Building Permits and Construction in Puerto Rico (Earthbag)

I was hoping someone could provide some information on the building process in Puerto Rico. I expect to buy a piece of land in the campo and build an earthbag house (it's an alternative building process) on the property. Is it difficult to get a construction permit? How strict are the building codes? Is an owner/builder situation possible? What are general labor costs? Is there a website in English detailing the process?

I already contacted Scott Howard who kindly pointed me towards Plentitude. I tried contacting Plentitude through their website but they didn't respond.

Thanks :)

Good luck grasshopper.

I worked on a "dirt-bag" project in southern PR (near Salinas) about three years ago (2011 I think). I am not sure about permits, but my contact for volunteering on the project was "Skai Juice". She owns a B&B, eco-farm and a Vegan/ Vegetarian restaurant in the Rio Grande/Luquillo area. She is easy to find on facebook.

She can put you in contact with the resident of the home and he will probably give your the "dirt" on the permit situation.

You will find that PR is more respectful of the home buider than in the states.  They will not harass you to death with stupid codes and enforcement.  Property rights are more respected here.
I have done a lot of construction, and your best bet is to look hard for an honest local who has skills.  Usually that kind of worker will work with you to help you with costs and design.  I have been very lucky with this.

Thank you! I've seen Skai around the web and knowing she's into the "go green" type thing I tried contacting her but didn't get a reply. She's probably super busy and I should just try again. Thanks for the information.

I would LOVE to hear more about the dirtbag project you worked on and what your experience was. Do you have a blog or something with your experience? Pictures would be great!

Hi Jay,

Thanks for all the input. Sounds like you are the "guy-to-know" so I hope you're still around when I finally make it down there.

It's a relief to hear the building situation is a lot like it is in Costa Rica. I'm not a super rebel or anything like that but I do believe there is something seriously wrong when people are regulated and permitted to the point of having to do without a home of their own. In the old days you could buy a piece of land and put up a lean-to or mud hut or whatever it took to protect you and your family from the elements. Now it seems society would prefer to just have homeless people overflowing from shelters onto the street.

She has been very busy lately. I am currently doing some volunteer work with her on her local Orgainic Farming project and that has her hands pretty full.

FYI - She wasnt the technical person behind the building effort, but I can ask her the name and perhaps contact info of the guy that led the project. If I canget it, I will PM you. Unfortuantely, there was no blog documenting the process that I am aware of.

Let us know when you get here! :)

Hi, I would also like to know about your question. Were you able to get any detailed answers or put in touch with someone who does have answers? We are in the process of buying a lot on Vieques and want to build earthbag as well. Thanks

Snowyegret,
For obtaining a building permits you will need to have a approved plan by an engineer. The plan will need to be send to ARPE for their approval. Once they approve, you will take the application to Fondo Seguro del Estado to pay for construction insurance. Once you have this, next step will be paying municipality permit. Then all this is send back to ARPE for the permit. It is a complicated and involve process, I highly recommend hiring someone to do this. We used a local delineante to do this process for is, he designed the plans for us and move the process forward. You cannot start construction until you secure a permit. The city inspector will stop the work and fine you, plus you will not be able to obtain water or electric conection. The whole process was about $4K including the insurance payment. Insurance is based on the size and materials used for the house. The permits can take anywhere from 4-8 weeks so plan accordingly. You will have up to a year to build, but you can request extended time so you won't have to pay any extra if more time is needed.
Even if you're planning to build yourself you still need to obtain the permits.
Let me know if you have any questions I can answer.

Adlin20, Sounds like you found a good Engineer that understands what you're doing. I applaud your effort and your find.
I have seen this system in the past and honestly, walked away due to code restrictions.
You've done well!
Hope to hear more as you proceed!

olddawgsrule :

Adlin20, Sounds like you found a good Engineer that understands what you're doing. I applaud your effort and your find.
I have seen this system in the past and honestly, walked away due to code restrictions.
You've done well!
Hope to hear more as you proceed!

Actually we finished the house last year. Our delineante managed all the permits for us, up to the occupancy permits to have the electricity and water conected. I have no complains on that aspect. We only had to personally pay the insurance at el fondo and the municipal taxes. He Managed the whole process for us.

Also, once the permits are approved, you can change the plans as you wish. There was no real inspection done by any agency on our property. Even the guy told us to change it as we wanted. My house is no ware similar to the plans!!! LOL

I would also be interested in how the building process went.  I would imagine it is much harder when you don't speak the language, to guarantee that what you agreed to is actually done to the correct specifications?  Were you present frequently on the job site, to monitor how things were going?  Not that I would know if it was being done correctly or not anyway!   But that would be a huge undertaking, even if in my own language!   Also it seems like concrete is the most popular building material for homes, including roofs?   Is that the best material for everything?  Do people use concrete floors too?  Just curious.  I have so many questions!

Floors are typically concrete with tiles, some do a polished concrete floor. Some fancy places may install a wooden floor on top of the concrete floor but it has to be a wood that is not attacked by Comejen. They love some woods. There are many many tile designs with the ability to form pictures / designs with the tiles. The most common is tiles of a single color as they interfere the least with the decor. You can even use marble if you have the money, but most use it only in strategic places to accent the place. The same with bathrooms, tiles on the floor and walls. Showers are very common, so are regular bathtubs and you can even have a jacousii if you have the space in the bedroom, bathroom or even better outside.

Concrete is strong and moldable to any shape. Wall are ussualy build from concrete blocks but they can be pour concrete just like the floors and roofs are.

There are also foam panels (search for M2 panels, they are a foam panel with a grid of wires on both sides, very light and light that can be cut to any size. Concrete is applied to both sides once they are in place. Takes a lot less time to build with it and less man power so you save some on time and labour. They are probably more expensive as material goes. Ducting and pipes are run by melting the foam then runs the ducting and finally apply the concrete outer layer. I plan to look into this for my house in PR. Only some contractors do this and have the experience. A typical concrete house takes about 9 months to build, one made with the foam takes 3-8 depending on how fancy you get. Houses build with the foam panels can be up to 4 floors. They resist fire, earthquakes and hurricanes. If I can afford it I will probably go this route instead of using blocks of cement for the walls. Here is a place that does panels, they can guide you to videos and answer questions.
M2 Panels contractors:
Ing.Carlos Calderón
Dunas Contractors
787-246-8837

Live2sparkle :

Were you present frequently on the job site, to monitor how things were going?

Good Lord, you would be a general contractor's worst nightmare, and ultimately, your own worst enemy.  Once the plans are agreed upon, the general contractor has what should be a firm idea of what goes where, and how the finished product will all come together.  He or she can then employ subcontractors who will each do their own parts, and the general contractor, following the plans, will see that they all fit into a seamless whole.  By means of analogy, the general contractor is like the conductor of a symphony.

But when the owner constantly looks over his shoulder, and suggests changes on the fly, things get tense.  When an owner says for instance, "You know, I've thought a bit more about it, and I think that the one-car garage won't work, and we need a two-car garage" the general contractor's blood will boil.  When asked, "Can we do that?" the answer will always be "Yes" because all of these changes can be made -- however it may require undoing a lot of work that has already been done, which affects the work and schedules of the subcontractors.  Yes these things can be done, but often only at great effort, great inconvenience, and increased cost.  This is especially true with concrete construction!

The best relationship is one where everyone is in complete understanding and agreement at the outset.  Be as detailed and specific as you wish, even down to approval of the bill of materials.  But when it is time to build, if you have chosen a reputable contractor, your wallet and your mind will both be under much less stress if you sit back and leave it all to the professionals.  Or, if you are afraid that you can't restrain yourself, buy an existing structure.

WarnerW,
I don't agree that or disagree with your opinion. For my personal experience, we were not there all the time, but I requested a weekly report and monitor all the construction project of our home. After all it was going to be my retirement home so we wanted it our way. Also, some, not all contractors in the island try to cut corners. Others will read a plan and won't follow it. I heard stories of old materials been used, specially old corroded iron bars and inflated buildings materials. Walls built on the wrong side(my experience). Missing aspects or details(also my experience). So we keep a close tap on the construction. Very hard to sue a contractor or get money out of it after the fact, specially in the island. Even doing that, we had to fired the first guy due to mistakes making and actitud.
I am not saying all contractors act the same, but I would not risk it. Specially when my hard earn money is in the line.
Overall I would do it again, we have the home built the way we wanted and how we wanted.

Sometimes a contractor makes mistakes, it is good to check up on the work, a room that was supposed to be 12x20 could end up 12x18 and that will never do. Check on what type of insurance they have before you contract them for the job, you don't want to have to pay for mistakes made by them.

And definitely no changes when construction starts. Make sure placement of cameras, switches, power boxes, hard wired Ethernet wiring is all clearly marked in the plan. Also make sure the right amount of power you need will come to the house otherwise you will be drawing more than provided. If you plan to add a second floor in the future get a plan for that also so they know where tubes for water, electric and Ethernet need be located in the roof so you don't have to do all the tubing and wiring on the outside of the house to bring them to your future second floor. The more you plan and the more details the less pain a year or two later when adding a second floor.

I had several family members push me to talk to one of my 3rd or 4th cousin to hire him as a contractor, I know they only do it part time, so I won't even talk to them about it.
I could start the wheels rolling now and start building a road, getting a land study and many things but I rather be there so I see and know and have everything in writing and agreed upon. So planing and construction will start when I am permanent at the island and I will visit and MEASURE at lest twice a week.  But no changes other than repair mistakes.

I will hire a contractor that I feel confortable with and whose previous work I can review, not a family member or the cheaper guy. I am going to live in a house I love, not one I hate. Little stuff will drive you up a wall.

Please don't get me wrong -- I'm not saying that you should simply give your money to the contractor and hope for the best.  Periodic, scheduled updates and visits are wise.  "Trust, but verify" is sound advice.  But my experience (and my parents are contractors and I grew up swinging a hammer) is that over-zealous owners are an absolute nightmare, who frequently cause delays, frustrations, and cost over-runs.

*Edited, since I just thought of it*  One other detail that you should negotiate with the contractor and that can give you leverage is the payment terms and schedule.  The contractor will need regular payments in order to buy materials and pay sub-contractors.  However, tying the payments to satisfactory performance keeps the contractor honest and motivated.

It is critical that you establish a good working relationship with your contractor, as with any other professional service you might require (doctors, lawyers, etc.)  This is why I'd like to see the professional recommendation section of the forum get more use.

I will probably hire my first born that lives in PR to discuss with him the plans and help me deal with contractors and engineers, he has run several construction crews and is a certified electrician. I may send him to check on the work and make sure all is being done right. But that is in about 18 months or so. We still not sure what the house needs look like, is down the road and we want to look at several different styles.
Since I will be putting a good size pool also I need to combine both constructions water pipes and electricity

For those of you currently thinking about the need for permits for all sorts of projects, homes, businesses:
I just read an article that states that there are two new projects of law for consideration that will be used to simplify the permit processes and where you have to go. It also sets limits of time that one must wait to get an answer and will force the towns to use one single online portal for a lot of the information.

The government realizes that permits takes too long and it is too complicated.
SO...... Help is on the way.

The question will be if it will be provided in English as well.

Was the price 4000 USD or close as a previous post stated it would cost?

holisticdoc :

Was the price 4000 USD or close as a previous post stated it would cost?

We spend $2500 pn plans and permits, this includes the plan certificate and all engineers certificate, plus an additional $1200 on the construction insurance and aproximate $300 on municipal constructions taxes. $125 for electricity permits and $300 deposit. $75 for the water permit. This way there was water and electricity on the site.

After house was built, you need another certification for the electric to obtain the occupational permit.

Additionally, since we did not had a water meter on out property, we had to pay to have one installed by the water company. That was an additional $850.

just curious as to what the estimated cost of building a concrete house about 2000 sqft would be? just needs to be an estimate...

Our house cost us aproximate $135K to build to our design. It's about $65 and up square feet to build, to date, I have spent about $150-170  total counting additional stuffs, walkways, parking, gazebo, retaining walls, fence, A/Cs.

Last number I got from PR a week ago it is wide from 75 to 120 per square foot depending on options like windows, doors, cabinets, bathroom, tiles, etc. Also some contractors are more expensive than others.

adlin20 :

Our house cost us aproximate $135K to build to our design. It's about $65 and up square feet to build, to date, I have spent about $150-170  total counting additional stuffs, walkways, parking, gazebo, retaining walls, fence, A/Cs.

Retaining wall for what?

Rey,

I wanted to level part of the side property for wife's gardens. Had my contractor guy do a 5' H by 75' L wall to level part of the side.

adlin20 :

Rey,

I wanted to level part of the side property for wife's gardens. Had my contractor guy do a 5' H by 75' L wall to level part of the side.

Ahhh, I need one or two to stop some runoff from outside my property. It is causing a lot of damage to the land. Keep your runoff, I don't need itt, lol.

Rey,

That was the other reason for the retaining wall. We filled the side with dirt for a garden and once it started to rain, all the dirt end up in the canal. We then decided to have the wall built.

Once you're in the island, I will invite you over to see the final project.

Yes I want to stop over and steal good ideas. Also to get some coquito and a cooked meal, but I don't ask for much, right?  :lol:

ReyP :

Yes I want to stop over and steal good ideas. Also to get some coquito and a cooked meal, but I don't ask for much, right?  :lol:

As long as you bring the rum! LOL

Good morning adln20, 

I’ve appreciated your insight for the permitting process. We are renovating a retirement home in Mayaguez.  The home is 100% poured concrete and we will be removing interior walls to open up the kitchen and bedrooms.  In addition to adding a garage and pool.

My question to you Is about the permitting cost since our estimates are much higher than the $4K for the engineer plan, ARPE, permit fees, etc... Would you mind breaking down the estimated fee structure? We would also like to reach out to your engineer in they are willing to work on the West side of the island.

You are appreciated,
DaVinci09

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