What do you need to build a house in Oaxaca?

2 September 2019

Short answer: Two men, some buckets with tools, shovels, pickaxes, and scrap wood and construction materials.  Of course they must be the right two men.

The type of construction used here is a reinforced concrete frame work with adobe, brick or cement block infill. The men that do all of this are called albañiles. I don’t know a word in English that conveys the same set of skills. The team that I have here working is a maestro, with 22 years of experience and a team mate. They have obviously worked together for a long time.

They are employed by the architectural firm that did the design and oversees the construction. The firm is two architects, a woman and her husband. She handles more of the design work and he supervises the construction. They handle the logistics, they see that the construction materials arrive before they are needed, that a team of plumbers or electricians arrive as needed. The architectural firm has 3 to 4 buildings under construction all the time. The two albañiles working here arrive at 8 am, by public transportation, and work until 6pm, Monday through Friday and 8am-2pm on Saturday. They arrive here everyday on time. Last Saturday the architect took the maestro to another site to do some finish work. The plumbers and electricians also work in pairs, but are younger and arrive two on a motorcycle, their tools in a backpack. They come when needed, do their work and then leave.

The first order of business was demolition. The master bedroom suite was gutted. All fixtures removed from the bathroom, closets and dividing walls removed, doors and windows moved and the floor removed. The floor was too high so both the wood boards and the slab were remove. Each room of the house had a different floor level.

Step up from hallway to kitchen

The renovated house will have all floors the same height. Sledge hammers and chisels are the main tools used for demolition. The only power tool I have seen them use is a small rotary saw to make straight, smooth cuts in the wall, say for a new window or door.

A Power Tool

They really dislike this saw because it fills the space with very fine dust that gets in their eyes, nose and lungs. The dust gets in every page of my books too. Used only when a straight clean cut is needed.

The rubble is removed bucketful by bucketful. They make a wooden handle inside the bucket (visible in the 4th picture from the top), held in place with scrap rebar, to grab and then hoist the bucket onto their shoulders. I have seen them smoothing the bottom of the buckets so that the rim doesn’t cut into their shoulders. The rubble is carried out into the corner of the property. The whole space is very crowded when you have a truck load of sand, another of gravel, bags of cement, rebar and bricks. So when the pile of rubble got high they built a ramp from scrap wood to carry the rubble up to the top and keep the footprint small.

They also built the ladders that they needed as well as the saw horses in the photo. They make many of their own tools too.

When they had a truck load of rubble, a dump truck came to take it away. But the dump truck would not fit through the gate because of the wall above the gate. The electricians came and raised the wiring for the automatic door opener. Then the albañiles knocked out the wall above the gate. The dump truck came with a load of sand but could only get in part way , dumped the sand and was empty to take away the rubble. How do you get a huge pile of rubble out of the corner and into the truck bed?

You throw it up shovelful by shovelful.

Rubble flying into the truck, propelled by a man and his shovel.

Interestingly the truck showed up with a driver and two men. The driver watched as the other two men loaded the rubble. The truck left to return with a load of gravel. Since the truck could only back in one place to dump the albañiles moved the pile of sand, with their shovels, to make a space to dump the gravel.

Taking up the floor made it easy to upgrade the plumbing and services. After the plumbers put in the basic plumbing for the bath, the albañiles built forms for all the concrete work. Shower stall with niches in both sides, the sink and countertop. The entire bath is done in polished concrete. They moved doors and window spaces and completed the wall between the bath and large walk-in closets.

The master albañil, left and the journeyman mixing cement for the floor of the walk-in closets behind them. Through the door you can see the concrete sink and counter in the bath.

All their concrete is mixed on a with shovels. They measure, by the bucketful, the sand and cement the mix that together, then add gravel, water and mix again. The wet concrete is shoveled into buckets and carried to the form, many times up a ladder. I have seen a small cement mixer here at another nearby construction site, but the work on that site is on and off and the work here is advancing much faster. I have not seen truck cement mixer here.

After they finished the floor they tackled the walls. The electricians put in the wiring, the albañiles covered them with cement. Burying the wiring in the walls is an upgrade.

Note the arches in the ceiling, homemade ladder and wiring now embedded in the walls.

In this photograph one can see one of the most onerous jobs in this suite. The wall were covered with a textured white plaster that the architect said needed to be removed so that the new plaster could adhere properly. There did not seem to be a tool that could scrape it off effectively. They did it mostly with the claws of their hammers but tried many different things. Tedious job that took a long time.

Next job was to plaster all the walls. I have not seen this done in the US. Everything in the US is wallboard now.

A bag of the mix used to plaster the walls. Bruce, might understand the irony of the brand name here.

The non-weight bearing walls for the closets were made by another tradesman. He installed some aluminium frames then wall board. He left the finishing to the resident albañiles.

Next task was to make the foundation for the addition. The addition goes from one perimeter wall (see previous post about perimeter walls) to the other about 3.5m out from the end of the house. Part of the space will become part of a great room and the rest will be a covered terrace. This requires a T-shaped foundation, a straight line parallel to the back of the house and a perpendicular branch to support the wall that divides the room from the terrace. Each perimeter wall has its foundation but the new walls must tie into the existing perimeter walls and their foundation.

opening a front door

All excavation was done by hand using shovels and a pickax. The big puzzle was where to put the dirt. It was piled up against the back of the house making it difficult to use the only door. So they opened a provisional door where the future front door will be.

They dug an L shaped trench, only part of the T, because there was no where to put more dirt that they dug out. once they had it dug out and shaped they poured in a layer of cement, bucketful by bucketful. Then they added a long rebar grid and protruding pillars and poured cement over that.

Starting the foundation. Blue line is the height of future floor.

On top of the poured cement they added cement block. Then more cement with rebar.

Then on to the other branch of the T. Excavate, pour cement, place rebar grid, cement then cement block. The tricky part is tying into the existing perimeter walls and their foundations. On the side with a neighboring house the wall was only brick thick so they skipped the cement block, replacing it with poured cement.

To be continued.

3 Responses to “What do you need to build a house in Oaxaca?”

  1. Linda Sage Says:

    Where are you living while all this is going on? I think your workers are much prompter than ones we have had!!Lucky you!

    Like

  2. shiborigirl Says:

    you always persist! what a project. I really enjoyed your account of the process.

    Like


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