Showing posts with label House Building. Show all posts
Showing posts with label House Building. Show all posts

Thai House or Farang, 1 story or 2 ???

Am I wrong or are the only people building Thai Houses these days, Farangs? Do they know something we don’t? Thais seem to prefer the “modern” look and as beautiful as Thai houses can be, you are at the mercy of the elements, heat, wind, rain, bugs and dirt. The sun, rain and bugs are also a constant threat to the wood. On a beautiful winter day they would be great though. They are also more expensive to build and maintain since the forests have been pretty much denuded and lumber needs to be acquired from the rapidly diminishing forests of Burma.

 Most people seem to opt for two story houses as well. They do have a smaller footprint, less roofing material and provide more privacy and separation of areas. They make a lot of sense. So why didn’t my wife and I go for a two story house? (In fact my wife pushed hard for a slightly elevated one story house.)

Since it is just the two of us separation and privacy are not the issue. We prefer a large open floor-plan and an easy flow from room to room. We like to see and feel the other’s presence even when we are doing our own things. If everything is on the same level it just feels like it is bigger and that there is more usable space.

We also expect to have some friends come to visit and we want enough space to be together comfortably. Besides in a few years, who knows, maybe I won’t be able to make it up the stairs anymore. I figured with good insulation on the roof and a high lofted ceiling in the living area I could get by with only having A/C in the bedrooms. Tried to get a mix of living areas for the different kinds of weather, like indoor, indoor-outdoor and outdoor.

We get the occasional hail storm in these parts so a good strong roof is also a must. In addition to our pilings, we have a monster foundation with lots of re-bar to support the weight of the house and raise it off the ground one more meter. They just finished pouring the concrete today. The first half they did with the aid of big cement trucks but to my surprise they did the last part by hand. Just imagine near 100 degree weather, a hot wind, mixing, hauling, lifting and pouring all day long for two days.

 I discovered they were worried about having leftover cement bags during the Songkran break. Apparently the bags can go hard on you if they sit around too long. They sill have a week to pour the pillars and that should just about finish off the remaining cement bags. After the holiday they should get to pouring the floor and putting on the roof. By the time that is done, if it rains it won’t be a big deal, as they will be able to do much of their work under cover.

The speculation as to what we are up to is still rife and some of the stories are quite entertaining to hear second hand. We have decided to save our breath and just let them watch what unfolds with amazement. It gives them something new to talk about and keeps them entertained part of the time.

Some of you might be wondering how much all this is going to cost. I know the locals are very interested because they keep asking everyone involved for an answer. Well I’m not going to tell you either. It just doesn’t feel right to talk about it and I am painfully aware that almost none of my cost could ever be recover.

In a very real sense this is not an investment but an extravagance. But it is also not something I was tricked into by raging hormones or conniving relatives. I take full responsibility for this move. The way I justify it is by saying that it doesn’t cost that much more than my condo in Bangkok and I’m getting six or seven times the space, with views and lots of outdoor activities.

The condo is only a thirty-five year lease, so eventually I would loose it too, or have to re-negotiate, if I live that long. This property will at least stay in the family. If I don’t wait too long I’ll still have the option of selling the condo for a good price.

 I have seen other people move from the city to find they miss their city friends and lifestyle. (One case was a couple I know. The farang was OK with living up North but his big-city, high-so wife missed all her gay party friends with their loud, extravagant and witty repartee.) I think we have thought this out pretty well but I always have a way out and a backup plan.

In part I think that comes from all those early years when they had a half-dozen coups and kept changing the visa rules every few months. In those days I was young and unencumbered and could have easily put everything in a suitcase and headed for the airport. Anything that tied me down, back then, eventually was shown the door. Now I seem to be looking for some roots or a homestead. Guess I’m just entering another faze of my life. (Old-age?)

Preparing for the worst!!!

Regardless of where you decide to build you will need to pay careful attention to what can go wrong. Whether it is space limitations in a town or city, the gradient on a hillside, the threat of water near a water source or in a flood zone, or simple access to your land, you need to do some research. If like us you want to be an island in a sea of green during the growing season you have your work cut out for you.

In short you’ll need to buildup your land above flood levels. Find someway to secure your land, and access to it, without infringing on your neighbors land and ability to farm rice. Custom dictates you leave your land to “settle” anywhere from 3 to 5 years. Build too soon and no telling what will end up where.

In our case we just built up the land last year and added an additional foot of topsoil this year. Instead of following the local “rule of thumb” we opted for pilings. Locally nobody has used pilings before so it added to the shock factor already created by the rock wall and location. Could have gotten by with six meters but went for eight and all but a few went all the way down.

For me, I figure the prep-work is done and we are ready to build. Then the wife informs me that the locals might not be happy, if we don’t have the requisite blessings and ceremonies. Now, understand, she is very good at keeping these things to a minimum so I don’t balk all that much. She usually makes do with one solitary monk or local witch-doctor and not the typical party environment with booze and music. It still takes her mother and a relative or two a whole day to make preparations for even the most insignificant of rituals.

I was told that since we had dirt from more than one source we had to be extra careful to placate to spirits of the different sources. I’m sure there are some who will take exception to my tone on the subject of local customs but I’m the first to admit that I have never had much need for all forms of magic, gods, spirits or superstitions and the requisite rituals and ceremonies. Not that I don’t understand that they serve a social function, especially in a place like this, where people often feel helpless and at the mercy of things beyond their understanding.

My take is along the lines of, even if I could bring myself to believe in any of this superstitious mumbo jumbo, I would never be so vain as to believe that I had the power to influence any of it and make it do my bidding. My wife obviously has a slightly different take on the subject being Thai! It doesn’t seem to be an issue with us, however. Neither one of us is into validating our beliefs by trying to convince others to have the same beliefs. It is a complicated world and there is never just one side to anything and that is OK with me.

Walls, Walls and more Walls

Don’t know what it is but everybody in this village is building walls. The pace of building has really picked up this year. Without any recent crime surge I can only guess that it is for show and because the other guy has one. Nobody really has anything worth stealing anyway but they worry about it none the less. The last time some young novices from the local temple did rip off a local house, everything was recovered from their room at the temple.

Custom dictates that everyone build their houses right next to each-other so they can see, hear and smell everything that goes on next door. (That is actually very good for me because it leaves a lot of open land and unobstructed views.) Now, for some reason, everyone wants their privacy and security. Not that these walls provide much of either. You can still see over them and they are made of that flimsy concrete block they love to use. The only deterrent I can see is the fear of the thing falling on you if you tried to climb over it.

After elevating our little piece of heaven two meters above the rice paddy floor I was struck with an awful thought. Would I be forced to build one of those ugly little walls in a vain attempt to keep nature from reclaiming what is rightfully hers? What I wanted was some sort of angled rock embankment around the sides of the land. Something that wouldn’t block my view, would keep my dirt from running away and wouldn’t be too ugly to look at from the outside. In Hawaii lava rock walls are common and perhaps influenced my thinking. In the end what I got was a compromise and very Thai, even though nobody around here has ever seen such a thing.

Driving down the road one day we spied a back-hoe parked at a house and went to investigate. The owner put us on to a Village Headman who does roads and various construction work. This guy was modern enough in his thinking that he understood what it was I wanted. I probably would have put the concrete down first and laid the stones in the concrete so that you could see the beauty of the rock.

His way was quick and dirty but got the job done, for nearly the same price as the ugly wall. I decided not to push him out of his comfort zone by asking for something he might not be able to do easily. I’m actually quite happy with the results. I got what I paid for, though not what I first envisioned. Life is full of these little compromises that help facilitate getting things done. At least that is what I tell myself.

Who do you trust to build a dream?

Initially finding contractors is a chore. You can go through the list of resources like internet, phonebook, bookstores, magazines, trade shows, associations and talking with friends and acquaintances with little results. The sources you do find will tend to be middle men looking to get a commission for introducing you to the people you really want. The commission is often in the form of a percentage of the overall cost. 

Once things finally start moving, more of these commission seekers show up with more offers of introductions. At least you won’t need to go out looking anymore because they come to you. Many of the first people to show up, are of the same ilk as the black-plate taxi drivers that waylay unsuspecting tourist in front of their hotels. 

Some of the best workers are not the best talkers and may not be as good at selling themselves as the others. You will need to go around and check on their work and see if their customers are happy or not. The better ones won’t mind this and will even encourage it. No matter who you choose someone will be offended and I have even seen the loosing parties still demanding a piece of the pie from the winner. It is all very cut-throat and best avoided if at all possible.

Separating the good from the bad has as much to do with us as it does them, however. If we are lazy, gullible, our Thai weak and our partner not diligent in protecting our interests, who’s fault is that? We got lucky and managed to find our house contractor by ourselves and eliminate the additional cost of finder’s fees.

One guy we worked with on part of our land development, really was a very nice guy and a great talker. He was very helpful and the work turned out alright but not as good as we would have liked. He tried very hard to get close to us with many offers of assistance and an invitation to his homes and properties. I wasn’t surprised when he offered the “opportunity” to be his partner in the purchase of a back-hoe so that he wouldn’t have to hire other people to do that part of his jobs.

My wife saved me on that one by explaining that I’m happy with my lot in life and not a wheeler dealer always on the lookout for that next great deal. That saved me having to tell him “no” to his face. I admire people who can live on the edge like that. Always taking on new risks and managing to stay positive in the face of possible disaster. You could rightfully call me timid but I would prefer to see myself as thoughtful, thorough, cautious and skeptical.

Building a dream

Today we raised the main pillar of our new house as per the local custom of picking an auspicious day to begin. Not that I believe in such things but it seems to be important to the locals and to a lesser extent to my wife. Of course this all started as far back as thirty years ago when I first came to Thailand. As to why I am doing this now as opposed to some earlier date could become a very long and drawn-out story. 

The short answer is I am getting older, have been with the same woman for nearly 10 years, my parents are aging and I have started feeling the need for a homestead, so to speak. When I was single, life in the big city provided all the services I needed. Now I long for nature and a simpler outdoor life. I’m a bit spoiled, however, so I want to bring some of my city comforts and conveniences with me. Fortunately for me my wife and I have similar ideas about this house.

 We have spent much of the last seven years traveling in the United States and caring for my parents in Hawaii. That exposure to a different culture and environment no-doubt helped to mold my wife’s style and taste from that of the typical village girl.

Beginning the process
It’s hard to remember when the whole process began. We like to rent a car for a month and drive the back roads and National Parks of the Western United States, from the Pacific Coast to as far East as Colorado. We often stayed in quaint or beautiful towns and wondered what it would be like to live there.

That began a dialogue about what we would do there. Where would we live and could we afford it? In short, was it realistic and doable? That gets you started thinking about what it is that you would really want in an ideal world and then looking at how much of that you can achieve in the real world. Because of our age, gender and cultural differences our needs were never going to be identical. We usually agree on the aesthetics but she needs more of a social life than I do.  High fixed overhead leaves you with less play money for travel and other pleasures.

In the end we settled on her hometown after earlier in our relationship writing it off as a nonstarter. Over the years I have found more things to do there and more places to explore on foot and mountain bike. Some of the family obstacles that would have made life uncomfortable were removed. Now there is a good mix of things we can do together and things we can do independently without imposing on each-other.

Beginning the search
For me the real search began on the trails and in the fields. I discovered that there was something deeper, yet less tangible, than the view itself. I found certain places elicited a sense of peace and tranquility that quite simply made me feel at peace with the world. Many places were too inaccessible or difficult to provide with water and electricity. Many were not for sale or too expensive.

As a side note, after we had purchased our land, sellers came out of the woodwork so to speak. In the beginning it seemed there was nothing for sale. There was a great deal of deliberation about the pros and cons of the available properties. We finally settled on a 5 rai piece of land on the outskirts of her village with unimpeded views.

Now we had our land and had to decide what to do with. The location dictates much of what you do. If like us, you are in the middle of a rice paddy you will likely need to dig a pond and use the dirt to build up a house site and a road. Water and electricity are a major concern and you need to decide what kind of house to build. Do you go local-cheap or farang-expensive?

Our talks led to my wife making several drawing of our desired floor plan during the last six month stretch we spent in Hawaii. Finding an architect and working through that whole process of turning dreams into working drawings is a real adventure. If possible, finding the contractor is even more time consuming and scary. If you pick the wrong guy you are in for an endless nightmare.

We looked far and wide but wanted to find someone local so they could spend more time on site and we could develop a closer relationship. At our first meeting with our contractor and his wife, my wife and I knew they were the ones but forced ourselves to continue the process with the others we were talking with.

Next we had to decide when to build. To give ourselves plenty of preparation time we had planned on the end of the year, after the harvest season and the rains. Both things can affect a house project. In the end the question became “Why wait?”. We were ready so went ahead and pulled the trigger.

In the midst of all this we continually discussed how this project would be viewed by our neighbors. We had always played it very low-key before and didn’t want to make ourselves too much of a target. In the end our location and scale of the project has left us anything but low-key. That has led to an endless list of questions about what we are doing and why. The most persistent and annoying questions are about the cost of everything. We decline to answer as tactfully as possible so they go about guessing and spreading rumors anyway.

For us there was no question about being present during the construction so we had to first make our present house more livable. The prospect of going without certain things for eight months while the house was built was not acceptable. We already had air conditioning but needed to add satellite TV and broadband internet. We also did a minor upgrade to her mother’s kitchen so my wife wouldn’t mind cooking in it daily. 

The weather was nice for a bit longer this year than usual but we are now fully engulfed in the HOT season. A little rain would be welcome but we need to finish the foundation and roof before it gets too wet.