Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Mr. Fungus, Meet Miss Bacteria

The miracle season has started in San Miguel. It's raining almost daily, sometimes in shy, intermittent drizzles or like last night, in hellacious rainstorms, frightening in their intensity and suddenness. Almost overnight, arroyos, culverts and even cracks in the ground that had lain silent for seven or eight months are whooshing and gurgling again, in turn jolting stagnant lagoons and reservoirs back to life.

From one day to the next a bright green fuzz of vegetation covers the desert ground. Sheep, goats and burros that used to meander morosely past our fence scrounging for any kind of edible vegetation seem livelier and certainly fatter, now that the landscape is an endless salad bar.

This ephemeral subtropical spectacle, complete with relatively high humidity, will continue until November, when a grand finale of mostly sunflowers, daisies and cosmos--millions of them--will cover the landscape in all directions. Then it's back to several months of drought, brown fields and caked soil.

Yes, that San Miguel soil. At the ranch, once you get past the thousands of rocks, a shovelful of the stuff right now looks black, spongy and downright promising. It's not Iowa--the prickly pear cacti remind you of that--but it seems like a close approximation.

That is until you try any gardening: The soil's consistency ranges from asphalt (winter) to goulash (summer). Right now we're in the goulash season when the soil is soft enough to sink a shovel, at least until you hit a rock. It's certainly preferable to winter asphalt, when the garden tool of choice is not a shovel or a pitchfork but a pickax.

Aside from its consistency, the soil has a couple of other problems. Nitrogen, the essential ingredient for growing things, is quite scarce in our soil, which is also alkaline, as is usually the case in this type of desert/savanna region.

As you might imagine, the third problem with our goulash is that it doesn't drain very readily. Swamplike conditions prevail on the farms around the ranch after a heavy rain.

Last year, before we built an access road to the ranch, we had to park our car and walk half a mile across a recently plowed field where we sank past our ankles. Our feet each became 10-lb. clumps of intractable mud.

On the ranch itself it isn't very muddy, but that's because we have another problem--erosion. There's a slight pitch on the back one-third of the land that becomes a more precipitous drop-off in the front two-thirds. The house is going up on the ridge before the drop-off, to take advantage of the view of the valley below.

When serious rains break out, rivers of water and mud quickly organize. I'm convinced the reason our land is not pure rock is that during downpours soil from the farms around us helpfully slides into our property at the high end to replenish what we're losing down below.

In trying to alleviate the shortcomings of the soil and terrain, we've added another complication: We'd like to stick to a generally organic gardening regimen.

Nothing too hard-core. It's just that we plan to grow some vegetables and fruits and we'd rather not place chemicals and pesticides between the soil and our guts.

Besides, after spending all that time and money on sustainable building design and gadgetry, rainwater harvesting and the accompanying ecological blah-blah-blah, it wouldn't look very good to douse the outdoors with the latest from Dow Chemical or Monsanto, would it?

With those considerations in mind a couple of weeks ago we attended a lecture at the local botanic garden on organic ways to improve San Miguel's problematic soil. Perfect, we figured, although the title, "Soil Microbiology: An Audiovisual Presentation," suggested we weren't in for a rerun of "Dancing with the Stars," featuring Mario López and his dimples.

Indeed, rather than a shot of organic adrenaline the lecture left us scratching our heads. Throughout the 90 minutes or so, our minds went from the excitement of hope, through a brief pause of uncertainty--and straight to confusion.

It was "Aha!" followed by "Hmmm..." and then "Huh?"

To summarize, there's a constant battle going on in the soil between bacteria and fungi. Ideally each camp should keep each other in relative balance, but in San Miguel bacteria are running rampant. Our soil is best suited for weeds. How one fixes that--without buying a microscope, hiring consultants and spending oodles of time and money--never became quite clear.

The presenter was a thirty-something Canadian who was extremely knowledgeable and articulate, with an enviable enthusiasm for his field of expertise. His is not a job but a cause. Great lecturer. He came to San Miguel two years ago, is training to become a Certified Food Web Advisor and has set up a consulting firm to help large land owners, some of them near to where we are building, to establish "organic land management systems."

Our soil is muddy and lumpy because sodium ions bond the clay together. We need carbon to counteract sodium's effect. Mixing in rich compost could do the trick.

Aha! We had bought a truckful of compost from a neighboring mushroom farm. A year ago, mushroom compost was the rage among gringo gardeners in San Miguel, in large part because the farmer was giving the stuff away. "Free!" is always the surest way of catching the attention of San Miguel's Social Security set.

The young Canadian quickly sank our hopes for a quick solution. It turns out the compost is a practically lifeless, nutrition-less residue of mushroom farming. It even contains some salts which is the last thing you need in our alkaline soil. Hmmm.

When hearing such complaints the mushroom farmer supposedly began adding some manure to the compost. That sounds like a good idea, but...

Manure contains bacteria, which are rampant in our soil. Someone suggested adding worm castings to the soil, but that's also bacteria heaven. That problem perhaps could be remedied by feeding the worms more cardboard instead of green matter like lettuce or vegetables. Compost from kitchen scraps? Nope, that's more bacteria.

The kind of compost we need would be from wood chips--from certain kinds of trees, mind you--that would bring in carbon and fungi. Someone suggested perhaps adding sawdust to the compost pile, but that would depend on the type of wood they were cutting at the lumberyard.

After talk about spraying "compost tea" to facilitate the production of fungi in your garden, the lecture careened toward the Huh? moment.

What exactly--and realistically--do you do to bring about that vaunted equilibrium of fungi and bacteria in your garden, after which the ideal soil biochemistry supposedly could sustain itself? Even Stew, who as a biology major in college has a far greater interest in nematodes and protozoa than most people, seemed stumped.

One solution would be to hire the lecturer as a soil consultant for $50USD an hour, and send packets of soil to the U.S. for analysis for about $220USD a shot. But even then the prospects of essentially reconstituting the soil on a large parcel of land sound daunting to near impossible.

Enter my friend Jo Ann. At their ranch at the other end of town she and her husband had built raised beds, about three feet high, where they raised vegetables. They used drip irrigation and covered the beds with a screening gauze to protect the crops from both the scorching sun and insects.

Underneath the protective cover robust vegetables seemed to be jumping out of the dirt.

So I contacted her, asking for some of her raised bed secrets:

Regarding our raised beds. What we did was a third composted manure (we used horse/burro and chicken, both of which we had since our animals created it) a third construction sand and a third compost that we made from kitchen/farm scraps. Our beds were about 3 1/2 feet tall so we filled a lot of the bottom with gravel to get good drainage. I never used the mushroom compost and found that the "rich soil" that you could buy from the nurseries often contained maggots and other very large bugs that were more of a problem in the garden then the benefit the soil provided. Hope this helps.

It sounds like a reasonable plan, though we need to find some cooperative farmers who will supply the animal manure for composting.

Regarding our pile of mushroom compost, we will continue mixing it equal parts with tierra lama, a sand-like loam used by some local landscapers to help break up the clay soils. We'll use the mix to backfill the holes of the trees we are planting; it should be helpful in breaking up the clumpy black soil if nothing else.

As for the apparent bacteria v. fungi imbalance in our soil, the answer for the moment appears to be: Huh?

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Here come the vigas

Construction continues at a surprising speed. The latest addition to the house are the vigas (or wood roof beams) over the Living/Dining Room. The vigas had been sitting outside, covered, for at least six weeks. Seemingly in a matter of days they were cut, trimmed, sanded and mounted on the roof.

Over the vigas will go styrofoam and wire panels that have already been coated with about an inch of cement. Once mounted, the panels will get an additional two or three inches of cement, and on top of that will go the tejas or Spanish-style clay shingles.

The tightness of the fit of the vigas is pretty amazing, considering their size (about 6 by 10 inches around by 15 to 20 feet long) and their unwieldiness. They now have to be secured to the concrete beams and rebar through some kind of process I haven't figured out.

It's remarkable how the addition of the vigas has changed the look and feel of the house.

Masons are also zipping through the inside of the house applying a smooth coat of cement over the bare brick and adobe. Another crew then covers the cement with a very thin and smooth finishing coat of plaster (check out the walls inside of the garage in the picture above, where Stew and Gladys are relaxing, collecting their thoughts).

I don't recall seeing that type of finish in any house in San Miguel. The architect assures us that the plaster is very easily patched with Spackle.

Something the architect did on his own and which has turned out to be a great idea is to put in about six or seven fair-sized skylights throughout the house. The bathrooms, laundry room and main closet would have been dark holes without them.

Another curious feature taking shape is the main bathroom's round shower room, which from the outside looks like a cross between a silo and a gun turret. The inside is about 8 feet in diameter, with a glass dome overhead. The wrap-around windows were sized and placed to maximize the view but also with, er, modesty in mind.

The modesty calculations of the windows work best if you're about six feet tall and male, in which case the bottom sill hits you about mid-chest. You'll get a nice view of the countryside while lathering up and singing a tune.

Things get more difficult if you're Tom Cruise-size or shorter, for the windows will hit you about nose-high and you won't see much unless you shower on the tip of toes.

In reality, the windows and shower are so far from the road below a Peeping Tom would need binoculars to see anything. And if someone is that interested or motivated to catch a glimpse, hey, have at it.

During the past two weeks Stew and I have started literally piecing back together parts of the landscape around the house. Vehicle traffic flattened some of the vegetation, including some fair-sized mesquites and prickly pear cacti, and careless workers have done at least as much damage. Trash abounds around the site.

We have cleaned up some of the debris, started planting some different varieties of cacti, and wrapped groups of plants with stakes and "Caution" yellow tape to offer some protection. They look like demilitarized zones for vegetation.

The previous maestro reassured me it would all grow back. I don't doubt that. Mesquites have tap roots that go down four or five feet and guarantee survival of the plant even if most of the foliage is destroyed. Cacti have shallower roots but the plants seem to take hold wherever a broken piece hits the ground.

In the field back of house quite a large patch (about 25 by 25 feet) of prickly pears was knocked down and buried by the backhoe. Even before the rains started a couple of weeks ago, a series of bright-green baby cacti had already started defiantly poking their heads through the rubble. That's another DMZ we need to fence off.

Problem with desert plants though, is that while almost indestructible they are also very slow growers. It's easy to get a batch of baby cacti to grow back, but it takes several years before they grow into anything like the size plants destroyed in a few careless minutes.

Some of that construction damage is inevitable except that the destruction seemed to be radiating out from the house by the week, like an ongoing bomb blast. The collection of rocks to build parts of the house also has left holes everywhere, some quite large.

It's raining quite regularly now, almost daily. Now we need to take advantage of the favorable growing conditions and start planting additional trees, something that's turning out far more difficult than we figured.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Small salad, hold the popcorn

An old, if not necessarily great, joke says that a Catholic priest was asked what was it like to hear confession at a convent. He sighed and replied that nuns telling their sins was like getting stoned to death with popcorn.

After a meeting yesterday with the architect during which he grilled us to make a dozen different decisions, Stew and I marveled at how complicated it is to build a house, even one as relatively small as ours. Every day it seems we get hit with a new volley of popcorn.

Not that the decisions are trivial, particularly in Mexico where the preferred construction material is concrete, even for the bases on which the kitchen cabinets rest. Make a wrong decision and you've got two choices: Get used to a cockeyed cabinet in an unhandy place or listen to a week's worth of hammering and chiseling of concrete to make it right.

In our case we hedged: Our cabinets will sit on wooden bases easily redone if there is a mistake or later on we want to change the layout. The architect insisted ominously that mice might set up shop underneath. I figured our three cats didn't have much to do.

I doubt Mexican houses are intrinsically more complicated than those in the States. On the contrary. During his years as a home inspector in Chicago Stew often saw single-family maisonettes with as many as five furnaces and/or air conditioning compressors, plus miles of wiring leading to electric entrance panels with so many breakers they start to resemble the dashboard of a 747. Some kitchens had double dishwashers, morgue-size Sub-Zero refrigerators and freezers, plus trash-mashers to deal with whatever the electric garbage disposer refused to swallow.

Our off-grid house is no simple hut lit by a kerosene lamp (if only they sold kerosene in Mexico, which for some reason they don't). There will be a dozen photovoltaic panels sharing the roof with solar water heaters, rainwater collection tubes, and an assortment of dishes and antennas to catch Internet, TV, telephone and satellite radio signals.

And don't forget the electric wind turbine, whirring atop a 30-ft. tower. We don't really need it but, hey, the place is starting to look like a Radio Shack anyway so might as well go for it.

But what feeds the constant stream of questions and decisions at our house are not necessarily the gadgets, but they way houses are built in Mexico. There's no pre-approved Master Plan that guides construction--and would free you to go on a two-month vacation--but a myriad little plans and revisions popping up along the way and calling for decisions, decisions, decisions.

It's like eating at one of those Greek diners with a 20-page menu where the waitress can't stop asking questions and just let you eat.

A salad?

Will it be a Grand Salad, a small Dinner Salad, a Cobb Salad or a Greek Salad? Would you like chicken with that? That'll be $1.50 extra. Anchovies? What kind of dressing? Greek, Thousand Island or...

Two days ago we visited the architect and his assistant and sat before a computer to design our kitchen cabinetry. In the States that would mean going to a Home Depot or a kitchen cabinet store, where you'd go through a catalog of, say, Kraft Maid cabinets, and basically point. "I want that one and that one, plus the lazy Susan." The cabinets are then ordered and pieced together in your kitchen like a jigsaw puzzle, with an occasional filler strip to cover up any boo-boos or empty spaces.

Here every piece is custom made, so you start with a blank piece of paper and after an hour or so, work up to a splitting headache. Stew, probably because he does most of the cooking, retained his interest. I just zoned out.

It's not just a base cabinet with a drawer on top and two shelves underneath, behind a door. There are really no standard sizes or configurations, so you have to decide everything from the width and depth of the cabinet, the depth of the drawers (silverware, kitchen utensils or pots and pans?) How many shelves below? Stationary or the pull-out kind?

We were there for nearly 90 minutes and didn't even get to the countertop material or the type of wood. The center island? Square, rectangular? Where do you want the small sink? What kind of cabinets underneath? Are the stools facing the terrace, the living room or the stove?

And after all that, we forgot to put an electric outlet in the island. Get out the chisel and hammer to bring out an electric line. But wait, the box in the ceiling now doesn't square with the island below. More chiseling, I'm afraid, to move that sucker.

Fresh pepper for your salad?

Then come main-course decisions that somehow weren't made when the original blueprints were drawn up.

Yesterday we had to consider a sample of the outside doors and windows. Do you like the design? Clear glass or translucent for the doors? How thick? Where does the lock go? What kind of lock? What color metal? Somebody said green. Who? What shade of green? I don't remember. Will have to look at the Comex paint block of hundreds of paint chips and dozens of greens.

What kind of potatoes? Hash, mashed, baked or home fries? How would like the meat done?

When we get to the windows, we'll have to decide on mechanisms, size of side panels, number of openings, kind of glass, which openings get screens.

Makes you pine for the days of Pella or Andersen windows, which went directly from the box to standard-size hole in the wall. Boring but quick and convenient.

Naturally, much of the extra work in our house is self-inflicted. We wanted "interesting," "unique" and "personal." And instead of dragging an extension cord to the nearest electric pole, we turned the house into a high school science experiment.

We don't regret it, despite all the head-scratching, questions and decisions. Next week we're supposed to pick the material for the kitchen countertops. No cement or ceramic tiles, we know that. But is it granite or Silestone? What color, shade and patterns?

And what would you like for desert, folks? Key Lime Pie, Cheesecake, Bread Pudding, Apple Pie--with ice cream?--or Tirami....?

Oh, please, just bring me the check.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Home economics

Like an ominous fog rolling in, economic hard times have settled over San Miguel during the past six months.

The weather continues sunny and perfect. And the town's small contingent of mounted policemen, decked out in their theatrical uniforms, still take their posts around the central square and wait for tourists to take their picture and pat the horses.

Except that the steady stream of foreign tourists and of retirees migrating from the U.S. and Canada--the life force the local economy--has almost dried up. Potential tourists are said to be afraid of the swine flu and the narco-violence. And American and Canadian retirees who had been fantasizing about realizing fabulous profits in the sale of their homes, and investing the money here, are suddenly too broke or spooked to do any such thing.

The economic debacle here is really a tragic trifecta. The faltering of the U.S. and global economies has clobbered Mexico despite early predictions the country might survive relatively unscathed. The booming San Miguel real estate market, which fed off the easy mortgages and ever-rising housing values in the U.S., has very nearly flat-lined.

Then came the escalation, or at least the escalation of coverage by the U.S. media, of the wars among competing drug cartels and the Mexican army. The killings mostly take place along the U.S. border, approximately a 10-hour drive from San Miguel, a pissant town of no interest to the drug lords, at least not yet. But TV viewers and vacation planners in the U.S. can be forgiven for not being able to parse such fine distinctions and therefore taking a pass on Mexico.

Orlando looks good, doesn't it honey?

Finally, the swine flu hysteria hit. As far as I know, no one died of the disease in San Miguel, but no matter. The natives took to wearing blue or green surgical masks, which made the place look a bit a like a leper colony. Tourists cancelled. Some hotel owners hope the yearly wave of Texans fleeing the heat back home might mark the beginning of a recovery for the tourist industry.

Home construction in San Miguel has practically ceased, except for a few huge subdivisions. But even those seem to be progressing in slow motion. Stew and I ran into an architect friend at a local grocery store and she admitted her business had cratered--as in zero projects right now. During an unguarded moment yesterday, our own architect confided that unless some new work comes in by July our house will be the only job on his schedule.

We appreciate and enjoy the gushing attention we suddenly get from him and all the suppliers. Everyone returns phone calls promptly. And no need to worry about our modest adobe home getting bumped off the monitor by someone else's million-dollar palazzo. We are the only thing on the monitor.

Also--and at the risk of sounding like a totally insensitive vulture--the economic crisis in Mexico likely will end up saving us considerable amounts of money, particularly in labor and some other construction costs.

Consider that since late last year the value of the Mexican peso has declined by about 35 percent against the U.S. dollar, going from $10.00 pesos to $13.50 pesos to a dollar. Some economists say the peso may drop to 20 to a dollar by the end of the year.

The shrinking peso has particularly depressed the already low real wages of Mexican workers. It may shock some to hear that laborers working at our house get paid approximately $1000 pesos a week, which at the current exchange of rate of about $13.50 pesos to $1 dollar, amounts to about $75 dollars a week. That's for 45 hours of work, or about US$1.70 an hour.

Worried and vaguely guilty that we might be unintentionally running some sort of Mexican gulag, I have on a number of occasions checked and asked around about wages and salaries in other jobs. Ours compared favorably, even for jobs requiring greater skills or education.

Over the phone, a friend from Chicago figuratively held my hand and helped me assuage my guilt. What you pay is the commonly accepted local wage, she said, and if you weren't building your house--even at those comparatively low wage rates--there would only be that many more people unemployed in San Miguel.

Yet some acquaintances in San Miguel--apparently more socially minded than Stew and me--say they pay their gardener a "living wage," or what they have decided he should earn in order to achieve a "decent living standard" for himself his family. According to these friends, the "living wage" in San Miguel now stands at a little over $5 an hour, or triple what my architect is paying the construction crews.

Stew and I never got clear definitions of such emotive terms as "living" or "decent." But if the projected labor costs for building our house had been three times higher there's a real possibility we wouldn't be building anything.

In that case our home construction formula would have been something like this:

"Living Wage"--> Triple Costs--> No House--> No Jobs --> Nobody Happy

There are some mitigating factors to the low wages here too. Prices of most domestic goods--basic food items like tortillas--have remained stable. The government also stifles price increases in some basic items like gasoline (all production is owned and controlled by the government) and subsidizes other key items. Still, many items at grocery stores are imported and now exhorbitantly expensive to lower middle-class and low-income Mexicans.

At our new house, not everything has dropped in price either, even with the more favorable exchange rate. Cement and rebar--those two essential ingredients of Mexican building--have increased considerably. When it comes to buying kitchen appliances and bathroom fixtures, we'll be paying full U.S. prices too.

So don't go figuring that the cost of building our house has dropped by 35 or 40 percent on account of the flagging peso. Or try to guilt-trip us over what we might actually save.


Or am I sounding a little guilty already?

Friday, June 12, 2009

Two weeks away

With the universal warning from friends still resonating in our heads--"be sure to check on the construction every day"--we came back to San Miguel from a two-week trip feeling a bit apprehensive, almost expecting to find some disaster.

There were three surprises. During our absence the architect had fired the maestro Bonifacio and his entire crew of bricklayers and masons and replaced them with a new team. Then we found out, second-hand, that our architect is not really an architect (he's not licensed) but more like a super-duper building contractor. An associate in his office is the licensed architect who signs all the drawings required for the building permits.

But the third surprise was by far the most pleasant: The project seems to have gone into warp speed. Up to the time we left town, the "house" was really a collection of random walls, holes in the ground, piles of adobe bricks and other construction debris, plus concrete pillars sticking up here and there. The place looked more like a ruin, the remains of a house, rather than a future home.

When we came back all the walls had gone up, as well as the roofs on the garage/kitchen wing on the left and the wing with the two bedrooms at the other end.

We might even move in a little earlier than we planned, maybe Dec. 1, though friends warn against any early-completion euphoria.

One of two filters to screen rain water coming down from the roof has been built. These filters, with metal screens, rocks and sand will screen out big chunks of dirt, leaves, etc. which can then be scooped or flushed out. Another filter in the basement will kill any bacteria in any water that is used in the house.

In fact, the roof over the garage and the kitchen is pretty much finished and ready to send water to the cistern below the terrace, whenever it starts raining.

At this pace, the roof and the entire rain collection system should be functioning by the time the rainy season arrives in July. Good thing. You miss the rainy season in San Miguel, and it's another eight or nine months before you see another drop.

Having roofs and ceilings has given the place a completely new look. Paul, a friend of ours who built a house with his partner at the opposite end of San Miguel, had told me that for some reason of optical illusions, smallish rooms would become spacious with a roof on top. The main bedroom in particular now looks huge.

Our architect/builder credits the new maestro for the accelerated speed of the construction. In retrospect, Bonifacio seemed like a heck of a nice guy who somehow couldn't quite put his arms around the project. The crews varied in size and the project appeared to just mosey along. One day they'd be working at one end of the house, and the next day at another end.

It was often hard to tell how the house was progressing. Everything seemed to be happening at once but at the same time nothing at all. The work style was the opposite of "linear."

The new maestro is called Martín and he doesn't strike me as a jolly, back-slapping type of guy. He's short and a bit chubby, with a round face to match. His reply to an enthusiastic "Buenos días!" is likely to be a polite, barely audible grunt. It almost seems as if he is afraid an ear-to-ear smile might hurt his teeth. Maybe he'll liven up after we get to know each other better.

One noticeable change is that he seems to be finishing up all sorts of odds and ends. A row of small windows on one wall of the garage is now cleaned out and finished, and so is the skylight over the laundry room. In the States, they'd call it a "punch list" and it's supposed to help you pick through the unfinished nit-shit before it drives you nuts.

The most interesting feature of the house may well turn out to be the Spanish-tile roof over the Living/Dining Room area. The ends of the room are not square; one end has a ship-like point to it, which means the roof tiles won't be aligned either, but come down at an angle. Impossible to explain; will have to wait for pictures of the finished product.

The tiles are supposed to be antique or used, recycled from another building but sealed to keep them waterproof. We expect them to be grayish-red in shade, rather than the bright-red hue of new tiles.

We also decided to install a round, stained glass window high up on the eastern end of the Living/Dining Room to catch the morning sun. That should be neat. The peak of the tile roof is supposed to be about 16 feet high.

Two big design questions remain. The front patio of the house is still to be drawn. We have seen some sketches and it looks very different from the original drawings.

In the back, on the terrace over the cisterns that overlooks the valley below, the architect also needs to design some sort of roof overhang. It can't be too big because it will block the light entering the Living/Dining Room, a no-no in our original instructions. But we need some protection so we can eat outdoors, a big pastime of ours, during mid-summer when the sun is beating down directly from above.

Although our architect has done very well managing the actual construction (except for the debacle over the cisterns), I've always had some doubts about his design qualifications. The overall design of the house is very cool and we're very happy with it. But when specific points of design have come up such as, What do you think we should do here? or How do we handle that? he seemed a bit nervous and hesitant. None of that bravado that you usually get from designers and artsy types.

This is perhaps a petty point. My dad used to be a draftsman and I always marveled at his free-hand drawings and specifically how he was able to draw in perspective and even do a few tricks with foreshortening (to create the illusion of depth in a drawing).

Our architect's free-hand drawings always seemed a bit crude--not very architecty. Certainly not as good as my dad's. And on a few occasions he seemed stumped by relatively simple design questions, though he always rebounded the next day as a result of some brainstorm he supposedly had had overnight.

Through a couple of friends we discovered that our architect only has a couple of years of architecture school, and that the real drawing, calculating and design is done by one of his assistants who is a licensed architect.

So our "architect" is more like a combination builder, manager and rain-maker. For that last responsibility he relies on his perfect English, winning personality, ability to resolve problems and referee the inevitable screaming matches with clients. As a rain-maker he keeps bringing in gringo clients, which keep his firm going, and his employees happy.

No big deal. We have seen four or five of his houses. While we like some more than others, the crafstmanship is very good and they're all standing. The owners are very pleased.

And so are we, despite the snags. He seems to be bringing the project in on time and on budget. He listens to our suggestions and questions. Most important, especially around these parts, he seems honest. Go to a San Miguel party and horror stories will pour in about all sorts of scams and schemes by architects licensed or otherwise.

The phenomenon of the non-architect architects may be another Mexican special. We have heard of quite a few 'architects' working in town who really are more like artistes, builders or fast-talkers who rely on licensed counterparts to do the real design work.

Or you can just dispense with the fartsy-schmanzy architecture racket altogether.

I was visiting someone on Saturday who lives in a sprawling contemporary house.

"Which architect did you use?" I asked him.

"Oh we didn't use any," he said. "My wife and I just sketched out what kinds of floor plans we wanted and turned it over directly to a maestro."

No architect and perhaps not even any of those annoying building permits.

And the most amazing thing about it? Architect or not, it's a fantastic-looking house.