In my last article, I talked about a few of the initial items and procedures involved in building a new home in the islands of Bocas del Toro, Panama. In this section, I want to try to give you a few more details on specifics such as materials, utilities, labor and cost factors involved in tropical island construction.
One of the first things to remember as you make decisions about your building project is that the overall environment here is very likely vastly different from anything in your prior experience. For one thing, this is a tropical rain-forest located on islands surrounded by seawater. Translated, this means that it is normally either wet, damp or humid but seldom truly dry. The natural vegetation here has adapted well and thrives. A jungle lot can appear to be an impenetrable mass of vegetation when you first see the property, but with a few good workers, skilled in jungle clearing procedures, it can look like a PGA course a year later. Just be aware that managing the landscape may be one of your first tasks in the building process.
The good news is that you will not have to water your yard. But on the other hand, the grass will have grown 2 inches by the time you put your mower away and walk to the house. Many people are surprised when they spend the money and time to have their lot cleared with the intention of returning in a few months to begin building and on their arrival discover that the jungle has reclaimed the land to its original state. The secret is to clear and then regularly maintain the property so that the landscaping is managed to your needs and preferences.
Another thing that the climate dictates in the Caribbean islands is the care one must take in the selection of building materials. Everything is affected in some way by the damp environment. Algae, molds and fungus attack any untreated soft or medium-density wooden building material and render it useless in a very short time. Additionally, these lighter-weight materials are a real attraction to wood boring and fiber-loving insects which can literally devour an unprotected house in a few years. Pressure-treated lumber (generally imported pine) is resistant to rot and insects but to extend the lifetime of anything made from wood, it is best to treat everything with a good penetrating oil product and then paint or seal it in some manner BEFORE ASSEMBLY. Also be certain that the fasteners you use, (nails screws, etc) are compatible with the pressure treatment chemicals used in the wood you buy. It is very disheartening to find that the inevitable moisture penetration around fasteners has triggered a chemical reaction between the wood and the fasteners to the point that over the course of a couple of years the wood has deteriorated around every nail or screw so exposed.
Another choice if you decide to use wood as a building medium is local hardwoods. There are several varieties that grow in the area. Because the wood in these trees is so dense, insects generally leave them alone and because it is difficult for moisture to penetrate t interior of the material before it evaporates, rot is usually not a problem. The downside is that because of the popularity of these materials for their natural strength, beauty and longevity, they have been severely overharvested and are difficult to obtain. Quality and availability have been compromised and the price has gone up in recent years. If you do chose to use local hardwoods for construction, make certain that you enlist the help of someone experienced and familiar with these woods since construction techniques necessary to professionally use these materials is somewhat different than normal building procedures. Also, unless you are proficient at identifying trees and wood types, it is important to have professional assistance so you are reasonability assured you are buying exactly what you ordered and not discover years later that you received an inferior “look-alike”.
Another note about wood construction to be aware of is that there is a certain species of tiny tropical ant/termite that loves the glue used in the manufacture of plywood. To use plywood in almost any situation is to invite thousands of guests for dinner. It is possible to use plywood if it is properly treated and maintained but it is probably better to use other available materials and avoid the trauma of having your kitchen cupboards collapse under the weight of your favorite china the night your parents arrive for their first visit.
Pressure-treated wood is available in all standard dimension-lumber specifications. As in most places, the price of wood in Bocas del Toro is determined by the board foot. A board foot is actually a measure of volume. It is a reference to a piece of wood one foot wide by one foot long by one inch thick. So as an example, a 2 x 6-16 (actual dimensions are 1.5”x 5.5”x 16’) contains 11 board feet of lumber. Pressure-treated pine is the most commonly used wood in these tropical Panama islands andin Bocas del Toro has an average price of $1.80 per board foot. This means that the above 2×6 sixteen feet long would cost $19.80. Depending on the location, there may be an additional delivery fee. For comparison, the same board at Home Depot in the Denver area (today) is $12.97. The difference is what you pay for the convenience of avoiding the hassle of large-volume ordering, overseas-shipping, delivery to your site, and storage and security.
If you do use wood, the accepted procedure is to make the wooden construction part of your house or building on concrete piers or foundation walls several feet off of the ground (or water). It is common practice to have the main living space over a “ground floor” storage/work area. This does two things; it helps eliminate a great deal of the moisture issues and elevates the living area to a level that is more likely to take advantage of the cooling effects of surrounding sea breezes.
Oh dear, it looks like I did it again. I guess there’s a lot more in the details about building and construction than I imagined. I looks like there is a lot more to tell but and I will continue this series later with more details about what construction material options besides wood are available here in Bocas and hopefully give you some ideas about the utility and infrastructure systems that are available or what options and systems are commonly used if you chose to be “off-grid”. But in the meantime, in my next article I want to relate some stories about actual living experiences in the island archipelago of Bocas del Toro and the joys and unforeseen pleasures of living here. Stay tuned and think about “Sunshine and turquoise water” until next time.
Article by: Anne Michelle Wand, United Country Bocas del Toro