Almost two months since my last post. Credit my absence to 60 hour work weeks, unreasonable demands with no reward, and moving from a 347 sq.ft. two-room-no-kitchen rental to our very own self-designed 1,200+ sq.ft. third story apartment built atop my sister-in-law’s house. We’ve been here a month now and I finally got a stove and refrigerator last Tuesday. Okay, it’s still no real kitchen in the northern sense of the word, my cabinets are stainless steel racks from Costco with two giant IKEA bed canopy leaves sprouting from the corner posts, and my sink is a rustic wood cabinet on wheels – the one we had on the patio at the rental place – but I can cook indoors so it counts as a kitchen in my book.

 

Building on many levels

 

We call it a flat as a joke.  The first two storeys of the building were built in patchwork sections with varying roof height and pitch, bit by bit as my sister-in-law could afford to add on.  The only parts of our apartment actually on the same level are my bedroom and the adjoining closet, built over the first-phase construction, and the kitchen/dining room/patio, built over the fourth-phase construction.  These two sections are separated by a living room that is one or two steps up depending on which direction you’re approaching from.  My office is off the juncture of the living room and kitchen and is a half-step height in between the two, built over the third-phase construction.

 

A side effect of the up-and-down floor heights is that we also have varying ceiling heights, from 7.5 feet in the bedroom to 12 feet in the dining room, which we topped with a 4-sided pyramid hipped roof with clerestory windows on three sides.  The neighborhood joke was – is it a church or an observatory?  We just wanted some variation to the typical box-on-box construction.  So we topped the interior stairwell to the roof with a duplicate roofed structure about 7 feet higher than the dining room roof.  It looks so cool from the main road – and it makes a great landmark for the pizza delivery guys.

El Santuario

 

 

But the church joke got me thinking.  There are patron saints for everything here – taxi drivers and truckers (St. Christopher), people who have survived mortal accidents (La Santa Muerte/St. Death), lost causes (St. Jude), accountants (St. Matthew), so I suggested to Miguel that we top the dining room roof with a mirrored disco ball and call it the Santuario del Santo Sonidero – the Sanctuary of Saint DJ.  It would be a new saint.  Recognizable accessories would be headphones and microphone.  Miguel didn’t think the older members of the neighborhood would understand, though he agreed the idea would probably catch on – every young man under 20 wants to grow up and be a Sonidero, and a party just isn’t a party unless a Sonidero is present.  (Miguel became a Sonidero at 12, after spending 5 years working with a local Sonidero who was also the neighborhood butcher, and he’s been doing it for 23 years now.)

 

Okay, back to the apartment.  We have a total of two solid interior walls – one between the interior stairwell and the bedroom wing and one between the bedroom and bathroom.  Miguel also built a frame and sheetrock wall to separate the bathroom and closet, but those kind of walls don’t count as solid in Mexico where everything is brick or cement.

 

The look on the cement mason’s face when I said that I didn’t want the plumbing built into the cement floors was priceless.  On upper-floor construction like ours, the usual process is to lay the PVC pipes on top of the floor, then build forms around the area, then fill the forms with tezontli – the red lava rocks we use in the garden – because it weighs less than solid cement, then pour cement over the tezontli to seal in the plumbing and create a raised floor for the bathroom.  In my imagination I saw broken or badly sealed sewage pipes leaking into the tezontli and . . . well, you can take it from there.  I insisted that Miguel build a wood framed platform topped with plywood and vinyl flooring so that repairs would not require a jack hammer to look for the problem.  Having seen the ongoing plumbing disaster in my sister-in-law’s downstairs bathroom (because the tile layer somehow drove nails through various places in the cold water pipes in the walls – what the tile layer was doing with nails is beyond all of us), and having spent six years in Seattle with me, Miguel totally understood my logic and supported me despite the entire community thinking we are both loco.  So, our pipes are encased in sheetrocked walls and plywood platforms and I am content that any disasters will be easy to notice, easy to locate and easy to fix.  It helps me sleep at night.

 

The master bathroom is open on one side to the hall and a balcony, with the toilet given privacy by a structure that reminds me of a shower stall with blue translucent walls (no comment from me, it was Miguel’s idea).  In fact, we have only one exterior wall – north corner to east corner – that doesn’t have windows in it, because the house is built to the property line and the neighbor on that side might actually build up to our height someday.  The rest of the exterior walls are almost entirely waist to ceiling windows or sliding glass doors that look out over a few distant green foothills and adjacent neighbors who are less likely to make it to three storeys.  My budget for curtains was scandalous, especially in comparison to the cost of construction.

 

Our building is in an undocumented area.  There are no governmental deeds for the properties yet.  I know, that sounds weird.  In Mexico there is a law that if someone moves on to an undeveloped piece of property, puts up some construction – even just a tarpaper shack – and pays a utility bill for five years, then the owner loses all rights to the property.  So, if you own property that you don’t live on, you have to build something on it or watch it like a hawk to make sure that someone doesn’t move in, and if they do, you’ve got to get the police to throw them out right away.

 

Where we live used to be a hacienda.  At some point in time, the last heir died intestate and the land went ownerless.  Folks started moving in and carving out narrow streets and building shacks.  In 1999, we loaned Miguel’s sister $5,000 to buy a lot 8 meters by 16 meters, about 26 feet by 52 feet.  (The lot alone would now cost about $25,000.)  She bought it from an old fellow that had several lots in the area for sale, and the only proof of purchase that she has – like all of her neighbors – are the monthly payment receipts, a certified handwritten description of the property by the seller, and a municipal registration that she owns the unsurveyed property.  The municipal government was supposed to start “regularizing” the neighborhood this December, but so far, nothing formal has been done yet.

 

When we started building the apartment, the neighborhood president called the local municipal authorities and threatened to stop construction.  Not because there was any legal standing to do so, just because he is pissed off that he didn’t get the piece of land that we have back when it became available 8 years ago. (Though he did have his wife break into the property back then, before there was construction on it, on the day the property recorders were going through.  She pretended to be the owner and got a document in her name – and my sister-in-law had to go and fight to get the documentation corrected.)  So the municipal agents came by and told us they were going to stop the construction and my other sister-in-law said that she was just renting the storefront and that they’d have to come back to talk to the owner (Miguel’s oldest sister that works away from home).  That was on a Friday.  So we hurried the masons to put the roof on the front section over the weekend.  With the roof in place, the authorities couldn’t stop construction – which they do by putting a yellow tape around the rebar on the street side of the property.  If the tape is put on, you can’t remove it or build over it without serious penalties.  But if the roof is already on, there is no rebar exposed to tape.  And the agents can’t enter the property unless you invite them, which of course you never do.  So all construction is either built well back from the street and the property fenced in front, or, if you build out to the street, you start from the front, get the supporting beams up and the roof on first and then build toward the back of the lot.  All of this in order to avoid the spite of someone with a miniscule amount of power, a little bit of money, and a big grudge.

 

So, because the property is not surveyed and formally registered, there are no building permits required for our area.  Of course, up the street where the land is surveyed and deeded, the construction contractor just brings an old permit from a past job and hangs it on the worksite and no one ever actually comes to inspect it.  Anyway, between the lack of permitting and the lack of professional licensing, construction is inexpensive, with the added benefit that the contractors are always willing to take weekly payments because no one ever has enough money to pay all at once and you can’t get loans on undocumented property.  So from August to February we paid the cement mason $8,000 pesos a week, and paid on account with the building supply shop (after eight years of construction, my sister-in-law has good credit with the local supply shop) and from January through May we’ll pay the window-maker $2,000 pesos a week.  The plumber is Miguel’s daughter’s uncle, and the electrician is Miguel’s brother and his friend who also lays tile and does plumbing on the side, and they all have payment arrangements with Miguel.  (As an aside, it’s really important to have friends and family that you trust in the construction business – not because they do better work, but because if you hire a stranger you can never be sure they won’t send someone to rob you later.)

 

The whole house, masonry, windows, electrical, plumbing, and ironwork for the stairs to the roof and the balconies, will total out at about $35,000 USD.  And that will include $14,500 pesos for windows in my sister-in-law’s windowless two year old second floor apartment that I insisted on paying for because she has saved us at least double that by managing our contractors (the cement mason and window-maker thought the apartment was for her when they negotiated their prices) and buying supplies (can you believe there’s a high season and a low season for buying rebar and we saved about $800 USD by buying a ton and a half at once instead of as-needed during construction).  She agreed only after I allowed that she could pay me back half the cost of her windows.

 

But doesn’t it just kinda give you the willies – no permits, no licenses, no inspectors?  It does me, but, when in Rome . . .  I do know, though, that my sister-in-law laid enough rebar in the foundation to support a three-storey building because we made fun of her when she did it back in 2001.  And when we designed our flat, she insisted we keep all of the internal support posts in line with (and connected to) where they were from the floors below, plus the bearing wall in the bedroom wing because of the long span of the room and the weight of the water tank on the roof above the bathroom.  She may be a secretary at a small private school, but she’s a great construction project manager.

 

Of course, the houses around us are not quite as strictly constructed – joined brick corners on second and third storeys instead of rebar cast cement posts.  That kind of thing.  It’s easy to tell how much rebar is in a house because everyone leaves the rebar sticking up above the roofline so that they can “hook on” more rebar when they build the next storey.  The first time I travelled in Mexico with Miguel and saw all the rebar poking out of occupied buildings I asked him why is all that metal sticking up everywhere.  He said, “Those are people’s dreams.  They dream that someday they’ll have enough money to build on another storey.  As long as the rebar is there, they have a dream to reach for.”

 

Four is the minimum number of rebar rods for a support post.  My sister-in-law started with eight rods in the first floor, six in the second, and – surprise – we had four left for the third storey.  She recently confessed to me that the rebar in the foundation and the posts had a purpose – her dream has always been to have all her family living in the same house because they never had a house as kids.

 

In Mexico some dreams do come true.

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