UPDATE: Building a House in Mexico — By Jennifer Shipp
Guanajuato Mexico North America

UPDATE: Building a House in Mexico — By Jennifer Shipp

The patio for the first apartment is nothing special, but almost habitable now…

When John and I lived in the United States, we built everything ourselves. As a rule, I did the carpentry and he did the plumbing and the electrical work. When we had to build really heavy things that had to be structurally supportive, we worked together. We had quite a synchrony and both of us were good at working with wood. But here in Mexico, the wood is so hard and so heavy that I could burn through one whole a circular saw blade trying to cut a 2 x 2. I suppose that’s a big reason why practically everything is built out of cement.

And working with cement isn’t my thing. I mean, I could probably get good enough at working with cement to build a tiny one-room shack by myself, but it would barely stand and it would look terrible. It probably wouldn’t have windows. So, we have to hire people to work on our big building here in Guanajuato, which has been a totally new experience for John and me.

Felipe and Cristian are two workers who stayed with us after our big blow-up with Beto, the crazy “engineer” who created a big cluster-fuck out of the first two levels of our house. For about a month, we had only Felipe and Cristian working for us. We didn’t want the project to get away from us again like it did with Beto, so we thought we’d just keep things small. But cement work takes a long time. Things get built, but then they have to cure. The progress is slow.

So three weeks ago, we hired a “metal guy”. He built some doors and windows for us. His work is incredible, fast, and affordable. AND, he installs the doors for us. We’d purchased several doors from the Home Depot in Léon that all opened the wrong direction. The girl who’d taken our order at the Home Depot was really giggly—she thought it was so funny that we aren’t fluent in Spanish that she forgot to pay attention when I was describing to her how the doors would open. Even in English, the direction that doors open is hard to describe and she managed to botch it for us. But we learned from that experience to go to a tienda that does vidrios (glass). Our first metal guy, Alejandro, is a perfectionist and he can create almost anything I design using metal and glass.

After this experience with Alejandro, we were inspired to try working with some other talent down here in Mexico. John had been trying to put in all of our electrical at the house while continuing to work a 40 hour week for his web development company. He’d spend several hours a day pounding out channels for the conduit and then find that Beto’s conduit that he’d installed was crushed at the corners and he couldn’t run the line. After two weeks of doing things this way, I decided to put an ad up on Facebook looking for an electricista. Five minutes later, Roberto contacted us. I set up a time to meet him at the house.

Roberto is a perfectionist and he works slowly, but his work is high-quality and very affordable. I like Roberto. He sometimes brings his 8 year old son with him to help out (which is really cool). Felipe and Cristian took note that we were hiring more people and they told us they knew of some other workers who could push the project forward even faster. At the end of this week, we had 10 to 12 people working in various areas of the house doing plumbing and electrical and building walls.

At the end of last week, we “finished” the first apartment on the first floor of our building. This will be Lydian’s apartment at first. It was finished in the sense that it was painted and there were rooms, but we still had to install the entrance door (one of those damn Home Depot doors that had to be turned and refitted) and John had to hook up the reverse osmosis system. We set up office spaces in the two future bedrooms (one office for John and one for me and Lydian). That worked pretty well, but things got pretty loud in our offices by Thursday. People were scraping the floors upstairs and grinding away at metal and cement 20 feet away from us. Lydi and I tried to be Zen as we worked on our writing projects. Every now and then, Lydian would look up at me from her computer with a serious look on her face and wide eyes to say words to me like, “serenity” or “tranquility” and then she’d blink her eyes very slowly and take a deep breath, exhaling as though she was totally at peace. Scrape, scraaaape, scraaape…BOOM! Scraaaape…BOOM!

By Friday, Lydian and I had realized that it was hard to write things under those conditions. And John had realized that it was hard to have client meetings in that environment (he’d resorted to going and sitting in the car for important calls). Now our rule is that if it gets so dusty that there’s a haze in our offices or the apartment, we need to leave. Or, if it’s so noisy that we can’t think clearly, we need to leave. Our goal this week is to have the workers complete the second floor living room which sits right above the first apartment.

When we’re there, on site, the workers stay on task, but if we leave, it gets harder to keep things moving forward. But it’s hard to stay on site because all of us have work to do. We’ve had to drive to Home Depot about once a week, once to Irapuato (which is closer) and once to Léon. We’ve also had to make multiple trips to the lumber yard, the tile and bathroom tienda (known as “Garo”) and the hardware store (ferreteria). None of our workers speak any English, and this sometimes leads to misunderstandings, but the misunderstandings aren’t nearly as crazy as they had been with English-speaking Beto.

If I’d known back when we started this project what I know now, I would’ve given myself at least a year to rank up on Spanish before starting this building project and then I would’ve hired a bunch of people to do work. I would NOT have hired a ready-made team of people. Instead, I’d hire people who don’t necessarily know each other. But I think the most important piece of this puzzle is Cristian and Felipe. We trust them. They work hard. Felipe is a knowledgeable mason and Cristian does really well with detail work like tile. They work well together and I believe that they just want to do their jobs and skip the work-site drama that Beto always stirred up among his workers. But I’m learning how to accept the imperfections in the work. Things get done, but not always the way that I intended.

So John and I have a philosophy, “It can either be perfect, or it can be done.” Obviously, if the work is perfect, it probably will never get done here in Mexico. Part of that has to do with the nature of working with cement and the other part has to do with the fact that there are no building codes here and every single little project could be done a million different ways depending on how much we’re willing to spend on it. Where do we want the electrical outlets? Up high? In the middle of the wall? Down low? It’s up to us? We draw an “X” on the walls and they go there! Where do we want the windows? Personally, I tend to go for “structural integrity” when I’m designing a space, but the workers don’t care about that. Luckily, I have some books that talk about how many windows are “safe” on a given wall in a cement structure. Tile could be done to perfection, or it can look like total shit. I’ve seen the “total shit” version of tilework much more often in houses here in Mexico than tilework that’s done really well. Luckily, Cristian does excellent tile work and he really enjoys it. He’s reluctant to have anyone else do the tile because he’s very particular about the final product.

This whole project has been so much more stressful than I would’ve ever imagined, especially given that John and I have done very little of it ourselves. In many ways, being able to work on the construction back in the states was pretty relaxing in comparison. We could work on things when we felt like it. We could take days off. But this project has been like a freight train the whole way! We can’t stop it and we can’t really push it forward either. It goes at the speed it wants to go. The whole thing feels out of totally out of control most of the time with brief blips of sanity and an occasional sense of accomplishment to keep us going. I can’t wait for it to be over. Then, I want to travel again. (Does that sound crazy?)…maybe we’ll go back to Southeast Asia or Africa. I don’t know yet. But it will be nice to come home to this house and play with all the possibilities this city has to offer.

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