January 19, 2018
Renovating a house is always a challenge. I’ve done renovations twice before, and even in the US contractors rarely show up on time and almost never come in under budget. Could I expect renovations in the land of “mañana” to be easier? In truth, many workers in Mérida were punctual and efficient; almost all were polite and professional. The house in Colonia Alemán was not in disastrous shape, as many historic homes here are, but it wasn’t exactly in a condition in which we wanted to live.
We got bids from three architects before proceeding. We have met expats who did the contracting themselves, but unless one is very fluent in Spanish (and maybe a little Maya) and totally conversant with Mexican labor laws, this seems like a risky way to go.
Our architects, Cervera, Sanchez and Associates, were terrific. They listened to our needs and came up with striking solutions, including a vastly enlarged kitchen and a classic facade. Most important would be a music room that could be air-conditioned 24 hours a day to protect the piano, harpsichords and violins. It was there that work began even before I arrived permanently in Mérida. One pressing aspect would be the condition of the walls. The humidity of Yucatán, and the wicking of water into concrete walls from the ground, is a constant. Many walls had to be scraped, resurfaced and repainted.
There were doors and windows to be moved or replaced, and the existing four and a half baths would be reconfigured into three. In an earlier renovation two houses had been combined, the resultant property being used as a music store in recent years. Mérida has no zoning restrictions, so buildings can move fluidly between residential and commercial applications. (When we first saw our house, seventeen pianos still resided there. I chose my favorite to include in the sale.) Other issues included water filtration and pressurization systems, pool pump, configuration of two electric and water systems, etc. We were receiving bills for utilities at two adjacent addresses and under a various names. It is often problematic to update utility accounts here.
Work proceeded slowly, the workers using what seemed to be fairly primitive techniques. Both demolition and construction were accomplished using hatchets and chisels, but the work was always beautifully executed! The workers lived in a village about twenty minutes outside Mérida. They left home early in the morning to take the bus into downtown, and waited in line for another bus to our colonia - Mexicans are incredibly patient at waiting in queues. They arrived invariably between 7:00 and 7:30, ate breakfast and changed clothes in our bodega (storeroom). Work commenced at 8:00, with a break at 10:30, and lunch and siesta between 1:00 and 2:00. Work ended promptly by 5:00 every day and the workers made their way home via bus. We learned that all the workers were related - brothers, cousins, uncles, nephews. In all the months of working we never saw the slightest disagreement or conflict between workers. They had a rotation system where a different worker chose which music they would listen to each day. The result was an interesting variety!
We moved into the house immediately upon arrival, enduring times when cooking was an aerobic exercise, running between rooms to find necessary appliances, and other times when water was limited to a single bathroom. But we wanted to be there while the work was being done, not only because previous experience suggested that workers might make decisions on the fly that we might later regret, but also because we wanted to see how it was all accomplished. The architect arranged everything, even though that meant paying a surcharge for services, but it was worth it to know we were not liable in case of an accident, and that translation problems could be easily overcome.
The other advantage of living in the house was learning first hand just how essential some of the planned changes might be. We could make practical alterations as we went. The existing kitchen footprint turned out to be quite functional, so plans for an enlarged kitchen were scrapped, saving time, permitting, demolition and construction costs. New cabinets, counters and lighting would suffice. We had also witnessed how much dust residue would result from the various tasks, and were happy to minimize this.
As we anticipated, the original six months strung out to ten, and the original estimate, even after eliminating almost a third of the project, would be exceeded by more than 20%. But the result was a house that is beautiful, functional and comfortable, a real home, the details of which we are happy to share!