• Ron Snell

Designing a Home For Paradise

I’m one person. A simple person. A non-architectural person. There are other people in the world, and much to my surprise, they don’t always think like me. Still, I think you should read this.

My real credentials for writing this article are that as a real estate agent in southern Costa Rica, I’ve seen a lot of houses. I’ve heard a lot of comments. I know which houses have been on the market forever, and which ones sell. After you’ve sampled a lot of banana cakes, you know which recipes work even if you haven’t ever baked one. That’s me. I’m the banana cake sampler of real estate, and after a lot of sampling, I have a killer banana cake recipe.

Here’s the thing about designing a home in southern Costa Rica: It’s not Michigan. It’s not Texas. It’s not Mexico. It’s not even San Jose. We’re different here:

1. Our daily highs are in the 80’s. A little higher right on the beaches, a little lower 1,000 feet above the beaches, but almost always 80’s. We have a lot of seasonal changes through the year, but they don’t have much to do with temperatures. (Right now it’s cicada season, but that’s a whole other article.)

2. Our nightly lows are in the 70’s. A little higher right on the beaches, a little lower 1,000 above the beaches, but almost always in the 70’s. If you are freezing cold at night, so much so that all you can think about is cuddling up to a cup of hot chai tea, it’s because it got down to 68. Eat your heart out, Wisconsin.

3. There is almost always a breeze off the ocean in the daytime, and off the mountains at night. These are light and gentle breezes. They won’t blow your hair back or take off the roof, but they do freshen the air. Freshened air is a good thing – if you don’t believe it, share some close space in the tropics with someone who hasn’t been air freshened for a while.

4. There are very few noxious bugs compared to almost anywhere else you’ve ever lived. Yes, there are lots of fascinating bugs, but that’s different. Noxious bugs bite us and make us itch or get sick. Fascinating bugs entertain us. We may let out a shriek, but then we take pictures of them. I’m serious – take a look at the gallery of insect pictures on this site!

5. It rains here. Real rains, for several months each year. Like maybe 6 inches in a few hours. When we talk about rain, we’re talking about the whole sky as a waterfall. I’ts beautiful, it’s awe inspiring, it’s overwhelming, it’s all landing on your roof and yard. For a few months out of the year, it can happen every day. You will wonder where it all goes unless you have a bad design, in which case you will know exactly where it all goes. Ooops.

6. There will be times when you leave your home, and you will worry about security. This is no different from almost anywhere else you’d choose to live, but our homes aren’t designed like anywhere else you’d choose to live, either. Security isn’t your first concern, but neither should it be your last.

7. Southern Costa Rica is naturally beautiful. Gorgeous. Stunning. The views and surroundings are amazing. The more you hear the sounds and smell the air and see the living things, the more you will love it, even if “it” is a flock of parrots all yelling at the same time at 5:00 in the morning.

8. Southern Costa Rica is in the tropics. In the tropics, there is an ongoing, never ending fight for light and space. Plants, insects, fungi, animals and every other living thing are in a constant battle for light and space. Houseplants that you thought were cute and cozy in your living room in Nebraska are suddenly like monsters trying to take over the world in Costa Rica. We talk about harmony and balance and how everything is so finely tuned for getting along with each other and mutually supportive and symbiotic, but it’s really a sort of an uneasy balance among a bazillion fighting things that want to take over your land and home.

So what does this mean to you as you design your home? Here are some principles that I believe you should keep firmly in mind:

1. It’s not about the home. Yes, many people love awesomely creative and luxurious homes, but I’d think of the home as a way to enjoy the surroundings. In every way possible, design the home so it doesn’t block your views of the outside world, and so you can live outside. The homes people like the most are the ones where you sort of lose track of whether you are inside or out.

2. Provide lots of shade and let the air flow through. If you are down closer to the beach, or at a lower elevation, A/C might be necessary at times, but your goal is to not need it. Make sure your design allows the breezes to go right through the house in every way possible, including windows higher in the walls where the heat would otherwise get trapped, and windows on opposite sides of each room. Remember that for a very long time, no one here had A.C. They managed their comfort with air flow.

3. Keep the rain off the sides of the home. Create large overhangs not only for the shade but also so water doesn’t splash on patios, walkways, and the grill, and doesn’t come in through screen windows in a light breeze. Everything that gets wet will grow molds. Let me say that again: everything that gets wet will grow molds. You can’t appreciate this until you’ve lived in the tropics for a year.

4. Make security an integral part of the design. Too many people don’t think about security until after the home is built, and then they put obnoxious bars/grills over all the windows and doors, leaving you feeling as though you are living in a bird cage (best scenario) or prison (worst scenario). There are a variety of options for security, so look into them and talk to your architect about them. Initially you will think that designing a home for maximum airflow automatically makes it impossible to secure, but that’s not true. It does take some planning. For example, some people create one small room that is bomb proof, both so they can leave high value items it in and so they can dehumidify it. Think of it as a walk in safe.

5. Unless you have a budget for several people to maintain your property, keep it relatively uncomplicated. Simpler roofs are more easily maintained than complicated roofs with all kinds of angles and dormers and levels and pitches. Fairly simple walls are easier to maintain than walls with all kinds of decorative features on the outside, because every one of those decorative features will sooner or later have to be spray washed, debugged, etc. Simplicity in an important part of pura vida.

6. Go slowly with the landscaping. In southern Costa Rica, you will spend more time trying to keep things from growing than you will trying to get things to grow. Beautiful gardens almost immediately become battle grounds for light and space. Vines slither, seeds drop, weeds sprout, and everything gets a lot bigger all at once. My wife refers to them as houseplants on steroids. Or mutant shrubs. While you’re getting used to that, be cautious about converting easily maintained spaces into areas that require constant maintenance either by you or by someone you hire.

8. Use open spaces around your home. In this part of the world, when we calculate square footage of a home, we include covered porches, patios, decks and other outdoor living areas because they are important parts of the home. An outdoor dining room is a perfect place for entertaining, or for enjoying a private cuppa. You won’t regret making a significant part of your square footage “outdoor space,” covered but not enclosed.

9. Finally, talk to some real estate agents before you commit to a design. Take a couple of them, including me of course, out for a nice dinner and pick their brains. Draw sketches on napkins while you’re waiting for the food to come. You’d be amazed how much money you could save by taking me and my wife out to dinner.

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