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!


Philippines Contractor said...

Not all Philippine contractors use the old hollow blocks;
When we build your house it will cost the same, compared with your local contractor; but the difference is that we build with the latest technology (solid concrete walls, 10X stronger, 2X faster) while your local contractor still use the old style hollow blocks...
Hollow blocks in combination with the ‘Post and Beam’ method of construction is NOT the best way to build a home, read here why;

Suzie Thomas said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Steve said...

Hey Philippines Contractor, thanks for taking the time to read our blog. I agree with you that solid, rebar reinforced poured concrete walls are the way to go. I have seen a lot of that type of construction here. I wasn't recommending hollow block walls over poured concrete, although they do serve their purpose. Thanks!