San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Enviro-Friendly Materials Green up Construction

In the United States, where a new president is pushing “green” jobs as a key component of his plan to revive the U.S. economy, the value of green building construction is projected to increase to $60 billion by 2010, according to a 2008 study by McGraw-Hill Construction.

A study from 2007 forecasted that, by 2009, 82 percent of the corporate United States would be “greening” their real estate portfolios.

With the U.S. supplying most tourists and foreign investment to Costa Rica, these winds of change up north just might be enough to help the growing green construction industry here get off the ground.

The country has an increasing number of options for choosing more environmentally friendly construction materials and designs, as well as professionals and organizations that can help builders and developers give their projects a deeper green.

Luz de Piedra, a division of the nonprofit Tropical Architecture Institute, has architects who work with home builders through each step of the process, from drafting plans to inspection (

Run by two internationally educated architects, Luz de Piedra works with builders to integrate buildings into their surroundings and utilize natural lighting and sustainable materials.

The Costa Rican Green Building Council, based on the U.S. Green Building Council and affiliated with the World Green Building Council, is just getting established, but organizers plan to make it the go-to resource for sustainable construction.

Alejandro Ugarte, the council’s executive director, said builders and developers should look at the entire life cycle of the materials they use to get an idea of their environmental impact.

“You need to study where the materials came from, how they were originally removed (from the environment), how they were obtained and the process of manufacturing them into a material that can be used for construction,” he said. “The less energy used to produce and utilize the material, the better.”

Ugarte also said it’s important to look at a material’s cost over time. Though a more sustainable material might cost more up front, it can pay for itself if it lasts a long time, with little need for replacement or maintenance, thus creating less waste.

“One material to avoid is Styrofoam. It has a life of a thousand years; that means that a building or other elements might have a life of only 80 years before it is torn down or replaced, but that Styrofoam is going to be around another thousand years,” he said.

Many materials that have been standard in construction have been given a closer look in recent years, and are being replaced with more sustainable alternatives.

Aluminum and iron can be replaced with prefabricated materials that are less energy intensive. Standard concrete blocks can be replaced with modular blocks made by the concrete company Holcim (, an early member and supporter of the Costa Rican Green Building Council. These modular blocks reduce waste by coming in a variety of sizes, Ugarte said.

Builders working with wood are advised to find wood that has a certification of sustainable harvest, such as through the Forest Stewardship Council.

Another option is Eco Maderas del Sur (, based in southern Costa Rica, which produces pressure-treated lumber from wood imported from tree farms in the Western Hemisphere.

Some builders have turned to bamboo to replace wood products, because the stalks can be used for many of the same purposes and are more sustainably harvested. Sections of bamboo can be cut without killing the plant, allowing it to continue to grow. The plant is also very fast-growing, and so can quickly replace what has been harvested.

Ugarte said bamboo can be used for flooring, walls and general construction purposes, but warned that it still has some drawbacks.

“Bamboo is attacked by insects that like wood, so it must be treated against these insects,” he said.

Also, bamboo’s circular shape can create some design challenges, as most construction projects are based on square woods and right angles.

For wood furniture, Costa Rican company Importadora Monge has launched a line of sustainable and more environmentally friendly products called Línea Verde. Línea Verde furniture is featured in the Casa Autosuficiente, or Self-Sufficient House, a new exhibit at environmental park INBioparque in Santo Domingo de Heredia, north of San José, that showcases sustainable construction materials and techniques (TT, Feb. 13).

Featured at the house are a variety of products and services that can decrease a home’s environmental impact and increase its sustainability.

Electricity is produced by solar panels and a vertical Windspire wind turbine, both installed by ASI Power & Telemetry (

Standard light bulbs inside the home have been replaced with compact fluorescent bulbs, which use a fraction of the electricity. A unique light fixture was also installed by Solatube (, based in Costa Rica, which builds light fixtures that capture sunlight in a dome on the roof of a house, and then reflect the light along a specially fabricated tube before diffusing it into the home.

Water for the home is captured from rainwater in a simple but highly efficient system installed by Agua Solutions (, based in Liberia, capital of the northwestern Guanacaste province.

Rainwater is collected in oversized gutters along the edges of the roof that funnel it through a pair of stainless steel filters to a 5,000-liter storage tank. From there, it is pumped through a water pressure tank and standard water filter before entering a GE Homespring central water purifier. The purified water is then integrated into the home’s plumbing system and available at every tap in the house.

The same system also diverts water into an underground chamber – made of recycled plastic and wrapped in a special fabric called geomembrane – that allows the water to filter back into the aquifer.

The purpose of the system, said Jim Ryan, who manages both Agua Solutions and ASI Power & Telemetry, is to make up for water not entering the aquifer because concrete and construction block rainfall and push it into streets and gutters, where it runs into streams and eventually the ocean.

As more and more regions of Costa Rica are beginning to face water shortages, and construction permits are denied because underground aquifers are being exploited to  their limits, Ryan hopes systems like his catch on.

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