Thanks to instructor Luke W. Perry from AVL DesignBuild Studio for authoring this blog post. Also, a shout-out to Fermata Consulting for sponsoring the Build Lightly Costa Rica pilot project, so that Luke could join us on this adventure.

Tropical fruits, coffee, and sawdust – this is Build Lightly Costa Rica in a nutshell. The pilot project for January 2014 was a success – fueled by siestas and a continuous supply of fresh coffee, all nine team members left the country smiling, inspired, and injury-free.

The Build Lightly Costa Rica equipo at the end of week one (L to R, back to front): Luke W. Perry, Jim Adamson, Jorge Avendaño, Steve Badanes, Natalie DeFrance Dreyer, Ethan Lacy, Miriam Gee, Lauren Taylor, Lucy Bignan, Sean Wittmeyer

Fiber-cement board cladding. Window openings will have glass jalousies installed in a future phase. Corrugated polycarbonate sheets come off-the-shelf at the local hardware store and provide an easy solution for clerestories.


Progress shot at night: in 5 days, the team of 9 completed a raised deck on concrete footings, structural ribs, new columns, and corrugated zinc roofing.

At the beginning, it didn’t really seem like we all spoke the same language.  Nine gringos from different parts of the US, a few of us spoke some Spanish, but our primary language was Design.  We joined up with a trio of Costa Ricans, Jorge, Olivia, and Mario who were running an organic farm called Finca Antigua, perched on a hill outside of Turrialba.  They spoke almost exclusively Spanish, but their primary language was the Land.  It was their mission to teach and demonstrate a new way of cultivating food that respected the environment, instead of destroying it.

The Build Lightly team was tasked with creating a space to enhance the teaching and demonstrative activities of the Finca Antigua, such as roasting and grinding coffee.  The result is a 200 SF addition made of locally-sourced and reclaimed wood and off-the-shelf hardware store materials. The project is named El Colibri (or “The Hummingbird”), and is a 14-foot X 14-foot addition in the crux of the existing Ventisquero (or “The Windy Spot”) hill-top cabaña.

The beginning of the floor structure: Luke, Miriam, Jorge, and Mario dug and poured four footings by hand two days before the team arrived. 2x6s from local pine are kiln-dried and treated only 5 km. from the project site through a municipal agriculture program.

Natalie admiring the view of the full-scale mockup: we used clamps to adjust the height of the shed roof on site, rather than using drawings to determine the height of the space.

The new space is flexible, beautiful and increases the functionality of the existing space significantly.  In fact, it was the physical construction of the space that revealed we did speak the same language.  We learned to respect the land.  It supported the structure we were building.  Because El Ventisquero is perched high on the hill, away from the road, it forced us to carry by hand all the materials.  Thank goodness Mario and Jorge had been doing this for many years.  But walking through the land everyday reminded us of the rich sustenance it provides and that we have a responsibility to respect it.  We were reminded of it through the freshly ground coffee that Jorge brewed every few hours.  We would cobble together familiar words, hand gestures and facial expressions as we listened to Jorge share his language – the stories of people and histories of this particular land.

Sink and a counter with a view

The two center bays hold benches made from locally sourced pine and eucalyptus. The back wall has a small hole for chimney/stovepipe of the wood-burning stove.

Fiber cement boards came in 4×8 panels and match the reclaimed fiber cement boards of El Ventisquero. The back of the bench is clad in wood and can be read from the facade.

But, we were teachers also, sharing our language of design.  More specifically, it was a design and building process that was consensus-based, where we all shared ownership of the final product.  And we all worked together to build it.  Whether hand mixing concrete, cutting a straight line with a circular saw, installing a screw without splitting the wood, there was much shared and learned in the act of doing.  But it was in the thinking, planning, creating, and visioning of each decision where deeper lessons were learned.  Each connection, cut, material, joint, and finish are not isolated moments or decisions, it is the relationship of all of them together that create a successful space.  Spending time there, exploring and understanding our shared languages also served as a reminder that each of one us, no matter where in this world, are connected deeply to our Pacha Mama (mother earth) and to each other.

Future clerestory jalousie windows frame views of the valley below.

Reclaimed interior wooden doors clad the lower half of the wall where El Colibri connects to El Ventisquero, and an open stair connects the second story to the ground floor.

Mario nails in cladding – reclaimed wood on it’s third round of use: exterior slats, then an exterior door, and now interior wall cladding.

The final crew finished up all the wall cladding, benches, and sink in two and a half days! Gracias a (L to R, back to front): Jim, Jorge, Miriam, Mario, Luke, Natalie, and Sean.

Project Stats:

  • 9 team members
  • 7 work days
  • 200 SF addition & deconstruction
  • $3200 budget for materials
  • 600+ cups of organic, hand roasted, hand ground coffee

All photo credits to Sean Wittmeyer, video/time lapse credits to Ethan Lacy.