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.

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