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.
SELECTING YOUR SITE
- 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.
PLANNING THE HOUSE
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.
ONE STORY, TWO STORIES, 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.
CONCRETE, WOOD OR ??? 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.
CHOOSING YOUR DESIGNER/ARCHITECT - 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.
WATER & SEWER -
WASA supplies water to the central part of San Pedro. If you're on-line, call them
and get connected. If not, read on............
WELLS - HOW DEEP, HOW SWEET - 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.
CISTERNS - 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).
WHAT KIND OF WATER WHERE? 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
GRAY WATER 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!
SEWERAGE 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
POWER TO THE PEOPLE - GAS AND ELECTRIC
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.
HIRE A CONTRACTOR OR DO IT YOURSELF??? 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!
WHAT WILL IT COST? 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 )
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.
THE HOUSE - 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.
BLUEPRINTS, BUILDING PERMITS, ETC.
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
FURNITURE, LAMPS, APPLIANCES AND SUCH - 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!
WHAT ELSE SHOULD YOU KNOW??? 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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