Just off the Inter-American Highway in Costa Rica, between hills covered with coffee plants and sugarcane, lies the city of San Ramon. Here, most of the one-level buildings are made of concrete or block to withstand heavy rain and earthquakes. Roofs are made of metal sheeting or clay tile. Design is basic with little embellishment, save a coat of paint. These are structural observations that 12 students of the University of Minnesota’s Construction Management (CMGT) program made as they surveyed the city during their January study-abroad course.

Photo of Costa Rica

The students were there to put classroom knowledge to work and earn course credits. Their end goal during the three-week stay: to draft proposals for two projects and present them to stakeholders for potential execution. One of the projects was a nursing home expansion, the other a community center addition.

The San Ramon experience promised to be challenging because of the language barrier, the cultural differences in construction practice, and the time constraint. And while the course instructor, Peter Hilger, was there for some guidance, the students were expected to figure out solutions on their own.

Meet Nolan

Nolan Rinta, student

Enter Nolan Rinta, one of the senior students on the trip whose goal after graduation is to become a facility manager. “A facility manager works with a lot of different people to develop and maintain a building over its lifetime. They work with electricians, HVAC professionals, plumbers... anyone who plays a role in the upkeep and development of a single building,” Rinta explains.

It was because of these ambitions that Hilger singled Rinta out to be the students’ spokesperson. Just like a real facility manager would do, Rinta’s role would be to communicate and help complete a project on behalf of a facility.

Week 1

The students settled into the hostel where they’d be based for the next few weeks to complete the proposals. The hostel is owned and operated by CMGT alumnus, Dustin Dresser.

In the first week, led by Dresser and Hilger, the students toured local factories and businesses, visited construction sites, and met with the stakeholders for the two projects they’d be working on—the nursing home and community center.

The nursing home’s board of directors faced a serious problem: There weren’t enough beds in the home’s five-building campus to account for the 350 seniors on the waitlist. Expansion was necessary. That’s where the students would come in with a proposal. Rinta would deliver the final proposal to the board in Spanish (in which he was fortunately proficient).

As for the second project, the community center, the stakeholders were looking to add two or three dorm-style housing units for missionaries. It was a pretty straight-forward addition, but the students would still draft a couple of ideas in their proposal.  

Week 2

Taking the cultural challenges in stride, students tackled the work. The estimating team visited hardware shops in San Ramon to get the costs of materials, working with a translator to get correct information. Students on the scheduling team factored in the resources available to laborers in Costa Rica. And the design team regarded cultural norms and realistic design ideas.

“I asked the board what they wanted, but also considered that they might not know what they wanted,” Rinta says. “We knew we’d be offering multiple options in our proposals.”

Costa Rica students and instructor

Week 3

“We came up with five options for the board,” Rinta explains. “They could do all of the options at the same time, if they wanted, which would add 60 to 70 beds. Or they could choose options that supplied fewer beds, and gradually add more over the years. It all depends on the funding.”

Rinta gave the presentation, walking the board through each option with its 3D renderings, estimates, and scheduling.

“They were able to see their facility as they never imagined it,” Rinta recalls. “You could see their eyes light up when they saw the 3D model.”

The presentation for the community center proposal was well-received, too. The options presented included efficient use of existing space, including adding dorm-style room on top of an existing building.

And just like that, the Costa Rica trip came to an end. Proposals delivered to very appreciative stakeholders, the students had enough time to do some ziplining before they packed up and boarded a plane back to the states.

“I’m very happy I went,” Rinta says. “It was a great way to use what we’ve been learning for the past four years.”

It remains to be seen what will become of the two projects that the CMGT students worked on. If funding is available, the proposals could become a reality. In 2018, when the next group of students makes the trip to San Ramon, chances are students will look out at the city and see construction taking place on a nursing home and a community center.