Extreme Caution Required
Selecting Tico Architects & Engineers:
No doubt this article and what I am about to say is going to ruffle a few feathers and repel a number of prospective clients but none the less what follows, as all of my advice on our website is founded upon, is none the less what has come about as a result of extensive experience in the real and often bizarre world of Costa Rica Construction. I also refer you to Chapter 15 of our book which in order of severity of problems to befall the owner should rightfully be Chapter 1.
Professionals have been at the root of every big problem I have ever had during my tenure in Costa Rica which alone has cost me a ton of money and grief that I have no intention of ever revisiting to put it mildly. Here I shall zero in on only the selection of your architect and engineers. I would be so bold as to suggest to all clients our biggest asset is in having a team assembled that is well tested and tried hence no need for you to take a shot in the dark because you “think” you have a better answer or person in mind. Not impossible to happen but bloody unlikely as I trust you will agree upon the reading of these following examples. This is my general caution as to what will more likely happen if you go off on your own experiment, you are going to pay more, often a HUGE AMOUNT MORE, get less desirable results and often ensue a mountain of grief and headache to follow.
As a result of our experiences we have elected to simply not work with unknown architects and engineers, period! If you come to us to looking for our construction services with such in hand then our answer is simple, NO FORGET IT! Now for the uninitiated this may seem a tad hard headed but please bare with me as I explain to you how and why you are about to make the most critical decision of your construction adventure in this election alone. Yes you could have the view this is my home and my choice and right you are but I simply have no need to head off on a suicide mission because you deem it to be suitable. As the front line person dealing with the daily planning and execution of successful construction it is I, not you, who is going to have to deal with these individuals on a constant basis. They have driven me crazy in the past but over this past year alone we have had 10 different situations come about that have proven we had to take a stance on this issue. After event #7 this policy came about with the final three only confirming that our decision was the only sane approach to take. This is going to be one of my long articles as it takes a fair bit to explain each of these real life situations that have come about but in the process I trust the reader will get a much needed education on what you have to be ever vigilant about if you do not want your dream in paradise to turn into your nightmare in paradise.
#1 Aroi Thai Restaurant Project
Lesson to be learned – Gross Incompetence – Total Disregard for Building to Budget by the Professional Team.
It is just over a year since I first walked into this building DISASTER! This is one of the worst examples I have seen in my 14 years here. Long and short of it is the three stooges, architect, structural engineer and contractor succeeded in blowing the whole budget for a three story building in only getting the first story of this hotel/restaurant erected, not locked up or any electrical or even rough-in plumbing in a functional state. In fact all that was not buried in concrete had to
be removed and redesigned to get it to be a functional system, sewer lines flowed backwards, no P-traps and no vents of any kind in a commercial building and kitchen. The fire exit did not meet code which required floor plan changes to avoid an eventual crash with the fire department. The concrete panels employed here leaked like a sieve and to this day we still battle with plugging up holes.
The building design looked more like a warehouse (to the chagrin of the owners) than a boutique hotel and restaurant while reeking of gross in-efficiency in space design. We took what was originally shown as a 16 seat restaurant up to 56 as well as increasing the rooms by 33%.
The engineer behind this disaster turned out to be the same one I fired from our Jaco project for pulling brain dead stunts like burning the hell out of our insulation in air conditioned space so he could install tons of rebar which not needed in a medium weight structure or suggested by the Coventec system. Other various ugly and non-functional superstructure issues also existed yet our experience was a 4 on the 1-10 stupidity scale whereas this was most certainly a 10. The end result was owners had a building that cost roughly 2 ½ times what it was actually worth as these fools bankrupted then with outright theft as well as theft via incompetency. However it hardly matters as to why the fact is this experience was a devastation to the family in the center of this nightmare both financially and psychologically.
The end result as you can see in our videos is that we resurrected this project from the dead and dressed up this beast to get it functional as well as in a state of ambiance that makes it the best Thai Restaurant in Central America, according to the Ambassador to Thailand after his last visit. We are now in the process of doing the complete re-design of the upper floors and converting all of this to light weight SIP construction of course. Obviously we have an opinion as to what will deliver the best results but the victims of this fraud hardly want to hear the words concrete panel again. One of these nightmares in life is quite sufficient.
I can barely contain my total contempt for what this group of un-professionals did to this family that was just not prepared to deal with a situation this bizarre.
#2 Private Residence in Ojachal
Lesson to be learned – Structural overbuild / tropical insulation
This example was in a home that we encountered too late to help the owner out much. Michael met this victim at a birthday party in Dominical and they got to talking about a home that he was having built by an American contractor (new to Costa Rica) and a Tico engineer. We got a copy of his drawings to see what was going on. Well roughly $35,000 had been pissed away in excessive foundation work that could have held up a 7 story Saskatchewan grain elevator. Yet this was a medium weight Coventec home, meaning the walls were a Styrofoam core panel surrounded by stucco so roughly half the weight of concrete and block system. They were just then starting on the roof so Michael asked the owner, who is a chiropractor that wanted to avoid A/C like the plague, what he was insulating the roof with. Response from the engineer was, “oh in the tropics we don’t need to insulate.” Is he out of his bloody mind? They built an insulated wall which accounts for only 5% of the heat gain in a home but were going to do nothing for the roof. That is insane. Needless to say the owner vetoed that. More than a tad late to do anything about an obscenely overbuilt foundation. No doubt he may argue but it is built strong. Well yes it is and built stupid if you are the one paying for all the steel and concrete that is doing nothing. Usually the people who try to justify with such backwards logic are never the ones who actually have to pay for it.
I have a hard time believing anyone could be sooooo stupid to build a foundation like this for a one story light home but I have no trouble believing the engineer drove up the construction costs since his fees were based on the cost of the home versus the “value” of the home. That is like paying someone a commission to steal from you! Had we seen plans like this we would have guided the owner into firing him before he pissed away all this money. However a new kid on the block, as his contractor was, most likely did not have enough experience to know when to fire someone before they do irreparable damage versus trying to just live with it. Our position is if we see one of our owners heading into water over their heads is that we will right the situation or fire both the owner and the professional rather than being part of such nonsense.
#3 Private Residence in Gracia
Lesson to be learned – Lot Inspections & Tropical Design
This case involved a Tico couple who contacted me to price out a roof for their home that was already designed and submitted to the muni. I took one look at the design and said to them this home sucks. It is going to be hot and require A/C due to a flat ceiling under a low pitched roof. Exactly what you DO NOT WANT in a tropical design. Now Grecia is not the beach but this lot was still at 750 m elevation so it will be fairly warm there. To top that off she says to me, “oh I am allergic to A/C.
An engineer whose plans demonstrated total incompetence designed this home, if I dare say that. He had never visited the lot so he did not realize that there was a creek running through where he had the kitchen located. The home simply did not fit this lot. The flow of the house as to how it would live was really inefficient. In fact Michael threw away the original design, nothing salvageable of that, reversed the home to accent the creek rather than swim in it and just made it work. Things like box windows facing a block wall, my what a nice view, were removed. Needless to say we lifted the roof to a higher pitch, vaulted it and put in a breathing roof so as to cool down the house and add a spacious air to it.
Sorry folks even though engineers can legally design homes here by way of their training and aptitude they are not suitable for home design. I have written about this elsewhere on our site as well. But one thing for certain whoever is designing a home needs to actually go see the site! Sometimes you can get away without doing so but then there is those cases where this comes back to bite you in the ass. These blunders are not fixable as we shall see by several other examples to follow.
#4 Private Residence in Samara
Lesson to be learned – Award Winning Architects & Budget Reality/ Tropical Design & Insulation Cluelessness!
We were referred by one developer to a gentleman from Texas who wanted to build at Samara so was getting quotes from builders. I had a skype interview with the owner who kept emphasizing he had hired an award winning architect. First off my knee jerk reaction especially when this is repeated over and over is “run like hell!” So the plans were sent to me and we reviewed them together to find that indeed our suspicions were most accurate. This home was schizophrenic as well as a tropical nightmare and financially impossible to achieve. The owner was evasive about actual budget which again always gets us more than a tad nervous in throwing time away. Best I could establish is he wanted to spend in the upper $100,000 range yet the award winning architect had included a window/door package of roughly $65,000. Not exactly viable.
He had mixed brick walls with stone walls which in of itself are generally a no no but not a kiss of death. However what was was the fact that they had a block wall faced in large stone as the entire master bedroom wall with no overhand or sun protection on this wall as well as others. One look at this and I said you have a home that is going to come with a $600 to $1,000 a month electrical bill. This bedroom wall that was huge was going to radiate off so much heat at night as heat sinks are about to do. This architect obviously did not even know what a heat sink was let alone its horrific effects on the livability in the tropics. Then the crowning feature of insanity was the glass roof over the carport. At the Beach! All I can say to this award winning moron is, “are you out of your f!@#$%g mind.” I am sure that is what you always wanted aside from the cost but the destruction of your car sitting under that not to mention your ass when you burn it off every time you enter your car in midday.
This was located on a hill side so instead of using the lower levels as storage areas he had built up walls to support the home while not utilizing space that was already 60% paid for. Yeh award winning idiot is all I can say. Needless to say this was a no go as I told the owner this home is not economically viable as designed with your budget in mind plus we had to redesign most of it to work with panels. You cannot just flop back and forth between panels and blocks and think it will magically work, it does not. As the saying goes, “garbage in garbage out.”
#5 Private Residence in Puerto Viejo, Limon
Lesson to be learned – You can’t fix stupid no matter how hard you whip it especially with Machista added in.
I had this client phone me when she was in chapter whatever of hassles with her architect and engineer team who were building this house for her. I sounded all too like the typical hassles common to a home that at that time was 18 months under construction and still not to lock up even. We were out in the area to view some other projects along with Oscar and went to see this. Take note this home is north of $300k yet grave design flaws that simply would never be fixable. Over $10,000 pissed away in a standing seam roof in the middle of the jungle so no one is going to even see it or know it is there.
The engineer who was the worse of the two and a complete block head that did not listen to anyone had been instructed that the owner was putting a salvaged Almond floor and joists in the second story yet he built a concrete beam with no ledgers of any kind in which to support this floor. So as an after thought he decided to go buy caterpillar bolts and bolted each and every joist to a heavy angle iron also bolted through the tales of each joist. This pissed away triple the time necessary, triple the cost of connectors and left a warehouse look of ugliness to what was to be a feature of the home.
After viewing the multiple disasters I just told the owner fire them both before they screw something else up and start out fresh with someone how has a clue. She failed to listen and contacted me surprise, surprise two more times with two other major bone headed stunts. On the third go around I basically told her to go away as I had given her the solution but she insisted that whipping a dead horse was going to bring it back to life. Some people cannot be helped.
This example brought about a demonstration of a cultural reality. This engineer was an idiot yet would not listen to the architect that was trying to make things pretty because she was a women. No Tica is going to tell a block headed engineer how to do anything. Not going to happen in this lifetime. Sorry I have to say this but you don’t mix sexes on this team it is only going to go to hell. There is always a degree of friction between the artistic side and the engineering side then to throw the fuel on the fire of machista can only breed disaster. I experienced this in our Jaco project as we had a woman architect who was the better of the two however she proved to be totally incapable of smacking this block headed engineer on the side of the head. I too was not clued into this reality but this latest experience brought that home in spades once again.
#6 Private Residence in Puerto Viejo
Lesson to be learned – Structural Incompetence & lack of light weight building know how.
Last August I had a lady contact us really wanting a SIP panel system to add to containers for her property at Puerto Viejo. I told her the containers were a wonderfully romantic idea of recycling but had not foundation of economic reality to them. I can replace the amount of material in a container with panels for a lower cost than the container is. Plus you end up remodeling a box and remodeling ends up being twice the cost of building new and getting what you want rather than what was dished out by the restrictions of the existing.
She however insisted that they knew an engineer friend for the past ten years who would do her plans for her. We got the plans which was a building stuck up on top of poles as is the common Limon design however we had no confidence in this system or lack there of. This is the one and only time that we did not think his design was suitably strong enough for earthquake territory. Especially when one remembers the strongest earthquake here was the Limon quake of 1980 at 7.6. There just was not enough lateral support to hold this building up there if things started bouncing around.
I had not been thrilled about this arrangement in the first place then add to that the whole design had to be modified to even work with panels as the engineer had not a clue how to do so, as most don’t. Hence with these concerns and added work we just passed on the project and suggested to her that her plans were not suitable nor did the amount of work to fix such worthwhile for the project in the first place. This does bring up another issue in that it is going to be at least another generation before Tico engineers really start to get what “light weight” construction is all about.. Oh and lets not forget “butt ugly!” But this did indeed begin to show an emerging pattern of what to avoid.
#7 Private Residence near Tamarindo
Lesson to be learned – What do you get fighting an Architect that does not listen while knowing nothing about light weight.
This story is the last example where we got started with an unknown architect and what ensued. This home is moving ahead unlike the others but the lessons learned here were the final straw as to how and why our policy became solidified. The owners came to us with the design phase already underway hence they were looking at better construction solutions. I told them immediately since they were into the process that we could proceed but their architect could not proceed further down the path as the technical supervisor to the project. As I put it to the them the blind cannot lead the sited so how could a lady who had never ever seen a SIP be responsible for technical instruction. This was clearly stated and accepted that Oscar would take over after the design phase so we moved forward on that basis. Michael was hired to panelize her drawings so that design would marry up with reality of the materials selected.
At the same time I explained at length not to let the architect just pick any bloody engineer that comes down the pike. As my previous examples have demonstrated this can be at best precarious in the structural engineer game. Well lo and behold about two weeks after we started this the architect sends me here preferred list of professionals. Well who do you think she has on the list as structural engineer? None other than the same clown I fired in Jaco and lead to the disaster at Aroi Thai Restaurant. The good news in this is that I was in front of the game instead of cleaning up the aftermath of another train wreck. When the owner came to town to meet with us we took her out to the restaurant that was about half way through its resurrection at that time and showed her all the ugliness and gross blunders. Then as the punch line I said and this building disaster is brought to you by the same engineer your architect wants to use. Two days later I got a note from the owner telling the architect that her engineer was not being hired. Thank goodness I would not wish him upon anyone.
One battle won but many more to go. The owners and the architect then headed into one battle after another. It became a constant head butting contest as she would be told one thing but go off and do something totally different. One of the big reasons the owners came to us in the first place was they wanted a light weight system after having lived through the Sept. 2012 Guancaste 7.4 earthquake. This shook the hell out of their building and them as well leaving shall we say an indelible impression. They had built their business building and two apartments Tico methods just five years previously and have lived to regret many issues in those. Just before meeting us they had bought themselves a new kitchen appliance that everyone in Costa Rica needs! A Roto Router. They got so tired of paying a plumber to come in every few weeks to clean out their sewer lines they decided better to buy their own machine than continue paying this out forever. Well lets get real a five year old high quality building that has plumbing that by all reasonable measures does not work. Often we find our biggest advocates are people who have lived and built here so they know what the gig is all about.
I got the final drawings from them had them printed then went back and asked are we building like this, this home has lots of crap in it that was never our suggestion. Things like 10 foot walls with vaulted ceilings and floors of concrete. 160 kg m2 versus 30kg m2 in real light weight. Only to find out that no these were not what they wanted, not what they asked for but were being dictated by this bloody arrogant architect. Well this all finally denigrated to the point where the client and architect no long talk at all. Yes we may be biased but the clients are not unreasonable people. Yes very exacting in what they expect and deem as necessary from their experiences and desires but difficult clients? Not at all! This is just another example of a bad architect both fro competency but as much from attitude of being a dictator over a home they are never going to live in or pay for. Sorry folks that is just plain bullshit. No polite way to put it. This was never our ideal situation we just thought that we could successfully work with the client but all this has proven is we were whipping a dead horse all along. Now we just avoid that aggravation all together.
#8 Private Residence in Montecielo, Tarcoles
Lesson to be learned – Engineer/Designer/Builder Incompetence abounds yet at obscene prices.
Last December I was contacted by a client who commented out of the blocks that he was having a home built in this project for $529,000 that was to be the first show home yet the home followed none of my recommendations and or methods. Well I told him that was hardly a surprise. I did go and inspect the home under construction as I was quite curious since I already knew the projects website was full of crap and gross exaggerations so I really wanted to see if the construction would continue in the same vain as it invariable does. Now I did a 14 page newsletter going through all these faults but here we are concentrating on only professional capacities so I will stick to that.
This was an example of an engineer designed home if I dare call it that. Do you call it designed when it sits reversed on the lot? Yet not the developer, builder or owner had the capacity to look at the lot and say holly shit this does not work. The master bath which is facing up into the mountains has a full glass corner in it, yet is only 6 feet from and at eye level with the neighbour’s driveway. On the other hand if the plan was reversed that same bath would have been above a drop off at the front corner of the lot that would mean only someone 13’ tall would be able to see in the window and of course no driveway. That same window would have been facing out to the Pacific Ocean from a 1,000 foot view point. Now that is the proverbial million dollar view that is now in the guests room rather than the master’s. BIZARRE! This whole situation can now easily be fixed with a small tool called a caterpillar. This is far from the only faults of this overpriced piece of junk but for now I just wanted to demonstrate more competency of professionals in charge while ignoring other little things like P-traps, vented plumbing and proper plumbing runs that actually work rather than buying Roto Routers as household appliances for half million dollar homes.
#9 Private Residence in Nuevo Arenal
Lesson to be learned – Architects with faulty design concepts & no budget reality that lie to clients.
One client had been on my list for a number of months and just got back with me here two weeks ago saying they were ready to proceed. He advised that they already had a Tico architect who had done their home plans. Well our policy had been established after #7 so I immediately advised him we don’t do that but to send me the plans for our review. The upshot is they had $90,000 to build this 130 m2 home with. This home was dam ugly even though I was nice and did not say so. It was triangular shaped with really poor bathroom layouts. But here is the clincher this home would actually cost $135,000 to build as drawn. The plans and reality were not even distant cousins. They had a $12,000 Nana door looking over the lake. AHHH a $90k home with a $12k single door. Yes and with a post right in the center of this view holding up the terrace roof. Well folks if you spend the money to make a full opening wall then you have to spend the extra money to remove all supports from the same view. DAH! Sorry that is bloody goofy. The whole logic behind this I would liken to putting gull-wing doors on a Lada. The triangular shape meant this small home was actually living about 30% smaller due to the weird shape and how that affects furniture and traffic patterns plus all the material costs go up due to excessive waste factors when you go weird. Sure there is such homes out there with big budgets and lots of space to burn that can get away with this but neither of those conditions existed. So this is exactly what we told the owner but he did not like the message.
Hence the owner went his own way or should I say the way of the Tico architect who was telling him what he wanted to hear versus what he needed to hear. We do not participate in suicide missions that are going to end ugly. He was out 50% on the budget doing things our way so if he goes the typical route it will be that or more. There is no maybe here and we have seen situations like this repeat themselves over and over again with always the most predictable of results. This is another Aroi Thai situation all over again with but the huge difference of warning the owner long in advance, telling him what was going to happen and why it was going to happen. Sorry you can’t fix stupid as this case demonstrates. I told him he was going to need a lot of luck or more like an act of God to pull this one off. Not much more that we can do other than warn people and then stay the hell away from the train wreck. That is all that can come from this recipe.
What this example did provide though was proof as to the need for us to be very hard headed in just not working with professionals who behave this way whether that be through ignorance or deceit is of no relevance what is relevant is what the outcome will inevitably be. For those who take offence in my comments or position especially now that I have invested several hours in explaining it fully with stories and real life examples to back it up, then that only means that you are not a suitable client for us and that we can live with.
#10 Private Residence in Dominical
Lesson to be learned – Unrealistic pricing and design incompatibility.
The following are not my words but those of one of our most recent clients. I thought this a good example of how difficult it can to find a designer and team to work with….
I am a Canadian (Calgarian to be precise) who owns property south of Dominical. We have spent thousands and a couple of years attempting to find an architect or builder who we could trust to build us a home that is both complementary to the ecology of the country, yet is of high quality in the construction methodology.
To tell you the truth we had all but given up. The last builder I talked to builds pre-fab homes, is from the area, yet tells us that his building process takes up to 1 year, and the lowest end costs are approximately $100/ sq ft. To get pex plumbing, adding 12 volt wiring for LED lighting, and hardwood shingle roofing etc would cost up to $160/ sq ft. That is before a carport (2 car under a roof…quoted at $46,000).
That doesn’t make any sense to me.
By chance I stumbled across your web site on Friday. I have been scouring it ever since. The vast majority of what you comment on makes perfect logical sense to me. I have done a fair bit of building and renovating here in Canada both in Calgary and on Vancouver Island so can certainly see the value in your comments. I must tell you it was like a breath of fresh air to read your 15 Commandments.
Yeh right a prefab concrete panel taking a year to build that is nonsense. What can be said for a $46,000 car port other than gouging a foreigner who would require much more money than brains to go along with that. Needless to say we clicked with this client quickly as he had obviously ran quite a gauntlet prior to stumbling onto us. The differences between ourselves and the previous experiences were rather obvious to him hence a concept design and agreement came about very quickly when both parties knew what they needed out of it.
This industry in Costa Rica can be grueling and frustrating to no end so how I maintain my sanity is to remove as much of the BS from the formula as I can hence the first we do is make certain we know very well the key players who make up the orchestra in the first place. Do take note that I have only covered here the past year of experiences there is much more but I hardly need to write a book heck this was more than long enough to bring home the reality behind the policy. I have no interest in Russian Roulette or doing assisted suicides for foolish clients. The name is not Kevorkian.
Finally we have another if you want to call it unique problem and that is the general lack of understanding or shall I call it respect for light weight construction and its capabilities. Tico engineers are notorious with swatting flies with a sledge hammer. After generations of heavily reinforced concrete they seem to have an inability to downsize the structure to accommodate the massively lighter structures or comprehend that these lighter structures flex and bend with an earthquake rather than shattering as rigid concrete is so good at doing. To say the least there was lots of news footage showing this after the 2012 earthquake where many homes were severely damaged especially two story ones since no residential homes are actually seismically designed nor will people pay for the significant increase in costs that brings about. This is of course what baffles me about the love affair with concrete in comparison to the evidence that indicates it is hardly a good solution for residential low density homes in seismically active areas.
I fired the engineer on our Jaco project because of this massive lack of comprehension of changing of the mindset to go with the technology. I call it a lack of belief rather than just engineering. I just recently visited a new steel stud engineered 4 Plex project that although was technically way ahead of anything else here they are pissing away 30 – 40% of their material in massive over build. Plus they installed an 8″ x 8″ and 3/8″ I beam to support a two car carport that of course supported one story of light weight construction of only 8′ depth. That could have easily been reduced by half. Woow. It is going to take at least another generation coming up to grasp and really appreciate light weight so in the meantime it is dam difficult finding the rare people who will not rob you blind in overbuilding way beyond the real requirements. We have done the best we can in the current situation plus Michael does all our own design work to marry both concept with materials being used without a predisposition to prejudice. Take note he built a 7 story office tower in Vancouver the first ever in a seismic zone 2 area out of strictly light gauge steel stud, not a single piece of red iron to be found anywhere. That is another issue if someone else does the design he still has to come in and panelize it or redo the job to make it all work so there is a duplication of time and costs for the owner.
This policy is in fact a great news story for the right clients who appreciate that we have a team that all works together to bring your dream home about with as little hassle as is humanly possible for both of us. This also eliminates you hunting down the right people which I may be so bold as to suggest there is a snow balls chance in hell a new comer could possibly accomplish task. Also to do so with a realistic and doable budget not some pie in the sky fantasy. No need to experiment or spend time going off on tangents as the old saying goes if it works don’t fix it. Michael and Oscar Villavicencio, who is everything opposite to what I have described above , run our show along with others when and where required in a smooth flowing process. Things will change in any home from concept to completion and materials and methods may well evolve but these principles will not when it comes to selecting a team that will abide by such principles of professional competency.