Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Building a house

This was my column yesterday.

I am writing this piece in the midst of utter chaos. We have just moved into a new house that’s barely finished. There’s the lingering smell of fresh paint in the air despite the fact that the painting job was completed a week ago and we specifically used the type of paint advertised on television as odorless. And as if the chemical scent of paint isn’t more than enough already to bring on an attack of rhinitis, there’s the ubiquitous dust here, there and everywhere.

Moving houses in this infernal heat definitely isn’t a good idea. But we couldn’t wait to move to this house that’s finally home sweet home—the first house that’s officially in my name. It was a house built around 30 years ago when the price of marble, glass, and steel must have been ridiculously cheap—there was just not other way to explain the architecture of the house when we first found it: A veritable aquarium cum fortress with huge sliding glass doors and panels and twisted wrought iron everywhere.

A number of well-meaning friends advised me to start fresh—meaning demolish the old structure and build a new house from the ground up. It’s supposed to be more economical and less stressful, two considerations I was amply warned about. My friends kept telling me: Prepare to spend twice your budget and fortify yourself against stress. They were correct on both counts. Building a house is so stressful. It’s also like pouring money into a bottomless well.

I have learned that building a house—in my case, renovating an old house—is a great test of character. I am not sure though that building a new house from the ground up was any less economical or stress-free. At the very least, I knew that it was not environment-friendly as demolishing perfectly serviceable structures would inevitably result in wastage. Besides, I’ve always had this fascination with old houses and buildings and have signed quite a number of petitions to preserve old structures. I figured it would be hypocritical on my part if I tear down an old house just because I wanted convenience.

I now have great respect and admiration for middlemen—euphemistically called coordinators in other undertakings such as wedding or wake coordinators, contractors in the case of the construction industry. I originally didn’t want to hire a contractor as I had this foolish notion that I had what it took to personally oversee and supervise a major house renovation.

As the stress level mounted and the number of decisions that had to be made began to pile up, I inevitably threw both hands in the air in surrender. Fortunately, a sibling and her husband were available and jumped at the opportunity to travel to Manila to lend a hand. Nevertheless, I still came down with attacks of hypertension although I suspect this infernal heat was more of a culprit than the delays in the renovation and the runaway expense.

I wonder: Before there were all these one-stop-shop home depots and all these specialty stores that sell pre-fabricated, pre-cut and ready-to-install, well, everything… what exactly did people do when they built a house? I guess this was when real craftsmanship got into the picture.

I remember when my grandmother had her house constructed, back when I was still wearing short pants, all materials was delivered to the construction site in its raw form. Lumber was delivered exactly the way they looked after the trees were felled and fed through a power saw. Carpenters had to smoothen the wood planks with a tool that looked like those old steel contraptions used to shave ice for halo halo and measure the angles of the plank using a piece of string with a weight tied to it. Carpenters also had to cut planks into appropriate sizes manually and drove nails with traditional hammers. Everything had to be done right at the construction site and by hand.

I was pleasantly surprised to find out that practically everything from beams, to doors, to cabinets now come pre-fabricated or pre-cut to fit one’s specifications. In addition, one could order materials from a hardware store by phone and these were delivered promptly—even materials that could presumably be carried in one’s palm. What’s more, one can walk into a home depot and find everything one needs there provided one can afford the rather steep price of convenience. When I say everything—I really mean everything, from bathroom tiles to lighting fixtures to appliances, to contractors.

Okay. I know I’m embarrassing myself here. So I’m not exactly Mr. Handyman and my knowledge about construction and house maintenance is almost zilch. I guess the lesson that I am trying to impart is that theoretical knowledge about many things in this world is really never enough. There’s the kind of knowledge that comes straight from books and there’s the other type that kinds from real exposure to the real thing. Obviously, some things in this world are best done by people with real experience in the real thing.

Building a house is stressful but putting up with bad service is even more stressful. We made arrangements to have our cable and Internet connections transferred days in advance precisely to make sure that these things would already be fixed by the time we moved into the new house. The customer service people we talked to all promised the same thing: Prompt service. It’s been three days since we moved into the new house, which by the way is just a block away from where we used to live, and we still don’t have Internet connection and cable TV. Meanwhile, the same cable and Internet service providers continue to advertise their supposedly superior services and declare in various advertisements that they can install the connections within 24 hours.

On the other hand, Meralco makes such a big to-do with being a 24-hour service company. Unfortunately, the tagline also seems to refer to their service capability as well. We ran into some problems with our electricity source—the power supply for the house was unstable and power surged each time the wind blew. Obviously, there was loose connection from the electric post. The neighborhood electrician temporarily solved the problem by applying pressure on to the wiring using a wooden pole. We called the Meralco hotline (631-1111) Friday night. We were promised immediate action. By Saturday afternoon, the promised service still didn’t materialize despite the fact that we called four times to follow up. Finally, the crew arrived Saturday night—more than 24 hours after we reported the problem.

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