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.
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”