Monthly Archives: August 2011

Days of De(con)struction

If constructionism is learning-by-making and destructionism refers to policies that consume capital but do not accumulate it, we’re definitely engaging in a bit of both in the process of building our house.  And don’t forget reductionism – if the aim is to understand the complexity of the project by reducing it to its parts, that may very well be what’s happening on our building site at the moment.

I take you back a few months to the time when our future house consisted of only an awe-inspiring foundation and a concrete framework.  There was a wonderful openness to the structure and views in all directions.  Then, when internal walls started to appear, the freshly built ugliness and reduced light made us wonder
if we truly needed all those walls.  We even found ourselves wishing we could eliminate them.
Somewhere the god of building must be having a good laugh at our expense, because it now seems we’re getting our wish.  Those internal walls are being chipped away at an alarming speed.
The reason: channels for the electricity and water pipes.  Walls that were built mere weeks ago have been reduced to a few flimsy connecting slivers of brick and a whole lot of air.  Come to think of it, there is no lofty theory that is applicable here – this looks plain old destruction, admittedly with the promise of a purpose.

The whole phenomenon of building and then knocking down again begs the question:  what is the best way to build?
Is it better to create and take away and add again so that, like a painting, the final product reveals itself in its multi-dimensional beauty one day?  Or is better to plan everything meticulously from the start so that you minimise the number of holes, knocked down structures, McGyver-like solutions and arguably also the labour involved?

Clearly I’m no builder and I’m sure the answer has to do many variables – the type of building, the climate, the complexity of the build, materials used, the shape – but I suspect it also has something to do with the local culture.  It’s
a crude generalisation, I admit, but compare for instance a building project in
Africa to one in Germany and you will most likely find a delicious contrast of
mess vs. precision.
With all the respect I can muster, I think the messy way is a good fit here in Portugal.  Suffice it to say that forward planning is not huge (and worrying is equally  absent). The words “I’ll call you” are invariably used to put a full stop to any activity or discussion that has no clear answer yet.  Or perhaps it’s merely a comma – an indication that a line needs to be drawn under something, but that the time pressure needs to be way, way higher to do so.  It seems, however, that there is one thing our electrician-and-plumbing team is good at planning: the lunch hour.  Come 12 o’clock and those guys are already waiting impatiently at their truck.  The end of the work day is an event that requires evidently requires planning too, but the lunch hour still beats the end of the work day by a whisker.

But back to the building approach.  The funny thing is that I don’t necessarily
believe the process determines the value and beauty of the end result within
its particular context.  It’s true that we have to believe in what’s happening on our site, because what choice do we have?  But while the mess may be something that will always cause temporary discomfort for those of us who work better with a structured mindset and environment, there are some truly well-designed and solidly built houses here and I’m quite sure they also had walls that consisted of hole-ridden bricks at some point.  Luckily humans seem to be able to forget ugliness quickly when something beautiful and good has emerged from the mess.  In my case ignorance is bliss, but I don’t know how Tom manages to sleep so well every night.  I’m starting to wonder if he gets up in the middle of the night to drink a glass of port or aguardente to reach and maintain a state of bliss until the next morning.  If he does, good for him (and me…).

The upside to the disappearing walls is that points for plugs, light switches and external blinds are starting to appear and this to me means progress.  Each plug and switch was planned carefully, of course, but as everyone predicted we would, we have changed our minds a few dozen times and have had to resort to the
“I’ll call you” solution more than once (do you think we’re adjusting..? where’s that aguardente?)  Changed minds mean changed plans and so the paperwork increases as new, updated versions of plans are generated.
Don’t they say that when the weight of the project paperwork equals the weight of the project itself, that project can be considered complete?  If that’s true we have some way to go – but only if we’re left with any walls we could still change.