Building materials

During the design phase of your project, you’ll have to make some decisions on what kind of materials to use in constructing your house. The real estate and housing industry here has evolved to the point that pretty much everything (within reason) is available. However, to a certain extent you’ll need to adapt to local building customs, which includes the kinds of materials you use.

Steel, concrete, and block: The most common construction materials you’ll see used here are structural steel, poured concrete, and cement block. Partly this is out of tradition, partly from climate, partly due to Costa Rica’s character as a seismic zone, and partly from legal and geographic conditions that can do odd things to the pricing and availability of otherwise common materials. You’re almost certain to be able to find these materials available anywhere you build in the country. Their cost, however, is never a sure thing. Global demand for steel has skyrocketed, increasing the local price. Likewise, high energy costs keep pushing up the price of concrete and block. Even so, you’re likely to find that these are the most economical and common construction materials, as well as the ones most familiar to construction workers.

Tin and tile: By far the most common roofing material is metal sheeting. Even large, expensive houses have this kind of roofing. Apparently it’s cheap. It’s also light, which means your roof spans can be wider. The downside is that it makes an incredible amount of noise when it rains, and it looks awfully ugly when it starts to rust. Clay tile is the other kind of roofing you see most commonly in Costa Rica. Clay tiles look attractive on neo-colonial style homes and they last for years. But they’re quite expensive, difficult to replace, and very heavy, which means tile roofs are either small or supported by huge steel or timber beams. Tile is also architecturally quite a bit less versatile than zinc. Some of these problems have been resolved with the invention of plastic roof tiles that look like the clay ones, but again, by definition their use is limited to the neo-colonial style homes.

Wood and gypsum: Houses with interior walls made of gypsum board are becoming more common, perhaps understandably, as block and concrete continue to become more expensive. Wood, however, is a complicated material in Costa Rica. When the population was smaller and environmental laws perhaps not so strictly enforced, wood was the go-to material for furniture and some houses. Older middle-class houses in many parts of the country commonly have wooden ceilings made out of tropical hardwood, and even older houses in high-end neighborhoods and former banana company settlements are made entirely of wood. But today, stricter regulation of tree-cutting and greater demand have turned wood into a costly building material that’s mainly used for accents, furniture, and the occasional floor or balcony. Walls made of gypsum are supported by metal studs, not two-by-fours.

Windows: Lacking, as it does, a harsh northern climate, windows in Costa Rica are simple affairs, with basic aluminum or wood frames and either a single pane of glass or glass slats. There are two things to think about when it comes to windows as you sit down with the architect to pick materials. First of all, if you want windows that open, ask for them. It’s amazing sometimes the stuffiness of Costa Rican buildings because no one thought to make their big, beautiful windows openable. Second, depending on where you are in the country, you may need to put bars on the windows or some sort of security system. Follow your architect’s lead.

Bathroom and kitchen furnishings: As construction – and especially luxury construction – has proliferated in Costa Rica, so have the options for kitchen and bathroom furnishings. You can pretty much get anything you want, and in fact, higher-end furnishings like granite counter tops, fancy faucets, and European cabinetry have become de rigueur. Of course, the very latest in kitchen and bathroom furnishings takes some time to arrive in Costa Rica, so in terms of fashion, you’ll find everything slightly behind the curve. You’ll also find it more expensive than it would be in the States or Canada. But most everything is at least available.

Flooring: Most typically, Costa Rican houses are finished with Spanish style-tile floors. Carpet is around, but not used very often. When it comes to tile, you’ll have a whole range of choices, and it’s up to you to decide what you like best. In addition to tile flooring, other options are starting to pop up in the market. Plastic laminate flooring is now available, as is wood laminate. Wood flooring is always an option as well, though if you have an sense of environmental responsibility, you’ll buy teak flooring from a managed plantation, rather than tropical hardwood flooring shipped in from some devastated Paraguayan rain forest.