern Era Under Thor’s leadership, RDP expanded its portfolio in more recent decades to government projects, providing designs for the H. Lavity Stoutt Community College’s Marine and Culinary Arts Centres, as well as the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court building. The company also continued to work on residential, commercial and resort spaces, designing the Oil Nut Bay Beach House on Virgin Gorda and the Banco Popular and Commerce House buildings in Road Town, among other projects.

Irma and the future Like countless other businesses across the territory, RDP faced significant difficulty in 2017 due to Hurricane Irma, with the storm’s tumultuous aftermath hindering progress on projects and slowing down timelines. “The idea for the future is really to try to focus in and do fewer projects, really start to finish, and making sure they get the absolute best, the most dedicated [service],” Thor explains. “Since Irma, it’s just been insane to try and keep everyone happy – it’s impossible. It just taught me the best way to work is to take on less and just do each one properly, fully – because everyone wants the full package.”

The younger Downing hopes to focus more on high-end, disaster-resilient residential developments in the future – leaving the firm with more time to spend on pro bono jobs and community art projects.

Since the 2017 hurricane, the company has also seen its role expand more into project management, something Thor envisions them continuing in the future. “Living here, you can’t just go down the road to Home Depot,” he says. “Everything gets brought in, so timing-wise, you can lose like two weeks accidentally by just not shipping things at the right time. It’s understanding the logistics of living here.”

Conor King Devitt

Conor King Devitt

Conor King Devitt

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