Building Costa Rica – Building with Wood

Why are we Building with Wood? Part 2 Building Costa Rica.

We chose to build our home with both wood and concrete. Wood will be our supports, buried directly in the ground, and serve as the material for the entire second level. Wood provides a cooler environment inside the house and reduces the likelihood of mold growth. Concrete is more porous and seems to retain moisture for longer periods of time, this moisture can be very rough on interior and exterior wall finishes, causing bubbling and flaking. Wood is a renewable resource and we are lucky enough to have enough space to re-plant all of the trees that we are using (plus some). We only had to take down three trees the rest was already downed timber. In addition, the wood is all from our local area which means that there was no shipping cost involved (oil & its pollutants). The only cost are the carrots that we gave the horse for bringing it down the mountain.

Wood Stair Project Gavilan

Tropical Hardwoods as Supports and Floor Joists

This is a list of the woods we are using to build with:

Pilon (Hyeronima alchorneoides) – We are using pilon (Pee-long) as our floor boards due to its insect resistance, long life and beautiful color. We retrieved a lot of the pilon from within our very own forest. Before we bought the farm someone had come in and illegally cut down a large pilon tree. They carried out what wood they could but left large pieces of timber just lying on the ground. Barry almost broke his back but he carried out every usable piece that he could find. It had been lying on the forest floor for 10 years and is still usable. It is an incredible hardwood.

Manu Negro (Minquartia guianensis) – The most resistant wood to environmental conditions and therefore an endangered species. In fact, had the wood not been already cut and laying in someone’s front yard we would not have used it and substituted concrete posts for support. We often see Manu timber for sale in the front yard of homes in the mountains. One theory is that the trees fell with heavy rains and the other is that many people cut down their Manu trees right before MINAE, the Ministry that hands out permissions to cut down trees, added Manu to the restricted list. Regardless, the tree were are using had already lost its life. *See our support posts in the pic below.

Gavilan (Pentaclethra macroloba) – This durable wood has been used by South American Indians to cure the bites of poisonous snakes. The bark and dust from cutting this wood are toxic and can cause extreme allergies in humans. The last time we sanded gavilan posts we all got sick later that evening with nausea and vomiting. That same toxicity makes it a good wood to build with because termites won’t eat it. So we are using it as floor joists. We had a large Gavilan tree fall earlier this year right after a big storm. We were very lucky because most Gavilans grow many skinny trunks to form the tree but this particular beast was very thick and we got our floor joists and a tabletop and six chairs out of it.

Guachipelin (Diphysa americana) – If you are familiar with Live Oaks in the U.S. you will get the concept of Guachipelin. It is a beautiful tall tree with a yellow heartwood and yellow flowers in March. The branches grow as thick as the trunk and you can cut the branches off to use as posts without killing the tree itself. We are using Guachipelin for the inside posts because of its grain and color.

Drying Wood in the Tropics – Building Costa Rica

When driving through Costa Rica you will almost always see wood in this configuration along the side of the road. It is how wood is dried here. A long wooden or bamboo pole is nailed up in between two trees and the wood planks are placed at an angle, alternating sides. This configuration allows for rainwater to drip to the bottom and also allows for easy and complete spraying with a termicide. The old way to protect the wood from insects was a mixture of penta and diesel. We chose a termicide that is biologically friendly (so says the label).  We will have to re-spray every year. *The wood pictured is a portion of our pilon floor planks.

Wood for building Costa Rica

Planing Wood – Building Costa Rica

Planing Wood is done on site. Our builder brought his planer in the back of our Trooper and we paid based on the amount of inches that were planed. Our price was 50 colones ($.10) per inch. We supplied the electricity. Keep in mind that this work is being done by a private person in Limon Province, prices are a bit cheaper here than in other parts of the country. Barry also did some hand planing to get nice flat surfaces.

Wood Planer Costa Rica

The sawdust that we didn’t use for mulch was bagged and sold it to a local chicken farmer as bedding. He paid 200 colones per bag. Its not a lot of money but every little bit helps and it is now out of our way. Some of the cedar chips we kept to use with our Outside Grill/Smoker.

Sawdust Bags Building Costa Rica

These are our Manu and Guachipelin Posts. The Manu is cut square and each one is about 12 feet long. These will go directly in to the soil and support the floor. The Guachipelin posts are shorter because the will be placed into the concrete bottom level floor and on top of the second level to support the roof. Neither has been sanded yet. It is best to do that right before sealing and varnishing.

Manu posts

Our house will measure approximately 900-1000 square feet.

 

23 comments on “Building Costa Rica – Building with Wood”

  1. Bruce Reply

    I don’t know whether it will work down there, but up here you can use a mix of boric acid and pet-safe antifreeze to stop termites, carpenter ants and June bugs. The advantages are both are benign to most things, are cheap and are readily available, and they actually work. The antifreeze also has good anti-fungal properties.

    A second perimeter defense is pool grade diatomaceous earth. – Also relatively benign and much cheaper than what you get in garden centres etc.

  2. Christopher Dunn Reply

    I am wanting to build a small wooden cabin style house-500 sq ft, maybe on a foundation. in The north Central Valley. Too many beautiful woods there. I would think wood prices are much cheaper than US, and much better. Is there a major lumber supplier for Costa Rica I can deal with? Or would you just recommend local landowners? Also, are building permits much of a problem? I stayed in several cabinatas I did not think cost $5000 to build. Any info would be greatly appreciated..

    • Kimberly Beck Reply

      Chris – If you do not build a foundation of concrete you will need to find a wood that is able to go directly into the ground such as manu negro or guachipelin. I agree that wood is much cheaper here but there are many factors that make that true. One is that wood is not pre-treated here. You have to apply a preservative yourself or find a sawmill that does it at an added cost. We don’t know of any major lumber suppliers, at least in our area. Most towns have a saw mill & you can order the types/cuts of wood that you would like. If they don’t have it you will have to wait for it which could take a long time depending on when the next moon phase is (I am not kidding). We built our socalo cabins for $6000 but most of the concrete foundation was there & we did most of the work ourselves & the tree was cut from our farm & we knew that it had dried properly.

  3. Dave Yeats Reply

    Hi Kim and Barry
    I am in the process of cutting and processing wood for a Socalo cabin we plan to build this year. We combine good local advice and contacts as well as “what’s available” which in our case was healthy mature pine. Obviously it will need insecticide treatment against termites. What have you found to be most effective/available in treating your wood? We will use harder wood for structural parts but will use wide pine boards for exterior siding. We are keeping records of all our costs and will be able to share insights into the relative cost questions . I imagine there will be no clear answer to that question as much depends on where you are, who you know, and what you have on hand. 5 degrees here in North Idaho. Getting our winter fix before heading down to CR in January. Hope to visit and see how your Socalo turned out. Thanks, Dave

    • Kimberly Beck Reply

      Hi Dave – We are finishing up our 3rd dwelling here on the farm. The first is all wood that we obtained from the farm. We used an Alaskan saw mill to process it on site. The second, the socalo, we also used wood from the farm. This wood is not exactly known to be insect resistant so we must keep it sprayed and varnished. We found a product named “Premise” which is a powder that you mix with water and then spray in a shallow perimeter divot around the structure and it forms a barrier to termites. We have to be very careful not to harm our wildlife and this product has a “blue” label, which we have been told that is the best we can do and still be protected. The house, final, project is made from mostly locally purchased woods that are inherently insect resistant and is completely varnished.

      We know people here who build using fir trees and many don’t treat their homes because the resin/sap in the firs make the wood insect resistant.

  4. rob henfling Reply

    I have a farm in Pavones de Turrialba where I am planning to built within the next year a wooden house. I am still very confused about what is the best way. Either treated pine wood, or work with local woods. My main worry is termites. Is there anyway I could visit you or meet you and pick your barin a bit. I would really appreciate your help-

    Regards,

    Robert Henfling

    • Kimberly Beck Reply

      We are currently busy with finishing our building project. So you have 2 options to get some info from us

      1.) If you are good at construction why don’t you come and help us for a day or two? Sometimes and extra hand is exactly what is needed.

      2.) Take us out to dinner. It seems we never get a break!

  5. john Roberts Reply

    I build alternate homes for my own use and rental and hopefully coming
    back to Costa Rica this winter. Not being there for several years am
    interested in current prices and availability of lumber and building
    materials. Very informative and descriptive website.
    john

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  7. Trevor Chilton Reply

    In answer to the question is concrete cheaper than wood. Almost never. In this case if you have your own trees/lumber it is not even a close competition. For others not so fortunate that all depends on what wood, where bought and how constructed. Then one should be adding in the environmental impact each M3 of wood consumes a ton of CO2 in the process of growing the tree versus each ton of cement that creates 800kgs of CO2. To say the least a huge difference one giving to the environment and one making a huge negative impact. Some would choose not to use concrete if they knew this fundamental facts. That is also ignoring all the negative characteristics of concrete some mentioned here with regards to moisture plus it’s rigidity is pretty goofy in a seismically active country.

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  9. Darby Reply

    You two are just amazing…you have learned so much and you write the most interesting blogs…you make us so proud.
    love you, g’ma and g’pa

  10. Joseph Reply

    There’s lots to consider when building a house! I love the photos and learning about the different types of wood and their uses. Thanks, Kim. I’ve seen houses in Costa Rica that are on concrete slab, with a wall of concrete blocks about knee height. Then from that point up it’s wood. I’m thinking this is to help keep the wood from going to close to the ground for termite prevention. Keep up the great work.

    • Kimberly Beck Reply

      That style is called Socalo. We built our guest cabins in that style. We did it because we already had a concrete slab from the ols caretakers home.

  11. Joseph Reply

    Lots of great info, Kim. What part of your house will be made of concrete? Also, I’m wondering about the cost of building a house of wood compared with the cost of building with concrete. Is wood more expensive there?

    • Kimberly Beck Reply

      Joseph – The bottom floor will be concrete with ceramic tile as well as the wall to the back porch where we will have the bodega. I’m still up in the air about which is more expensive. I plan to write something up about it after the project is complete and I can weigh in all of the cost factors. Using wood requires us to pay for the wood (unless it is from our farm), pay to have it planed, chemical termite killer, pay an ayudante (helper) to make the dovetails and cut to length and varnish or paint. Concrete requires the blocks, the mortar, sand to mix in, rebar to hold it together, transport to get it here, wood forms to keep poured concrete in place, labor, possibly an exterior coat or finish and paint. I will know more when the project is finished. I will have more time to write too!

  12. Art Sulenski Reply

    These woods in Costa Rica are great, I just got the privilege of cleaning up a small sawmill that just closed. Some of the wood had been laying around for years, extremely hard. It will be interesting to see how some of it planes out. Thanks for the heads up on the toxins in some of these woods. That might explain why my wife gets sick once in a while as she loves to cut up wood for our wood stove. From now on she will wear a breathing mask when cutting up the wood trimmings we get from other saw mills.

  13. Vince Reply

    Again, I can’t leave your site without thanking you. I so look forward to your post. It helps me to visualize so much and the photos are really clear and beautiful.

    • Kimberly Beck Reply

      It is very kind of you to take time out of your busy day to say that. Thanks Vince. We look forward to meeting you one day!

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