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How NOT to Get Ripped Off
BY THE CONSTRUCTION INDUSTRY
in Latin America
15 Commandments to follow to bring forth GREAT Construction
Tips, Tricks & Traps to avoid Owning a Money Pit
Secrets to Building a 21st Century Home
written by Trevor Chilton
linkedin profile: http://www.linkedin.com/in/trevorchilton21centuryhomescr
and edited by Michael S. Pawluk
linkedin profile: http://www.linkedin.com/pub/michael-s-pawluk/8/373/b29
Note: For easier reading when using Google Chrome browser just use Ctrl + and you can magnify the print to your preference.
The following 15 Commandments provide detailed information as to just how and why to build great construction similar to our project Montaña Paraiso in San Antonio de Escazu, Costa Rica. Although this Construction manual has been prepared specifically as to how and why we build the way we do in our project or for outside clients, I guarantee you the reader can benefit from this information when buying, selecting or planning your next home, wherever it may be in Latin America. Obviously with only 31 homes to build, we will have many more readers than owners to provide guidance to, but everyone can benefit from the same knowledge base regardless to where your home actually ends up being built. We also offer our services to help you acquire the many unique materials and methods knowledge outlined here in, no matter where you may live. Many people have chosen to build their own home here as they do not like the typical construction and for this they have good reason, as we shall read.
However the challenges to building are drastically amplified once you take into consideration the following: you have never built a home; you are going to try to do so in a new country, in a different language; but even more daunting, to do so when you have little idea as to common and established practices that will not agree with what you desire as your final results. That challenge may feel like running through a minefield naked but at least my intention is to give you a road map to know where the big mines are. Now if you choose to buy an existing home, this manual would also prove to be invaluable when you know where to look for the inevitable future problems, as well as to assess what it may cost to make improvements or more importantly to know when to run like hell away from a MONEY PIT. I may be so bold as to suggest anyone buying anything here should have their heads examined if they proceed without reading this entire book first. It will save you a massive amount of money or avoid a lot of heartache or both.
The 15 Commandments
1. Cement Blocks, What – Only Over my Dead Body
2. Insulation is Most Critical in the Modern Tropical Home
3. Concrete = A HORRIBLE Home = Massive Environmental Offender
4. Why a SMART Home Builds with MgO SIPs –
(Structural Insulated Panels skinned with Magnesium Oxide sheets)
5. Building Green Homes = Better Homes = More Economical Homes
6. Electrical System – Only by the CODE
– Don’t Mess with Your Nerve Center
7. A Cheap Tropical Roof – No Such Thing Exists
8. Fire Suppression Systems – the Latest Big Change in Safety
9. Plumbing is the Boss of the Home
10. Environmental Protection & Waste Disposal
11. Communication Systems – Pivotal to Building Smart Homes
12. A Modern Home SHALL BE a Safe Home
13. Infrastructure Issues Outside of Your Home
14. Excellent Materials are a Major Challenge yet So Critical
15. Beware of Professionals or Be Aware
Warning one: This started as a short report but has grown into an e-book over 100 pages with way over 100 photos and drawings, which keeps on growing, as I keep getting calls from readers asking me to help them with with their problems hence that inevitably brings forward more issues to educate my readers on. This has become a never ending project. That inevitably means it will take some effort on your part to absorb this much information. However, with that being said, I have forsaken brevity for thoroughness in an effort to make certain that the layman does not get lost in all the misinformation, or lack there of, when they are in search of real answers and direction often in what is totally foreign territory. I also suggest that when one is in search of solid answers with regards to one of their largest purchases of their lives, one that they are going to spend many years paying for, or worse yet, paying for regrettable mistakes, thoroughness of your research prior to your purchase is the only real intelligent option. However that kind of in depth knowledge most certainly will never come from a napkin presentation. Nor can you begin to know such as a new kid on the block in Costa Rica or anywhere in Latin America. Also take note that a lot of the lessons you will learn in this book come from the real world of existing homes and their chronic and often common problems. Also if you want to know how to really build a new home don’t go looking at a new project you won’t learn much there. A much smarter approach is to look at older ones as that is where you will actually see the rubber meeting the pavement as to how past common practices have served the owners or not. It is just like when you are buying a new car. Go ask a mechanic how the older cars of that model and company have stood the test of time that is the only way to find out what is the true measure of quality and value. Certainly no slick sales brochure performs that task effectively!
Warning two: I speak here exclusively to those who have a desire to be progressive and seek the most modern of building methods, materials and technologies all of which help to deliver to the owner not just a good home but a GREAT one . All of these methods are geared towards as green and ecologically sensitive and as modern of a home as is humanly possible. I make no apology for being blunt and to the point as my motive is not to win a popularity contest only to be factual and to have the best informed readers as is possible. That I am aware of no one has ever written a book of this nature geared to the Latin America market and its unique characteristics and problems. Should either of these warnings bother you then now is the time to bail out as this book was definitely not written to serve you.
For me nothing is sacred in building and I absolutely refuse to accept any kind of attitude that says we must do things the way we do based on habit or the attitude that says, “Well that is just the way we do things here.” In fact I have fired a number of people for exactly that incurable disease. In order to set the mindset prior to me challenging many construction myths that exist, let’s make a simple analogy of how to buy a new home versus a new car. If you were out looking for a new car, would you go to a lot that sells new 1950 Land Rovers, or would you go looking for the latest model of Toyota or BMW or even Hyundai? Now I am going to make a wild guess that none of my readers are going to settle for a car that uses 60 year old technology. Now if asked why, I am certain that most would say, “Well modern cars are better since they employ new sciences, processes and materials to make me safer with seat belts, airbags, many computerized controls such as ABS brakes etc. They also run for longer and more economically thanks to the same.”
Then I ask, “Why do so many people accept 60 year old technology from builders in Costa Rica when they buy a new home? Do you not think that the modern era is capable of much more?”
Please keep these questions in your mind as you read this book. In my opinion in order for us to progress we must always be willing to challenge the status quo, otherwise we will never ever improve and would still have square wheels.
I most certainly appreciate where most people are coming from and what they are looking for in the way of a long term investment in a home or to get your foot in the door of your first home. That is also why it is a good idea to learn more about what you are buying before you make one of the biggest investment decisions of your life. Just to preface what I am about to say, let me share with you the fact that I am eleven years here in Costa Rica and I love my life here with no intention of ever returning to Canada. This I provide only so you understand that I am not a new kid on the block at all plus adding to that I acquired my Canadian Inter-provincial Journeyman status as a carpenter in 1980 hardly makes me a new kid at anything. Now with that being said, I do not wish to offend anyone but to be perfectly blunt with you from my experiences, I have been given little reason to respect the Tico Construction Industry. In general summary it is rather backwards, poorly educated, not especially progressive in its methods nor in advancing forward and totally lacks effective regulation to protect the consumer from bad eggs.
There is also a simple systemic problem in that building inspections don’t exist from any independent source, eg. Municipal or National body, such as is the case in most countries. Hence the only one that is going to follow codes or stop poor quality workmanship or materials is the supervising architect or engineer. Well what happens if the one who is inspecting actually stands to gain or loose financially as a result of their own report? This leaves a very big hole for the innocent owner to fall into and to be prey to less than optimum quality work and materials. A blatant conflict of interest can and often does exist.
Then to add to this dose of reality if you the owner has problems with an engineer or architect, their College is totally useless in that it lacks any real teeth to help you resolve problems, even if it agrees with your complaint. In the end it is kind of like having the fox guarding the hen house. Over my time and, to put it mildly, at great expense, I have fired two engineers and one architect in order to cultivate a great team to work with so as to avoid ever having to have anything to do with the useless College in the first place. Worse yet is there is no insurance on those professionals, so even if they are caught pulling a huge blunder there is no where to go to get funds to pay damages. At the end of the day the only one who really does look out for the owner is the conscientious builder, architect and engineer team who want to protect their reputation as the system here does little to ensure any of this.
To also give you a better idea as to where my critique comes from, myself and my partner have over 65 years of construction experience, most of which came in the very tough climate, system and building codes of Canada. This is where our standards come from and what we follow and believe me, they are far more rigid than anything thrown at us from the lacking system here. Many people think that building is difficult here, between rains and earthquakes, but I would counter that these are not much of a problem as compared to building in Canada with up to an 80ºc temperature change that occurs each and every year without exception. Hence I hope you can appreciate that we bring a much different attitude as well as methods to what we do.
We build but one way. That is to provide a 21st Century Home as if we were building it for our own family. What we do is we find ways to use modern methods and materials to cut your costs as low as possible yet to maintain a much higher quality than is average. Most of the typical methods here are incredibly labour intensive yet builders stick to them believing that labour is dirt cheap. Well it is not! At one time it was but in reality the costs have increased drastically in the past few years without the industry progressing forward into this century. Much of what is done is anchored back in time by 60 years. That is hardly the cutting edge that we and our clients strive for.
When you have labour rates such as Canada and US, we have had to learn how to do things more quickly and efficiently by using better tools, better materials and better methods. Otherwise we would end up with a house no one could afford to buy. I do not think I need to tell you that housing is NOT CHEAP IN COSTA RICA. Hence we have every reason to use any methods or tricks at our disposal to try to control the basic costs as much as is humanly possible. With that in mind as a general backdrop, I shall give you a brief outline of just how to build a true 21st Century Home.
Cement Blocks – What?
Only Over my Dead Body!
We use absolutely no blocks what so ever since they are at best described as one HORRIBLE antiquated construction product. The blocks themselves are actually very weak, very porous plus a single wall has many meters of joints that are cemented together hence when there is a slight shift in the foundation of such, or worse yet, lateral pressure, you get cracking joints and blocks. Eg. Just one typical 25 meter long wall has 375 meters of joints all of which are a weak point to a structurally sound system. Also lets get real, we are in a country where things shake and wiggle around from time to time so to use a method that would have us trying to cement together 620 pieces rather than making one solid single piece is just plain crazy. What logical kind of building science or engineering backs this up? This technology goes back a good sixty years or more, hence this is anything but a progressive modern technology.
As in many parts of Costa Rica, in order for us to have the best view in all of Escazu, we are building on a mountainside. However with that mountain view comes two challenges. One of which is having to construct level plantels on a mountain slope on which to place a new home. Hence we have to build hundreds of meters (yards) of retaining walls to create these for every home.
Now to construct a retaining wall a typical builder would use blocks for this purpose without ever questioning why. In reality a monolithic (one piece pour of concrete) wall is actually 18% cheaper than block plus, of even greater concern, it is at the very least 100% structurally stronger. For a simple demonstration of the economic reality even if we ignore the drastically superior strength factor, for our first four lots I will spend $200 to rent Symons forms to pour these retainers. This is the reason most builders won’t do this as they do not want to have to pay to rent forms to pour the concrete. Yet by spending $200 on rent I save $1,800 in labour that would otherwise be wasted in very slowly building one most inferior wall system out of block as compared to pure concrete.
Now in addition to the labour saving, one has to take into serious consideration that just from this one trick, I have just cut three weeks out of the typical construction cycle. Well someone has to pay for that time if you do it the old backwards way! Think about it. Who really ends up paying for this in the end. Never is it the developer in reality! When he has more carrying costs to the project he just adds that into the end price and YOU get to pay higher costs of construction by using such backwards methods. Let there be no mistake about it, that is the unvarnished truth, plain and simple. The end owner always pays for bad construction methods either in price or quality or typically both. There just is no good place to use block as it is simply not fast, cheap or a quality method. So short of matching up to an existing construction, 99% of the time I will find another product to use that serves the end purpose far better. I would describe the use of this product as a habit, a really bad habit like smoking or doing drugs. Those that use it religiously have a mathematical impairment in being able to compare the real costs of its use versus the superiority of alternative methods. In fact I would be so bold as to suggest when I see something using such an inferior and slow method that I discount them as a real builder.
Commandment # 2
Insulation is MOST Critical
In a Modern Tropical Home
Throughout this book you will repeatedly read my absolutely adamant statements with regards to the paramount importance of this component as it weaves its way throughout the entire system of what makes up a modern, hence comfortable, green and energy saving home. It is not OPTIONAL material at all but needs to elevated to the standard of critical for all homes. It makes no difference as to what value or size a home is, it simply cannot meet any of these objectives without employing a leading edge system of insulation to separate you from the external climate. Our view is that every home has to be constructed with methods and materials that make it as comfortable as is humanly possible. Yet with this reality, it is a strange dichotomy when we live in a country where I can find the latest and most advanced of electronic goods, gadgets and toys at hundreds of stores yet when I enter a typical building supply or hardware store, not only do they not have any insulation in stock, they often don’t even know what I am talking about. Categorically I state, there is not a single roof in Costa Rica that does not desperately need insulation. When you have this tropical sun beating down on your head every day you cannot avoid this necessity. Yet I would estimate the use of such at less than 10% of all construction erected each year. This is bizarre and sheer nonsense when one considers that the Prodex or Reflectex reflective foil insulation is not expensive and one is in fact manufactured out near the airport. That also goes for EPS styrofoam and fiberglass batts as all of these add a very small amount to any budget yet have such a monstrous affect on both the comfort level and operating costs of any home.
My first example comes from Jacó that shows how absolutely ridiculous this situation all too often is. When I was building a project in Jacó our next door neighbour was a condo project called Monte Carlo, (so it had a rich name implying quality and luxury). However that name hardly carried through in the reality of what was actually put into the all critical structural components. Note these units sold for $200,000+ yet this builder did not think it worthy to insulate this air conditioned space. They put a plastic tile roof on these with zip for insulation so all that protected the occupants from the Jacó scorching sun was 1/4” of plastic tile and 1/2” of gypsum, both with zero insulation value or reflective qualities. Hence these units are plagued by a typical electrical bill of $400 to $500 a month as the occupants try to get their homes down to a bearable temperature. First off, this is financial suicide but it goes much deeper than that as the comfort level of the home sucks when the owner arrives from a day away to a pizza oven rather than a space of comfort.
So the first critical question one might ask is, “what did the builder actually save by eliminating this critical component?” Well he saved $200 or .001% of the home value for a product that would have paid for itself in roughly its first 2 weeks of usage. This is just plain obscene and as irresponsible as is humanly possible.
Below is a sample of the best product to solve this problem at an affordable cost.
NOTE: You can click on any photo to get a full description of each then just click your back button to return to the book.
This is a Canadian product called Reflectex that is the best product available at a respectable price of $4.40 m2 considering the shipping of a bulky material a long ways from Canada. It also uses the more expensive bubble pack just like your shipping envelopes as the insulator base. This makes for a superior lamination of the aluminum foil to the face of the insulator. Since the bubble is faced on both sides with a full sheet of plastic they get a 100% bond of the foil versus the closed cell foam that Prodex uses which is around 50% air pockets hence way less bond-able area. This factor is critical because without that lamination maintaining it’s integrity the product becomes absolutely worthless as a reflector should it ever de-laminate on you. In a worst case scenario when using A/C this pays for itself in at most its first six months. What the increased comfort level is worth only you can tell???
Yes it is even better to beef up the insulation value and sound barrier by adding EPS styrofoam or fiberglass batt below the foil as well, but Prodex or Reflectex are the bare minimum starting point for all homes. I cannot possibly think of a better demonstration as to how any air conditioned home here absolutely needs a code that demands the use of insulation prior to being allowed to connect any air conditioning unit. Worse than the financial abuse of the owners is the fact that they are placing a ridiculous and totally unnecessary demand upon the Costa Rican electrical grid for absolutely no good let alone logical reason. Preposterous and irresponsible are the only possible descriptions of this. This also clearly demonstrates as to how an expensive home and a good home do not necessarily have anything in common when you have at best idiots or more accurately described, thieves, as builders/developers. My simple advice for any buyer: NEVER assume a high price actually means high quality construction, often it can be an inverse relationship.
Recently I read a letter in the Tico Times where an owner was lambasting ICE for causing his high electrical bill on his condo out at Punta Leona. He declared the rates from ICE were way too high well he is partly right in that their rates of $.22 kwh are high but still less than Souther California at $.25 kWh. Florida has a range of costs going from $.10 up to $.14 so yes their rates are lower but the big question is how do the consumption rates compare.
Was the huge difference in the Miami bill versus his but a simple result of KWH consumption not just the rate at all? Here is what you can take to the bank, the builder in Miami had to meet minimum energy efficiency standards, meaning insulation values, in order to get a permit or to sell the product on to a consumer. What is needed to make a meaningful comparison is kwh per square meter of condo but I have no doubt there is a drastic difference in the consumption per m2 due to the drastically different code requirements or total lack there of. Failing to recognize the effect of energy efficiency on the code and regulation or any realization that it has some importance is the real problem so ranting at ICE for owning an energy pig is nonsense. This would be likened to blaming Shell for your Hummer burning to much gas. Although I would sure like to see lower rates here one thing I can appreciate if we compare what they have accomplished versus each of our neighbors, everyone all over the country has power that is relatively dependable according to location. When you look at Nicaragua and Panama that have large areas that have no power service what so ever or where they do there is power outages that are practically a daily occurrence. We cannot ignore the mountains ICE must contend with and the fact that all the poor people get rate subsidies if they have minimal consumption due to the social nature under which ICE was constituted.
Now since I doubt like hell we are about to see any rate roll backs by ICE does it then not preclude us as responsible and intelligent home owners, builders and designers to ensure we are not just throwing buckets of KWH’s right out the window. These rates are even more so of an incentive to deal in a proactive method to build responsible home construction, especially in the design phase. If our rate is for example double that of Miami then the pay back for smart construction and investing in your home will pay off in spades in one very short period just as the example I cited in Jacó. Building more new energy pigs is hardly the answer for ICE to deal with grid overload brought about by growing demands especially when we are discussing air conditioning which is a far greater consumer at a higher cost per BTU than home heating is up north. Yet even with that the insulation requirements dictated by code are almost identical in Las Vagas as Regina the only difference is one is designed to keep the heat out and the other to keep it in. It is but a different lane on the same highway of building science. Being smart in your design and material selections provide both a huge pay back to you the consumer as well as not senselessly over burdening the grid. I repeat, what is the value of having a home more comfortable to live in when it is not an oven when you return to it? Lets make a simple comparison would you go out purposely looking for the vehicle that burns the most gas possible yet provides no benefits what so ever. The one exception might be if you drive a Hummer but if such is the case I really doubt I would ever be your builder or even less likely you would read a book of this nature in the first place.
Just within the past two months I have seen plans come across my desk done for clients by typical Tico “professionals” one an architect and the other an engineer. In both cases these were homes well north of $200,000 yet both had serious deficiencies regarding the basics of building science. The first was totally ridiculous where they had built an insulated coventec wall but were not going to put anything at all under the crappy tin roof. The owner was told he did not need to insulate a roof in Costa Rica! INCREDIBLE! This roof would cost around $2,000 to do or less than 1% of the construction budget meanwhile the engineer through away $25,000 to $35,000 on the foundation. In this case the owner vetoed the engineer and was going to insulate the roof which by the way is where 85% of the heat gain comes from. It was particularly preposterous in this case as the owner was adamant that he did not want to use air conditioning at the beach, none the less. Needless to say had we not intervened at that critical moment he would have been one very disappointed new owner when the reality came home to roost after he moved into his nice new oven. But hey he could always sue the engineer for gross incompetence that would only take him ten years to settle! We shall discuss this later in the final chapter.
The second case was just last week (May 21) when I received another set of plans equally ridiculous. If this owner does not veto the architect’s insane drawings he is going to be in for one rude awakening with a home that is going to produce at bare minimum $600 up to $1,000 a month electrical bills for the following reasons. One large dark colored flat roof with nothing under it whatsoever for insulation. Small or no overhangs leaving walls and windows unprotected and soaking up all that heat at Playa Samara. Incredibly the architect also specified a rock facing to a concrete wall as well as a brick facing on another concrete wall both without any overhang at all to keep the sun off. Both of these are going to weight in at many tons that are going to absorb hundreds of thousands of calories each day hence both of these walls will be most efficient as they act as we say up north, “heat sinks.” These walls are then going to radiate off all that heat they gain each day all night into the house and most particularly into the master bedroom to toast the owner while attempting to sleep. This will then require an A/C going full time to offset this pizza oven that will be throwing heat at the owners like crazy. But I did really think the glass roof on the carport such a creative idea. Dah! Why do we put our cars in the shade? Maybe so this high UV tropical sun does not fry the paint and upholstery or burn your legs when you sit down on them. An expensive glass roof so that we can destroy our car what a genius of an idea. Sorry folks I can not possible call this house as designed anything but one ugly energy pig and one incredibly stupid collection of really bad ideas from someone totally ignorant as to how to design and/or construct a comfortable and economically viable home. This design gets my coveted 5 star Jackass award.
Any home has three basic components to its final character A) style B) functionality of all systems that make up the environment and C) economical reality in both constructing and then maintaining the living space. This particular home design would get this as a report card: A) A, B) D, & C) F. Would you hire an architect with this for a report card? We will return to this subject of competency in our final chapter.
Throughout this book we will return to this topic of insulation many times as I will site many other considerations as to how we assess what needs to be used in methods, designs and materials to make a home as comfortable and energy efficient as possible. Yes in most cases it means spending more money to do it right initially but be aware, such short comings are difficult if not impossible to fix later. However, with that being said, the result of such initiatives all have a good to great payback or return on the investment for the home owner, as you either pay a little now or a whole lot later! Plus you get a comfortable home forever and that my friends is a formula that just does not fit into a calculator. I would say that benefit is priceless and I know that all intelligent owners will fully agree with my assessment of such.
Commandment # 3
Concrete = A HORRIBLE Home
And a Massive Ecological Offender
Okay now I am going to really enter the ring of battling myths. We or you should only consider using concrete for floors, foundations, retaining walls and underground works. We do not and will not ever use it for walls of homes. Concrete is functional in its correct place but it most certainly is not a be all answer to every construction need as is the common belief and practice. Yes it may have a place in high-rise structures even though I would personally tend to lean towards using steel due to the major improvement in speed, hence the job costs drop with a shorter construction cycle. The evidence dictates that concrete does not make for an ecological, economical , comfortable or practical way to build one to three story homes.
Why, you might ask, I say so when I sit in a country that almost exclusively and religiously does so. I would best describe this as pure unfounded earthquake paranoia yet lacking any real science and data to actually support such a belief. We just experienced the second worst earthquake in recorded history that miraculously only killed one person when a wall fell upon him. However there was hundreds of homes that were severely damaged. On the news we saw dozens of homes where the weight of the bouncing walls and floors simply could not be supported by the columns which caused fracturing in all the components of the structure. Once it goes this far it is almost impossible to repair the structures so affected.
Problem 1 – Reality proven from elsewhere in the world supports that contrary to common opinion versus scientific fact, concrete is not actually a great product in earthquakes since although it is strong it’s fault is that it is far too rigid hence it tends to break when under pressure or it’s supports move causing it to fall.
Problem 2 – It’s other downfall, along with the rigidity factor, is that it is extremely heavy hence when it does fail you have a MAJOR problem! For example let’s not forget all the people that got sandwiched in all the collapses that occurred in San Francisco, Oct. 1989. This is also why a seismic rated high rise building must be specially engineered to move or sway with an earthquake otherwise there is a risk of failure. Tokyo was the first to discover this from failures before they started the whole seismic design technology. In my own home I do not particularly want massively heavy structures that can fall and turn me into a pancake, thank you. I see no upside in taking such risks when light weight, flexible and affordable systems exist.
Problem 3 – Another big problem that no one here talks about is that it has no insulation value what so ever and transfers heat or cold right through it as per the evidence from my Jacó sample which was block filled with concrete. It has what is referred to as a low R-value (Resistance to thermal transfer) of 0.2 for a typical 5” (12 cm) wall where as our system is rated at R16 to R20 so that would be an 8,000% improvement. Now the uneducated and inexperienced will say “but it is the tropics, how can insulation be important?” Well the answer is, it is critically important provided you want a comfortable, low cost and green home. Remember, I said resistance to heat transfer, so on a hot day when the sun is beating down and heating up a concrete wall that heat is transferred directly into your home. Worse yet when you go to sleep at night all those tons of hot walls that were heated up during the day are now radiating out all that heat at you all night when you are trying to get a good comfortable nights sleep. Hence it turns your bedroom into more like a pizza oven.
Conversely with proper construction, materials and tropical design methods air conditioning is rendered to being a completely useless expense since your house will never be hot.
Problem 4 – Now also contrary to the story book view of the tropics there is another heat transfer problem that occurs from Sept. to Jan. when we actually get rather cool nights here in Escazu. At that time of the year those same concrete walls are going to literally suck the daytime heat out of your house and have you shivering in your bed at night. For example I am writing this Jan. 4, 2012 and the wind is a whistling tonight at a good 40 km an hour and I assure hot is our last problem. Meanwhile an insulated panel wall will not be sucking out the heat but will actually be trapping the daytime heat in your house keeping you cozy at night. A simple reality of how this relates is that the building code in Canada is pretty much equivalent to that of Las Vegas when it comes to minimum insulation requirements, it is just that the need is opposite, Canada demands it to lower heating costs whereas Las Vegas demands it to lower Air Conditioning costs as per the Jacó example. The need may change but the science of how to accomplish this in smart construction does not. You can also take a lesson on this from bees, they make their homes out of a high R value product cellulose and in fact we have copied their age old science and use a very similar product to insulate most attics and sometimes walls in Canada.
Problem 5 – Another false perception of concrete is that it is quiet, where in reality it is not at all as its solidity transfers noise vibration very effectively almost as good as it transfers heat. Just listen to a women walking in high heels one story above you. Contrary to this, an insulated wall works like one big pillow wrapped around your home to deter many of the unwanted noises that emanate from the street such as buses or trucks going by etc. from ever entering your home. Using the same methods to construct second story floors will provide the same low noise transfer qualities. In summary, an insulated home will be cooler or warmer and quieter hence such is not really an option for a comfortable home but an absolute must have.
Those married to the concrete industry may counter me with “but we use concrete because it is economical.” Well sorry folks as my calculator works it just does not add up to being cheap at all if you take into account all construction costs especially when you add a time value to the construction cycle and add in those sizable carrying costs to any such project. This is a most commonly forgotten factor for those that have a vested interest in coming up with an answer to support its use. It is one painfully slow tedious process. I have watched a house being built during my daily walks through Bello Horizonte last year and just walking by pained me so. I would have had the family in their new home by Christmas where as they barely got the metal roof deck on. At this rate they will be lucky if they are in there by June and the owner will have paid how many months of interest costs on his construction loan?
Problem 6 – Very unfriendly for maintenance and /or renovations. I am certain most of my readers will have experienced this already and fully well know what I talk about. Concrete construction is horribly expensive when you have a problem in a wall, whether caused by poor workmanship or materials or something that just wears out like an old tap set in a shower. When this happens you are faced with many hours of labour, much noise and dust, and one very slow process that seriously disrupts your home in order to make repairs. Any larger renovations take a long time or are never done even when desired, simply because of all the ensuing problems that people often avoid all together as they already know what they are faced with. A perfect example of this was a renovation of a fifty year old concrete house I did this year which shows up in the pictures with regards to plumbing system.
When you have problems which is quite frequently with cracking or the stucco cap over a block wall letting go it most labour intensive to repair. If you have any kind of leaking problems or water filtration this happens quite handily. Below is a picture of a wall we had to remove this cap off of as a result of a leaking roof. Note the curved window was gypsum and it was actually less damaged and a fraction of the time was spent repairing it.
Problem 7 – Humidity and water seepage problems is a most common plague in thousands of concrete walls here. What most layman do not realize is that even though they look at concrete and think to themselves that is a very solid material that does not translate to meaning it is a good barrier to water. In reality it is horrible as it will allow a great deal of water to move right through it due to capilary action. If it is a block wall then magnify that problem by a factor of 2 to 3. Wherever in construction there is going to be moisture on a frequent or steady basis you have to take proactive measures to ensure that there is a water barrier installed on the wet side of any wall. The aforementioned renovation had a weeping wall that held back two meters of hillside but was most foolishly not waterproofed at construction stage. We took every measure possible to try to stop this from inside the wall but as I warned the owner this is a gamble and if none of our materials succeed then your only choice is the pleasant task of digging the dirt out by hand then applying a costly product from the water side. Once water enters a concrete wall and is under hydro-static pressure it is near impossible to stop it from weeping out of the other side. We will revisit this once again later in the book in Chapter 13.
I just attended to another problem wall in Puntarenas which was totally above ground. It was the exterior wall of a beautiful 4 year old home but the back side of that same wall was also a neighbour’s garden hence just the rain falling in this back yard was enough moisture to travel through this wall and destroy the paint finish on the other side every year. Hence it has become a proverbial pain in the ass maintenance problem as they do not want to be repairing and painting the same wall year, after year, after year. It is now difficult to enter the back yards of several neighbours to solve this error made at construction stage. In general if you cannot keep the rain off of a concrete wall you need to apply a waterproof mortar on the wet side of a wall for a minimum of the first 3 feet or meter off of the ground. In this case and at this stage of the game I told the owners the only choice for this wall now was to waterproof it, insulate it and cap it from the inside to avoid the constant maintenance to this cancerous concrete.
I have had pro-concrete people tell me “but there is no maintenance.” All I can say is BS, I say to those who want a home in excellent condition it is far easier to accomplish such with other building systems that do not allow transfer of moisture. Aside from the cosmetic issues such walls also create a wonderful breeding ground for molds, since we have like 140 species of such here this is a proverbial problem that we will revisit again.
Problem 8 – A HUGE ENVIRONMENTAL OFFENDER. Few realize the massive negative environmental affects brought about from the processing of Normal Portland Cement (NPC).When one ton of cement isheated up to (1400–1450 °C) it releases 800kg of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere! This is a consequence of the massive amount of heat required to bring about the chemical reaction and cannot be reduced by energy saving. So in the process of making cement we bring about the very worst offender in adding to our serious green house gas problem especially when we consider the massive amount of tons of cement that the world uses each and every day. Just to make things worse is that concrete in of itself is not structural so we have to add tons of reinforcing bar or rebar to give it structural strength. Any structure must also container tons of rebar which is even a more offending product as for each ton of steel there is 1.8 tons of CO2 created in the manufacturing process. Hence this type of structure has to huge environmental offenders teaming up to give a far from green product solution. Any home using large amounts of cement/concrete/steel is not and cannot be considered sustainable nor green in light of these scientific FACTS. Anyone who suggests otherwise is either on the industry payroll or is seriously ignorant of the real facts. Alternatively the Magnesium Oxide board we use has none of this environmental impact since it is actually formed at ambient temperature hence no carbon footprint in its manufacture.
Commandment # 4
A Smart Home Builds with MgO SIPs
(Structural Insulated Panels skinned by Magnesium Oxide Board)
This system is what we consider to be the very best building system that is available today when one considers all the benefits as well as current and future costs. So please bare with me for the story as to how exactly we came about to be where we are today. In essence I believe you will benefit from knowing the details of this long journey and that we did not just stumble upon this system. We were using Coventec panels (styrofoam surrounded by a wire cage, invented in Texas) in Jacó as they were the best local solution at that time. Well that was the case at least until we saw what our brain dead engineer did to screw with the system and science behind it, as he still thought with a Concrete Mindset even though it is a lightweight system. Also at that time there was no plant set up here for SIPs, that only came on the scene three years later.
Through a friend I met one of the engineers involved in setting up a SIP plant for Eckstrom hence through that connection I took a good look at their system. I saw with my own eyes the truck parked on top of a demo structure which was indeed rather convincing as to the systems strength. To put this in perspective I am the expediter, I am the one who goes and finds stuff here that is often unusual or unique then I typically take the good things back to Michael, my partner, who has over 50 years experience in design and architectural technology, then we review its merits together. After seeing the SIPs set up I realized immediately that this was the system that Michael had been talking to me about for years. He brought into production and ran a plant in Airdrie, Alberta, as part of his many years of experience with steel and panel construction systems. He also designed a system and built a seven story light gauge steel apartment building in Vancouver (also a seismic zone), in seven weeks. So to say the least he has more light steel experience than anyone else in this country has. Now with all that as our background and with that experience behind us, we both have our full belief that this version of SIPs is by far the most superior method in all respects.
Once the decision was made to switch to this system after the introduction to Eckstrom’s product, we did not just accept blindly what was available locally, so I went searching the world. I talked to producers of panels going from Edmonton to Calgary to Mexico City to Panama City to Chile to compare systems and prices of course. Through that research I hit head on with (Magnesium Oxide) MgO board and its drastically superior qualities as compared to anything made of cement or OSB (Oriented Strand Board). This was a subject that resurfaced as Michael had investigated and told me what he had found out about the natural properties of MgO almost six years ago as it was just back then getting some traction in the market. Through that discovery we found that if you took the SIP engineering principles and then applied the best sheeting product in the world that the end result was one astoundingly superior product.
Through the continual research I embarked upon I managed to find Steve Marskell and his company MgO Board Corp. in Australia who makes the only certified MgO sheet product in the world. From there he introduced me to a manufacturer of panels that uses his sheets. Hence this investigation and final result took roughly 10 months to put the supply chain together. I would also like to remind you we started this mission for our own purposes for what we would put in our own homes so that we would know we have the BEST that is available. Now after starting down this road it became apparent that it would be beneficial for us to share our knowledge and experience with others who also have the same goals for their new homes as well. We are driven by the desire to be on the cutting edge of innovative ideas, materials and methods to address the challenges as well as to improve the quality and economics of Costa Rican construction. I felt there was merit in explaining the whole story and the road that we have followed to get to where we are today so that the readers could have a better understanding of what, why and how this came about over a period of near to 40 years. This is anything but a new fad or casual affair for us.
Now to explain the basic system, as there is quite a number of different ones out there and there is going to be differing opinions as to which one is better, but all function by the same engineering science of membranes separated by a core that carries the load from one to another while giving a lighter and stronger structure as compared to systems pieced toghether, as in stick framing or block. This is no different than the deck of a bridge nor the girders that support a bridge from its peers. The same engineering principles applies for roof and floor trusses as well. For anyone who would care to challenge that this won’t work had best not travel over any bridge or stand under a roof. This is fundamental to any type of panel used of which any of these systems will provide a much better result than concrete will, that is for certain. Even though it is very likely you have never heard of a SIP system it is far from new, nor is it experimental, since the very first of these was constructed back in 1937 at the University of Wisconsin, but did not see much commercial usage until the 1970’s. One of the first builders to adopt SIPs did so in California which of course has one of the toughest building/seismic codes on the planet so that is indeed noteworthy that homes of this type have been going up for over 40 years in that market alone.
SIPs have since spread and are widely used all over North America, Mexico, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Panama, Chile, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Antigua, Africa, India, China etc. Tons of information is available through any kind of internet search.
Also on Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Structural_insulated_panel
We were going to use a locally made panel, however after starting down that road the company decided to switch from a Magnesium Oxide (MgO) skin and down graded the quality of their product considerably by changing to a cement board skin from Plycem. The supplier would not even meet with us to discuss this really stupid decision even to the point they would not even talk to Steve when he was here in August. I had handed them on a platter the world’s leading expert yet they would not even give us a meeting to find out what he might know that they don’t. Not what I would call a workable attitude, plus it is against our philosophy to just accept a second rate product for the sake of convenience, or worse yet, applying the wonders of a closed mind. On top of that needless to say I have made my view of cement abundantly clear hence it was one very easy decision to turf that product in favour of the one made using MgO skins.
These happen to be what is in our opinion the best SIP panel in the world. Since they are in fact using MgO Board Corp’s MgO sheet, this became a natural decision for us.
See: http://mgoboard.com.au. They make the best MgO board that exists and it is the only certified product of its kind on the planet. This means to meet these kind of quality standards they have to produce an excellent quality of product at all times in order to keep their certifications and be subject to periodic inspections of their plants. Add to that the fact that they invested $500,000 in the process to attain this certification gives you an idea of how serious they are about their product and its future in the building industry. They were also the first to set up a fully automated plant in China to remove the human error factor and are also in the process to do that all over again for a new production facility in Miami hence they have to jump through all the American hoops as well. FYI each plant must be certified on its own standing to meet these qualifications. Now no SIP panel can be better than what its skin is made of, hence the best skin = the best panel. SIPs are being installed in many countries with very similar climates to Costa Rica so there is nothing that we can experience that is any kind of a surprise as the stresses common to hurricane and earthquake prone areas of the world is all very similar. Interesting that this year one of Mgo Corp’s clients passed the Dade Country projectile tests to withstand penetration by debris thrown about by a category 5 huricane.
In order for you the reader to better understand why I make a statement being most critical of anything using a cement board product we must understand the natural qualities of the MgO in order to make valid comparisons as to just why it is that we hunted all over the world to find the very best of this product that was available.
MgO Qualities Include the following:
A) Fire proof – absolutely will not support a flame or burn in any way, in fact a 6mm sheet has a one hour fire rating.
B) Low heat transfer or high R value – it does not conduct heat well at all, in fact you can hold your hand on the opposite side of a sheet with a torch going full blast on the other side, this is an extreme but most relevant in protecting us from the sun’s heat.
C) Flexible with high tensile strength – cement boards are notoriously brittle and when hit or dropped they break right in half whereas MgO is much stronger and way more malleable. It can be worked much more like wood than any cement product can possibly be, in fact in thin sheets it can be used to bend around curves of pillars.
D) Lighter weight – 20% lighter than any cement board hence easier to work with
E) Green product completely eco-friendly – a total opposite in this case to cement boards as it is made at ambient temperatures, hence it creates no carbon footprint in its manufacture such as any cement product must with the massive ovens required.
F) Completely inert and does not react with anything or off gas any chemicals.
G) Water resistant and will not grow molds, which is a major issue here in the tropics.
H) Longevity in harsh climates – well the mortar holding the rocks together in the Great Wall of China is MgO mortar, not cement, so that I think would attest to its longevity in one harsh climate.
While we discuss the host of positive characteristics of MgO I think it most valid to also make a comparison between it and Gypsum Board or drywall as it relates to a tropical climate. Conversely to the positive characteristics of MgO Gypsum fails miserably in all of these categories. Yes it is a cheap product at least at initial purchase but its long term results are basically dismal. You will later see how it has held up under bad roofing practices in the roofs chapter. In essence this typifies that you do indeed get what you pay for. It is notoriously bad for growing mold and mildew here especially when used in closed spaces like closets and bathrooms where it can literally be destroyed as black mold can move in and have a hay day to say the least. This can be quite dangerous to anyone especially those that have any kind of respiratory conditions or sensitivities.
It is not a very durable product as after all it is faced with paper so that is not a very durable surface to withstand day to day wear especially in commercial or hotel applications under which it really comes forth as a horrible and very expensive product once you pay for the intense maintenance. Now there is another issue that it has that few are aware of. It is susceptible to attacks from termites. Yes that is true. The paper face is most certainly lunch for a breed of cellulose loving very tiny termites as we found out this past February.
Due to its price gypsum has really gain a lot of traction in the building market since I arrived here but in general I suggest that you avoid it as much as possible when you consider the long term costs and headaches in trying to maintain it. We most certainly cannot produce MgO for the price of gypsum but then I guess a BMW also costs more than a Lada too. The quality difference between the two products is far greater than the price difference.
So lets move on and see just what these MgO skinned panels look like…
A summary of SIP Panels major benefits are as follows:
A) R values – very high plus tight fitting to prevent air infiltration as well as bugs, in fact in every competition test in Canada, SIP homes have won every one of them.
B) Lightweight – easy to transport and install with no heavy equipment costs
C) Flexible – when put under extreme pressure via earthquakes and hurricanes the panels will flex rather than break. They have been rated for as high as 340 km per hour hurricanes
D) Fire rated – The Magnesium Oxide (MgO) board that we use is fire rated for one hour as it will not support a fire or spread a fire.
E) Rapid construction – due to it being a standardized panel system it assembles extremely quickly hence lowering both the labour cost of a home but very importantly it lowers the carrying costs that are required to pay the financing costs when a home is constructed in record time.Very important to any home owner who is paying for the costs of two homes while under construction.
F) Easy maintenance and remodeling friendly – a typical maintenance issue that requires entry into a wall will be done in 1/10 the time of concrete. Remodeling such as in removal or addition of interior walls is very rapid with little dust or noise and completedin easily 1/10 the time of concrete.
G) Uniform quality – piece by piece construction on a work site can often lead to a great variance in the quality and trueness of walls made of concrete or block or coventec for that matter. Where as factory panels are of uniform size and quality one after another after another, hence they fit together better and tighter than any other system. Even in Canada where tightness of construction is so critical in frozen -40ºc winters this type of construction has kicked the ass of houses made stick by stick when measured for energy efficiency by various rating agencies. In essence no piece built house has ever beat a SIP house in these side by side competitions. This factor is not as critical here but bugs are kept out which is well worth noting with regards to this modern age engineering. This type of system does indeed make up a significant part of what constitutes the 21st Century Home.
Once again the quality of the SIP has everything to do with the skin covering the panel so here is a Video that demonstrates its fire resistance which to say the least is rather critical in selecting the best home building material.
An example of fire in a simulated home comparison.
An intense test with torch for a close up view.
Review of characteristics of Magnesium Oxide Board
Product summary of MgO Board Corp.
Appearance and Personal Style:
Since most readers have little to no knowledge of what a SIP home would actually look like I direct you to award winning homes that have all been built out of SIPs. There are two categories to choose from those homes under 300 m2 and those over 300m2. Here are two examples of such. First thing to notice is that you should not notice a SIP or any type of panels style of home. If you can tell it is panels then the designer and constructor have failed miserably.
http://www.sips.org/green-building/bea/ From this sampling provided by the association of SIP manufacturers you can see there is no restriction as to what style of home you can build using this method of engineering. Homes have successfully been built going all the way from low budget government housing up to the largest of mansions. One thing to note on the economical factor for those on a very tight budget is that since a BANVI home can be constructed using this system and considering those very low budget constraints you know that this system can meet the most rigid of economical restraints. 5,000+m2 of this type of construction was built in one Limon project.
I find that many people get home style and value a bit confused with the structural materials being used. There is an extensive selection of basic materials that can all be molded into the size and style of home that you are seeking and SIPs are no different. Above I have shown some larger higher budget homes however the same system and material can easily be modified to produce some more modest examples as shown below. Two and three story homes can also be constructed using this same system. The style and size is only limited by YOUR imagination!
Well I think my position is most clear to any reader but I thought you might like to read about what the FAS Federation of American Scientists has for a view of the SIP technology as a whole.
Opening the Construction Market to New Building Technologies
Alison V. Tramba
STS 500 Professor Edmund Russell
Federation of American Scientists Dr. Henry Kelly, President August 1, 2005
Modern technology and innovative building materials have the potential to improve standards of living by addressing home safety problems and reducing energy usage while cutting down on living expenses. Outdated building regulations limit contractors to common materials and place constraints on construction technology, impacting their ability to develop optimal housing. Looking at these challenges to current construction, a team compiled by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) began an investigation of the types of engineering and technology that affect such issues as safety, energy efficiency, and cost in building homes. In their search, a number of innovative solutions surfaced, including structural insulated panels (SIPs) made by HSN, Inc.; this company serves as a case study in successful development of technology and compliance with building codes. Although deemed the most promising material for the FAS initiative to use in building affordable, energy-efficient, and safe homes, the SIPs have yet to receive the widespread recognition as ideal construction materials that they deserve. The actual problem in updating housing technology and materials, then, does not come from a shortage of appropriate means of meeting the housing industry’s safety- and energy-related needs. Rather, it lies in a lack of motivation towards development and promotion of emerging technology. According to FAS President Henry Kelly,
“The lack of progress is not due to limits on what technology can achieve, but defects in the market for innovation and product improvement in building-shell technologies. There are many causes: the absence (or near absence) of any engineering or research divisions in even the most sophisticated home construction firm and the difficulty of establishing a clear brand advantage in a field filled with many small firms. The absence of a coherent set of regulations and a clear way to test and label different building-shell systems makes it difficult for a superior technology to prevail in markets” (Kelly, personal communication, 2005).
Much of the problem derives directly from the difficulty of receiving construction certification. Current building codes do not actively reach out to new methods and materials for construction. Further, disinterest in research and inconsistent enforcement of codes allow traditional and even sub-par building methods to continue, thereby slowing the process of improving the quality of construction through inventive technology.
Even if slowly, products like HSN’s panels are beginning to grab the attention of builders looking for strength and environmental friendliness. Establishing a comprehensive program to aid further development will encourage acceptance of new methods of construction. Components should include streamlined policy and building codes, organized research, and incentives for the use of favorable construction methods by consumers. With such provisions, the building industry can make use of the best methods of construction rather than traditional, outdated practices. The results will bring greater confidence in residential safety and energy consumption, meanwhile providing the greatest possible number of people with adequate housing.
A Need for Housing Technology in a society seeking constant improvement, a logical use of modern technology lies in improving the quality of basics like housing. Creating a market that provides safe, affordable housing to residents and promotes energy efficiency poses a challenge.
Current trends may not indicate it, but environmental and societal expectations on construction methods demand constant improvements.
Most importantly, safety concerns require that the building industry support the best possible means of home construction. Although their frequency has declined by 54 percent over the past quarter century, home fires still claimed 2670 lives in 2002, comprising 80 percent of the total fire deaths in the country that year (National Fire Protection Agency, 2003). Large-scale natural disasters also arrive unannounced and devastate communities. For example, an anticipated five hurricanes will reach the shores of the United States alone by the end of 2005 (AccuWeather, 2005). Financially, hurricanes have ravished the U.S. in the past century, causing over a billion dollars in damage on each of 23 occasions (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association , 2003). Floods create $2 billion in damage annually (National Flood Insurance Program, 2005). In other parts of the country, earthquakes cause structural damage to buildings and infrastructure. As of July 31, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) recorded 1814 earthquakes of varying strengths in the United States for 2005 (United States Geological Survey, 2005). While the majority of these were of low magnitudes, the stress and strain of any tectonic movement may compromise stability of buildings, particularly in regions inclined to frequent seismic activity. Taken together, these sources of financial destruction and human injury necessitate improvements in construction. Finding materials to minimize flood and fire damage eliminates expensive and time-consuming repairs. Stronger structures that combat extreme winds and earthquakes reduce safety concerns in high-risk zones. These basic concerns of the building industry demand ongoing investigation into improved methods of construction. Application of modern technology to building is the responsibility of those related to the industry.
Old methods of Wood meets the New SIP Applications and Combinations –
Due to the availability of plantation grown local hardwood we have invented another economical method in which to combine methods of old with these new technologies by replacing the skins of the panels with hardwood instead of OSB board, cement boards or MgO which all perform the required task but none are especially beautiful and can be much less than ecologically minded. The cement board of course carries the bad baggage as an environmental offender just as concrete does. As I say when we compare cement board to concrete would you like to get hit by a 1 pound hammer or a 5 pound hammer? Yes better but hardly either is a good answer.
The OSB board that is commonly used in Canada and USA is a horrible option in termite territories for obvious reasons plus not well suited for tropical conditions on the whole. All of these boards are covered up by stucco, siding or paint in typical applications. Let’s compare that to the Acacia hardwood that actually has a negative carbon footprint since it has been consuming CO2 since the day it was planted, plus it has spent its days putting nitrogen back into the soil so as to enrich it. It grows very fast, the board below comes from an 8 year old tree plus we think it is beautiful to boot.
By combining all these methods you can have a beautiful wood home that is bug proof, (both Teak and Acacia contain a natural compound like Western Red Cedar that repels insects) well fitting and insulated from cold, heat and sound and as ecologically friendly as you can get. Plus it is grown near to us so we use little carbon it turning it into lumber then delivering it to your building site. Even our drying kilns use wood cuttings to fire them as electricity would A)add to our carbon footprint and B) cost a fortune to run on the electrical rates here which we would then have to pass onto you the customer.
As a carpenter, I never thought we would see the day of going back to a wood home but this in fact has become an economical reality. These panels will be fitted together in more of a fashion of building a boat in that all the panels will be connected by wood posts, beams and fittings which will use few metal connectors, but what is used will not be exposed to the eye or to the weather which is especially important when near salt exposure at the beaches. Basically your house would be glued together in all the fittings using a simple water proof carpenters glue that creates an incredible bond without any offensive off-gassing chemicals as is so common with highly processed sawdust products that normally use formaldehyde etc.
- Laminated Beam 8 Ply 2″ x 6″ Acacia
In the interest of full disclosure we must discuss the two potential problems with use of wood in tropical construction. The first being, it burns unlike concrete, cement boards or MgO board. This obviously cannot be avoided since it is organic and contains air that supports a flame. However those same qualities are also what makes it a great building product with high insulation and sound deadening properties. You could call this its Achilles’ heal which we cannot avoid, all we can do is to protect it from fire however no fire department can possibly compete with a system that is on guard 24/7, that deploys water to a fire instantly during a fire’s initial stages. To add fuel to that fire with Costa Rica’s sparse fire protection combined with the often rural locations selected by many of our clients, it would be sheer nonsense not to include fire suppression in any home in the first place. Hence of course it is completely beyond question if the home has a large wood component to it.
This will be fully discussed in commandment eight with regards to including a fire suppression system in any modern home. My position is this is mandatory for all homes of any type of construction in order to protect the owners and their contents. In the process of doing what needs to be done anyway we also protect any wood structure that is used in or on a home. In essence we kill two birds with one stone as has been more than amply proven around the world no matter what. There is also a third option and that is to take a MgO panel and glue/nail wood to it to give your home the charm and character of wood homes of times gone by yet with the fire shield behind the wood that would protect the home structure in the event of a serious fire.
Now onto problem two, BUGS or more specifically termites. They are everywhere in our climate with the only difference of the situation going from bad at higher elevations to worse near sea level. We live at 1,200 meters (4,000 ft) and these critters with their voracious appetites consumed the plywood base to our kitchen counters as well as another veneered plywood decoration.
If one uses plywood here it is like opening a termite ice cream parlor and they will find it as soft woods are their favourite for lunch. I further elevated my respect for their abilities during one of the home renovations I used the pictures from herein. In this case the owner had used what is called smooth edge to put down some carpet in one bedroom. Somehow these guys got in the house (likely through the windows) and got into this soft wood and ate their way around the room perimeter consuming at least 50% of the wood in less than five years from installation. The owners had not once noticed this activity going on and had no idea of the surprise lurking under their carpet. The evidence was presented when we arrived on the scene and lifted this floor to get access for the new plumbing we found out there was nothing left of this wood. It amazed me how they singled out this one wood product in the middle of a 50 year old home meanwhile they left alone all the wood joists and flooring throughout the home. This certainly elevated my respect for the enemy as to their capacity to find what they want for lunch. This story is meant to demonstrate how one must be both cautious as well as smarter than this veritable army you are about to do battle with. If you are not smarter than them you will ALWAYS LOOSE this battle as they are as unstoppable as they are omnipresent in Costa Rica.
The simple rule is if you are using wood you must be most selective as to exactly what species of such you select in your home. Soft woods for the most part must be absolutely avoided and only treating such with a surface application is not necessarily a solution as after several generations bugs can develop a tolerance to poisons so I prefer not to hang my hat on that concept at all. A pressure treated softwood is the only viable option as Xilo has been treating Chilean pine here for quite a few years with good results with a non toxic copper formulation.
It is far more practical to select local woods that by their nature this army just simply does not like to eat due to either the flavour or hardness or better yet both. Typical suitable candidates are Teak, Acacia, Almond, Crystobal, Rosewood, Iron Wood and Bitter Cedar. Woods to be avoided like the plague are any plywoods (minus marine at 200%+ in cost) soft Laurel or Melina. Melina is a common plantation grown wood that is very white, has almost no grain, hence it is rather boring and is really soft. Yet many projects like Los Sueños use it exclusively for interior woodwork in doors and cabinets which I could only describe as being somewhere between foolish to stupid from the final owners perspective. Yes you can use a surface treatment such as Penta or Xilo that is supposed to repel such pests however there is a school of thought that says after 9 generations they will develop a resistance to such chemicals. Since 9 of their generations is not a very long time at all it is not something that I would volunteer as my only line of defense against such a formidable enemy to my investment. Hardwoods do not by their nature accept pressure treatment since the treatment will not penetrate more than .5mm so that is not an option as is the case with softwoods that will take in the treatment to a depth of 2 cm. With that being said the only two suitable plantation grown woods that have natural protection, where we do not affect any virgin forest, that are economically viable are Teak and Acacia. All the other candidates on this list are way to expensive for building homes as they are rare and most are protected from logging out of natural forest areas.
We do not condone nor participate in any way in the use of protected species cut from virgin forests.
Now some less than well informed advisers especially realtors tell clients never to buy homes of wood in Costa Rica. This is driven by sheer ignorance or often an agenda to sell some competing product so such opinions are not unbiased and are just that an opinion rather than a statement of fact based on science or any actual knowledge. Here is the contrarian evidence I use to support my assertion of the real facts that are clearly demonstrated in three locations around Costa Rica. The downtown of San Jose has a large number of Victorian homes many of which have been converted into Hotels like Grano de Oro and Hotel Don Carlos. Do you think such would still be standing a century later if they were not termite proof? Up in higher elevations in the mountains you often find wood used to build such homes due to its warmth that is preferred in such a climate. Limon province has many homes that are built in the typical Caribbean style that are very old. What would have happened when this army would have consumed susceptible wood in no more than ten years. So yes, one needs to be judicious in just what wood species you use but to suggest you cannot have a wood home in the tropics is utter nonsense. Hence I rest my case, you just have to rely on nature and intelligent selection of woods to protect your investment.
There is also a middle of the road approach to using wood in your home where you can take a normal SIP panel using all of its benefits and then simply apply wood to it or parts thereof as per your choosing. A perfect example would be for those that like the style of siding which has proven to be extremely durable in this climate, with many 100+ year old Victorian homes in the center of the city still sporting this as their protection from the climate. As in the following pictures, this can be applied with an exterior oil finish hence still having the wood look or this can be painted in any color that you would like with normal exterior paints made for tropical climates. This can be pre-primed with two coats at the plant prior to going to your new home and would be ready for a finish coat in color once installed.
Then for interior finishes you can selectively have wood paneled walls in any style you like applied in feature areas such as library or office etc. This type of work is still quite reasonably priced and can even use some of the exotic and incredibly gorgeous Tico woods like iron wood, rosewood, almond etc. Again these woods come from salvage of dead or dying trees and NEVER come from virgin forest as it is not only illegal it is contrary to our philosophies. Many of our clients are looking to build their final dream home so these kind of features are indeed possible to help them achieve exactly that. There are incredible woodworkers available around Costa Rica where the trade has not died off in favour of pressed wood and plastic. A worthy note is no one has ever had a sick house full of off-gassing from good old pure wood! Yes this old carpenter and cabinet maker will not likely ever change his spots. 🙂
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Commandment # 5
Green Homes = Better Homes
= More Economical Homes
Some feel that building green is a cost factor whereas it is my view that is far from the reality when done intelligently, green puts money in your pocket, it does not take it out. Energy consumption and the environmental impact of a home in the modern world simply cannot be left out of the equation when one chooses to build your own 21st Century home.
1. For our first initiative we will be installing a solar hot water heating system designed to service a cluster of homes (3-7) as scale of economy is a very significant factor in such systems making them much cheaper per house when the same equipment is shared amongst neighbours. These will have a common hot water underground tank made out of panels and lined with waterproof mortar so as to avoid the common enemy of water tanks being corrosion hence the life of these tanks should be well beyond 30 years. That is one of the prime faults of residential solar heaters they have both rather small tanks of 60 – 100 gallons hence higher use households are not going to have sufficient resources. On top of that these same tanks have limited life expectancy due to corrosion factors with metal tanks hence the avoidance of metal components. Our hot water will be produced by a solar concentrator collector(s) that can easily not just heat up water but produce steam from which will send hot water via pumps to each house through an underground insulated loop system. The system would provide a volume of water 4 to 6 times greater than the typical stand alone systems yet at a much lower cost with a longer life expectancy. That is combined with a simple concept, I mean really folks, using expensive ICE electricity to make hot water in the tropics is nothing short of insane.
Especially when one considers these facts:
A) Electricity is far from cheap here already.
B) All indications are it is only going to get more expensive in the future, in fact ICE wants a 13% hike in electrical rates once again this year.
C) We only have at most one or two weeks a year with low solar resources.
D)This type of system has a very low maintenance factor other than changing pumps every few years or a reflector every 10 to 20 years. The rest of the components could well run for 30+ years with minor maintenance versus electric hot water heaters that are very high maintenance. There is elements to change, thermostats, and then entire tank changes to deal with. Many homes already waste $50 a month just to heat water that the sun will do for free. The cost of pumping the water is at most $5 a month so that is a net savings of $540+ per year, so the 20 year savings is $10,800 at a bare minimum of water usage. Our installation cost at new is not a big deal and to do anything other than this would be what I would call tantamount irresponsibility to both the environment and particularly the well being of smart owners. I mean really ICE running around the country looking for another river to dam or worse yet burning diesel fuel just for us to feed expensive electricity to our hot water heaters. This could best be described as environmental suicide. Folks that is just plain nuts!
2) Another major initiative to follow in order to lower energy consumption is the use of LED lighting that will be used throughout the home since such lights use between 6% to 20% the energy of normal lighting yet last around 50,000 hours per LED bulb. This means you won’t burn out that bulb before you pay off the 25 year mortgage and that is with 5 hours of usage each and every day. The drastic lowering of wattage used also reduces unwanted residual heat by the same amount, in fact it is that heat that is guilty of gobbling up your bills. The LED produce next to nothing in heat hence the efficiency is way higher. This also carries forward to include the outdoors areas outside of the home since it is you who end up paying for both. One difference for the outdoor lighting for the road and walkways is that we are using solar LED lights that have a normal life expectancy of 12 years and of course zero consumption bills. For this it is hard to calculate savings as personal usage is such a highly variable, but if a typical home uses $30 then the bill will drop to $4, so that is another $7,800 of savings over the life of the bulbs that cost $500. That is one seriously great investment with a 1,500% ROI plus all the future rate increases from ICE over the next 25 years that will make that saving how much higher?
Note, the CFL bulbs (compact florescent lights) do not have any where near this long of life at several years at most or as big of wattage reduction. Worse yet is if you break one they contain highly poisonous mercury, hence are lethally dangerous. Research these prior to buying! Also a lot of people are negatively affected by the frequencies emitted by these bulbs. If you doubt this you might want to do an internet search regarding such.
Really folks, is there anyone reading this report that could not find something better to do with their money than feed ICE excessive amounts every month for the rest of your life?? Also when ICE runs low on power supply they fire up fuel fired generators which of course add many tons of CO2 to our green house gas problems as well as higher costs. Hence there is indeed a financial incentive as well as an environmental one.
3.) Dual flush low volume toilets should be used at every opportunity to reduce water consumption as well as water treatment which conserves both water and electricity consumed to pump the water.
4.) PEX Water Distribution system:
There is nothing more critical to our daily lives to be functioning smoothly than water hence other support systems in our house take a back seat when without water we cannot be happy campers. Yet with the critical nature of water to our lives the distribution systems in the home have not changed since we threw out the bucket brigade many years ago. Also with the critical nature of the water system we must also discuss maintenance issues as it is not a surprise to the reader that I am extremely focused on low cost maintenance as well as low hassle factor in keeping all your home’s infrastructure running.
I go to a home near Playa Grande that we will be hearing a lot from as it testifies its own story as to absolute construction stupidity. I was contacted December 2012 by the owner who was specifically looking to buy PEX supplies from us. This however lead into a full Inspection Report as the home had many assorted problems that needed addressing as you will read about later on. What this home does give us is a perfect example of how inferior PVC pipe actually is. For this unlike dozens of other examples here I can’t give you a picture of what we cannot see. The PVC was broken under the concrete floor of a seven year old home and had been giving this problem to the owner for over two years as it progressed from a leak making a wet floor to an outright fracture and a totally disabled water system. The owner had a contractor in to solve a number of the problems in the home however the work was terminated when the contractor suggested his idea of finding a solution to the problem was to smash up what was really a new floor. The owner revolted and stopped the work and terminated the contractor.
This was an incredibly wise yet lucky decision as I told the owner. He made that without knowing all the facts. When I see a problematic water system showing up under concrete in only a few years I cringe at knowing what horrors are hidden under that concrete. Yes they could have smashed the hell out of the floor and found this leak/break. Then they need to repair the floor, remove a wack of tile and re-tile a large area all over again since you will never find tile to match the damaged area. So several thousand dollars later and a pile of grief you have your plumbing and floor fixed! Or do you??? That is the big question because if a crap system has gone into the crapper in a few years what says a week after you pay these bills that another leak of this low quality pipe starts to leak elsewhere. Or lets say we get another earthquake next year that fractures more of this rigid pipe under the floor.
The point is, this is a nightmare that will contain how many chapters? It is like reading sequels of a Steven King series. So my analysis of this situation was simple as I told the owner, he had made a brilliant decision even if he did not know why it was soooo brilliant. Don’t whip the sick horse shoot it. Hence in this case change out the entire system with all new PEX due its superiority with no fittings as well as its flexible nature. It will be far cheaper and most certainly it will be way more predictable in its future maintenance requirements or lack there of. Hence anyone considering PVC systems need to consider what maintenance nightmares this low grade product can and will bring to even a newer home. So there is the ugly skeleton in the closet with regards to the PVC pipe systems that are all over this shaking country. It is stories exactly like this that tell us experts what actually works out in the real world and what you run like hell away from if you know the whole story. Take heed here as when you have problems with PVC tubes buried in concrete the repairs can run in the thousands so it is impossible to do life cycle cost benefits on this as it is just one huge wildcard if you want to play that poker game. For me and smart clients all we can say is No thanks to that and that is even without considering all the benefits that you are now about to read.
So lets look at just how this flexible PEX system works as well as the ton of other benefits it brings the owner. We have gone through various generations of rigid pipe that all ran a loop system throughout a home. Well finally that has changed to address five comfort as well as consumption issues:
- This loop consisted of dozens of connections of which each and every one could become a maintenance nightmare (oh my, isn’t that fun, when it is buried in a wall or floor, can you spell DOLLARS?) This is often what has owners calling us for help.
- Also all these connections lead to solder or glue contaminating your potable water supply. Every home that uses PVC tube has inside its lines several ounces of glue that entered the tube and fittings during installation. This glue and its chemical components are hardly what one would call a healthy additive to your drinking water supply yet few take time to think about this contamination.
Then you have to wait and wait to get hot water at the end of this whole line hence having to flush out a whole line of cold water to get to the hot. So more costly hot water wasted in the process as well as water flushed down the drain also adds to the water bill and increasing the residues.
Oh and then someone turns on a tap when you are in the shower so you get fried or frozen because of lack of supply when you have the main line feeding many outlets.
Then you are trying to watch the TV or talk on the phone and there is pipes banging and thumping to give you background music. My isn’t that wonderful.
So really is the above what one could call a modern efficient system? Well I say no, it is not, and no longer do we need to tolerate these shortcomings as there is a solution using a PEX system, which will reduce water usage and practically eliminate maintenance costs and problems. Using this flexible tube and manifold system we increase the efficiency by making the household water distribution more organized. After my first experience of completing a retrofit of a 50 year old home I am indeed a real believer in the superiority offered by this incredible system. The solution comes about as being two fold, first there is the superior quality of the materials that make up the system but just as important to the overall formula is the total change in the methods that we have never seen before. Here we create a system much like that of computers where you have a dedicated line going to each service from a central distribution. No longer is there this ill functioning loop.
Since this pipe is not rigid it can flex and that is to say the least most critical in a country prone to earthquakes plus it makes the installation much easier plus most significantly it eliminates hidden fittings. After last September’s earthquake there were literally many thousands of leaks or out right destruction of these kinds of rigid pipes and fittings. To make the situation much worse is that these are typically buried under much concrete. As I advise all clients it is far better to just eliminate the entire old inferior system and start from new rather than smashing up a floor causing thousands of dollars of damage looking for a needle in a haystack and then to only face the same problem a week or a year later. There is no light at the end of this expensive tunnel unless it is a train a comin!
Close up of stainless steel manifold and bronze mail connector.
With PEX each water outlet is on its own tube directly connected to the central manifold. This means you do not have to run water through the whole system to get it to the tap you happen to be using, hence less water wasted, and MUCH faster delivery. As you will note in the pictures below, there are no fittings (i.e. elbows, T’s, etc) used in these lines and no glue what so ever, only the tool applied bronze compression fittings, hence better flow without any contaminants in your water. There are way less things that can go wrong down the road or problems with leaks at start up or in the future. Below was a perfect example of a ticking maintenance time bomb just waiting to blow up in the owner’s wallet!
From the main house feed the water then went to the first distribution zone.
This is one area of major challenge replacing fixtures. On the other side of this wall there was a classic old ceramic tile that could never be replaced. We were able to enter the wall from the back swap out all the fixtures and change to new without damaging a single tile. The PEX pipe by its nature is very slippery so nothing sticks to it, such as water sediments or glue and since it is a flexible tube you never hear clunking or flowing noises in your lines as is normal in rigid pipe. In all the material I have researched on this product, no one really emphasizes this property to the degree that it well deserves to be, considering its huge significance. I have tried to get PVC glue and silicone to stick to it with absolutely zero luck which you can see in the video. Well if those won’t stick to your water lines then what will? I would submit nothing, which is the entire point, you don’t want anything to ever stick to the lines and clog up the insides of your water pipes.
It is good for well over 150 psi and does not melt until an incredible temperature, as I have heated it up to 1,400º with a heat gun and it does not blister or burn in that process. The only way you know it is very hot is it turns transparent, at which time you know the fittings can be separated since they have expanded with the heat. In fact this is the only system I know that you can take apart and put back together without destroying any of the parts.
All in all, it is by far the easiest yet most durable system I have ever worked with. With a great deal of scouring I have managed to find an importer for this product from China. We now act as agents for them since no regular plumbing suppliers handle such even with the infinite sense this system offers, evidenced by the fact that it is replacing all the old rigid pipes in North America. It has long been the norm in Germany where it was invented in 1962 , but the big move across the pond only occurred about 2000. Although you may not have been aware of it, it is hardly an experimental system.
Now again I ask you the reader, can you have a truly modern home using a system that is over a hundred years old in design. We have only changed the materials over the years but we have never changed the design until this. The PEX system does both at the same time plus eliminates many plumbing problems that are waiting to show up as an expensive royal pain in the ass for decades to come. If you have ever owned a home and had any of these problems you will agree that I do not exaggerate the facts here one iota. I happen to think all these comforts, not to mention saved future expenses, are worth the extra $ to do it right when your home is built. How much this will save you in the future I have not a clue but I am dam certain it will save far more than it costs to do it right the first time. All the extra comforts for the years of dependable service are in essence free due to the lower maintenance costs for you. Below is a perfect example of a ticking maintenance time bomb just waiting to blow up in the owner’s wallet!
PEX can also be used for piped in gas supply for fireplaces, stoves, dryers and BBQ’s. The astute consumer should be aware of the fact that such are substantially cheaper to operate plus gas appliances perform the same tasks as electrical, but in much less time. A gas cloths dryer runs half the time that an electric one does. At this point BTU’s from gas are cheaper than electric and we don’t expect any significant change to that reality in the foreseeable future. However by spending a bit more to install a dual system now, it is easy for any owner to elect for a change in the future should those economics change.
However without the network being installed in the house at construction stage there is no such option without an expensive and nasty major overhaul. To give you an idea, using the PEX system, I can install the gas system for around $200 and that is using proper flush in wall valve connectors that hide everything away nicely. I am not talking about a crappy half hazard way of having tubes just running out of walls anywhere which although functional are ugly and unprofessional. This Mercedes method will still pay back the owner in about 4 -8 months under normal consumption. However when not done as an advance well thought out plan, doing this after the fact could well cost $2,500 since this network is buried in your structures. Hence you see what I mean when I say such typically short-sited plans are really ugly to ever correct or change.
Long Term Economics behind Green Building:
Lets take an example of how these cost of living savings can affect intelligent owners. Our energy saving designed house saves you, lets say, $75 a month in a modest sized home (120 – 180 meters) assuming relatively normal consumption. We are not assuming here any higher consuming families such as a family that spends 3 hours a day in a hot shower for example which of course would then add even more fuel to this fire. If you wisely put that $75 on top of your regular mortgage payments on a 20 year $100,000 mortgage at 10% interest, that means you will retire your mortgage four years in advance, which will save you and your family = $55,200.
Now lets be more fair and also apply all the future savings on your inflated energy bills over the next 14 years, as ICE inevitably increases your cost per KW hour at an average annual increase of 5% only. In reality over the past few years it has been well above 5% a year and now they are looking for a 13% hike, but we will keep this conservative for this example.
Under the same assumptions as above you will actually retire your mortgage in 14 years, not sixteen, hence your actual savings to you and your family = $87,264.
Well I don’t know for sure but do you think that just maybe building energy efficiency in a truly modern home makes some cents or is that serious dollars????
I mean, lets get real folks, that saving is a minimum of 37% of the original purchase price of our base home and if we include those future savings of ICE’s inflated bills, then we are talking about a savings of 59% of the original purchase price. Can you personally afford to ignore this when you are selecting what type of new home to buy or not to buy? Most of us tend to forget or not realize what the true significance is of the future value of dollars invested wisely today in your own castle. Also some of our green products also reduce maintenance costs but those savings are impossible to calculate in any meaningful way so we have to accept such as a simple bonus.
All in all, our objectives are to build as green as is practical with the idea in mind to make our footprint as small as possible as well as to ensure our owners monthly costs are as low as is possible. I think my above demonstration should more than show how saving $5 in initial construction costs to pass onto the owner $50 of future costs is not what we term as an economically viable formula nor a responsible one. In general I see so much that is done here that is just not considered acceptable practices in North America when it comes to energy conservation, which is a term that barely translates to those in the construction industry here.
Commandment # 6
Electrical System – Only by the CODE
Don’t Mess With Your Nerve Center
Now I am not a certified electrician, however I have done wiring on site and in my own homes for over 30 years since I learned the basics with being in construction, plus I studied the basic Canadian Code book to know what was expected and why. I also had a personal experience over twenty years ago that has forever affected how I regard electrical safety. I, as well as anyone who has survived an electrocution, have developed a profound respect for electricity and especially how little of it can be lethal or injurious, even in a small dose. Note I did not have this experience as a result of what I did or did not do, but I got to face the wrath caused by a very dangerous person, someone who thought they were an electrician but had not a clue about what they were messing with. I was just in the wrong place at the right time under bad conditions to find out that two wrongs definitely do not make one right.
Of all the things I see done poorly and/or dangerously in construction in Costa Rica, by far the worst is electrical installations brought about by poor training, lax laws and once again the lack of independent inspections. After my personal experiences, I am amazed that there is not more deaths and fires caused by this general situation. It is not getting any better either by the way. November 2011 I was called to a new home in San Isidro de Heredia prior to it getting its first tenant where I went into the bathroom. What I found was a plug-in not more than (15 cm) 6 inches directly above the bathroom sink and taps.
This is blatantly against the code here but neither the so called electrician or electrical engineer thought this rule pertinent to follow. All wet areas MUST use GFI (Ground Fault Interrupters) that means bathrooms, laundry areas, lawn services or parking areas, if they have any chance of getting wet. What this special circuit or outlet does, is it measures the change in amperage going out of the plug and what is returning to it and if the difference is over its very sensitive limits, it immediately trips, cutting the power, thus preventing anyone from getting an injurious or fatal shock. Both GFI breakers and plugs are immediately recognized from their test switch. This has been the law in Canada a good 30 years and if you do not follow it you simply will not get your electricity hooked up, plain and simple! If your wiring does not pass code in North America the electrical company will not connect you to the grid. And that is the way it should be!
These pictures were just taken Dec.30,2012 during a home inspection of a 7 year old home that was built by an American. So there is no guarantee that those that should know better do or will apply the code when there is no inspection forcing them to behave with integrity.
What the innocent do not know is that even with a normal low 110 volt/15 amp circuit for a normal plug, when you add water or moisture to your personal grounding you can be lit up like a Christmas tree. It is not the least bit funny when you see your life passing before you eyes and go about fracturing your shoulder, as I did.
Imagine how this would have affected a small child rather than me, as an adult. Their heart may well have stopped. Would there be someone there in that critical moment of life to render CPR? Do you think it wise to subject your children to this kind of risk? Do you think it is okay if I do so as your builder? Just so that I can save $50 f!@#$%^ dollars while putting you and your kids at a known, stupid and unnecessary risk. If such saves but one injury in 50 years, was it worth a buck a year? Might I remind you that 50 years is a mighty long time for people especially children to do a lot of really stupid things.
The electrician that did this should be shot and pissed on for committing such a callous omission. This fool omitted a critical component of the system to save what amounted to .05% of the construction cost. Do you think that he and the owner (who had not a clue of the danger they created) could have found someplace else in the construction budget to save $50?
I remind you, we are not talking about shacks in the squatter village here these were both middle class housing. Of all people, should even a basic electrician have respect for the injury that electricity can cause innocent people. The future victims of this accident waiting to happen have no idea as to the danger lurking in their home or how lethal a situation can be until they do something that is admittedly stupid. Eg. Placing a hair dryer beside a sink or shower or tub with wet feet or floor.
There are dozens of other possibilities that reach as far as your imagination will go. I will make an analogy here to buying a car. People buy a new car because they think it is safer than an old one, which in most cases it is. People buy or rent a new home thinking it is safer and better than an old one, however, that is just theory as this case has demonstrated. The person in this new home thinks it is safe hence is lulled into a sense of well being that should not really exist, because what they perceive is not actual reality yet they are comfortable in their ignorance.
This would be like the dealer of your new car having a problem in the air bag system, so rather than actually fixing the problem, they decide to resolve it by just disconnect the system and the warning light. So you drive around thinking you are safe in a collision because you have airbags, yet in reality you have a placebo with no protection what so ever.
Well these example houses are the same. The tenant/owner thinks it is a new/er house hence it is safe when in reality it is not. If someone dies in such a situation, it is blatant criminal negligence that would rest on the shoulders of the owner, the engineer and the electrician. Just the same as should you die in an accident as a result of non-functioning disconnected air bags, would the dealer be responsible for their criminal action?
I know someone who went to EPA to buy cable to hook up a range. But this young person did not know squat about electricity. So he asked an employee to help him who knew no more than he, hence gave him #10 extension cord. I arrived on the scene hours later to find them installing this which upon one glance I stopped it immediately telling them they needed at least AWG #8 wire for a 40 amp breaker not this crap. To this the brilliant youngster says, “oh we are not going to use all the elements on the stove”.
As I explained to the owner, you have no idea who is going to use this stove, when, or for how long, so this could be fine for 1 year or 21 years. Then someone comes along to exceed the draw allowed on that cable which then leads to a fire. One really stupid idea! The reason I bring up this story is the same thing I explained to them. We have these codes that have been developed over many years not just to be a pain in the ass to everyone by over building everything.
How this code has evolved was from taking reports from fire, building and electrical inspectors (government employees) who record and witness what has happened out in the field. When they find a particular circumstance, method or material that is leading to high maintenance problems, fires and/or injuries the offending methods and materials are outlawed to eliminate any future, even rare problems, that could arise causing needless expense, injury, death or loss of property.
Another fundamental law in any electrical code is colour coding of all wiring. The concept is very simple, the colour of the wires will tell anyone in the future with a simple glance what line is for what. It saves time, injuries or frying something when hooked up incorrectly. These same colours are accepted around the world. However I have found that a very large percentage of Tico electricians, if we dare call them that, are totally colour blind and will put any bloody colour where ever they feel like based on what I don’t know. The day of the week or how much wire they have in their box is their guide regardless to what law or common sense would dictate. FYI Please note the international colours for wiring. Red or black is for “live wire”, white is for “neutral” and green is for “ground” without exception.
This is a picture of wires feeding two light switches on a renovation. By the way, the owner, contrary to my advice, refused to hire the electrician I recommended who just happens to have the ability to tell green from black from white from red. My question is, if an electrician can’t follow one of the top three laws of safe electrical installation, what else have they or will they do wrong. If I ever caught someone doing this that I hired, they would be fired in like 10 seconds. This offense occurred July 2012 in a home worth $350,000+. Yet the owner hired a good electrician as they described him. Hmmm did the owner have the capacity to know a good one from a bad one. The evidence would call that into question I think. So I could not resist taking this picture of his good wiring. Yup great electrician if he had a white cane! If you cannot get the color coding of the wiring right what can you get right?
Cost Savings –
In parts of the country you can ask to have a “demand meter” installed on your house instead of the convention, flat rate one. We made this change without cost to us I might add and it cut our electrical cost by around $100 a month. The differences can be massive if you are a high consumer and can adjust your consumption around the lower demand times of the day. Most people are not familiar with this system so here is what it is about. The day is broken into three demand times which are peak (5 hours) @171 colones per kwh, medium (9 hours) @69 col. and low (10 hours at night) @32 col. You are charged the different rates based on the amount of kilowatt hours that you use in each of these time frames. This works for those that are willing to reduce their demand during the peak hours in favour of consuming in the medium and low rate bands. In essence it is quite logical for the network as there is a shortage of power during those peak hours yet a sizable surplus at night, hence, like any commodity, they charge by good old supply and demand.
Plus the other logic to this for ICE is that some of the power used in peak hours costs them more to produce, as to make up their shortfall they have to kick in the diesel generators which are: A) much more expensive to run, and B) leaves behind a huge carbon footprint. For those that are judicious about their habits, then this is a money saving option where it is available. For high consumers of electricity, especially for air conditioning here is a brilliant move when you consider this rate varies by over 500%. What you do is install a chiller system where it only runs during the 10 night hours during which time it is chilling a large underground cold water tank, which you then feed from during the days expensive hours while your chiller sits idle not consuming any expensive power. It is like having your own energy bank where you make cheap deposits and night then withdraw during the day at much escalated values. This reduces A/C costs massively which for any large building, such as hotels and condos, is the only way to go. It can even be done in large homes or shared projects like condos which would then base the charge by the amount of cold water used just like any other water meter would accomplish. We had a system designed exactly like this for our Jaco project. Even more bonus to this system is that the maintenance costs are like 1/4 of that of small window and split units all of which have notoriously short lifecycles especially at the beach.
With that I shall end my electrical lecture and even though it was long, I want to ensure crystal clarity for the reader. Needless to say anything we build follows the same code as Canada and it WILL BE enforced religiously plus it will easily pass all local codes as well that theoretically mimic the US Code! In general as per the upcoming section on plumbing, as well as this one on electrical, these are two systems that should NEVER be scrimped on as they are like the central nervous system of your new home. So when they do not work properly you are not going to have a fun time nor a comfortable home nor a cost efficient home. They must work well and do so for years to come, as trying to fix such after the fact is like try to fix a person’s nervous system when they have MS. Difficult if not impossible so do it right or do it over again at a huge cost!
Commandment # 7
Want A Cheap Tropical Roof?
No Such Thing Exists!
You may as well look for unicorns.
As part of the whole structural system of your new tropical home, the roof is, to say the least, the most critical component. Most roofs here are quite a low slope, which all I can say for them is they are cheap but attractive or effective, not. Certainly with our quantity of rain, low slope cannot be considered a good idea consider how I have even seen leaking on high pitched roofs. For the first live example I’ll return to my example house in Heredia where I was actually called in in the first place to inspect a leaking roof problem not an electrical problem at all that was just a bonus. In a little over two months of completion of the two homes, there was water coming through the block wall lifting the paint, molding as well as destroying the gypsum ceiling. The last thing you need here is to encourage the growth of any of our 140 species of molds by having water hanging around. Hence this new home did not even make it through the first rainy season without encountering around $600 of damage, much inconvenience as well as pissed off tenants. In fact this first round of damage cost as much or more in repairs as what doing the roof correctly in the first place would have cost. Just further evidence to prove that even though the owner also owned a deposito or lumber yard that did not qualify him to know anything as to just how to assemble all the pieces that are in a hardware/lumber yard. This simple example proves that these are two very different skill sets indeed.
This basic problem was caused by low slope roofs without an overhang to shed water away from the home. To make a bad situation worse this also was not flashed properly where new and old buildings met. Had the roof design been better, the flashing would not have been near as critical as it was. I repeat, do it right or do it over, which is better and which is most cost effective? Another reality that is so common here is all of these zero clearance lots. Hence if your exterior wall is built on and sharing the property line with your neighbour, it does not give you anyplace to do an overhang or get water away from your wall, which was also part of the problem in the Puntarenas home I cited. These shared walls are a leak looking for a place to happen hence water control and proper sealing must be carefully planned with good products.
Obviously the contractor and workers did not quite understand the concept that water can actually run uphill here when it rains like hell. Ending up with even five or six liters of misplaced rainwater out of many thousands can cause significant damage, so there is no such thing as a little leak in reality. Another case where two wrongs did not make a right. This roof design was an ugly cheap piece of crap and the owner got exactly what he paid for, a headache that will last forever. Again he happens to own a lumber yard, which qualifies him to sell you building materials but does it qualify him to supervise such? Obviously not, nor did it qualify his contractor who had little more knowledge than he did, hence the blind were leading the blind. I find it a bit bizarre with the preoccupation towards earthquakes as how such affects basic home construction, yet roof construction rates no attention what so ever. In reality you could well live out your entire life in Costa Rica without ever experiencing a serious earthquake (7+) yet EVERY year the Central Valley climate without fail is going to dump 2 to 2 ½ meters of rain on your head and that goes up from there to as much as 5 meters in some of the beach areas. Hmm, where exactly should your first priority lie as without a water tight maintenance free roof, what exactly do you have? A shack! Or a money pit? What wonderful choices.
Contrary to the above nightmare, all roofs should at very least a 3/12 slope, or .25/1 in metric but ideally up that to 4/12 – .33/1, with a most critical 1 meter overhang. This overhang sheds water away from your home and its foundations giving it the needed protection. Also at the same time it provides shade to the walls of your home as well as your windows to cut down on the tropical sun heating up your house. This is a critical component to intelligent tropical designs especially when such is not an insulated wall. You actually get a double bang for your money when you protect walls from both rain and sun yet with the same dollars spent. These greater slopes drastically reduce future risk of leaking problems. It also improves the eye appeal of the home in the view of most people. It makes the home cooler as heat can rise further out of your living space, provided you use cathedral ceilings as we do when ever possible. I am sure you will not be surprised to know we recommend you insulate this roof using as per the previous chapter both styrofoam as well as reflective foil under the roof cladding as well. See detail late in this chapter. This reflective foil serves a triple purpose, it insulates by reflecting UV back out, as well as placing a secondary blanket over the roof as a double line of insurance to prevent any leaking and it makes the roof much quieter. Should something/someone damage or remove a shingle there is a secondary line of defense. By keeping your roof cool it lowers the temperature in your house and also extends the life of some claddings as an added bonus.
It is almost amusing to see how people in the construction industry will insist in trying to ignore mother nature. I have seen so many examples of sheer and utter stupidity when it comes to water control. At times you would think these engineers and builders thought that we lived in a desert. Yet here are the contrary facts, our driest location is Playa Panama in Guanacaste which has an average rainfall of 1.2 meters so I call it our desert. Meanwhile Vancouver, who most associate to being rainy, receives .9 meters of annual precipitation just so we can put things in perspective. Every year we typically get one stretch in heavy rainy season where it will rain almost steady for like 3 to 5 days. This year was the only year out of that last 11 that we missed the typical when we get one ugly stretch. So here is my really dumb question for you. Do you think your roof and drainage system need to be designed with that ugly week in mind or a light afternoon shower? Well I warned you it was going to be a dumb question! Even one that any layman can follow along with, so how does that excuse so called professionals not building your system with at least typical worst case scenarios in mind.
I am not talking about the Perfect Storm of 50 years like was the case of what we got off of the back end of Hurricane Mitch back in the 90’s, but to at least handle a normal average to heavy rain situation.
I witnessed a friend who bought a home from Kiribe, the largest Escazu/Santa Ana builder, who installed but one down drain from his eavestrough for a roof of over 35 feet or 12 meters in width plus add to that an eavestrough designed to send water into the house. Result: first rainy season after moving in he got up one morning to find the entire ceiling of his terrace laying on the floor. Nice wake-up call in the morning! In this case the large builder did fix it and added a second downspout but lets get real, what was the matter with the heads of everyone who pulled off this astounding stupid stunt. I hardly thing rain a new concept in Costa Rica. More on this later.
I digress back to my Puntarenas home example and the call for help that came from the owners who have had a royal pain for 3 years. Every time it rains heavy they don’t just have the leaks in the metal roof, they get literally a flood of many gallons of water coming out of the ceiling of their office and car port. They thought they had a roof problem, which is only partly true kind of like partly pregnant, however the real problem was actually drainage along with a very common construction method/material problem. So the builder installed a huge 10” wide gutter on the second story, that was the savant idea they had. Here is where the idiot idea came in, they decided to drain the water from 80 m2 (900 sq. feet) of roof into that then use but two 2” x 4” down spouts from this second story which then fed into an elevated concrete canal on the first story. They then also fed the roof over the office and car port into this as well, then they put one 3” round pipe to send all of this water down and out to the street. Absolutely brilliant. Yes I trust even a verbal description makes this sound ridiculous, but it gets better.
This canal they ran the second story gutters into then acted like a big reservoir that would fill up very quickly any time it rained heavy so the water would rise in it until it was overflowing. Well where do you think that overflow would go? Well it flowed under the metal roof sheeting, over the top of the wall and then ran down over the gypsum ceilings where it would flow for another 20 or more feet until it hit a wall obstruction. Hence they had water pouring out of their ceiling and destroying it in the process. Here is wherein came the second wrong, which of course did not make one right. They put no water barrier that would prevent the overflowing water from the canal from entering the ceiling space. There was zero there to stop water from just flowing downhill on it’s merry old way.
It is quite the norm here to see a canal or gutter that is equal height or often higher on the leading edge (as per the not acceptable version on the above drawing) as well as the edge that touches or is fastened to the house fascia. So here is the hard rule for you in the tropics, the leading edge of the gutter or canal ( as per the acceptable drawing) must be at least 1 inch lower than the edge that attaches to the house otherwise water, acting like water does, will flow in all directions, both out as well as in. This functional flaw is sooo very common even little companies like Amanco have it wrong and mold there plastic trough in this same bizarre fashion. Even the tin shop I work with has a catalogue of troughs of which not a single one is done correctly except for this new design that they made exclusively for me and my clients. Now they tell me their old designs are the preferred style yet from the ground no one but no one can see the back edge of the trough one way or another hence this question of style is quite pointless if you are not a giraffe. Even with that said I NEVER believe that style should automatically out trump function. First and foremost it must function then lets worry about style. When your ceiling is collapsing on your head I doubt your first comment is going to be, “but it looked good.” In this case for certain you won’t say that as you cannot see the difference from the ground. Now it does not matter if this only happened once every five years when each time you get a flood from these troughs you end up with the inevitable hundreds of dollars of damage. Talk about no upside and one serious and very foolish downside.
This old trough is laying in the driveway after we removed it to replace old ones that were only 5 years old after they left behind a ton of damage to the eaves and ceilings due to water repeatedly running into the house rather than away from it.
In lieu of not finding the right materials that obey this law that look more like this detail, then one must attach or seal a water barrier of some type to the gutter to get above the roof edge in order to prevent any overflow from backing up and entering the house via the eaves. I personally prefer to go look for a shop that just makes them right in the first place or follows my simple instructions, as that costs nothing more. A barrier might cost $50 at the time of construction but from this example that $50 would have eliminated at least $1,000 in senseless damage. Gravity and flowing water what a devious concept!
Even with that being said, the first issue is down drains. The size of the down drains should be calculated to carry the amount of water coming off the roof in a heavy rainfall, and then distributed across the length of the eaves trough to disperse this amount. Then of course a collector or some method to get water away from the house that equals the capacity of the gutters and down spouts. Yet I see these simple rules not followed most of the time which of course leads to common and repeated water damage until the owner does something about it, at great expense, even if the so called professionals continue to believe we are living in a desert.
Now once that roof run off hits the ground you are far from finished, as you must ensure once again in this climate that the water gets away from the house as far as possible. Nothing good can or will come from soil around or under a house becoming saturated and loosing its bearing qualities. So always slope sidewalks around houses well away from any foundation. All to often I see sidewalks that have settled around a foundation which then turns them into huge water collection devices that then sends many liters/gallons of water right to where you never want it, your foundation.
Just this week I inspected another job of a home with structure problems that are either caused by or seriously aided by lack of drainage away from the house. Also putting a nice flat driveway or parking area coming up to your house is one horrible idea that will cause you grief. At a minimum everything must be sloped 1/4” per foot or 2 cm per meter in the protection zone of a good ten feet or 3 meters away from the house. To be safe it would not be a bad idea to double that considering the flows of water I have seen here.
Now back to roofs and what makes good cladding for such considering the importance of such in the tropics. Well metal is a common choice even though I think it not a good one for any higher quality of home and certainly not for a comfortable home, no matter the size of it. However with that being said I see tons of metal roofs even on some quite expensive homes, many that I would consider butt ugly considering the rest of the architecture. Really once you pass that $300,000 mark I think a roof requires a little more imagination or style than steel yet I see it done all the time. To help solve that problem the Metalco company came out with Zink Teja as it is called years ago. This steel cladding tries to mimic the tile look although it does a very poor job of it as it could only fool a fool to mistaken this metal look to that of clay tile. Nevertheless they have sold thousands of square meters of it here. I lived in a house with such on it and I can only say it was BRUTAL and real ugly when it rained hard it was soooo noisy you could not talk on the phone or watch TV from all the racket. It is hot as it transfers heat very readily as all metal does and it fades out quite rapidly especially in the beach areas where within 5 years it looses much of its color.
On top of all those faults though its worst offence is that it leaks like a sieve. I have inspected four houses consecutively over seven months that all have leaks going from aggravating to really bad. Now if I have had four in a row I would hate to try to guess as to just how many there is out there that have this same problem. The locations have been quite diverse as well with the offending parties being located at Puntaranas, Agua Zarcas, Tamarindo and Bello Horizonte Escazu hence I say this is quite a universal problem. So lets see what it looks like and solve the mystery as to why this metal is so riddled with leaks so here we visit roof number 3.
Now someone thought they would solve this leaking problem by smearing goop on the screws which A) would not solve the problem at any rate but B) the screws are not the problem in the first place so a totally futile effort. Not sure what they should have used the goop on but this most assuredly was not it.
Well this is starting to get us to the heart of the problem. When you see a fit like this you can be certain there is going to be problems. Note this is a systemic problem with the product, it just does not fit well together and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it, unless of course you walk on water. Now most would look at this and figure it is not a problem being that this cladding is covering a roof with a 9/12 slope or .76/1 in metric. This is a pretty steep roof so one could think the water would just run off without giving a problem. Well let’s see.
Well this is when and where the lights literally came on so to speak and the problem became abundantly obvious. For the first two roofs I inspected I did not have the privilege of the behind the scenes look as we have here. In each case it was a closed roof so I could not see what the rain and the WIND could see. So even with a steep slope when you get a heavy rain along with wind the water will carry up a single ridge enter through the poor fit and drop on your ceiling or travel down the structure to where it finds a suitable place to drop on your head. This is what happened next.
As well as this…
Now I trust reader you get a better idea as to just why I love to hate this roof cladding. First off there is the systemic problem of it not fitting worth shit which is universally so, when you look closely. From the testimony provided by this house I figured out where the real problem was and advised the owner how to fix it. Subsequent to that I found out what the manufacturer’s own written instructions were just plain wrong. However few fereterias, contractors or installers actually understand this simple facts behind the Metalco product in that “their product has a serious problem.” To actually solve this you will blow though 18% more material when doing the double overlap hence when you do a cost comparison between the zinc teja be aware there is a significant difference between it and the much better fitting rectangular cladding, as will see in a bit. In fact the total cost difference takes you from a basic $13 a meter to the real cost of $19.50 as you must also include the extra cost that must include the 50% more support purlins to give this flimsy roof enough support that workers can actually walk on it without creating huge dents that usually turn into lakes on the roof. On top of this just be aware that if you have any angular cuts on your roof you will use more material as this material cannot be reversed to fit into an opposing angle elsewhere on the roof hence that adds even more into your costs depending on how many angles you have. This could drive your additional costs up to 55% to 60% more for this naively considered higher style of roof.
Well I think the above pictures more than prove they only fooled themselves but they most certainly did not fool the weather. I reiterate this is a very steep 9/12 pitch so when this has problems you can only imagine how much worse the leaks are on roofs that are much flatter hence less velocity carrying the rain down and off your roof. On this particular roof they saved around $1,400 of material by not doing it right. Meanwhile they created a maintenance nightmare in the process that will cost what ??? to repair. Plus several years of a nagging problem that the owner had not been able to find a resolve to. In this case as well as for those that still insist on using this crap roof, even with all my derogatives directed at such, there is a second and much cheaper solution. In fact for this roof it is the only real solution. To correct the problem via the manufacturers recommendation would mean lifting all the cladding and re-installing it, which is a pain but what is far worse is that then we would be short 60 meters of material. Then you would have to go buy shinny new material to go up beside a seriously faded 7 year old roof. My that would look attractive! The answer is simple, expanding foam! By buying a pile of cans each of these sheets can be sealed down to the one below it hence blocking the advancement of wind blown rain. This whole roof could be sealed for around $200 with the bonus that after done we will not leave behind any signs at all that there was a repair done. This is relatively delicate work as it goes because of problem two with this product, it is very thin and dents easily. As I said previously it can look like it went through a war by the time a home is built if the workers are not infinitely careful with it as well as all future maintenance workers. Then there is the fading problem, the heat problem and the noise problem. Hence I do indeed stand by my assertion that all in all this is a crap roof that ends up costing much more, hence all in all far from a good value roof. In fact IMHO if you have to use such a cheap cladding then just use normal corrugated tin as it actually has less leaking problems since it fits together way better, can just be painted when it fades out, has less waste when installing it and is cheaper due to less structure being needed and no overlap needed to chew through your budget. However in general I don’t like metal roofs at all since most have these basic systemic flaws which you can well disagree with but none the less that is my advice. The only place where they are superior is in heavy snow load areas where you need the snow to slide off and not collapse the structure. I might be so bold as to suggest that is not exactly a tropical situation I have had much issue with thus far.
Now lets look at roof number 4 that came along my way that had mega problems way worse than the first three and it proved to be the real clincher to my previous advice. Due to its severe problems immediately upon inspection we did a major overhaul, to put it mildly, prior to rainy season setting in. This home is very near to where I live and is a perfect example of the lack of design and poor materials and workmanship being used in thousands of roofs here where they broke every rule in the book with most predictable results. Due to the frequent leaking and excessive damage to the home we have removed the entire roof cladding of this crap and replaced with new ribbed roofing that actually fits together, is much more rigid hence it can be walked on and the flashings actually fit together. This roof also had as previously mentioned the non-funcitoning troughs and a valley from hell so all three combined together made a disastrous roof. Kind of like 3 strikes and you are out. To add insult to injury it was not insulated so was also hot and excessively noisy so that was also corrected at the same time with fiberglass batt insulation, Reflectex as well as a cushion layer between the roof cladding and perlins to diminish the resonance throughout the entire metal roof structure.
This valley as well as two others gave extreme grief from the first rain after they were installed as you just can’t get away with breaking this many rules and get away with it.
Also take note of the excellent fit of the sheets well at least they are consistently BAD! Here you can see some of the most predictable results that lead to this major repair bill.
Please take note that you cannot see the joints between the sheets either.
Here is a view going up along one of the joints so you can see if you must use metal roofing this is a far superior alternative to leaky crap.
Also take note due to the much higher rigidity factor to the new roof it is not full of cave ins that will make nice lakes like there was prior to our arrival in at least 10 locations in 200m2.
While on the subject here is the evidence as to why to avoid galvanized metal if at all possible as compared to the baked enamel finish from the factory which will save you 10% at construction date and even more looking down the road when you are having to recoat the galvanized when the baked enamel would still be hanging in there looking good. Do not be fooled as yes straight galvanized metal costs 10% less to buy but you have to add costs of at least 20% more to that when you apply the right paint to the galvanized otherwise you drastically reduce its life expectancy hence life cycle cost. A 10% saving to then only spend 20% more for painting and getting an inferior finish is not what I would call good math.
To wrap up this section I can only implore that you not even remotely consider using this product unless you are prepared to spend the extra money to do it right or just do not go there at all as I would suggest this evidence of its problematic nature is rather empirical regardless to what Metalco might say. A lot of headaches for what?
Now to go into other varied and what I would call better options for roof cladding. The use of asphalt shingles has risen substantially over the past five years for five reasons, all of which demonstrate there is ample reason that over 75% of all roofs in North America are covered in them!
A) They are considered by the market as a higher quality roof than metal with a higher esthetic value with many colour choices, plus they do not get dented and beat up during construction like the metal is famous for, in certain areas the Puntarenas roof mentioned looked like it had gone through a war.
B) They are much quieter than a metal roof and if you have spent any time under a tin roof here you know only too well what kind of noise pollution enters your home when pounding rain arrives. The combination of asphalt and double layered insulation as we recommend will be drastically quieter than even a tile roof.
C) They are cooler than metal even without the insulation however I recommend you stay away from black and chocolate browns as these are substantially hotter hence will have a shorter life as well.
D) They provide a long life of 20 years + and are easy to install with few maintenance problems and it is easy to train workers to apply them.
E) They are light weight, compared to tiles, hence do not require the addition of heavy and expensive roof structures.
While at it we need to analyze the difference between shingles and the traditional tropical tile roofs. I don’t think any discussion of roofs in the tropics can be complete without a comparison of these two very different systems. What the novice does not realize is that tile roofs go up in cost by 25% -30% due to the amount of structure that is needed to just hold up all those tons of dead weight. Hence tile and metal comes in at around $55 a meter whereas I just got a quote for asphalt for $28.50 a meter.
Something else most do not realize is that there is nothing that actually holds a tile to a roof structure. They sit there simply by the grace of gravity as there most certainly is no such thing as tile nails. Hence every time we have a shake of the ground here your roof is actually rattling around and can lead to tiles being displaced. Oh yeah, just what I want is tons of clay just sitting on top of my house when a #7+ earthquake hits. Just think for a moment about the sheer nonsense of that concept.
I am sure you are going to be thinking about how decorative your tile roof was as it lays in tons of rubble at you feet or on your head. What will the decorator say then? Do you see any disconnect with that idea that we need concrete walls to protect ourselves from an earthquake but we have tons of stuff just laying around waiting to fall on our heads. Sorry folks that is sheer lunacy.
I have added this excerpt post Sept. 5, 2012 and its gift of a 7.6 earthquake, the second strongest in recorded history, where we saw entire tile roofs up in Guanacaste laying in rubble at the base of many roofs. Hate to say I told you so but there is the empirical evidence that supports my warnings from 9 months previous. The leave it up to mother nature to come along and prove my warning had great validity.
If you can ignore the above serious faults, you will find those that will argue this old style is the most expensive roof, hence it means that it is the best. Well I can’t argue with style or the look of tiles for people so inclined, but as far as it being a reliable effective roof membrane, they are far far from being superior. In this case expensive and superior are not even remotely related.
Remember tiles are a technology that goes back 500 years since that was all they had to use back then. In fact the Nicaraguan tiles are still made the same way they were just after Columbus arrived here. Not exactly what one could call cutting edge technology. Actually comparing your modern home with a tile roof, forget about the Land Rover analogy as it would be more like trading your BMW for an ox cart, as a technology comparison would go.
On a functionality basis comparing tiles to shingle roofs is near a joke since shingles offer a solution with few problems as they are in all reality leagues ahead of tiles which are a veritable nightmare for leaking problems. Just ask anyone who has had such. Actually no one uses tiles anymore as a singular roof membrane. All tiles are now put over full metal roofs so the tiles are strictly for decoration purposes only yet they still make a rather warm roof (not as hot a metal) since almost no one insulates under them as is required to make a modern roof system.
I have a personal pet peeve with this style of tile roofs here in that they all tend to turn quite black with a mold that loves to grow on masonry type of products, including tile of course. Although it does nothing to hurt the product in a functional basis to me it just looks dirty and un-kept not a look I am seeking out. Considering it is the most expensive roof there is I hardly want to pay big bucks for a the dirty look. Below is a perfect example taken right from our own house I might add. This may not dissuade the die hard fan but at least take note of what you can expect for style in a few years. You can see more examples in the roofs that I show in the plumbing chapter 9 as well.
However if you must insist on having this exact roof the very best system to use DOES NOT use metal on the roof at all which is super critical if your home is anywhere near a beach. What you do is apply a base membrane made of a red cement board from Colombia that is made in the same undulating form that equals the size of the clay tile. Then you apply the tile only to the ridges of the cement board thus you use half the tile, 40% less weight than a full tile roof yet you would have a solid membrane underneath that won’t rust out. All of this protects your investment from leaks. This would also be cooler and quieter but nothing like it would be if you obey the law to insulate every roof first. The bizarre thing is that nearly 100% of the people who put on this show, with their supposedly stylish roof, fail to spend the money in the other right places, so they are left with so many flaws or deficiencies in what makes an efficient, safe, high quality and comfortable home. Assuming a $500,000 home on Valle de Sol golf course is a modern home can often resemble a wolf in sheep’s clothing when in fact there may be nothing in that luxurious home that qualifies it as any of the above nor an economically sound home.
The final and only smart alternative for the tile look is in all respects to me a much more sensible and practical solution just that it won’t satisfy the purists at heart. There is a plastic tile made here out of totally recycled plastics so it most certainly meets any eco initiative. They have been out on the market for over 15 years, which is how long the guarantee is, and are still standing up quite nicely. The are tough as hell in fact near to indestructible as I have jumped up and down on them with no ill effect what so ever. The phony metal tiles hardly can make that claim. From the ground most people would not realize that they are indeed plastic. They come in four colors one being a mottled red and black that gives the tile effect plus you can have them custom colored to suit any unusual color tastes. They are both light and very fast to install as you cover half a meter with each tile that is screwed down by 4 screws so they won’t blow or rattle away on you either. Then there is the cost factor and that is where they really kick it as they are $26.50 a meter which is half of a what the genuine tiles would cost. The only downfall is that they would be quite a bit noisier than a clay tile but with the proper double insulated roof under such that would be totally unnoticeable. Again it matters not what the cladding is the roof absolutely must be insulated. As far as durability is concerned it is hard to say just how long the plastic will stand up to our tropical sun but from all evidence it appears they should be good for at least 30 years so that would make it a dependable as well as a low maintenance cladding that qualifies this as a highly quality cladding. Cost = $28.50 per M2
There is another natural option if one wants a more tropical look and that is to use bamboo where you buy large diameter bamboo cut it in half to create two curved pieces and then apply it like you would a clay tile. Bamboo is not hard to come by here since I know one of the growers who I have purchased from in the past for specialty applications. Large tracts of it are grown out in Limon province. It is indeed a most acceptable eco product due to its speed of growth, durability and awesome strength factor as well. In fact it is way stronger than many woods are and as long as it is treated at cutting it is impervious to insects. It would also be similar in price to the plastic tile.
Now if you are looking for a luxury roof with a most unusual look for the tropics, we are going back in time by making wood shingles from Teak or Acacia. These will last for well over 50 years and do not mold like so many roof products do here, especially the tile as seen above.
With wood shingles, you can let them get the weathered gray look as you see in the picture below, which is three years old or you can oil them clear or with some tints if you want a different look but you NEVER paint them as that will drastically shorten their life expectancy when the paint causes them to hold moisture. Oh and these are solidly nailed to a roof so they are not about to rattle off in an earthquake or blow off in a high wind either. We actually use this roof quite commonly in Vancouver where it is without question a roof of distinction.
The following is a cross section of our luxury roof system. With using hardwoods in both the shingle as well as the strapping that is fastened to the rafters they are going to stay fastened to your roof. Hardwood is incredible for holding nails and screws that simply will not pull out, in fact the fastener will break first. Hence that makes this cladding ideal for high winds of any kind even though that is not a problem we have in Costa Rica. Take note there is no roof sheeting used, which is quite by design, as sheeting products are very expensive here. Plus it has been proven over the years that strapping a roof is far superior in that it allows the roof to breath much better than any solid sheeting would allow. I am also leery of the sheetings (OSB – oriented strand board) that are being used here as to how they are going to face the test of time, particularly our army of enemies.
Meanwhile I know the hardwood strapping is way stronger, lower cost and our friends don’t like to eat it so it will be safe for generations to come. The cost of this entire roof system comes in at about $54 a meter which is everything from the wall up, rafters, ceiling, insulation and cladding all included. In my opinion this is the highest quality of roof you can possible have that is designed to meet any of the rigors the tropics can throw at it plus having a look of distinction. Note that asphalt shingles are designed to try to mimic the look of wood shingles and yet are the same cost. The secret of course is having a plantation full of wood that is ideal for such application. I believe the two best claddings for the money are the plastic tile and wood shingle, the choice just comes down to a question of what style suits your tastes.
Commandment # 8
Fire Suppression Systems
The Latest Big Change in Safety
Although most homes are made of predominantly non-combustible fire rated material, less wood panels, the doors and cabinets, we have decided to take an initiative from both, the latest USA fire code and that of the latest International Building Code. That is to install a fire sprinkler system in each home. Now before you think I have completely lost my mind, be aware that what used to make these systems prohibitively expensive was high water pressure demands for the commercial systems for high rises, apartments and public buildings. Also forget about what you have seen in the movies where all the sprinklers are set off by a fire, that is BS.
You cannot set off all the sprinklers at one time. Only those heads in an area of heat high enough to trigger them will actually activate. If a fire started in the Christmas tree or couch in the living room, that room would obviously be the first one to get hot hence that sprinkler will activate and put the fire out prior to it having an opportunity to spread. The only way they can all go off is if the temperature rises in all rooms which would in essence take an explosion then I suggest water damage is the least of your worries or concerns.
The new system modified for residential requirements uses a design where the normal house water system will do the job necessary in succeeding to totally extinguishing 95%+ of all home fires. That pretty much leaves you with explosions, which are an extreme rarity in the first place. Once again our PEX tube will come to the rescue to feed this system from the regular water supply lines. In fact the water goes through the sprinkler heads prior to it getting to your bathroom fixtures. This way you have a constant test of the system’s functionality. You automatically know that if there is water in your toilet then there has to be water in your sprinklers.
With PEX’s very high heat tolerance at over 1,400ºC plus being buried inside walls, there is no way that there is not going to be water in those sprinkler heads, if and when it is needed. As far as fires starting in a home’s contents, these systems are most effective at putting out such yet affordable provided they are BUILT into a house from new. But very ugly if one has to do so after the fact. This is just like the gas system discussed earlier, the cost factor will go up by at least ten times if installed post construction versus during initial construction. Hence that is why we have elected to being the first in Costa Rica to adopt this as our standard. This also is a principle example of what building a 21st Century Home is all about… being a leader in the field, rather than a follower of old, antiquated and sadly often unchallenged bad practices.
Plumbing is the Boss of the Home
No, this is not a pretty discussion, but none the less a most necessary one. Every home obviously brings with it a necessity to dispose of human waste. Needless to say, as part of the infrastructure of a modern home, we must deal with our wastes in an efficient and effective method. To put it mildly having a plumbing system that works well and safely is critical to keeping a home a pleasant place to live.
This topic reminds me of the old joke about the time the body parts started arguing as to who was the boss. First the brain said it was as it made all decisions and nothing happened without its approval. To that the stomach said it was boss as without food nothing could go on. To this the lungs said they were boss as the body would die the quickest if they did not do their work. To end all this debate the rectum decided to quietly just quit functioning and in short order all the other parts soon found out who was really the boss. 🙂
Well this story does indeed remind me of the home, in that nothing is going to function very well in anyone’s life when their home has the plumbing and waste water system not functioning correctly, or worse yet shut down completely.
No one but no one puts off fixing these problems once the real Boss has spoken. When these problems arise, they fall in the category of emergency, “we have to fix this NOW!” Forget everything else. Like when I talked previously about the electrical system as a central nervous system, the plumbing is even more critical when it comes to emergency status when something refuses to work. In the general, the status of well running systems the plumbing systems are in even worse shape than the electrical systems when we compare Costa Rican norms to world class standards.
The reality is that all developers and contractors here want world class prices for their product (homes are anything but cheap here) yet so few put much effort in delivering just that to their buyers. Once again we run into the inspection reality, but even worse is that no one but no one seems to actually understand, let alone install, a plumbing system that has any hope of working properly. In fact I will categorically state that if you luck onto a home here that has a well designed and installed plumbing system, the developer or contractor was trained in another country. However that is not a guarantee either as was case in the Playa Grande house that we saw in the roof chapter and that is coming back to visit us in this one as well. Either that or you are in a high rise condominium whose system would totally collapse if the system did not follow the following iron clad rules. As an example, on my walks through Bello Horizonte, I took pictures of over a dozen homes ranging from under construction to many years old and all being in a price range over $300,000, yet not a single one of them showed signs of a correct system ever having been installed which is evidenced by vent lines sticking out out of the roofs.
For those of us who do not come from Costa Rica, we just assume that all plumbing is done in a way that would make it actually function in a correct manner. Well home owners that experience the reality here are in for one big surprise to put it mildly.
Also, like I discussed with electrical, these fundamental systems are near impossible to rectify in post construction. Bad plumbing is a forever deal, there is no end in site, short of a wrecking ball. With this basic advisory you hopefully will appreciate the gravity of this situation as I shall explain the how, what and why of the problems that are almost certain to be encountered with the typical plumbing system.
There is three fundamental and absolutely critical components of a well functioning plumbing system being, correctly sloped horizontal piping, venting and P-traps working in harmony. In our own home we have long horizontal runs outside the house prior to entry to the septic system that are not correctly sloped hence, that means a clean out every few months. All horizontal drains must slope 1/4” per foot of run or 2cm per meter, that is the law of physics. Anything more or less means that solids just will not go with the flow as they should, hence someone has this messy task every few weeks or months without fail. One might not call this a super critical error, just a royal pain in the ass, when this has to be done over and over again forever. This is a fundamental law yet I see it being ignored on a common basis.
Now to get into the more serious problems, what I have never seen installed in a home here is a vented plumbing system, and that is what I was specifically looking for on my walk. No doubt some will exist, but it is one heck of a rarity rather than the rule that it should be. On top of that, the all critical P-traps on drains are also a real hit and miss situation. However one without the other is pretty much a mute point either way as we shall discover. Both of these of course are in the IBC as well as the codes of all G8 countries as a basic standard of which is enforced rigidly by inspections prior to covering up any plumbing pipes. What I am about to explain involves such fundamental science, and the laws thereby, that cannot be discounted as not necessary in any high quality home in any country on the planet. There just is no room for, “it does not apply here”!
Now some would say these homes are attractive as they are dressed up in nice clothes yet they are clearly lacking in fundamental structure. As I advise all, beware of appearances. You must check out a homes’ basic structural components! What is meant by Vented Plumbing is that all plumbing fixtures must be connected not just to a drain (stack) that leads out of the home to the septic but also to a pipe that goes up to the roof so that the network of plumbing can breath. Yes it does have to breath! Not doing this would be best likened to having a home with a case of incurable permanent asthma.
Without this venting your home simply cannot get enough air into or out of the right pipes so that water can drain away at the correct speed. This quick draining of water is required in order that any waste that is intended to go down with it, does exactly that. The inevitable result, due to this fundamental science not being followed, is this… you drain a sink, flush a toilet or have a shower and you can hear other appliances gurgling. What this means is in order for the water to go down it must displace air that is in the same pipe first in order for there to be room for the exiting water. In order for it to do so, when there is no vent, the system must suck air from where ever it can get it, which means some other drain. Your plumbing should be absolutely silent in that you should never hear anything when you flush a toilet, run water down a sink or have a shower. Absolutely nothing should be heard from anywhere else when you perform any of these functions. This is the tell tale sign of a well functioning system.
Now when you hear your system gasping for air (that gurgle you hear) the inevitable result is it is slowing down the exit speed of the waste water drastically. When I mean drastically I mean to 1/10 of the required speed and without that speed you simply cannot carry the wastes that would otherwise exit, instead they get stuck in pipes or gradually build up a residue that eventually becomes a blockage. Hence that is why in Costa Rican homes you are constantly looking for a plunger or snake or plumber or rotter rooter or what ever means to solve these inevitable blockages.
Amazingly the industry at large has never addressed or figured out there is a fundamental lacking in all these plumbing systems. However when the lungs to the system are completely missing we can hardly call it a system at all can we? This is a fundamental law of physics that cannot and will not be avoided or ignored.
To clearly demonstrate these facts I have a video that I made, called Plumbing 101, that most clearly demonstrates these facts to the uninformed. In that video I take a 2.5 liter bottle full of water that I then turn upside down and time how long it takes for that water to drain out. This takes slightly less than 40 seconds to do so.
This is an exact replica of how an unvented system would function as we see this bottle gasping as air tries to get into the bottle meanwhile letting the water escape. Next I drill a tiny hole in the end of another 2.5 liter bottle of water in order to see what happens when we turn it upside down. That same water exits in a steady flow without any gasping for air in a mere 3.75 seconds.
We can then see that the velocity of the water exiting by pure gravity is 1,000% faster, hence it will take along with it all the unwanted wastes as it rapidly exits the system. The end result, in a properly functioning system, is to eliminate the calls to a plumber and the perpetual pain in the ass that such an incomplete system inevitably will bring to any owner.
Note, this tiny air hole that I put in the bottle amounts to only 12% of the actual area of the exit pipe since air flows much more easily than water does. Now since this actual vent, or breathing pipe, does not need to be big at all (1/2” to 1”) the solution to a properly functioning system is cheap to install at construction stage. Most 3 bath houses could be done with $25 of material. Yet to try to fix this deficiency in a concrete house would run $5,000 to $10,000. Again I stress, cheap to do it right yet horrifically expensive to fix it.
That folks is what I call a real obscenity when you buy a house worth several hundred thousand dollars yet with a crippled plumbing system that could have been solved for $25. Is that not absolutely crazy??? The end result is having a noisy plumbing system, a smelly plumbing system and an expensive one to maintain due to the constant cleaning problems. However these are not the worst of your problems at all… that is yet to come!
As I said at the intro to this rule, we also find that P-traps are used at will in a most hit and miss manner in most houses especially when the pipe is below a floor. Each one of these traps typically costs like $5 or $40 for a typical 3 bath home which is not a bad price since they can save your life! The point of a P-trap, which is that P shaped piece of pipe fitting that you see under sinks, is to leave a trap of water at the lowest point of that pipe that never drains. It is designed to be there at all times as it blocks any odors and toxic gases coming up from the septic tank. I am sure we can all agree that these odors are not exactly pleasant. However there is a sinister enemy in that same septic tank called sewer gas or methane gas that is odorless and absolutely lethal if inhaled in sufficient quantity. That is why such traps are law, not because the industry cares about how your bathroom smells, but it is all about how what does not smell can indeed kill you and has done so.
Now our vented system returns once again to play a role in the whole picture here in that it not only gives a way for the system to breath, it also gives methane a way to get outside as well as avoiding another problem. When a system is not vented properly, a toilet dumping a large quantity of water can create enough suction in any nearby pipe, such as a small pipe to a sink, that in its attempt to breath it creates a vacuum and can suck all the water right out of a properly installed P-trap. Hence the protection and gas stoppage that was supposed to be there to protect you no longer exists until someone comes along and runs more water into the sink drain.
That is what you call a double whammy. That gurgling sound is way more than just simply aggravating. It can also be a warning sign of a dangerously malfunctioning system. As these pictures clearly prove this problem is not one created by any individual architect, engineer or plumber it is a serious failing of the entire industry or what I would call a systemic problem or lack of education or science. This is clearly obvious when we see a home of a leading architect that did not even include these critical components. At some point in history the Tico system decided that it was going to opt out of the global reality of gravity and fluid dynamics. Which I am sure we can all agree is rather preposterous but none the less a fact of life in Paradise.
No doubt some will argue with my statements here as individual homes here often employ a dual system wherein they split the greywater (wash water) system away from the actual septic system for black waters which of course is where in lies the real danger I discuss. Although this has been the habit, a really bad one I might add, just dumping wash water in the streets and storm drains that all lead directly to the nearest creek or river is one really offensive environmental practice. With this habit they are dumping detergents (often including phosphates), bleaches, hair dyes, shampoos, etc, etc, directly into the drainage system with zero treatment or filtering what so ever.
Today all newer condominiums will not get their permits if they don’t treat everything. Hence there is some clean up when larger projects are being forced to clean up their act or at least not magnifying a bad situation. The fact remains all the older homes and individual homes still carry on this atrocious practice. Of course if the greywater system is split from the black water then it will not present a lethal problem but it still can leave behind odors and it most certainly will have draining problems because the pipes will not be flushed clean when the exiting fluids do not leave the system at the ideal velocity. In summary, if one wants a well functioning system, even when it is split, you still have to vent it properly or the proverbial problems simply will not go away until such renovations are done.
Needless to say your home’s systems have to be vented. As I have said, to save a few pennies over the expense of a modern home for this is nothing short of utter nonsense and a crime against the owners if we were not to do what we know has been proven in many industrialized countries to be an absolute necessity hence why it is included in all building codes as well as the IBC.
Okay our next subject is the actual PVC tubes themselves. You cannot assume that just because there is tubes that it will necessarily be a happy ending due to one deadly fact here. They sell a product that is absolute crap and should not enter any home. It is called PVC sanitario. This tube does not exist up north because it would never pass our codes. This junk is cheap because it is way too thin to survive many years in service. It is very easy to break it when it is new but add a few years of aging to it and worse yet add any kind of sunlight to that mix and you are in serious trouble. Our entire swimming pool was plumbed with this junk hence the 25 year old system leaked like a sieve. The only solution which was an ugly one, was to dig up every single line there was and replace it with real schedule 40 compression lines. A recent example from only a week ago came along to verify these facts which were also provided by the same Playa Grande home. This provides us with the testimony that shows how bad this product is and what a nightmare of plumbing it can so easily bring about.
A close up to compare the two side by side.
This is another critical product to be used on all pressure lines like swimming pools and pumps for wells and holding tanks. NEVER use elbows as they restrict the flow so much it causes unnecessary heavy loads on pumps which shortens their lives and more stress on a pump causes it to use more electricity. In our own water tank the PVC line broke right off which forced a renovation to the system. Once in our water tank I found that we had 9 elbows in the first 4 meters of line. TAlk about the installer have not a clue about fluid dynamics. This submersible pump is pushing the water up a 40 meters lift through 300 meters of line to our house hence when it kicks in it is generating 100 psi. Well to add 9 elbows to that stress make it a completely insane set up. At the very least no more than a 45º elbow should ever be used in a pressure line. Think about it, is there a reason we don’t put corners on the freeway? Cars cannot navigate a sharp corner at high speeds well the same thing applies to the water in a pressure line when you try to make a sharp turn. I did not have PEX pipe to use when we re-plumbed our pool but now I would change all my pressure feeds to smaller flexible lines and eliminate the larger rigid pipe that does a bad job of distributing even pressure to the jets of a pool. In fact it can’t and won’t unless you use a distribution system like the PEX employs.
There is one final mechanical system that is rarely ever seen or even talked about that addresses the unique needs of the tropics and our type of climate. Closet or closed room Ventilation Systems. I have been in quite a number of high end homes and as yet I have never seen anyone install such a system. To say the least, when one understands the pervasiveness of the problem, it is required equipment to complete a highly functional home. In the renovation I sited here, I guided the owner into importing a fan system made by Broan that went in the attic to provide multiple flex tubes going to all of the closets. This is a situation where we have taken equipment built for air tight homes of a northern climate and put into a new application.
Closets are a proverbial pain in the tush in that they happen to provide an ideal breading ground to any one of our near 150 species of air born mold spores. Hence people are constantly leaving doors open and yet often fighting a loosing battle to stop mold from blooming in their closets. Leather goods are especially notorious at providing a happy home to many wonderfully green molds. I dare say millions of dollars of clothing and apparel items have been destroyed here. All of which could be eliminated by spending $500 to $1,000 during construction to provide this most necessary airflow in any enclosed space. Ignoring this reality or forgetting it will only result in a degree of loss of property or inconveniences as you inevitably fight this lack of air movement and humidity making it a never ending battle. I would liken forgetting this component in a home here would be equal to not putting a humidifier in your home in Canada, except that battle lasts only about 4 months of the year versus the constant reality here. This condition is also very wide spread as it is bad all over the Central Valley and only gets even worse the closer you get to the beaches and their even higher humidity. That of course we can see in these pictures taken from the home in Playa Grande. To boost your defense system against this unseen enemy you can further bolster your defenses by adding a purification unit along with the ventilation system and Broan provides us with that solution as well. We are now just getting the distribution set up to purchase these products and ship here as once again you cannot find such in the local home supply center and importing in small quantities is very expensive on the shipping.
While it is fresh in our minds I need to add an excerpt here covering a significant lesson or caution that is not directly related to the subject of this chapter but comes through loud and clear when demonstrated by the most recent examples. There is a hidden lesson or problem behind the one particular home that has become somewhat of a star throughout the past three chapters. It has given you some most valuable examples of how not to build a home hence you can learn and not face the bills that face this owner. This particular home near Playa Grande could be a poster child of how not to build a good home. From it we have a clear testimony from the problems that scream out at us very clear messages as how not to end up with a leaking roof, leaking water lines, leaking sewer lines, no GFI in the electrical, mold from bad ventilation and drywall going to hell from inappropriate application. Take note this is a home that is only 7 years old with minimal use hence it rightfully should never have had to face a five figure overhaul at its young age. The take away here is this. All of these issues are not the real problem only the symptoms of a greater problem and this is the lesson for the reader to benefit from. In this case this home was NOT built by Ticos, it was built by Americans with Tico employees. This was my first message back to the owner after I completed the Home Inspection prior to me writing my embarrassing report and action plan addressing this homes many issues. I told the owner point blank that who built this home was guilty of one of three things A)someone that had never built a home prior to arrival in Costa Rica hence were totally incompetent to be building in the first place or B) someone who knew what they were doing but broke all these rules anyways since there was no inspection or higher supervision which then made them guilty of being thieves or C) both of the above. Not too surprising the owner got back to me and advised me that indeed the builders of his home were never ever builders at all. Color me surprised. As I told him I can go into a home and have that home talk to me so that I can often tell you exactly what the character of the builders was years after they left the scene. There in lies the real lesson behind the problem for you to learn from, do not hire people who are incompetent just because they speak your language or come from your culture! This example would not be near as offensive if it was a Tico contractor that was the cause of this disaster as he would at least have had an excuse for his ignorance. But an American that does not know what GFI, exterior drywall and decent plumbing pipe are yet was building homes and selling them to other smucks. That is gross incompetence or willful negligence at best. This is hardly the first example I have had of this, just the first time I have had pictures to prove the most predictable end results that demonstrate to the naive what usually happens to the consumer caught in this sandwich. I care not who a builder is Tico, Gringo, Canadian it matters not, it only matters if they have core competencies. Without such how can they be expected to supervise other contractors and workers to deliver a world class product to you? I have seen equally embarrassing examples from large builders like Avalon and Concasa that scream out incompetence all because project managers really could not deliver supervision. If such was not the case then blatant faults would not be in their so called finished products that tell the real story in the end. The blind leading the blind will never give you a world class product, that you can take to the bank.
Commandment # 10
Environmental Protection & Waste Disposal
We are not completely done with this pleasant subject just yet as we have only covered the in house portion of the process. So what do we do with the black and grey waters after they leave our home? Many people have been surprised after the fact of buying a home and then have found that there is no system at all, or at best only half of one, which then of course they are faced with the responsibility to fix someone else’s deceit. Each home needs to have a septic tank to gather such wastes or in large condo projects most now have mechanical waste treatment systems.
In our case once the black water leaves the tank it will not go to the typical field distribution system and most certainly will not be dumped into the street. First off, a field does not actually treat or do anything with black water, it just spreads it out far enough to lessen the damage. In our case we have a second problem, our soil conditions are heavy clay which does not make for a good field system drainage. However clay conditions are perfect for another type of system called a bio-filter. In this case the black water flows into a sealed containment area that acts as a wetland area where special plants grow.
By the natural process of these plants growing they also consume and filter the human waste leaving clean water draining out of the containment area. From that area we will pump the now clean waters into an irrigation system that will keep our lush and extensive gardens flourishing even in our dry summers. Needless to say we prefer our green mountain to one that is burnt brown from the summer sun. All the better if we can accomplish that with residual waters.
This is not a new concept as it used around the world in many Asian countries where typical field systems just do not work. The system is designed to imitate the Florida Everglades. Michael also used this same system on Vancouver island where the whole project was built on rock hence could not be developed without a way to treat the waste waters. It worked so well that they actually used the water coming out of the filter to make tea from in their tea house. Tea anyone??? This method of course does not work well in high density where the developer is trying to ring every cent out of every square meter hence they will not dedicate the space needed to build the wet area gardens. However for us with all our space this wet area just gets incorporated into an extensive system of to die for gardens thereby killing three birds with one stone, treatment, irrigation and gardens all in one clever package. Also in the interest of operating efficiency this system requires no power to run like a huge mechanical treatment plant would that you then get to pay for every month.
This also offers us the opportunity to take this same water coming out of the filter and recycle it back into the home to be used again by splitting the water system into two distinct ones. With the tube and manifold system incorporated into a PEX pipe system it is very easy to make a split system just like this. One for potable water serving the sinks and another for the wash water system for recycled waters that would be sent to the showers, toilets and laundry services. This method drastically reduces the new water that is needed by the project and would at least double the amount of homes we can service from one well. That is significant in that although we have access to public water we really don’t want to use it due to the chlorine content when our own well water of course is pure water without any free radicals being added to it in the form of chlorine. This also affects how our pools will be treated using ionization and CO2 such as I did with our own pool that is here now.
Pivotal to Building Smart Homes
I do not beleive a single person who would take an interest in our type of project and construction methods that would not place a high priority upon their ability to communicate in the modern world in order make their life functional as well as enjoyable. The communication systems are also part of the central nervous system of the entire project and just like the electrical and plumbing systems of each house, they are difficult if not impossible to ever update or add to in the future without great expense and/or less than attractive outcomes. This subject matter may well not be as significant for those that only have interest in a single home construction situation.
Most of us live in dumb houses that had absolutely nothing installed in them from new to accommodate all the new demands of a modern house. Hence we have all experienced UGLY, UGLY cables strung here and there after the fact. Needless to say a modern home does not and cannot have such problems by not planning for or accommodating such as part of the design and construction phase of our project.
Internet service is of course the backbone to any communication system as we can only see that it will further expand and provide even more services that we do not yet even imagine going into the future which will be in demand by all modern owners. As an example in the last few years RACSA has gone from a 128 dial up to in December 2012 announcing a fiber optic system that will be dishing out 10mb speeds as a basic service. After the announcement they had 2,000 inquiries in the first 2 days. Like I said a big demand for high tech services by the Tico consumer.
Back to current reality at the moment our neighbourhood’s internet service options are horrible in our piece of paradise. All we have is but one option for service for the typical consumer market being various microwave systems. With the opening of the monopoly of ICE, other competing services have come on line to provide a number of speeds and costs for service. However just like many of our initiatives previously discussed, we are going to adopt the latest of technology by installing a community system to address both speed issues as well as costs. This shall be done by running a fiber optic line direct from ICE to our property. This line will provide us all the telephone lines we could ever want plus a very fast internet service where we can continue to expand the data feed to meet future demands for generations to come.
This feed will also be combined with television service then all data sources, telephone, internet, television and security will be fed to each home on the project through an internal fiber optic network.
The viability of this advanced system has just came into its own over the last year when the equipment and cable costs dropped drastically to where it has become economically viable. This type of system can easily expand to carry massive amounts of data as our demands increase over time plus provide maintenance free service which is leagues ahead of the problems the copper type cable system brings with it. Even better but what is unknown by most consumers, is that typical service providers over subscribe their bandwidth by at least 20 to 1 for ICE and 30 to 1 for Tigo and more with Metro Wireless. What these do is they take the cake that they charge you for and sell the same to others by dividing it amongst 20 or 30 subscribers hence forcing you to share. This is exactly why your connection speeds can vary so much depending on the time of day and how many people you are sharing that same bandwidth with at any give moment.
Alternatively, with our own system we become our own service and share that bandwidth only those within our own community which means we get to choose how fast our connections are by how much band width we buy. I assure you it will most certainly not be at a factor of 20 to 30. On top of all of these benefits this system cuts our costs since there is not a middle man making sizable profits. As in most things a shared service dedicated to our own community will be far more efficient and cost effective for all owners.
We will also add a feed from our security system direct into the data stream plus our own community information channel so that we can communicate between houses as well as receive any kind of notices pertinent to what is going on in our community. We will be able to communicate between neighbours and most importantly, when we have a breach to our perimeter security we shall be advised of such so that we can be on alert prior to a security issue rather than the typical after the fact. More on this system will be discussed in the project details. This system will be designed and installed by not just a close personal friend of mine, but a qualified IT engineer.
Commandment # 12
A Modern Home SHALL BE a Safe Home
This topic is most important considering it is one of the areas of greatest negligence in today’s reality of Costa Rican construction. This subject of safety winds its way through many components of the entire home of which I have commented on in other chapters but this one goes into this as a specific concern with examples. I have elected to make a general summary of home safety and what should be enforced by the local code with regards to the general concept of safety and its relevance in a home. Going back to living examples to help demonstrate my point, I remember a story about Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to successfully climb Mount Everest. What few people know about him is a story that is anything but daring or glamorous. Were you aware that a few months after being the first to climb and survive the most treacherous peak of the world Sir Edmund actually accomplished another amazing feat. He broke his leg in his own bathroom at home. While that did not make him famous, although is sure as hell should have, it is a fine example to others as to just how dangerous living at home can be. My simple position is that since it is more than dangerous enough all on its own, that we most certainly do not need to add to the risks that already exist and multiply the risks by adding foolish construction methods or materials, as I shall demonstrate here.
Now to be perfectly honest I have no idea if the code here pays any attention to safety factors but once again if there is no one to enforce them it makes the rules totally irrelevant. All I can base my analysis on are real examples that I see in everyday Tico construction. In general I can see no evidence that the majority of builders think it is of much priority to improve the safety of what they build or what happens long after they have left the site or what shall befall the owners.
Slip and fall safety does not exist and often you see floor finishes applied that are treacherous especially with the rampant use of ceramics everywhere. Like no one in Canada would consider putting tile in their garage it just is not done. If you think rain is bad try some snow on a ceramic floor, you may as well be out skating on a frozen pond. Even without the extreme of snow you will find that if you put glazed tile in a garage that gets water on it from cars driving in, that is an accident looking for a place to happen. At the very least use super wide grout lines of 2” between tiles so that when you slip you will hit a traction spot in the grout before you find yourself laying on a floor with something broken. Either that or better yet use traction tiles or no tiles at all.
Heck I have even seen commercial centers put this slippery tile on exterior stairs that often get wet, what an incredibly horrible idea. Then there is shower stalls, the worst offender of all, since they are wet about 100% of the time. These floors have to be stone or traction tile without exception, doing anything different qualifies you as an idiot. Plain and simple.
In our own home one morning I glanced over to see my wife’s head bouncing off a concrete step going down into the shower. Now she had been using that shower for some 20 years before I happened on the scene and had never fallen on these glazed tiles before. Now this situation was tripled on the danger scale with a nice fluffy concrete step going down into the shower. Landed on that step ended her up on an emergency trip to the hospital for X-rays and bandaging up. With the way she landed she could just as easily have spent the rest of her life in a wheelchair or worse. A great question to ask would be, and for what? What was gained by the risk of having a slippery floor of glazed tile? Something that was easier to scrub but then could maim or kill you! Sorry I am lost as to the upside in that formula.
Needless to say shortly there after the tile was replaced with small stones and a glass enclosure put in to remove the step from the slip and fall zone. More importantly the glass gave a support to grab onto even if you only use it once every twenty years. I think it a wise investment as compared to looking after a quadriplegic. Someone was indeed looking down on her that day.
Well this leads us on another trip back to Heredia, and yes you guessed it, the same offending house had glazed tile in the shower. It had floor level changes of about 2 inches coming into the main bath as well as going into the laundry area. All potential wet areas so that when someone steps on this stupid mini step they can easily stumble and have them landing where, who the hell knows. Absolutely preposterously ridiculous for such to be in a new home, this contractor was a total idiot as was the owner who let him away with it.
Yet we are still not done, the final crime at the scene was the stairs. Zero, zip, nothing for handrails coming down the L shaped stairs. Or even when they are used they are not at correct heights of 30” to 32”. The further nonsense to these heights is that Ticos on average are not tall people yet I often see especially in commercial centers 36”+ heights to stair hand rails. Aliss by Multiplaza is a fine example where there was obviously architects involved yet they have these massively tall hand rails. Once again without this and at the correct heights your house fails final inspection in Canada and it should be no different here. But sadly, I cannot even give him a unique reward, as I have seen this as more the rule than the exception. Now if someone wipes out coming down that stairs where there is squat to grab hold of to break their fall or at least slow them down from getting a concussion or broken leg or just a sprained ankle. So when you fall head first down that first run of stairs what do you have to stop you? Why at the bottom you have a nice fluffy concrete wall turning at 90º to the stairs. Great formula for a serious injury even for a young and perfectly able person. Let’s use some imagination here and just think of this scene… a good mom is carrying a load of laundry down to the laundry room meanwhile her 3 year old child has left a toy on the second step. So mom steps on it and careens head first down the steps but has squat to grab hold of but a nice smooth concrete wall. The result of this most strange and impossible of all occurrences is what I ask?… I sure hope her child does not need much attention for the next couple of months and we can be thankful it was not worse. Lets not forget this stupidly simple and practical safety feature would have cost the contractor/owner $25. How would we ever find space in an over $100,000 budget for that?
There is another issue that is incredibly common that further exacerbates this situation where I see so many stairs that are like a minefield just waiting for the wrong person to make the right move that will so easily cause a serious injury. That fatal item is injury by arithmetic. So you did not think you could be injured by such? Wrong! You sure can when the worker making a staircase can’t do stair arithmetic. Very simple, we as humans adjust very quickly to a stair as to the height of each step (the rise), and the width of each step (the tread) as soon as we take one step our brain tells us what to expect in the next and the next. First off there is established proven standards that say how much each of these should be to have a good stairs. However the second issue is even more important, uniformity. Each successive rise and tread must be equal to the previous or we will trip and stumble which can then lead to a very serious injury. Now, if you think I exaggerate to this fact watch this video taken at a New York subway where many people stumble.
I draw your attention to the fact that many of these stumbling bumblers are YOUNG. This problem would be just plain horrible in a retirement home and asking for injuries. Check out the video it is worth at least a thousand words and proves my point of course. Let’s let a bunch of dumb New Yorkers demonstrate for us just how the human body navigates stairs. 🙂 It is so common here to find stairs that are not uniform which then makes them a safety hazard. I digress back to the Puntarenas house I previous mentioned where the first riser of this staircase was 2 1/2” higher as well as the last riser that was 1 1/2” higher than all the rest. We are not talking fractions of an inch here like the New York sample was so can you imagine the results? As I cautioned the owners this is going to hurt someone, there is no maybe here, the only question is WHEN???. The sad thing is this is a luxury home that meets all the requirements of a well dressed home but one that has serious fundamental problems in the bones caused by poor constructors. It was not a lack of the owners spending money, it was only how it was deployed. The other bad thing is this cannot be fixed, you can only replace the entire structure to fix it hence these arithmetic errors of the workers will cost the owners about $3,000 to install a new wood staircase, which by the way cannot have a variance of more than 1/4” if you want to avoid stumble and falls.
The only other alternative is to pour a new stairs over the old one to hide the errors but sometimes this just will not work depending on the situation and even if it does talk about a mess! While on this topic something else that I find so common is small steps of 2″ – 4″ or ledges all over the place with normally no rhyme nor reason as to why they put these trip and fall accident makers in in the first place. Just yesterday I inspected another renovation where the last contractor put a 2″ step down into a garden terrace. Well I tripped over the dam thing three times during my visit. What a great way to injure visitors. Worse yet I could see nor reason for this drop being there in the first place other than abject stupidity in not understanding how humans walk or stumble. I recently fired a client for having an incurable case of stupid. One of our last fights over the job was exactly about this. She wanted me to do something exactly as stupid as this and put a 2″ step in the center of a terrace which I refused to do. No doubt she would tell you I have no right to tell her the home owner how to do something. Well I do not and will not knowingly build something that is dangerous and especially something that is against code. When something is on my watch and under my name I have the right and responsibility to not participate in foolishness. What was even more ridiculous in this case is she was not even going to be living in this area of the house as it was rental suites for retirees. Talk about capital stupidity putting in tripper steps so older folks can injure themselves and for what? So that some idiot could think that they had a better style. Functionality must trump style in cases as this. Nonsense, that is exactly why codes exist, they are there to protect innocent people from morons.
To prove my point when I went back to collect some tools forgotten behind I found that she had ripped up part of my work and installed two 2″ tripper steps so that she then had three different sizes of steps within the first six feet of entering this apartment. I have zero tolerance for such attitudes hence why she was fired. I happen to not believe that concrete stairs in any home are at all ideal in the first place nor are they especially aesthetic and they most certainly are not economical contrary to common belief and practice. My math says they are expensive to build, magnify any injuries that do occur and they slow up construction due to the fact that concrete is difficult and slow to form up when you are working with more intricate angles. Then after all that you still have to cap all the concrete with tile and/or wood. What the novice would not realize is this, a concrete stairs actually uses more wood than a wood stairs does. The amount of wood used in forming up the stairs which is then thrown away, is almost as much as I use to actually make the permanent hardwood stairs then you have to add to the ugly concrete something to make it aesthetically pleasing which often means adding more wood to the mix. And as previously mentioned when errors occur they are incredibly ugly to fix = expensive. The errors that so often ensue are also a clear demonstration of lack of trades training that can only be fixed by going to school and learning construction arithmetic or being trained by someone so competent. The typical contractor throws this job at regular workers whereas it is technically more in the specialty area of a mill-worker than a general construction worker. The only solution for the owner is refusing to pay contractors who build dangerous structures as another way to cure the problems as well. The following pictures show both the safer methods in practice when using wood as well as the aesthetics of such. These show the staircase we completed last year along with some of the assembly procedures as it was being born and built with methods that will guarantee centuries of service to the owners. This should be helpful for all of those unfamiliar with wooden stair construction. I challenge anyone who suggests that two tons of concrete would be the equal to this final result but then I well admit to a bias considering my loooong relationship with wood.
These wood triangles are what sets our rise and run of each tread of the stairs and such are deadly accurate with variance measured in 1/16ths of an inch certainly not in inches. Clamping and gluing the triangles in place Assembly of the treads and risers. Completed staircase prior to finish. As my example from Sir Edmund Hillary, the home is already a sufficiently dangerous enough of a place without doing stupid things to magnify the situation to being even more dangerous than it already is.
Now many of my other rules have also touched on safety issues, especially the electrical, since it is so easy to absolutely kill people when codes are not followed. Obviously the fire suppression is another safety factor to take seriously. But I want to end this subject with my pet peeve regarding this preoccupation of thinking we need concrete to protect us and make us safe in earthquakes. Why should or would we be so concerned about something that has such a slim possibility of actually happening meanwhile leaving the door more or less wide open for everyday common occurrences to bring about accidents and injuries because of a lack of simple safety rules being employed in construction. It just does not add up in a sensible fashion for me, I only hope I have a few readers who happen to agree with my strange perspectives.
Commandment # 13
Infrastructure Issues Outside of Your Home
As important as all the previous commandments have been the reality is that what happens outside of your actual home can be even more critical as well as costly when things go wrong or when you get unpleasant surprises because you did not know what to watch out for in advance. What is even more significant is that after the fact there is times these problems can be near impossible to really fix to a level where you can actually say you are satisfied or that the problem has disappeared.
The access to your (future) home including all connecting roadways is not actually part of it but most certainly does affect how you can and will use your home. I have seen what I can only describe as bizarre actions and or outlandish offenses especially by developers who take advantage of their customers naivety and or ignorance. In my early days here I worked with one developer who is very large and quite wealthy yet they refused to build a bridge over a significant river. Now the majority of their sales were made during the dry season when that same river might only have 6” to a foot of water in it however if you come back some afternoon in rainy season it could easily have 4 to 6 feet of water in it. Meanwhile they were selling very overpriced lots of up to $200,000 that could only be accessed via that route through the river.
Well this might work for vacationers, but those that actually retire to the those homes are in for one real rude awakening once they spend their first rainy season here and have to run their life via the river cycle. I find this preposterous for lots and the homes of this value that will eventually be built there on. What is even worse is that bridge only would have cost them $10,000 to $15,000, so it was not about a huge expense, it was about blatant greed of the developer. During my time there no one ever asked that critical question or even thought about it yet back where I come from you could never have sold lots of that value without them being fully accessible. Just one of the many strange things I have seen people do here in paradise.
The other issue that raised its ugly head about three years later, when I went back to visit the project, was the horrible condition of the roads that the developer had built. As is often the practice, they declared false values on the lots way below what they actually sold them for. In fact it was something in the order of 5% hence that is what the municipality charged the taxes based upon. Which meant next to nothing, or in this case, around $100 a year which of course the developer used as a big selling point in selling the lots to the suckers. So what happened is they cut roads into dirt then turned them over to the municipality, which as most rural ones had very little money, certainly none to attempt to try to maintain such with no resources, thanks to this blatantly fraudulent tactic.
Now this project is south of Dominical is in an area that gets around 4.5 meter or 14 feet of rain per year as per the data from the weather station right there. Hence not surprisingly with zero maintenance on my trip back there were ravines cut in the roads in the places up to your knees which meant you had to have a 4×4 to even get to your lot. This climate is incredibly destructive to dirt roads and especially those that are constructed, as these were, with the bare minimum of expense and water control infrastructure. If you have not purchased a lot as yet, be very cautious as to just what the developer is or more importantly is not giving you in the way of reasonable infrastructure. All too often we find Mercedes prices with Lada infrastructures.
Even in the Central Valley here, I noticed during my early days, how I would go into new projects of less than two years and find the roads full of potholes. This at first puzzled me as to why in this kind of climate roads went to crap so fast. I personally find it offensive to suggest to owners that it is reasonable for them to be dodging potholes in their streets when the ink is barely dry on their twenty year mortgages. When one considers just how hard winter and the freeze/thaw cycle is on roadways are in Canada yet those roads stand up way better by comparison.
It was not until after asking lots of questions and finding a few where such was not the norm that I found out what was the root problem that was causing this. As it turns out all the municipal standards here only require a 20 cm (6 inch) base under the road surfaces. To say the least there is empirical evidence to prove such just does not work. Just drive around, the evidence is overwhelming. I have found those that have good roads did not cut the corners and used a base double of the minimum requirements. Indeed when checking out where to buy a lot this should be high on your question list, as if you get the wrong answer, be prepared that you are going to be dodging holes very soon after you build you house. It is just a reality of life in Costa Rica, don’t expect standards to be the norm you are accustomed to in other first world countries.
The most critical issue if you live on a mountain side or anywhere with much gradient to it at all is the question of water control. You must watch this like a hawk especially when buying existing homes as the builders and engineers often are off in la la land. In the Central Valley here we get right around 2 to 2.2 meters or almost 7 feet of rain each year. This is no place to try to do battle with mother nature when she is in an ugly mood. You loose and it WILL BE UGLY and expensive. I have participated in fixing two situations both of which to say the least were highly predictable and accidents just waiting to happen.
For the first example of what to never do I don’t have to go far at all, as it is a mere 20 feet from where I sit writing this advice for you. When this house was built near 30 years ago, the brilliant engineer/architect just cut into the mountainside to create the building plantel for this house. Two absolute cardinal yet common sins they committed were, they did nothing to contain the cut-bank going into the mountain, then to make that offense totally ridiculous, or what I call stupidity on steroids, they did nothing what so ever to control the inevitable water-flow from 200 meters of mountainside that sheds all its water down this healthy slope making a waterfall coming into our kitchen.
I guess the excuse for this was that gravity and rain had not as yet been discovered in Costa Rica. This cut bank is only 2 meters or 6 feet behind the house with a rise of 5 meters or 16 feet from the top of which is the watershed of over 200 meters or 660 feet of mountain. During a heavy rain there would actually be a waterfall coming right down behind the house over this dirt cliff. Well shock of shocks, a mud slide came down about two years before I came onto the scene. After this Ana had several engineering firms come in to estimate repairs to this situation. The prices came in anywhere from $60,000 to well over $100,000 hence nothing was ever done. I took a close look at the overall situation during my first rainy season here after another mudslide came down elsewhere on the property. This I did by going out when it was raining like hell to see what was actually going on. Nothing like the proof in the puddin. This imminent danger to the house I resolved with a $340 expenditure. This of course did not solve the ugly cut-bank but what it did was take the water via concrete culverts and send it away from the house. Hence the thousands of gallons of water that had been saturating this cliff, that of course had lead to the mud slide, was now directed around the house and off the mountain to where it could do no harm. To completely fix this problem was indeed very difficult and expensive even though installing the proper retaining wall to hold back this cut-bank was fairly easy prior to construction of the house. But once the home was built doing this after the fact is pretty much like running around the maternity ward looking for the condom machine. This should NEVER even be remotely considered when your home is near a cut-bank as after the fact there just is not room to come in with heavy equipment to install retaining walls. The other fact is a bare dirt cliff can hardly be described as a thing of beauty right beside your home as such grows very little in the way of vegetation to cover it up as you can see from these pictures.
If you choose not to do it right at construction time then at least keep a safe distance away from any cut bank so that at least someone can do so at a later date. When I was looking for a long term solution to this one contractor specializing is stabilization had suggested putting a six ton excavator on this mountain right behind the house so that the arm could reach down to remove dirt. To put it mildly I vetoed that nonsense as what happens if the mountain decides not to support 6 tons and we have an excavator sitting in our kitchen at dinner time. Talk about one step forward and 100 backwards.
The other area where we had had the second mud slide was solved for less than $20 of time spent on a backhoe to cut a small channel to direct the water away from another 5 meter cliff. The first week of November 2010 saw us receiving the largest rainfall recorded history over a four day period which lead to the deaths at Calle de Lajas 5 kms from here. Meanwhile we had no negative affects what so ever because of my proactive water control measures that had been taken three years previous to that. Had they not, we would have had even worse mudslides than the previous ones. Take note this problem was not solved by any of these high priced engineers, but simply by using common sense and some building know how to know enough not to mess with mother nature, nor gravity, nor flowing water, talk about a loosing battle. If I must say so myself, I would say my strategy and work was proven not by a degree but by the best critic ones work can ever have, a really UGLY stretch of weather that it passed with flying colors after a whooping expenditure of $360 to solve both problems that had been just waiting for another weather circumstance to repeat itself.
The retaining wall here with the rock face was the one I built after a mud slide came down this five meter drop and wiped out the previous rocks in a cage (gaviones) that had been installed here 30 years ago. Above this ridge we just cut a trench to direct the water away from making a natural waterfall in favour of taking a longer but much safer route away from this area hence no water to make muck again.
I give you the above examples of real hands on experience so that you can appreciate just how important it is to watch and pay attention to what is done where ever you may plan on buying a lot or home. In any road system here the first priority is water control through adequate gutters, culverts and water flow control boxes.
This system is quite costly when done correctly yet without it any road work is susceptible to total destruction, hence I would submit that such is hardly an optional expenditure for the forward thinking owner/developer. In our own road system, our budget has 40% dedicated strictly to water control only for each phase as we expand the network. Hence that is why you need to pay close attention to how the developer has done this, as due to its high cost there is a great temptation for greedy developers (there most certainly is no shortage of such here) to reduce or eliminate this critical infrastructure protection. When they do, you as an owner will face the huge costs or problems that arise when disaster strikes, and it will.
The second issue regarding water control is much more subtle, hence is way harder to spot in advance of really unpleasant and expensive problems arriving on your doorstep. Since this is a mountainous country, this problem is very pervasive so to say the least the probability of finding problems in existing homes or in one you build is indeed highly likely. Remember when I talked about the weeping wall in the home in Puntarenas caused simply from rainfall hitting or splashing on it. Well knowing that is possible, then would it surprise you that when this water is in the ground and under hydrostatic pressure, if you put any kind of wall in front of such you are in for serious problems?
Any home here where there is a concrete or worse yet a block wall holding back earth from land higher than your house is going to cause grief if both waterproofing and water control measures have not been taken seriously. As I previously stated, concrete is very porous since it allows water to pass right through it. In 50 year old homes, such as the one I recently worked in, there was not much other than tar available to add the impermeable features that concrete is so lacking in.
In this case the hillside side yard to the home has had a proverbial weeping wall to the lower level of the home. This was further aggravated by a lack of water control from the neighbours much higher back yard creating the waterfall effect coming down. To add further add insult to injury, over 1,200 square feet of roof had but two down drains to carry away water hence overflowing and flooding was added to the mix. When these totally inadequate downspouts and gutters added to water coming down the hillside with no method to carry all this water to the street, this is what provided the easiest route of exit to be under the house’s foundation. Remember water is lazy it always takes the path of least resistance.
Those problems all needed to be fixed first as well, once and for all. We now have many fine products that can be used to make such walls waterproof, however all of them are fairly to quite expensive so many builders ignore using them even today. However all of these costs are a pittance as compared to the damages that will ensue. I have used impermeable mortar products made here by both Sur and Intaco that will prevent any water leaks. However to be effective, all of these must be applied on the water side of the wall hence trying to fix a problem wall after the fact from the inside is anything but a guaranteed method.
Most frequently the only final solution is to dig out the wall and do it right the second time around however this gets to be a real mess if that wall is on a property line or another building has been built right next to you. To be certain this can be nothing short of a disaster in waiting when you buy a home that was built with such a major inferiority. In the case of considering any hillside home one must be very cautious with regards to inspections for potential weeping walls due to the frequency of this problem along with the general low construction standards. Also due to the critical nature of this protection to your new home when you have such a situation you should absolutely inspect any wall’s waterproofing prior to back filling. Or have an independent party do so on your behalf. It will be money well spent to put it mildly. In general I would go so far as to say if you find these problems in an existing house inspection I would recommend in most situations to walk away from the deal and save yourself a whole lot of grief. It just is not worth it unless you offer a heavy discount to cover your butt.
Commandment # 14
Excellent Materials are a Major Challenge
Yet Super Critical to the Final Results
Some days I feel like I live in a perpetual treasure hunt. The universe hides the best things I need and I have to seek out either materials or people to do a job the way it needs to be done. It does tend to keep life interesting when one is looking for such in a small country that often seems to fight me at every turn, kicking and screaming as I try to drag it into this century. Even with that said, construction materials are a very dynamic and evolving frontier these days which makes the task of figuring out what to use in a home rather daunting. Without question it is almost a full time job and I would hate to even try to guess how much time I have spent over the last ten years just sourcing and then investigating many and varied building materials. The time required for a home owner on a one time build to even attempt to keep up with this is one seriously daunting task to a near impossible one. Hence that is exactly why I have added in this section which is very long as compared to most as I try to round out the education here to cover most bases involved in the assembly of materials for a new home.
This is then the compiled results of a ten plus year treasure hunt of major components to give you a better idea of what is available at what costs as well as what to avoid in material selections. I specifically look for unusual and often uncommon products most of which cannot be bought at the local supplier at any price. You have the option to take this information and go do your own thing and I wish you luck. The other alternatives are that we can be hired to help you with materials selections and expediting of such or a complete construction contract. Let’s get something very clear right up front though so that we do not waste one anothers time! Yes what I recommend is often more costly at construction time than many common options however my recommendations are not geared to you building the cheapest dam home you could possibly build. What drives me in my pursuit is how to build a great home that will last for many years with little maintenance yet at a reasonable price. No offence intended but if your sole criteria is cheap up front costs then you most certainly don’t need my help nor to be quite blunt are you someone that I even want to work with. The name is not Kavorkian, I do not do assisted suicides.
With that being said we work within a client’s budget to help them make wise choices in getting the best they can with the budget allowed. We have worked all the way from low cost housing up to mansions. If you have expectations that simply cannot been met with the criteria set out at initial consulting then we will be brutally honest in telling you what you need to know which may well not agree with what you want to know. However I have never had a client upset with me for being honest. Now if I compared that to how the client felt when a contractor/builder lead them down a garden path and over a cliff. One doctor/lawyer I know had his house cost him over double the original quote from the builder. There is no excuse for that garbage plain and simple. The worse is that anyone who does that never delivers even average quality of work after they have fleeced a client. It is all about being realistic in that you cannot have champagne finishes if you have a beer budget. However this is mostly directed at finishes as one person might spend more on finishings than another spent to build an entire home. The critical issue I have repeated to drive home for you the reader is don’t not scrimp of the homes infrastructure that is not a saving at all as such foolishness with come back to bite you in the ass there is no maybe just a when. I hope that the various examples I have shown here demonstrate the utter foolishness to scrimping on critical infrastructure of any home so get the bones right and then worry about the clothing after the fact and make your budget allowances in the finishings where even if you are forced to go economical now in the future you can at least change those dressings versus trying to change the bones.
It is also my firm belief that quality property will always make the owner more money, provide greater comfort over the years and sell much faster when required and this is VERRRY critical in Costa Rica which does not have anywhere near the liquidity in the property markets as most are accustomed to. However if you want both high quality and good value with low maintenance then you will find that all my recommendations will allow you to build your dream home that you can enjoy for many years to come at a reasonable price. If that means forsaking size for quality then so be it. Our target customer is someone who is quality driven and often building their last home, as they head into retirement and fixed income, hence they want a high quality home that will not be filled with huge maintenance surprises or operating costs to come along and upset that idyllic lifestyle. As I trust I have made it perfectly clear this does not mean it requires luxury at all as you can dress that same high quality home up however you please just do yourself the favour of ensuring that the base you are putting those fine cloths on is up to these standards. All of these factors combined is why I never recommend someone new to Costa Rica, or anywhere in the tropics, to just jump in without talking to those that have experience or attempting to wing it on their own.
Please do yourself a favour and accept this fact, this is not the place to come to learn how to build a new home and even if you have done so elsewhere it is not the same here! If you want you can think I am just trying to drum up business but I have seen the results of people taking that path over and over and never has the result been what they expected.
I have certainly made it most clear that I have a bias towards many materials and methods originating out of North America as being often quite superior, however it can be most dangerous to assume that anything that can be imported should be. Materials expediting can often be what makes or breaks the new home hence it is a very critical component to rely on layman’s knowledge or the new kid on the block. At the same time I also find that some materials used today are far from great, it is just that they can save very expensive labour in North America but those economics often do not apply here, considering the huge difference in average wage scales we are talking about. On top of that, the materials that work up north fine may not do well at all in the tropics. One of my biggest cautions is with regards to products that are sensitive to UV light degradation. The concentration of UV rays here can be as much as ten times worse than parts of Canada and the USA hence the useful lifecycle and costs may be completely prohibitive when you may find yourself with a maintenance nightmare that would not be any problem at all or a minor one in a northern climate.
Here is a perfect example coming from a couple just in the process of planning a new home in an expensive neighbourhood of Santa Ana where there is not a single home under $500,000. Well they liked the old plantation style of home so they were planning on importing vinyl siding from the states to give that look. That was until we arrived on the scene to rain on their parade. Their decision missed out on two critical issues, maintenance and resale value. In the markets where vinyl siding is so prevalent, it is so simply because it is really cheap, hence applying a cheap product to a high end house will come to bite them back, down the road at resale time. However what is even worse is the maintenance factors that they were totally ignorant of. I am sure many are going to be surprised by my comments due to the fact that in Canada this product is viewed as low maintenance. However I have seen waffling effects of larger south facing walls in Canada which hardly improves resale value. Now if you can get waffling in Canada I shudder to think what we would get here but all you have to do is look around at plastic products like the dash of cars to see what happens to them. What was even worse is they did not take into account what the Costa Rican sun will do to that thin cheap vinyl. In five years it will be very faded and it will be as hard as a rock after our sun kills it. Hence that so called low maintenance/low cost product will be anything of the kind, in fact it will look like it went through a war requiring total replacement hence delivering sky high life cycle costs. Our recommendation to solve their style versus material issue for these clients was to go backwards in time by recommending beveled hardwood siding made from Acacia, as per the photo.
We have old Victorian homes in downtown San Jose that are over a hundred years old and still doing fine the old fashioned way of good wood with a painted finish.Yes it is still going to need painting maintenance but repainting is nothing in cost as compared to replacing all the siding every five years. Plus many people grow tired of their house color and want a change at any rate which is a problem with vinyl but certainly not a big deal with paint. The other factor they missed in their naive calculations was that hardwood siding can still be done here at a reasonable price whereas it would be impossible in Canada to do so. One does have to be careful in assuming importing is the answer when both the durability and economic differences can be so drastically different between countries/climates.
Even though I have talked at extent about various great new and modern materials throughout this report, I would never say that new is a guaranty to be better. Sometimes old traditions still work and provide lasting value as this siding would be a perfect example of just that. Another would be solid hardwood flooring when compared to this phony totally un-serviceable and non-durable plastic and saw dust/glue crap they call laminated floors today. Yes some of this stuff can appear cheap at installation time, that is until you find yourself replacing such after one verrrry short lifecycle. Plus my two other pet peeves is it looks phony as hell and sounds like you are wearing tap shoes when you walk on it which is not much of a benefit if you are not Sammy Davis Jr. So want a real life example? Yes once again I will demonstrate. Thank God for phone cameras when you want to catch something. Why they use this low grade crap in commercial applications just baffles my small mind as to how anyone could think they could get away with using such a weak product under such hard service. This floor is in the Multi Plaza,Cemaco BBQ department. Go look for yourself.
As you can see the gap in the ends of the pieces is almost half of my index finger. My does that not give your property that quality look!!! To say it does not respond well to cleaning or worse yet if you should ever have a flood, forget it and rip this junk up and throw it where it belongs, in the GARBAGE.
Yes once again I am guilty of a bias being a lover of wood but I dare say any homeowner that is faced with early replacement of this crap is not going to be a happy camper when the economic reality comes home to roost. Now this type of floor in residential use is good for 5 years or less.
Just to prove my point I have taken this photo of new crap installed at the Escazu Mas por Menos just prior to Christmas of 2012. I am going to come back and take pictures as this junk disintegrates under commercial traffic. I consider this to be horribly expensive plastic, glue and sawdust when you compare that to products that will last for generations and not be destroyed by a little bit of water. It is this kind of stuff that I just love to escape from as I build here with all our options. At any rate there I end my rant. Just don’t say I did not warn you. Much more on this later in this chapter.
Windows a major function to any home and a significant investment / expense in any budget –
Another prime example was the same couple wanted to import windows made in the US as they deemed them to be superior. Well they would indeed appear to be so if you looked only at price. What northern windows are designed for and what makes them very expensive, even prior to shipping and taxes, is they are meant to perform at higher energy efficiencies in a cold climate that can have a 60º temperature change between inside and outside. That requires going to great lengths for sash requirements, weather stripping and glass designs versus when we are in the tropics with a maximum of a mere14º temperature change, then you are swatting flies with a sledge hammer. Even a simple dual pane window offers no payback yet for some customers the lower filtration of noise and UV light may make them a worthwhile expenditure from a personal viewpoint. For some their desire for style or full exposure of glass in a beach home prime vista may elect more expensive glass in these special circumstances but for all other windows it is far wiser to design the home with shading for the windows and avoid both the heat and expense. Do not forget high tech glass reduces heat infiltration but it sure does not eliminate it. Keep this in mind in your design process.
In this regard much cheaper local windows will do just fine with aluminum then PVC and then wood ranking from cheapest to most expensive but none will be as costly as the pointless energy efficient units. There is everything available here to suit ones needs as you can go from the cheapest jalousie (celosia) up to the Cadillac of three way functioning, German hardware awning, casement and trackless patio doors. You can even go to the point of electric windows that can change the degree of tinting according to your whim or time of day. Here I will go into some of your options as to what I have found to offer the best value and quality ratios since caution is needed when there is indeed some real crap available that I would not wish on anyone. To elaborate on the importing debate I assert importing windows would make about as much sense as importing a humidifier, yes possible, but totally nonsensical in any practical application if you understand the science behind the cost factors and why these exist in the first place. This makes about as much sense as windshield wipers on a horse’s ass.
Thank heavens we have no need nor desire to lock up our homes super airtight for months on end plus that is the reason that most of our clients are here in the first place, to escape exactly that! Yes in air conditioned space you would want moderately tight windows but excessive high tech measures just are not required. Plus as I have stated a lot of air conditioning needs comes back to faulty home design in the first place. Fix the design and fix the need for A/C. Spending way more money to do something that you came here to escape in the first place is a rather pointless mission. Not? Aside from the lack of a technical reason there are the other problems that I must remind you of, about the total impracticality of shipping windows thousands of miles. In fact this would be nothing but a royal pain in the ass just waiting for something to go seriously wrong and blow up in your face. Windows by their nature are not especially durable so shipping them from a plant to pack into a container then ship and offload and ship to where ever in Costa Rica is not only a logistic nightmare it offers tons of opportunity for your windows to be damaged. It requires a huge lead time so much so that the windows will have to be ordered before you even get your permits or otherwise your home will be ready for lock up but no windows will be anywhere in site. With the one exception of building out of concrete where you would spend many months to get to that point so the windows could catch up with you but why one would import energy efficient windows to put in a energy pig concrete house defies all semblance to logic. In fact the person that would do such should be committed or in drug rehab. I only hope I have destroyed any idea of such nonsense long ago. 🙂
Now if one chooses to try to dodge this bullet and take forever to build the house by ordering the windows once the house is ready for them then sit around and wait and wait. Well while you wait for months for such to arrive you cannot secure the house so it will be wide open for theft and or damage to occur which is to say the least a strong possibility. Sorry that is not even remotely a sane option. Worse yet what happens when something changes during construction or God forbid you the owner changes your mind on something that looked okay on paper but you just hate in the reality? Well you have seriously and most successfully painted yourself into a corner here as you cannot change the window or get one to match at that stage short of sending it on an airplane. Oh won’t that be ducky. Or what happens if they make a mistake in the factory or shipping department and even one of them comes wrong, what do you do then? Then what if you have a warranty problem how is it going to be fixed from thousands of miles away? And finally do you think that a plant somewhere in the USA knows more about building windows for the tropics than a local company here does?
Now lets just make a small comparison to the logistics of that nightmare versus that of local supply. This same client can order the window after the house is well under its way of construction to be certain everything is as it will be. The factory builds the windows ships them a short distance (in this case 15 minutes from plant) to their home. They then are to say the least close at hand for any warranty problems or changes or additions to the order that might occur in the future. And last but not least we have kept the work in the country they are living in. Yes this was a long winded explanation but one that I believe has utility in one thinking deeply as why not to create a land mine to run through in the first place let alone one that actually would provide you with so little in the way of benefits.
Onwards and upwards with your logical window options now that the importing option has been thoroughly exhausted. The entry level lowest cost window is typically aluminum which is functional requires no maintenance and is very cheap in a jalousie style which for those not knowing is where there is many narrow pieces of glass that fit into an aluminum frame work that opens and closes each of these in unison. Most find them somewhat ugly as the many pieces of glass create lines that interfere with your vision however they do offer 95% air flow and are cheap due to their simplicity but are totally un-secure unless hid behind bars like this one is. This has been the mainstay in Tico homes for a very long time but few higher end homes use them any more. These would cost right in around $110 a square meter depending if they are in a frame or fastened directly to the opening. Next up the rung in quality are slider windows whose ease of function and air tightness just depends on who made them and how good or bad the rollers and fit are. Some of these are just plain crap where nothing fits properly or rolls with ease especially in patio doors.
Needless to say I do not recommend the lowest grade of these as the price difference between good and bad is minimal versus the functionality or lack there of that would hassle you for many years to come. This does require some looking. I have one supplier in Escazu that I use for the aluminum type but have been finding that with the small price difference and quality of function that PVC is often the preferred option. Also what I have discovered in the sometimes strange world of supply chains is that there is one huge supplier of aluminum extrusions that has like 70% of the market here and as is typical they take full advantage of that dominance to overcharge for what they actually deliver. Those glass shops that are not agents for Extralum offer much better prices for the same quality of product. Therefore when you are getting prices find out who the wholesale provider is if it is these guys you are going to pay through the nose. Then the final issue is simply that of workmanship of each individual shop as to how the fit is. I have seen many where nothing fits together well hence insects can wonder in and out at will which most would not find ideal. The actual quality of the aluminum is a mute point if the workmanship sucks. In fact some of the worst windows I have seen were on a very large builder’s project whose windows were nothing but real low grade crap. To give specific cost comparisons I have used my model house for real comparisons to quotations I received. This home required 17.41 square meters of slider windows.
1. Non Extralum shop = $138 per meter
2. PVC = $144 per meter
3. Extralum agent = $280 per meter
So you can see there is a rather huge difference depending on what is the source of the materials. Either way I am not a big fan of aluminum and find the PVC version is actually a far superior window with only a minimal price difference of 4% and that all depends on whose aluminum you are comparing to. If you have one of the expensive shops then the PVC can actually be substantially cheaper. These tend to function better and have a tighter fit and won’t oxidize, a most worthy note for beach locations. Never assume aluminum doesn’t deteriorate in salt environments where it does not rust but it sure does corrode away.
To make this selection easier for me it also helps that I sourced out the best supplier in the country for PVC products as well. The standard is white PVC however you can trade up to brown if you don’t mind the huge price increase that comes with the color change. You can also get a wood look in a much heavier sash but the price takes a hike of 120% for this version. You can also get a baked finish on aluminum in a wood look that should not fool anyone that it is not actually wood and it’s price also goes up just as much as the brown PVC does or more. This is strictly a question of style if you care to pay for those color choices.
Once you move up the scale to the swinging casement or awning windows as above the complexity of the window hence the materials. equipment and labour input go up drastically. I installed PVC awning windows in August and they came in at $428 per meter plus add to that $150 a unit for the 3 way GU German hardware. Yes the price indicates they were a good window and most certainly had a good seal. They are built using the Royal System of designs from Canada with the extrusions being made in Columbia but most critically the assembly is done here in Costa Rica by a most competent supplier. It would be near to impossible to prove that these windows will see any economic benefit as a slider would have done the job in this case but the owner did not like that style hence elected the higher priced awnings.
At the very top rung of this ladder there is a Costa Rican world class manufacturer of wood windows and doors that uses the same German supplier GU for the hardware to produce an incredibly high quality product. They are simply unequaled in this market, in fact I would go so far as to say you will not find anyone south of the Rio Grande that can equal them. For those that want a beautiful window and one that has all the functionality you could imagine this would be a valid choice. Age old craftsmanship meets high tech manufacturing. Now depending on just what hardware you select or specialty glass the price is around $700 a meter or higher. If you want the best at a price that would still be less than imported windows then this is a serious consideration. They even have a new technology in an electric glass unit where you can adjust the tint of the windows to your mood or the time of the day as to how much darkening effect you want. Once again not surprisingly, German technology is behind this trick as well.
As above they also have a trackless hardware for those that want any entry onto a patio or terrace or between rooms without having a sill or track to step on. They also have the heavy and most intricate hardware to make some very large sliding doors up to 4 meter wide panels and folding doors that can open up as much as 7 meters to bring the outside in.
All in all they have a very impressive line of windows that can satisfy pretty much any need or discerning taste that demands the highest quality of windows and exterior doors that will stand the test of time in a tropical environment. I have certainly been in high end homes with asking prices of $2,000+ per meter that warranted windows of this caliber yet most have pretty mediocre grade stuff that was just not comparable to these. Often here I have seen market prices and actual qualities to be seriously disconnected hence why so often you are way better off to build it yourself in order to get to that desired standard of quality and yet it need not cost you an arm and leg. One exception was one condo project in Jaco that had upgraded to this standard and of course the most note worthy Four Seasons Papagayo Resort exclusively uses this product. An example of one of their corner doors both folding and sliding formats,
You can also completely eliminate the corner post where desired.
There is indeed a skill involved here to know when is worth importing and when it is not but. To blindly believe that everything imported is great or better than local is downright foolish. That is where living here a number of years is critical in sorting out what works and what does not. Also at times the local companies have been at it awhile and know what works best under tropical conditions and what does not. For example I had an argument with a foolish client that insisted they had to use Minwax finishes. I said to them, do you think Minwax could possibly know more about designing products for the tropical demands than Sur does? Plus I can and regularly do phone a technician at Sur and get an answer to any question or problem in a matter of minutes. Plus if and when I have a warranty problem I can be in their offices in 20 minutes to debate anything. Sorry no product made in US or Canada can compete on those basis. To prove my point the client forged ahead on her own path and got exactly just what I predicted, a second rate finish that will not last as long as the cheaper and more qualified local product would have. When ever reasonably possible I will choose the local product or supplier however with that being said I do not accept second rate on that basis they must still perform to world class levels or no deal. Plus they must provide service Mañana time or attitude just does not cut it for me.
One of my most valuable skills is the ability to expedite the best possible materials given the circumstances, where to find such, the tools to do so efficiently and those to install such at a fair price. It is a constant and changing environment that requires one to always be on the lookout to improving ones game and the results that our clients inevitably get. No matter how good of a builder you are you cannot make a silk purse out of a pigs ear. Yes top quality workmen can diminish the effects of poor materials but we can never fix what is simply bad or inappropriate under the conditions that apply.
To expand upon your millwork needs I will delve much deeper into the wood products that have woven their way througj this book. Before we get into this please let me remind you I am not just a carpenter but I specialized and ran my own millwork and cabinet shop in my younger years so I have just a tad more than the laymans’ knowledge when it comes to wood products. I know not only how to buy such, design such, but to install it when required and certainly to supervise any work related to wood.
Most of the Teak plantations in this country are not economically viable or most certainly not based on the price the original woodlots were sold for. There is but one small and simple reason as to why. They have planted tons of Teak on crap land or at least crap land as far as the opinion of Teak is concerned. Hence it is taking 15 to 25 years to grow a tree that was supposed to be harvestable in 10 years. Woow that really throws your ROI out the window when that happens in fact it becomes as crappy as the land it was planted on. Here is the simple rules if you want to grow Teak where Teak wants to grow. You cannot plant it on acidic soil! Well that eliminates at least 75% of all of Costa Rica as our volcanic soils are by their nature most often acidic. Secondly it does not like mountainsides and does not grow well on anything over a 25º slope. Well if you know this country you will immediately say wooow that is a lot of plantation on lands that should never have been planted on. Imperical proof of the significance of once again not arguing with mother nature, is I also have a board of Teak I used in my house that came from Fred’s plantation that is only 8 years old. I am sure that if and when you meet a Teak investor they would be shocked to know such is possible but only if you obey the laws of Teak versus the wishes of an investment promoter. At any rate Teak is an excellent wood and withstands the rigors of the outdoor climate better than 90% of other hardwoods hence why it is so popular for use on boats which is of course one of the ugliest climates you can find. That is also why it is what we recommend for making the roofing shingles previously pictured. We also make doors and floors from it as well where the client chooses to pay the premium to have the Teak look.
- Acacia decking $23 per meter or $2.13 a sq. Foot This comes as a full 1 x 4 with rounded corners to avoid splintering. Note this was taken prior to finishing but you can see what it would look like by how the rain had affected it that afternoon. This has knots but these are not open or loose knots like you would find in softwood. They will stay like this forever and are in fact hard as nails.
Commandment # 15
Beware of Professionals or Be Aware
Now although this final section of this book is not what one might call direct issues connected to the act of construction yet this is the one area that has caused me the greatest grief hence I know it can and will cause the home owner the same plus it can have the greatest affect to quality and either lead to financial disasters or avoiding such. Hence I would be remiss if I should try to avoid this subject for the sake of being polite versus providing you my readers a serious dose of reality with the cautions that inevitably follow. If you have a connection to the industry I would definitely suggest you not read this chapter unless you have thick skin as I make no attempt to sugar coat the realities only to report on my exact experiences so that the novice knows well in advance what they all too often are going to have to battle with. If you choose to ignore my cautions here you will do so at your won peril as construction in Latin America could well be likened to running through a mine field. The following is my attempt to demonstrate to the reader just how to dodge those mines. Even at the risk of offending many I believe this to be a worthwhile effort if I help but one consumer, Latino or foreigner, avoid the totally unnecessary heartache and financial disasters that I have seen all too often.
Every single big problem I have ever had in my time in Costa Rica has been rooted in the performance of professionals in their delivery of services relating to matters of construction and development. I really don’t know where the root of this overall problem comes from, if it is the actual education received in universities in order for the various people to profess to be a professional or if it is rooted in cultural attitudes which flows down to their respective colleges and especially governing bodies.
In general someone here having a license provides little to leave the consumer with a feeling of comfort or security in the job being done and done right. The colleges have neither the teeth or, as it appears, real interest in improving the standards of work of their members or even less in punishing them when they cause damages to their clients. With that being said I am in no way saying there is not good professionals here but it takes a lot of looking and often some really expensive experimenting to find out who those individuals are. I personally have spent a small fortune in finding those that do perform well and provide world class work, but it at times has been one ugly battle to get to that point.
By far at the top of my list of disgust is reserved for lawyers. I have been through 15 of them during my time of which five were outright thieves with the balance being just incompetent or lazy leaving a mere three who did provide quality conscientious work and results. A 20% success factor is certainly not what one could call admirable. When one does have problems, the college is exceptionally bad at providing any kind of remedy other than maybe getting back your documents that were kidnapped. As far as them doing anything about bad behavior or anything to do with ethics, you are dreaming in technicolor if you think you will get any satisfaction. I had one of these steal a $5,000 retainer while accomplishing at best $1,000 of work. So now I just don’t give retainers or if I do they are very small indeed, hence all the bad eggs leave me being a very difficult and hard client to deal with.
In a very large case (7 figures) we had over a finance and real estate fraud over a property we had purchased for our project, I saw a group of fellow victims get royally fleeced by a large legal firm here. The firm Facio Cañas talked the group of them into paying fees of around $100,000 to attempt to build a case of fraud against me. Just one small problem, it was based on absolute air. They put together an impressive phone book size document alleging to this, yet it actually contained zero evidence of such having ever occurred, instead just a pile of fluff, even though it was a very large pile of it. This so called case was not really one at all but just a ruse to fleece the group out of exorbitant fees. They did succeed in fooling them long enough to make it appear to be impressive even though there was no foundation of law behind it. The case was so bad or non-existent that it never even got to a hearing as the prosecutor could not even find enough to be bothered calling me in for a full declaration. This $100,000 phone book now sits in the dead files storage in Jacó. I even discussed this off the record with a prosecutor that knew this file that I met after the fact with regards to his personal home construction and not too surprisingly he totally agreed with my assessment of the games that had been played.
Meanwhile had there been an actual civil case for these victims to pursue that avenue died on the vine as while these sleazy lawyers worked on this red herring the statute expired removing any options at all for this seriously misguided group. Take note the real mission of these lawyers never was to win just make it look good enough to collect a pile of fees. A contingency contract would have solved that problem real quick.
I had even taken the most unusual approach and contacted the group and advised them of all these facts and why and how they were being suckered. However they did not take that advice when there was still a window of hope to join forces and collectively pursue the actual perpetrator of the fraud, the original land owner, hence I had to pursue that avenue on my own. We did in fact take this case up to the supreme court where we did win, but as is often the case, winning and getting restitution are two entirely different issues. Be aware of any kind of civil fight in this country, you are looking at a good 7 to 10 years, so don’t think a contract helps you much. Mediation and settling is the only real option there is.
There is an underlying attitude in this privileged circle of especially the large law firms here where it says, off the record of course, all foreigners are rich hence they can easily afford to give us a bunch of their money. They can have nice offices and lots of smiles and hand shakes but the mission is simply get your money for any reason of which few are good. Very seldom is it about justice or most certainly not driven to provide value or results of any kind for the client. No doubt no member of these groups will ever publicly admit this, but from very expensive personal experience and statements from several dozen fellow expats, my experiences and feelings on this matter are far from rare at all. Just that few talk about it or explain this cultural bias to new comers.
I witnessed another bad fraud in Manual Antonio perpetrated by the architect and contractor and I strongly suspect the lawyer/accountant. We were called in to assist them in rescuing a troubled condo project and fix its marketing problems. The principle shareholder was a very wealthy American who had zero experience in construction or development and had only visited Costa Rica periodically. From my experience that is a perfect storm that is typically going to lead to a blood bath. This owner had even gifted shares to both the architect and the lawyer involved which is unusually generous. However just getting some minor shares for free was not near enough. When we walked in we had to sort things out to finding a starting point and strategy which meant we had to dig into the project’s books. This inevitably lead us to reverse engineering the construction costs which by then were at around $2,400 per square meter in COSTS. Yet of course the owner still expected to sell this and make a profit. Well that is dam difficult if all the thieves in the circle had already stolen all the would be profits and more.
Just to put this in perspective I know for a fact that Los Sueños was building at the same time for $1,400 a meter for what many would consider five star quality. This story got considerably worse as what the owner actually had was basically crap that would have had a hard time passing Holiday Inn standards let alone for $900,000 condos. We compiled a 28 page report for the owner that outlined all the deficiencies bad work, bad designs and even worse materials. Eg. When you opened the door on the dishwasher in the penthouse suite it fell out of the cabinets since they had installed 50 cm deep cabinets where 60 cm is a required minimum for appliances to function. My point is this, all or some of these licensed individuals had stolen from this project somewhere between $2,000,000 and $2,400,000. We knew the contractor had received the contract by paying the architect a bribe which only got worse as more and more payoffs were demanded.
I told the owner that first and foremost he had to fire the contractor there was nothing good that was ever going to come from this abusive relationship. To this the lawyer interjects and I quote, “we can’t, we have already paid him for the third building!” This final building was just at the grey stage so none of the critical finishings they had been so grossly short changing them on had been done yet. Okay this was the kiss of death for me. First off, it is bad enough when someone insists on believing in tooth fairies but when provided with an unbiased opinion based on knowledgeable facts they insist in arguing with you when all the evidence pointed to but one conclusion, that none of them had a clue about what they were doing. Otherwise they would not have had the problems in the first place. But to admit to the height of stupidity in that you have paid for a building not completed! Where in the world can an owner do that and not get royally screwed? I sure don’t know where but I can assure you if such is possible somewhere it most certainly is not in Costa Rica. I refused to go any further with this folly as what the owner really wanted was not to disturb or fix anything just to market his crap for sky high prices and do so in a soft to an almost non-existant market.
In essence I would have had to rob from the new clients to pay for the thieves that had robbed the owner blind. As it were, to rob from Peter to pay Paul. NO THANKS! On a follow up, for curiosity sake, I found out they finally fired the contractor one year later, when there most likely was no money left to steal. The project is still in serious problems as it just cannot recover after so much was stolen in even a good market but to try to gain that back since 2008 defies all gravity. Yet I can’t feel terribly sorry for the owner as he was told what to do, how and why yet refused to accept the message preferring to shoot the messenger. This is but one of my many examples of blatant incompetency or flagrant theft by so called professionals here hence why I am extremely wary about who I deal with. I now never expect professional ethics to apply.
Further to this torrid tale there comes a serious lesson for all of you. About six months later through coincidence I met with a large builder here who informed me he had prepared a quote for this project but had been rejected because he did not speak English nor was he interested in paying the bribe that the architect had proposed to him. This is a serious large 35+ year builder that has completed government contracts and Wal Mart buildings as examples of their competency. This kind of builder does not need to pay any sleazy architect a bribe to get work in the first place. The stupid owner of the project selected his contractor based on him being able to speak English. Sorry folks that is one really bad decision. You do not hire professionals based on language but based on competency of their profession. For $2.4 million this fool could have hired translators for the next 567 years of projects. This is not a way to select professionals especially when serious business is involved. Yes many of them are bilingual but do not make it a sole criteria.
Far from being done on this subject I have to say I have had just as bad of experiences with engineers and architects as well, although not nearly as costly as my lawyer tuition has been, but just the same quite significant. The fees established by the college here are actually very high and in fact higher than in Canada which of course is quite nonsensical. We were being charged $500 a trip for our architect to do a technical direction on our project in Jacó, yet after she was there I would often arrive on the scene to find deficiencies in literally the first minute on site, yet she never said anything nor did anything about them. It very soon became most obvious she was at best a spare tire and that I was paying for nothing as my technical critique was far more accurate and detailed than hers.
So I was not exactly happy with the performance, then, as always, the straw that broke the camels back was when I arrived one day to find the workers busily burning the styrofoam out of our panels. To clarify this was in our administration building that was to be air conditioned 24/7. This was a building her engineer had designed as a very slow to build concrete superstructure that provided the support. The Coventec panels I refer to here were just infill between the columns and beams hence had no structural function at all. However as is typical here with structural engineers, he was massively over killing the situation. He not only demanded that the contractor put #3 rebar in ever foot to support these panels but he also wanted a great deal of space around each. So they were busy burning away my styrofoam which, of course, was our insulation to protect us from the beach climate and sky high A/C costs. You already have a clear idea as to how zealous I am about good insulation as well as the costs when you don’t have such. I called the architect immediately as I stood looking at this insanity and demanded to know what the F#?^&* they were doing with my insulation. Believe me as culturally incorrect as it is here I am anything but polite when I am pissed especially when dealing with those with so called higher education. My technical data response was, “oh that’s the way we do it at Los Sueños.” Some technical answer! In reality they had no idea at all as to what they were doing nor that it flew in the face of 40+ years of established Coventec technology. What this proved was that they still thought with a concrete mindset hence everything they built had to fit that paradigm versus changing the paradigm to suit the new technology.
Fact is the college here has already over specified standards by declaring Costa Rica is a seismic zone 4 just like San Francisco and Tokyo when in fact it should really be a zone 3. So anything specified on this standard is already overbuilt by 15 – 20%, then many engineers, just like this one, add their own on top of that. The end result is driving up costs well beyond what is reasonable or necessary with no seen benefits.
Well shortly there after both were fired and another engineer was hired who redrew all the plans in favour of a much simpler, way faster and cheaper method, and the first drawings hit the garbage can where they belonged along with over $10,000 in wasted fees. No I obviously did not appreciate paying twice for the same job but the second plan was going to save us over $75,000 in construction and especially, the ever important, time carrying costs.
So I thought I had seen the end of this idiot engineer, but in Oct. 2012 I was called in to inspect a renovation that was going badly for the owner who was totally frustrated with both the costs and the contractor that she had recently fired. We looked through the house and found that 75% of the $20,000 budget they had blown through was downright useless since they spent much of it fixing symptoms rather than problems, as well as creating problems to fix where none existed. Meanwhile they ignored structural issues with the roof from the last remodel that was just plain ridiculous, unless you know a hardware store where you can buy sky hooks.
Support beams were completely missing in three locations. So in my usual subtle way I told the owner, the engineer you had here is an idiot, this is total nonsense. She then tells me the contractor’s son was an engineer with this firm in San Jose. In fact the same one I had fired off of the Jacó project. So the leopard did not change his spots nor is the student smarter than the boss. But it is amusing that I run into the same level of competency twice from the same firm. Here are some pictures to demonstrate exactly what I mean by “questionable professional competence”.
To explain further this is what is called a Baldosa House that consists of steel reinforced columns that are cemented into the ground and then a concrete panel is dropped into the channel of these posts. Not a great system but it was designed to be cheap and provide housing for low income which it does but our SIP system is far superior to this. At any rate this house is only about 30 miles from the epicenter of the Cinchona earthquake of two years ago so we believe the cracks she was seeing show up now were a simply delayed reaction to that stress. Only minor repairs where required. No one had informed the owner that all of this is steel reinforced so a few cracks does not mean the roof is going to fall in on your head. However telling the client that would not exactly support the $20,000 bill! That was nothing but blatant milking the cow. I made the comment on our home page about this industry building create work projects so that they can charge you down the road to fix what they screwed up in the first place. Well some may find that rather cynical but this case exactly confirms that kind of attitude in that this crew between the engineer and the contractor (father and son by the way) made a create work project. We also discovered the contractor who actually showed up on the job in person three times through the course of this work while he made $5,000 after paying the actual workers who ratted him out to the owner. That is beyond obscene and was and is blatant thievery like what contractor is worth $5,000 for three visits. I know I am not and even some of my lawyers would be embarrassed about the charge per hour of work performed. At very least 75% of this work was made out of thin air! No need nor reason other than to milk the naive trusting owner. Does that make the qualifications for a rip off? You tell me. No doubt some engineers are going to take offense or come to defend their brother with statements like “who are you, you are not qualified.” Well sorry, yes I am! I am qualified with a brain, common sense and construction experience in the field seeing what works and what does not work in the REAL world. You do not necessarily need to spend years in university to have a grasp of function of a basic structure and what is likely to work and what is impossible or useless.
I have had some real varied results with topographers and many who read this book will have a need for using such in the real estate transaction business. My first caution is this. Never do any deal without getting a new legal survey done as right around 50% of all property we have ever investigated we have found sizable discrepancies between reality and the map. So this is money well spent. On our own project here I have had to fire three topographers who did absolute crap work. One had our road off of reality by over 20 meters and another had the corner of my front fence off by over 3 meters. Either of those are totally unacceptable errors in this age of lasers and computerization. Fortunately for us Michael is extremely good in auto-cad and can find errors like these with relative ease.
In general what I recommend is looking for professionals that run their own small offices. I have used larger firms but with less than ideal results. What I look for is an office where the licensed owner still has his hands on and actually does the work of his trade. I do not like working with those that have just become paper pushing administrators looking after employees. That is not who is going to give you world class work or service with an eye to excellent efficiency in your budget for spending YOUR money.
Not to beat this to death, but as both an owner and a builder, my experience is that one has to be extremely critical of professional services. If you don’t like the answers you get or cannot make sense of what is being suggested or built as, go get a second opinion fast before you get yourself dug into a deep hole from which there is no exit. Never park your own brain just because someone with a license says something is the gospel.
In March of 2013 we ran into a medical professional who is American building south of Ojachal who was well into the building process so too late for us to do much of a rescue as he was already at the roof construction phase. He sent us the following plans to review. Wooow! I thought I had seen some pretty goofy shit in Costa Rica but this took the 7 Jackass award of them all. This was the same home I mentioned in the insulation chapter where the engineer said “you don’t need to insulate this tin roof but meanwhile had built light weight coventec walls exactly as we had done in Jacó but even as nonsensical as that was it was not the award winning stunt of all.
This is total overkill way beyond any reasonable construction methods. A thickened slab to attach to a pony wall totally pointless other than to piss away money. A 10″ thick footing to hold up a one story light weight home is completely and totally out to lunch. This could hold up at least 3 stories of concrete construction. Excessively strong is not smart it is just pissing money away that will never provide a benefit to the owner but did he know it? Of course not!
Again the structure of the pool is absolutely monstrous I mean really a 12″ thick pool wall when all I ever see them doing is 6″ block which is not to me a good idea ( you know how I like block) but 12″ is out of this world. As much so as a 10″ floor that would not be needed in a truck terminal. There is more drawings and more nonsense all showing massive overkill and one ugly budget to do so. The point here is to leave you with a lesson as well as a serious caution.
One look at these drawings and we saw that the owner was being forced to piss away at least $25,000 or more in excessive foundation work for no valid reasons what so ever. I have a hard time thinking that anyone with a license is this stupid. Sadly I think there is a bigger play going on here that the owner was not aware of. The engineer was driving up the construction costs so as to collect I higher fee based on the cost of construction. Kind of like getting a commission to rob from you. I can find no other valid reason for this kind of stunt. At any rate had we worked for the client as his advocate the moment we saw plans like this we would have insisted that the engineer be fired and replaced by someone who lives in the real world not this fairy tale. However, sad for the owner, his contractor did not understand that when you get work like this you are far better off to fire the problem then go hire someone else. Simple reason, it is only when not if, this kind of competency/attitude will come to bite you in the ass again. So best to rip off the bandage and get it over and done with since what they have already cost you is nothing compared to what they are going to cost you when this rears it ugly head again. And it will. What many don’t know is that it is easy to fire any architect or engineer when you find work like this. Then start out new as you can not do worse or be in worse shape. What ever you do just don’t be scared of firing someone when you feel the performance is sub par or costing you money at very least go get second opinions before the situation gets much worse.
As an interesting aside to this story in our experience all the worst horror stories homes have been situated at the beach or in a rural area and thus far never in the Central Valley. I have no idea why there is so much difference in the quality of professional services depending on where your are. Nothing logical to it just what we have found behind the stories where the cost of a home has doubled from original quote to final price and normally with substandard qualities.
However with that being said here are a couple of perfect examples of larger scale bad engineering over the past few years as we see the Escazu EPA building that was falling into the ravine. People who have not been here for eight years missed this doozie of an engineering blunder.
This is the view from Pavas to the back of EPA, take note of that huge wall there that is holding up what remains of this building. This building was originally to be a Hyper Mas (Walmart) twice the size you see today in EPA but they tore down the back half of it when it started falling into the ravine due to lack of soil support. The dumb question us mere mortals would ask is why in heavens name did they not put the parking lot by the ravine and the building and all its weight up right beside the freeway?
Example two comes from the new entrance into south Sabana (see below) that did not even survive the first rainy season before it was buried in mud slides, the Guadalupe houses that slid into a ravine and the Moravia condo project that was closed for massive deficiencies leaving the owners with mortgages to pay but no place to live. Definitely do not let large projects lull you into complacency as some of those, as above, are the worst offenders of all. Sorry the College of Engineers and Architects has more than its fair share of skeletons in the closet but what is worse is they are not required to carry any Errors and Omissions Insurance. So when there is big errors like these, there is no one with a big bag of money that is going to come to your rescue with funds to fix the problems, let alone restitution, even if you prove anyone incompetent.
Now that I have shared with you my extensive experience with professionals I will make but one attempt to redeem myself when one of the accused parties reads this. I am here just to report my experiences and share that with others as I find no value in ignoring the realities that do exist. Although I have had some very expensive, frustrating and trying events occur around this group of individuals I am in no way saying they are all bad just that you have to be very careful, ever vigilant and thorough. Yes I think there is an inordinately large amount here who are not good and have way too much leeway to abuse their clients. On the other hand I have found and worked with fine people who do play at a world class level. Once you find the good guys they are worth gold plus the ones I work with are friends and some I visit regularly even when it has absolutely nothing to do with business as we are of like minds. None of them would disagree with my warnings voiced here. That is the ideal point one wants to get to but that took me near to ten years to accomplish so it is a mission for the very patient and tenacious only. I look back to when I was a new kid on the block and I realize it took me 5 years to get acclimatized to know how to deal with the culture of construction in Costa Rica and know where not to go and how to get around common problems prior to them ever happening. If you would like to share in our experience without paying the dues we have paid and you are in need of such services you can contact me privately and I will share with you from my rolodex as to who I have confidence in, so you can thereby benefit from our costly experiences and avoid unnecessary expenses and the looooong learning curve.
Consulting, Inspection and Design Services
We are available for consulting in all areas of construction as has been covered throughout this book. In essence whatever is causing you grief already or what you may want to avoid down the road. If you already have a preferred builder you want to use or are already using we can come in to act as your advocate to ensure that you get what you are paying for and get it done to acceptable standards that may well be above their normal. As previously covered we of course do materials expediting of anything and everything that you may require to get your dream home delivered into your hands. Our fee for consulting is $50 per hour for all contracts requiring less than two days of consulting and/or research plus travel expenses to your job site. For contracts of greater duration a contract price can be negotiated.
Our greatest asset is one simple thing attitude. Now although we have a lot of years behind us in this industry what particularly sets us apart from most is our young mind and attitude. Michael and I will only stop learning when they are shoveling the dirt over our boxes. This industry is most complex and many changes come about as new materials and methods come about. I dare say that I have thrown you more than a few curves at you that you were not expecting or had ever heard about prior to reading this. Right? Well those did not come about by accident only by constant and thorough research with an ear very close to the ground and the industry and an open mind to change and improvement.
Here is a perfect example of a project we are currently under way with at this moment and that is an improved 2nd story floor system for Costa Rica. The typical is concrete which depending on who and how will run from a minimum of $80 to $110 per meter and is slow as hell. In fact just making this floor will take an average house out of commission for 5 weeks to pour that floor and then wait for it to cure. Both of these are horrible and then of course I am sure you are not surprised that I don’t like the results a noisy floor that is hard on feet and knees and injurious when people fall. Our solution is to make open web trusses out of our hardwood from the plantation. This will increase the strength of these anywhere from 25% to 50% to what is normal for this component in Canada where of course we only use softwood lumber. This design is a constructors wet dream because we can run all the electrical, plumbing and ventilation lines through the floor without cutting a single hole. Plus if anything is forgotten it is easy to add after the fact. Just try that when someone has already poured a floor and then someone says, “so where is the line for xyz”, oops many hours pissed away fixing an error. We are just costing this out but my prediction is it will provide around a 50% reduction in cost, reducing the time by 4 weeks and provide a much quieter and softer floor for the owners to enjoy. All this due to experience, research and an attitude that says we can always do better. So lets have a look at how this is designed into a structure and what they look like.
My greatest caution of all, and the reason that this book exists in the first place, is that you must not only ask but you must become a sufficiently educated consumer to know what to ask in the first place. Otherwise there is one very strong possibility you will regret your ignorance or failure to know enough of the basics. Ignorance can become one very expensive bliss when something goes very wrong! At the very least you will miss out on some critical features that bring both enhanced comfort as well as money saving materials, devices and methods to your castle what ever it may be or where ever it is.
With that I end this book on how to build a modern home along with what key areas to look for problems prior to them materializing. Without knowing in advance what these key concerns are you have an extremely high probability of finding out all of this when it is too little, too late to stop it or you find the late solutions to be rather financially suicidal. I have had a number of readers comment back to me, “we sure wish we had your book when we built in ????. We sure would have done things differently had we known.” Well I can only hope that you found the information sooner rather than later and that you have found that sharing in my experiences to be both informative and helpful in guiding you on your path forward in building or evaluating the purchase of your future home here in Paradise. The best of luck to you in that endeavour.
Montaña Paraiso & Techos Siglo 21 S.A.
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