I lived in Volcán for four years as I was building my place here. The construction standards in Panama are extremely stringent. Not everybody follows them, so the responsibility lies on the person to work with a good builder. I have built four houses in my life, and on all of them, I oversaw the entire construction process.
In general, Panama has better building techniques than most of the United States. This is because most of what is done in the United States, especially in the Southwest, is what they call stick. This means 2x4 boards with foam and stucco sprayed on from the outside, which are aesthetically pleasing, goes up very quick, and are very well insulated, but not a real formable structure. In some walls that I’ve seen, you can certainly drive your car through them easily, or even punch your hand through some of them, especially if it’s drywall.
Most construction here in Panama is built with a thin wall with a 22-gauge metal. We call it the C-channel which is similar to metal studs but are much thicker than what we use in the States. In the States, we use metal studs, and put on gypsum or drywall. We had this in the United States in the late 20’s.
It’s dry cement, not stucco, has no lime, and they put it on with a trowel and polish it, usually on top of cinder blocks. They’re what you and I would call regular slump blocks, depending on where you lived in the United States. It’s like a regular slump block, cinder block, etc.
Here in Panama, they use a high-density foam that comes in two, three, and four inches with a metal grate on both sides. They take the cement and then apply it with a trowel or shoot it in under pressure, a process that you and I would call “shotcrete” or gunite.
Not everyone in Panama does this as this is certainly just one of the options available. You can have something built here with steel and cement and find that these are commodities that cost the same everywhere in the world. The price that I would pay for a sack of cement in my little town here in Chiriquí is very similar to what you’ll pay for in Phoenix, Arizona or anywhere else.
When the Chinese were building the dams on the Yellow River, cement and steel prices were astronomically high because that increased worldwide demand, and now those constructions have stopped.
The variable in the building costs in Panama is the cost of labor. Here in Panama, a person working with cement, electrical, plumbing, or something of that nature, is probably going to charge $25 - $45 per day. In the United States, they would charge that per hour. You’re going to pay the same for your materials but the labor will cost much less in Panama. The quality depends on who you’re working with, how much you know about what you want done, and your contractor. It runs the gamut from “excellent, great value” to “unacceptable.” I’ve seen it on all levels.
The house that I built here in Finca Cazador is made of solid, poured concrete with 18-inch thick walls and has 1-inch rebar welded. I built a bunker because that’s what I wanted but most people wouldn’t do that. Looking back on it, it probably isn’t necessary.
(Guest house on the off grid community, Finca Cazador, near Volcan, Panama, pictured.)