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  1. #1
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    Default A general manual on what to consider and observe when building in the DR

    During my years here, consulting to private investors, builders and existing as well as future home owners, I have collected some information, memos and thoughts about some basic considerations on building in the DR in a manual we occasionally hand out to prospecting buyers.
    I have recently re-organized it, edited outdated material out and now decided to "publish" it here, for the reader's information.
    Some sections reflect my personal and/or opinions, others my personal experience as a general contractor in the US, builder in Spain and now consultant here in the DR. While comments are certainly welcome, I do not seek to debate them here.

    It comes in 4 chapters which I will break up in for posts to make it an easier read.



    ... J-D.

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    Default Chapter 1

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    Lot selection and orientation:


    Wrong lot? Can't move the house later on, now can you! So, lot selection is most important. That's obvious, but Coconut palm trees and beaches seem to have a blurring effect on most prospect buyers.


    1.1-Location, Location, Location:


    We've all heard it over and over again. But then, most seem to fail to recognize that it is NOT a three fold repeat of the SAME word. The word location can mean several things:

    • Location: Where? AMONG and/or neighboring to?
    • Location: What? Sea view and how so (must you lean over one balcony's railing to catch a glimpse? The ones YOU may need to sell to one day, may not agree!).
    • Location: How? How are people living? Lifestyle? Is it safe, is it close to amenities like super markets? What services are really available?
    • Location: Why? Is it in sharp contrast to what's around? If so, what is likely to prevail?
    • Location: Who? Who lives there, what do they do, what are their issues, what are the likely problems they can cause to you (loud, renting to tourists or people partying and/or dragging hookers onto the premises?).
    • Location: Compared? Does it make more sense to have the cheapest home among a community or the most expensive one?
    • Location: History? Are there any ghost developments or abandoned buildings nearby? What story do they tell us? Just another deal gone bad? There are too many around, the issue may go much deeper!



    There are too many examples to list.


    But there is more. And some which is closer related to this country:
    Caribbean! Fine, wonderful! But tropical climate comes at a cost.
    It's nice and warm all year long, sure. And sometimes it can be HOT or Raining like there is not tomorrow for days, sometimes weeks. Sometimes it just takes two hours worth of torrential rains to wreak havoc on a small region.
    Dry rivers, are STILL RIVERS and they WILL prove to be every once or twice in a year! They can grow well BEYOND their “natural” boundaries and bring trash and occasionally parts of other homes onto your land as well as they may take what is on your property and move it further down.
    Locals somehow, consciously or not, seem oblivious of that fact and the issues that it may attract. Homes are being flooded year after year, not just in poverty stricken barrios, and to our surprise, they keep on building next door, maybe even a little lower! One would think, most would start building on pillars given the record of some sectors, but only few do.
    When prospect buyers are new here, it is unlikely that they are being told about these issues. Many would try to use “Western LOGIC” and expect that “developments” where homes are being build could be understood a sign of a record of safety. That however can prove to be a fatal mistake.




    1.2-What to look out for (examples of some typical warning signs):



    • Look at barb wire fences! If they have remains of garbage hanging from them, it did not come flying!
    • Look at homes around. Water damage is visible. If you can see it, as sunny and dry the particular day may be, there IS AN ISSUE which WILL affect you eventually!
    • Some home owners around may have become “creative” and have built up little retainer walls, in an intent to separate the street from their property. It does NOT work, but it's a clear sign that there is a problem and you don't want it to be yours someday.
    • Talk to neighbors and people passing by, most of all, to people NOT related to a possible sale.
    • Again, empty or abandoned structures. There always are real reasons. Visiting those structures and investigating their degradation will tell a prospecting buyer a lot of history about the neighborhood and it's problems, including showing signs of flooding, sometimes with clear lines of dirt remains or growth off vegetation and fungus.





    1.3-Due Diligence A Consensus Recommendation About Time To Invest:


    At the end of the day, it all comes back to the fact, that prospecting buyers NEED TO ALLOW THEMSELVES a lot of TIME, and we are speaking of MONTHS of ON-SITE knowledge gathering before even thinking about committing themselves in any way to a real estate acquisition in this or any other FOREIGN country.
    The knowledge acquired “back home” does often NOT apply in other countries entirely.
    The cost and expenses of months of scouting will often be recuperated in a better buy, lower price, often many times over, GUARANTEED!


    Also, once you have settled on a piece of property you feel unites all the requisites, take a deep breath and ask yourself if it IS what you came for to buy initially or if you have drifted off your “dream” because of considerations of cost or immediate availability.

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    Default Chapter 2

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    Property usage, home orientation and early design considerations.


    So, we found a safe lot, a little paradise in the Caribbean.
    It will still be hot most times, and some days it WILL POUR! In a lifestyle environment so affected by the weather, a home's design should take these facts of nature into account from the early design stages on even if a safely dry lot has been selected.


    Urbanizing a lot can affect how it handles water.
    While it is one thing to find out where you will get your water from and also where your sewage is supposed to go, in a tropical country particular attention should be given to how your property will be affected by the often torrential rain and how you will EVACUATE any excess of it. We have seen walled in properties turn into pools in less than an hour, until the walls collapsed.
    Water should never press against anything. It would build up and eventually show it's impressive power. Water has to planned for and managed, led, directed OUT, AWAY safely and without causing damage to the property and others.


    If you are lucky to have found a property which benefits from the sea breeze, by all means, TAKE ADVANTAGE of it in your home's layout and design! It will make your life so much more comfortable and at a lesser cost than any other cooling system available. Make sure the breeze can enter AND exit the home thru and thru. Old colonial mansions were ALL built respecting these simple principles... sadly, the tradition has been lost because of the import of modernistic architectural ideas which have little application in this climate.

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    Default Chapter 3

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    General construction technology:


    First, one needs to understand the most common building technology used here:
    Most new quality homes, especially those marketed to foreign buyers, are built using hollow concrete cement blocks similar to those used in the SE US (code in SE Florida by now), Spain and much of central Europe. These blocks come in two main grades; “structural” (for supporting walls) and “non-structural” for non-supporting walls only. The two grades are identified by size only (thickness). But, while both sizes are pretty much standardized they all differ enormously in quality by brand or origin. Many builders like to try using the thinner ones for supporting walls, a wise guy practice future home owners want to watch out for even thou, the weight of the structure is NOT supported only by the blocks directly, but by a framework of columns and beams which are poured and rebar (steel) belted together much like footers because of the threat of earthquakes.
    Roofs are poured in concrete too, which provides for a good and lasting protection from hurricane force winds. However, as a sharp contrast to US-style building, this requires some inner walls to become supporting walls too. So, some inner walls are made of wide blocks and some can be build of the more narrow blocks.
    Not all builder do that, but as a general rule, it would be advisable do demand that beams are being poured above every door and window opening, so to prevent fissures and other problems from seismic activity.


    Typical issues:


    3.1-Humidity, again.


    The above described principles, when build using quality materials and respecting the laws of physics should allow for a home which could last generations with little maintenance.
    However, local architects, engineers and builders sometimes seem hell bound to seek to dedicate their lives trying to prove physics as a whole wrong or not applicable to this country or their work. Sadly, they are being proven wrong, again and again.
    Humidity and it's handling is again one main issue which comes to mind.
    Humidity is being sucked up by capillarity into all dry and/or porous materials. Everywhere, even in the DR! This is why, builders around the globe have come to use HUMIDITY BARRIERS between the ground and the living spaces -in other words, the foundations and the home's ground floor. Too often not so here. Foundations (footers) are typically dug deep into the ground, but NOT poured high enough to come reach out of the ground. Then, cinder blocks are laid on top of the foundations and become the walls (coming out of the humid ground!!). The floors (slab) are then typically poured in between these walls onto the dirt ground. Most ANY Dominican built home, 300'000.oo Peso barrio casita to multi-million (USD) luxury villa sold here ALIKE will INEVITABELY experience lifetime long humidity problems ever visible along the walls from the floor and up to a foot above... paint chipping, mold growing, rotting eventually! There is NO cure afterward!
    Local architects, engineers and builders will go to great extents to refute this, but that is NOT the way a house is supposed to be build using CBS technology.
    You want YOUR home to be built with footers either coming out of the ground and the base plate (slab) be separated from them by a tar, metal or synthetic humidity barrier (NO compromise!) or a double row of cinder blocks be laid on top of the buried footers and a second concrete bracing footer poured on them ABOVE ground with a humidity barrier separating this from your ground floor and walls! Do NOT accept any compromise on that, physics can't be fooled and thousands of homes around here with incurable humidity issues are a sad prove of that.




    3.2-Structural issues:


    Dominican builders just seem to love to route water and sewer pipes in your concrete columns. The engineers do not take this practice into account. Pipes should never be in columns whichs are supposed to guarantee the structural strength of the building. Being filled with pipes, channels and wires will obviously adversely affect their strength.




    3.3-“Funny” roof designs:


    We don't know where and exactly when that tendency developed, but locals seem to have developed a deep love for strangely intricate roofs. It would also seem, that a home above a certain standing is expected tho not only boast an often wild array of gable roofs but also a hand full of flat roofs. What seems to have been lost in the process, is the common concept suggesting that a roof shall lead the waters AWAY from the home's center to the OUTSIDE. We find roofs, which will lead waters against each other, or INWARD towards the center of the house onto a flat roof with no adequately sized way of exit for the accumulated waters.
    We have been pleased to find that most foreign future home owners do clearly NOT insist on the above described roof “designs”, but sometimes surprised on how much resistance from architects to oblige to these wishes they will often be met with.
    Again, this is something a prospecting buyer/builder should NOT compromise on with an architect or builder!


    Also, try to incorporate roofs with a generous overhang portion, so to protect windows and walls from rain and also generate shade.


    We will discuss this later on in more detail, but you will also want to plan a camouflaged or from the street less visible high spot on your roof to hide a 1 to 2 cubic meter Tinaco ( plastic water reservoir).
    Likewise, proper locations which will not negatively affect the home' street views for the accommodation of solar water heaters may be considered.






    3.4-Swimming Pools:


    The subject of pool building could generate enough materials to discuss it in an entire BOOK.
    Most pools build here are not much more than a hole dug into the ground lined with dry laid (no cement in between) cement blocks stuccoed and filled with concrete and some rebar (steel) and painted.
    In most developed countries, a block wall in a pool building process, is only used to serve to give shape to the “spray-crete” steel mesh reinforced wall pressure sprayed against it.
    One has only to come to learn about the forces generated by a swimmer simply jumping into a water filled pool to realize that the above described “technology” will unlikely produce a swimming pool which will last and give years of worry free pleasure to it's owners.
    I am unsure, what I would recommend HERE.

    • “Spray-crete” pools are virtually unavailable for the consumer market in this country.
    • Vinyl liner pools would be a smart choice for a region which has a history of seismic activity for their greater flexibility. Liner kits for a variety of standard sized pool shapes are available in Europe and the US and can be installed by most and “handymen”.
    • So called “fiber glass” pools have received somewhat of a redneck reputation and are quite bulky to ship. However, they do get shipped around the globe constantly and especially one company in Australia has developed a new resin which allows for a “fiber glass” pool which can virtually not be recognized as such anymore, does not fade in colors nor grow allergies. I wished we would see their product offered around here. But that is not the case yet.





    Also, pool builders never give particular care to where to the pool water shall be flushed (back rinse) or dumped to all together, in case the pool has to be emptied. Chlorinated water should NOT be channeled into a septic tank as it kills beneficial bacteria and also not be dumped into your garden, as well as your neighbors may not tolerate it in theirs.

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    Default Chapter 4

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    Planning ahead for common problems and upgrades:


    One has to take into account, again and again, that most everything here, good or bad, will likely NOT be as expected from experiences elsewhere, especially “back home”!
    This especially applies to services like electricity, water supply and sewer, telephone/internet and the availability of cable.




    4.1-Water


    The cost of water may be low, compared to other countries, but not only is it not drinkable – it may even pose a health risk when untreated (chlorination) by the end user. The cost also does NOT include YOUR cost to pressurize adequately! Something many fail to facture in when comparing costs with other technically more developed countries.
    And to top that, at times, it may not be available plentiful, interestingly especially when it rains!


    Water will often only be available every couple of days, at substandard pressure. You will want to have planned for a receiving reservoir which will serve as a battery between the water received and the water used. A water pressure arrangement will pump the water into an air-water pressure tank using an electric pump (which usually does NOT run off the inverter batteries!). The pressure tank then pushes the water to the users throughout the house and by the means of a pressure switch controls the pump to start a new pressurizing cycle once the lower pressure trigger point is reached. Again, no electricity – no water, once the pressure tank has been used up!
    First, a room or covered space, accessible from the outside has to be planned in the design of the house for the pressurizing rig. That room, may well be shared with any pool pump and filtering arrangement. It should be large enough, so one can stand and maintain the pump and tank. It should also be oriented in such a fashion, that should a pipe, valve or pump break, the water can EXIT the room without damaging the rest of the home/property! The door should be wide enough and located in such a manner that a large pressure tank and any eventual pool filter can be moved in and out from it.




    4.2-Backup Water Pressurizing; Tinacos.


    Tinaco” is the street name, derived from a brand name (Tinacom) for a synthetic water reservoir. Their sizes vary and they usually come in a cylindrical shape, black or sometimes orange or army green in color and allowing for volumes form half a cubic meter to several cubic meters. The have a tapered top leading to a covered approximately 2 food diameter service opening and pre-tapped in-&-out connections. One can admire them usually sitting somewhere on top of a house. Certainly unsightly, as they tend to be fitted long after the home's completion.
    They are generally added later to the water system because of the lack of continuous electric power supply. As we warned, unless an inverter system with more than 12 batteries is installed, the pressure pump will NOT work during power blackouts as it would over-drain a lesser number of batteries to rapidly!
    What many have resolved to, is to add a Tinaco somewhere on a high spot... generally on the roof. Interestingly enough, for a country with a history of issues when it comes to water and electricity services, most architects go so far to refuse to plan for a aesthetically acceptable spot and plumbing for a Tinaco, resulting in the skyline we have the questionable pleasure to admire.
    Plan ahead for your Tinaco! They can be planned into the design of the house without necessarily being an eyesore. And they are not expensive.




    4.3-Drinking Water


    Your drinking and cooking water will most likely come from 5 Gallon bottles similar to the ones seen in offices in the US. Most households will keep a couple of these “somewhere” which is usually never planned ahead for. The spot should be at a comfortable distance from both, the kitchen and the main entry or garage/carport.
    Most people like to add a cooler to the list of kitchen appliances for convenience, but never is there a space or outlet planned for it.




    4.4-Water Heating


    Heating water with electrical energy in a country with these energetic issues but, on the other hand blessed this year thru warm to hot climate, just can't seem intelligent.
    Planing ahead allows for solar power to be applied in such a fashion that it provides comfort paying for itself in less than two years and running for FREE from thereon and eyesores being avoided.






    4.5-Sewer


    Sewer: Most homes will not be connected to a sewer system. When they are, they are likely to suffer issues from a poorly designed or maintained system. A future homeowner would seem well advised to educate himself about septic tanks and their maintenance. Also, rain again can affect these systems. So does the locally wide spread use of chlorine.
    Have your plumber use drain and sewer pipes in sizes (dia 6” or 8”) and an arrangement which will allow for toilet paper to be flushed down the drain (it's ONLY an issue of SIZE and correct flow!). There is no good reason besides too small pipes and fuzzy plumbing routing with “pockets” for NOT being able to flush toilet paper down the drain nowadays, NONE!




    4.6-Electricity


    Electricity is equally sparse and capriciously distributed as water and but be prohibitively expensive, especially, if you don't know some basic facts.
    Most larger homes would benefit from being equipped with two separate power supplies (power meters/contract) to circumvent usage limits and over consumption penalties (usually only above 699 Kwh/month per meter/contract). This is cheap and easy to do at the design/planning stage when declaring the home a split unit dwelling.
    Most homes will either add a generator or inverter system at some stage. It's almost inevitable, so again, this is something which should be decided on in the early stages of the home's conception as it not only affects wiring but also the design of the home, as both systems require vented rooms, the generator or the inverter system's batteries.


    Personally, we feel that in most cases, an inverter system with 8 or 12 batteries would seem to give the best result. One has to keep in mind, that for a generator system to be effective, it has to be automated with a switch over system and STILL incorporate a small inverter system to bridge over the time it take for the generator set to kick in.
    However, inverter systems with less than 16 batteries are not recommended to be connected to power most kitchen appliances, as fridges, and neither a water pressure pump (need for a Tinaco) or A/C units.




    A/C is a very individual issue. Most, which have been able to buy or build a home which takes more advantage of what the region's natural climate has to offer over it's drawbacks, will usually get away using very little or no A/C. This may certainly be different in apartments and inner city homes however.
    In free standing homes or ranches, few will over time develop the desire to add split A/C units for a particular bed room or office space. Usually the master bed room and the “den” or home office. Split systems are fairly economical, available on the local market and can be installed years after completion of a home. The outdoor compressor unit usually is installed on the same outer wall, jyst on the other side of where the venting unit is installed inside. However, compressors would benefit from being covered and be placed in a shady environment (remember, extended roof overhangs?).
    They can also be somewhat noisy, so they should be located away from windows and also preferably from the view for reasons of esthetics and not to attract thieves in search of a “cheap” A/C compressor (yes, really!). Many of these systems, require twice the usual voltage (220V) for better efficiency. So again, this is an often overlooked item to plan ahead for. Pre-wiring for an A/C unit which may or may not be installed later on, is NOT at all expensive. Doing it afterward, besides of esthetic considerations for not having provided a suitable location, can turn out expensive and often cause more damage to the existing electrical system than anything else.


    Finally, security. There is nothing paranoid about foreseeing the probable need for security features like video and alarms, remote bells/intercom and door and gate opening systems. This is easy to plan for ahead but more expensive and often unsightly, even ineffective to add later. This includes organizing your lot for better safety, planning ahead proper lighting.

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    As for septic, the owner should find out about this before they invest in a parcel. One of the first things that happens in the US to get a building permit is to have a "perk test" done on the soil where the leech field will be. I've noticed in many areas of the DR where there is virtually no soil and seen drywells going right into bedrock. A perk test hole in the US is about 4' deep and at least a foot across. You pour about a foot of water into the hole and then time how long it takes to drain away. A hole that still has standing water after 7 or 8 minutes is sign that the soil won't drain well. Check things like the pitch into the septic tank when it is installed.

    As for water heaters, I would look into instantanious propane heaters even if it means importing them from the US. They are pricey compared to electric, but they will pay for themselves in a relatively short time.

    Is ICF available in the DR yet? We recently had two foundations done and it took them about two days with an R value of about 22. Not much of concern unless you use AC.
    Last edited by PeterInBrat; 05-27-2010 at 10:25 PM.

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    Good stuff, JD!

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    This should be an sticky.

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    J D, interesting you mentioned humidity, with time, absorption in structural walls affect re-bar, gets rusted and looses some of all of its reinforcement strength. Easy fix for this problem is french draining system, consist of perforated pipe in crush rock or gravel with a water proofing applied to the wall with a board like half inch foam sheets, on the slab on grade a simple and relative inexpensive plastic rolls over 3 inch of sand. The water collected by the perforated pipe will always drain away from property and prevent hydrostatic pressure.

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    Excellent stuff. Sticky it is!

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