Cozumel Construction: the Mechanics

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Building a Home on Cozumel Island, Part 3: The Building Process Start to Finish

#1.Stage One -- Creating the Design

Look at some places to get ideas on what can be done. In concrete you can build all sorts of shapes, for example that are difficult to impossible to building usng typical American construction materials and technics. Rounded walls, rounded corners, gracefully-rounded spiralling staircases, domed ceilings, all of these can be added to your design. Look around and find some places you like before you get set in your ways.

Think about the climate. Two tips we would offer -- orient your house. Facing south is a bad idea as you will have sun and heat pouring in your windows for many hours every day. Build to catch the trade winds because AC is very expensive here and you really don't need it if you design properly at the onset. The tradewinds blow east to west so place your windows and door openings accordingly as much as you can.

The other tip -- high ceilings -- 9 ft is good. This is where you can really go wrong buying a Mexican Fixer-Upper.

You can use a architectural software program like 3D Architect or others you can easily search for on the internet to pull together and print out your basic ideas.

Take these to licensed, local Cozumel architect/engineer to be used as the start of discussions on how he will turn your basic design into a fully-readable construction blue print.

Once the blue prints are drawn up they must be sent to the Cozumel building inspectors office for approval. The office only accepts plans that have been drawn up by one of the 10 or so licensed engineer/architects on the island. So whether you decide to have the architecture firm handle all your contracting or just use them to draw up your design ideas, you will have to work with a licensed professional to get the blueprints okayed by the building inspection office before you can begin work..

If you decide on the full-service, hands-off approach, you will probably decide to have the architect/engineer who draws up your blueprints also take charge of construction contracting at this point.

Or you can choose to take a more active role in the building process. In either case, once you have design blueprints drawn up and approved by the city, you're ready to move to the next step.

#2. Choose how you want to do the job and pick a construction team accordingly.

This has already been discussed in detail in part 2 of this article. Your architect/engineer and/or your contractor should take care of the red tape for you. Be very sure you are dealing with a company that pays their workers social security (segura social). Some companies try to cut corners but not paying this. And usually they get caught at some point and you will most likely end up footing the bill !

#3. How Things Get Built Here

Construction here is all about cinderblocks fortified by steel rebar reinforced: cement columns. Then the whole thing is topped by cement plaster. It's very strong construction provided your builder uses the correct gauge of rebar and spaces the reinforcing columns at the proper distances between cinderblock sections.

You can also get pretty creative with shapes. Good masons can make just about any shape out of cement that you can draw for them. They create a form out of old pieces of wood and build it up from there sometimes using wire and other materials as inner filler and to help with the shaping.Wire reinforced styrofoam construction which is shaped and then covered with plaster is beginning to be used on the island and this can save money and time. However this material is only guaranteed for one story buildings and certainly not for anything oceanfront!.

In any case, curving staircases, rounded corners, dramatically swooping walls -- all are doable with these materials. If you're interested in customizing the look of your house we suggest you look at some books of Mexican and Spanish architecture for ideas on the kewl stuff you can do.

Very little wood is used in construction. It's expensive and there aren't very many good carpenters on the island. Special wood is used to make the thatched roof palapas that are so attractive and useful but you will need a special palapa making team for this work. Also be aware that palapas take some care. They blow away in hurricanes, need to be rethatched from time to time and need to be treated for pests every couple of years.

Plumbing pipes here are pvc for the most part. And electrical wiring runs in pvc tubing. Both are set in the walls and ceilings before they are plastered and in the floor before the cement is poured. This is provided you have a team where the masons and the electric/plumbing guys bother to coordinate with each other.

Couple of tips on this: Do not assume all electricians here work to US code. Very few do! It really pays to get references on your electrician. We have someone very good but you usually have to wait to get him. If you'd like his name Email Us.

Building here is in two stages known as the obra negra and the obra fina. Often builders will give you a price based on the obra negra only which is why the price per square footage can seem low. But obra negra means only taking the construction to the stage where the walls and roof and subfloor are completed to the plastered stage. The window and door openings are finished and the house is plumbed and wired.

It does NOT include unless obra fina is specified everything else: that means no tile, no bathroom or kitchen fixtures, no doors or windows, no lighting fixtures etc.

As little as five years ago much of the obra fina work had to be custom-designed and hand made by local craftsmen. Now there is some factory-made doors, windows and kitchen cabintry available if you want to make a trip to the Home Depot in Cancun. However sizes and styling are very limited so in our opinion you are still better off having this kind of thing custom made. They do good aluminum work here. Also metal work is very good and inexpensive compared to the states.

Lighting fixture choices are getting better too but are still not that great unless you go to Techno Luz or Home Depot and the like in Cancun.

Bathroom and kitchen fixtures can all be bought locally at places like Boxitos (pronounced bow-SHEE-toes). Tile is available all over the place now and you can get quite creative with that.

You can save on large appliances by buying them at Costco or Sam's Club in Cancun or the less well stock Sam's Club in Playa. But best get a big load and do it all in one trip. These places will deliver to the island for a standard fee of around $200 US for a truck load. And there are small contractors on the island who will take your receipts and go around to several mainland stores and consolidate all your stuff and bring it over for you.

Well, that's about it for the basics. Although here are a couple more random but important tips:

#1. Before you build on your lot, check it out after a very heavy rain. You may find it is underwater and stays that way for days or even weeks. And it happens in the most unlikely spots sometimes. So do this or you will be sorry. And if your lot holds the high water, add a meter or more of fill before you allow them to begin laying the foundation.

#2. Have your electrical outlets installed a foot off the floor on the first story of your house. This also is in case of flooding.

#3. Finally it should be mentioned that all construction here is done on a cash only basis with workers needing to be paid every Saturday afternoon. If the cash stops flowing, the hammers and trowells drop and your guyz go bye bye.

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