Learning About Home Construction in Latin America


I always though the project of building a house sounded cool. I have alot of experience building things with wood, some minor experience with concrete, some work experience working at lumber yards, but I’ve never built a house. But I’ve always thought it would be an awesome experience. I never imagined that I might actually have the opportunity to do it someday.

While I’m still in the very early steps of the possibility for building a house to happen, it’s definitely becoming something that’s on the radar to happen. Currently I’m looking into buying land. That’s my first big challenge. And buying land is proving to be a very big challenge. However, this blog post isn’t about buying land. You can read more about that in my other blog article if interested.

The general makeup of a home in Latin America

Homes are built to match their conditions. In El Salvador, the conditions are hot, humid and often very wet. This is very common to Central America. Therefore homes here are often built with concrete cinderblocks, stone and clay or metal roofing.

Homes here are often built by non-professionals. While Central America is slowly becoming more developed, the significant portion of properties here are built by families and men that little commercial building experience. Usually the work is done by a guy or family that just want a simple home constructed.

I see a lot of houses built poorly. I’m not judging. There are a lot of people living in impoverished conditions, or simply with very limited access to resources. Building codes, if they exist at all, are likely never followed.

Why building with wood is a bad idea in Central America.

Concrete is king here. You won’t find many houses built with wood. And there are many good reasons NOT to use wood in the construction of houses here in Central America. Here are a few reasons…

  1. Houses built with wood are vulnerable to carpenter ants and termites. There are a lot of insects here and they will have no problem destroying a home that has a lot of wood. Preventing damage would be a never-ending battle.
  2. Extreme heat and humidity is bad for wood. In Central America they get monsoon-like rainy conditions. Flash floods are very common. The next day might be extremely sunny, hot and humid. These conditions will slowly destroy the integrity of wood, especially any wood that’s even moderately exposed.
  3. Wood is more expensive here. It must be imported, which is expensive. Concrete is cheap and readily available.
  4. Concrete is safer in areas where crime is more prevalent. A thief can’t easily break down a steel door or smash a concrete wall with ease. Crime is real in Central America, so concrete provides added security.
  5. Wood construction requires more careful planning. Building with concrete permits laxadasical work. It’s strong, it supports almost anything and it doesn’t require structural engineering for a simple house. Building with wood is more delicate. It requires planning roof trusses, foundational planning and protection from rain and earthquakes. Sure, concrete occasionally cracks in an earthquake, but it’s not so difficult to fill in a crack with more concrete when necessary.

Wood is beautiful. It’s a luxury that most people can’t have down here in Central America. In fact, in the United States, I don’t remember any houses being built with concrete – they were nearly always wood houses. But down here, it’s exactly the opposite…anyone would find it very difficult to find a house that’s NOT made of concrete.

Two roofing options: Clay or Metal

There’s really only two roofing options: Spanish style clay roofing tiles, called barrell roofing tiles. Then, there’s aluminum roofing.

Clay roofing has it’s advantages – it can last centuries if placed properly. Also, it gives a much more pleasant appearance, like mostly any Spanish architecture does. It’s beautiful. The challenge? It’s heavy, difficult to place and more expensive.

Aluminum roofing is loud when it rains. It doesn’t look as nice and it oxidizes over time with oxygen. However, it’s really easy to place and it’s cheap.

The trend is toward Aluminum

People that have money tend to build clay roofs. People that just want to get the job done go with Aluminum. And don’t get me wrong, aluminum can look and function fine, especially when paired with good design, color matching and stylish doors and windows.

Clay is preferred, but it’s really not necessary for a typical home. In fact, it’s overkill. Most concrete homes here are built with minimalist design and for resell value…people just want to buy a house that won’t fall over. Most people here don’t have the money to pay an extra $5-10k for a fancy roof.

There’s a lot more to construction here, more on that later.

It’s quite impressive how quickly and efficiently people build houses here. They’re minimalists and they do well with very little. Most home owners here don’t have the financial resources to implement fancy upgrades to homes. In fact, given the crime conditions here, it’s not desirable to have a very beautiful exterior to a home – it attracts unwanted attention.

I’m still in the process of learning about home construction, but these are my initial observations. As I get deeper involved with home construction, I’ll post more updates. It’s fascinating to learn about these things and I can’t wait to actually construct my own home with time. The day is coming.