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Charred Timber in Costa Rica

When talking about building materials in Costa Rica, one question I often get asked is whether to choose steel or concrete for construction. You can find more about that here. But today, let’s talk about facades, which are crucial as they protect what’s behind them. One kind that’s becoming popular, especially with Studio Octava – Costa Rica Architects, is charred timber, also known as Shou Sugi Ban. This ancient Japanese technique isn’t just for looks; it actually benefits the wood.

The technique of using charred timber is gaining popularity in luxury home design in Costa Rica because it allows buildings to seamlessly blend in with lush green surroundings. We at Studio Octava, a leading modern luxury home designer, frequently incorporate this technique into our designs upon clients’ request. In this article, we will delve into what charred timber is, its benefits, and the process of implementing it.

 

1 – What is Charred Timber?

2 – Why Burn Wood on Purpose?

3 – How is Charred Timber Made?

4 – How is Charred Timber Treated in Costa Rica?

5 – How much Costs Charred Timber in Costa Rica?

6 – Where can You Use Charred Timber in Costa Rica?

7 – Is Charred Timber Right for You?

What is Charred Timber?

Charred timber is wood that has been carefully burned on the surface. This isn’t just any burning, though. It’s a controlled process that chars the wood just enough without damaging its core strength. The result is a striking black finish that’s more than skin deep.

Why Burn Wood on Purpose?

You might think burning wood makes it weaker, but it’s actually the opposite. Here are some reasons why people choose to char wood in Costa Rica:

 

  • Protection from the Elements: The charred layer acts like a shield against water, sun, and even bugs. It’s like the wood has its own built-in weatherproof jacket.
  • Low Maintenance: Unlike painted or stained wood, charred timber doesn’t need much upkeep. The charred surface is stable and doesn’t peel or fade away.
  • Fire Resistance: It sounds strange, but burning the wood actually makes it more fire-resistant. The charred surface is harder to catch fire again.
  • Eco-Friendly: There’s no need for chemical treatments or paints, which can be harmful to the environment. Plus, the wood lasts longer, so it doesn’t need to be replaced as often.
  • Unique Look: Each piece of charred timber is one-of-a-kind. The process brings out the grain and texture in the wood, giving buildings a natural, artistic flair, perfect for some of the luxury home design Costa Rica that tries to be just a tad more unique.

 

At Studio Octava, we prefer charred timber for homes in the jungle, like those in Uvita, Parrita, Ojochal, or Dominical. It’s an eco-friendly choice and it blends beautifully into the green environment. I believe it could be a great fit for places like Ecovilla San Mateo as well. 

How is Charred Timber Made?

The process is rather easy. First, the wood is cleaned and dried. Then, it’s burned until the surface turns black. After that, the charred layer is brushed to remove loose bits and sometimes treated with oil to enhance its look and durability.

Pine from Chile

Recently, we used this method on a building in Mal Pais, Costa Rica. It helped cover parts of the facade and made the building fit in with its surroundings. For this particular building we used pine wood from Chile, imported to Costa Rica. Due to the resin in the Pine the charring process works especially well. 

Pine from Costa Rica

Attempting to charr Costa Rican hardwoods, such as Teak or Guanacaste, often leads to unsatisfactory outcomes. The absence of resin in these woods can significantly alter the final appearance and effectiveness of the charring process. Similarly, using Costa Rican Pine is not recommended for charring because it’s a softer wood that easily becomes brittle and breaks down.

Pine from Norway

Besides pine from Chile, you can also choose Kebony, a brand from Norway. BioTile imports it, along with other products like tiles and stones, as well as timber for facades and decks. Kebony has the perk of being grown in Norwegian forests, making the wood more durable. It’s treated before export, so when it arrives here, it’s top-quality pine wood – likely the best you can find.

Costs

There are several choices, each with a different price tag. Costa Rican pine is the cheapest, but it’s not good for charring. Chilean pine is a step up and more affordable for timber facades. But when you get into back-ventilated facades in Costa Rica, it starts to get fancy. Kebony is the top choice, yet it’s also the priciest—about 3-4 times more than the wood from Chile.

Other Alternatives

Other options include pre-charred timber that’s already imported and charred. You can find this from Kebony and a Japanese brand that Materia Prima imports. But these choices are quite expensive.

How is Charred Timber Treated in Costa Rica?

When you’re planning to work on a project involving charred timber, choosing the right kind of wood is essential. But that’s not all; it’s equally important to have a conversation about the different treatments available. These treatments can help improve the charred timber in terms of durability, beauty, and lifespan.

 

Let’s explore three primary treatments that are commonly used:

Epoxy

Here in CR, some people opt for epoxy to seal their timber. However, I would advise caution—without more research—because this might not be the wisest choice, particularly if the timber will be exposed to intense sunlight and heavy rain. Applying epoxy to your facade seals it off completely, which means you lose the ability to re-char or maintain the wood in the future. If you go this route, the only options later on would be to paint over it or replace the timber entirely.

Oil

If you want to maintain a deep, rich black color, pigmented oil can be a good option. It does change the finish of the facade, giving it a more matte look rather than the glossy, reflective appearance that naturally charred wood has. This could be a trade-off if you prefer the original luster of charred timber but still want the protective benefits that come with using an oil treatment. 

Pigmented Pine Tar

This is the most high-end option but also comes with its own set of challenges—it’s quite smelly and tricky purchase. Despite these drawbacks, it’s worth considering because it’s the most natural treatment available. It uses the resin directly from pine trees, which means you’re applying a substance that’s inherently part of the wood’s makeup. We have never used it until today, especially as import requires special permits and needs to go through Costa Ricas Health Department for Imports.

How Much Costs Charred Timber in Costa Rica?

The cost to build the front of Beachways Yolanda in Mal Pais, Santa Teresa was around $90 per square meter. This price covered the Chilean Pine wood, screws, work, gas, and some simple tools. If you manage the job with a small contractor, that’s what you’ll pay. But if you hire a big contractor and use higher-quality wood, the price could jump to between $180 and $250 per square meter. Afterall this is a quite luxurious architectural feature for a project. 

 

Installing the facade took roughly two months. Like most projects, it began with figuring out the best charring time and technique. We also needed to sort out the details for the corners. Using a laser level proved useful in ensuring everything was perfectly aligned. Considerations about time should be made especially when working in areas where scaffolding is required.

Where Can You Use Charred Timber in Costa Rica?

Charred timber isn’t just for the outside of buildings. It can be used for fences, decks, and even inside for things like furniture and accent walls. It’s versatile and works well with different styles, from rustic to modern.

 

At Studio Octava – Architects Costa Rica, we prefer using it mainly for facades. It’s because in uncovered areas, materials can wear out fast. In our Mal Pais project, it’s on an exposed facade and looks great and holds up great. But usually, we opt for bigger roof overhangs to extend the building’s life.

JP Guest House - Parrita

For this particular project, we have opted to utilize charred timber and tongue-and-groove plans sourced from Biotile. Situated in Parrita, in close proximity to Uvita, the location is enveloped by a pristine primary forest teeming with diverse wildlife. The tongue-and-groove allows us to reduce the possible gaps and openings. The owner’s preference for a sealed facade was driven by the desire to deter any unwelcome intruders from accessing hidden corners and crevices. The guesthouse boasts an entirely black exterior, making the charred timber a seamless and harmonious choice. The resulting structure exudes a sense of drama and cinematic flair, with its dark materials in the insider serving as a striking contrast to the vibrant greenery visible through the windows.

Beachways Yolanda - Mal Pais, Santa Teresa

In our Mal Pais Project – Beachways Yolanda, we’ve arranged timber planks with a 5mm gap between each for a unique look. Unlike the previous project you saw, we added battens in a seemingly random pattern (though we architects like to control it all) to create an organic feel. Due to budget limits, we hired a carpenter who wasn’t as experienced with building facades. So, we chose methods that forgive small mistakes. This led to a facade that’s one of a kind and shaped by its creation process. 

The wood we chose is pine from Chile. We didn’t char it to the “gator-skin” stage because it gets too brittle. Instead, we lightly charred it, so you might notice some color changes as it ages. The owner liked this look because it’s softer on the eyes and adds a beachy touch. It also contrasts well with the sleek white luxury inside.

Is Charred Timber Right for You?

If you’re looking for a material that’s durable, low maintenance, and has a unique beauty, charred timber might be perfect. It’s an ancient technique that’s still very relevant today, blending tradition with modern design. Whether you’re building something new or updating an existing structure, consider the timeless appeal of charred timber.

 

I hope this article has been useful to you and invites you to seriously consider whether charred timber is the right choice for your architectural and design needs. Before making a final decision, make sure to research further and consult with professionals on the best practices for working with this unique material and how it can be effectively integrated into your specific project.

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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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