Green building: Medellin isn’t Chicago, or Munich for that matter

I understand the struggle of the USGBC in expanding the LEED program outside of the United States. There’s a staggering amount of differences to take into account, ranging from climate to building code. As many Colombian green experts love to say, the LEED checklist is only half as useful in Medellin as it is in Chicago.

  • There’s no building code in Colombia. Pause and reflect on this: any general contractor, architect or house owner, can design a project in near total freedom, submit it to the planning office where overworked and underpaid officials will review it and grant their seal of approval after a few months. It’s a recipe for disaster, isn’t it?
  • Well, not quite. First, there’s the NSR10 anti-seismic norm, that all buildings have to comply with. Then there’s the RETIE, a set of technical rules that apply to electrical installations. RETILAP applies mostly to street lighting but is often cited for residential projects. When it comes to hooking up your house to the electrical grid, the EPM (the local public utility in Medellin) norms are mandatory. The good news is that any professional structural or electrical engineer will design according to these rules. Besides that, you will have to check the POT, a zoning plan, for building restrictions (e.g. what building density is authorized, whether you can build a swimming pool, etc.). Beyond that, to the best of my knowledge, you’re free to build a bamboo house with curtains instead of windows if that’s what you want!
  • If you are after the slender and airy looks of Kengo Kuma’s Glass Wood House you’re in for a shock: Colombia is an earthquake prone country and the NSR10 norm will shatter your dreams of thin steel columns and cantilevered decks. To make matters worse, structural engineers have a tendency to remain on the safe side of the law: expect to pour considerable amounts of concrete in your lot! Not that this is all bad considering the collapse of the Space building.
  • LEED emphasizes durable building practices, and your first step should be to perform a soil survey, because landslides are common around Medellin, in particular in the Alto de las Palmas and Bello sectors. I once visited a fancy house that escaped a massive landslide by a mere 100 metres.
  • In Central Europe, home of the ultra-well insulated low energy passive houses, the enemy is the freezing cold of harsh Winters which are also a characteristic that shaped the content of the US-centric LEED for Homes. Seasonal temperature swings are unknown in the mild weather of Medellin. In our lot we enjoy a temperature range of 13 degrees to 28 degrees centigrade all year round.
  • The temperate climate of Medellin is unique: not only you do not have to shield yourself against heat loss or solar gains by buying expensive triple glazed, low-e, argon-filled, PVC mutant windows, you can dispense from using an HVAC system and use natural ventilation. As a house designer and owner, you have to remain extremely alert and question all of the best practices that the industry takes for granted in the US or Europe. This is an entirely different ball game, which yields a key advantage: what you do not spend on insulation and HVAC you can invest in other areas of your project.
  • Stringent rules and a competitive green materials market means that it is easy to find low VOC, non-toxic, products in the US. Not so in Colombia where CCA treated wood is your mainstream option if you fancy a cabin that would make Thoreau jealous. The noxious nature of formaldehyde is an equally mysterious topic and you will get blank stares from kitchen manufacturers if you request E0 or E1 certified MDF or plywood.
  • Colombians build with concrete and bricks so you can immediately rip and burn the advanced framing from the excellent Green from the Ground Up book. You’ll be hard-pressed to find contractors in Medellin capable of building a house using the wood framing techniques used in the US. This seems to baffle my American friends but isn’t a surprise to Europeans.
  • Do not expect to find professionals in the residential building industry who know about the latest-best practices such as structured plumbing. This will cause a shock when you review the LEED for Homes checklist and find out that you missed N points because your plumber designed an antiquated hot water delivery system for your sustainable house.
  • FSC certified wood has just become available in Colombia from providers like Refocosta but still isn’t commonplace. Colombia is the land of realismo magico, where highly sustainable guadua bamboo grows virtually everywhere, yet the only high quality bamboo floors available invariably come from Asia due to a lack of investment in specialized equipment to manufacture finished products locally.
  • Medellin is arguably the textile industry capital of the Americas, but I challenge you to find cotton batts insulation. The same goes for recycled drywall. At least there’s one concrete producer, Ahinco that offers concrete with fly ash. Overall, the market for recycled and environmentally friendly products is light years behind Europe and the US.
  • This is not a green issue per se but certainly a pet peeve of mine when it comes to high design content products: if you want them, you fall into the same category as wealthy Colombians and you should be prepared to a limited selection of outrageously expensive luxury brands. Affordable, well designed, products are virtually non-existent in Colombia, especially for bathrooms.
  • Last but not least, handling a construction project with Colombian contractors and suppliers is the epitome of a thrill ride. You will be dealing with wonderful people who will fall in love with your project and happily ignore your e-mails for weeks (tip: rediscover the joy of cold calling)! You will have to double-check absolutely everything that is done to ensure compliance with your design requirements. You will never, ever, be able to relax until you move in because if you do you’ll discover that your bamboo flooring of the master bedroom has mysteriously turned into a charming polished concrete floor!

Embarking on a residential green building project in Medellin is not for the faint-hearted. Most foreigners here are content to buy a penthouse in El Poblado and bask in the wonderful climate. If you want more, be prepared to devote a lot of energy to your project.

Originally published at on November 29, 2013

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