Construction Project: Casa "La Esperanza"
On this page, I offer a guide to building a house in Mexico, which you should read to avoid making expensive mistakes in your own construction. This guide is based not only on observations and general research (in particular, on earthquake-resistant construction), but also hands-on experience from my own two construction projects. These are:
- "El Refugio"
- my first house construction, built in 2006-2007 through an architect.
- "La Esperanza"
- the subject of this website, built 8 years later with myself as architect.
Both are good-quality (and legal!) constructions, that illustrate how a house should be built (where things have not been done properly, I have called this out).
- This page is best viewed with a mouse and full-size screen.
1 The Pros and Cons of Self-Building
There are some major advantages in building your own house in Mexico. Nonetheless, building a new house tends to be riskier than purchasing an existing one, and this is certainly true without proper research, planning, and preparation. The criteria also depend on whether you will be hiring an architect, or managing the construction yourself.
- You can choose Exactly What You Want
Perhaps the most obvious reason for self-building is that it potentially enables you to have a house built to your exact specifications in your ideal location. This, of course, depends on the availability of suitable land, but you may well find many more options here in Mexico for land plots than for ready-built houses. Indeed, if there are no houses for sale in the area you want to live that you are happy with, it may be the only good option.
- However, you must comply with the regulations: Mexico is not the Wild West.
- You can Ensure that the House is Properly Built
If you purchase an existing house, you will typically have no means of knowing just how well or badly it was built (especially the all-important foundation). Building your own house may give you the opportunity to specify the type of construction. However, this requires that you are well-informed, and specifying detailed construction criteria may not be possible if you hire an architect. In fact, as you will see later, hiring an architect may well result in substandard or even dangerous construction.
- The Market Value of the House may be More than you Spent on it
But perhaps this is to be expected, as its construction will have involved significant risk and effort.
- The Market Value of the House may be Less than you Spent on it
The type of house you want may not suit the market, in which case it may be difficult to sell, even at a price substantially lower than its construction cost. If you are particularly concerned about resale value, you should stay in a sector of the market in which there is plenty of activity in your area, rather than build a property that may be ideal for you, but will be too expensive or otherwise unattractive for most. Note that the criteria in Mexico are likely to be very different from those you are used to (for example, a quiet secluded location may be considered less desirable than one in the same area by a noisy road). And it may otherwise be a complete disaster.
- You Save on Property Tax (Predial)
This is based on the cadastral value of the property which, if you buy land and then build a house, will reflect only the value of the land, not the construction. This valuation is updated when the house is sold, and the characteristics may also change (for example, "El Refugio" was previously classified as rústico, but is now urbano, with correspondingly higher taxation).
- Heavy Taxation and Other Expenses on Selling the House
This point is not specific to self-building, but is worth noting. Foreigners pay tax as a proportion of the cadastral value (in the case of "El Refugio" this was 25%), regardless of how long the property has been owned. Mexican citizens pay on the basis of the sale price, and may pay nothing at all if they have owned the property for two years or more. Also, real estate agents charge a substantial percentage to sell the house, and this together with other fees means that you may lose a large part of the sale price.
Even if there are no financial gains, another significant plus point is the satisfaction of creating a quality product to your specification that should still be there many years after you are gone. However, this satisfaction may be less if the design and its implementation have to a large degree been forced upon you by an architect. In any case, one should resist the temptation to be over-satisfied, and especially to avoid any feelings of superiority and thus blindness to shortcomings in one's own construction. The best kind of satisfaction is that which endures many years after construction is complete.
- Unknown Cost of Construction
Whereas the price you pay for an existing house is known in advance, it is likely to be impossible to get an accurate idea of just what it will cost to complete your dream house. An architect may offer to build the house for a pre-agreed price; however, note the major pitfalls with this arrangement. Otherwise, any budgets and estimates of total costs provided by you or by others are likely to be pie in the sky. In particular, while labor prices tend to be stable, materials prices are often volatile and these typically account for at least half the total construction cost.
- Toil, Trouble, and Worry
There will be different criteria here, depending on whether or not you put yourself in the hands of an architect. But in any case, building a house is likely to involve not only a great deal of trouble but also worries, especially over aspects of the construction, costs, and the time everything is taking. You are likely to find that your life is dominated by concerns over the construction.
- Risk of Failures and Ultimate Dismay
Especially without proper investigation, there are substantial risks in self-building, including both from unsatisfactory construction, and problems arising from failure to follow the procedures laid down by the authorities.
This page helps you to maximize the pros and minimize the cons. But to do this, it is necessary to correct some of the ignorant beliefs propagated on the internet, primarily by those from North of the Border (NoB). These, combined with their unshakable faith in their own superior knowledge (and thus being led by others from NoB instead of respecting the practices in Mexico), have resulted in numerous structurally dubious and illegal constructions.
Few want to tell you about disasters of their own creation (which are likely to transpire only long after the construction is completed), only their apparent successes. I offer you some hard facts and impartial advice to enable you to build successfully and enjoy your new house for many years.
2 Basic Construction Techniques (Masonry)
Anyone embarking on building a home in Mexico ought to have a basic understanding of the techniques employed. These are likely to be completely unfamiliar; in particular, the predominant construction type (confined masonry wall) is quite different from the lightweight timber framing used NoB. This goes some way to explaining why foreign house constructions in Mexico are often big on square footage and cosmetics, while being seriously deficient structurally.
Most of Mexico is earthquake-prone, especially the western parts closest to the subduction zone in the Pacific, and areas such as in Mexico City with poor ground conditions. Therefore, buildings must be designed to cope with stresses other than those due to gravity. In earthquake country, one must think laterally. Failures in masonry construction may endanger human life - and yes, there are regulations governing house construction in Mexico!
The form of masonry house most resistant to earthquakes is a simple rectangle, with smallish floor areas, limited doors and windows, and a flat reinforced concrete slab roof. This describes a typical Mexican house, but not one that is likely to be built by a foreigner. That is not to say that one cannot have a more elaborate design; however, this will call for more attention to structural issues. This requires the early involvement of a structural engineer, or at least an architect who is well versed in confined masonry wall construction (note that this is not used NoB).
In general, if the house is not built according to the practices normally employed in Mexico (and also in various other earthquake-prone countries throughout the world), one should ask why, rather than presume that one's own type of construction is superior. And if the construction develops defects, one should compare the way it has been built with that illustrated on this website, rather than blame Mexican masonry construction in general.
Those not happy with that "primitive" masonry construction should realize that timber framing will not be a good deal in Mexico; wood is more expensive, and being a niche construction type, design and implementation are likely to be questionable. But Mexicans (who are actually quite practical and balanced people) wonder why anyone would build a house of wood. Here are just some of the advantages of masonry construction over timber framing:
- more satisfying solid construction
- excellent sound isolation
- high thermal mass stabilizes night-day temperatures
- better internal acoustics (no flexible walls/floors/ceilings)
- will not be affected by wet or dry rot
- will not get eaten by termites
- will not burn down to the ground in a fire
- will not blow away in a hurricane
Masonry construction potentially offers a much greater lifespan, requiring only superficial maintenance. Confined masonry with a reinforced concrete foundation also offers excellent resistance to earthquakes. However, there are issues arising from the use of predominantly brittle rather than flexible materials. And if a masonry construction does come down, it is more likely to kill you than a timber one. Hence the importance of building to accepted standards.
These include the use of reinforced concrete, which (unlike bricks, blocks, mortar, stone, and plain concrete) is ductile (flexible), not brittle in an earthquake. This material combines high compressive resistance with high tensile strength, and could well be used for the entire house structure. However, while this would offer rather better performance, it would add considerably to the cost. Hence it is typically used only for the roof and to improve the performance of walls. But a greater proportion of reinforced concrete tends to be better. And it is also important that all concrete in an element is poured on the same day, so that it forms a single cohesive unit.
Apart from the structural concerns, to maintain a comfortable inside temperature the house should have good thermal mass and/or insulation. In particular, a thin roof (less than 20cm) is likely to result in uncomfortably high indoor temperatures late in the day, while being unduly cool in the morning. But all masonry helps to keep an even indoor temperature by absorbing heat when it is warm, and releasing it when it is cool. And a greater mass of masonry yields a greater degree of temperature stabilization.
This section covers the three basic structural components: walls, the foundation, and the roof/intermediate floors. All three areas are subject to flimsy and inadequate implementations by foreigners, probably through a tendency to cling to what they are familiar with.
2.1 Walls (Confined Masonry)
- Walls in a masonry wall construction function quite differently to those in a timber-framed construction.
- As a result, foreigners usually completely misconstrue the construction used almost exclusively in Mexico for houses and other low-rise buildings with high wall density. Popular belief holds that it is a primitive type of frame construction known as "post and beam", infilled with bricks and mortar.
- Worse, those laboring under this vast misapprehension include architects from NoB building houses in Mexico (who will always know better than those ignorant Mexicans, who use unnecessarily heavy "infill"). Their constructions are likely to be downright dangerous.
In plain masonry wall construction, the walls (bricks/blocks and mortar) are load-bearing, and have no other structural elements, except additional support such as a lintel or arch over doors and windows. This is appropriate in areas without significant earthquakes, where only compressive gravitational loads need be considered. However, while plain masonry is strong with compressive loads, it is weak with non-compressive ones.
Confined masonry is an enhanced form of plain masonry designed to avoid the brittle failure that can occur in plain masonry when it is subjected to the kinds of stresses that can arise in earthquakes. As the term
confined masonry implies, the idea is to confine sections of masonry wall between reinforced concrete tie-columns (castillos) and bond-beams (dalas). As the terms "column" and "beam" are likely to mislead, these will henceforth be referred to as "confining elements".
In framed construction, the frame is built first, then infilled or clad for space partitioning (the frame bears all loads, including that of the infill). In confined masonry wall construction, the bricks/blocks and mortar are laid first, then the confining elements placed around them to confine the areas of wall within.
The basic design principle is quite simple:
- The bricks/blocks and mortar bear all compressive loads (primarily gravitational, but also lateral forces that may arise in an earthquake).
- The reinforced concrete confining elements bear all other loads where plain masonry is weak, leveraging the tensile strength of the steel reinforcements.
Note that since the bricks/blocks and mortar are the primary load-bearing elements, any openings (doors/windows) will to some degree weaken the structure, and so there is a limit to the acceptable density of such openings. There is also a limit to the acceptable wall density in relation to the floor area (for example, the walls in a one-story structure in the state of Guerrero must cover no less than 2% of the total floor area). Multi-story structures must have a substantially greater wall density, and especially avoid weak lower floors with low wall density, as are often designed by architects after client requirements.
The design does not require the confining elements to have any ability to resist compressive forces. It should be clear then why the idea that the bricks and mortar are merely infill is a dangerous one. Two cases of this delusion I have seen in houses built by architects from NoB are:
- Instead of making the walls of bricks and mortar, using sheets of mesh with styrofoam and aplanado (simply cutting holes out to make the windows). Apart from being a nice little earner for the architect, this is good for a shower cubicle and not much more; nonetheless it is likely to be accepted by those from NoB accustomed to thin walls.
- Having very large windows or excessive total window area, surrounded only by normal confining elements. If you really must have huge windows (not normally practical in my view), they must be properly supported by structural columns and beams to compensate for the lack of masonry wall.
Note that when it is necessary to employ structural reinforced concrete columns and beams, they are known as columnas and trabes respectively, to distinguish them from castillos and dalas, and will normally be more substantial. Nonetheless, dalas are usually also used as headers for doors and windows - it is therefore usual to have the tops of all doors and windows at the same height.
The basic purpose of confining masonry walls is to prevent them from cracking and coming apart when subjected to the non-compressive forces that may arise in an earthquake. But there are several other big advantages of confined masonry over plain masonry:
- Greatly improved connections between walls
- Improved stability of walls
- Increased strength of walls
- Ductile confining elements allow some absorption of seismic forces
Confined masonry is a relatively recent type of construction, the basic technique having been around for only about 60 years, and refined over that period. Although significantly more costly than plain masonry, confined masonry is considered essential in countries such as Mexico, and is used for even the lowest-cost masonry.
Apart from Mexico, it is used in Europe (Italy, Slovenia, Serbia), the Middle East (Iran), Latin America (Colombia, Chile, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Costa Rica, El Salvador) and Asia (China, Nepal, Indonesia). Anyone looking at photos of the disaster that occurred in Nepal on 25 April 2015 may note confined masonry buildings standing intact next to completely collapsed buildings of other construction.
Click here for a non-technical brochure from the Confined Masonry Organization, and here for a more technical document (in English) from the Institute of Engineering, UNAM, Mexico.
2.1.1 Confining Elements (dalas and castillos)
This section deals primarily with dalas and castillos; however, trabes and columnas are made in just the same way.
The elements of the steel reinforcements are:
- rebar made of mild steel; for houses normally either 1/2" or 3/8" diameter
- more rigid steel, made into a collar to space out the varilla; usually 1/4" diameter
- alambre quemado
- tempered steel wire, used to tie the rebar to the collars
The collars should normally be applied every 15cm. There must be sufficient high-grade concrete around the steel to properly support it, and thus provide the synergistic interaction characteristic of reinforced concrete. The required compressive resistance of the concrete is normally specified as 200Kg/cm2, and the tensile strength of the varilla as 4,200Kg/cm2.
In this case, six varillas of size 3/8" are used. Reinforcements come in various shapes and sizes; typically those used for house construction contain from 4 to 8 varillas, each of either 3/8" or 1/2" diameter.
There are three processes involved in making dalas and castillos (and also trabes and columnas):
- 1. armado
- assembly and fitting of the steel reinforcements
- 2. cimbrado
- fitting wooden boards to form the concrete
- 3. colado
- mixing and pouring the concrete
Generally, the sizes and positions of the confining elements (as with other aspects of this informal type of construction) are rule of thumb, and in practice depend on how substantial or economical is the construction. However, there are a number of guidelines.
Castillos in Mexico must be no more than 3m apart, although this regulation is frequently violated, and in other countries the maximum spacing is 4m. With low walls (and thus less area to confine), a greater distance than 3m may be acceptable structurally. With a simple wall (e.g. boundary), castillos should be equally spaced; however, this will not normally be the case within a house, where there are intersecting walls and other considerations. There must be a castillo at each wall intersection to connect the walls. Stronger castillos should normally be used for outside corners as, apart from connecting walls, these bear the greatest stresses.
Dalas are of three types:
- dala de desplante
- This is placed around ground level on top of the foundation, and must be treated to prevent rising damp.
- dala de cerramiento
- This is placed at about 2.1m above floor level in normal house walls. This is the height for the tops of doors and windows, and (apart from confining the wall section) also serves as the door/window header. It may be omitted in an elevation with no door or window openings (such as a side wall with adjoining lots).
- dala de coronación
- This is placed at the level of the intermediate floor or roof, and also enables connection of the roof/floor slab to the wall.
There should also be confining elements (dalas and castillos) around any significant openings, such as for doors or windows.
2.1.2 Wall Sections (bricks/blocks and mortar)
These are the areas within the confining elements, and comprise bricks or blocks bonded with mortar. For good adherence in hot and dry weather, these materials should be wetted before being laid.
Bricks in Mexico are usually flat (without recesses). Standard bricks measure roughly 23cm x 12cm x 5.5cm (length x width x height), but both larger and smaller sizes are available. A single-thickness wall is based on the width of a standard brick.
For greater compressive resistance and stability (and also greater thermal mass and sound isolation), thicker walls are used. The next thickness up comprises a brick width plus a brick height (1½-thickness); double-thickness walls use two widths of brick.
1½-thickness and single-thickness walls under construction at "La Esperanza". The finished thicknesses are 25cm and 18cm respectively (consistent with a 3cm layer of aplanado each side and a 1.5cm layer of mortar). The 1½-thickness walls not only provide a stronger structure, but also give a more even internal temperature than single-thickness walls.
In the background can be seen the boundary wall, made of concrete blocks with a thickness of 15cm.
Double-thickness walls being built by the entrance of "El Refugio". These are used only in this area to compensate for the lack of wall density due to the double entrance doors and large open space behind.
Concrete Blocks are of heavy solid concrete (not to be confused with lightweight blocks of similar appearance). They are normally of a larger size than brick (typically 28cm x 15cm x 11cm). They should always be used for foundation walls, as they give better resistance to damp than brick, as well as good compressive resistance. We also used them for the boundary wall of "La Esperanza" to give a stronger result without requiring two layers of brick.
Cinder Blocks are of lightweight materials, and give less compressive resistance than normal brick or block. They are used where low mass is more important than strength (for example, on an upper floor to reduce the load, or where the material is infill rather than structural).
Hollow Blocks are of various types; these offer less structural strength than solid materials. However, thicker walls made of hollow materials may be appropriate where good thermal insulation is required.
2.1.3 Cladding (aplanado plus finishes)
Walls are covered with 2-3cm of a stucco-like material known as aplanado. This is applied in two layers; a rough first coat, then a second fine one that is smoothed to a very even surface using a long metal bar. On this is applied sealant, then the final finish (bare aplanado is dark and unattractive). Typical finishes are texture (used to emboss in a variety of patterns) and paint, or wall/floor tile.
Because cladding is of mainly cosmetic value, adds significantly to the cost, and finishes are prone to wear and tear, walls are often left unclad. The bare obra negra of coarse brickwork and confining elements usually lends the construction an ugly appearance. However, in some cases, these are made in a more refined way to give a presentable result.
2.1.4 Shrinkage Cracks
These frequently appear in the walls of a new construction, and result from the materials drying out and consequently contracting. It seems appropriate to mention this matter here, as those unfamiliar with masonry wall construction may be alarmed at these appearing in their new home, especially as the cracks can go right through the walls.
Shrinkage cracks have the following characteristics:
- are usually essentially vertical, although often irregular and discontinuous
- are widest in the middle, and taper off top and bottom (the most important criterion)
- are usually no more than 1mm wide
- normally appear in the center of wall sections
- long wall sections tend to be affected more than shorter ones
You can rest assured that these cracks are quite normal, and the issue is cosmetic only (remember that the bricks/blocks and mortar are only meant to bear compressive loads). Indeed, an absence of shrinkage cracks may indicate that the materials were not properly wetted before being laid. However, they can spoil finishes, and in particular cause wall tiles to crack. So it might be a good idea to wait for the cracks to appear before finishing the walls (although this may not be a convenient or attractive option).
- Significant cracks of other types, or any that appear later indicate structural problems; and these will very likely lie with the foundation...
2.2 The Foundation (Reinforced Concrete or Rock)
This is another area in which even high-priced house constructions are often substandard through ignorance and/or cost cutting. In a number of house constructions I have seen, there appears to be little or nothing that could reasonably be described as a foundation, with little or no excavation.
- Many people seem to be completely nonchalant about the foundation, having greater concern for superficial niceties than something that nobody will see.
- Those building down to a price or seeking maximum square footage per dollar will be deterred on cost grounds from building a good foundation (if they have a clue what one is), since it is likely to be an expensive component. The reinforced concrete foundation of "La Esperanza" accounted for 1/6 of the total expenditure (including all finishing work such as carpentry, granite and lighting).
- Yet it should be obvious that an inadequate foundation compromises the entire structure, and that an insufficiency here will be difficult or impossible to remedy later. But a good foundation protects everything above it, especially during an earthquake.
2.2.1 Soil and Excavation
- Masonry construction requires a foundation with substantially greater resistance than is needed for lightweight timber framing, starting with the soil.
Excavation to a significant depth is likely to be needed to reach a satisfactory base for the foundation. If there is any doubt as to how deep the foundation must be, a soil survey should be done.
Commonly-encountered black organic soils pose a particular problem. This soil type expands when wet (in the rainy season), and shrinks and cracks when it dries (in the dry season), and as such is highly unstable. One can only hope for a more stable mineral layer underneath (as with "El Refugio" at a maximum of 1.3m below the surface), or that it is sufficiently compacted at depth (as with "La Esperanza" at 1.8m down).
One must also beware of soil that is problematic in an earthquake. Certain types of clay and sand are thixotropic (they liquefy with movement). Much of Mexico City is built on unstable lake sediments that amplify seismic waves; as a result it suffers worse effects than many areas that are much closer to the epicenter.
- The cost of a suitable foundation is to a large degree dependent on the soil, and this should be considered when choosing land for construction.
Trees should be located well away from the foundation (perhaps many meters). Apart from the obvious issue with roots, they extract substantial quantities of water from the soil, thus rendering it unstable with a consequent risk of undermining the foundation.
2.2.2 Structural Integrity
Furthermore, structural integrity in earthquakes must be considered. Seismic waves result in lateral compression and shear forces in the ground that must be resisted and/or absorbed by the foundation. Poor performance will jeopardize the entire structure of the house. For best earthquake resistance, there must be good connections not only between the foundation and the house, but also between elements within the foundation. So the foundation should function as a single cohesive unit.
Good structural cohesion can only be achieved by a reinforced concrete foundation, as employed for the houses of "El Refugio" and "La Esperanza", and illustrated in the photos above and below. The whole foundation is connected by means of contratrabes, and where appropriate, cadenas. The contratrabes (but not cadenas, which do not support walls) sit on zapatas corridas, which in turn sit on a continuous plantilla (a 10cm-thick base of "poor" concrete). This is likely to require a complete excavation of the area.
All concrete used in the foundation base must be poured on the same day, so that it sets as a single piece. This will probably mean hiring extra workers for that day, or else using a pumper truck.
2.2.3 Rock versus Reinforced Concrete
Unfortunately, a reinforced concrete foundation is expensive (that for "La Esperanza" cost about M.N.$550,000 in 2014, of which about 2/3 was on materials). So for economic reasons, the most common type of foundation for Mexican housing is a rock one. Here, trenches are dug for wall footings (typically to a depth of 90cm, which may be insufficient). Each castillo sits on a separate zapata, which again is supported by a plantilla. These and the trenches in between are filled in with rocks and concrete.
Although cheaper, a rock foundation lacks structural integrity. Comparing a reinforced concrete foundation to a rock one is somewhat analogous to a comparison of confined masonry walls with plain masonry. With the former, all elements are tied together and thus resistant to external stresses. Also, the reinforced concrete is flexible in an earthquake, and allows seismic forces to be absorbed. By contrast, rock and concrete is apt to crack and come apart, thus compromising the foundation and everything above it. The static resistance of a reinforced concrete foundation also benefits from its structural unity, and will tolerate a lower soil resistance. A rock foundation becomes less viable as foundation depth increases.
Nonetheless, the majority of houses in Mexico have a rock foundation, and the choice of foundation type is likely to be a matter of how high one wants to set the bar. A properly-implemented rock foundation should be satisfactory if the expectation is a lifespan of say 30-50 years without major faults developing. But if you want a house with a good chance of lasting centuries without significant structural issues, you should consider investing in a reinforced concrete foundation, especially in an area prone to earthquakes or with poor soil.
2.2.4 Damp-proof Membrane
This is to prevent rising damp (moisture from the soil penetrating up the walls by capillary action). It is laid on top of the dala de desplante, and normally consists of a sheet of asphalt covered with black impermeabilizante (this used to be tar, but now synthetic materials are used).
As must always be the case, the foundation walls are made of dense solid concrete blocks, as these provide better damp resistance than brick. All these cavities will be filled with gravel and sand to make the floors.
2.2.5 Lower Floors (compacted sand/gravel plus firme)
This section covers only floors at the lowest level (basements are not common in Mexico, as they are problematic in earthquakes). Upper floors are covered in the next section.
These are based on a good depth of a stable material like filtro. Toward the top is predominantly sand and fine gravel, with the surface being of sand. This is soaked with water and compressed with a compactador so that it is rock-hard. On this is poured the first rough layer (8-10cm) of firme. Before tiling, a second fine layer (2-4cm) of firme is poured; this must be carefully leveled and smoothed.
For this construction, a complete excavation was done, and the filtro extends to the base of the foundation. 518.4m3 of this was compacted in 40cm layers with a compactador to give a stable floor base. It is a lamentable fact that at $320 rental per day, this machine was more highly-valued than an albañil; but its use is necessary to properly compress the material.
Before laying the floors, plumbing must be installed by an experienced fontanero, who should be involved and consulted well before construction starts (this consultation should also cover infrastructure requirements such as a cistern and septic tank). Be suspicious of a maestro who claims competence in this area also.
2.3 Structural Roofs and Upper Floors (Losa or Bóveda)
This section deals with structural masonry roofs, as are used in the majority of houses in Mexico. Nonstructural roof types include steel/plastic/asbestos sheet and palapa, but these serve only to keep the rain or sun out, and would not be used for the main areas of a quality house. There are also timber roofs/floors, but these are seen mainly in older buildings (reinforced concrete was introduced only around the turn of the 20th century).
The structural criteria that apply to roofs also apply to upper floors (only the topping is different); so flat structural roofs and upper floors are essentially the same thing. On many houses, you can see stubs of castillos, left so that another level can easily be added; the previous roof then becomes an intermediate floor (entrepiso).
- The roof (or intermediate floor) is an important structural component, which in most parts of Mexico must perform well in earthquakes. To do this, it must form a cohesive diaphragm that holds the entire structure together. There are obvious safety issues with inappropriate design or bad implementation.
I describe here the two types of structural roof generally considered suitable for use in earthquake-prone areas. These are:
- Losa (reinforced concrete slab)
- Bóveda (brick arches between beams)
- There are also prefabricated roof/floor systems comprising pre-cast beams of various types, into which are slotted blocks (usually known as bovedillas), over which topping is applied. These systems are clearly easier to assemble than losa or bóveda; and they also avoid having to hire large numbers of workers or a pumper truck to pour losa, or the specialized workers required for bóveda. However, although they may be fine in seismically-stable areas, they are unsatisfactory in earthquakes, even if the pieces from which they are made are reinforced. This is because they do not function as a cohesive diaphragm.
- Any masonry roof that is not reinforced with steel is at the very least highly suspect and probably dangerous in an earthquake (although very economical in materials, and no doubt another nice little earner for an architect). The steel is not just there to allow the roof to support more weight; it prevents brittle failure, and makes it ductile so that it can absorb seismic forces. Beware purveyors of such products who claim that they know better; those impoverished Mexicans do not go to the expense of putting steel in their roofs for nothing!
2.3.1 General Features
Either type of roof may be either flat or sloping (the term dos aguas is used for double-sloped roofs). The majority of structural roofs in Mexico are flat, although these are actually slightly inclined in possibly more than one direction to allow proper drainage (the required drainage patterns should be specified in the roof plan). Where roofs are visibly inclined, the slope is often very slight (only a few degrees).
More steeply inclined roofs tend to be unstable in an earthquake, and you should check the regulations that apply in your area before incorporating such roofs into plans; for example, that the maximum allowed slope is not exceeded. To prevent problems in earthquakes, one should in general avoid top-heavy construction. Another feature requiring careful consideration is overhanging floors (cantilevers). Although these are commonly used, they tend to compromise performance in earthquakes; numerous factors must be considered to determine what degree of overhang is acceptable.
Apart from structural criteria, there is the matter of thermal mass, which stabilizes the internal temperature. While all masonry contributes, the roof is of fundamental importance, due to its high exposure to sunlight. Where there are large night/day temperature swings, the minimum thickness of masonry required to avoid heat coming through late in the day and being lost overnight is about 20cm. This should also provide excellent structural strength and sound isolation. However, in some areas it may be better to reduce the thermal mass, and instead add thermal insulating material.
Flat roofs of both types are finished off by tiling with baldosa, on which cement with sealant is applied. This is then painted with impermeabilizante, which must be renewed every few years. This is either white or dark red, and the two colors clearly have different properties in reflecting or absorbing sunlight. Although white reflects more visible light, the dark red impermeabilizante is often said to keep the house cooler, as it radiates back more heat (infra-red light). Flat roofs may alternatively be finished with floor tile (this of course would be the norm for an intermediate floor).
Inclined roofs are first sealed, then impermeabilizante is applied (there is no baldosa; however, this type of roof should eliminate water pooling). Decorative clay roof tiles are then often cemented on top. While these are mainly cosmetic in function, they protect the impermeabilizante from the sun and most of the rainwater; as a result it should last much longer. The downside is that, if and when it does need to be renewed, the tiles will make this job more difficult. Roof tiles may also help to keep a cool and even interior temperature, especially those with a significant air space underneath.
2.3.2 Losa (Reinforced Concrete Slab)
This is by far the most common type of structural roof for houses in Mexico. It is usually flat, but may be inclined to varying degrees. It is typically about 20cm thick, with a minimum thickness of 8-10cm.
The first stage in building the roof is cimbrado (fitting of wooden boards to support the roof). These are supported by wooden posts, and provide a level (or sloping, if required) surface.
The next stage is armado (assembly of the steel reinforcements). These consist of a substantial quantity of varilla laid out in a grid (like steel mesh); the vertical/horizontal intersections of the lengths of varilla are tied with alambrón and alambre. There may be several layers, depending on the thickness of the losa. This is tied to the dalas de coronación that sit on the tops of all walls (internal and external), which in turn are tied to the castillos.
The flat parts of the roofs of "La Esperanza" after fitting the wooden boards and some of the dalas de coronación, but before reinforcing with varilla. To the right can be seen some of the alambrón that will be used to connect the varilla. The blocks are to leave spaces for the skylights. At 30cm, this losa is thicker than usual, and will be reinforced with over a tonne of varilla. In fact, over the losa is a layer of firme, giving a total thickness of 40cm; this goes some way to explaining why the interior temperature remains so constant 😃
The final stage is colado (mixing and pouring the concrete). To ensure its structural integrity, the concrete must all be poured on the same day so that it sets as a single piece. Hence it will usually be necessary to either hire additional workers for that day to do a roof pour, or else use a pumper truck. Contrary to popular belief, this is not done just to prevent leaks; these can easily be dealt with when applying the topping.
A losa at least 20cm thick should give good thermal mass and structural strength, as discussed above. However, it may in some cases be appropriate to use a thinner losa. This would be used on a small and economically-built house, but might also be used on a quality house where insulation is important.
Structurally, the minimum viable thickness of reinforced concrete is 8-10cm, and this may be appropriate in areas where air conditioning or heating are required. Here, thermal insulation is likely to be more important than mass, and this minimal slab can be combined with insulating material (normally styrofoam with steel mesh). With this type of roof, care must be taken to ensure that its strength is sufficient.
2.3.3 Bóveda (Brick Arches and Beams)
This type of roof construction consists of brick arches between beams. It is a traditional roof type, most common in the western state of Jalisco. It was used almost entirely for "El Refugio", and for the sloping roofs of "La Esperanza".
There are two basic types of bóveda:
- de cuña
- thick bóveda (based on a brick width) used for the intermediate floors and flat roofs of "El Refugio"
- thin bóveda (based on a brick height) used for the sloping roofs in both "El Refugio" and "La Esperanza"
For both types, the beams must be no more than 1 meter apart, and the arches should have a height of at least 10cm. The arch principle distributes the weight outwards, and provides good structural strength. However, the static resistance required of the supporting beams should not be underestimated, and is increased substantially by long spans (it is advisable to refer to span tables).
For "El Refugio" and "La Esperanza", steel I-beams of size 6"x4", 8"x4" and 8"x5¼" were used. These are priced per kilogram, and beams of the same dimensions may differ in weight per meter. The 6"x4" beams used for "La Esperanza" are of two grades; the thinner grade (12.7 Kg/m) was used for spans of up to about 3.2m, and the thicker one (17.9 Kg/m) for the three spans of about 6.5m. For "El Refugio", with its predominantly de cuña bóveda and generally longer spans, heavier grades were used; the 8"x5¼" beams weigh in at 28.58 Kg/m.
- It is vital for safety reasons that these beams be fitted properly, and in particular that they be securely anchored to the walls. Steel beams must be fitted by specialists, not jacks of all trades!
The bricks should be of a higher quality than those used for walls, for both structural and cosmetic reasons (bricks for bóveda will normally be fired at a higher temperature). Laying the bricks is done using specially-made wooden molds on posts to form the arches; these are left in place until the mortar has hardened.
The roof or floor surface is then filled in and topped with reinforced concrete, to give a result with the same appearance as losa. To do this, the roof is covered with steel mesh and varilla, which are welded on to the tops of the beams. Then several centimeters of concrete are poured (thus filling in all the indentations around the beams).
Unlike with losa, there is no structural need to pour the concrete as a single piece, and it is usually applied in separate sections. However, this is likely to lead to cracks; so to provide good waterproofing on inclined roofs, the impermeabilizante should be applied in conjunction with membrane. This should not be necessary for flat roofs, to which baldosa with cement and sealant are applied.
The catalán bóveda used for the inclined roofs of both "El Refugio" and "La Esperanza" has a finished thickness of about 20cm, before fitting the cosmetic tiles. The finished thickness of the de cuña bóveda of "El Refugio" is 30-40cm. This goes some way toward explaining its reputation for being remarkably cool in spring.
A considerable amount of internal finishing work is required to achieve a good cosmetic result, including refining the mortar work, cleaning, filling in any I-beam gaps with cement, and painting. In any case, the appearance will be "rustic", but perhaps more attractive in many situations than the usual flat ceiling. Apart from this, the irregular rather than flat surface should give better acoustics (without flutter echoes).
3 Permissions Required
- Another massive misconception common among those from NoB is that Mexico is like the Wild West: that they can come here and build what they like, where they like, without having to bother about regulations. This view is perpetuated by numerous blogs of clearly illegal house building projects, featuring improvised constructions or those designed under the misapprehensions described above; often on ejidal land.
For the construction to be legal, foreigners must get permission to:
- Buy Land: this must be privatized with title (escritura).
- Build: this requires detailed architectural and structural plans, plus structural calculations.
There seems to be considerable laxity in enforcement of regulations in Mexico. Development on ejidal land is by no means uncommon. Squatters' rights are strong in Mexico, and there is generally a sympathetic and tolerant attitude towards the poor. There are many basic houses built by the poor on illegal land; and these were clearly not built with permission on the basis of structural plans.
However, taking advantage of this easy-going situation as a (well-off) foreigner is not recommended. Although minor transgressions are unlikely to have any serious repercussions, evidence indicates that if you show contempt for the authorities by completely illegal construction, you may get away with it for a while, but sooner or later the authorities catch up with you. Then you will be blacklisted, and you will never get them off your back.
If you build on legally-purchased land, you will have full rights to your land and construction; if you do not, you will have none, and the authorities can seize the land or impose penalties as they see fit. Houses built by foreigners will be a good deal more substantial than the small and simple shacks put up by the poor; and if these are built without proper plans as required to get permission to build, they are not only illegal, but are likely to be structurally seriously substandard and even dangerous. So do not emulate poor Mexicans!
3.1 The Land
Non-Mexicans can own up to 1000 Hectares (about 2500 acres) of privatized land outside restricted zones, but must obtain permission from SRE for each land purchase (including land with existing construction). Mexican citizens are not subject to these restrictions, and do not require permission to buy land.
- Provided the land is valid for purchase and you complete the process correctly, you will get permission to buy it. This gives the foreigner the same rights to the land as would have a Mexican citizen.
- It should go without saying that foreigners have no rights to land (and thus any construction they put on it) bought without permission.
3.1.1 Restricted Zones
These are areas within 100 km of a national border, or 50 km of a coastline. For reasons of national security, non-Mexicans may not own land in these areas.
Instead, an arrangement similar to a leasehold is available, whereby a Mexican institution (such as a bank) owns the land, and the would-be purchaser derives rights to the land through this institution. There are significant annual fees involved in this, and some restrictions in what land can be "purchased" in this way.
3.1.2 Ejidal Land
Nearly all land outside urban areas is ejidal. Such land is actually owned by the government, which has granted an inalienable right of use to its landholders. This right of use is usually for agriculture, and does not permit construction, except for special purposes related to the designated land use.
Transactions involving ejidal land are common, but bear in mind that the terms "buy" and "sell" are misleading, as the government retains ownership and determines the land use. It has become possible to privatize such land so that it may be legally built on, but the permissions for this and subsequent change of use are at the discretion of the government, and not typically granted.
- It seems that many foreigners have been tempted into paying money for ejidal land as an opportunity to own a substantial area at a much lower price than for privatized land. I have seen several articles on the internet detailing the steps needed to "purchase" such land, but they deal only with securing a binding agreement with the landholders (of which there are usually several). This is a sideshow; most holders of ejidal land would be happy to get the money on offer, and there is nothing to stop foreigners from paying it. But their rights to the land are another matter altogether.
It is the government that determines how land is used. Many people would like to privatize ejidal land, as it would then be worth much more. But again, it must be emphasized that permission from the government to privatize land is discretionary, and unlikely to be granted for individual dwellings, only fraccionamientos where the government sees fit to develop the land. And even if the land can be privatized, the process is likely to be a lengthy one.
So, do not even think about buying land for your house unless it has a land title (escritura). If you do not get a clear affirmative answer to the question "¿tiene escritura?", look elsewhere. And if the answer is "sí", the seller should be happy to immediately show you at least a copy of the document.
3.1.3 Purchasing Land
This should be done through a notario público, who will carry out all the necessary checks and apply the law on behalf of both parties (it is not an adversarial system). One check is that there are no outstanding debts associated with the land, as the purchaser will inherit those debts. And the land must be privatized with a valid title.
As a foreigner, you will not be able to buy the land until permission has been obtained. Consequently, you will require a pre-sale contract between buyer and seller, which the notario público will also handle. This requires the payment of a substantial deposit (for "La Esperanza", it was about 25%).
- However, this agreement will not only reserve the land for you while permission is being obtained, it can also serve in lieu of the title for paperwork associated with the land. It enabled us to transfer the predial, arrange for installation of the electricity supply, and apply for permission to build before purchase was complete.
To get permission to buy land from SRE, you will probably have to travel to the state capital. To avoid this trek for "La Esperanza", we paid the notario público extra to handle this on his next visit to Morelia.
3.2 The Construction
Before starting construction, both Mexicans and foreigners must obtain permission from the local construction office. This requires the provision of properly-drawn plans (in meters, not feet and inches!), plus structural calculations of loads and stresses that must be done by a civil engineer. There are obvious safety reasons for this, especially for masonry construction in an earthquake-prone region. However, the permission also supports the constructor in the event of any inconveniences caused to neighbors.
There is a separate permission to build only a boundary wall, which requires only a simple plan. This would enable the boundary wall to be built early in order to secure the property, while the plans for the house are being developed. However, in our case (with the boundary wall being close to the house), it would have been better to have waited for permission for both wall and house, so that they were built on a common foundation (and by the same, much more competent, workers).
House plans submitted to the construction office must include both architectural and structural plans. The architectural plan must include a floor plan, sufficient elevations and cross sections to completely describe the form of the house, plus a map giving the location. Structural plans are required for the foundation, roof, and each intermediate floor. You can see my plans for "La Esperanza" here, and those for my first construction "El Refugio" here.
These plans would normally be drawn by the architect in conjunction with the structural engineer, who must approve, sign them and supply the structural calculations before they will be accepted by the construction office.
- Although house plans are required as described above, it appears that there are no checks by the authorities that the house is built in accordance with the plans. So even if the proper process has been followed, the implementation may nonetheless be unsatisfactory (for example, through cost-cutting by architects and others).
4 Managing the Project
Embarking on building a new house is exciting, and many might be tempted to rush into it without due preparation. But there is a great deal of money at stake, so it is well worthwhile to take some time to investigate and plan, to avoid mistakes and being ripped off. To this end, I urge you to read through the blog of my experiences building "La Esperanza", which presents many of the issues you should consider.
- As they say, money is the root of all evil, and there is a lot of it involved in building a house. There are many opportunities for exploitation, and this particularly applies to the architect in charge of the project. In his position, it would take a saint to act with complete probity - and few architects are saints 😈
One of the first things to consider is whether to hire an architect (as I did with "El Refugio"), or (as we did with "La Esperanza") manage the construction yourself. Especially if you know a good maestro and fontanero, I recommend the latter course if at all possible. This will put you in full control of the project, can save you a great deal of money, and enables you to see exactly where the money is going.
- When dealing with Mexican workers you hire, you should solicit and listen carefully to any advice they have. This means adopting a rather more egalitarian attitude than appears to be customary with those from NoB. If you come over arrogant, they will simply do as you say, even if it would result in dangerous construction. After all, no es su responsibilidad (you as owner would be liable, not they).
But if you are going to hire an architect, you should read the next section carefully, as
forewarned is forearmed...
4.1 The Role of the Architect
Most people will probably hire an architect to both draw the plans and build the house, as they would not feel confident to do either of these themselves. But even if you hire an architect, it is important to be familiar with Mexican construction techniques (read here). This will make you aware of what is reasonable and what is not, and generally reduce the architect's opportunities for manipulation and inappropriate construction.
Another reason for hiring an architect would be inadequate command of Spanish, and this is likely to lead you into the hands of an architect from NoB who has no understanding of Mexican house construction. I have already made clear the dangers of this, and you may be better off with a Mexican architect who speaks sufficient English.
4.1.1 Drawing Plans
A major stumbling block may be the inability to draw acceptable house plans. This will be the first task of the architect, after discussion with the client to determine the requirements (beware of being talked into accepting features that you do not need). However, the initial plans will probably be architectural only, without structural details.
- Plans without absolutely clear and detailed structural specifications must not be used as the basis for a fixed-price contract.
The cost of the plans is often quite reasonable considering the amount of work involved, but this will be with a view to getting considerably more money from you later. So while it may be desirable to confine the architect's involvement to drawing the plans, the architect would probably not be willing to hand over structural plans that would enable you to obtain permission for construction and build the house yourself.
- But given suitable architectural plans, you may be able to get an engineer to produce the structural plans and apply for permission to build on your behalf. If you do this, you need to make sure that the type of construction is affordable, and otherwise meets your requirements.
4.1.2 Managing the Construction
The architect will probably charge for managing the construction in one of two ways:
- a fixed percentage (say 10%) of the construction costs (this may include items that you would not consider part of the construction)
- a fixed price for a house of a given specification (there may nonetheless be waivers that allow for price increases)
As you will see, neither scheme is without serious problems. Even more suspect would be a scheme whereby the architect charges for individual items of work on a piecemeal basis.
With a Fixed Percentage:
- The greater the cost of materials and labor, the more money the architect makes. This obviously gives the architect a clear incentive to build a house that is in excess of client requirements, and expensively built.
- The architect will probably give an estimate of the total cost of construction, but this will almost certainly be a gross underestimate, and offers no guarantee whatsoever.
- The architect must provide detailed reports (with receipts) of the costs involved, as that is the basis on which he charges his commission. However, although this provides some transparency, you need to check everything carefully, and let your architect know that you are doing this. In particular:
- Ensure that everything you are paying for is being used for your house; theft of materials is commonplace. To do this, you must calculate the requirements for your construction (or else continuously monitor movements of materials).
- Note that materials prices are often discounted, while what appears on the receipt is the normal price; the architect then pockets the difference plus his commission.
- The architect may well expect commission on land purchase and on items you buy yourself for the house, such as lighting, appliances, and even furniture.
- If you sign a legally-binding contract committing you to complete construction under this arrangement, the architect will have you over a barrel.
With a Fixed Price:
- The house is clearly built down to a price, not up to a quality level:
- The architect has a very strong incentive to skimp on the construction, as every peso that he can save on materials and labor goes straight into his pocket.
- Unless it is built in accordance with a clear and detailed technical specification, the resultant construction quality is likely to be at best barely acceptable, if not substandard. Consequently, even if it appears satisfactory for the moment, its durability will be suspect and its useful lifespan short.
- In principle, you will have a good idea of the total cost of construction; however, check the contract carefully for exclusion clauses.
- This arrangement is opaque in that you will almost certainly have no idea of what the architect pays for materials and labor.
- This arrangement clearly requires a legally-binding contract. However, there needs to be a very clear and detailed specification of how the house is to built, and what is included; and as this document is created by the architect, he is in a position to deceive and cut corners wherever possible. So you should:
- Get the construction specification checked by an independent civil engineer.
- Get the contract checked by a lawyer.
- The architect is at considerable risk from hikes in materials prices that few could afford to absorb; so even the most scrupulous architect must inflate the price or add exclusion clauses to the contract to cover these risks.
- There may be other unexpected additional expenses. For example, the soil may be poorer than expected, thus requiring a deeper foundation; will the architect then still build a satisfactory foundation?
In Any Case:
- If you make yourself dependent on an architect, he is likely to exploit this. Never sign a contract committing you to deal with an architect, unless it is to complete the house at an agreed price with a rock-solid specification. And even without a contract, the architect will probably see you as dependent on him to complete construction of the house (which is likely to be the case). This makes you vulnerable to unfair treatment by the architect.
- Although the architect should be familiar with basic construction techniques, he is not a technical expert. Consultation with a civil engineer is likely to be required for the design of other than a simple house, and an engineer is certainly necessary to get permission for construction. And as I noted above, an architect from NoB may be clueless about Mexican house construction, and might not build the house legally or safely. And even if the architect is not clueless, he may take advantage of a client who is.
- The architect should obtain permission for construction on your behalf, and give you the relevant documentation. You need to make sure that he does this; if not, your construction will be illegal.
- Furthermore, you need to ensure that the house is built in accordance with the plans accepted by the construction office (particularly the structural plans). Consider that these may not be the same as those the architect gives you (permission would never have been granted for the NoB constructions referred to above). This is especially the case if you have a fixed price arrangement. It seems that there are no checks by the authorities that the house is built in accordance with the plans submitted, and this is very likely to be exploited by the architect.
- Bear in mind that as owner, you will be held primarily responsible for any problems, not the architect. The onus on yourself also applies to financial losses incurred by you as a result of incompetence, negligence or dishonesty on the part of the architect; you will have little chance of recovering these losses in legal proceedings.
4.1.3 My Experiences (A Very Brief Summary)
Having adopted the role of architect myself for this project, I found that the architect I hired for "El Refugio" was of very little value beyond the initial plans. It was our maestro Rubén who provided breakdowns of all the work, hired and paid all the workers, and generally managed the construction work; he clearly did not need the architect. On the contrary, the architect served only to lower Rubén's standards, and create resentment among the workers. There are numerous examples of abuse and plain stupidity by the architect, too numerous to mention here, but very costly.
Nonetheless, the architect appeared to believe me dependent on him to complete the construction, and halfway through attempted to force me into signing a contract that would guarantee he completes the house. This was after bad conduct on his part, not only to me, but even more to the masonry workers. I gave him an opportunity to continue if he mended his ways, but he misjudged me by forcing his contract under threats of stopping the construction, as I fired him on the spot. I managed to keep maestro Rubén and fontanero Jaime, even though the architect attempted to sabotage this and generally prevent me from completing the house. Incidentally, his "estimate" for the cost of completing "El Refugio" was MN $900,000; the actual cost was around MN $3,000,000.
Not being able at that time to speak much Spanish, it only became apparent to me when the architect left "El Refugio" just how much everybody hated him. The workers all lined up to see him off, staring at him on his way out through the gate, their hostility being very plain (you could cut the air with a knife). Normally strutting around, the architect's slumped posture was rather different at this humiliation (for me, perhaps the most satisfying point in the construction😊). I am not the only one who thinks that this guy is at the opposite end of the scale from a saint.
4.2 The Role of the Maestro
The maestro is key to the construction. He will:
- Provide a breakdown of what is to be done into separate items of work
- Measure, calculate and thereby determine the price of each piece of work (click here for a breakdown by maestro Rubén for "La Esperanza")
- Hire, manage, and pay appropriate albañiles and ayudantes
- Provide the basic tools to do the work (you will have to pay to rent equipment such as a cement mixer)
To do this, he must also be able to read and follow detailed plans - one cannot reasonably build a house by word of mouth, nor as a piece of jazz improvisation... ♫
A good maestro will probably charge according to a book of standard prices for masonry work: Sindicato de Obreros Albañiles y Similares "Lázaro Cárdenas" (CROC). You should have a copy of this book, and I think it is reasonable to say that you should be prepared to pay these prices - no more, no less. You may well find people who will work for less, but a maestro of high reputation will be in demand and not prepared to accept lower prices. And as we have seen, you need to be careful to get the right maestro.
To be fair to "maestro" X, he charged significantly less than the Lázaro Cárdenas prices charged by Rubén. But as they say, you only get what you pay for - pay peanuts, get monkeys. If you hire said monkeys, you are likely to have to pay substantially more in the longer term in remedial work, and/or suffer a permanently unsatisfactory result. And the savings in the cost of labor may well be wiped out by greater materials costs, as good-quality workers use materials more efficiently. There is no doubt in my mind that had we hired Rubén for the phase 1 work, not only would we have a much better end result, but I would also have paid much less for it.
A maestro of good reputation will know the best people to hire for the job; and various skills are required with different people being appropriate for different jobs. The maestro will also be on site and in a position to closely supervise the work. You can then expect work of high quality, not the huge steaming pile of elephants' turds that "maestro" X left us.
Of course, you should always pay on the basis of work done, not by unit time. The best people not only do better work, they are able to do it more quickly, and would choose to work on a piece-rate basis. Paying hourly rates is a recipe for not only poor productivity, but also poor quality.
Payment for the work done must be made direct to the maestro each Saturday, in cash; failure to do this is a shameful breach of trust. Incidentally, masonry workers typically work from 08:00 to 17:30 on weekdays, with a break from around 11:00 to 12.00; on Saturdays they finish around 13:00.
Although the maestro will order materials as needed, you should normally pay for them yourself at the shop that supplies them. However, this may occasionally be impractical; then the maestro may pay for materials and provide receipts for reimbursement. But this should only be done for sundry items, not the main expenditure.
And, as with an architect, you must check what the maestro is doing. All labor quotes must be carefully scrutinized and understood; be prepared to haggle over prices that are not clearly defined in the union book. You must also check that the materials you are paying for are all going into the house (no siphoning off); again you should calculate the requirements and let your maestro know that you are doing so.
4.3 Other Workers
Apart from the maestro, you will also need a fontanero; typically one individual (and his team) will do both plumbing and electrical installations. All such installations must be done by the fontanero, not the maestro, with the exception of masonry work such as construction of the septic tank and cistern (and this should be done in consultation with the fontanero). Electrical and plumbing installations must be coordinated with the masonry work, so good communication between maestro and fontanero is vital (as is also the capability of the fontanero to read plans). It helped that our maestro and fontanero were good friends who had worked together on numerous constructions.
Steel beams must be fitted by suitably-qualified specialists (for obvious safety reasons); for our construction, the team fitting beams was hired by the maestro. Various other types of people will be required for finishing, depending on what is required; see the main blog for some examples.
Wherever possible, it is better to pay for materials and labor separately. The main areas in which this will probably not be possible are carpentry, aluminum/glass work, and some metalwork such as railings. Otherwise, avoid all-inclusive prices, as they tend to deprive you of transparency and choice, and will frequently result in your getting poor-quality materials for the price of good ones.
In general, expect to pay for materials in advance, and labor once the work is complete. This means that for areas such as carpentry where there may be a significant outlay to purchase materials, you will be expected to make a substantial down payment. For large items of work, it is reasonable to pay for labor in parts, on say a weekly basis.
Your fontanero will probably buy the numerous parts needed for installations himself, but must give you all the receipts. You should provide a proper description of the installations required, to enable appropriate purchases to be made. Items such as sinks, taps, lighting, and fans are probably best bought yourself, although if you know what you want, the fontanero might also purchase these for you.
It is hard to overstate the importance of checking meticulously each item of work. However, this likely to be difficult, as those you contract tend to be adept at making the work look acceptable for the moment, only for it to fall apart when they are gone. Preferably you should check items while they are still under construction, but this will often not be possible. You will almost certainly not be offered any guarantee for the work; this ends with the payment.
4.4 Buying Materials
We had basic building materials delivered on a credit basis, with 15 days after delivery to pay. The maestro would order materials as needed, and we would pay for them on the Saturday after paying for the labor. In addition, we managed to get a price-match deal on cement, mortar and varilla after the owner of the shop we had been purchasing materials from to that point feared we would go elsewhere. Thanks to Verónica, who drives a hard bargain, we got rock-bottom prices on the main materials.
This supplier and various others offer discounts on listed prices; and what appears on the receipt will often be the full list price, significantly higher than what was paid. This fact can be used to the disadvantage of the end consumer, by architects and others charging the price given on the receipt and pocketing the difference. So it is better to pay for these yourselves where possible.
4.5 IMSS (Social Security) Payments
It is your responsibility to arrange for social security (IMSS) payments to be made for each relevant worker; this will certainly include the maestro and his team, although probably not the fontanero and others who work on a contract basis. In practice, it may be sufficient to pay IMSS only for the main workers (especially those exposed to the most risk).
It will normally be necessary to hire an agent to deal with IMSS, and the costs are not insignificant. But failure to make IMSS payments is not recommended, as again you may get away with it for a while, but pay for it later when you are blacklisted by the government. And not only is it reprehensible to fail to provide for the welfare of the people working for you, it may leave you facing substantial claims for compensation in the event of an accident.
5 Setting Up Home in Mexico
In this section, I give some information aimed at foreigners, especially that which is:
- relevant to the design or selection of a house
- likely to be unfamiliar to those coming to Mexico from other areas such as North America and Europe
It would therefore be a good idea to read this section before buying land or drawing up plans.
One should consider this paraphrase of a well-known saying:
when in Mexico, do as the Mexicans do. Just as one should be suspicious of construction techniques not normally employed in Mexico, one should also consider generally that where things are done differently in Mexico, there is likely to be a good reason for it. But in some cases this reason is economic or due to lack of concern, and here you can aim for a better standard.
However, there are some areas in which a foreigner should take care to not fall short of the norm. Apart from construction quality, one of these is security. Houses in Mexico tend to be difficult to break into, featuring metalwork over windows and doors, steel doors, and often high boundary walls or railings. It is axiomatic that if your house is less secure than those around, that is what any burglar will go for! And private land without a secure boundary is likely to be taken as public property.
5.1 Infrastructure and Services
If you are from North America, Europe or another highly-developed area, you will see some big differences; generally the infrastructure is more basic in Mexico. However, it is usually possible to compensate one way or another, and the generally kinder climate tends to mean that you can manage happily with less.
This section does not cover services such as television, telephone, internet, and cable, for which it is difficult to provide generalized information. Specific details of these areas can easily be found using a web search engine.
- However, one encouraging point is that the area of telecommunications, previously a private monopoly (Telmex), has recently been opened up to competition. We can only hope for better things. 🙏
One of the first things you will notice on coming to Mexico is that each house has a water tank (known as a tinaco) on the roof. As far as I am aware§, nowhere in Mexico is water pumped at high pressure direct to the tap, and even in urban areas the supply may be discontinuous. Hence the need to store water in a tinaco. For a basic small house the capacity is usually 450L, but may be 1100L or more for a larger house.
By itself, this will yield only gravity pressure, which is generally less than ideal, and insufficient for a shower with fine nozzles. This is why showers in Mexico typically have "watering can" type shower heads. But this limitation can be overcome by installing a pressure system, comprising a pump and a pneumatic tank with manometer. This normally delivers water at a pressure of 45 pounds per square inch (although the pressure can drop to about half that before the pump activates to reflate the pneumatic tank). By comparison, gravity pressure is only about 1.4 pounds per square inch per meter of drop; so you will probably want a pressure system.
Also, although water quality has improved considerably in Mexico over the last two or three decades, tap water is still not considered potable. Even if the water as delivered is of high quality, it will have been compromised by storage in the tinaco. Instead, purified water is available in large bottles, typically with a capacity of 20L. There is no reason why one should not install a water purification system (involving at least ultra-violet light treatment), but this is not commonly done. Bottled water is quite economical, and I have become used to using that.
- Note that in Mexico, agua potable is NOT drinking water; it is suitable only for household purposes such as washing and (probably) brushing teeth. Water for drinking is supplied in bottles, and is designated agua purificada. Other types of water are agua pluvial (rainwater), agua negra (sewage), and agua gris (treated sewage suitable for irrigation).
Outside an urban area, where there is no municipal water supply, it may be provided by a well. This may be private and exclusive (as in "El Refugio") or shared (as in "La Esperanza"). If there is neither municipal water nor a well, it will be necessary to have water delivered by truck (but this situation would not be normal with land privatized for dwellings).
If the water supply is intermittent (e.g. from a shared well or truck), you should build an underground cistern (known as an aljibe) capable of storing a substantial quantity of water. The cistern for "La Esperanza" has a capacity of 12,000L; and with a less accessible supply of water or more occupants, you may want a still greater capacity. With a private well, this will serve as the cistern from which you can refill the tinaco at any time, so an aljibe should not be necessary (unless the well is unreliable). A submersible pump must be installed in the private well or cistern to pump water to the tinaco (refilling of the tinaco will normally be done automatically).
This is supplied by a government organization called CFE. Voltage is 120V at 60Hz, and the capacity of a standard supply is only 3KW. You can greatly augment this capacity, to give you something closer to what you will be accustomed to in North America or Europe. However, you can and should use much less electricity here in Mexico.
You can also install one or more additional lines, which you will require for 220V two-phase appliances. Note that this is not suitable for appliances from Europe and other areas, which require a single phase of 220/240V; to use these, you will need a transformer.
Billing is every two months, and your power may be cut without warning the day after the due date if you do not pay on time. In most cases, bills are delivered to your house by CFE, and there are several payment options, including machines. Alternatively, bills may be delivered to a shop in your village, and you can pay there (or you can pay by another means if you know your account number).
The cost of electricity is manipulated to make it affordable for the poor. The basic cost per KWh is low with a very low standing charge; thus bills can be very small. However, it can get very expensive with increased consumption. The normal domestic tariff has three tiers:
- up to 150 KWh
- 150KWh to 250 KWh
- above 250 KWh
These thresholds apply in my area; in areas where air conditioning is considered necessary, they are higher to take account of this.
- The cost per KWh for excedente may be 3½ times that for básico. But this is not all; if you use more than a certain amount (in my case, this appears to be 500KWh) for three billing periods, you are put onto a different tariff, in which the basic tier has a substantially higher unit cost than excedente. This tariff is to be avoided.
If you have a large area of cultivated land, a major expense may be irrigation, which will require significant power for hours at a time. It may therefore be a good idea to install gasoline-powered pumps rather than electric ones (or settle for a smaller piece of land - see Gardens).
There should be a separate meter for each household; the way CFE charges for electricity means that a separate meter should be used wherever permitted. Meters are always installed on federal land where CFE employees are guaranteed access, never on private land. This means that meters will appear on the street (there may also be exposed wiring or circuit breakers - not recommended).
The electricity supply may be unstable, and ideally a whole-house voltage regulator should be installed. You may also consider installing a backup generator, but this provision is less easy to make. Certainly you should use a no-break for critical appliances such as a computer.
Power outlets in Mexican houses are frequently 2-pin (without a ground). Also, there are often very few circuits (perhaps only two or three for the whole house). In electrical installations, there is no reason to do as the Mexicans do; your house should certainly have a properly-grounded power supply with 3-pin outlets, and use a generous number of circuits. But you will probably not find features such as smart meters or GFCI protection.
Generally, it is better to err on the generous side in specifying electrical installations such as power and communications outlets, switches, and lighting. As the wiring is installed in masonry walls, it may be difficult or impossible to add these later without either a serious impact or resorting to makeshift surface wiring. However, the installations of your fontanero should make it possible to replace cables; this will normally require the provision of registros.
All gauges of cable used in Mexican house wiring are stranded (as opposed to the solid core cable used NoB for all but the largest gauges). Contrary to certain NoB assertions that it is totally unsuitable for house wiring, stranded cable is essentially§ identical electrically to solid core cable of the same gauge, although rather more expensive. It is used in Mexico as cable is pulled through conduits, and this could cause solid cores to fracture. Stranded cable is mandated for use on aircraft to prevent fracture due to vibration. Different connectors are used for stranded cable, not those commonly used NoB for solid core cable.
You will almost certainly not have piped gas; in Mexico gas is normally propane, which is delivered by truck. Many people still use 30L gas cylinders, which must be disconnected and reconnected each delivery (the empty cylinder is replaced by a full one). Far better is to install a stationary tank (typically with a capacity of 300L) that can be refilled by a gas tanker. For this, there should be a gas input valve installed in the boundary or house wall, or other easily-accessible position.
The tank will typically be installed on a roof, although a suitable outside area may be a good alternative. If you install the tank where it is exposed to the sun, its capacity is significantly reduced in relation to a shaded location, to allow for expansion.
Typically, gas will be needed only for cooking; in this case you will rarely need to get gas delivered. Other uses for gas include:
- water heating
- in the absence of a solar water heater, or where this is insufficient
- clothes drying
- this should be avoided; it is better to use a roof or drying patio
- space heating
- this may sometimes be necessary in cooler climates
In an urban area, sewerage will normally be municipal; otherwise you must install a septic tank.
North of the border, a septic tank will typically be installed on a large area of land, which can serve as a leach field to break down the output in the soil. In Mexico, the house will typically be built on a plot with no space for a leach field, so the output must be almost clean (gray) water. This requires a 3- or 4-chamber design (the 4th chamber is used to hold gray water that can be used for irrigation). See the bottom-right of the Installations and Finishing Plan of "La Esperanza" (zoom in to see the details).
It appears that most houses in Mexico do not have vented plumbing systems. Here, waste gases are vented to the roof; this helps regulate air pressure for better water flow. The houses of both "El Refugio" and "La Esperanza" have several vent pipes to the roof, and in this area also there is no reason to do as the Mexicans do.
5.1.5 Rainwater Drainage
Rainwater guttering in Mexico appears to be uncommon; however, as rain can be very intense, guttering might be overwhelmed in a sharp rainstorm. In most cases, the roof is drained by PVC pipes that exit at roof level and drain straight onto the street. In "El Refugio", there is a rainwater drainage well; the flat roofs, terrace and drying patio all drain to this well via embedded and underground pipes. In "La Esperanza", the roof is drained via embedded drainpipes that drain to the path around the house.
Drainage is one of the first things to consider when buying land and designing a new home. As indicated above, there will not normally be underground drainage of rainwater (notwithstanding the special provision of "El Refugio"). Hence, care must be taken with drainage patterns; in particular, all water should normally drain to the front of the property onto the street, and away from any construction.
5.2 Heating and Cooling
The criteria in this section clearly depend on one's location, and hence climate. Mexico has a wide range of climates; I deal only with the two types of climate corresponding to the locations most popular with foreigners: tierra templada (temperate land), and coastal.
The primary means of maintaining a comfortable indoor temperature is to have appropriate construction, especially in the roof. In the first type of climate, thermal mass tends to be most important; in the second, thermal insulation.
My location (Zamora/Jacona) and Chapala/Ajijic are typical examples. Both lie at an elevation of about 1600m, at a latitude of around 20°N. The average annual temperature is about 20°C. Overall, it is cool early morning and warm in the afternoon.
In these locations, you will probably be fine without either heating or air conditioning. Most of the year, the average temperature will be close to ideal; however, outside the rainy season there are large daily temperature swings (perhaps 20°C or more). But if your house has good thermal mass, the indoor temperature should be consistent throughout the day. This temperature is likely to be rather higher than the average outside temperature, due to the additional direct heating effect of the strong sun on the masonry.
Winter effectively comprises late December and January. During this period, it tends to be rather cool indoors, but this is best remedied by leaving the windows open during the day, and wearing additional clothing if necessary. Even in winter, it is normally warm (typically 25°C plus) with strong sun in the afternoon, and if you are feeling a bit cold, you can always go outside to get warm!
Conversely in spring, it tends to be rather warm, with high afternoon temperatures; however, the low humidity means that it is comfortable outside in the shade. Indoor temperatures can be moderated by leaving the windows open at night (it is still fairly cool in the mornings). And of course, comfort can be improved by the use of fans (ceiling or freestanding).
If you live at a significantly higher elevation than 1600m and/or significantly further north than 20° (one popular example is San Miguel de Allende), you may want some heating in winter.
In these areas, the climate is warm and humid all year, and most comfortable in the winter. Here, the rainy season does not have the cooling effect that it does inland, and summer is usually the warmest season. Due to the humidity, temperature variations throughout the day are less.
Cooling in the form of air conditioning and/or fans would be considered essential, but never heating (except for the most northern parts). Thermal mass here is likely to be less useful, and with air conditioning you will want good insulation to prevent heat from entering a cooled house.
5.2.1 Water Heating
In all parts of Mexico, this should be done primarily by a solar water heater. These come in a variety of sizes, quality levels, and prices. You should probably choose one that has a high capacity (say 300L, even with few occupants), a stainless steel exterior, and which is suitable for use with a pressure system (both hot and cold water should be pressurized). Although not cheap, it will pay for itself within a few years against the cost of using gas; it is also much more environmentally responsible.
Care should be taken when designing the house to accommodate the solar water heater on the roof so that it can be orientated appropriately (for the maximum heating effect, the tubes should be to the south of the tank). For the (probably few) occasions on which the solar water heater is insufficient, an on-demand gas boiler (as they are known in Mexico) should be installed in line with the output from the solar water heater.
If you use a black tinaco, you may find that the water is warm enough in the late afternoon for a comfortable shower without any other heating. But this type of solar water heater also means that you will not get any cold water; so to provide cooler water from the cold tap, one should use a white tinaco instead. Or you might try one of each; but you will get much better results from a proper solar water heater.
5.2.2 Space Heating
This should be required only at higher elevations (say well over 1600m), but it seems that there are no good options. I have never seen any central heating in Mexico, even in elevated areas such as Mexico City. Use of additional clothing and blankets is still the norm in winter. Heating comes in the following three forms:
- Gas Fire
- All those I have seen are freestanding, without any flue provision; as such they are suspect. Even if there is no problem with carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and condensation will make their use problematic. But if you have a chimney or other vent, and find one you can connect to a flue, it will probably be the best option in an urban area.
- Electric Fire
- This is clearly highly uneconomic. Even a 1KW fire will considerably augment one's electricity bill, yet do little to heat a sizable house. It will really only be effective in a small house, and then only if one is sitting fairly close to it.
- Wood Fire
- This must obviously be used with a fireplace and chimney, and probably in a wood-burning stove. It appears to be permitted in rural areas, but clearly not in urban areas. Where firewood is readily available and burning wood is permitted, it has to be the most attractive option.
Reversible ceiling fans may also help with low indoor temperatures. When run in reverse on the lowest setting, the warmer air that is located near the ceiling is pushed down to where people are sitting. This can give an effective temperature increase of 1-2°C.
In tierra templada, you will probably find that if your house is substantially built with plenty of thermal mass, you will not feel the need to use ceiling fans that often. This is the case with both "El Refugio" and "La Esperanza" (particularly the former, although this may be partly due to the presence of trees). High ceilings also tend to give a lower temperature where people are sitting.
While the main house of "El Refugio" was being built, I lived in the casita, which has a losa only about 10cm thick. In the afternoon, one could feel the heat coming in through this. Consequently, it could become uncomfortably warm inside from late afternoon, while being cool in the morning. The message is clear: in a climate with large daily temperature swings, you should provide plenty of thermal mass.
In coastal areas, you will probably want air conditioning as well as ceiling fans. Here, insulation is important to prevent the heat that is being lost from re-entering the house.
It is vital to check the performance of ceiling fans. They all tend to have a similar power consumption (typically 75W at maximum), yet vary considerably in efficiency and hence air flow. The worst are virtually useless and simply waste power. The best are 2-3 times more efficient than even a good mid-range fan; however, they are also two or three times the price. Nonetheless, in warm regions where fans will be run constantly at a high setting, it makes sense to invest in the very best quality. A top-end fan will not only be much more efficient at its maximum setting, but is also likely to last much longer.
5.3 Special Topics
Most houses in Mexico are built on smallish lots, and have only small areas of garden (if any). Often an area on the roof will be reserved for growing plants (probably only in pots). There are good reasons why private houses do not normally have large areas of garden.
If you would like a larger garden, you should consider carefully what is manageable. The good news is that in most parts of Mexico, the climate will make it possible to grow a wide range of plants. The bad news is that parasites also flourish, and in order to maintain a garden properly, it will be necessary to use insecticides and fungicides. Regular fertilization will also probably be necessary.
It will also be necessary to irrigate during the months of the dry season. The land should therefore have a good supply of water available for irrigation, as you will need plenty of it, especially in spring. If water must be delivered by truck, this is likely to be a considerable expense. In any case, operating irrigation pumps may be expensive. In the rainy season, plants grow vigorously, and it will then be hard to keep the weeds under control.
So a garden in Mexico will require much more attention than in a cooler climate where growth is slower and parasites are fewer. For even a small area, you will probably have to hire a gardener on a casual basis; and you may find said gardener less than reliable or punctual (see the definition of mañana). If you are looking for a large highly-cultivated area (say anywhere near an acre), you are likely to need a full-time (probably live-in) gardener.
Another point about having a large area of land is that it will be more difficult to keep secure; a good boundary wall will be expensive, and surveillance by cameras may be problematic. An ornamental climbing plant that may be helpful with borders is bougainvillea; with its sharp thorns it will be a serious deterrent to any would-be intruder. It is also attractive with bright colors of various hues, and has a very low water requirement.
Note that there are often landslides in Mexico during the rainy season, and land underneath steep hills is at risk of being inundated with mud (and possibly boulders). One example is in Ajijic, where a number of houses are built on steeply-sloping land, with an even steeper slope above. If you don't worry about it and it never happens, then fine; but it is something that one should consider. A bad landslide could be a disaster, causing not only serious damage, but also loss of life.
Wood is often stated by those NoB to be of poor quality in Mexico. I am not sure to what extent this is true, but one issue that will affect all wood to some degree is changes in humidity. In coastal locations, these should not be too large, and the rest of this section applies only to inland areas.
Away from the coast, there is usually low humidity most of the year, but in the rainy season it is high. As a result, wood dries out and shrinks during the dry season, then expands and warps in the rainy season. Wood takes some time to change with humidity, but in this case the low/high humidity cycles persist for several months.
- In my opinion (and based on my experiences), wood floors are likely to warp badly, and are to avoided altogether away from the coast, especially with large areas of floor. Engineered woods only reduce the problem, and low-cost lamina floors do not perform well. There are many attractive floor tiles in Mexico including some good wood simulations (plank and parquet), and I think it is best to use these throughout. One can always use mats and rugs to provide softer areas (fitted carpets are also hardly appropriate in Mexico).
Many houses in Mexico feature an elegant wood front door, but this is usually in a well-shaded location. It is important that such doors are kept away from the strong sun that will dry out the door in the dry season, and are not exposed to the heavy rain of the rainy season. But even wood doors in well-sheltered locations may suffer minor problems due to changes in humidity.
Wood furniture (including kitchen units, tables, cabinets, drawers, shelving, and closets) appears to have few problems, perhaps because these items are made of smaller pieces.
5.3.3 Metal Doors and Windows
These will normally be of either steel or anodized aluminum. The latter is the more elegant option, but steel doors and windows are perhaps more common. These are less cosmetically attractive and will require periodic painting; however, they are likely to be cheaper and may benefit from greater strength. Steel window frames often feature a lattice; while effectively dividing the window into numerous panes, this provides security without the need for external metalwork.
You will probably not find water-tight windows in Mexico of any type (certainly not openable ones). I have never seen factory-sealed units complete with glass, even single-paned, that are simply inserted into place. Instead, windows are assembled (or at least the glass fitted) on-site, and reliability depends very much on the installer. Although the impact of rain entering is less in Mexico with tiled floors and masonry (and a warmer climate) than it would be with carpets and wood, one should bear in mind that the rain can be very intense.
I have also never seen double-paned windows in Mexico, but in most cases, the kinder climate means that the resultant lack of thermal insulation is not a serious issue. However, another benefit of such windows is improved sound isolation; in noisy areas, this might be improved by the use of laminated glass.
Also, in my experience, windows are fitted in the center of the space, rather than being fitted so that the frames are on the same plane as the outside wall. This means that there is a sizable outside ledge. Moreover, I have never seen window sills fitted, and so the outside ledge will collect water with the likelihood of leakage. Some of the leaky windows in "El Refugio" were later dealt with by fitting sloping window sills to drain off the water; this was found to be an effective remedy.
At low latitudes, the sun is brighter, and you are likely to need less window area than you are accustomed to. Although huge windows may look great in photos, they are normally impractical. Apart from the structural issues, they are likely to let in a considerable amount of heat and light, and there may also be privacy issues (especially where the sun can shine straight into the room).
One can deal with excessive light and lack of privacy by the use of mirror glass; however, this is expensive, and only improves somewhat the heat issue (the glass gets hot; the heat is radiated both sides). A lesser option is tinted glass, which is cheaper but has less beneficial effect.
In general, I recommend that where there are significant areas of openable window, that they be well sheltered to avoid rain entering. This may be achieved by incorporating covered terraces and balconies with a sufficient size of roof. These may also be useful in reducing the light and heat entering the windows. However, paper wasps may see covered terraces and balconies as nice places to build a home, especially if they get plenty of sun.
In this section, I list some appliances normally found in North American and European houses, but which are rarely seen in Mexican houses, with good reason. The cost of higher consumptions of electricity is one such reason, but otherwise one can manage happily with less.
- ❌ Chest Freezer
- This proved to be a complete waste of space:
- Before moving to Mexico, a chest freezer was useful for storing large quantities of frozen food purchased at low cost in bulk. It could be kept in a garage or other area that remained cool, thus making it economical to run.
- In Mexico, I have not seen any bulk sellers of frozen food. Moreover, the higher ambient temperature together with the high cost of upper-tier electricity mean that it would not make economic sense.
- ❌ Clothes Dryer
- Those I have seen in Mexico commonly use gas rather than electricity, which should reduce the running cost. "El Refugio" has a gas supply for a dryer, and I almost bought one, but thankfully never did. Even in the rainy season, it is never a problem getting clothes dried, and burning fossil fuels would be reprehensible. In designing a house, one should provide an area of flat roof with easy access from the laundry room for hanging clothes, or alternatively a drying patio at floor level where it will receive plenty of sun.
- ❌ Dishwasher
- This is more marginal, but even though I now have a 2-person rather than a 1-person household, my dishwasher is essentially redundant. It now seems easier to wash dishes in the sink (perhaps helped by the fact that water always emerges at a comfortable temperature, and dishes dry quickly). The high cost of electricity is a deterrent to its use, and it is not easy to find dishwasher consumables.
- ❌ Vacuum Cleaner
- Again, this may not be entirely useless. However, without carpets its usefulness is limited to curtains and possibly soft furniture. It is much easier to clean tiled floors with the traditional broom and mop.
5.3.5 One Floor or Two?
This will be the usual choice; few people will build a house with more than two complete floors. A third level with reduced area (for example, a room housing the tinaco) is quite common; but this will typically be of lightweight construction, and have a nonstructural roof. Basements are not usual in Mexico.
While personal preference will often be the biggest factor, the nature of the lot and economics are also considerations. Lots in urban areas are typically small with a high cost per unit area, and in this case it may be necessary to build on more than one level to provide sufficient space. However, outside city centers it should be possible to buy a good-sized lot at a modest price, which will be no deterrent to building on one level. In this case, the construction cost per unit floor space is the main consideration.
A multi-story construction will have only one foundation and one roof for a larger floor area. However, the cost of a proper structural roof will be similar to that of an intermediate floor, so the main difference is less cost in the foundation. On this basis, a two-story house works out cheaper per unit area.
Against this, a two-story house has more structural issues to consider than a one-story one, and may require a more expensive foundation. The wall density must be greater on a lower floor (meaning thicker walls, or more of them); otherwise this must be compensated for by other means (for example, appropriate use of structural columns). Generally one can get away with cheaper construction with a one-story house than a multiple-story one, especially with a more elaborate design (not a simple rectangle with high wall density). Another factor is that labor costs are higher for working on an upper floor (the union prices are 10% higher).
This glossary includes only definitions applicable to this construction blog. Many words have other meanings in other contexts.
|Acabado||Finish (texture, paint, etc) applied to obra negra.|
|Adoquín||Decorative (usually colored) paving material made of concrete.|
|Agua||Water - comes in several varieties, for example: negra (sewage), gris (clean enough for irrigation), pluvial (rainwater). Water that is referred to as potable is not usually suitable for drinking - for this one should use agua purificada.|
|Alambre||Wire - in construction this refers to steel wire, especially for typing together alambrón and varilla. Alambre quemado is made of tempered steel.|
|Alambrón||Wire rod - in construction this is of rigid steel, usually with 1/4" diameter, used to make estribos.|
|Albañil||Builder, in between ayudante and maestro.|
|Albañilería||(masonry) The art of construction.|
|Aljibe||Underground cistern, used to store water where the water supply is slow and/or non-continuous.|
|Anillo||(ring) = estribo.|
|Aparente||Simulated finish - e.g. stone look-alike made of dyed concrete. Also indicates structural material carefully finished to give a pleasing cosmetic result, so that it can be used without acabado.|
|Aplanar||(flatten) Cover the walls with a hard stucco-like concrete prior to texturing/painting.|
|Aplanado||Stucco-like material used to aplanar.|
|Armado||Assembly of steel reinforcements.|
|Ayudante||(helper) Building assistant; does such work as move materials and mix concrete.|
|Bailarina||(dancer) = a compactador.|
|Baldosa||Clay tiles often used for laying on the losa of flat roofs before sealing with impermeabilizante.|
|Banqueta||Sidewalk; in the case of this construction, that outside the house.|
|Boquilla||Wall details - that is all parts of walls that are not part of the normal flat surfaces. This includes areas around doors and windows, and tops of walls. Separate cost calculations are made for these parts.|
|Bóveda||A type of ceiling comprising brick arches between beams - most common in the state of Jalisco.|
|Cadena||(chain) a trabe used to connect structural elements, typically in a foundation.|
|Cal||Lime. Cal Plástica gives a smoother / waterproof finish ???.|
|Cantera||Stone slabs used as an elegant acabado.|
|Casita||Small house (casa = house).|
|Castillo||Tie-column - used with dalas to confine the masonry (also the word for "castle").|
|CFE||(Comisión Federal de Electricidad) Government organization providing electricity in Mexico.|
|Cimbrado||The fitting of wooden molds to form the concrete.|
|Cintarilla||Narrow type of baldosa.|
|Colado||The pouring of concrete around the steel reinforcements.|
|Columna||May seem similar to castillo; but it is not a tie-column used to confine masonry. It is usually used either for a supportive/decorative column (usually circular), or for a larger element where more than a standard tie-column is required (for example to handle discontinuities in the wall structure, or around a large opening).|
|Compactador||Pneumatic machine for compressing the filtro and sand.|
|Contratrabe||A type of trabe used in the base of a reinforced concrete foundation.|
|Dala||Tie-beam - used with castillos to confine the masonry.|
|Dala de cerramiento||The dala at a level of about 2.1m, used as headers for doors and windows.|
|Dala de coronación||The dala at the top of a wall.|
|Dala de desplante||The dala used at the top of the foundation and the base of the wall above; it will normally be just below ground level.|
|Ejidal||Land without title, only a right of use for a specific purpose (usually agriculture). It is typically held by several people, but actually owned by the government. Privatization of such land is required in order to build on it, but permission for this is granted only at the discretion of the government.|
|Escritura||Land title - if the land you want to build your house on doesn't have this, don't even think about buying it.|
|Estribo||(brace) a collar of alambrón used to form castillos and dalas.|
|Fachada||The front wall of a house or area of land - often elaborately decorated, whereas the side and back (which may be built next to) are left plain.|
|Faldón||Skirting around and below the edge of a surface (used here for the edges of granite); not to be confused with zoclo, which is placed above the surface.|
|Filtro||Coarse red absorbent gravel and stone used to fill cavities.|
|Finiquito||Settlement - a final payment made, normally after a series of regular payments.|
|Firme||A layer of concrete that forms the base of the floor before tiling.|
|Fraccionamiento||A privatized area divided into lots for housing.|
|Granito||Used in albañilería for small pieces of stone, such as marble (although the word normally means granite).|
|Herrero||Metal worker, usually working with steel or iron.|
|Hormigón||Material used to make a lightweight type of concrete.|
|Impermeabilizante||Waterproof paint or sealant.|
|IMSS||(Instituto Mexicano de Seguridad Social) the Social Security organization in Mexico.|
|Lavadero||Perplexing piece of Mexican laundry apparatus. The enigma is due to the fact that the left bowl has an output but no input, whereas the right bowl has an input but no output (and with no connection between the two). Observations indicate that the right bowl is normally populated with water, and thus serves as a reservoir (and attraction for mosquitoes); lavage is performed by scrubbing the attire in the left bowl, while periodically flicking water into it from the right bowl by means of a sawed-off Coke bottle.|
|Losa||Reinforced concrete slab used for roofs and intermediate floors.|
|Maestro||Master builder; in charge of a team of albañiles and ayudantes. The maestro liaises with the architect, supplies the tools, and pays the workers.|
|Malla||Steel mesh, used as reinforcement for losa, and in our case, the barda.|
|Mañana||This is the usual reply you get when you ask your gardener (or other worker) when he will be back to complete the work. This would normally be translated as 'tomorrow', or alternatively as 'morning'. However, the Oxford Spanish Dictionary lists a third figurative meaning: 'in the future', and this is the interpretation you should make if you owe him money for work done. Otherwise, a more generalized translation applies: 'not today'.|
|Manguera||Hose, that may be used for irrigation, but commonly used to refer to the orange conduit used to house electrical cables.|
|Marmol||Marble - in this case, fragments used to add to the concrete for a decorative and durable surface.|
|Marquesina||Awning - in our case the tiled concrete structures giving shelter over the portón and pedestrian door to the side.|
|Notario público||An experienced government-appointed lawyer who handles legal transactions such as land and house purchases on behalf of both parties.|
|Obra negra||(black work) rough structural work, which will need acabado to achieve a good appearance.|
|Peón||(peon) Unskilled laborer. This word is derogatory in English, but not here in Mexico, where everyone is valued regardless of their skill level.|
|Plantilla||A base of "poor" concrete on which the zapatas sit.|
|Plomero||Plumber; this role is typically combined with that of an electrician.|
|Portón||The main gate to the property.|
|Predial||Property tax, paid once a year in January or February.|
|Presupuesto||A quote for work or materials.|
|Pulido Espejo||Fine cement-type material for achieving a polished finish.|
|Quinta||A property typically out of town with green space, used for parties and/or as a weekend retreat (also means "fifth").|
|Registro||A service point in plumbing or electrical installations.|
|Revuelto||Material used as filler - normally rocky/sandy material (not like filtro).|
|Se Vende||Almost universally used to advertise a property for sale (the impersonal form of the verb 'vender').|
|SRE||(Secretaria de Relaciones Exteriores) Government organization handling passports, ... .|
|Tabicón||Dense concrete block, used in the foundation to give better strength and damp-resistance than brick.|
|Tabique||Brick, normally used for walls above the foundation.|
|Tinaco||Water tank on the roof of the house, used to store smaller amounts of water and feed the house (usually only by gravity pressure).|
|Trabe||a reinforced concrete beam, essentially the same as a dala, but denoting its use other than to confine masonry sections (for example contratrabe in the foundation base, or over the portón).|
|Trompa||(literally trunk of elephant) term used for concrete pump.|
|Varilla||Rebar (reinforcement bar) - the main steel element in dalas and castillos. It normally comes in 12m lengths; there are 150 such lengths per tonne of 3/8", and 84 per tonne of 1/2" (the most commonly used calibers for house construction).|
|Ya que||(that may or may not be accompanied by a Gallic shrug of the shoulders) indicates a fait accompli, or expresses the resignation to such.|
|Zapata||The reinforcement at the foot of the foundation.|
|Zapata Corrida||Continuous zapata used at the foot of a reinforced concrete foundation; this type of foundation is flexible and tied together, unlike a traditional rock foundation that may crack and come apart.|
|Zoclo||(also Zócalo) Baseboard (US Eng.) Skirting Board (Br. Eng.).|