Construction, 1: The Hose & the Lime

            While the Casita is our home pro tem, now it is time to begin the Casa, the big house: sala (living room), comedor (dining room), cocina (kitchen); (recámara) bedroom, two studies (one converts to bedroom), two baths, a closet, a pantry, and two terraces, one of which hosts the washing machine; two 35,000 liter cisterns.

            The third to fifth days we were back in Oaxaca it rained as if it were targeting Noah’s neighbors. The downpour turned our property and all local roads except the paved one into quagmires. Work halted. We parked the CRV up by Tom and Judith’s house on the edge of the paved road. We learned that Mexico does not sell rubber boots in my size. Day six the sun came out; Lalo and Cynthia announced that the rainy season had ended, and that the next forcasted rain would be in May. Hermilo, Lalo’s foreman, put a crew to work clearing the center portion of the land of vegetation. On day eight, Cynthia told us, we would lay out the Casa to check the volumes, orientation, sight lines, and so forth. Cynthia’s house plans included a number of tricky angles that Lalo, Hermilo, and Cynthia were excited about figuring out how to manage.

            In front of the work shed Lalo assembles the surveying instruments. These are: a retractable 25-meter tape measure; a couple of 50-meter lengths of line; a large spool of what looks like blue plastic fisherman’s leader; a T-square; a plumb line consisting of a large bolt tied to a string; a 25-meter length of thin translucent plastic tubing; and a large bag of lime. No theodolites on their sturdy orange tripods. No laser sights. No technicians with hard hats and dark glasses and clipboards.

            Cynthia lays the house blueprint (white, actually) on the folding table on the casita’s terrace. Unlike the planned casa, the casita is a simple rectangle. Hermilo stretches a blue filament parallel to the front wall of the casita from the terrace over to the west boundary of the property. That becomes the east-west baseline. Using the T-square, the crew stakes out another filament at right angles to the first: the north-south baseline. For the next seven hours, referencing the blueprint and the base lines and the T-square and what looks to us like a whole lot of intuition, the crew marks out the casa’s boundaries and the position of each interior wall with blue filament. As each wall is decided on, the chalk-man brings the bag of lime and marks it out with the white powder.


            Next task is to calculate the elevations. One of the men drives a stake into the north-most, i.e, highest white line. Lalo, Hermilo, and Cynthia calculate where the floor level will have to be, mark the point on the stake, and nail a cross piece to indicate the floor level. They walk down to the south-most white line and pound in another stake. Two of the crew fill the hose with water and stretch it the length of the limed out house. The north man holds the tube to the north stake so that level of water in the tube is precisely at the cross bar. Hermilo, at the south end, holds the tube against the stake and marks a line where the height of the water indicates. Simple, efficient, and absolutely level. More stakes, more cross bars, a labyrinth of stretched blue filaments, and now we begin to get a feel for the volume of the future casa.


            Cynthia and Lalo walk round and round the site. They sit on the terrace with the plans, jot down numbers, walk the perimeter again. They spend a long time at the south (downhill) end, looking up at the casita, the work shed, and the garden shed-closet that is now nearing completion. The sun is about to set. I ask Lalo if tomorrow he will begin to excavate.


            “No, no. This is just a trial run. Now we will think about it, look at the angles, elevations, sight lines. Calculate costs. Work out whatever changes we think will be useful. Wipe all this out and do it again.”

             “I’ll do some revised plans tonight, rough ones,” Cynthia says.

            “You see something on paper,” Lalo explains, “but when you lay it out like this you begin to see how it will sit on the site.”


            “It’s massive. Imposing.,” Cynthia says. “We’re going to have to soften it some. And expensive, too. We have some tentative ideas about how to cut back the costs. We’ll talk about it tomorrow.”

            About 9:30 that evening Cynthia emails us with attachments. What if we roof only half of the front terrace? What if we squeeze the west walls by 50 or 60 centimeters? What if we shift everything a little further up the hill?


            In the morning Lalo makes the case. The original plan involves too much differential in elevation. At the low end, where the cisterns are, the retaining wall will have to be massive, almost a cliff. Moving the whole house a meter and a half up hill will soften the impact and save us 100-120,000 pesos in iron and cement. Moving in the west wall 60 centimeters or so will allow more turning radius for the car and improve the proportions of the two studies, which he heard us say were a little too big anyway. It will crowd the back patio a little, and we will have to relocate the smallest of the flor de mayo trees, but the savings are truly significant.

            Linda and I readily agree to the moves and the shrinkage, but agonize for a half day over the terrace roof. In full sun I won’t use the unroofed portion. Linda either. Our suppressed immune systems make an enemy of the sun. While we are talking, Cynthia tinkers, and her miraculous computer 3-D simulation program cranks up house views with and without the questioned roof.

            “See how much cleaner the lines are without it?”

            Cynthia rotates the views, shows us the classic look of the dining room façade from the entrance gate, the postern stairs, the east fence.

            “A nice patio table with an umbrella so that you wouldn’t have to sit in the sun. Maybe some plants.”

            “What about a trellis?, “ Linda injects. “Some flowering vine, or maybe grapes? Dappled sunshine  . .”

            I can make out those Provençal vine-shaded terraces dancing in Linda’s eyes. Lavender in pots, wisteria, trumpet vines.

            “We can do that,” says Cynthia. “Build in wooden posts at the corners so you can string a trellis. Still keep the classic look. And save tens of thousands by eliminating that roof.”

            We agree. Lalo takes charge.

            “We take down all those stakes and lines and we bring in the excavator. We’ll lower the back elevation by about a meter, move all that dirt to the south and bring the site a lot closer to level. Once it is level we can lime it out again, and bring in the backhoe to dig the cisterns and the foundation trenches. Three, four days.”

            We all agree.

            And over the next few days, that is what they do.