Completing the construction of quality housing depends on the efforts of hundreds of tradesmen and thousands of building materials all assembled at the right time in the right places.
The building site may require extensive preparation and retention or the architectural design could be incompatible with the terrain. Climate is always a factor in Costa Rica. Being less than ten degrees north of the equator, the ultraviolet rays of the sun are very intense and the tropical humidity certainly requires selection of appropriate building materials and their proprietary installation procedures.
Additionally, it is important to correctly position housing on properties with exposure to the intense winds here during December until March. Appropriate Building materials need to be selected to avoid noise and infiltration of dirt from the constant bashing of the wind against your dwelling.
The Christmas winds, (Vientos de Navidad) in the Central Valley, during December until March, as well as the Papagayo winds (Los Papagayo’s) in Guanacaste, during these same months, are intense and inconvenient if you’re living in an area with direct exposure.
Likewise, the quality of the labor as well as transport and storage of building materials can affect the cost and time to complete. All these factors affect the overall quality of the finished product that the owner is paying for.
Experienced developers with proven track records of constructing quality housing are not immune to occasional product failures that can be caused by building component incompatibility or inexperienced labor. Any builder will tell you that mistakes happen even when educated professionals and experienced tradesmen are involved.
Doing your homework before you buy will contribute to the overall success of your project, but we must accept the facts of life. It is not possible to foresee, protect and insure yourself against all possible problems caused by human error and the environmental elements at your building site.
In Costa Rica, the things that can cause delays and end up costing more money are not predictable problems a foreigner could have anticipated based on the knowledge they may have acquired elsewhere. Here you must work with entrepreneurial instincts and an entirely different set of guidelines that are not taught in a college or trade school. This hands-on knowledge is acquired from understanding the language, culture and how the local subcontractors conduct business.
It is also prudent to align yourself with an experienced builder who keeps up with the new more efficient construction materials and their proprietary installation techniques.
Here are some of the problems I have discovered while building homes in Costa Rica during the past 15 years.
Many problems are a result of the intense ultraviolet rays of the sun. Day in and day out, this natural solar energy is prematurely wearing down the surfaces of many exterior installations. For instance:
- Concrete stucco walls fade and crack.
- Galvanized metal roofing laminates cup and corrode.
- Durable rubber roofing washers on fastening screws deteriorate and leak.
- High quality PVC products such as solar panels dry out and leak prematurely
Other unforeseen problems with construction in Costa Rica are many times the result of inexperienced tradesmen using foreign building products that they are not familiar with. One of the biggest problems with these modern products is that they have proprietary installation procedures that the Latino tradesmen do not understand. If the manufacturers recommended installation procedures are not followed, the products fail and the guarantee is worthless.
A knowledgeable builder who has experience with modern building materials and their proper installation techniques can effectively train his Latino tradesmen to install these products according to the manufacturer’s recommendations.
Using the wrong materials and/or improper installation procedures, can result in expensive repairs that usually have to be absorbed by the owner.
Here are a few common Costa Rica construction problems to look out for:
- Structural failures – due to inadequate site preparation and/or the lack of sufficient steel re-enforcement – this allows settling of the foundation and subsequent cracks on exterior walls where water infiltrates into the wall cavity causing interior damage and mold growth.
- Traditional cement plasters – drying too fast and cracking – you will especially see it on walls that are exposed to sun while drying. To properly dry concrete, you should keep it wet (as in drenching the newly plastered walls with a hose sprayer) for at least seven days depending on the climate. If this is done, there will be fewer if any cracks.
- Bad concrete – there was either too much water or something contaminated the concrete, like dirt or bad water.
In addition to product failures and installation problems, in Costa Rica we need to adjust to cultural differences as well. Here are some common Latin labor traditions that can cause premature fading and peeling of painting products:
- Paint is a concentrate – it should be diluted to create more paint.
- Result: The dilutants, “diluyentes” including a product known as “agua res,” which consists of nasty chemicals that turn white paint yellow as well as dilute the quality of the paint.
- Primer products can’t be seen – if you can’t see them, why purchase the more expensive, higher quality product – therefore the primer, “sellador” should be the cheapest product available.
- The cheaper primer is manufactured to lower standards, is not as thick and will not adhere as well or last as long.
Unfortunately this often means that the diluted paint and the cheaper primer will result in having to re-paint the entire structure prematurely.
There are many excellent Latino architects and contractors here, who are capable of building up to International Standards if given a sufficient budget and trained according to imported building products proprietary installation guidelines.
The problem is that the average construction worker and the foremen who perform the hands on work are accustomed to traditional Latino construction methods and unless consistently supervised by a knowledgeable professional, will complete the work according to the traditional methods they are accustomed to.
The architects and engineers here, who are responsible for the quality of the construction, rely on the on-site foreman and normally visit their construction sites once a day. During the course of a 10-hour workday, the on-site construction workers can install many materials, incorrectly, without proper supervision.
In order to understand the differences between what foreigners view as problems, let’s review the differences between International and Latino Standards. The baths, kitchens and laundry areas are good places to begin.
Baths – Typical Costa Rican bathroom standards:
Many times when you go into a Latino bathroom, you’ll see a wastebasket filled with used toilet paper. They’re accustomed to the inadequate plumbing as this has always been the standard here.
- As a result of inadequate black water drain tubes, the toilet doesn’t flush everything down the drain and when it does flush, you can smell the sewage odor because they do not install tubes that vent the sanitary drainage system.
- In most cases, they drain the grey water from sinks and showers into the black water tube for the toilet. Because they don’t vent the system, the sewage odor escapes from the shower drain, which is usually just a hole in the floor without a U trap.
- The showerhead is connected to a cold-water metal pipe protruding from the wall and a hot water heater consists of a device called a “suicide shower” which attaches to the metal pipe and has wires entering the wall to an electrical outlet above the shower pipe.
- The lavatory sink with one cold-water faucet is very small and usually attached to the wall with a couple of screws and no base cabinet.
International Bath Standards:
- American Standard toilets with 4″ drain tubes, so everything goes down in one flush.
- Drain pipes vented to the outside.
- U traps installed for all the sinks and showers.
- All fixtures and control valves are galvanized metal and connected using flexible braided metal, not plastic tubes.
- Ceramic tile shower with galvanized metal floor drain, U trap and hot and cold American Standard shower control valves.
Typical Costa Rican Kitchen Standards:
- Not enough electrical outlets. Typically, you will find few electrical outlets; with only two holes; so the three pronged plug for your appliances won’t fit into their electrical outlets.
- You will find the kitchen sink is one small bowl that is not deep enough to submerge a half-way decent size pot into and the bottom is not flat so glasses fall over when you set them in the sink.
- Sink faucet is short, and combined with the sink that is not deep, it is difficult to get a pitcher or sauce pan under the faucet to fill it up.
- Only one of the control valves opens water, because they do not install hot water tubing.
- Smaller cabinets and counters. The depth of theirs is usually six inches smaller so you have less storage and counter space, which minimizes the available area to put the appliances you are accustomed to using.
- Lighting consists of one ceiling fixture with one bulb in the center of the room, which makes it difficult to see what you’re doing on the counters and in the sink.
International Kitchen Standards:
- Formica base and wall cabinets and Formica counter tops with an imported double bowl stainless steel sink with an American Standard faucet with hot and cold water controls.
- 1/2 HP Garbage disposal in one bowl and 1-1/2″ sink drain with U trap.
- 220 volt, 50 amp breakers for the stove, with 110 volt, 20 amp breakers for the grounded electrical plugs, installed every 36″ of counter space and 110 volt, 30 amp breakers for refrigerator and garbage disposal.
- Recessed can lights installed every 36″ above the counters and one centered over the sink.
- Fan with light centered on the ceiling.
- Exhaust fan with light centered over location of stove.
- Cold water line and control valve for icemaker and filtered water connection.
Typical Costa Rican Laundry Room:
- Big Concrete “pila” for washing rags and clothes with drain tube sticking out of the wall without a U trap to prevent the sewage odor from escaping.
- Cold water tubes sticking out of the wall with a hose valve like you see outside for a garden hose.
- 110 volt, basic electrical plug, because they typically don’t have electric washing machines or clothes dryers.
International Laundry Room Standards:
- 40 gallon, 220 volt, hot water tank
- Washer has a 110 volt 50 amp electrical plug and hot and cold water valves and a drain with U trap recessed into the wall and installed 36″ from the floor.
- Double bowl laundry sink with U trap drain system and faucet with both hot and cold water.
- Dryer has a 220 volt plug with an aluminum dryer vent to outside.
Additionally, in Central and Latin America, most electrical outlets have only two holes and are not grounded, so your electrical equipment is at risk. If you use three-pronged adaptors to plug into their ungrounded electric outlets, your equipment can be damaged.
Don’t get my intentions wrong. I am not trying to put the Latinos down. I have lived in Costa Rica since 1992 and love this country. The construction methods the Latinos are accustomed to, are adequate for their needs. Some foreigners adjust to the differences and live comfortably in typical Latino constructed homes. Many foreign buyers feel more comfortable with installations up to International standards.
A number of years ago I completed and inspection for an American who had purchased a brand new home in the expensive Cariari subdivision, where a Latino builder had installed thin walled tubing for water lines that had leaked inside of the concrete block walls.
Additionally, the builder had installed electrical wiring, but not inside of conduit tubing and it was damaged by the moisture from the leaking water. As a result, all the walls in the home had to be chiseled, where the water tubing and electrical wiring had been installed, to remove the old and replace with new. Then all the walls had to be refinished and all the rooms repainted.
It can get expensive to repair sub-standard construction. There are no building inspectors working for the local communities who inspect each new homes plumbing and electrical systems. A professional builder must supervise and train his construction workers, all day, every day, in order to complete construction up to International Standards.
Written by Tom Rosenberger. With more than 25 years homebuilding experience 15 of which have been in Costa Rica, construction consultant Tom Rosenberger knows the ins and outs of building and remodeling a home focusing in the Central Valley area of Costa Rica.
If you want to discuss Costa Rica construction with Tom in any of the geographical areas mentioned in this article, please help us to help you by using the simple form below:
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