|S P E C I A L F E A T U R E S |
Better Building : Stop the Construction Carnival
by James Post
When I came to the Caribbean six years ago I had managed several construction and renovation projects in the Netherlands.
Our plan in Grenada was to build a small, luxury resort community on eight acres, situated on a hill between 2 beaches, was acclaimed by all that reviewed it. We had meetings with government officials, banks, architects and builders and were quite positive about their attitude.
So we decided to go ahead and start building.
I had read the book Don’t Stop the Carnival, that describes the extremities an American expat encountered when rebuilding and operating a resort on a beautiful Caribbean island. As this article will explain, I should have read the book twice. Because the hilarious dramas described in Herman Wouk’s book 50 years ago, are still in existence. It seems, you can’t stop the carnival.
Who should read this?
I wrote this article for those with a first world background who are considering building a home in the Caribbean.
It is not an attack on local contractors (although it may seem as such at times) or others involved. It is about dealing and overcoming the huge differences in culture and business practices. I learned the hard way and hope that this article will help others to see the pitfalls.
And if only one of you can avoid them and Stop the Carnival, this article reached its goal.
If your planned property is situated in an area which is not yet completely developed, you need to talk with the authorities about roads and with the utility companies about water, electricity and telephone.
You may get answers like “Once we see that you are serious in pursuing this plan, you will not have to worry about infrastructure”. They may promise you the moon, but their priorities may change. Or the price turns out to be several times higher than indicated.
Stop the Carnival: Never accept a commitment unless it leaves no room for interpretation and the costs are clearly specified. If you deal with a government ensure it is a legally binding document and consult an experienced local lawyer to confirm that what was promised will likely happen. But… have a spare plan in case they don’t honour.
Architects in the Caribbean may say that it is not common to detail all the electrical and plumbing connections. I checked this and –at the time- got confirmed that this is indeed the norm. “The specialists involved in these routines will deal with these matters in the most optimal way once they start the job and can oversee the practical constraints”. It sounded professional, even somewhat logical, but it is one of the biggest pitfalls of them all.
Stop the Carnival: Insist on detailed designs, including all plumbing and electrical details that leave no room for wrong interpretation.
We needed access roads, piping for water, waste, sewage, electricity and telephone. They were all properly thought over and well defined.
It started with the road to enter the property. As it is situated on a rather steep hill, we were advised to go up gradually alongside the hill, make a U turn and continue, thus making the access less steep.
A DAY BEFORE THE WORKS STARTED, THE CONTRACTOR SAID THAT THIS APPROACH WAS WRONG
A day before the works started, the contractor said that this approach was wrong. The designer had not thought about the practical problems related to going alongside the hill, i.e. the need for a retaining wall.
They proposed a far simpler approach: to cut off ground from the top of the hill and add this to the bottom. Thus we would create a road that does not need a retaining wall but is not too steep. I loved the man for that great idea. Then the works started in a dazzling speed.
It was impossible to keep track on the exact details of road angle, amounts of earth moved. Later it turned out that they simply cheated with the amount of earth to take out at the top and fill at the bottom. As a result, the angle of the road was far steeper than agreed. To save themselves some time, they had not lifted the steel mats that are designed to be in the centre of the concrete. We had three different contractors working on roads. The first did it wrong and both others tried, even after repeated warnings.
Stop the Carnival: Hire a reliable engineer who checks these details before moving to the next step. And double-check it yourself.
We had specified that all utility pipes needed to be at least 3 ft under the ground –in the case of rocky ground, and at least 4 ft at soft grounds. A logical and clear plan it seemed; everybody felt confident. Until we found out –much later- that the actual depths were so close to the surface that the gardeners working on beautifying the place hit the lines with their forks.
Four inches was the extreme. Why people do these obviously “bad” things? Because… they don’t see the point of going any deeper. “We know where the lines are; you worry for nothing”. Going so deep is really too much work, the ground is rocky, they claim with a smile. All manholes that were built at our property were not watertight. Especially with electricity and telephone cables, that means a lot of fun once you start operating.
Stop the Carnival: Have a reliable person painfully check out the daily progress continuously. And double-check it yourself.
When you do construction, it is common to request 3 or 4 quotations compare the offers and then take a decision. The contractor is then responsible to finish the job within the agreed budget after the contract has been signed. That’s indeed how it should be, but not how it is here in paradise.
Many contractors quote a price they do not intend to honor. They accept the job, sign with a smile and promise you that you will love their work. Then, even if it was not in the contract, they usually ask for a little advance. Then, as the work progresses, they come with regular requests for advances.
They will do their utmost to make it hard for you to judge the progress by leaving things unfinished. When you question the payment amount they may use arguments like “I need to honor my payroll”.
By the time it becomes clear to you that they are running behind, and start confronting them herewith, they will either “leave the job” (indeed, they will go and not even notify you).
Or they will have one of the following statements: “the job is too big for the money”, “the money can’t pay the work”, “you did not tell me the work was so big”, “you know that the project is bigger than you thought” or similar hilarity.
A REAL DIRTY TRICK, BUT OFTEN EXERCISED IS THAT A CONTRACTOR DISAPPEARS AS A FINANCIAL 'OPTIMAL' MOMENT.
A real dirty trick, but often exercised is that a contractor disappears at a financial “optimal” (for him) moment. They don’t care about their image and the legal system takes ages and offers lots of opportunities to cheat. When the contractor simply states that you refused to pay him the agreed price and that he had no other option to leave…it will be hard to prove the contrary.
Stop the Carnival: this is one of the hardest ones. I do not know any contractor who built a house within the agreed budget. All you can do is watch your project like a hawk and limit the chances to cheat.
We paid an engineer to be present before and during the critical stages of construction, such as before and during pouring concrete. They always come up with suggestions for improvement as they need to justify the cost of their presence.
Some of the suggestions mean extra work and you have to pay for that… but moreover; our and many other's experience show that they lack consistency. Almost all of our water tanks leaked, although we had bought concrete vibrators and used expensive additives to ensure prevention of leakage.
Later we found out why: the concrete was not properly vibrated and they sneakily used less cement.
Stop the Carnival: You must check each and every detail and don’t rely on a third party alone. If you hire an engineer, make a checklist with him with all issues he will check on and ensure he does this. If you are not proficient in building, make sure you educate yourself before you start building. But even if you sit on top of it, you need to count in serious (expensive) shortcomings.
Often, contractors will either exclude the cost of excavation or they ask a price they can never go wrong with. Usually, you will choose to pay separately. If you pay the machine by the day, the progress of the work will of course be slow. But there are many more concerns. One is whether they will excavate in accordance to the drawing.
For starters, many contractors don’t ”really” know how to read a drawing. During my absence a contractor organized the excavation for a sewage tank. Unfortunately he switched length and depth. Consequently, the depth of the excavation was 2 ½ times too deep, costing a fortune by itself plus the refilling and compaction.
If the building is similar to most houses they are used to build, it may go right. But if it is different from what they are accustomed to and they do not recognize this on the drawing (and they never ask as they won’t admit their shortcoming knowledge) you may end up with a very different foundation than your architect had designed.
Another bad one is that they will try to use less steel than engineered. Just to save some valuable time…. Then they will forget to properly interconnect the steel. If you see it, they will smile and correct it; it’s almost like a game: “you caught me”
ANOTHER PITFALL IS THAT THE PIPING FOR WATER, ELECTRICITY AND WATER IS IN THE WRONG POSITION OR IMPROPERLY GLUED
Another pitfall is that the piping for water, electricity and water is in the wrong position or improperly glued. Don’t be surprised if you find connections that were not glued at all. “I will do that later”.
Stop the Carnival: Be sure that you understand the design of the foundation and painfully check the work.
Most walls are not straight and plumb. The effect here is usually visible in the finishing stage i.e. after tiling. But there are worse issues. When your house is build with the usual hollow concrete blocks, they need to be filled with steel that connects to the foundation, properly interconnected.
If you don’t watch it closely they will either omit the steel, or shove it in without tying. And they may forget to fill the holes with concrete which makes the whole operation useless (and your building weak). A common trick is to build up the wall and then fill with concrete only from the i.e. 9 ft high top. It seems to be filled but the concrete will not have reached the bottom at all, making the steel obsolete.
If the electricity and/or plumbing are executed by different contractors, they need to be there at the right moment. Otherwise, the contractor will continue the work and the walls need to be opened afterwards to bring in the pipes. Some even believe this is best practice: “it is a faster work”.
Stop the Carnival: If I would do it again, I would use ICF (Insulating Concrete Forms) blocks. They give less opportunity to do it wrong, provided they are plumbed well. As the outside of the blocks is foam it is easy to put in the pipes afterwards. The construction will be stronger than regular blocks and the walls are well insulated.
It is vital that the rafters of your roof are securely connected to the steel construction below. But to do it right takes more work than to do it “easy”. In particular make sure that they put steel through all the rafters and connect them securely to the ring beam steel. Make sure they use screws to connect the wood of the roof to the rafters. They will try to use nails as their time is so valuable. Insist and check they apply the screws at the specified distance. It is very common that they cheat on this.
Stop the Carnival: You must go up on the roof.
James Post was an executive in high tech companies and moved to the Caribbean in 2000 to start the Paradise Bay resort community, where villa owners have the advantage of shared security, maintenance and infrastructure (including windmill energy) and have the option to get a return on investment by renting out their villa against a guaranteed yield to management. He is also available to assist in construction project management and -in certain cases- take charge of operations.
He can be reached at:
jamespost at spiceisle.com
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