A house is a home when it shelters the body and comforts the soul. – Phillip Moffet
Building a house in the tropics has more than a little in common with warfare. Just imagine the full spectrum
of ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat’, on location, but in a much hotter arena.
Throw in a few torrential downpours, hauling spiny pochote logs out of the nearby jungle, a couple of high speed trips to the nearby clinic to stop the blood flow and stitch up the inevitable gashes. Prepare for the occasional 7.6 earthquake, power outages, time off for local funerals, guys going AWOL while nursing hangovers or soccer injuries, delays due to the logistical snafu’s as materials promised on date X arrive on X plus 2 weeks….si Dios quiere. The unforeseen is a daily occurrence, especially on Mondays.
Clients seldom really understand that the builder’s job is a modern day version of armed struggle with a different set of weaponry. We manhandle a bunch of heavy stuff, cut it down, cut it up, shoot holes in it, assemble it all into a preordained design, fasten it together, cover up the goofs and the ugly parts that hold it in one place and in one piece, get paid and move on. Just like a bunch of mercenaries: “Have tools, will travel.”
Anything that gets in the way of the process is simply an obstacle on the way to the bigger goal. That category would include, for instance, neighbors who like to sleep, trees or any landscaping that you might have planted or hoped to save, the architect on his occasional visits, surprise visits by regulators or friends and oftentimes in fact, the clients themselves. When the clients are close friends you can endure something like a civil war, or, if you’re fortunate, a ‘peaceful transition to a new order.’
There are a few key elements.
In my recent return to the gladiator’s arena, the clients were involved in planning the battle from the outset. It helped that they had established their own chain of command. Ann Marie wore the four stars. Matt was man enough to play the role of subaltern; offer advice as needed, provide the logistical support in transport, materiel, negotiations with sub-contractors and just help move heavy, dirty stuff when the situation called for it. Ann Marie did the heavy lifting during the planning, called most of the shots as we worked with the architect and made modifications and refinements during the six-month ground assault.
Keeping open avenues of communication was key to ensure a steady advance on the ground. The fact that we were all living close to the front lines made it easy to visit for planning, reconnaissance and the occasional case of beer to boost the morale of the troops. Back up lines of communication included e-mail, FB and telephone text messaging between the clients and myself. Screaming was the fallback option for the chain saw guy working up in the woods. Texting gave me ‘real time’ contact with the guys in the trenches—and later on the roof— as the struggle entered the decisive phase prior to the downpours of September and October.
The impact of getting the roof on in the rainy season makes such a difference in the flexibility of the rest of the job. Troop morale improves because they’re no longer huddled in the bodega—like so many soldiers in foxholes– waiting for a ceasefire in the atmospheric artillery barrage. With adequate cover, there are plenty of ‘mopping up’ skirmishes with the various interior details and even structural work if you’ve chosen the ‘post and beam’ style of framing. The electrician can hook up power much closer to where the action is occurring.
In hindsight, the clients and I had achieved a kind of unconscious consensus on the rules of engagement that definitely made the whole effort run more smoothly. It is worth bearing in mind, that construction is a sort of hand-to-hand combat with the laws of physics. You confront or have to prepare for: gravity, friction, density, compaction, tensile strength, shear stress, uplift–and a few others I probably left out–on a daily basis. In the long era before machinery took the place of brawny bodies, the task of moving logs or hand-hewn stone overland was facilitated by literally greasing the skids to lessen friction. As a metaphor, I’ll use ‘greasing the skids’ to explain our unspoken agreement to deal with the guys on the job as partners in the process, showing respect, gratitude, proffering praise for exceptional performance and avoiding the kind of in-your-face criticism which not only ruffles feathers but sows the seeds of rancor. In these small
towns, the wrong words can plant a noxious weed that proves hard to eradicate.
I point of fact, we did a fair amount of ‘weed control’ on the weekends using locally available ingredients and showing
respect for local customs. Lucky for me, the clients in my latest foray into the virtual combat zone of homebuilding
are comfortable in Spanish and in the stress-relieving atmosphere of the local cantinas. As it turns out, it’s far more productive going over both problems and planning with the guys when you are far from the trenches and standing on the level playing field that develops as you trade off the trips to the bar for the next round of frosty libations. Chilling out on the weekends helped us withstand the heat and pressure as our deadline for occupation drew nearer and nearer.
And now, admiring the early colors after the first housewarming party, it dawns on me that my own priorities as a homebuilder have changed with time. These days it’s way less about impressing people with the finished product. The emphasis is now upon accommodating people into a space where they can comfortably enjoy the grandeur of the natural world that surrounds us. I fail to comprehend the logic of the huge, hotbox homes and miniscule porches, terraces and
outdoor spaces in a climate such as ours. Fortunately I was working with folks who are on the same wavelength.
Nothing is more satisfying than a warm ‘thank you’ and a cold beer as your friends/partners/clients recount the joy
of laying in bed and gazing in wonder at the starry skies of our long, clear summer nights. Their home provides them with a nest to appreciate the marvels of nature and the celestial dome offers a frequent reminder of our own place, as mere mortals, in the larger scheme of things.
Tom Peifer is an ecological land use consultant with 18 years experience in Guanacaste. 2658-8018. firstname.lastname@example.org
El Centro Verde is dedicated to researching and promoting sustainable land use, permaculture and environmentally sound development. http://www.elcentroverde.org/