Building in Paradise

Several years ago my husband and I moved to San Pedro and built a home on our lot at Mata Grande. Ours was the first home to go up on the beach in that cocal. Since that time availability of materials and ease of delivery have improved dramatically. Building is booming here on Ambergris Caye, and this article is intended to answer questions frequently asked by non-locals who are considering joining the ranks of homeowners here. If you are considering building a home here on Ambergris Caye, you're not alone. It need not be a daunting experience, as long as you have a little time, enough money and a modicum of common sense! Here is a little information, a little advice, some opinions and hopefully only a few mistakes....all offered in the hope that you will follow your dreams and arrive at "move-in" day with a song in your heart. IT'S POSSIBLE!

First thing to do is really easy. Buy a great book called Blueprint for Paradise by Ross Norgrove, Moon Publications. Your local bookseller should be able to order it for you. It's full of practical tips on island living/building. Read the book, take from it the information that you can use, and begin to plan your home.


- You may already have your land, but if you don't there are a few things to consider. First decide about how large your home will be, and make sure the house fits on the lot you choose! Sounds obvious, but with zoning and set back restrictions you will find that some parcels of land accommodate your plans and some don't. Your realtor can provide you with zoning guidelines. Remember that along with your house, the lot may have to accommodate a well, and septic system. Other items of preference will be your alone....Choose with your head and your HEART. Don't buy something just because it's a "deal". Buy what you love! That's what this is all about.


- FOR MOST PEOPLE a good rule of thumb is "Think small inside, BIG outside!" Outside is where you will spend a great deal of your time, having wide covered verandahs will allow you to enjoy the out-of-doors in comfort and style (without sunburn and bugs). NEXT, think about whether you want an air-conditioned house or one primarily cooled by a natural breeze. IF you are having the "natural" approach, your floorplan should as much as possible be "one room deep". Have the air flow through the front and back without a wall to interrupt it. Half-walls for bathrooms can help accomplish this. If you can achieve a plan that allows for full cross-ventilation, you should be able to build without A/C - on the hottest days of the year you can always turn on a fan. If you like A/C you can have rooms at the "back" of the house and not suffocate.


, on stilts or on the ground? Many homes here are built up off the ground. No, NOT because storms flood us often - they DON'T. Being"up" gives more view, more breeze and gets you a bit farther from the insect population. It costs a little more to elevate a single-story home, but if your plans include future expansion, you will have created an easy space to enclose. Additionally, the "under the house" area makes a fine workshop, covered patio or area for storage, including room for your boat, golf cart etc. Two story construction is cost-efficient design. In the case of a two story home, consider putting your bedroom downstairs and your living/ dining/kitchen upstairs. The upper floor will generally remain cooler (better breeze) during the hottest part of the day, which is when you are most liable to be using this part of the house. Most areas where you may build have a two story or 28 foot height restriction.


This is mostly a matter of personal preference. Wood will be less expensive to build with, but will require more regular maintenance. Concrete is more expensive, but requires less maintenance. There are other interesting alternatives - "panels" which are sturdy and can be put up very quickly; or the newer steel construction methods. Your design and taste will probably direct you to a particular material. Any of these materials, properly used, can produce a home that will be long-lasting and yes, strong in a hurricane. The secret here is not the material - it's the method! Check with your contractor, architect, or an engineer familiar with stress building.


- There are wonderful books of house plans, and great architects all over the world. BUT - What makes a house "work" is having the plan address the specifics of the very site upon which it sits. Miss one element, and your house just won't run as smoothly. This is my round- about way of saying ---- people who live here and work here know better than anybody else what works and what doesn't. They also know the local materials and building methods. Enough said.


- WASA supplies water to the central part of San Pedro. If you're on-line, call them and get connected. If not, read on............


- Ground water is available in most places on the caye. We talk a lot about the "elevation" of a lot, and sometimes raise a chuckle from mountain people when we stress an elevation of 5 feet above the sea. Laugh if you will, but that elevation makes a big difference in the availability and quality of your ground water! If your land is neither fill nor swamp, you should have some amount of fresh ground water. It can be as close to the surface as 18 inches, or as deep as 10 feet. We don't "drill" a well - we get it done efficiently and quickly by having several men and several shovels address the earth! Don't dig too deep, as the fresh water floats atop the salty.


- Most of us prefer to drink pure Belizean "Sky Juice" (rain). Collection is easy, and you can catch as much as you can store. A clean roofing material (not thatch) and gutters leading to a cistern are all that you need. cisterns may be of the pre-fabricated variety or you may choose to build one of concrete block. They may be located either above or below ground. Figure your cost to be approximately $1.10 Belize per gallon for either type of cistern. Water purification filters are available in many sizes, and are not expensive (although most of us drink straight from the cistern without ill effects).


Depending on the volume of your water usage, you may want to use well-water for toilet flushing and showering, and cistern water for drinking and cooking. Other use variations can be arranged, depending on your particular situation. To estimate your water needs, figure 35 gallons per day per person, then add any "other" usage, such as laundry, etc. This is for adult people who know how to turn off the faucet and don't take hour-long showers! If you have a teen-age daughter --- well, you know. Blueprint for Paradise was particularly helpful to us in calculating our water program. We went whole-hog and decided on cistern water for everything. With a cistern, figure that you MAY have a year where you get no significant rain for five months. If you store enough to get you through this situation, you should have no worries. You will find that your washing machine is you biggest drain on water. We have enough water to wash clothes, but found that the local laundries do a great job for a good price, and never bought a washing machine.


from your sinks (and/or washing machine) is a precious substance! It is full of nutrients (soap is a good fertilizer) that your plants will just love. Have all of your gray water run out to garden areas and watch the garden grow!


is either a matter for WASA or for a septic system. The local health department has guidelines for proper construction of these systems. In general they work very well here, as temperatures and soil types are optimal for breakdown of waste.


If you're on the route of the existing electric lines, contact BEL and arrange for service. If not, you have several alternatives. You can consult a solar installer for the proper plan for your home. Solar is efficient, and we have lots of free sunshine in San Pedro! Many people use gas or diesel generators as power sources. Whatever your source, you will probably have a system with batteries, inverter and a charger. Wind power is a subject of debate (will you be most in need of the power for a fan when the wind DOESN'T blow?). Consult the folks already living in your new neighborhood about their experiences with providing power. You'll come up with something that works. Propane gas is also readily available, and can be used for refrigeration as well as cooking and for water heaters. There are books that will show you how to calculate you potential energy needs.


This may sound self-serving, but if you haven't done it HERE before, you'd better hire somebody local for the structure at least. Your learning curve is probably longer than you think and can be expensive. When hiring a contractor, ask for references and view some of their completed work. San Pedro has great talent!


First, let's see what you're getting for the money, and how the cost is figured. Your design will determine the cost more than anything. Odd shapes, high-volume rooms and hard-to-get materials will drive the cost up substantially. So will changing your mind mid-stream, as most materials should be ordered at the beginning of the job in order to maintain a momentum of delivery and construction. Don't be surprised if your contractor asks for a sizable portion of the cost of the project up front. He may have to pay 50% or more down on the materials he orders, and the balance will be due immediately upon delivery (which is at a time unknown until the stuff actually shows up).

Some contractors will give you a bid based on the square footage inside the walls only. Others will bid on all of the square footage under roof. Others have an "a-la- carte" bidding plan where each component of the house is a different price. These different methods of estimating can be confusing at first! Here's a sample house and what you'll get in estimates .....

(numbers given are for purposes of comparison only )


- 1,000 square feet interior, two bedrooms, two baths ceramic tile floors, showers and counters. Additionally, 800 square feet of covered decks, sturdy foundation with large cistern. Contractor #1 quotes you on 1,000 sq. ft - probably $65-85 US per sq. ft. Contractor #2 quotes you on 1,800 sq. ft. - about $35-45 US per sq. ft. Contractor #3 quotes you $45 psf interior (1,000 s.f.) $30 psf for 800 s.f. of decks, something for foundation, cistern, etc.
In the end you probably won't find much difference in the cost for the finished house. Choose the builder with whom you have the best communication and who has shown competence in the type of construction you are planning. Work with him/her on your plan and listen to their advice.


Professionally done plans can be obtained locally. They need not look fancy to be approved. You will need complete plans for submission, including elevations, floor plans, engineering and a site plan showing where your home will sit on your property. Obtain an application for your building permit from the Town Board. Submit according to their guidelines. Fees for submission are low, and if your plans are complete and fit within stated guidelines, approvals can be expected without problems. The planning board meets monthly, and does its best to review all plans submitted. You will be required to keep a set of stamped and approved plans on the job site.


- Before filling a container with items from "Home Depot" take a good look around San Pedro and Belize. You may want to import and then again you may not - check it out before making your plan. We have wonderful hardwoods and talented craftsmen who make exquisite furniture, and can do it to order from your "designer" magazines. They can also turn a pole lamp on a lathe, or you can select a great piece of pottery from a local artisan and have it electrified. Locally crafted wicker and rattan furniture is both attractive and affordable. There is a good supply of appliances in stock throughout the country, but if you have something "special" in mind, check with a local supplier about ordering through them - you may find your best bet is to let them handle everything. I have trouble finding a good selection of linens here, or maybe I'm just picky. Dishes, glassware and small kitchen appliances are also in the stores around Belize. Check your shopping list here first. You'll decide for yourself if you have to ship from someplace else. If you decide to go the shipping route, hire a good customs broker in Belize City to move your goods through. You'll be glad you did!


Just that having your own home here can be the source of great joy and happiness. If you want it - DO IT.. keep it simple and you'll have a home you can afford in time for the holidays (there is always a holiday coming up in Belize).

© Diane Campbell

IF YOU WOULD LIKE MORE INFORMATION on building a home, or to contact Diane or her husband Bob Campbell, click here.

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