In December of 2001, my wife, three-month-old son and I settled into Limon Province, Costa Rica. One of my first priorities was to learn what the necessary components are of a comfortable Caribbean home. I was not satisfied with the comfort of ordinary Caribbean homes, so I could not copy from homes of our Tico neighbors. I had to relearn almost everything I knew about North American style building.
There are certain features of traditional coastal homes that I consider highly important when designing a structure. Understand that I make a clear distinction between traditional coastal homes and "modern" Costa Rican houses. New houses are apparently designed to look modern and cute, but they ignore practical features that made houses climate tolerable in times past. Take for example the large, open air cupola that still graces the roofs of some Caribbean homes. There are several explanations for cupolas becoming obsolete, but I think we could deduce that the advent of TV, Western diet and home stereo systems, accompanied by pacifying, oscillating fans succeeded in reducing people's metabolism and cognizance to the point that they no longer appreciate oxygen. People forgot that air needs to move through a house.
My frustration with inferior home structures in tropical climates impressed upon me another reality that I still consider in the planning of every construction project: tropical rain forests are not people friendly. Jungle canopy, bugs, moisture, heat, and fungus will attack any man-made structure, along with its occupants. Like music of legendary sirens lured sailors to shipwreck, the striking beauty of tropical biodiversity beckons visitors to dwell in it, then cruelly summons all the forces of nature to relegate all intruding objects or life to the level of the forest floor. This paradox of nature’s beauty and harshness is a reality that the tropical homesteader faces in diet, living, planting, animal husbandry and building. Fortunately, there is another force of nature that compels us to use intelligent planning to tame the deadly forces of the jungle, so that we can coexist.
Through observation and practical experience during the past 6 years, I have discovered several critical components necessary for comfort and durability of homes in the humid tropics. Whether you are a cold climate settler like myself, or just a vacationer from South USA, you will appreciate certain basic features of a dwelling built for Caribbean conditions. If you have a flavor for eco-construction, that, too, can be incorporated into a house plan. Eco-conscious building can be costlier, but for people of greater vision, this becomes justifiable and responsible.
In summary, I consider tropical building a weighty matter, and in order to make this understood clearly, I have categorized below principle concerns which I address individually when building. With a small change in design of a house, you can either create or avoid a lot of misery later on. Hopefully these building tips will help make your Costa Rica living experience successful and enjoyable.
A heat resistant home should have medium sized shade trees and fruit trees planted around it. This way you will have less sunlight hitting your house. Use cement block construction with stucco or tile finish to at least 3 feet above grade, with full height cement block on at least one exterior wall. Single story homes should have cement or tile floors. Build plenty of shutters, screened windows and doors, and a cupola or overshot ridge roof system to allow air to flow freely through your home with a chimney effect. Insulate your living area from the sun. Build with wood, bamboo or fiber board beneath the primary roof material. Primary roof materials easily accessible in Costa Rica include ordinary corrugated steel sheets, terracotta, imitation terracotta, or shingles. This can be done in either a cupola design or the overshot ridge design. I prefer the latter for the sake of practicality. Build with high interior ceilings. Cathedral style ceilings are great. Single story homes should have cement or tile floors. To minimize living area that's behind solid walls, design plenty of porch space around the house. In Costa Rica, many covered patios become wash rooms, special activity areas and even guest rooms.
Many people are not tolerant of bugs or scorpions crawling around their domicile. I decided to avoid any risk when I remodeled a Tico style house for our family. I screened every door, window and opening in the house, with good results. There is a peace and calm about relaxing in the evening without having to be on alert for flying creatures. My advice on this creepy subject is easy to remember: "Screen, don't scream." All screened areas should be either removable for cleaning, or washable installed.
Thankfully, Costa Rica's Caribbean corridor is not hurricane prone, but we do get lots of rain. Build for rain! Tin roofs are noisy during a rain storm, so design insulation into your roof. Use quality windows, doors and shutters. The occasional blowing rain can turn your house into a mess if your home is not built to resist water. Design roofs to extend further past the wall of your home, to channel water away from your structure. Proper landscaping is crucial. Sunshine usually comes right on the heels of a downpour, so don't panic, just build prepared.
Many Costa Rican builders have switched to galvanized steel instead of wood for framing. That's because wood borers and termites are a horrible problem, and bug resistant hardwoods are scarce. Steel, pressure treated lumber, bamboo and concrete are common alternatives to wood. If you have any wood in your structure, by all means get it treated, and use concrete/ceramic tile barriers, either as walls or moat-style patios to discourage bug entry. Avoid constructing walls with voids where bugs can hide. Avoid all wood framing near the ground.
Humid air can be uncomfortable to newcomers to Costa Rica. Natural air flow in a home is crucial to human health, comfort and preservation of important documents or books. Many aspects of construction important for heat dissipation are also important for movement of air for humidity control. Design ample windows, doors and open spaces between rafters wherever air can flow through your home and up through the ridge. You should have sizeable windows that can be opened wide when needed, and closed during the threat of rain. High ceilings might seem like a luxury but they are not. They provide a means for air movement and replacement, naturally. As a last resort, some rooms can be completely insulated and isolated from your main dwelling so that you can use air conditioning.
Cement block, stucco and ceramic tile are excellent coastal building materials. Galvanized steel is commonly used for rafters, studs and general framing. Laminated beams, trusses and posts made from locally planted lumber are now available. These are borer and termite resistant, and are an elegant, ecological alternative to jungle sawn lumber. A few other options, especially for second story construction, are hardwood flooring, rough sawn lumber, bamboo flooring, and bamboo plywood (very attractive woven finish). Fiber board is used as an insulator for roofs, interior walls, and for siding. Standard sheetrock works for interior walls. Tongue and groove boards are often used in cathedral style ceilings and walls. Primary roof materials easily accessible in Costa Rica include ordinary corrugated steel sheets, terracotta, imitation terracotta, or asphalt shingles. Custom door and cabinet makers are not hard to find. If you like the reliability of North American style vinyl windows, consider importing.
Costa Rica home builders commonly charge by the square meter area of your floor space, including covered patio areas. You can get into a plain, secure and high quality home for $300/squ. meter. If you want a higher level of luxury or architectural beauty, $500/square meter would be typical. If you want a very basic structure you can get by a little more economically by purchasing your own materials and adding 70-75% in labor and contractor costs.
Complete your Costa Rican home with accessibility to home grown fruits, leafy greens and vegetables. Indulge in ornamental plants, and plan them into your building style. I strongly suggest an overhang or house lean-to which admits easy access to an area where you can protect vulnerable seedlings, cuttings, etc. Seed catalogs are hard to find in Costa Rica, but many wonderful plants start easily from seeds and cuttings, so a little gardening will become part of the home scene. Plan permaculture into your home, and as I always say...welcome to the Rich Coast, my friends!!!
If you have always dreamed of building free-style, and are a student of sustainable gardening and permaculture, you will appreciate the comfort and beauty of my building techniques. Your new cabin or lodge can be perfectly comfortable, bug free and termite proof. You can choose from rustic style Caribbean design or a state-of-the-art architectual hybrid.
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