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Building Material to Use for Your House in Costa Rica

So, you want to build a home in Costa Rica?! Well, the wide range of available building materials in Costa Rica can be overwhelming and in general, it is always a good idea to talk directly with your own architect or engineer about what they recommend for your building.

They will take into consideration which climate zone you are going to build, your budget, and the physical properties that you want to achieve.

As an architect educated abroad, the recommendations from some architects and engineers are often to be questioned, especially in regards to durability and maintenance.

More than once I have been really surprised about proposed solutions from other professionals in the construction industry.

In this article, I want to share my impressions, thoughts, and some principles with you about which common construction materials are mostly used and available in Costa Rica and which you want to consider to achieve a beautiful, elegant & long-lasting, low-maintenance building suited for the area you want to build in.

We are going to talk about these things:

  1. Make Decisions Based on Look Only
  2. Buying the Cheapest Building Material
  3. Use Local Building Techniques
  4. Build According to Climate Zone
  5. Avoid Styrofoam
  6. Details & Materials are Equally Important
  7. Why and Why Not To Build With Steel
  8. Building with Concrete
  9. Building with Timber
  10. Summary

1. Make Decision Based on Look Only

First of all, exterior finishes should not be chosen only based on look but rather their performance in hot & humid conditions.

I have seen many beautiful buildings with exterior finishing that are either inappropriate or not suited to their environment and very soon will need maintenance or replacement due to the poor selection of materials.

Make sure you choose finishes no matter inside or outside based on durability & safety, and not just based on their look only.

2. Buying the Cheapest Building Material

It does not have to be always the most expensive Spanish-style tile floors. But these days more and more plastic laminate flooring or plastic roof tiles are being used.

Also, artificial plastic grass is commonly used, especially in hot areas, to cover the floor areas with “something green”. Well, good building materials are not cheap, and that also counts in Central America.

Artificial Grass – It is incredible how many people love to use it in Costa Rica.
© Lucy Nicholson

Concrete, Steel, Timber, and Ceramics are spiking in price these days. Nevertheless, it should be absolutely avoided to clad your whole house with plastic roof tiles or artificial grass or whatever other plastic elements are out there on the market just because it’s cheaper.

So, try to use less plastic. For the sake of the quality of your building and the precious nature of Costa Rica!

3. Use Local Building Techniques

We should not build in Costa Rica the same way we would in North America or Europe. Many items and building technology on which we rely in Europe are not accessible here.

I believe that we can utilize and improve a number of local construction methods, but we must strive to do so while adhering as closely as possible to the century-old Costa Rican building tradition.

There are many things we can learn, from large overhanging roofs that protect us from rain and sun to ways to ventilate a building to avoid high energy costs.

Rosalia Residence © StudioOctava

There are no one-size-fits-all solutions here. Talk with your architect about what might be the best solution for your project. There are plenty of ways to synthesize century-old building methods with innovation which finally have to potential to make your building a unique piece of architecture.

4. Build According to Climate Zone

Costa Rica is an amazing country with a great variety of different climate zones. You’ll find everything from mountain top regions with populations living at altitudes over 3,500 to tropical zones near the seashore.

The variety of climates also brings differences in architecture which also affects construction methods and materials that are appropriate for every climate zone.

For instance, if you’re building in Costa Rica’s hot coastal zones you would want to opt for materials that resist humidity and corrode less than others.

This may be best done by using concrete or timber as your materials of choice. However, if you’re looking for something durable but more affordable steel might be your go-to option.

5. Avoid Styrofoam

Recently I spent a few days in Las Catalinas, Guanacaste, a hot & tropical climate zone. When I arrived in this part of Costa Rica I was surprised to find out that most buildings are made from a styrofoam core construction, which is in my opinion not appropriate for a country like Costa Rica as it creates plenty of barely recyclable trash – at least in & for CR.

It definitely reduces costs and improves the energy efficiency of the building, however, due to the high humidity it can also make your building feel like you would are living in a plastic bag.

It is a similar method they build theme parks like Disneyland or film sets in Hollywood and I think it should stay there. In fact, with the right architecture, you can mostly avoid plastic in your building making it honor its natural environment.

Instead, I would focus on Steel, Concrete, and Timber.

6. Details and Materials are Equally Important

You see, not every architect or engineer’s advice is appropriate. Keep in mind your material selections and examine them before making any decisions to avoid making poor judgments that you’ll later regret.

There’s a lot of room for error. However, it’s not only about which material to choose. A lot of future problems can be found in wrong or a lack of well-planned and executed details. The most notable issues lie in a lack of waterproofing and thermal insulation.

Detail for Roof Drainage & Facade © StudioOctava

Make sure you take care of these aspects and lots of future headaches will be avoided.

7. Why and Why Not To Build With Steel

Steel is probably the most common building material in Costa Rica. It is affordable, it is widely available, and local contractors know how to work with it. In addition, you can fairly quickly construct a building with large roof spans and create the look of a much bigger structure.

The construction with structural steel takes less time than other types. Steel construction is pretty much just putting together prefabricated parts that have been put together before being transported. Another benefit of this building material is that steel structures are also very durable and can hold up well against earthquakes.

The drawbacks are that steel will quickly corrode when exposed to saltwater though so make sure you design and maintain your building accordingly if its located close to coast. When building with steel usually concrete blocks or fiber cement siding is used to cover the structure and close the spaces.

If you are using the latter, it could cause problems with humidity and mold in your walls, creating a health hazard in your own four walls. So take care that you locate sufficient ventilation vents to prevent this from happening.

Speaking about ventilation vents, another problem could be ants or termites which find little spaces in your walls and roof to create themes-elves a nest within your building perimeter. Every once in a while you will have to check if your home is still protected against these. Infestations definitely happen more often with lightweight building methods due to the hollow spaces in the walls which allow for much easier access.

8. Building with Concrete

Concrete is also used for a lot of Costa Rican houses. Although it is a little bit more expensive due to extended building time it easily trumps any steel structure when it comes down to strength, durability and aesthetic value or putting up with mold, ants, or termites.

No matter if you use poured concrete or concrete blocks, you will definitely benefit from a building with less maintenance and also reduced cooling costs due to the enhanced thermal insulation properties of concrete. The construction process might take you longer and the building might cost around 20% more, however, there is much less to worry about over the lifetime of the building.

Beachways Villas – Mal Pais © StudioOctava

In fact, there are few reasons why not to use concrete. If you have the time and budget for it, I absolutely recommend it for your project in Costa Rica.

9. Building with Timber

Costa Rica has beautiful tropical hardwood timber available which you can use for exterior applications.

If you are building with timber, exterior finishes like window frames and exterior wall panels usually consist of hardwood or teak wood that has been impregnated to protect it against mold, termites and insects in general.

Hardwood is however a costly building material in Costa Rica due to the small percentage of areas used for industrial forests.

There are two popular types of timber available for Costa Rican houses.

On one hand, we got tropical hardwood that is also sold in the local hardware stores. This wood is either harvested in Costa Rica or imported from South America and therefore quite expensive to buy.

Be aware that tropical hardwood might not be the best choice for building your house as it requires a lot of maintenance especially outdoors. You will have to repaint every few years if you want to keep its look over time.

Casa Marquise – Costa Rica © StudioOctava

On the other hand we got Bamboo which is growing to be more and more popular among construction materials. Its strength and durability is way superior when compared to woods from South America.

Although it might be a little bit harder to source in the local hardware stores, you can buy bamboo directly from people who grow them in Costa Rica. Bamboo is also one of the best choices for your ecological footprint as far as building materials go due to its high durability and resistance.

Bamboo brings a certain aesthetics to the project that might not be everyone’s cup of tea. It has a certain Asian vibe to it which might not be suitable for every type of project. In general, I would say it has more of a DIY vibe to it, especially when not built by professionals that got experience in bamboo construction work.

However, there are beautiful pressed bamboo fiber floors for inside and outside which might be worth looking at.

10. Summary

There is so much more to say about materials in Costa Rica and these are just some notes on top of my mind. However, to sum up we can say that we should prefer high-quality materials over low-quality materials not just because of aesthetics but also because of their increased durability and low maintenance which will pay off with time.

We should look at local building methods and try to improve those, instead of superimposing methods from America or Europe which finally end up to be very expensive and often not necessary to achieve a wonderful high-quality building.

Avoiding plastics and focusing on smart detailing to make to house long-lasting and age well should be a priority. In that sense concrete is a fantastic material that will serve you well for many years to come.

Use timber for your building but be careful where and how it is installed. If it is installed outside make sure it is protected against rain and sun.

I hope this gave you a rough idea and an initial talking point with your architect to make sure you get a great building for your mone. Stay tuned for more!

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We are Matt & Rhina, the founders of Studio Octava. Studio Octava Is building residential and hospitality projects all over Costa Rica, This blog is about what we’re are working on, what tools we use as well as about our experiences as architects & developers.

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