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CONSTRUCTION CHALLENGES IN COSTA RICA
by Tom Rosenberger


Living and building within 10 degrees of the equator has its benefits and its challenges. Even though hurricanes rarely threaten this area, driving rain attacks structures vertically and horizontally.

HURRICANES RARELY THREATEN COSTA RICA

In meteorology; a tropical cyclone (or tropical disturbance, tropical depression, tropical storm, typhoon, or hurricane, depending on strength and location) is a type of low-pressure system, which generally forms in the tropics. Hurricane is the term used to describe tropical cyclones that form in the Caribbean where we are located.

Hurricanes need the warm humid air above tropical oceans in order to develop. That’s why they form over ocean waters close to the equator. In addition, that’s why they form only during the summer and early fall, when those waters are about 80 degrees Fahrenheit or above. However, you won’t normally see hurricanes form right at the equator. That’s because at zero degrees latitude there isn’t enough turning of winds in the atmosphere to give tropical cyclones the “spin” they need to get started.

This turning of the winds is known as the Coriolis Force or Effect. Nearly all hurricanes form within 30 degrees of the equator and 87% form within 20 degrees of it.

However, because the Coriolis effect initiates and maintains tropical hurricane rotation, such hurricanes almost never form or move within about 10 degrees of the equator where the Coriolis effect is weakest. The Coriolis Effect initiates and helps maintain the rotation of a tropical hurricane. This rotational force is zero at the equator and increases as you travel away from the equator, being greatest at the poles.

Hurricanes can't actually form within 4 degrees of the equator, because the Coriolis effect is just too small. Once a tropical revolving storm is formed though, wind determines its movement. There is very little cross-equatorial flow of wind, as the main winds steer the storm away from the equator.

Building in Costa rica
In addition, hurricanes that form in the Caribbean are not likely to turn toward Costa Rica. Caribbean tropical storms either turn northward or continue westward due to the steering currents of trade winds from the east, then a clockwise flow around a semi-permanent area of high pressure to the north. This has a tendency to turn them northward away from Central America.

Costa Rica is located at 9.55 degrees north of the equator, below the path of most hurricanes. There are seven tropical cyclone zones "basins" where storms occur on a regular basis and Costa Rica is not located in the affected areas.

Here are some terms and definitions that relate to hurricanes:

Coriolis Force: An artifact of the earth's rotation. Once air has been set in motion by the pressure gradient force, it undergoes an apparent deflection from its path, as seen by an observer on the earth. This apparent deflection is called the "Coriolis force" and is a result of the earth's rotation. The Coriolis effect initiates cyclonic rotation, but it is not the driving force that brings this rotation to high speeds. That force is the heat of condensation. In the northern hemisphere, the earth's rotation is deflected to the right by the Coriolis force. The amount of deflection the air makes is directly related to both the speed at which the air is moving and its latitude. Therefore, slowly blowing winds will be deflected only a small amount, while stronger winds will be deflected more.

Pressure Gradient Force: Directed from high to low pressure. The change in pressure measured across a given distance is called a "pressure gradient." The pressure gradient results in a net force that is directed from high to low pressure and this force is called the "pressure gradient force."

Geostrophic Wind: Winds balanced by the Coriolis and Pressure Gradient forces. An air parcel initially at rest will move from high pressure to low pressure because of the pressure gradient force (PGF). However, as that air parcel begins to move, it is deflected by the Coriolis force to the right in the northern hemisphere (to the left on the southern hemisphere). As the wind gains speed, the deflection increases until the Coriolis force equals the pressure gradient force. At this point, the wind will be blowing parallel to the isobars. When this happens, the wind is referred to as geotrophic.


Tropical wind-driven rain and humidity can saturate exterior surfaces and cause commonly used roofing products to fail. During the rainy season here in Costa Rica, the grass and plants get their greenest and moisture saturates everything. We see more green mold develop on horizontal surfaces and if not cleaned regularly, they can get slippery. You may also notice a kind of shadow on vertical surfaces of buildings where the rainwater flowing down off the roof has brought dirt along with it. A consistent maintenance plan can help prevent these inconveniences.
Building In Costa Rica
I've been in Costa Rica constructing housing since 1992 and have seen roofing installations fail after the first rain and others that kept a dwelling dry for several years and then began to leak with no obvious problems visible. The reasons vary, but the lack of consistent cleaning and maintenance practices on homes and buildings are responsible for a good portion of the problems.

ROOFING PROBLEMS TO LOOK OUT FOR IN COSTA RICA


Metal roofing panels, especially darker colors, respond to temperature change by expanding and contracting. This causes the fastener holes size to increase, and can cause leaks.
Panels screwed into metal Perling roof rafters will experience less thermal movement. Galvanized factory-finished roofing panels and flashing materials, used in housing construction, require specific dimensions of panel and flashing overlapping and watertight sealant application between the product overlaps according to the manufacturer's recommendations.

Exterior coatings and sealants applied to roofing panels and flashings dry out and fade prematurely, because the ultraviolet rays of the sun here in Costa Rica are intense. If the coatings and sealants are not maintained and replaced before they dry out, they will crack and allow water infiltration. The driving tropical rains here come from all different directions and can be challenging for roofing materials that use an overlapping system of corrugated panels to keep moisture out. When rain comes at a building from almost sideways, it forces water under these metal panels that eventually ends up on the roof sheathing, installed on top of the roof rafters.

Many structures in Costa Rica do not have a roof sheathing installed and the metal panels are screwed directly into the roof rafters. The spacing in between the roof rafters is open to the interior ceiling of the living areas below and any water infiltration ends up on top of the materials installed for the living area ceilings. If the interior ceiling material selected was drywall or other porous type materials, then eventually, with sufficient water infiltration, those areas of the ceilings will appear clouded or sometimes the surface will peel off.

WHEN SELECTING ROOFING PRODUCTS IN COSTA RICA, THE FOLLOWING OPTIONS SHOULD BE CONSIDERED.

Metal, steel and aluminum roofing materials contain high percentages of recycled content, up to 100% in many aluminum products. Most metal roofing materials contain recycled metal. An additional advantage is that these metal products are lightweight and durable as well as easily recycled in their post-use. Metal roofing products can be made to give a shingle appearance.
Roofs

Asphalt shingles use recycled, mixed paper in their base and some use reclaimed minerals in the surface aggregate. This type of material does not last as long as the others. Recycled plastic roofing materials are available as a lightweight option. Slate, clay, and cementitious roof materials offer excellent durability but are heavy.

Fiber-cement composite roof materials are lighter and use fiber materials resourcefully.

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VARIABLES TO CONSIDER WHEN SELECTING ROOFING PRODUCTS.

DURABILITY- How well can it tolerate the strong ultraviolet rays of the sun.

HEAT RESISTANCE- Some roofing materials retain more heat than others. If the selected product heats up, it will stay hot into the night and can affect the energy efficiency of your dwelling.

MAINTAINABILITY- Exterior building products here in Costa Rica do not perform as well as in other areas that are further away from the intense equatorial ultraviolet rays. A realistic maintenance program should be organized with a knowledgeable builder who has many years of experience here in Costa Rica. Otherwise, when the exterior of your dwelling leaks, it will cause damage to the interior installations as well as your personal items.

RAIN WATER EFFECT- Asphalt, Slate, Clay or cementitious materials erode and a portion of the surface aggregate will pass below to other installations and eventually leach into the ground water.

WEIGHT- Heavier roofing materials will require stronger and more expensive structural materials.

FIRE RATING- Not so much of an issue here as in North America because of the lack of federal and local regulations, however your investment and personal safety should always be a consideration when selecting building materials.

COST- The roof of your dwelling protects all other building materials as well as your personal possessions. You should invest as much as is necessary to install a quality and maintenance free roof.

INSTALLATION REQUIREMENTS- Once you've selected a roofing product, you should be able to rely on the manufacturers guaranteed performance for many years. Sometimes, roofing products fail here in Costa Rica because they are not installed according to the manufacturer's recommendations. New products and their proprietary installation techniques are often not understood by the architects who specify them and create the blueprints. It's the responsibility of the builder to install all the construction materials correctly. The fact is that many experienced, local tradesmen have been installing traditional roofing materials according to proven installation methods for many years, but they're not normally receptive to new products and their unique installation methods. Your builder needs to be able to communicate well with his tradesmen in their language and have the patience to educate them to respect the proprietary installation methods for the products you've selected.

Additionally, from over 15 years of construction experience here in Costa Rica, I have witnessed numerous building products fail as a result of the intense ultraviolet rays of the sun. Day in and day out this natural solar energy is prematurely wearing down the surfaces of most exterior installations. For instance;
>Concrete and synthetic plastered walls fade and crack.
>Galvanized metal roofing laminates cup and corrode.
>High quality solar panels dry out and leak prematurely.
>Durable rubber washers on fastening screws deteriorate and leak.

Nearly all of these products are sold with good intentions and manufacturers warranties, but ultimately the builder has to deal with realistic solutions for product failures down here in the jungle. Architects and engineers are inundated with new and supposedly better products to specify in the projects they are hired to design.

Product performance specifications provided in marketing materials may be applicable in other areas of the world, but down here within 10 degrees of the equator, we're faced with numerous challenges that only hands-on experience and dedication to the building profession can overcome.

It is the responsibility of the professional architect or engineer to identify heat and moisture related risks associated with any particular building design. Roofing and wall construction design must effectively manage moisture, considering both the interior and exterior environments of the building, particularly with buildings in tropical climates that have a high risk of wind driven rain penetration.

In addition, the professional with design responsibility needs to account for all roof and wall openings, overhangs, facias, soffits, penetrations, junctions, connections, window sills, heads and jambs that require appropriate flashings for waterproofing.

Flashing materials should be lapped in such a way that water cannot enter underneath and tracks down to the exterior on the face of the buildings surface. Allowed to penetrate under overlapped roofing laminates and behind siding, tropical wind-driven rain and humidity can saturate ceilings and walls, creating a breeding ground for mold, mildew and building materials rot. Weather barriers help combat water, moisture and air infiltration that are any structure’s worst enemies.

A weather barrier may not be required by the local building code however the design professional should recognize the importance of inexpensive weather barriers for the future energy efficiency of the client's projects.

The other materials, components and installation methods used to manage moisture on roofing and external walls should be installed in harmony with the buildings structure and final exterior surfaces and coatings.

All structural building materials need to be kept dry and under cover while in storage and during the installation in order to avoid moisture accumulation in ceiling and wall cavities. Furthermore, the horizontal and vertical fixing of weather barriers, exterior laminates and sheathing panels should be aligned to allow moisture to escape out of the bottom of the overhangs and exterior wall cavities in the event of excessive precipitation like we frequently experience in the tropical climates of Costa Rica. Application procedures vary from product to product so this adds to the problem.

Using the wrong materials and/or improper application procedures, can result in unsightly cupping, cracking, peeling or flaking of roofing products and plastered walls facias and soffits on the exteriors of buildings.

EXTERIOR CONCRETE PLASTER AND SYNTHETIC SHEATHING PROBLEMS
There are three basic kinds of cracks in plastered concrete and synthetic sheathing products such as DensGlass and the difference is very important to understand.
Building In Costa Rica
1. Larger cracks that are not even from side to side (in other words, if you run your hand across the crack, and one side of the crack feels higher than the other side) - This kind of crack means that something structural has failed or settled and may be a serious problem. Common causes are inadequate structural support, foundation shifts or earthquakes. This type of crack should not be ignored. Probably the most important concern in construction projects where synthetic sheathing has been installed on exterior walls is the possible infiltration of water into the wall cavity where excess moisture could cause mold and affect the interior installations.

2. Little fine cracks that are even on both sides of the crack (that is, when you run your hand across the crack the surface feels smooth) - This crack is fairly common in the construction that I have inspected here in Costa Rica. It is caused by traditional cement plaster drying too fast, and you will especially see it on walls that have been exposed to sun while drying. To properly dry concrete, you should keep it wet (as in spraying the newly plastered walls with water) for at least seven days depending on the climate. If this is done, there will be fewer if any cracks. These cracks are not a result of structural damage and can be covered up by using inexpensive products manufactured by the local paint companies for this purpose. These types of cracks rarely cause interior moisture problems.

3. Lots of cracks that vary in width and are close together and usually curved in a group on walls - These are caused by bad concrete - there was either too much water or something contaminated the concrete, like dirt or bad water. With over 25 years of construction experience in the USA and Costa Rica, I recommend the following materials and installation procedures for exterior finishes when constructing steel or wood stud structures.

>Vapor barrier, such as TYVEK

>Insulation, such as PRODEX

>USG brand DUROCK, when the desired exterior finish coating is synthetic stucco.

>USG brand FIBEROCK or GP brand DensGlass, when the desired exterior finish is a product such as traditional stucco on metal lath, brick veneer or other exterior substrates.


NOTES:

1. When applying a synthetic stucco finish coating on Durock, always use BASE COAT by Formulated Solutions, as the exterior stucco coating. All other products will crack, leak and become maintenance nightmares.

2. Never use the yellow laminates of DensGlass for vertical sheathing when a synthetic stucco coating is specified as the exterior finish.

3. Some of these building components will require advance ordering, but are available in most building suppliers throughout Costa Rica.

4. It is very important to have previous hands-on experience with these products or obtain an experienced builder who understands these products proprietary application techniques.


For value and peace of mind, USG products are highly recommended. They are not only cost-effective in the short term, but in the long term, they prevent costly maintenance expense caused by water, salt penetration and mold.
Once, USG brand Durock has been installed, use Base Coat, by Formulated Solutions as the exterior stucco coating. Base Coat should be applied by trowel over polypropylene fiber mesh in three coats. The mesh gives strength and quality control of application, and Base Coat provides an aesthetically pleasing waterproof barrier that will not crack or de-laminate when applied properly.

If you discover cracks in your exterior stucco walls you should have an experienced professional inspect the problem areas. The potential damage caused by water intrusion into your wall cavity could require extensive interior remodeling and potential mold remediation. If you see a crack and it gets deeper or wider within a short period of time, then you have a problem that should be looked into by someone who has experience with international building materials and their proper application procedures. Multinational building products companies are constantly introducing new and perhaps better building materials into the marketplace. However, new products are not always better and down here in Costa Rica you cannot rely on manufacturer's warranties as in larger industrialized countries.

It's best not to attempt to re-invent the wheel or try the do-it-yourself method when moving to a country where the cultural and language differences alone can be challenging. Find an experienced builder whom you can communicate with and make sure that he has been in Costa Rica for enough years to understand the local culture and language.

Author : Tom Rosenberger. With more than 25 years homebuilding experience 15 of which have been in Costa Rica, construction consultant Tom Rosenberger knows the ins and outs of building and remodeling a home in Costa Rica.

A Free Gift To You - Key Documents With 25 Years Of Experience: As part of his 'Build Your Own Home in Costa Rica - Key Documents' Tom offers his customers several informative documents, including a Land Acquisition and Home Building report, which outlines the process one can expect when purchasing property and building a home in this country. Other documents include a construction cost spreadsheet, payment schedule, and list of construction specifications. You can see Tom's story and key documents by clicking here.

Caribbean Property Magazine Email Tom Rosenberger
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