Eco-friendly Construction in Costa Rica
Coated in a layer of dust and sweat, Dakota Linkel 15 IA struggles to fit a square piece of metal mesh into the large window opening of a schoolhouse in the tropics.
Coated in a layer of dust and sweat, Dakota Linkel 15 IA struggles to fit a square piece of metal mesh into the large window opening of a schoolhouse in the tropics. But as the interior architect labors in the equatorial heat, he begins to really think about the intended function of the sturdy screen: to protect inhabitants from mosquitoes, snakes and the occasional attack from one of nature’s most crafty creatures – the howler monkey.
“Most of my family are carpenters and woodworkers, so I practically grew up with a hammer in my hand,” explains Linkel, still lightly tanned from weeks working in the hot sun. “But we never attempted to keep animals with opposable thumbs from breaking into a building. It was a wild challenge.”
The Wintersession construction project was part of a larger effort to build a functional prototype for a one-room schoolhouse for Earth University, a Costa Rican research institute focused on sustainable agriculture. A dozen students enrolled in the Landscape Architecture course Design/Build in Costa Rica recently spent four weeks on Earth University’s La Flor campus, located on a remote banana plantation in the sparsely populated Guanacaste Province. Once situated, the adventurous artists and designers slapped on some bug spray and got to work building the wooden classroom using affordable construction materials native to the area.
“Most of the existing classrooms in Central America are made out of cement, so they get incredibly hot. There isn’t a lot of ventilation,” explains Professor Colgate Searle BLA 71, who has spearheaded RISD’s relationship with Earth University since 2007, when students and faculty first began brainstorming ways to radically improve its campus, along with educational facilities throughout the region. “The ultimate goal of the studio is to create a model of a schoolhouse that can be easily – and cheaply – replicated by those who live in the dry tropics.”
Rather than starting from scratch during their short stay in Guanacaste, the construction crew built on the work started by students in last winter’s interdisciplinary Innovation Studio, who focused on the foundation and interior structure based on designs developed in earlier studios. The most recent group finished things up this winter by putting the finishing touches on the roof, the interior walls and a wrap-around porch. Students also hammered out seven pivoting doors, some of which incorporate slatted openings to improve ventilation, allowing sunlight and wind to act as natural substitutes for energy-hungry amenities like lights, fans and air conditioning.
“The house embodies the feeling of airiness and lightness,” notes Searle. “That was the aesthetic we were trying to create – and we pulled it off.”
In addition to learning about the many challenges of basic building in the tropics, students say they learned plenty of practical, problem-solving techniques on the job. For instance, Linkel helped design and build a closet to house a computer screen that will be powered by solar panels. Samuel Rosenberg 16 FD honed his carpentry skills while installing custom-sized screens underneath the ground floor to keep bugs and spiders from moving in. “Because the wood was sometimes warped, we had to figure out how to make things appear straight and level,” he notes. “That took a good amount of time and concentration.”
Before traveling to Costa Rica, Elizabeth Gregory 15 GD had never held – much less used – a power tool. But after working on a series of customized lattice windows, the graphic designer now knows how to safely operate a chop saw and drill. “I feel so accomplished,” she explains. “This structure is proof of all our hard work. To be able to see something you created with your own hands come together like this is a surreal and rewarding experience.”