December 9, 2006

Building a house in Honduras

Almost completed, August 2004

Houses in mainland Honduras are usually made of concrete blocks and cement covered with stucco. Roofs are framed with wood or iron and usually covered with sheets of tin, zinc, or an imitation teja (fired clay roof tiles) made of sheet metal. A few houses are made of brick or wood but that is rare along the coast. Houses in the Bay Islands are more often made of wood. Bricks are more commonly used around the Tegucigalpa area.

I have no experience building a house anywhere else, but I believe that in the U.S., the foundation is the first step. Here it is the opposite. The walls each have their own foundations, called a
zanjo, and concrete floors are poured toward the end of construction, often after the roof is completed. Some people have told me that the houses here are more solid and that could be, since the concrete houses generally withstand the tropical storms and hurricanes better than those along the U.S. coast.

The first step is to build a temporary bodega (warehouse) to store the materials, especially the cement since it cannot get wet. The major building materials are sand, gravel, and concrete blocks, which of course are maintained outside.

Throughout the construction a night guard is necessary to protect the construction materials and it wouldn't be a bad idea to have one during the day as well to guard against pilfering by the workers.

Construction begins by building a wooden frame around the outer perimeters of the house. The frame must be absolutely square or the house won't be square either. Measurements are taken from the frame to mark where the walls will be using fishing line strung on boards driven into the ground.

Our lot is sloped and our house was designed to fit the slope − it has 5 different floor levels (not stories!), which I imagine made taking the measurements much more difficult.

zanjoAt this point, a dozen or more day laborers are brought in to dig the zanjos (ditches which will be filled with concrete) with shovels. The zanjos are wider on the outer walls and some interior walls for a wider foundation and more support for the roof. The square 'ditches' for the corners are even wider; these are called zapatas (footings) and provide a solid base for the corners and various points around the house.

Columns of vertical metal reinforcements are placed in every corner and about every 2-3 meters (8-10 feet) on long walls. The 'ditches' are filled with concrete and then the albañiles (masons/brick layers) begin building the walls with the concrete blocks.

After the walls are built to a certain height, a metal horizontal reinforcement beam will be placed on each wall. These are placed below and above the windows and at the top of each wall. The beams are tied to the vertical supports with wires and are framed in with wood and filled with concrete to provide structural integrity. Some houses are built without or only with a minimal number of these supports.

All plumbing, telephone, cable, and electrical lines, if there are any (some houses don't have any of these) are placed into the holes of the concrete blocks in the walls as they are built. This picture shows where the kitchen wall had to be busted to put in some electrical lines. There are also electrical and plumbing lines coming out of the concrete floor (in the wrong place!) where a bar with cabinets and sink are going to be.

Failure to place the lines before or changes in plans after the interior walls are smoothed with stucco is disastrous as it is just about impossible, at least here in Honduras, to cover the concrete patches smoothly.

The smoothing of the walls is a two part process. First comes the repello, a rough textured sandy concrete that is literally thrown at the wall with a hand tool. The purpose of this layer is to have a rough surface to which the smooth concrete will stick. This layer is left to dry for a day and the following day the pulido, a coat of thin, sandless cement mixed with lime, is smoothed on the walls.

Some of the albañiles are extremely talented craftsmen and when they finish with the interior walls, they are indistinguishable from a sheet rock wall unless you notice that the walls are thicker. Our house has both types of walls and the concrete walls definitely look better because finding quality sheet rock workers is difficult.

Throughout the process of construction, it is very important for the owner to understand the architectural plan and to know how to take measurements or to hire someone to oversee the construction (or both, actually).
Regular visits to the construction site are necessary to avoid problems later on down the road. El Jefe visited the construction every single day, with a copy of the plans and a tape measure.

It isn't such a difficult thing to move a sheet rock wall or add an electrical outlet in the U.S. In concrete construction, it can be a major undertaking, especially when the walls have 2 feet (.60 cm.) deep and wide solid concrete foundations.

During the time the albañiles are working on the walls, the electrician and plumber should be regular visitors, placing their electrical lines or plumbing pipes where needed. If they miss a few days, chances are they will have to bust open a wall or two to install something. This always happens and it isn't a major problem as long as it is done before the pulido, except that the walls sometimes later develop cracks where they have been patched.

As the walls grow, the albañiles make these wooden andamios (scaffolds) and homemade ladders in order to reach their work. Definitely not OSHA approved. We found out later that our contractor had a reputation: Someone was killed or severely injured on all of his projects, usually from a fall or electrocution.

Thankfully, we had no construction accidents, (oops, except for mine − 10 stitches in the head) although two of our workers were hit by cars while riding their bicycles to work on the highway. In both cases, the car fled the scene leaving them laying
in the ditch beside the road. Luckily, they were not badly injured although one was hospitalized for two days.

Once the walls are the full height, the framing of the roof can begin. This is the first point and one of the only times where power tools were used.

If you look closely at this picture, you can see the horizontal beams above and below the windows and at the top of the walls. The vertical metal columns were framed with wood and have been filled with solid concrete.

Amazingly, almost everything is done by hand: digging ditches, mixing cement, cutting wood and iron, nailing, and screwing. The welders use electric circular saws and welding machines and the tile man used a circular saw for cutting tile. The carpenters used a power drill for installation of doors and cabinets. Other than that, I can't think of any power tools used to build our house. It's basically a handmade house.

Most houses have roofs of tin or zinc sheets. We used teja. I'm going to do a separate article on roofing the house some other day. Once the roof is covered, several other activities can begin: The floor can be poured, tile can be laid, the sheet rock ceilings installed, windows, doors, and cabinets can be installed and finally the painting can begin.

The process of accounting for and paying for the materials and labor is extremely important but too detailed to get into in this article. Suffice it to say that much care and attention to detail is needed. I have some horror stories from other people (both Honduran and north American) that I'll write about another day. Just a couple of teasers: Imagine paying for the entire house construction only to arrive and find that the house was less than half built, or imagine building two houses (one for your contractor as well) without knowing it.

I can't believe that planning and building this house and muro (wall/fence) took about four years of our lives (and some things are still not finished!) and I have condensed it down to this short article. Well, not so short, but comparatively considering the time involved. I think some things are just too painful to write about!

We never intended to build a house when we moved here. Where to live? tells about why we decided to build and a little about our lives after moving into the uncompleted house.
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