Being There

When we broke ground for our house, friends who had built homes in San Miguel gave us a barrel of often contradictory advice, except on one point–you must be at the construction site every day. It sounded like an overly suspicious, even obsessive attitude to take. Two months into construction it turns out to have been an invaluable piece of advice.

To badly paraphrase Woody Allen, “90 percent of building a house in San Miguel is showing up at the building site, daily, and not being at all afraid to ask questions.” If something looks weird, it probably is and you shouldn’t assume the architect or the maestro will catch it, bring it to your attention, much less volunteer to pay for any make-up work to correct any errors.

This reality has nearly turned what used to be an exciting, fun process–building your dream house–into a stress-inducing grind. The same friends who told us to constantly keep an eye on things now counsel equanimity and constant recitation of the “Serenity Prayer”–you know, the ditty about “accepting the things you cannot change.”

So far we’ve been through relatively minor, easily fixed screw-ups, like forgetting to put a door on an outside storage closet (we caught that when the adobe blocks were halfway up), or using common red brick on some outside walls, when we had agreed to use adobe, which offers better insulation.

Dismantling the adobe blocks from the door opening didn’t cost that much–just an hour’s worth of labor for one guy–but correcting the red brick/adobe switch probably wasn’t quite that cheap. Some of the concrete footings had to be redone and widened to accommodate the wider adobe blocks, and a few of the rebar columns had to be repositioned on the new footings.

The debacle over the huge, rain-collection cistern definitely wasn’t cheap. Designing such a monster should have required a relatively simple engineering study of the soil on which the walls would be built, plus a couple of hours quality time with a calculator or computer to determine stress, pressure and so on exerted by the weight and volume of the water. The latter would have determined the thickness of the walls and what reinforcement was needed.

Though there were blueprints that were handed over to the maestro on site, we don’t believe any fine planning or forethought took place before the backhoe arrived. In the end, we suspect the architect opted for brute force–overbuilding everything by a factor of at least double, to be sure it will hold.

It will. I’m not losing any sleep over the possibility of the cistern sliding down the hill. I just wonder how much money and time we spent to compensate for the lack of more precise planning. I’m betting it was a few thousand dollars and a couple of weeks.

Stew and I never built anything from the ground up in the U.S., so we have no point of reference with which we could compare our residential construction experience in Mexico. It could be the same nerve-wracking experience wherever you build in the world, be it Mexico or Sweden.

However, Stew was the co-owner of a home inspection company in Chicago and he can spot quality construction or snafus when he sees them. So far he is baffled one day and resigned the next regarding the construction of our house. He’s further frustrated by the fact he doesn’t speak Spanish well enough to converse with the maestro.

One peculiarity we’ve found is the lack of complete blueprints before the project starts. In fact many people, include Americans, build without any blueprints at all, and just decide what work needs to be done when the sun rises each morning. The results range from perfectly fine homes, to idiosyncratic creations–Gaudi knockoffs with empty wine bottles encrusted in the masonry–to construction so inept it makes you nervous just to look at it.

In our case there were regulation-size blueprints, approved by the San Miguel building department, but no complete set of drawings. So although we have an idea of what the house will look like, a myriad crucial details remain in a fog.

There is some sort of a wiring diagram but that’s just some drafting boilerplate an assistant in the architect’s office cranked out on his computer.

I glanced at a plumbing and drainage plan but it can’t be more than a rough draft: The second bathroom layout has yet to be finalized, and nobody knows where the water line from the well will feed into our famous cistern. The architect today pointed vaguely to some place on the garage side of the house.

In the U.S., a properly built house with building permits, qualified crews and so on, would start out with blueprints that show every orifice, electrical circuit and plumbing fixture in place.

A lot of improvisation is as it should be. There’s got to be enough flexibility to move a door or widen a window if, when you see it about to be built, you decide that it doesn’t work.

But much on-the-fly construction in San Miguel has to be inefficient and costly.

When a two-foot-thick stone and reinforced concrete wall, separating the cistern from the mechanical room under the kitchen was built, no one thought of placing a pipe that would connect the underwater pump in the cistern with the pressure pump on the other side.

So some poor guy will have to spend the better part of a day with a hammer and chisel, pounding through the stone and concrete to make the necessary opening. More chiseling will be needed to bring in electricity.

Other guys likewise will have to spend many days making holes in the concrete foundations to bring out the plumbing from kitchen and the bathrooms to the drain line that is going in somewhere alongside the house in the direction of the septic tank, whose location is also still unclear. An electric hookup for the kitchen island? Someone will have to chip away a connecting trench and hole in the concrete floor that’s already been poured.

Although this is a gross exaggeration, it feels a bit like building a house with solid walls and then cutting out holes for the windows and doors as you go along, once you figure out where you’d like to have them.

It’s one way of doing construction, but wouldn’t it be faster and cheaper to figure those details beforehand and build them in as you go?

What drives a lot of this inefficiency and lack of planning has to be that labor around is dirt cheap. So mistakes are cheap to fix. A hammer-and-chisel whiz will cost you only about US$2.50 an hour, so if things get bollixed up and need to be redone once or maybe twice, you don’t worry about it. The whiz, who’d probably be unemployed otherwise, will be grateful for the work too.

Besides, Stew points out that there seem to be few construction standards; in effect everything is custom-made. In the U.S. you need to allow for exact holes for windows and doors that are fabricated to standard sizes. In San Miguel the size of the window is whatever you say it is, right at the building site.

Such endless flexibility often causes problems. Where we live now, the dishwasher sticks out three inches out from under the counter because the “custom-made” countertop (made of concrete) is not deep enough. It is as deep as someone decided it needed to be.

That’s not so bad as our friends up the hill, who had to buy a half-size dishwasher because the space under the concrete counter was not wide enough. So the machine now sits in a hole with six inches of dead air on each side.

Qualifications and training of the workers are another imponderable. Despite the miscalculation with the cistern, our architect has come up with what we think is a great design and we remain confident he is well qualified to execute it.

The guys working under him are a far more mixed bag. In San Miguel there’s no such thing as a journeyman license or apprenticeship program for plumbers, electricians, carpenters or other tradespeople.

So you get who you get. The maestro at our worksite probably learned his trade by laying bricks, working hard and showing a bit more initiative than his colleagues. His brother works alongside him, and the maestro‘s 16-year-old son is already on the payroll as a laborer. Everyone in the family likely will end up a maestro sooner or later–without any formal training.

Except that building a house is clearly a complicated job, involving countless measurements, blueprint readings and judgment calls. Our maestro is very pleasant, reliable and hard-working, but he needs daily supervision, lest something go badly awry.

In more complicated tasks, like wiring a whole house, unqualified personnel could cause some serious damage.

In our present house, one in a relatively new condo development of 40-some units, the electric entrance panel consists of four 30-amp breakers that are grossly oversized.

A couple of weeks ago half the toaster’s heating coils burned to a crisp and the breaker for the kitchen–which should have tripped instantly–didn’t even blink. I mounted a metal wall lamp in the bedroom and discovered it gives a pleasant buzz, because the outlets may not be grounded. The wiring was probably done by an enterprising guy who worked in construction for several years and then decided to break out as an electrician on his own.

With no licenses or schools to teach a trade, who’s going to say ‘no’?

Much of the problem is that San Miguel, for all its charm and ideal climate, is a very poor and small venue, with a limited talent pool.

About two years ago a national supermarket chain built a huge store that went up so fast it seemed like a vision. Cranes, I-beams, drywall, concrete flying in all directions and swarms of electricians hunched over huge transformers and junction boxes. This went on day and night. The entire store probably went up faster than many houses in San Miguel.

A miracle? Not quite. Most of the tradespeople on the job, plus the architects and engineers, most likely came from the much larger nearby city of Queretaro or even Mexico City.

But let’s not damn all construction workers in San Miguel. Along with some abominations, Stew and I have seen excellent work, notably carpentry. Tile work can be very good too as well as woven brick construction of bóvedas, or domes, and barrel ceilings that seem to defy gravity.

We hope to get to some of that fun stuff soon.

Meanwhile, our house is behind schedule, we hear, though we don’t know how far behind. We never had firm completion date. Probably two or three weeks.

As for budget, the “reserve” money is already gone, and so are another $5,000 dollars or so, most of it tied to the cistern.

The good news that with the cistern behind us, the rest of the house should move along more swiftly. The architect also just completed a couple of big projects and promises to give our place daily attention. That gap may explain many of our problems.

A friend, one of those who built a house without the help of an architect, smiles knowingly at our litany of construction woe. His house cost twice as much as he had expected. He had other problems, he says, such as his maestro stealing the Christmas bonus pot intended for all the workers.

Things in Mexico are done differently, so get over it.

“Just be sure you don’t work yourself into such a lather that it spoils the fun of finally moving into your own home,” he said, smiling again.

One thought on “Being There

  1. This is among the best of your blog writings. The exasperation you feel pours through. After I finished college, I used to do interior painting of people's houses at night and on weekends while holding down a full time job. When I first moved to San Miguel in the 70s, we asked the landlord of our house to paint our bedroom. Two men arrived and spent the day painting using enamel paint and large brushes. There were brush streaks everywhere especially as the painters began to try to stretch their last bucket of paint. Your observation that wages are so low that correcting mistakes is not expensive explains all. The later entry you describe of Stew and the Asst. Architect trying to debate the roof construction details with limited Spanish is classic.


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