Thursday, October 27, 2011

A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words

Before I go on with this entry I wanted to clarify a statement that I made on the last post regarding our return in January and how our time would start over on our passports. Someone left a comment that it doesn't necessarily work that way. I realized then that I did not make a very clear statement and did not wish to mislead anyone. The only reason our time starts over in January is because that is the month when we first started to travel to Ecuador. We like many others only have 90 days per year on our passport and once that time is used whether in June or December, we will have to wait until January of the next year to start our 90 days over again.

When you build or remodel a house there are always lessons to be learned and boy have we learned some hard lessons through this project. Of course the language barrier has been a huge obstacle, but it's also the little details that can really throw you for a loop.

We have printed out numerous photos of ideas that we have in order to show the workers how we want things to look. We have learned the hard way that the photos are taken so literally that we have actually gotten some pretty funny results.
For instance, I had printed out a picture of a beehive fireplace that I wanted for our bedroom. It was a pretty simple design and I thought that the picture was very accurate. What we failed to realize was that the photo had been shot at a bit of an angle and the fireplace base looked a bit larger on one side. Well the workers followed the photo so closely that they actually duplicated the perspective of the base looking larger on one side. Needless to say our lopsided fireplace had to have a bigger opening cut in order to make the sides even.

A similar thing happened with the bookcases I am having built for my office. Again I gave the carpenter a photo that I felt looked very straight forward. Two bookshelves on each end with a seat in between. (By the way Rod has the Mother of all stove hoods and I have rivaled him with the Mother of all bookshelves). Every thing was moving along beautifully, until the left side of the bookshelf was constructed. I noticed that the end piece was slanted in towards the shelves. When I inquired as to why this was being done Rod explained that the carpenter was trying to achieve a tight fit against the wall and since as everyone now knows none of our walls are plumb, the carpenter followed the angle of the wall exactly.

I now have the most beautiful bookshelves I could have imagined with one quirky row down the side that is bigger at the opening than at the back. Again I will be challenged to fool the eye. Fortunately this is all working out for Mom and Bob as we always seem to be the test subjects, so that by the time our project is complete everything that can go wrong pretty much has and they can avoid the same pitfalls.

We have all agreed that the house has a rustic feel to it and in keeping with that we are trying to add our own elements that were not necessarily original to the house. I am quite sure the workers are puzzled as to why we would choose to make some of our walls out of stone when we could have just as easily chosen to plaster and paint them and be done with it.

In fact Rod says that the workers are probably calling me all sorts of names due to the fact that they have had to redo our bedroom wall several times to achieve the look I am going for. Last time Rod was here and the stone walls were put up I knew from the photos that the one in our bedroom was not at all how I had imagined it. As soon as I saw the wall in person my fear was confirmed. It was much to busy looking for me and I had preferred a more subtle look.

It took me forever to get my point across, even with the aid of pictures, the workers didn't quite seem to understand the look I was trying to achieve. In all fairness I wasn't even sure how to go about getting the look I desired because the wrong kind of stone had been applied in the first place. Once again it was all about fooling the eye. I had envisioned a wall that looked as though it had been there two hundred years. A foundation wall that had withstood the elements and although looked weathered, it had a character all its own. Yes I know I use the word "character" a lot and Rod says that is what gets me into trouble.

So an experiment in changing the look of a stone wall began. First the workers trenched channels in several of the stones in order to turn large stones into smaller stones. They then filled the channels with plaster to give the illusion of much smaller stones. Much of the remaining wall was covered in plaster in order to make it look as though some of the plaster had deteriorated and had allowed some of the stones to show through. The problem with this technique is that you could still see some of the channels the workers had made and it definitely did not look natural.

Round two - trying to fix this problem, the workers decided to chip the plaster from the edges of the rocks. Well that was definitely the wrong thing to do. Unfortunately I didn't see it until they had gotten about half way around the wall. Now It looked like I had a bunch of round rocks with halos. Rod was so exasperated by this time (I think more with me than the workers) that he threatened to just plaster the whole wall and be done with it. I don't give up that easily!

Round three - After Rod calmed down and in trying to keep peace in the marriage, he came up with the idea to sand the wall so that the stones would peek through in places. That was the magic trick and now my wall looks like it's well on its way to looking the way I had envisioned. I had to laugh though the first time the workers used the electric sander on the wall. As soon as that sander hit the plaster, a cloud of dust shot out immediately filling the room with a cloud so thick you would have sworn you were in San Francisco bay when the fog rolls in. Rod wanted me to check out the wall, but I couldn't see six inches in front of me. As the workers continued to sand, the house began to fill with plaster dust. There was absolutely no place to hide, not even on my beloved terrace where I often hide out when the dust and noise are to much to bear.

Tomorrow we return to the States and what a scary thing it will be to leave our house at this stage of the project. The carpenters and masonry workers have actually started some of the finishing projects. The fireplaces are being built, cabinets and bookshelves are being constructed, bathrooms are getting tiled, countertops are in the works, and on and on.

These are the things that really give the house its character and even though Bob will be taking a turn at being our eyes and ears, we wonder if the look we are trying to achieve can actually be translated both literally and figuratively from afar?

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Sunday, October 23, 2011

Trying To Fit A Square Peg Into A Round Hole

If you have been following this blog for any length of time, I'm sure it has become apparent that we are forever trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. It all started with the purchase of the house, I mean who in their right mind would purchase a house on their very first visit to a foreign country, much less a house that needed a total redo? Oh well this is now all water under the bridge and we have come too far to turn back now.

It's hard to believe that this project has now been thirteen months in the making and our best guess is that it will at least be three more months to completion. I wouldn't be a bit surprised if it took even longer. There is so much finish work to be done besides everything else that needs to be completed. The workers still have to finish Putting up the masonry and then the tedious job of chipping out all of the mortar between the bricks Yikes! The rentals need to be designed and finished as well.

Rod has decided to build the Mother of all Stove hoods with a huge beam placed on the bottom front. I sure hope these guys know what they are doing. This stove hood could definitely kill someone if it were to fall on them.

The Carpenters still have many pieces to complete such as cabinets, bookshelves, closets, shelves and so on and so forth. Since everything is handmade it takes a lot longer to construct than the machined pieces we have in the U.S. For instance the bookshelves that I am having made for my computer room...the sides are two pieces of board glued together and then planed and sanded. The shelves themselves slide into two center boards that are notched out by hand, rather than the way that we are familiar with of two support pieces on either side that the shelf than sits on.

It is really funny that no matter what power tools we provide to the workers, they still prefer to use hand tools. The carpenters do use some power tools, but for the most part everyone would rather work with old fashioned handsaws, sand paper, hammers and lots of elbow grease.

We got into a discussion over dinner last night about how important it is for the Ecuadorian culture to spend time with their families and take time off to enjoy the many holidays and celebrations that Ecuador has to offer. This can be frustrating to us Gringos at times when we have a task at hand that seems to be critical and our crew shuts down the project for Siesta or Holidays, but I was quick to get on my soapbox about how so much of the American workforce culture compares. The Ecuadorian people work very hard while on the job and our workers in particular perform a lot of hard manual labor, so it only makes sense that at the days end or a Holiday they are ready to be with family and friends and leave the job behind. Something we Americans can't seem to grasp. On the other hand I wanted to point out that in the States so many workers seem to waste half of their work day emailing, texting, talking on the phone and socializing with their co-workers, while the average Ecuadorian is hard at work with task at hand from early in the morning to early evening.

The last couple of days have been particularly interesting as the Architect has been trying to figure out how to make the floor pattern work that Mom and I chose for the common areas. In our great wisdom, we of course chose an elaborate brick and wood pattern that we thought would be beautiful, never giving a thought that the pattern was comprised of many squares and our house is anything but. The workers would carefully lay out the pattern around the courtyard only to get to an edge and realize that the pattern had become crooked because not only are the walls crooked, but the opening to the courtyard is crooked as well. There we go again trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

We have come to realize that we need to embrace all of the quirky nuances of our house instead of fighting them and work with them the best that we can. Area rugs will do wonders and the Carpenters and Masonry workers know many tricks to fool the eye. We may look at something head on and swear it is crooked, but when a level is placed on it we are made a liar of or when viewed at a different angle it looks perfectly straight. Our workers have many talents and we have learned to use them wisely. Happily there seems to be a work around for most any obstacle that presents itself.

We have noticed that many of the hotels around town have architectural renderings and photographs of the renovation process of their buildings hanging on their walls. Some of the renderings resemble the fun house at the carnival, complete with crooked walls, sloping floors and rickety roof lines. In keeping with tradition we will do the same and be proud of all the flaws that give our house character.

Mom and I discovered a wonderful little bakery just around the corner from us. Would you look at those prices. This may become a really bad habit for us having fresh baked goods so close to home.

The trucks are still picking up construction debris from the house. I think this is número 60 + and no end in sight.

It's hard to believe that we have less than four days before we must leave our project behind and once again return to the States. Mom and Bob were supposed to return in two weeks to start the process of obtaining their Cedula, but now the plan has changed and Bob has offered to carry the torch and return by himself to oversee the project for two or three weeks. This then allows Mom to stay home and work on preparations for the move. Once January rolls around, the time on her passport will renew again and she will be able to obtain her Cedula without any problem.

Mom, Rod and I are already planning what we can send in Bob's suitcases ...river rock for the shower floor, faucets or how about some stove exhaust fans for the stove vents? Just kidding Bob. Trying to fit a square peg in a round hole again.

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Friday, October 21, 2011

Where Do We Start

The day we arrived in Ecuador we couldn't wait to see the house and although we were a bit nervous the anticipation was more than we could stand. Carlos had picked us up in Guayaquil in the morning and barely managed to fit our suitcases and footlockers into his vehicle. We drove straight to the house to get our first look in over three months.

Carlos' Vehicle Stuffed To The Brim

The workers had spent the previous days cleaning the house of as much dust and debri as possible. I don't really know who was more nervous about the viewing of the house, the Architect, Carlos, the Crew or Us. In the end it no longer mattered as we were in total awe of the work that had been done. Great progress had been made since the last time we saw it and we could really start to envision the end result.

Our Terrace

Mom's Living Room Wall

The Ground Floor Looking In To Mom And Bob's Bathroom

We have now been in Cuenca since the 7th of October and the last two weeks (more or less) have been nothing but a blur. Once we got over the euphoria of seeing the house for the first time since June, the reality started to set in. From sun up to sun down we spend time at the house making endless decisions and running the streets looking for building materials and misc. items that are needed in order to complete the multitude of projects we have set for the workers. Many times we find it to our advantage to split up into teams in order to cover more ground.

The Crew Working On Rod's Kitchen

This seems to be the most stressful trip yet as we are scurrying around trying to make decisions on the fly, many of which become fruitless as we realize that the desired result is impossible. Most days we feel like we are on the never ending scavenger hunt in search of supplies that actually don't exist here in Ecuador. Running circles yet never achieving goals. We are forever being told Mañana and Mañana never comes. Mom has been trying to get a quote for her bathroom fixtures for three months now finally she got her quote this week.

The Dining Space Under The Upstairs Patio

The Dust Is Everywhere Or Is It Carlos Getting A Migraine From Putting Up With Us?

We have had to learn that many of the building materials that we take for granted in the States are not available here and we are constantly having to readjust our thinking. For instance, Rod and I had hired a carpenter to build our kitchen and vanity cabinets the last time we were here, only to later find out that he was subbing the work out to another carpenter. When we finally were able to view the vanities, we were appalled at the quality. There were gaps between the drawers and frames and the doors were crooked. The stain was not at all what The photo looked like. When we realized that the finish we had picked out was probably not going to look the same we decided to try a darker stain in order to save the job. Well the more he stained the worse it got until we finally threw our hands up and decided we had better come up with a different option. Needless to say the vanities are still at the Wood Carver's shop and we have moved on, less $800.00.

Our Handmade Bricks On The Patio Come Complete With Doggie Prints

Esteban, Our Architect Draws Out A Rough Sketch Of Mom & Bob's Fireplace

Giovanni, One Of Our Master Carpenters, Builds Bookshelves For My Office

Plan B was to do our kitchen base cabinets in the traditional South American style and build them out of brick and stucco with simple wood shelves above instead of upper cabinets. Hey we're trying to be authentic to the house. We have also opted to pour concrete countertops in the kitchen and stain them since we thought granite would be the wrong look with our new found authentic style. Rod has been watching You Tube videos trying to take a crash course on pouring, staining and polishing granite counter tops. As of yet I have no plan B for the bathroom vanities, but I am working on it.

Rod's Kitchen Cabinets Made From Brick And Cement

Our Bathroom Shower Stall

My Concrete Brick Cabinets In My Kitchen

Plan C came along after Rod decided to do a small test run on the concrete counter to see if our crew was capable of doing such a project. The crew carefully constructed a wooden frame and lined it with rebar (so far so good). They than started to mix the concrete and as Rod watched in horror they began to add rocks and sand to the mix. That was the end of that and the concrete counter idea went out the window. Now we are on to teak countertops, what do they say "The third time's the charm"?

Learning About Teak Wood From An Expert

By the way we did make it through customs with all of our faucets and steam generators, but only by the skin of our teeth. Mom and Bob claimed one footlocker and they breezed right through, but when it came our turn, the customs agent decided he wanted to unpack our footlocker and interrogate us. I had placed one steam generator into each footlocker and when the agent questioned why we had two steam generators I played dumb and said we only had one (after all we did only claim one footlocker). He looked at me with a puzzled look, but let it go. We were then asked why we were bringing in all of these fixtures. We promptly replied that we were remodeling a house in Cuenca and the agent's reply was "Why would you want to move to Cuenca"? as if he couldn't believe an American would ever dream of moving to Cuenca. Now that the steam generators are here it seems to be a hot topic among the plumber and electrician exactly how to install such a device, apparently this is the first time they have ever seen one, ay ya ya!

In spite of the curve balls that we have been thrown great progress has been made. We have had little changes here and there and have slowly been working on alternate plans, realizing as we go that there are always compromises to be made. Some days are more difficult than others and there have been a fair share of melt downs and disagreements between the four of us as to how things should look or be done. We all have our own individual tastes and wishes and just because we are family doesn't change the fact that we want things the way we want them.

The Workers Putting Up Some Extremely Heavy Beams Over The Patio I Was
Holding My Breath While Four Men Placed Each Beam In Place

Mom & Rod Have A Heated Discussion About A Paint Technique Bob And I Sat On The Sidelines As These Two Battled It Out

Secretly My Money Was On Mom

All I can say is that a task of this size would be almost impossible for two people, living in one country and renovating in another and even though we may disagree between the four of us, I am glad to have the extra support of two more people. When one or two of us gets down and frustrated the others are there to step in and make the vision a little clearer.

Esteban Processing His Ideas

Thinking How Small My Kitchen Seems Since The Cabinets Went In

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Thursday, October 6, 2011

It's That Time Again

It has been a day as we have been preparing for our return to Ecuador. Our plane leaves at 6:30 in the morning and the shuttle will be at our front door to pick us up at 5:00 am (Yikes!), and I'm still up doing last minute packing (double Yikes!). This trip promises to be interesting as we will be carrying several kitchen and bath faucets with us as well as two steam generators for the showers.

When Rod and I carried all of the plumbing fixtures to the house in order to start packing them, it didn't take me long to realize that the suitcases we had weren't going to cut it. I decided to look on line for a couple of footlockers that I could purchase locally and that were TSA approved. I found what looked to be the perfect set at Walmart and read the reviews carefully to make sure that these footlockers would be compliant with the airline baggage size restrictions.

Sterlite Footlocker

This morning I promptly ran out and purchased the footlockers, but before I got to the checkout I noticed that the lockers were 7/8" above the published 62" size limit that Continental airlines allows. A quick phone call to the airline confirmed that indeed these were above the size limits, but after convincing the agent to look into it further, she confirmed that the airline actually allowed 63" before a hefty oversize charge was applied.

When I returned to the office I decided I had better double check what the agent had told me. I could just picture us dragging two foot lockers weighing 50 pounds each and three suitcases only to be told that we were over the limit and that we would have to fork out an extra $200.00. This little known (or maybe I'm the only one that doesn't know it) fact is not published anywhere on the website and I was told that if the check in agent gave me any grief I could tell them where to look up the information in their own system.

Needless to say I have spent the better part of the night packing, weighing, unpacking and shuffling items around to come up with the perfect weights and dimensions. I'm just hoping they don't confiscate all of our plumbing in Guayaquil thinking that we are trying to bring it into the country for resale. I volunteered to put the ominous faucet valve that pretty much looks like a bomb into my carry on bag and gave Rod instructions to bail me out should I be thrown into prison for carrying such a device.

This time I am leaving my laptop behind and will be attempting to work and blog totally from my ipad, but before leaving I wanted to bring everyone up to date, so please enjoy the pictures and stay tuned for an update, I'm confident there will be stories to tell.

The Back Wall Of Our Garden Area

New Doors

The Stone Wall in Our Bedroom

New Windows

What A View From Our Terrace

Laying The Brick Floor On The Deck

The Deck Floor Again 

New Doors On The Front Of The House

The Crew Decides To Make Good Use Of Our Mantle

Laying More Brick

We're excited and nervous all at the same time seeing the house after so much progress has been made.