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La Maison: The beginning and the end

July 31, 2017: 9 months, 28 days since start of construction

This is what building a house does to you: for the 98th time, you find yourself wide awake at 1:43 a,m., drinking some herbal concoction that you hope will help put you back to sleep, and wondering – no, screaming inside your head – “WHEN WILL THIS EVER END???”

I know, that sounds like a line reserved for people who are in pure anguish, and I do not wish to trivialize anybody’s pain, but there is a kind of agony that afflicts homeowners (an optimistic term for when that house is ever finished) who, like us, have been given at least four turnover dates and yet find themselves in the same state they were in months ago: stressed, sleepless and exhausted to the point of breakdown.

We began construction of our house on Oct. 3, 2016. In the description on the blueprint, it says “Three-Story Split-Level Residence” on an 88-square-meter lot, which was a generous gift from my mother. Except today, it’s not a split-level, thanks to the first labor contractor that f—ed up the structural construction, and it’s not yet a residence, nearly 10 months in. It’s still three stories, though, thank God.

Building a house in the Philippines is one of the most difficult undertakings for regular working people who could not afford a contractor. You take out a loan, get your permits, find a crew to build your “dream home,” and wake up to these realities:

  • Your loan will never be enough to cover your expenses, and you will be spending a substantial amount from your own pocket during construction. For construction loans, the money is released in tranches based on accomplishment, i.e. the first 30 percent is given upon loan approval, the next 30 percent upon a certain percentage of construction work done, and so on. The truth is, your expenses will always overtake the amount you get from the bank, and you will have to spend your own money to get you to the next loan release. In our case, we would always have spent 40-50 percent of the next loan release before we got the next tranche. Lesson: You cannot rely on only the bank loan to build a house; you must have significant savings.
  • Not all people are good, and some of the bad ones could be building your house. A lot of our nightmares were caused by people who, either out of greed or incompetence, did not do what they were supposed to do. Our first labor contractor was referred by an aunt who said the guy was referred by the foreman in one of the pre-selling townhouses she was manning. We met with several people before deciding to go with this guy, just for labor. He was reasonably priced and quite helpful during the pre-construction phase. He began asking for advances two months into the construction and we indulged him twice, I think. When we declined another request, his workers packed up and abandoned our project. And this, after we gave everyone Christmas baskets. Nice, huh? In the last nine months, we have had sub-contractors who stole our lights, defaced our bathrooms, made stupendous mistakes that cost us a lot of money, and deceived us on the quality of materials they provided. I have wished harm on them all – sorry, Lord – but what’s done is done. Lesson: It is good to be kind but it is better to be discerning. Do not rely on referrals/suppliers whose works you have not seen for yourself. Be careful with the cheap options; there’s often a catch.
  • What you see (on paper) is not always what you get. You may have the most inspiring Pinterest boards and the perfect blueprints but out there, on the ground, there will be changes and errors. It’s the human factor. Just try not to make crucial, structural mistakes because those could really do you in. Our first foreman, after boasting that he has worked on tall buildings using i-beams, completely missed the split-level part of the structural plan, and this caused a domino effect on the construction: we had to redesign the stairs, break down hallways, etc. Naturally, we spent more money and time examining and rectifying the work of the first labor team. There were many other changes: the architect’s interior render of our bedroom was dreamy but it turned out we did not have enough space for that design; our walls were supposed to be pre-fabricated but due to budget and skills constraints, we ended up using the traditional hollow blocks; our house was not supposed to be painted, just skim-coated cement for our Japanese-industrial design theme, but because the skim coat we bought (Mortabond from Ultra Petronne) started peeling when the rains came, we have had to paint the whole structure. Now, the house looks nothing like the one on the architect’s drawings. It’s not bad-looking, but it was not the house we envisioned. Lesson: Be flexible, as long as the changes do not affect the structural integrity of your house. But also be firm about what you want; some things in your plans are worth fighting for. Address mistakes ASAP and hire professionals to do the work. No amount of Google or Facebook research will give you the pros’ experience and expertise.
  • Truly skilled workers are hard to find. A lot of people will say a lot of things to get a job, and when pressed for time and budget, you will tend to hire them, but the truth is, the really skilled workers are rare gems that do not talk much, in my experience. We had an electrician/foreman (from the Takeover Team) who has worked in Libya and whose work has impressed even the best electrical engineers. Our carpenter, who came late into the project, can take one look at your Pinterest inspiration and execute it the next day. The fabricators who did the frames of our tables and countertops can do anything with steel. They did not come cheap but they were some of the best money we spent on the house. Lesson: When you find the right people with the right skills and attitude, employ them immediately, pay them well and respect their work.

The last nine months of my life have been consumed by our house project. La Maison is, by far, the most stressful thing I have ever done in my life. Wedding preps are a breeze compared to this. Work-related stress does not last as long as this. When you do not have truckloads of money to spend, building a house will require all the wisdom you can find.

I had planned on documenting the stages of construction and taking note of the dos and don’ts, but I have not had the energy for it. What I will do, instead, is write a review of our suppliers and share our experience with each of them, with the hope that others may learn from our journey. Despite the challenges we faced, most of our suppliers were quite good and worthy of recommendation. ###


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