With an investment of just under $50,000, Michelle and Austin Drill are now on their way to making a living…selling bagged dirt in Nicaragua.
The former New Yorkers found a place where they could breathe, the easy-going beach town of San Juan del Sur on Nicaragua’s Pacific coast, and a business opportunity whose time had come. Today, after five years, they have a good income that supports a great lifestyle.
“We live very happily and very fully here,” says Michelle. “We have an incredible group of friends that keep our social calendar full and provide endless beach, pool, and play dates. This tight-knit group also doubles as a reliable support system that rivals most families.”
Their original plan was to buy a piece of land and build a house that would serve primarily as an investment and vacation rental property. Who knows…maybe even a place to retire to someday.
But plans have a habit of changing direction.
In the time it took to build their house they realized two things. One was that they were really enjoying living in San Juan del Sur. The other was that they had hit on a method of sustainable construction—using earthbags—that had the potential to become a viable business.
They decided to stay.
Like many Nicaraguan expats, Michelle and Austin’s story starts in the U.S. In 2005, they were feeling the confines of the city. They wanted to live in a place where they could appreciate the outdoors while enjoying a more temperate climate. Initially, they moved west to Santa Monica, California.
Austin worked in real estate finance and development; Michelle was working as a freelance producer on television commercials, music videos, and magazine photo shoots.
They dreamed of finding a house with expansive outdoor living, but nothing in California met their vision. Austin suggested they broaden their search. Michelle was thinking another state, but Austin had his sights set on Central America and made a trip down there.
On his arrival in San Juan del Sur he was immediately taken by the vibrancy and authenticity of the town. He called Michelle to tell her he had found “the place.”
Two weeks after receiving the phone call from her excited husband, she was en-route to Nicaragua to meet him. Austin had a few pieces of land scoped out and was ready to make a deal.
Starting to Build
They purchased the land and then collaborated with their friend and architecture professor, Ezra Ardolino, in designing a house that incorporated solar panels, water catchment, and gray water systems. The plan was to use local wood, palm fronds, and clay tiles. They also wanted to maximize the use of indoor/outdoor space and airflow.
“As construction began we realized that we could have pushed the envelope even further in terms of sustainability…so we started to do some research,” says Michelle.
After much exploration and study of traditional earthen applications for construction, Michelle and Austin wanted to put what they’d learned into practice. They decided to build a second, smaller, house on their land. They set a three-month goal to build a small guest house using earthbags.
“Earthbag construction typically utilizes bags constructed of polypropylene (the
same used for rice) that are easily found in Nicaragua,” explains Austin, who notes this is an ancient construction technique.
“These polypropylene bags act as forms, and are filled with moistened earth that is often excavated during site preparation, thereby lowering the energy and cost associated with the manufacturing and transportation of building materials. The bags are laid, tamped into place, and as the earth dries in its bagged forms, these building blocks become strong and incredibly solid.”
Michelle and Austin had intended to continue on with their careers in the U.S., but a few things occurred during this project that gave pause to their plan.
“While we were building, many neighbors and passers-by stopped to inquire about our ‘bunker’. And once we approached completion, many more asked how much it cost…how long it took to build…and eventually, if we would be interested in building one for them as well,” explains Michelle.
With construction of the home they initially designed complete and the building of their guesthouse well underway, it was time for Michelle and Austin to make a decision. List the house as a vacation rental…or move in?
With the economic market in the States collapsing—and their work there significantly slowing down—Michelle and Austin wondered if they might actually be able to earn a living in Nicaragua in natural building.
“It was a leap of faith, but we both felt the pull of Nicaragua so strongly, we took on a ‘now or never’ mentality. In early 2010 we packed up our lives in California and officially relocated to San Juan del Sur,” says Michelle.
Setting Up Business
Not long after settling in, Michelle and Austin teamed up with local non-profit organizations, such as Comunidad Connect and the Newton/San Juan del Sur Sister City Project, to construct community projects throughout Nicaragua.
“With some alliances formed and a couple of new projects underway, our local bilingual paper ran a story on a school we were building—garnering further interest from the expat community—which led to our very first private client hiring us to build a casita on her land,” explains Michelle.
Austin oversaw all fieldwork. He toiled alongside the crew onsite each day and worked at negotiating rates for material purchases. He also spent time conferring with engineers and electricians. Michelle took care of accounting and payroll.
“We began to grow and realized we needed to legitimatize our company. A local lawyer assisted us in applying for our Nicaraguan residences, and nearly six months after acquiring the proper paperwork from our own country and submitting it to the government, we received our residence cards,” tells Michelle.
With residence, Michelle and Austin were able to register their company with the town’s mayor’s office. They hired a licensed accountant who was familiar with the intricacies of Nicaraguan labor and tax laws, enrolled all of their employees into Nicaragua’s social security plan, and promoted their trusted crew leader to assist in daily operations.
With an investment of $28,000 for construction of a casita—and an additional $20,000 for a vehicle, tools, web development, and office supplies—Casa de Tierra was officially born.
And now, just a few years later they are starting to see a return on their investment.
Living in a developing country, Michelle and Austin saw firsthand the lack of effective and affordable housing, and believed that natural building had the potential to play a major role in addressing this need. Their goal at this point is to reintroduce environmentally-sound, economically-efficient, and structurally-effective building techniques.
Casa de Tierra uses a wide range of materials and methodologies that emphasize ideas of sustainability, while preserving traditional design concerns of aesthetics, utility, durability, and comfort. The concepts appeal to a variety of clients.
The company works with non-profit organizations on projects to create schools, composting toilets, and health centers in underprivileged areas. It also works with people who are interested in incorporating sustainable techniques into their otherwise conventional homes, as well as landowners who simply seek to build homes at modest prices.
“In recent years, there’s been a big shift in thinking regarding the environment and our social responsibility for it, and that awareness has been a boom to our business,” explains Michelle.
Operating a business in Nicaragua is far less expensive than in North America, but it certainly doesn’t come without challenges. Skilled labor is hard to come by, especially when you are in a business that is new to Nicaragua. On the job training is really the only option.
With the minimum salary for the average construction worker at $244 per month, wages are considerably lower in Nicaragua. Michelle and Austin pay their crew on a sliding scale, rewarding their more experienced and skilled employees for their loyalty.
It is however, important to know that in addition to providing a minimum salary, employers are legally responsible to pay an additional two months’ salary per year per employee. One for vacation pay and one in December as a Christmas bonus. They are also required to pay into a social security fund. Additional employee taxes, fees, etc. equate to approximately 44% increase in the initial base salary.
For Michelle and Austin, life in Nicaragua hasn’t been all business. In 2012 they welcomed a baby boy to their family. Bodhin Drill was born at the Metropolitano Vivian Pellas hospital in Managua where both Michelle and Austin were thoroughly impressed by the quality of health care provided.
Michelle originally had a hard time imagining raising a child in a foreign country without family nearby. But soon after becoming pregnant, she started to connect with a community of expats who were also creating families in San Juan del Sur.
“Our new friends provided us with insight into preferred obstetricians, pediatricians, hospitals, childcare, daycare, and schooling. They also shared their personal experiences on parenting away from ‘home’,” says Michelle.
With Bodhin’s second birthday approaching, he will soon start classes at San Juan del Sur Day School, a private international school located just five minutes from the Drill’s home. The school employs teachers from the U.S., Canada, Ireland, Holland, and New Zealand, and they cater to the dozens of families living in San Juan del Sur.
Currently Casa de Tierra allows Michelle and Austin to earn a modest income, but in Nicaragua “modest” funds a very comfortable lifestyle.
What began as an investment property has turned out to be a whole new way of life. In their initial weeks and months in Nicaragua Michelle and Austin assured each other that if they couldn’t make it work in one year, they’d return to the United States.
“We’re now on year five and have been steadily building our business and rooting our lives here,” says Michelle.
Michelle and Austin have learned starting with a plan is important, but being able to adapt and take full advantage of the opportunities available makes life in Nicaragua that much more exciting and fulfilling.
Author’s Note: This article was written by Gordon and originally published in the August edition of International Living’s Incomes Abroad newsletter.