Tropical Green Building

Tropical green building in Montezuma, Costa Rica

1. Cooling Considerations – power is already very expensive here and is expected to continue to go up. With all the development coming, we should build so that AC isn’t required to keep a house or condo cool. The simplest way to do this is to make sure that air can easily flow through the house, by having sliding doors on both the front and back. Sliding screens can be added to keep out bugs, especially in the rainy season and at night. Screens block at least half of the airflow, but are worth it if your house is in a buggy area. Another good trick is to build a steep roof and orient the house so that the sun never falls on one side of the roof, keeping it forever in shadow and thus much cooler. Or do like Bergit, owner of Hotel Horizontes de Montezuma did – she designed a roof system so the breeze can easily blow underneath it, keeping both the roof and the entire building cooler. Another option is to build the roof an entire story higher, thus creating a huge loft on top of the house, which not only keeps everything cool, but adds more usable space to the house inexpensively. Rather than using a clothes dryer, consider building a sunroom like Jakob Bjerre did in his solar-powered house in Montezuma. Even on cloudy days, this sun-room is hot and dry, and rapidly dries clothes hanging on a line. His brilliant design also located the sun-room next to the solar power equipment and batteries, which used this extra heat generated by the system to heat the drying room.

2. Septic/Blackwater treatment -You can do your own sewage treatment. Montezuma’s Hotel Sano Banano has a $10,000 system that services their restaurant and 12-room hotel and they claim it could also serve several more businesses around them. It’s imported from Italy, and they claim that the water that comes out the other side is drinkable (not that they drink it.) Also, there are septic systems far superior to the cheap ones that are usually installed in our area. They cost a little bit more, but they’re worth it. Adding a liquid bacteria called “EM”, available at the local Cooperativa, in Cóbano aids in the process. Never use chlorine-based cleaners to clean toilets, because this toxic chemical kills the bacteria that are processing the blackwater waste in your septic system. Instead, use natural cleaners from Bioland, lemon-based cleaners, or vinegar. Hotel Aurora in Montezuma is doing this now and their septic system runs perfectly without any smells or seepage of toxins. Another option is to use an incinerating toilet, which turns blackwater waste into ashes, and has the side benefit of destroying any pharmaceutical chemicals that have passed through your body. These chemicals have been shown to have potentially harmful effects on wildlife in rivers and streams as they build up in the environment. Incinerating toilets are expensive ($2000-$3000 for electric or gas models), but they save money on water bills, and if you use them exclusively, you won’t need to build and maintain a septic system at all.

3. Water Catchment – Possibly the most important ecological consideration in the Malpais/Montezuma area of Costa Rica. A house can be designed to channel water from its roof and deck spaces into an underground storage tank, for use during the dry season. A tank can be designed so that it’s built into a hillside, and the top becomes a grassy patio. It can also be designed so that it’s next to your house, effectively becoming a “heat sink” to absorb the day’s heat into the water, keeping your home cool. Water cachement is your best insurance policy against a water crisis that may result from unmanaged development, and is much cheaper than drilling a well. In many areas of the world, such as some places in the Caribbean, water catchment is considered the norm, and it should be in the dry forest areas of Costa Rica also. A tank can be built out of cement like a swimming pool, or large plastic tanks can be used. Visit the website Agua Solutions for more info. This company is in Liberia, Guanacaste province, and provides rainwater catchment solutions. How much rainwater can be captured by a roof? If it rains 100 inches per year, then a 200m2 home can catch around 100,000 gallons.

4. Dogs/Cats – Dogs are probably the worst destroyer of the local ecosystem. Normally, the area would have one family of coyotes for a thousand hectares or so. With hundreds of dogs introduced to the area, wild animals start avoiding these places and biological corridors stop being used, leading to inbreeding and eventual extinction. Large dogs kill many ground animals such as pizotes, foxes, anteaters, and even porcupines – sometimes dying themselves in the process. Dogs can be trained not to attack or threaten wildlife, but few owners have the skill, patience, or awareness to do so. “Man’s best friend” has no place in the jungle.

5. Location – much of the environmental benefit of trying to live a greener lifestyle is negated if the location is far from services, entertainment, and community. If one does not have to drive a long distance to buy groceries, go to the beach, or visit friends, then more energy will be saved. Such a lifestyle can be more rewarding as well. Thus the ideal location for a “green” house or development is close to town and the beach.

6. Reforestation – Except for in the deepest, steepest river valleys, most of the jungle in the area had been logged out many decades ago, and the jungle that has grown back has been mostly common softwood trees that are easily spread by birds and bats. Consider planting native hardwood trees that are nearly extinct in the area. Seedlings should be planted near to the beginning of rainy season so their root systems will grow strong enough to keep the plants alive through their first dry season. These trees can be obtained for 500 colones ($1) at Rainsong Wildlife Sanctuary in Cabuya. Visit their website Rainsong Wildlife Sanctuary to see a list of recommended native tree species. Please order your trees in advance so they have time to obtain them for you.

7. Xerascaping – This is a simple landscaping concept that involves breaking your land into three zones. The first, and smallest, is an area for plants that need daily watering – usually near the house. The second, medium-sized zone, uses drought-tolerant plants that need only occasional watering, perhaps once a week during the dry season. The largest zone contains only native plants that never need to be watered.

8. Construction Materials – One major consideration in sustainable development is using local materials. While Teak and Melina trees are not native species and both are usually grown as a monoculture, in many ways they are good options. They are grown in large quantities locally, and generally no pesticides or toxic chemicals are needed to preserve them from wood-eating insects. Cement isn’t produced locally, but it’s made in Costa Rica and is considered a non-toxic building material. Cement is a better option than wood because it lasts longer, requires much less maintenance, and has fewer spaces for bugs to live in. Living in the tropics, you will have many 6 and 8 legged “friends” in your house regardless of the materials you use, but with cement, you’ll have fewer and can keep the bugs under control more easily without spraying poisons. Stucco – a good option for covering your walls is non-toxic stucco. As far as I know, there’s only one chemical-free brand available in Costa Rica, Manos Magicas. For inside walls, consider using stucco that is shiny polished. This lasts much longer than paint and is much more easily cleaned. Low-maintenance construction is “greener”.

9. Spend Locally – a big part of green building is thinking about the effects on the community. Whenever possible, use materials that are not only produced locally, which reduces the energy needs of transporting them, but keeps the money spent in circulation in your area. Whenever possible, use subcontractors that are as local as possible. Spending locally reduces poverty and benefits everyone. For example, instead of buying towel racks from San Jose that are made in China, hire a local blacksmith to make them.