Being a custom home builder in Southern Oregon, which takes a lot of focus during projects, I continually look forward to breaks in the action. As a lover of global travel, and doing as much as absolutely possible, I think about methods and materials used in the building process in other cultures when I’m on these trips. Many communities around the world do not have the luxury of our general ‘throw away’ mindset or have the ability to obtain materials brought from long distances. Resources must be drawn upon locally and every bit of material must be used, often in creative ways. I dig this. This summer’s return to Costa Rica and recent trip to Cambodia has me fired up to really explore some of these materials and methods.
Concrete and steel are a reoccurring material in these locations. Both cultures use concrete extensively. Cambodia uses wood in conjunction with concrete and Costa Rica uses more steel with their concrete. These materials resonate deeply with me, especially since we in the Northwest US are facing ever increasing wildland fire conflicts as we continually move into the rural mountain environments. Fire is not only the primary natural threat to those moving closer to the forests, but as we saw in September 2020 in the Rogue Valley, fire can attack urban areas as well and have severe consequences and destruction. High density residential areas with structures made of wood and other flammable materials are subject to fire and are coming under this pressure more months of the year as our global climate and environment changes. Building jurisdictions are scrambling to adapt new rules and codes to combat this increasing threat by requiring fire resistant materials and other standards. Many communities are facing backlash from developers and property owners that are trying to implement these new codes. Development is a tricky thing. Sometimes the sensibility of new rules is not realized until many years later. Kudos to communities who are struggling to be on the forefront of new sensible fire codes. As a builder/developer, I must admit, sometimes these changes are difficult. I always try to step outside of myself and look deeper into these changes and see the why and the good behind them.
Enough on that.
Before I get into Costa Rica, I have to say that the local jungle craftsmen are amazing. Really. My Spanish is weak, but the jobsites, for the most part, didn’t have a problem letting me hang out, observe, and photograph their craft. What is seen in the early phase of the building erection are usually somewhat rough compared to our US standards, but the finishing and the final products are amazing. Every one of the workers doing the footings and foundations, concrete crews, masons, tile setters, flatwork crews, and carpenters are mind-blowing. Many of these workers are second and third generation craftsmen. Most are local, born and raised, in the community of Guiones/Nosara where we spent all our time this trip.
We started our trip with lodging at Olas Verdes, a LEED platinum hotel resort. Olas Verdes generates enough on-site solar to run the entire hotel on sunny days. They were grid tied, fed back in during the day and drew energy when they needed in the evening. They used one third of water compared to other hotel resorts of their size. They had an extensive on-site sanitation system, which recycled captured water for toilets. Metal roofing with massive gutters, to accommodate their heavy rainfall, collected rainwater which was stored and used for all their on-site laundry needs as well. Of course, the easy stuff, like low flow plumbing fixtures and LED lighting were used throughout the property.
Materials and Methods. Masonry and concrete. As in many cultures around the world, bricks, blocks and concrete walls can be made locally and close to the construction sites and development areas. Nosara was no different. Usually, minimal site clearing was used and the builders chose to take a low impact approach to the site and build around what was there to bring the natural environment close and into the projects. Footings were somewhat traditional using trenching for forming as opposed to completely clearing this site and forming on top of the prepared grade. This method reduces the use of precious wood forms. The footings are a bit rudimentary in their final appearance compared to what we are used to, but in both countries, these are buried anyway.
Masonry and plaster. Wow! These guys can lay some block. Most block is a somewhat similar six inch CMU. #3 rebar is used and all block was grouted. Block is used everywhere. Everywhere. Keep in mind there is rarely any wood in the structural components of the buildings. I had a bit of a hard time getting my head around the fact that the final walls I was seeing were the rapidly erected block. The final walls are so completely smooth they resembled tilt up or poured in place concrete walls. They were beautiful. All walls are floated with concrete plaster to an amazingly perfect final surface. Many of these walls are finished with different mediums. I was seeing smooth finishes, sand finishes, a really cool heavy paint material that look like troweled concrete, and exposed aggregate on the finish accents.
Roofs and wood. Many of the roof planes are lower in pitch with big, huge eves and overhangs. These low angle portions of the structures give a modern appearance, lay in well with the many vertical planes and offer outdoor living space with shelter from the daily heavy rains and the peak sun times. Keeping dry and keeping cool is important. Wood is used sporadically around the homes. Even though Costa Rica is jungle, wood is used primarily for accents, furniture, and cabinetry. Large stark plastered walls with wood ceiling and the occasional wood wall create stunning accents that are very pleasing to the eye. Using concrete, blocks, and plaster as the body of the structure uses less wood resource and offers much more resistance to rot and decay in a region that receives over ninety-one inches of rain a year.
The use of local resources and design is something to behold in Costa Rica. The low impact of using what is near and creating homes and commercial buildings that are fire and weather resistant is a direction we need to be heading, and many are. It is not lost upon me that cement is a large contributor to worldwide man-made carbon emissions. However, there are great strides being made in the ways concrete is produced and carbon being recaptured. That’s an exciting topic for future blog!