30 years ago, when I was in college, one of my best friends, Paul, had a unique solution to the problem of high housing costs.
“When I grow up,” Paul proclaimed, “I am going to build myself a house out of trash”.
Of course, none of us took a Paul seriously at the time.
(FYI – He never did build a house of trash. He teaches painting at Penn State)
I certainly wasn’t interested in living in a house made out of trash. It sounded kind of, well, trashy.
That was in 1979.
Fast forward 30 years, and nobody calls it “trash” any more.
Recycled Building Materials
Today we use the terms “recycled material” or “Post Consumer” material. We’re all building out of recycled materials, whether we realize it or not.
- Most asphalt roofing material is made of recycled post-consumer products
- Plastic decking and lawn furniture is made out of recycled soft drink bottles
- Some insulation is made of recycled plastics
- A lot of carpet is recycled
The fact is that many parts of our homes are made out of “trash” today. Thank goodness for recycling.
With 7 billion people living on the earth, and with the continued promotion of the “American Dream” (ie, a high consumption, high environmental cost, standard of living) there is going to be an ever greater need to get creative about using recyclables in home construction.
Creative Use Of Materials in Housing
In Seattle, where our family is from, many creative remodelers and builders visit the Boeing Aviation Surplus Store to find such crazy building products as aluminum honeycomb fusilage, or solid aluminum bar stock “I-Beams”, and you name it. It’s pretty high tech stuff, but it appeals to a certain type of designer builder.
For instance, on an loft apartment/art studio project in which I participated, our crew used aluminum honeycomb panel fuselage material as the floor in a sleeping loft. Aside from being super cool to look at, since the hexagonal cells of the honeycomb were visible on the exterior sheet surface, the material was so rigid that it required no structural supports, other than the perimeter walls. Obviously this material calls for a different approach to building (ie, practically no framing support). This results in a very clean, ultra modern look. It wasn’t a look that I particularly liked for a human dwelling. It wasn’t traditional, cozy, or “homey”. Rather, it was “defiant”, “impervious”, “edgy”. It certainly challenged the viewer’s normal sense of what constitutes a home.
Of course, you can also find much more traditional recycled building materials in Seattle. There are many, many recycled building supply centers in Seattle, as there are in most metropolitan areas of North America. You can find old fir warehouse beams, recycled bowling ally floors, stained glass from old churches, antique bar mirrors and surrounds from 120 year old hotels.
Recycling Building Materials in Panama
When one comes to Panama, one doesn’t think about recycling. Most buildings are pretty new and made of cement.
Puerto Armuelles’ Treasure Trove
However, Puerto Armuelles is unique here. What we have is a company town, former home of Chiquita Banana Company. “The Company” as it was known, imported most of the materials used to build the town of Puerto Armuelles, literally from the ground up.
Old Growth Cedar in Older Chiquita Banana Homes
If you have ever get the chance to explore inside an old Chiquita Banana house, up on stilts, you will surely discover lumber stamps from Portland, Oregon where this gorgeous, old-growth red cedar was milled well over half a century ago.
If you know anything about lumber, then you also know that the quality of the 2”x4”, 2”x6, 2”x8” framing material, as well as the 8”x8” and 8”x 10” support posts and beams is of such standard that has not been available as building material in North America for decades.
If one purchased it in the states today, the wood in the old Chiquita Banana Houses would be considered “furniture grade” and probably cost in the $15-$25 range per board foot—prohibitive for home building. I wouldn’t be surprised if our own house in Las Palmas contained over $50k worth of clear, old growth cedar.
If you look at the tightness of the growth rings, you will see that none of these trees could have been younger than 1000 years old. I love this beautiful old wood. Still, I’d much rather see the wood in the forest than in my house.
Ancient Jungle Wood In Newer Chiquita Homes
In addition to clear, old growth cedar, some of the more recent vintage Chiquita Banana Houses are built using the identical plan as the original Chiquita houses.
However, the newer models, dating from 25, 35, even forty years ago, are built from other exquisite woods. That is, these houses are built of dimensional lumber logged directly from the jungles (now, former jungles) of our own Punta Burica.
Just as the original Chiquita houses were built of ancient Cedar trees, so the newer generations of Chiquita houses are built of local, but equally ancient forest trees. Species such as Teak, Sangrio, Espave, Kirra, etc. A couple of these woods, particularly teak have very good resistance to termites. Sangrio and Kirra are gorgeous furniture quality hardwoods that are really too hard to be good framing material. They require pre-drilling, prior to sinking a nail.
As for the logic of cutting down a 10 foot diameter ancient rain forest tree in our local jungle just to make an 8”x8” structural post or beam in a Banana Company house, some of us have different views. I suppose back in the days of Chiquita Banana in Puerto Armuelles, nobody ever thought that the world would ever run out of wood. If you are from Canada, it might seem that there is still an endless supply of old growth trees.
Salvage Chiquita Homes To Build Your Home
I am not suggesting that one purchase Chiquita Banana houses and begin disassembling them and loading them into containers for export. But, rather, I am saying that there is a huge quantity of amazing building material available for those who are on a tight budget, but who have creative energy to burn.
Many of the original Chiquita Banana houses have fallen into disrepair. Since the local builders have a strong preference for building with concrete, many of these Chiquita houses just get scrapped, or used as concrete form boards.
Estimated Cost $2 – 5000
A thorough search in the various neighborhoods of Puerto Armuelles would surely turn up some excellent salvage. I am guessing that one could purchase adequate salvage material from old Chiquita Banana houses to build an amazing beach house, for a couple to 5 thousand dollars.
This includes studs, joists, cedar siding, and super heavy duty galvanized roofing. There are still even a few old Chiquita hand washing sinks and toilets floating around in town.
But Wait.. That’s Building With Wood!
I do not want to contradict what I said earlier about wood not being a desirable building material in our coastal/tropical climate. I stand by that opinion, if you are building a conventional house, using conventional methods and utilizing the labor force available in Puerto Armuelles at the present time.
Artistic, Affordable, Unique House
However, if you are artistic, high energy, and want to build something super inexpensive, something that is truly unique, and truly yours, building with Chiquita salvage could be ideal.
House & Land Possible For Under $10K
I think you might be able to come to Puerto Armuelles, buy a bargain priced lot for under $5k, and put up a completed structure, made primarily of recycled Chiquita Banana surplus.
The final product would be limited only by your own skill and imagination. This entire home could be built for well under $5k (total price for house and land under $10k).
Obviously, this sort of a challenge, and this kind of lifestyle, is not for everyone. However, if this sort of thing sounds like a fun adventure to you, you have come to the right place. Puerto Armuelles is a great place to experience this sort of an “alternative” eco- building lifestyle.
Railroad, Steel Pipe & Tube Salvage Too
I have only mentioned Chiquita wood salvage so far, but Chiquita Banana imported other great materials as well. For instance, you will notice shortly after arriving in Puerto Armuelles, that many of the local fence posts are made from railroad rail, salvaged (stolen?) from the narrow gauge Chiquita Banana railroad tracks.
These tracks ran from the banana fields all the way to the shipping pier in downtown Puerto Armuelles. The train also ran to David. Some folks have reused this rail to build house posts, beams, storage buildings, hoists, racks, etc…
Imagine a practically unlimited supply of railroad rail. If this starts your mind thinking of possible projects, then you are the person I was hoping to communicate with in this article.
In addition to railroad rail, Chiquita imported miles of steel plumbing pipe, as well as some super thick walled steel tube section, both round and square.
Competition with Scrap Metal Buyers
Some of this material is still being sold just for its scrap iron weight. However, the salvage market is certainly getting more competitive, as materials prices go up. However, it depends on how good a scavenger you are.
Full of Possibilities
If I could show some of this Chiquita Banana salvage to my friends from architecture school, they would probably have heart attacks. All this salvage, and very few people who have the design skill to take advantage of it.
If you have any questions about recycled Chiquita Banana building products, or about alternative building methods, in general, please contact us. We are always happy to share with you what we know, and we are eager to learn anything that you might be willing to share