Thursday, November 24, 2011

Construction, Philippines style!

As many of you know, I have a construction work background from back in Canada.  So, of course seeing how construction is done here fascinates me.  I will say right from the start, that after seeing how things are done here compared to how they are done in Canada I have come to the conclusion that one place is not necessarily better than the other, the methods and materials are just different.

However the differences are pretty huge at times.  So here I present my take on some of the major differences between what I am used to in Canadian single-family residential construction and what I have observed here.

Difference #1 - Materials
One of the first things I noticed was the difference in building materials that are used in single family residential construction. I am used to seeing concrete basements/foundations, wood framing (sometimes metal instead of wood), fiberglass batt insulation, drywall panels on the walls, carpet/hardwood/laminate/linoleum/tile floors, laminate/granite countertops, asphalt shingles, vinyl siding, and wood/composite decks.  This is pretty much standard, no matter whether a starter home or a higher-end house.  Granted, in really high-end houses higher quality materials are often used, but overall the materials are roughly the same.  And the best thing - all of it can be found in one place if necessary (Hello Home Depot!).

Here, it's a bit different.  In a middle-to-upper class house the main structural material is concrete.  Concrete walls, concrete floors, concrete everywhere.  That makes for some very strong buildings!  Then, to dress up the concrete there are a variety of materials used.  Tile is extremely common here.  Almost any horizontal surface (and some vertical ones) get covered in tile.  Lots of marble.  That seems to be the most common kind of stonework here.

The other main material is metal.  Metal is used to reinforce the concrete and for the roofing material.  Metal bars on the windows and metal spikes on the top of the fences and gates (very welcoming and inviting isn't it?).

Wood is used sometimes too.  Wood for the kitchen cabinets (if they aren't concrete!).  Wood trimwork.  Our whole house is done up in wood paneling and wood tongue-and-groove on the ceilings.  It's kind of like being in a log cabin.  Feels like we're back in Canada!

Now, that is a mid-to-upper class house (mainly expats and rich Filipinos).  A typical Filipino house is built a bit differently.  The main building material used is wood.  The wood for the structure is generally rough-sawn coconut lumber which can be found at many different lumber shops throughout the city.  It is relatively inexpensive and very sustainable.  Coconut trees tend to grow quite quickly.  The other type of wood used extensively is bamboo.  Bamboo is quite strong, especially for the weight of it.  It grows insanely quickly, and can be found all over the place.  It can be used as a whole log for structure (best part - it can be pretty much any length.  Try finding a 20' long 2x4 at Home Depot!), or split and nailed for use as walls and floors.  It is probably the most environmentally friendly building material on the planet, as it is super-renewable and extremely versatile.  If only we could figure out a way to grow it in our cold Canadian climate...

The rest of the house is usually a mixture of other materials.  And when I say a mixture, I mean it can be quite a conglomeration of different things.  Corrugated metal sheeting is often used for the roof and frequently the walls.  Plastic sheets, or even cardboard, can be substituted if metal sheets are not available or prohibitively expensive.  In some places many of the houses are quite colorful due to the reuse of old plastic banners as material for the walls.  Cost effective and environmentally friendly!

Difference #2 -Tools
Coming from a construction contractor background, tools were a VERY important part of my job.  If the tools didn't work then neither did I, so generally I would buy top quality.  Having the right tool for the job was not just a luxury but a necessity.  My partner and I, between the two of us, had pretty much every tool imaginable, and needed a truck and trailer to haul them all around in.  That way whether we were faced with needing to modify a cabinet for a custom fit, redo a bunch of plumbing to reinstall a sink in a new countertop, or simply to get a job done as quickly and efficiently as possible, we had the tool we needed.  In addition to my work tools though, I also had a pretty extensive set of tools just for doing jobs around the house. My tools were a big part of my life.

It was not an uncommon occurrence to find myself in one of the local hardware stores looking at new tools, testing new tools, and buying new tools.  Some we found were not worth the money, while others proved their worth the first time we used them.  And, of course, being a tool guy there was always something new that would be really nice to have.  Especially if it was cordless.  Cordless tools are great.  Everything should be cordless.  Cordless drills, cordless impact drivers, cordless jigsaws, cordless routers, cordless vacuums, cordless miter saws, cordless reciprocating saws...if only they could come up with a cordless battery charger!

So coming here I had to sell all my tools.  I miss my tools.  I know they have found a good home, but it still is so hard to say goodbye.  I still cry myself to sleep over that.  Being a tool guy I did send over a small toolkit in one of the boxes we shipped.  That has been a lifesaver at times!  But needless to say, my tool selection has become a whole lot more limited than I am used to.

I have discovered that having very few tools seems to be the norm.  When we first got settled into our house the landlord had a couple of minor maintenance issues to take care of.  He told me that his handyman would stop by to take care of it.  I assumed that the person coming would be well equipped to handle the small jobs that were to be done.  Imagine my shock when the handyman arrived riding his bike, just a small backpack on his back!  Out of that backpack he pulled a hammer, pliers, and a couple of screwdrivers.  That was it.  It was enough to get the job done.

After seeing that I figured that I should get a few tools myself, so off to the hardware store I went.  Now I am used to very well stocked hardware stores.  Walking into Hillhurst Hardware in Calgary (the greatest hardware store in the entire city, perhaps the world!  Check them out!) is like going to Tool Disneyland.  Their wall of tools, mostly cordless ones, is breathtaking.  Just thinking of it is making me weep.  Anyways, so I go into one of the hardware stores close by to buy a few basic tools.  First thing I noticed: no cordless tools!  Then I noticed that the entire power tool section was a bit smaller than I am used to seeing.  Which was fine for me, as I didn't actually need to get power tools.

So I went an aisle over where the hand tools are.  Again, not as much selection as I expected but a hammer is a hammer right?  Wrong.  Back in Calgary I actually had four different hammers, not including my favorite one which I lost tragically at work one day.  Each hammer not only had a different role, but each had a special place in my heart.  Each one was hand picked after holding and testing many different ones.  I knew each one by feel, knew the weight and balance and how it would swing.  My hammers had become an extension of my arm in so many ways.  So here I was faced with the dilemma of finding a new hammer.  Do I get the really good imported one similar to what I had?  Or should I be more sensible and buy an inexpensive basic hammer, because that should be adequate for what I will be using it for?  In the end I went with the less expensive one.  It's okay, but it's not the same.  Then I repeated the same process for pliers, adjustable wrenches, and screwdrivers.  In the end I put together a very basic toolkit:

Not quite what I am used to, but it works.  Kind of.  Most of the time.

One complaint though.  I try not to complain about things, but I hate Phillips head screws.  For those of you who are not tool people, Phillips is the cross-shaped screw head and matching screwdriver.  It is the most common type of screw in the world.  But it shouldn't be.  I miss Robertson screws!  This great CANADIAN invention features a square hole in the screw head and a square tip on the screwdriver to match it.  The screwdriver does not slip and does not strip the head.  It should be the worldwide standard, but unfortunately they cannot be found here, at least nowhere I have found.  I got some shipped to me (along with my beloved Makita 18v lithium ion cordless drill and impact driver!) just because I was getting really frustrated with the ones I was forced to work with.  ROBERTSON IS THE BEST!  GO CANADA!

Difference #3 -Safety
The other big difference I noticed here has been the refreshingly relaxed attitude towards jobsite safety.  Not that safety isn't a concern, but that people here seem to have a more balanced approach to safety.  Back in Canada I was used to some very strict safety requirements.  Most of them make sense; eye protection, hearing protection, steel toed boots.  Even fall protection when the potential for a dangerous fall exists.  Unfortunately it seems to be taken too far sometimes.  Wearing a hard hat while standing in the middle of an open field with nothing even remotely close to being suspended above you?  Yes, it is required on some sites.  Filling out site hazard reports detailing every possible contingency, no matter how remote the chance?  What happened to common sense?

Here safety is much more of a fluid concept.  While on the bigger jobsites it seems like the safety standards are quite high, other places it is not the case.  Some of the things I have seen here would have Occupational Health and Safety officers crying in their coffees.  I was watching some guys moving large concrete bricks wearing open toed sandals or flip-flops.  People walking on the tops of walls 30+ feet up with no fall protection.  And my favorite: a guy painting the outside trim on the house across the street, up on about a 12' scaffold with only a thin plank spanning the opening, stood up on a rickety chair trying to reach just a bit higher...

Or, leaning a ladder against overhead power lines to get up to do work on them...

Ahhh, the differences!

Thursday, November 17, 2011


Before we moved to the Philippines and I began volunteering at Mercy Maternity Center, I had the privilege of being a birth doula and attending four births, three of whom were friends of mine.  Each of the births were different but all went well with good outcomes.  In the three months that I have been at the clinic I have seen 24 births and not all have been as smooth and easy as the ones I first attended.

I have come to realize that birth is not always neat and tidy with good outcomes.  Most of the time babies are born healthy, and crying and all is well with both them and the mom, however sometimes it's not so good.  I have seen a woman who labored so beautifully and delivered a healthy baby boy only to be faced with retained placental membranes and have to be transported to the hospital while her baby boy stayed with us until his bantay (the mom's "watcher" or labor support) was able to take him to see her later on.  There was another mama who again labored well but delivered a very blue baby boy due to thick meconium aspiration and this time it was him to had to be transported to the hospital while his mama stayed with us. There was a third woman who labored long and hard and the baby ended up with a shoulder dystocia (the head is born but the body is firmly stuck) that lasted over two minutes.  Thankfully in the end each of these babies and their mamas were okay, but it was pretty scary when everything was going on.  That's when the adrenaline is pumping like crazy, the intense praying is happening and the thoughts of "please God don't let this baby die" or "come on baby just breathe" are racing through your mind.
I am so thankful that during all of the craziness we have amazing midwives, who although faced with intense pressure, are able to stay calm and make wise decisions for both the moms and the babies in each situation.

As scary and intense as birth can be, I'm always amazed and in awe at how God created life and the miracle that it really truly is.


"Doula-ing" this woman through her contractions

This little one scared us by being blue and floppy, but thankfully came around

Helping this woman through labor
The power team with our shoulder dystocia baby

The mama, bata (baby), bantay (watcher), lola (grandma) and the power team!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Slapping, squishing and spraying

We knew that when we came here we would be leaving the temperate (read: bitterly cold) climate of western Canada and would be arriving in a tropical (read: hot and humid) climate of Davao City.  Of course, going along with the change in climate come changes in the wildlife endemic to the region.  Some of that wildlife is quite fascinating.  The aquatic life is like you see in diving videos and those really crazy expensive hard to maintain salt water aquariums back in Canada - bright colors, beautiful designs, huge variety.  I have had the opportunity to be chased by a couple of the largest clownfish I have ever seen.  They were defending their home, which they felt I was getting too close to.  I have fed parrotfish right out of my hand while snorkeling. I have poked myself with a sea urchin and had starfish clinging to my hands.  Pretty cool stuff.  Others are a bit more mundane, but still different than I am used to.  Water buffalo, stray dogs, geckos, rats.

And then there is the insect population here.  For those of you who may not be aware of it, I don't like bugs all that much.  Most I can put up with as long as I know that I can simply step on them.  They are a nuisance, but not too bad.  Some bugs though, I cannot stand.  Mainly spiders.  I'm not sure where my hatred of spiders came from, but I think it has something to do with watching the movie Arachnophobia when I was a kid.  Since then I have hated to see a spider or to even know that spiders are around.  So of course, coming here I had to come to terms with the fact that not only would there be spiders, but they would probably be a bit bigger than I was used to.

I am happy to report that up to this point I have not come across any big spiders.  I have heard stories of ones that others have seen.  Ones big enough to carry off a small water buffalo.  Ones with legs longer than my arm span.  Ones that are so quick that you hardly see them until they are close enough to leap at you and sink their big long fangs into your neck.  Okay, I am going to give myself nightmares.  As you can imagine, I really appreciate hearing all these stories (insert sarcasm here) and feel so much better knowing that they are harmless (Yeah, I believe that!  They are just waiting for me to drift off to sleep so they can leap out and sink their big long fangs into...okay I really need to stop that).

However, there is one thing that I have noticed about the spiders here.  They jump.  I don't mean they hop a bit.  I mean that when you try to squish them they are able to leap out of the way, preserving their sorry little spider life.  It's almost like they have this ability to see the future and they already know that there is a shoe hurtling through space on a collision course with them.  They then have the ability to slow down the passage of time around themselves in order to gather their strength to make a tremendous leap out of the way.  And it seems that all spiders there are able to do this, whether big or small.  They can all jump.

Well, in addition to the spiders there are several other types of bugs which have become an ongoing frustration to me.  One of those is ants.  Apparently there are 400 species of ants in the Philippines (I have no idea how they would have figured that out, or why they would bother).  I think that about 398 species live in our yard, and the other two prefer to stay inside our house out of the elements.  Now I don't fear ants like I fear spiders, but I still don't want them in my house.  We have two main types that I am constantly battling to keep out.  The first is the normal reddish type.  These aren't usually a big deal.  I try to be diligent to spray around the doors with bug killer to keep them from coming in.  Every so often they like to show up and let me know that I have been too lax in doing that.  Not a big problem though.

The other kind are the little tiny ones.  These are the smallest ants I have ever seen.  They are about 1/10 the size of a typical ant, and they seem to appear out of nowhere.  They like to hang around the kitchen, waiting for one of us to be foolish enough to leave some food out.  They aren't too particular.  They appear to eat just about anything.  Leave a few bread crumbs on the cutting board, ants.  Leave some food on a plate from supper, ants.  Forget to tightly close a container, ants.  They are very frustrating, but because of their size they don't move very fast, so it is easy to clean up a whole trail of them with a paper towel.

In addition to the ants we also have another type of bug that likes to be inside our house.  I don't know what they are, but they look like a really small beetle.  Unfortunately it was kind of my fault that they are in the house.  Let me explain.  When we moved in our landlord had left a bed frame in the master bedroom.  We certainly appreciated that so we didn't have to go out and buy one.  Unfortunately the section on which the mattress rests is a woven material, and over the years it had stretched out a bit.  Okay, a lot.  So every night it would feel like we were sleeping on the side of a hill.  Imagine sleeping in a hammock with your spouse.  That is kind of the way it felt.  It's not that I don't like to cuddle with Kerri, but I like a bit of space too.  So after waking up day after day with a sore back and neck (from sleeping all night trying to roll myself uphill) I decided it was time to do something about it.

Now, back in Canada we had a great bed.  It was the most comfortable, supportive, amazing bed in the history of sleep systems.  We had gotten it from IKEA.  It consisted of a polyurethane foam mattress and a bed base instead of a box spring.  It was so amazing that had we had an IKEA here that would have been our first purchase.  But alas, no IKEA.  Or anything really close to it.  So we got a foam mattress, which is actually pretty good.  I figured that being kind of a handy guy, that I could build some kind of bed base like we had before.  I figured that all I would need would be a couple of good supportive 2x4's for a frame and some thinner slats for the mattress to rest on.  So I went down to the neighborhood Home Depot equivalent, a store which advertises lumber for sale.  Their selection was a bit smaller than I was expecting, but I found some bundles of split bamboo that I thought would work quite nicely (and it was cheap!).  So I came home with a bunch of bamboo and some 1.5" nails.  I cut the bamboo with my saw (a hacksaw) and then proceeded to nail it all together.  I found my tools a bit lacking compared to what I was accustomed to, but I got it done.

Fast forward a month or so.  I began to notice that there was a lot of dust in our room, especially under the bed.  I didn't give it too much thought at the time.  It continued for a while and I thought that I should investigate.  I checked under the bed and found little piles of sawdust on the bed frame.  Then I noticed these tiny little brown beetle type bugs.  I put two and two together and figured out what had happened.  You may recall from a previous blog that we had gotten bamboo furniture for our house, which I was encouraged to douse in diesel fuel and let sit for a couple days before bringing into the house.  I knew that was to prevent bugs from eating the bamboo.  It never occurred to me that it might be a good idea to do the same with the bamboo I was using for the bed.  Oops.  So now I am fighting an ongoing battle with these dumb little beetles.  I spray them with bug killer, they die, they are gone for a few days, then they come back.  I think I might have to break down and take apart the bed and diesel it.  The beetles need to go.

In addition to these, we also have mosquitoes.  Again, these are not like Canadian mosquitoes, even Winnipeg-summertime mosquitoes.  The ones here are tiny, so you don't even feel them bite you.  They are hard to see and harder to kill because they are very quick.  And, unlike the ones I am used to that will bite you, sit there while they drink their fill, then proceed to fly away to have babies, the ones here bite you, drink a bit, bite you again in a different spot, drink a bit more, bite you again, laugh at you for a while, then bite you again just because they can.  Just today I got bitten by the same mosquito 4 times before I managed to kill it.  Aargh!

Add in cockroaches (which we rarely have in our house thankfully!), wasps, flies, centipedes, and these little bug things that like to collect bits of grass which they then stick to themselves until they look like little porcupines, and you have lots of slapping, squishing and spraying going on here.  The joys of the tropics!

P.S.  I was going to try to get pictures of some of these bugs to post here, but would rather just squish the bugs when I see them than go search for the camera.  Sorry!  Maybe later...