With temperatures in the 20s Celsius year-round and a consistent supply of sun, Costa Rica’s Central Valley has the ingredients to make building green no more complicated than building smart.
If you play with natural resources – airflow, shade and natural light – in the design of a home or other structure, your energy bills can plunge and your environmental footprint can shrink. And the only additional investment for someone undertaking a project is in a bit of preplanning.
“Green building doesn’t have to be expensive,” said Geoff McCabe, hotel owner and founder of the website www.pura-verde.com. “If you use the existing environment as an asset, you don’t need to spend any more money. However, when you start adding the solar panels or water renewal systems, the bill starts to go up.”
Thanks in part to a green consciousness that has been developing in the country for the past decade, a growing list of professional architects and builders cater to the green market here.
Aroma Italiano (2203-0986, www.aromaitaliano.cr), which caught onto the green movement in 2006, has implemented a seven-point system for its work, taking into consideration foundations that are both insulated and ventilated, solar-thermal technologies and natural air-circulation systems.
The firm looks to build homes that are “healthy, safe and durable, constructing with materials that aren’t damaging to humans or the environment.”
Bruno Stagno, Sr. (2233-9084, www.brunostagno.info), a renowned Costa Rican architect who developed a name for himself with such projects as the Country Day School and the Interactive Peace Center (home of former President Oscar Arias’ Foundation for Peace and Human Progress), began building green as far back as the 1990s, using simple concepts such as site orientation and buying local.
“If there is a material that comes from China, we don’t want it,” he said. “Transportation to San José generates pollution, which doesn’t help the planet. It’s better to look for a material in Tres Ríos or Cartago because it’s much closer and, thus, more environmentally friendly.”
Belgian architect Jacqueline Gillet (2248-6025, www.tagarquitectos.net) undertook her first green project with her home in Santa Ana, southwest of the capital. Since then, she has committed to incorporating the concept into all her designs. Her work can be seen in the Celeste Mountain Lodge in the north-central Costa Rica town of Bijagua.
“There are many pieces in constructing sustainably,” Gillet said. “It starts with a respect of the land by working with the vegetation instead of destroying it and continues with the use of natural ventilation.”
“I try to incorporate pieces of older homes into the designs,” she added. “You can learn a lot from these homes because they were built at a time when there was no electricity or air conditioning, so they had to make use of natural resources.”
Jon Armstrong of Armdesco Corporation (2282-4539), who has done elements of green building such as solar heating, rainwater harvesting and wastewater treatment systems, said he has adopted sustainable practices in order to reduce operating costs, improve occupant health and decrease environmental impact.
“Practitioners of green building often seek to achieve not only ecological, but also aesthetic harmony between a structure and its natural surroundings … although the appearance and style of sustainable buildings is not necessarily distinguishable from their less sustainable counterparts,” he said.
McCabe offers a portal into the green-building world of Costa Rica with his website, www.pura-verde.com, which lists established architects and builders in the country.
Before reaching out to them, he said, it might be worthwhile to define what you are looking for in a green home. He stressed there are different shades of green, and that the term is not easily defined.
“You can go for energy efficiency, local materials, or non-toxicity, but you really have to know what you want,” he said.
If a homeowner wanted to emphasize the use of nontoxic products, he or she would be making a trade-off because most of those products must be imported. With imported products, you are dragging a carbon footprint from wherever you make the purchase.
It might also help to analyze other green homes, Stagno said. “Study the features of other green projects so that you have an idea what you want to incorporate into your project.”
And for Gillet, the project begins long before the first brick is laid. It starts with the choice of the site, she said. The topography, vegetation and size must be conducive to construction.
“You have to buy consciously,” she said. Gillet suggests contacting architects, builders or contract workers early in the process so they aren’t coming in when the walls are already up or after the windows have been purchased.
“You have to have your own consciousness and then work with other people who are conscious,” she said.
Green Bulding Blocks
A handful of investors founded Eco Materiales (2207-1077, www.ecomaterialescr.com) when they saw a shortage of environmentally friendly building materials. What they saw was either aesthetically appealing or durable, but nothing really combined the two.
By mixing recycled wood chips with plastic, they developed a product that could withstand the intense tropical sun as well as the pounding of Costa Rican rain. Their product now wraps around the pools of dozens of homes in the country and forms the platform for the upper deck of the new Applebee’s restaurant in Santa Ana.
Eco Materiales isn’t the only green innovator or entrepreneur in the country. Pieter Hoornstra of Holland Roofing (2224-9557, www.hollandroofingcr.com) has developed an answer to Eco Materiales’ products for roofs.
By landscaping the tops of homes or garage spaces, Hoornstra promises clients he can extend the life of a roof, decrease air pollutants such as dust and smog, provide a home insulator and return some natural environment to the building site.
His one piece of advice to prospective clients is to call him early in the process. He said, “If we are involved at the beginning, it will be a lot easier in the end.”
If Hoornstra and Eco Materiales can help you on the outside, Brian Erickson can help you with the interior.
Erickson’s company, Artistry in Bamboo (2710-1958, www.brieri.com), constructs custom-made bamboo furniture in his shop in the Caribbean-slope town of Guápiles.
Bamboo is considered environmentally friendly because it is grown locally and replenishes quickly, Erickson said. If you buy bamboo, you are not leveling forests, nor are you importing from far away.
“Bamboo is a material that is very resistant if
properly seasoned and treated,” he said. “If it is not
in water, it will last longer than wood.”
Other resources for green building products include Solar Costa Rica (2582-06243, www.solarcostarica.com), Poderco (2535-5843, www.poderco.com), Inti Tech (2735-5521, www.intitechsolar.com) and Eco Depot (2228-7272, www.ecodepotcr.com) for alternative energy; Agua Solutions (2665-6161, www.aguasolutions.com) for rainwater treatment; and Techni Tejas (2293-8072) and B-green (2695-5050, www.b-green.org) for roofing.