The Great Patio Project

by Judy King 9. July 2010 15:48

After  I grew up with blueprints on the dining room table and a contractor at the breakfast table. I made doll furniture with the scraps of sheet metal in Dad’s shop and played with the bits of wood and the piles of sawdust in the new houses where he was working. I heard numerous conversations about jobs that were taking longer and the people who always wanted him to do more “while he was there.”

Over the past 20 years, I’ve done numerous projects on a dozen different houses here in Mexico…By now you’d think I’d know how it works.

When I let my contractor in the door, I always find more for him to do, and he always thinks of much better ways to do the job – and it all takes more time and costs more money, but I’m always pleased at the end that I did it “His Way.”

That’s just the way it went a couple of weeks ago when I decided it was time to do something with the simple brick patio at my rental house. The roots of the giant avocado tree were pushing bricks making an uneven surface. I knew it would only be a matter of time until I stubbed my toe and fell.

The bid was a little more than I expected, but then in my head everything is always a little higher than I expect. In my head, grocery stores in the US are still selling 5 cans of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup for a dollar. Still, I was able to rationalize the cost. “After all,” I reasoned. “It’s far less than the cost of a cast if I fall and break my arm.” So I forged ahead.

5-bricks 6-bricks-fran

(Above:) I love watching the men as they move bricks from one spot to another. They toss 4-5 bricks from one man to another, bucket brigade-style. It takes a lot of shots to catch the bricks in midair as in both pictures above!)

A Piece of Cake Project—Right?

I imagined that they’d take up the bricks, pile ‘em in the corner, put down an inch or so of sand and put the new bricks back down – Easy.

They took up all those bricks in a couple of hours -- no time at all. With the giant pile of bricks stacked them off to one side, I was sure they’d be done in 2-3 days, max.  

1-birds

It was about then that I decided to have them take out the big clump of Birds of Paradise. They’d quit blooming because of the growth of the tree and the extra shade.  With them gone, I’d gain a little valuable patio space. Then I realized that it was also the right time to get rid of the little planter next to the laundry room – nothing grows there and it’s hard to get around that corner carrying a clothes basket.

So it started. Who know it would take nearly half a day for three guys to dig out that plant. Who knew those roots go almost three deep?

What If We Made It a Little Bigger

Next, the contractor showed up, walked around, look at the space and said, “While we’re here, what would you think of making the patio a little wider? We’ll need some more bricks, but not that many.”

I barely recognized my own voice saying, “What a wonderful idea – Let’s go for it.”

Then the digging began in earnest as the men started lowering the level of the patio. As they exposed tree roots, they hacked them out and then filled in the spaces.

Picture it…7 or 8 men in a constant parade past my desk, 5-gallon buckets of sand on their shoulders spilling a little here, dumping a little there – tracking back and forth the length of the house. On the second day I put the maid on hold and just swept up the worst of the dirt, cement and mud two or three times a day. 

2-garageMixing

Carrying Sand and Dirt Through the Living Room

Oh, did I mention that there’s no outside passageway from the street to the garden. The only access to the patio is through the house. The men had to carry all the excess dirt out through my living room and office to the truck?

And, then they had to carry all of the materials they needed from the garage back through the house to the patio. Each day loads of materials were unloaded into the garage. Every evening the garage was empty and clean so I could get the car off the street. 

3-levels4-laying-brick

Laying Bricks in Sand? How About a Good Foundation?

A day or so later with the dirt all nice and smooth, I realized that the workers were going the extra mile on this job. They weren’t just putting down an inch or two of sand. They were preparing to install a typical foundation, just as is done in Lakeside homes – a mixture of jal, sand, cement and water.

When they were mixing the first batch, it looked just like the way grandma made pie dough -- pouring water into the depression in a huge pile of dry ingredients. Three workers shoveled the dry materials from the outer edge into the wet portion in the center and kept “stirring” the pile until it was evenly mixed.

The maistro determined the levels for the top of the foundation with a system of measurements and string guidelines criss-crossing the patio area. Then the workers carefully laid and leveled brought broad bands of the mixture up to the bottom of the strings. Later they filled in the spaces and tamped, leveled and smoothed it all using a six-foot straight edge.

I’ve watched this process before. I still can’t figure out how they get the foundation leveled like that, but they do, and create  slight slopes to direct part of the water into the drain, and the rest off the edges of the patio.

7-grout Another major decision loomed when the foundation was completed. “Do you want the bricks put down loose as they were before, or would you like for us to put them down with grout between them. It will take a little longer to put in the grout, but it will take fewer bricks and give you a much better, stronger patio in the end.”

Well what was I going to say…of course I wanted it done right….right?

They were trying to work as the rains from the first pair of tropical storms came moving across our area. They always have a trick or two up their sleeves.

This time they covered the newly grouted sections of patio with plastic when they left for the night to keep all that just-finished grout from washing away.

Then when they returned in the morning, they tied their plastic drop clothes up into the tree so they could work and stay dry.

Finally Finished

And they did do it right…and they did make it both strong and beautiful. The project was costly, but well worth it all. The men worked extremely well together, were funny and easy to be around – even traipsing through the house with all those buckets of stuff.

soccer The rainwater drains off quickly, and the new patio is flush with the sidewalk – that pesky little step down onto the bricks is gone along with the step back up to the laundry.

Even better is that the elimination of those two planter beds and adding the extra couple of feet along the edge has made a real difference in the living space I now have on the patio. I’ve moved one of the lounge chairs onto the shady patio. It’s a perfect spot for reading or napping in the afternoon.

Now I’m thinking I need a bigger patio table and some new pots of plants, and …I wonder how big the project of decorating the patio will get. 

(Above:) By the way…it wasn’t ALL work for Juan Gilberto Higuera and his Little Company team of workers. There were a couple of days when they managed to spend the duration of the World Cup games focused on the TV in my living room. Thankfully the Mexico – Argentina game was on a Sunday. I would have hated to have witnessed  “the agony of defeat.”


Judy King is publisher of Mexico Insights—Living at Lake Chapala, a monthly online magazine for people interested in Mexico's Lake Chapala region, in the state of Jalisco.

Judy, a 19-year resident of Ajijic on Lake Chapala's north shore, conducts weekly newcomer's seminars and shares her expertise about Mexico in her ezine at www.mexico-insights.com, and in the "Mexico Lindo" column of the Lake Chapala Review.

Judy also is a speaker for local organizations and visiting tour groups about the Lakeside area about Mexican customs and holidays.

Brick: Lakeside’s Cornerstone, Part 7 The Roof

by Judy King 11. March 2010 16:09

Whew…who know there was so much to know about bricks? Today we conclude this Seven-part series by taking about the all important roof.

Once all the bricks have been laid in the bóvedas, the masons begin layering the upper surface, to form the top of the roof. This system has been developed over the years to create a waterproof, strong rooftop that can double as a mirador (view terrace) or the floor of the second story.

First is Lechada

The first sealer coating is a very runny mixture called lechada. The workers mix grey cement, sealer and water, and then mop it onto the top of the bóveda. The lechada (milky-looking) liquid runs into all the cracks and crevices to seal the top side of the brick and grout.

Building up the sides; Filling in the spaces

Workers make a small retaining wall two or three bricks high, all around the roof edges, and then fill in the areas between the beams with jal (pea gravel) until the roof surface is flat, and level with the tops of the arches. Next a very wet, loose mixture of jal, yellow sand, cal (powdered lime) and cement is poured over the roof until the retaining wall is full. Small channels are included in the finish work on this layer, to direct the flow of rainwater into downspouts or off the roof onto the garden and away from windows and doors.

Workers carry buckets of the jal mixture up to the roof until a layer 6-8" deep has been poured over the entire roof.

While some of you still North of the border are imagining a ready-mix truck pumping the mixture onto the roof, that's not the way it happens here. Two men on the ground continually stir the concrete mixture and fill five-gallon buckets for the other workers. Those workers carry the heavy buckets up ladders to continually pour the roof. Occasionally pulleys can be utilized to reduce the labor required for the job, and still get enough buckets of the mixture to the roof, quickly enough.

More Lechada and then the tile

Once dry, the jal layer is sealed with another mopping of lechada. Then when the lechada is dry, the masons cover the roof with 8" square flat clay tiles (ladrillo de azotea), laid on a base of concrete.

Sealing and Waterproofing the Surface

Next come two coatings of grey cement mixed with sealer and water, followed by a finish sealer. This could be a commercial product called Fester, terra cotta or white sealer—and because of the difference it makes in the way the roof repels water, you should know the difference between the types of sealers and know which your contractor is using. .

When this sealing process is done well, the job can be guaranteed for five or six years. If it is done very well, with top quality materials and best sealers, the roof should be waterproof for about  10 years, maybe longer, although due to the effects of the sun and heavy rains, a simple additional sealer coat should be applied after four or five years.

Special thanks go to General Contractor Juan Gilberto Higuera and the maestros of The Little Company in Ajijic who explained procedures to me, answered questions and provided technical information for this article.


Judy King is publisher of Mexico Insights—Living at Lake Chapala, a monthly online magazine for people interested in Mexico's Lake Chapala region, in the state of Jalisco.

Judy, a 19-year resident of Ajijic on Lake Chapala's north shore, conducts weekly newcomer's seminars and shares her expertise about Mexico in her ezine at www.mexico-insights.com, and in the "Mexico Lindo" column of the Lake Chapala Review.

Judy also is a speaker for local organizations and visiting tour groups about the Lakeside area about Mexican customs and holidays.

Brick: Lakeside’s Cornerstone, Part 6 Brick Designs

by Judy King 10. March 2010 21:03

Bóveda Brick Designs
Masons at Lake Chapala use six designs when laying ceiling bóveda. Recently a crew of masons arranged bricks into these designs to give you a clearer view of the patterns and a way to learn the names of the patterns.

 

CatalanaCuña
  Catalana                                           Cuña

The Original designs

Catalana and Cuña were the only bóveda designs used in central Mexico until about 40 years ago. Catalana is named for the people in a region of Spain and Cuña is the name of the wedges driven in between the bricks to fill the spaces.


Petatillo EsquinadaPetatillo Escuadro
  Petatillo Esquinada                              Petatillo Escuadro

The Petatillos

The two petatillos reflect the herringbone designs on the opposite sides of petate, (woven rush mat). You've seen petate in the ceiling structure of other homes, and for sale along the highway here at Lakeside. It serves poor Mexicans in every phase of daily life—from covering dirt floors to being the surface on which babies are born and often the wrapping for bodies before burial. Petatillo Esquinada is based on diagonal corners while Petatillo Escuadro is more squared off.


homes-teson Tesón y Catalana

 Tesón                                                    Tesón y Catalana

 The Tough Designs

Tesón translates as tenacity, firmness or inflexibility in English—and those are good descriptions for a ceiling or roof. The remaining design combines the lengthwise rows of Catalan and crosswise flat bricks of Tesón.

Thanks to the maestros of Ajijic’s The Little Company and Contractor Juan Gilberto Higuera Rivera for their help with this series of articles. They taught me the names of these designs so I can share the information with the readers.


Judy King is publisher of Mexico Insights—Living at Lake Chapala, a monthly online magazine for people interested in Mexico's Lake Chapala region, in the state of Jalisco.

Judy, a 19-year resident of Ajijic on Lake Chapala's north shore, conducts weekly newcomer's seminars and shares her expertise about Mexico in her ezine at www.mexico-insights.com, and in the "Mexico Lindo" column of the Lake Chapala Review.

Judy also is a speaker for local organizations and visiting tour groups about the Lakeside area about Mexican customs and holidays.

Brick: Lakeside’s Cornerstone, Part 5 Boveda

by Judy King 9. March 2010 13:47

boveda-ceiling Long before most visitors to central Mexico know the name or the benefits of the area's familiar brick roof systems, they fall instantly, firmly in love with bóveda, the beautiful arched natural brick ceilings of the system. The first question from newcomers is always the same, "How do they do that?"

Bóveda is the Spanish word for an arch. It is also the word in Mexican and ancient Spanish architecture and construction, for a long, narrow section of arched brickwork. Sometimes the Spanish language seems amazingly limited in vocabulary. The dome of the heavens is called a bóveda—it's like the inside of a bowl. The arched ceiling cupped over the altar in old churches, the vault that is built to enclose a casket at the cemetery, and even the barrel-shaped ceiling over a hallway are also all called bóveda.

Bóveda is also the correct term for the 36" rows of brick arches that form the ceilings of many area homes. Each of these styles serves a unique purpose and is constructed a bit differently, but all are based on the ancient theory of the arch. The Romans proved the strength of arches to the rest of the world when they built the aqueducts. Once an arch is put under pressure or is bearing weight, it becomes even stronger. The success of bóveda depends on this same basic rule of physics.

Lakeside Bóveda History
Long before our Mexican neighbors began building Lakeside homes with low-arch bóveda ceilings, local masons were very familiar with the art. They used the technique for most burials at the local cemetery. Many families could only afford to buy a few lots in the cemetery. Knowing they would have many family members needing a final resting place, they had the plots dug extremely deep—deep enough to hold three or four or five bodies, stacked one on top of the other. Before the first family member died, the walls of the family plot were lined with brick. When it was time to bury the first body, the casket was lowered to the bottom of the hole and then the masons climbed down into the shaft and built a low-arch brick bóveda top over the casket, forming a crypt. When the casket was enclosed, the masons climbed out of the hole, and covered the hole with a removable slab of concrete.

Do you suppose this very real work is why we talk of seeking closure after the death of a loved one?

How do they do that? First, sufficient support
The starting point of every bóveda project is to ensure that the building's support structure is sturdy enough to bear the weight of all those extra bricks and the concrete layer that goes on top of the bricks to form a waterproof roof system. (See Brick: Lakeside’s Cornerstone, Part 7 The Roof )

Castillos are vertical open cages of reinforced steel that extend from deep in the footings up through the foundations and then to the intended roof line of the house. Interlocking the castillos at the top of the foundation is a dala (platform), which is a larger horizontal castillo. The dala is filled with concrete and gravel, and becomes a steel reinforced concrete platform on which to begin laying the brick walls.

As the workmen build the walls, they extend the bricks slightly into the vertical castillos at the corners of each room and about every four to six feet in between. This way the walls are locked into the castillos, which are then filled with concrete and rock to become vertical support pillars to support the roof.

At the top of the walls is another horizontal castillo, this one is a dala. It also is called the corona (crown). The building’s crown ties the entire structure firmly together when the steel-reinforced concrete vertical castillos are welded to the corona.

Bóveda—The ceiling of low arches
The ceiling-roof structure used almost exclusively in new Lakeside construction is the series of low-arch bóveda. Parallel brick arches form the ceilings of the rooms and are the base for a super strong roof that insulates the house from both the sun's heat and winter's chilly nights.

If the underground and wall support has been well planned, and if the castillos, dalas, and coronas are sufficiently large, this type of construction can easily support a second story.

On top of the corona 5" steel I-beams are welded into place and span the house at one-meter intervals. Then it is time for the abañiles, (brick masons) to start laying arches of bricks from one I-beam to the next.

Masons use a sercha as their guide (you can see the sercha in the photo above) when laying the bricks in each row of the bóvedas. The tool is less than the width of a single brick and fits into the ledges of the two I-beams. When the sercha is leveled and screwed tightly into place, the mason piles concrete onto the end and edge of each brick and places each on top of the curved guide until the new row of bricks reaches across the space from one I-bean to the other.

When the mason reaches the end of the row, he drives in a small rectangular piece of flint stone called a rajuela. This small spacer is the key to the success of this craft. Once the spacer is hammered into place between the last brick and the I-beam, it puts pressure on the arch and removes the danger of the arch falling. Once the arch is secure, the sercha can be moved forward along the I-beam to guide the next row into place.

After every three or four rows, the abañile and his helper smooth and shape the cement between the last few rows of bricks. The preferred tool for this job is a table knife. The men curl the tip, leaving a smooth surface the width of the cement grout.

The local masons prefer to lay no more than half meter to one meter (19-40") of bricks into arches, from I-beam to I-beam across the end of the building each day. Amazingly the newly laid rows of bricks are strong enough for the men to walk across in less than an hour, even when the rest of the ceiling has not been finished—and it's all due to the strength added by the pressure of that little rajuela.

Special thanks go to General Contractor Juan Gilberto Higuera and the maestros of The Little Company in Ajijic who explained procedures to me, answered questions and provided technical information for this article.


Judy King is publisher of Mexico Insights—Living at Lake Chapala, a monthly online magazine for people interested in Mexico's Lake Chapala region, in the state of Jalisco.

Judy, a 19-year resident of Ajijic on Lake Chapala's north shore, conducts weekly newcomer's seminars and shares her expertise about Mexico in her ezine at www.mexico-insights.com, and in the "Mexico Lindo" column of the Lake Chapala Review.

Judy also is a speaker for local organizations and visiting tour groups about the Lakeside area about Mexican customs and holidays.

Brick: Lakeside’s Cornerstone, Part 3 Building Arches

by Judy King 7. March 2010 20:54

clip_image001In Part 2 of this series of articles about Lakeside’s handmade bricks, we looked at the process of brickmaking -- preparing the clay, forming the bricks, drying and then firing the bricks in a wood-fired stack kiln that burns the bricks for at least a week. 

Once the bricks in the stack kiln have completely cooled, the workers dismantle the created in place kiln, sorting the bricks into various grades.

  • The hardest bricks go into one pile to be used in weight-bearing outside walls.
  • The softest bricks are reserved for their insulating qualities.
  • Burned black bricks and those that are broken or warped are set aside to use to construct the next stack kiln.

Here at Lakeside, there are two more categories or sizes of brick often used while building area homes.

  • The weight-bearing outside walls are frequently built with a larger, heavier brick -- the medio adobón. They are half the size of an old square brick made from mud adobe.
  • The smaller bricks used here at Lake Chapala are close to the standard size brick used in North of the Border construction. Those bricks commonly weigh one pound and are 2.25" x 3.75" x 8" long. These smaller bricks are used at Lakeside in building boveda (arched) brick ceilings (See part 5, Boveda ceilings).
  • If you stop to look at the bricks in the truckloads near the Ajijic Cemetery, you’ll discover that even among the bricks of this “standard” size there are differences in the bricks’ finish. You’ll find bricks with finished ends, some with finished narrow sides and others with a finished flat face. You’ll discover why when you learn the six different designs used to create boveda. (See part 6, Boveda designs.)
  • A third common brick in Mexico is the same smaller size, but is fired differently, to make it more porous and lighter for the building of large ceiling domes (See Part 4, Domes and Vaults).

Building arched windows and doors

Many foreigners come to Mexico looking for a pseudo-hacienda-styled dream home lined and filled with arched portales, (arched covered sidewalks or terraces), doorways, windows, niches and other architectural details.

Learning how those arches made is part of exploring Mexican culture where the simple execution of complex shapes and concepts is a wondrous thing to behold.

arched-mission-door   arched-door

Once the workers have created a framework of castillos (upright made-in-place steel-reinforced concrete beams, in the doorway at left above, they insert a horizontal support at the bottom edge of the arch curve, and then build up bricks in a temporary form the shape of the arch they wish to build. Next they fill in the spaces on top of the arch of bricks, and then insert a dala (poured-in-place horizontal beam). This entry arched door also features a mission-style arch on top. Notice that this doorway needs a great deal more concrete support than the simple arched doorway at right which was also created in the same way.

This is one of those techniques that made me say Eureka! Why didn’t I think of that! Meanwhile arches have been made in this fashion for hundreds of years here in Mexico and even earlier in Spain.

Next: Be sure to come back to read the next part in our series: Brick: Lakeside’s Cornerstone, Part 4 Domes and Vaults. 


Judy King is publisher of Mexico Insights—Living at Lake Chapala, a monthly online magazine for people interested in Mexico's Lake Chapala region, in the state of Jalisco.

Judy, a 19-year resident of Ajijic on Lake Chapala's north shore, conducts weekly newcomer's seminars and shares her expertise about Mexico in her ezine at www.mexico-insights.com, and in the "Mexico Lindo" column of the Lake Chapala Review.

Judy also is a speaker for local organizations and visiting tour groups about the Lakeside area about Mexican customs and holidays.

About Judy King

Judy King

Hi There — Welcome to my little corner of the world. I'm Judy King and I live in the centuries-old village of Ajijic on the north shore of Lake Chapala, Mexico's largest natural lake.

I've lived here full time since 1990, and... [ more ]

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