Nearly everything about building in Belize is different from North America. It will definitely be an adventure, with plenty of learning about your adopted home.
The differences break down into four categories: design, materials, labor, costs.
The design is the first step. (I covered materials in my last article, and will look at labor and costs in a future installment.)
The biggest difference between design for Belize and for most North American locations is sun and heat. In a four-season climate, most of us desire to have light and even direct sunlight into the house. In Belize, it’s always hot (average temperature 80°F). The amount of sun shining into the house can make the difference between pleasantly livable and not.
There are two ways to protect yourself from the often fierce sun of Belize—substantial overhangs outside the windows or window treatments inside. The advantage of building overhangs is that you can then still receive the breeze, while being protected from the sun.
Although you can protect your home from the sun, some heat will always be inevitable in Belize…
To cool off you can always resort to the North American approach of ferocious air conditioning, but electricity is costly in Belize. Even if you have solar power, air conditioning will up your costs significantly. Battery replacement (about US$800 per battery, every five years) is also an issue. A system for a house with one air-conditioning unit requires five batteries. With this in mind, the initial cost for my solar-powered air conditioning system was US$21,000. However, a traditionally air-conditioned house would run closer to US$60,000 or more.
In addition to direct sunlight, you want to pay attention to the prevailing breezes. I recommend researching this yourself, after having lived a year of seasons. “The prevailing breeze comes from the east,” everyone told my husband and I when we planned our house. It does come from the east—the northeast. We would have rotated our house a good 30 degrees if we’d known this. As it is, the one wall that has no windows (in the kitchen) faces that northeast direction. The back porch, which faces the river, stands due west!
There are many ways to take advantage of those prevailing breezes. My husband researched this online before we moved, and discovered a plan called the dogleg design. It originated in the American South, and he found a modification applied to construction in Panama.
The dogleg design features a large open hallway with high ceilings that stretches from the entryway to the back of the house. In our house, the back is the living area, because it faces the river. The bedrooms are closer to the entry as we followed the dogleg idea. A key feature of this design is two rooftop vents to suck the hot air out of the house.
Even before we moved in, as my husband was doing the finishing details on the house, he found “the wind whips right through the whole house,” which is a cooling and much desired event in Belize. The bathroom and closet are closed off from this wind tunnel, and much hotter for it. Windows aimed towards the wind also keep the bedrooms coolish.
Besides sun and wind, tropical rain is another factor to consider in design. When we moved into a rental house, the agent advised us to always close the windows when we went out. Obviously rain coming directly into the house through the windows is not desirable—it damages drywall, windowsills, and whatever else it contacts. And rain can sometimes come horizontally in Belize.
But if you wish to have the windows open 95% of the time while you’re in the house, how possible is it to have them closed 100% of the time when it rains? Can you guarantee you’ll wake up the moment rain begins to fall when a storm blows through in the middle of the night? Are you sure you’ll never be gone into town longer than you plan, or when an unexpected thundershower appears?
Our house is designed with six feet overhangs outside all windows. In most cases, we won’t have to worry about the windows being left open. These same overhangs also block direct sunlight from coming into the house in most places, most of the time. Their contribution to livability is multi-faceted.
Another aspect of design is whether you wish to follow the Belizean custom of building your house on stilts. If you live near a river, this might be prudent, but Belizeans often build their houses raised on stilts even if they’re nowhere near a floodplain. Rising damp from mere puddles is reason enough to favor stilts. The design originated in order to avoid dangerous animals creeping or slithering into the home. It also allowed prevailing breezes to flow through the home in days when fans hadn’t been invented. Today stilts allow you a sizeable square footage of shaded space where you can park your car, lawnmower, garden equipment, and anything else that might not fit in your house.
Stilts are usually constructed of concrete, but they can be built of wood as well. For more on the pros and cons of wooden versus concrete construction, see my last article on materials.