Insights Into Homebuilding with Project Mexico
Updated Design, Attention to Detail, & Problem Solving
While bittersweet about coming to an end of my time volunteering with Project Mexico and saying goodbye to new friends, it’s great looking back on all the fun times alongside what I’ve had the pleasure of learning. The greatest points of interest to me related to the updated design, attention to detail, and problem solving required throughout the building process.
In an effort to provide our families with greater opportunities, many different approaches were reviewed to update the established house design from previous years. Options such as a finished interior, plumbing, electricity, furniture, and a larger size were reviewed. In the end, a larger footprint for the house was chosen as it would provide the family with more potential. While a finished interior is nice at a certain level, leaving it unfinished creates a partnership with the families to take ownership and transform the resulting shell into their home.
One of the most obvious changes was in the size of the house, with almost twice the floor area. While leveling a larger area was a minor effort adjustment, challenges arose in tighter working areas for small parcels of land and greater tenacity to hand mix all the required batches of concrete.
Walls & Roof
With the increase in floor area came an A-frame roof to support the larger design, contrasting with the previously single-sided roof. While the wooden wall and roof panels had previously been constructed from 2x4s, and were famously fun to build, the new panels are now templated with metal framing for a lightweight, yet strong structure. This approach speeds up framing day as the smaller templated panels are prefabbed ahead of time. Additional benefits include fireproofing, increased lifespan, and fun with power tools while joining panels together.
Stuccoing is an age-old technique of sealing buildings and adding structural strength from ceiling to floor. The chicken wire and underlying paper provide a surface for the stucco to stick to during application. With a looser to mix recipe than concrete, it is mixed to a slightly different consistency for easier application.
With the second layer of stucco finished and briefly allowed to dry, a few coats of natural limewash paint is then applied atop the stucco. Although white has been used primarily, different colour pigment options allow for a bit of customisation here. While it dries over a few days, it improves the aesthetics at a surface level while reinforcing the structure as it seeps in and also adds antibacterial properties to the external layer. This methodology developed with the practice of spring cleaning wherein a home’s contents would be emptied out and fresh layers of limewash applied to the internal walls to freshen and clean the home.
Along with updating the individual home design, sights have also been set on improving the surrounding community. A simple way of doing this is by offering fresh coats of limewash to neighbours during the normal build week. This is easily done in parallel with little additional effort and helps to build community support and sentiment.
Attention to Detail
In order to build a water-tight, secure, and safe home to live in, thoughtfulness at each step is required whether leveling the ground, mixing concrete, attaching chicken wire, installing windows and doors, or assembling the roof.
This importance starts at the beginning with the foundation of the house held down by a combination of anchor bolts and concrete nails; the anchor bolts embedded in the concrete pad pull down on the house frame from below while concrete nail bolts push the frame down from above. The anchor bolts have to be placed precisely at the right depth while accounting for any bowing of the concrete pad, or else it won’t be properly secured and the house frame can easily be out of square.
When hanging the chicken wire, it’s important that it be installed as tight as possible and all the way down to the bottom of the concrete pad. When the chicken wire is held tightly against the house frame, this ensures that the wall will be more uniform and strong, avoiding stucco from falling behind the chicken wire where the paper is slack. The proper strength prevents the stucco wall from cracking down the track if the wall experiences trauma such as a kid bouncing a ball off of it. With the chicken wire held to the bottom of the concrete pad, the wall is more secure and water-tight, preventing water from seeping in during heavy rain where the wall and pad meet beneath.
Another aspect of water-proofing is in the installation of the doors and windows. Installing these before the first coat of stucco ensures a good seal between the two stucco coats while giving a nicer finish, especially when painting. On the inside, applying a foam spray in the gaps provides support for the stucco as well as good insulation.
When it comes to applying stucco, the application is important for enabling a good seal. The right consistency helps with smooth application, while scoring the wall after the first coat, wetting the wall before the 2nd coat, and including adhesive in the 2nd coat recipe ensures that the layers stick together properly for longevity. The stucco also needs to be applied all the way to the top where the wall meets the plywood on the underside of the roof to avoid any gaps where air, moisture, or bugs and critters can sneak into the house.
Regardless of the site, issues related to safety, foundation support and longevity, tight working areas, water supply, or material inconsistencies would arise and require methodical problem solving from the site team.
Occasionally, I’d find my rusty Spanish to be the best on site, with the challenge of speaking to the family about important decisions such as the home’s location and orientation, placement of doors and windows, safety, and foundation support.
With the small parcels of land, there were often tight working spaces around the building site, either juxtaposed with neighbouring properties or cliff edges. Often, these parcels of land were built up with dirt for the foundation of the house, but with the intense rainy seasons the dirt could easily give way without retaining walls. Families were advised to finish building the anticipated retaining walls around the house as soon as possible for good longevity. In the meantime we built working platforms into the slopes where required for the safety of our volunteers.
With limited running water service in TJ, an additional cultural challenge was consistently having enough water to mix concrete, stucco, lime paint, and wash tools. The standard approach is to wave down “Pipa” trucks to fill open-top “Tambos”, or drums, from the large tank reservoir that they cart around. While usually seen driving around neighborhoods, at the times we needed them most is when they seemed to be avoiding us or we’d encounter “Poopa” trucks which empty septic tanks. We’d often employ lookouts at neighbouring work sites and send out scouts in cars to track down a water source. When in a real jam, sometimes we found neighbours kind enough to let us siphon buckets of water or gravel for a few bucks to finish off our concrete pads. At my most desperate time, we stopped by a road construction project and settled for the crude, muddy, irrigation water that they were kind enough to share with us!
The loose measurement tolerances of our suppliers constantly kept us on our toes, whether it was an undersized delivery of gravel and sand, different length wall or roof panels, oversized window/door frames, or missing/incorrectly-sized plywood pieces. A bit of customisation, use of scraps, creative team brainstorming, and divine intervention always brought us through in the end to finish our builds confidently each week.
This Summer has been an amazing experience, not only working alongside an inspiring group of Project Mexico workers, the orphanage staff, the weekly volunteers, and those throughout the general community, but also being a part of the updated house design and build process. I have been continually impressed by the attention to detail and problem solving that happens at every site by the blending of the teamwork, cooperation, and expertise of all the members involved to build a longstanding home for families in need. The love for one’s neighbour is evident here in Mexico through the outreach into the local community and is inspiring for all those involved with the program. I am keen in the coming years to watch how the homebuilding continues to evolve as Project Mexico transforms both the lives of families and the greater community.
For more information on Project Mexico, please feel free to view their website. Additionally, donations to the Orphanage are always welcome and enable a continued home for the boys. Options for giving range from supporting the boys education and ongoing support of basics, to stocking the pantry and gifts at Christmas.