Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Stress Test

We should have known.

Of all the American friends who have built houses in San Miguel only one, an acquaintance really, described it as joyful experience. The others repeatedly used words like "stress" and "headaches" and talked about the process in terms that made it sound like doing jumping jacks over hot coals or having a root canal that goes on for nine months.

While riding with the architect in our truck a few days ago we asked him what was the difference between working with Mexican and American clients. He said that although gringos generally pay more punctually--he hasn't been stiffed by one yet--Americans tend to be more nervous and require more "hand-holding."

We can relate to that. To start with, unless you're a multimillionaire, building a house is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, not something you develop a knack for or learn through correspondence courses. The novelty may be hard for architects to grasp: Your house, so unique and dear to you, may be the 15th, 20th or 100th entry in the their portfolio.

Then there's the money. Again, for an architect $250,000 may be the cost of a ho-hum project with modest details. But for the guy writing the checks the project looms as large as a basilica, particularly as the costs pile on.

Building in Mexico--where they speak a different language, both literally and with regard to construction methods--is considerably more complicated.

Yesterday I witnessed a "conversation" between Stew and Jim (the solar panels vendor, another American) and the assistant architect. The latter is a nice enough guy who speaks as much English as Stew and Jim speak Spanish--approximately 30 words plus a few disjointed sentences.

The topic was insulation for the roof, the words for which--"aislamiento térmico para el techo"--were unfortunately not in Stew and Jim's Spanish repertoire.

The question: Was there going to be any on the flat roofs of the house? San Miguel's sun can be searing, which causes concrete roofs to get hot and remain so at night, making bedrooms uncomfortable. (No, air conditioning is not an option with a solar electricity unless you plan to install additional photovoltaic panels and batteries at considerable expense.)

A clumsy mime contest ensued, with Stew and Jim doing most of the gesturing. Finger-pointing at the top of the house meant "roof." All ten fingers overhead, pointing down presumably meant "sun." Palms parallel to one another horizontally, hmm, that must be "thickness" of "stuff" or "insulation." Jim repeatedly tried "insulacion" which means nothing in Spanish.

In response the architect launched into a technical, all-Spanish explanation of the granules they planned to pour on top of the concrete roof, which mixed with a special type of cement would not only insulate the roof but create a slope to direct the rain down to our by-now famous (or notorious) rainwater catchment cisterns. On top of the layer of granules they would add a sealant which if we insisted, could be covered with an additional layer of flat clay tiles.

(I understood and was also grateful the roof would have a three-foot-high wall around it. The way I figured it, by the time you have a poured-cement roof plus the layer of granules, a couple of coats of sealant and the flat clay tile on top of it all, that sucker is going to be about a foot thick at one end.)

I finally intervened as a translator but it was probably too late. Jim's mind had started to go blank and Stew was so agitated he couldn't understand much in any language, despite my efforts. Stew figured it out later when he calmed down, though he insists the assistant architect knows far more English than he lets on. He is still pissed and frustrated by the experience.

The construction methods are alien too, as I have mentioned in other blogs. Most perplexing to me still is the lack of detailed plans, particularly since the unforgiving materials used--cement, rebar and more cement--make corrections tedious and potentially expensive. There are construction drawings alright but they are often more like sketches rather than definitive marching orders. Electricians and plumbers make their own judgment calls, often wrong. So a switch for an overhead light ends up behind a door hinged on the right and a plumbing hook-up for a bathroom sink pops out of the wall above the top of the 36-inch-high vanity. Or the vanity has a light switch for wall sconces but alas, no electric outlets.

God bless the patience and good nature of Mexican workers. You point out a mistake and they happily fix it, even if it involves three hours of chiseling concrete. Yet you wonder, Wouldn't be easier, cheaper and faster to have clear plans in order to do things right on the first pass? Argh, we've bitched about that before.

Friends who have built houses here are amused at our distress. "Do you know where they put the wall light switch for the main bedroom?" we asked a friend yesterday. "Behind the door, of course," he replied laughing. "Where else?"

Still, building a house, even a minor-leaguer like ours, turns out to be a project of awesome complexity for everyone involved. Big decisions and calculations about structures, loads and volumes. Also a steady drizzle of small decisions and details. How high off the ground do you want the windows? How many can lights in the kitchen ceiling? One switch, two or three? A wall light in the hallway?

You stand looking at a half-built brick wall and try to imagine.

Stew and I, both fans of archeological sites, always have been mystified by pyramids and other monumental projects built hundreds or even thousands of years ago. Who did the measuring and how? Figured out the perspective? The proportions? How many people died lugging and cutting those Oldsmobile-size rocks back and forth?

Now we are intrigued by the Americans in San Miguel who hire an architect, write out a check for a big down payment and then take off for the U.S. for six or eight months. What do they find when they return here?