Panamanian Construction

We have found it interesting to learn how the Panamanians build houses. Everything here is block and cement with tin roofs. There is a lot to be said for this style of building. It’s strong, and there is nothing to rot from water, get eaten by termites, or burn. I’ve taken some photos which I hope make it fairly easy to see how they do it here.

Some inexpensive homes don’t have glass windows or screens, only the decorative cement blocks to let in air. Very upscale homes may have other features like fancier roofs, floor coverings, and ceilings.

If you empty out our house you could take a garden hose to it and not do any damage except to the wood doors and kitchen cabinets. Even the door frames are metal, not wood. It’s easy to clean with a broom and/or mop. Brush fires are common in the dry season, but no one worries about the houses because there is nothing to burn. The roof is tin and the walls are cement. People thought I was crazy to worry about smoldering brush with a few feet of a house, and sure enough it burned itself out without causing any problems for the house.

If you are thinking of living here, this climate is something to consider. Sometimes people move their wood and fabric furniture from up north only to find the humidity causes problems with dampness and mold. Leather is especially vulnerable to mold. Now I understand why the DoIt center has an entire aisle of plastic bins! If you dry things out and store them in a plastic bin, they tend to stay quite dry. The higher areas in the mountains are cooler but they aren’t any drier. If anything, there is more rain and fog and humidity. So, unless you plan to use air conditioning or dehumidifiers in the house, materials that aren’t affected by dampness are very practical.

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About Kris Cunningham

We live in David, Chiriqui Provence, Republic of Panama! This blog is about some of our experiences in our new country.
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17 Responses to Panamanian Construction

  1. Jerry says:

    Well, there goes the idea of moving our furniture to Panama :). We really had not considered these points. So glad you keep chatting about very practical matters.

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    • Kris says:

      Furniture here is made more for this climate, and if you can keep from moving crates of stuff, what you save in moving costs will buy more furniture here. We are happy with our plastic tables and chairs. Not everyone may be since they don’t look very fancy, but they are cheap and practical. But, on another note, furniture here is full price, similar to US prices. There is no Goodwill or cheap second hand stuff. Anything usable gets passed to other family members and good used furniture isn’t that much cheaper than new. So, it’s a decision everyone has to make for themselves, but it’s a good idea to keep the climate in mind when deciding.

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  2. tombseekers says:

    We have a beautiful dining chest in our rental that can’t be used for anything since it smells like strong mildew inside. We run the dehumidifier with our closets and drawers open. Cross ventilation helps but it means that windows have to be in every room and kept open. They also don’t lay vapor barriers so moisture seeps up through the foundation into the walls. That’s where you see peeling paint on the lower foot of the house.
    Someone wrote about their Ikea furniture a few months ago. Because it is made of fiber board, it attracted the moisture and just rotted.

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    • Kris says:

      Bleach kills everything, and vinegar may also be good for mold so I wonder if those might return your chest to usable condition? Joel also found a cool dehumidifier in Arrocha in the baby department. It’s made to hang in a closet, and when it gets full of water you plug it in, it heats up, and dries out the material so you can use it again. But yes, moisture and mold control is always an issue. Our doors are particle board and they didn’t paint the bottoms when they installed them. You can guess how that worked out. I can see how Ikea fiber board furniture wouldn’t work out well at all! How unfortunate for those people who paid to move it all down here.

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  3. Anonymous says:

    Hey Kris just checking in on you. Good to see all is well.
    -halfthrottle

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    • Kris says:

      Hey Ryan! 🙂 Yes, all is very well and we’re really happy here in Panama. How are you?? Is Lidia finished with her work here and back with you? Best wishes to both of you.

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  4. Maureen says:

    Very helpful info.. Thanks!

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  5. oldsalt1942 says:

    I think that the windows that are made from decorative block are an ingenious, low-cost, low-tech alternative to glass windows. They admit light and air can circulate freely which is important since so many of the homes here don’t have a/c. And think of how much it costs to have “real” windows. The cost of the glass, the frames, the labor for properly installing the windows and then the addition of the bars people install. Decorative block windows save thousands of dollars in construction costs.

    I’ve also seen in some of the much older homes another solution for air circulation. I was in one in Potrerillos Arriba and have glimpsed this in a couple of others…The walls of the rooms don’t reach all the way to the ceilings. They’re more like giant cubicles so the air circulates between the top of the walls and the ceilings.

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    • Kris says:

      You really don’t need glass windows here since bugs aren’t much of a problem, and staying warm isn’t a concern either. I guess if you took out our drop ceilings our house would be one of those with giant cubicles. I think there are lots of things that can be done to keep a house cooler, and maybe now with A/C available some of the more expensive homes have been built without worrying about such things. That definitely happened in Florida! – no concern for overhangs to keep the walls shaded, cross ventilation to keep the breezes flowing, etc.

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  6. indacampo says:

    Reblogged this on In Da Campo.

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  7. Pingback: Housing ~ Panameño Construction | In Da Campo

  8. Nice construction tour. We’ve learned a lot about construction in the tropics. One thing that really bothers my husband is that they don’t join the cement blocks at the corners. Instead, they use rebar to make a corner post, cover it with cement, and then stack the blocks around it. When we built an addition to our casita, we showed the workers how to stack the block to make a corner. They were amazed. It’s much stronger and there is no need to make the corner cement posts.

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    • Kris says:

      Really! I never paid attention to the details like that. I’ll have to keep my eyes open for their technique on the corners. Yours seems not only stronger, but much easier and faster.

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  9. Alan says:

    I’m not sure what part of Panama you’re from but there are certain times of the year (beginning of rainy season) that are all bugs,bugs, bugs! The bugs can be some of the biggest, ugliest creatures you’ve every seen, not to mention, other creepy crawley’s including rodents. I would not want to have any permanent opening in my house

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    • Kris says:

      I’m in David, Chiriqui. Yes we have bugs! bugs of all sorts and sizes but they are rarely a problem. I am even in the process of writing a post about our bugs here and how much easier they are to live with than the bugs we had in Florida. We have had a mouse in the house once, but otherwise no critters in the house.

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  10. Pingback: I asked him to clean the bathroom… | The Panama Adventure

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