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Costa Rica Setback Distances: Wells and Creeks on Properties

The wide range of available building materials in Costa Rica can be overwhelming and it is always a good idea to talk directly with your architect or engineer what they recommend for your building.

They will take into consideration in which climate zone you are going to built, your budget and physical properties that you want to achieve. However in my view, and as an architect educated abroad, the recommendations from many architects and engineers are often to be questioned, especially in regards to durability and maintenance.

More than ones i have been really surprised about answers and proposed solutions from supposed professionals in the construction industry.

In this article I want to share my impressions and thoughts 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.

1. Common Mistakes Choosing Building Materials

Before we begin, there are a few no-nos that I believe are good rules of thumb when designing and building a structure and its interior. I wanna share those right at the beginning because you will always find people that will try to talk you into those mistakes.

Make Decision Based on Look Only

First of all, exterior finishes are often chosen more for the look than their performance in hot & humid conditions. I have seen many beautiful buildings with exterior finishing that is either inappropriate or not suited to its environment and very soon will need maintenance or replacement due to poor selection of materials. Make sure you choose structure and exterior finish material based on durability.

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

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 floor area with “something green”. Well, good building materials are not cheap, and that also counts in Central America.

Concrete, Steel and Timber are spiking in price these days. Nevertheless it should be a absolute no-no 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 its cheaper. So try to use less plastic. For the sake of the nature of Costa Rica!

Local Building Techniques

We should not build in Costa Rica the same way we would in North America or Europe. Many items 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 from rain and sun to ways on how to ventilate a building to avoid high energy costs.

2. What are the most common building materials in Costa Rica

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 effects construction methods and materials that are appropriate for every climate zone.

Building in Coastal Areas

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.

Building Methods in Las Catalinas

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 to recyclable trash.

It definitely improves the energy efficiency of the building, however, the high humidity could also make it feel you would be living in a plastic bag.

It is a similar method they build theme parks like Disneyland or film sets in Hollywood. Although probably reducing the cost of your building significantly i would not recommend going that route. Instead i would focus on Steel, Concrete and Timber.

Material Selection in Costa Rica

You see, not every architect or engineer’s advice is appropriate. Keep in mind your materials 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, from material choices to installation methods to details that aren’t properly executed or the wrong ones for the situation. Anyway, let’s have a look at the most common construction materials used in Costa Rica

3. Building 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 creating 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.

Drawbacks when Building with Steel

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 later, 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.

Termites, Ants and Infestations

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 a much easier access.

3. Building with Concrete

Concrete is also used for a lot of costa rican houses. Although it is a little bit more expensive due to increased salary costs and the 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 enhance 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.

4. 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. There are two types of timber available for costa rican houses.

Drawbacks when Building with Timber

On one hand we got tropical hardwood thats being 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, just like steel structures do. You will have to repaint every few years if you want to keep its look over time.

Bamboo, a new Trend

On the other hand we got Bamboo which is growing to be more and more popular within 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 everyones 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 buy professionals that got experience in bamboo construction work.

5. The best type of house for you based on your needs, budget, and lifestyle .

Until now we have learned quite a bit about structural steel, poured concrete and concrete blocks as well as timber. There are a lot of other building materials that we did no cover yet. To learn more Keep going in this article to hear more about how to implement this knowledge into practice. 

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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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