Friday, February 13, 2009

Off the ground





It looked and felt like an apparition. After almost three years of watching our house plans stumble over endless obstacles and delays--architects, legal problems, squabbling neighbors, plus the occasional waffling and changes of mind on our part--on February 10 we actually broke ground.

We showed up at the land early in the morning and a brand-new, orange backhoe was scratching the ground, while a crew of about six men scampered about marking the ground with chalk lines, pounding wooden posts and then connecting them with string as if they were spiders constructing a web. Shortly afterward, the first of a dozen dump trucks filled with tepetate, a dense type of dirt used to pave rural roads around here, appeared and started dumping its load by the gate.

There's maestro or construction foreman at the project. He's in his mid-30s, and alternates between a shy smile and gentle affect and giving brisk directions and changes to the rest of the crew. He keeps unfurling a copy of the plans that, on this very first day of construction, already is crumpled and covered with dirt.

Shortly afterward the architect arrived, a lanky guy in his 40s, with a multi-ethnic background that allows him to speak perfect English.

Also at the site we found an assistant architech wearing a giant floppy Mexican hat that looked like one of those creations tourists buy at the airport in Acapulco or Puerto Vallarta on the way home, but without the fancy sequins and decorations. He kept one hand on to the hat to keep it from blowing away.

(One thing gringos discover shortly after moving to San Miguel is that wearing a hat is not merely a fashion statement. The city's lower latitude combined with the high altitude, make the sun particularly scorching. Local dermatologists have secure lifetime income streams treating fair-skinned expats for skin cancers and other problems caused by sunburns.)

I don't know what we expected. More planning, discussion and cogitation? Unforeseen problems and delays? My first reaction was to say, "Hey, wait a minute, shouldn't we discuss this a little more? We're moving too fast!"

But instead the workers purposefully paced around the backhoe, looking like Martians who had just descended from their spaceship and were settling in for a long stay.

The initial surprise quickly gave way to exhilaration--it's actually happening!--as we saw the chalk markings on the ground align with the spectacular views of the countryside beyond, and we could begin to see, not just imagine, how beautiful this house will be.

Of course, there's always something to worry about. When we saw the chalk marks on the ground--living/dining room, study, bedroom, etc.--the house seemed to have turned into a munchkin chalet. The living/dining room looked particularly tiny, and the bedroom also not big enough to accommodate two cots. The garage, on the other hand, seemed big enough for a B-52.

While looking at the plans, before breaking ground, we had double- and triple-checked the measurements to be sure they were adequate. Neither Stew nor I can readily visualize what 600 sq. ft. looks like, so we had to compare the measurements in the plans with the size of the rooms in the house where live now. Do we want bigger or smaller than what we have now?

Adding to the confusion was our unfamiliarity with the metric system, which meant all the measurements on the plans had to be converted to linear and square feet, and back again.

The architect also had warned us to be sure that the plans reflected what we wanted. It's easy to move an electrical outlet or a window, but foundations--the matter at hand--were a different story.

Changes of mind would be costly and time-consuming.

We remembered the story of two guys who were building a house at a subdivision outside of San Miguel and who realized, after the builder already had started to pour the foundations, that the main bedroom wasn't big enough to accommodate their bed, a behemoth known as a "California King Size Bed." So it came down to a choice between ditching the bed or redoing some of the foundations. The bed won but at a cost, we're sure, of quite a few bucks.

The day after breaking ground, we came back with our own tape measure and plans. The maestro, noticing our concern, patiently went through all the measurements for every room. Werner explained that it's a common optical illusion for owners to suddenly feel every room and closet is way too small. He reassured us that our house was no Gatsby mansion, but that every room was "generous" in size.

Everything seems fine, except the land itself. The 7.5 acres, as far as we know, had never been farmed or disturbed, except for livestock munching on every blade of vegetation down to its final inch. The only plants not touched by animals were cacti, mostly of the prickly pear variety, and gnarled huizaches and small mesquites who had managed to survive on this rocky, almost moon-like terrain.

To see the backhoe going back and forth, digging trenches and otherwise scarring the land somehow was, initially, upsetting. Then Stew reminded me that the ground was seriously eroded and it would be far better off under our management.

I asked the maestro to tell the backhoe operator to avoid mashing or uprooting plants unnecessarily, and to dig up and put aside those that are on the way for replanting later on. We went out of town for a week; we're eager to see how far construction got in that time.

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