• Diego Mendez Arce

Sustainable House Design & Build Trends – What No One Tells You

Architectural Design including plenty of vegetation balconies.
Mainstream "green" trends are way more marketable than being efficient in a highly complex process.

First, I must confess I’m no expert in sustainability, nor do I market myself or my company as a sustainable practice, but I am tired of seeing the term unscrupulously thrown around to attract consumers. The following article is an attempt to bring the reader's attention to some aspects that are often overseen when attempting to build a "sustainable home" in Costa Rica, more specifically the impact of construction waste on the environment.

1. The Stats

The construction industry is the most significant contributor to Environmental pollution. Shen et al. (2005) claimed that construction is a main source of environmental pollution, compared with other industries. Li et al. (2010) agreed with Shen (2005) and maintained that any typical construction process involves using various construction equipment's and natural resources and generates many pollutants. Several writers (Morledge and Jackson, 2001; Ball, 2002; Chen et al., 2004; Lam et al., 2011; Zolfagharian, 2012) summarized these pollutants as noise, air pollution, solid and liquid waste, water pollution, harmful gases, and dust. Furthermore construction projects have become one of the driving forces for the national economy, whose energy consumption, environmental emissions, and social impacts are significant (Chang et al., 2011).

It’s clear that the construction industry has a huge impact on the environment worldwide, and Costa Rica is no exception as each 100m2(1.076sqf) of construction generates a whooping 24m3(847cu ft) or 43.000kg (47,6 US ton) of waste. To put that into perspective, each Tico generates between 1kg(2,2lb) and 1,5kg(3,3lb) of waste per day, which means that a small 100m2(1.076sqf) house generates the same amount of waste as 1.440 people in one month.

Massive amounts of landfill waste
The construction industry is the most significant contributor to Environmental pollution.

It is no surprise the construction industry contributes to so much waste. Construction processes are, by their own nature, less optimized and less efficient than other industries. Unlike a phone or a shoe, where the product moves along the production line in the beautifully controlled environment of a factory, in a construction process, the end-product stays put, and the means of production revolve chaotically around it. These processes are highly contingent on-site variables and therefore produce enormous amounts of waste.

2. What the Industry Is Doing (The Current and Well-known Trends)

There is plenty of talk about strategies to reduce energy consumption, recycling, and water consumption with most of these efforts focusing on the operational phase of a building, or when people inhabit their home and use it. The market is overwhelmingly loaded with companies that claim to be sustainable. You'll often hear architects talk about “sustainable architecture”. Just because the house has solar panels, it’s made of bamboo and mud walls, and the pool uses salts instead of chlorine, it doesn’t mean it is a sustainable building. The problem is that the definition of a “sustainable” construction is not standardized and there are no common guidelines to define what a sustainable building really is.

Home with solar panels
A home with solar panels and the latest "green" trends is not always an environmentally friendly process.

Some efforts such as LEED certifications are one of the few standards in place, which can be helpful in many ways, but they are also tainted by their monetization practices, and their interests are not always aligned with sustainability.

3. What No One Tells You

The problem is that many of the mainstream trends in sustainable architecture and construction do not have a substantial impact on the environment compared to reducing the quantities of material used in the process and reducing waste. Many empirical advocates of sustainable buildings and permaculture enthusiasts praise them selves as protectors of the environment but in reality their DYI or vernacular off-grid approach lacks the technology and the in-depth process knowledge to design and build homes efficiently, therefore they end up generating plenty of envronmental impact in the process. Mainstream trends are also way more marketable than being efficient in a highly complex process, such as waste management, in the construction industry.

As an example, all buildings in Costa Rica require concrete foundations due to the seismic nature of the country. Foundations are made of steel and concrete. When these materials are used inefficiently and go to waste, which they do almost every single time, they contribute to most of the waste produced by the industry.

It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider implementing mainstream trends such as energy efficient practices, using alternative materials, reducing water consumption and reutilizing some resources, but if you do not tackle this problem, many of the benefits of these mainstream trends will be outweighed by the generation of construction waste.

4. An Alternative Approach by Chance

Reducing waste implies approaching the design-construction process with a holistic and overall improved efficiency that must be traceable from beginning to end. Precise quantity take-offs and budgeting require a technological approach and a level of control over the process that not every company can achieve.

One of the highlights of our company is that we are predictable, and one way we are predictable is by implementing high-precision processes that allow us to accurately predict material quantities. We discovered that by implementing BIM methodologies across all design & build stages, we were better able to more accurately predict construction waste. In our control sheets, we found that in some cases we reduced concrete waste by 50%. This is how we discovered we contribute to the environment, and apparently according to the statistics, this is quite a substantial contribution. We do not intend to be a market leader in sustainable practices, but we believe that our experience can be shared to create more awareness about the impact of efficiency in the industry and the importance of measuring sustainability, not only in the operational phase of buildings but also in the construction phases.

In a seismic country, eradicating the use of concrete and steel is impossible, but reducing the amount we use and eliminating much of the waste is possible. This is no simple task, you might be tempted to think that by being frugal and keeping a close eye on the process that you might be able to reduce waste, but this will undoubtedly require professional expertise. One great example is the video above, where one of our project's sanitary piping systems has been 3D modeled to create precise quantity take-offs, reducing material waste and construction errors. There is a long way to go in the sustainable building industry but we believe that highly efficient processes that reduce waste are a great place to start contributing to the envronment. If you want to know more about high-precision design & build processes and their impact on the environment among other benefits, feel free to book a meeting with us.

About the Author

My name is Diego Méndez Arce, and I am a passionate, detail-oriented Costa Rican architect with over ten years of experience in the industry. I studied at the Instituto Tecnológico de Costa Rica and The Technische Universität München in Germany. I founded Arkamos Architecture Costa Rica, a company that designs and builds homes. My team and I believe that good design feeds the human soul and has the power to improve people’s lives. We approach design and construction with a highly traceable and precise methodology to confirm that uniquely crafted residential projects are predictable in terms of scope, quality, time, and budget. I enjoy sharing my knowledge with those who are foreign to our real estate market. You can check out our blogs with different topics about design and construction in Costa Rica and its architecture here. If you have questions about how to approach the process of designing and building a house in Costa Rica, you may email me or book a virtual meeting for a free consultation here.


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