Adapting Architecture: How Rio Hondo, Guatemala Builds for Tremors, Heat and Dryness


On a recent trip to Rio Hondo and Guatemala City, Guatemala with his wife and daughter, our own Drew Bayley made some architectural observations about how the Zacapa Department (Department is analogous to State) builds for its climate, which includes frequent tremors and earthquakes, heat and dryness (not to mention some inflated electricity bills).

Rio Hondo in the distance

Rio Hondo, Guatemala and its immediately surrounding area have experienced 27 earthquakes in the past year. This is no surprise, as Guatemala is located in the Motagua and Chixoy-Polochic Fault Zone. What may be surprising to learn (at least for some longtime midwesterners) is that earthquakes aren’t really called “earthquakes” in Rio Hondo unless they exceed 5 on the Richter Scale. This makes us think of this meme where Los Angelans are bundled up while Chicagoans enjoy an Al Fresco picnic in 50 degree weather. Chicago has experienced exactly 0 earthquakes in the past 365 days; LA has had—wait for it—286. We may be smug in our Spring shorts Chicago, but let’s not be too hasty. The slightest shaking of ground beneath our feet would result in a citywide shutdown.

In addition to its seismic activity, Rio Hondo is located on hot, dry desert turf. Contrast this with Chicago, for example, with its precipitation, stable ground and freezing season, and you have two very different climates, requiring two very different building techniques. Read on for Drew’s observations about how the vernacular and modern building techniques in Rio Hondo adapt to its unique climate.

A few snaps of Drew’s adventures:
 The local ‘home depot’

Plaza pavilion on the square

LEDs have been making quite the splash over the past few years due to their reduced energy consumption and cool-to-the-touch bulbs which don’t burn like a hornets nest when touched (we leave this to ye olde bulbs of the past). Drew took note that nearly every bulb he saw was an LED while on his trip, and his friends explained that electricity was very expensive there (most likely from a hydroelectric source), hence the switch.

 Drew took this picture of an LED bulb in a bathroom vanity

Rio Hondo doesn’t have a lot of rainfall, so unlike Chicago where if it’s not rain, it’s thundersnow, much of the activities of daily life can be built outside. From sinks to rooms, much of Rio Hondo has open windows without coverings, or simply have no roof at all. The best thing structure can provide in a hot, dry environment is shade, and a place to encourage airflow. Local contracter, carpenter and mason Oliver kept shop with only a wall or two below.

 Oliver’s open air shop

Like the oak before him, the more pliant wooden frame knows that those who don’t bend, snap. A wooden frame has just enough give to it, but more importantly, it doesn’t have any terribly heavy components that could cause the entire structure to collapse or fall on someone when it does. And because stucco is flexible and can be used to patch and layer, any crumbled bit of infrastructure is relatively easy to replace.
Timbers, sticks and stucco in a pre-’60s vernacular house

When you’re trying to keep cool without A/C (and in Rio Hondo, you probably are; it’s hot!) you want to use a material that possesses a couple key characteristics. a) it’s light in color b) it’s got significant thermal mass. To point one: lighter colors absorb about 35% less solar heat than darker shades, keeping interiors cooler. Thermal mass could be its own complete post, but to keep it sweet: high thermal mass helps maintain a comfortable interior in places with a noticeable fluctuation in temperature. Walls that are thicker take a while to heat up, so the beating sun doesn’t travel to the buildings interior for several hours. By the time it has penetrated the wall, the coolest part of the day (nightfall, and then dawn) will welcome a bit of leftover warmth from the walls. In Rio Hondo, the vernacular style of timber framed houses with stucco combine thermal mass with flexibility from the frame. Additionally, Drew found that most windows did not have closures, increasing cross ventilation throughout.

Detail of the timber framed stucco house. The whitewashing, cross ventilation and mass of the walls keeps the interior cool in the desert climate of the Zacapa department

In some midcentury buildings when brick became available, newer houses were covered in stucco to mimic the traditional look of older homes. This also added thermal mass, and added a higher albedo effect with the neutral white color.

Stucco over cement brick on a mid century residential building


Newer constructions infill concrete on a wire frame, effectively creating columns. Concrete and cinder block is both abundant and relatively cheap in the region, and available labor is fluent in how to use it. These newer style buildings are sometimes their own entities, and sometimes attached to vintage one-room houses constructed of stucco and timber.

A house under construction shows the concrete frame/infill block system that is typical of new houses in the area
 Drew and Lindsay (his wife)’s friends Jose and Friscia’s new kitchen/dining room/extra bedroom area attached to the original ’60’s era single room house. AHJ interaction: filled out a form, paid a small fee, in and out in about 20 minutes, no drawings necessary

 A contemporary house in the middle of an addition (a short stroll outside of the city)