We face many challenges building here in Costa Rica, and these challenges can be unique to your region of the country. The Caribbean side has far more concern with rainfall and drainage than those living in Guanacaste. Even in our province there are differences in climate from north to south and inland vs the coast. No matter where you are in Costa Rica it helps to remember we are within 10 degrees of the equator, It can be extremely hot and dry or humid, sunny all day for weeks or months and then heavy clouds with torrential downpours that can last minutes or go on for days depending on where you are and the time of year.

Climate Considerations

In our area, in the NW of Guanacaste, on the coast, we are primarily blessed with all day sun, a dry climate and pleasant evenings. It doesn't mean you can ignore the other types of weather as we do get those torrential rains and high hummidity levels at certain times of year.

This is where experience comes in. When choosing a builder, look for one with years of experience in your area. A builder from Canada may know about insulation from the cold, but understanding drainage, proper foundation work in seismic zones, protecting your home from humidity and high temperature fluctuations is more valuable knowledge here.

Many problems that occur are often due to the high heat and uv radiation. Concrete and stucco walls can fade in color or crack, especially if moisture levels are not monitored during the curing process. We had this problem with our builder, who failed to use the right mix ratios for the time of year and then did not keep the walls damp while curing, resulting in small cracks that expand over time, especially where the walls are exposed to the high heat of the sun every day.

Roofing Materials

Galvanized roofing materials are common here, but a couple things to remember are that cut ends of metal sheets and steel studs need to be protected or they will rust, even moreso near the ocean. Also the rubber washers on the screws that are used to hold down the metal roofing panels, can deteriorate over time, and may need to be replaced. It can be years or more depending on their uv exposure, but one still needs to keep this in mind. Finding a leak from a failed rubber washer can be a tough process. With traditional clay tiles you can have an added layer of protection, but finding a leak often reuires removing a substantial portion of the tiles.

Eavestroughs or canoas here need to be large to accommodate large volumes of rainfall over short timeframes. Of course large eaves mean the possibility of more leaves and twigs blocking the flow, so they should be covered with a grill or at least cleaned out seasonally. Downspouts can be enclosed or use chains to direct the flow downward to a gravel drain bed. It is vitally important that the water drains away from the house and not under the foundation.

The same holds true for flat roofs here. Concrete decks need to slope away from the house, or to an appropriate drain or eavestrough. EPDM or rubber coatings need a solid subtrate or a falling branch can pierce the membrane. Ballast such as washed gravel can protect the membrane, but can quickly be covered with leaves and twigs, clogging drains. A few inches of water sitting on the roof can be a huge problem if not resolved quickly.

A unique method of sloping roofs towards the middle of the structure can be a benefit if they direct the water to a drain where the water can be directed to a large storage tank. We have months with little to no rain so storing rainwater in the green season can be a great way to cut back on water usage for things like washing the car or watering the garden. One still needs to be vigilant in keeping the drains clear of debris.

Experience

Another issue in building in Costa Rica is often the result of inexperienced tradesmen using foreign building products that they are not familiar with. Many modern products have proprietary installation procedures that the local tradesmen do not fully comprehend or may be unaware of. If the manufacturer's recommended installation procedures are not followed, the products fail and the guarantee is worthless. We chose an highly recommended acrylic stucco for the exterior of our project, one that came with a 10 year guarantee against cracking or fading. Unfortunately the underlying materails cracked and the warranty was void due to improper application accredited to the builder.

Using the wrong materials and/or improper installation procedures, can result in very expensive repairs that often end up as a cost to the owner. Here are a few problems to watch for:

Structural failures from bad foundation work.

Proper foundations are essential and good foundation work is an art from here. An inadequate foundation is perhaps the worst problem you can have, as the repairs can be costly, or the building can fail. Most buildings here are built on structural piers extending to the bedrock, or built on thick concrete pads that float on a solid surface of compressed lastre or similar fill. Inadequate site preparation and/or the lack of sufficient steel re-enforcement, can save you or the builder money, but can result in big problems down the road. Do not try to save money on the foundation work and hire an expert that knows the area and issues.

Stucco or plaster walls

Exterior stucco or cement plaster drying too fast and cracking. This will become evident on walls that are exposed to sun while drying. To properly dry concrete, you should keep it wet which is a full time job requiring someone onsite keeping the newly plastered walls wet with a hose sprayer. It cannot be allowed to dry out completely for at least seven days depending on the time of year.

A bad concrete mix can cause structural problems. It's critical here in a hot dry climate that the right mix is used. If there was either too much water or something contaminated the concrete, like dirt, seeds or contaminated water, then the concrete may not set correctly, or worse will crack and fall apart over time. Most projects mix the concrete on site using a portable mixer. It's imperative that the crew manning the mixer know what they are doing and also keep the piles of sand and gravel clean and free from debris. It is possible to get premixed concrete delivered by a truck mixer, and it's becoming more common for getting the right mix for a pad or foundation level.

Insulation

Insulation issues or no insulation at all. Standard block wall construction normally does not incorporate insulation on the interior or the exterior. While the concrete wall is in fact a mass storage for heat, or heat sink, this issue is resolved by incorporating large overhangs to keep the walls from exposure to direct sunlight. Without overhangs, the exposed walls heat up and transfer heat to the interior, resulting in higher cooling costs.

Newer frame construction and sheathing materials for block walls can utilize a layer of foam insulation to keep the heat from reaching the interior walls. Sheathing the house properly is a new trade here and experience can vary significantly. Keepinng moisture and heat from reaching the interior walls is imperative to avoid issues with mold and water damage. Interior walls, especially with steel frame constuction, requires insulation both to decrease interior noise and to keep the AC where you want it to be. Fiberglass insulation is often used but not often installed properly with gaps and inadequate coverage. When using fiberglass insulation, consult with your builder and explain the purpose and inspect the installation before the dryall goes up. Any moisture reaching the fiberglass can result in mold growth and for the insulation to fail to do the job it was intended for.

Plumbing and electrical work.

Again in traditional block wall construction, experience is key, but no substitute for inspections. Plumbing standards here allow the use of plastics for interior water supplies. These are set in the walls during the installation of the block, and because of this they are difficult to move or adjust once in place. A leak can mean breaking open the structural wall to find the leak and get it repaired.

Electrical runs are also in conduits running through floors, walls or ceiling spaces. It's much easier to change placement, add fixtures, and make adjustments before they are buried in the structure. Most experienced builders include additional empty conduits in the design in case the owner wants additional outlets or lights at a later time.

Framed buildings have an advantage in that it is easier to add outlets and circuits after the structure is complete. A clear advantage over the other building methods, however if improperly installed it can still result in unnecessary expenses. Our builder used PEX tubing imported from Canada for plumbing runs, which has it advantages, however is hard to find components for, or to get repairs done, as it requires specialized tools and parts. They also claimed to have pressure tested the lines prior to installing the drywall and found no leaks, however once the showers were completed, we found the lines to be clogged with debris, blocking the flow of water. I've never been faced with this problem in the past as the water is normally connected and tested prior to closing in the walls. In our case this step clearly was skipped, resulting in costly repairs, removing custom tile work and breaking through lathe and concrete stucco to make repairs.

Interior and exterior paints.

There are a wide variety of paints and sealants, each with specific uses and application methods. We have found many local products to be equivalent if not better than some North American brands. How the products are used and applied can vary greatly depending on the experience of those supervising their use. A common practice is to dilute paints and sealers, to make them easier to apply and to cover a larger area. While this can save you money in the short term, it can result in having to repaint the house in a short period of time.

In our case, the builder chose a clear sealer/primer for the interior gypsum, which was then diluted. The result was a wall that looked like it had not been sealed and where the sealant had not done the job it was intended for. We had to repaint the primer or face using more paint at a higher cost, to cover the walls both to hide the tape marks and to cover the walls evenly. Primer sealants have a purpose, and diluting them or the paint, results in an inferior job. Again go over the products to be used and specify their application accordingly, if you want good results and years of use without having to repaint.

Summary

Having a good architect and a builder with experience in proper installation and applications is essential. While you may have a preferred product used on a job in another country, it may not be available here and if it is and it is new, is imperative that both the architect and the builder have experience in using it. On the Gold Coast there is no substitute for experience. Our environment is a unique one and demands consideration in all aspects of the construction project, in order that you end up with a quality home and years of trouble free enjoyment.

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