In May 2008, work began on extending our house. The work was to be carried out by a builder friend of ours called Reca, working with one mate, usually our friend Corotte. Neu and I helped out or hindered depending on your point of view.
We had asked Reca to give us a quote for the job, he said he’d do the whole lot for $R2000. Out of that he would have to pay his mate. I calculated that he would need to complete the work in just under 5 weeks in order for him to be making the usual daily rate.
The original part of our house was a square with a semi circle tacked on one end. Now we were having another semi circle put on to the opposite end, making the house a lozenge shape. One half of the new semi circle would become a kitchen, the other half a covered terrace where we would be able to eat outside in the shade or rest in hammocks.
As we live a distance from the road, all the building material had to be brought to the house by mule and cart. The owner of the cart a woman called Veiha, worked with her son in law and various other members of her family, from 4.30 in the morning until 11 and then from 2 until dark at 6, for five days and very little money, to bring all the bricks, tiles, sacks of cement, gravel and various types of sand (yes we live on sand but its not the right sand for building) to the house. All the timbers, doors, windows, lintels, pipes, reinforcing rods and sundries were carried by us with a group of our friends. Gradually the garden was transformed into a building site.
Most of the houses in the village are built to pretty much the same design. Our design was radically different. Reca has done all sorts of building work for us and has become used to my asking him to do things out of the ordinary. He will look at me quizzically but always tries to comply with my wishes, graciously telling me that he has learnt a lot from me, probably to keep his distance before I ask him to do some other impossible job.
All work was carried out with very little regard to health and safety. I know Brazil does have health and safety regulations but there is no one here to enforce them. Flip-flops, shorts and a sun hat were the usual work gear.
Curved walls Reca managed without a problem, the roof was a little more problematic. Reca told me that he couldn’t match the curved roof at the other end of the house, the extension walls are lower and we couldn’t just extend the original roof. I was concerned with the aesthetics but Reca assured me it would look good, I had to trust him on that one (he was right).
The difference in the roof also meant that Reca couldn’t use the original as a plan for the extension. He drew up a design but on the day the roof beams were to go up, he forgot it and so worked from memory. When he went home for lunch, he checked his design and realised he had done the whole thing wrong. As is the way here, there were lots of laughs all round while they undid all the work they had done that morning.
Once the roof beams were up, the cross sections went on and then the tiles. Reca realised he had underestimated the number of tiles we would need and told us to order another 1000. The tiles arrived the next morning. As they were being unloaded, Reca said he thought we would only need 500, to leave the other 500 on the truck. Off went the truck.
That afternoon a rather shamefaced Reca told Neu that we would need the other 500 tiles after all. Neu had to phone the builders yard again, as they deliver free of charge they weren’t best pleased, but the tiles arrived the next morning. With the roof done, finally the guys were able to work in the shade.
Reca now told us that the main structure of the roof was taking too much strain, we needed to buy some more hefty beams to support the weight, or risk the roof collapsing. I was very concerned at how they would put the beams in with the roof already in place, but Reca said they would use a monkey jack to take the weight of the roof, while they put the beams in.
In order to jack up the roof, the jack was placed on a chair, the chair was on the kitchen table. A piece of timber about one and a half metres long was stood on end on the jack and placed under a main beam. The timber was jacked up with me watching through my fingers (as I used to watch scary programmes on TV as a kid), I was terrified something was going to give and the whole lot would come crashing down. By luck or judgement I don’t know, the new beams were installed safely and the roof pronounced solid.
All the windows are basically shutters that always open inwards. This means the lovely marble window sill is on the outside and nothing can be stood in front of a window or, the window cant be opened. I had asked Reca to put the shutters in back to front so that they will open outwards. At first he didn’t believe it would be possible.
To me it was simple, just put in the frame and sill the other way round, that would work. Reca looked doubtful. I suggested that he imagine he was standing outside the house, the window opening inwards as normal. No he couldn’t do that leap of imagination.
I have watched Reca build the frame for a window before, he puts the whole thing together on the floor, then lifts the completed frame and shutters into place. He usually puts the whole thing together in a matter of half an hour or so. Now, because I had asked him to do something unusual, it took him nearly two hours. It was only when he had completed the first one and placed the frame etc in the hole in the wall, that he understood he was doing what he always does, just putting it in the wall back to front. After that, the rest were easy.
When Reca was doing the roof, he told us we would need a piece of guttering. When we looked at the prices we were stunned, how could a piece of plastic be so expensive. The builders yard offered to cut a piece of piping in half length wise for us, it was the cheapest option but the widest pipe was, in Reca’s opinion probably not going to be sufficiently wide to carry the amount of water a heavy down pour would put on the roof. He agreed to give it a try. We wouldn’t know if it would work until the rains came.
The main building work took a lot longer than Reca had bargained for, he did work several weeks for nothing, and never complained. The house is fantastic, everyone says the house was fine before but the extension has made a huge difference, it really has. All we had to do was wait for the rains to see how the roof would behave.
Several months on and the winter is just beginning here, we had a week were it rained every day. The roof failed the test with the first downpour (and it did come down, in buckets), the kitchen looked like a swimming pool. Reca came and fiddled about on the roof, rearranging tiles and putting on cement caps. He went home for his lunch and the heavens opened, it poured and poured, non of the cement was dry and it all just slid off again.
Back he came the next day, took a few of the tiles off, mixed some more cement, fiddled about a bit more, then went off for lunch, saying he would be back in the afternoon to replace the tiles he had left off and check the cement.
At three o clock he turned up, my son came in saying Reca wanted to know where his hammer was. I said where I thought Reca had left it, my son went off and then came back saying he thought Reca was a bit drunk. When I got into the kitchen, Reca was on the roof and swaying gently in the breeze. I said I thought he had better come down, he said he would be fine, he just needed to knock a tiny bit off the top of the wall, to bring the level of the roof down a bit, that way the water would run off.
I said I thought he should leave it and PLEASE come down, he said he would be fine. He took a swing with his hammer, missed the wall but shattered a tile and lurched forward over the roof. Steadying himself he grinned at me like the Cheshire cat, his eyes not quite getting the focus. I went and got Neu.
When Neu arrived, Reca was swaying dangerously, hammer in hand, still saying he would be fine and protesting that he couldn’t leave us without a roof. Neu had to go up the ladder and manoeuvre Reca to it, telling him that he (Neu) would replace the missing tiles and Reca could come back another day to finish the job.
It was funny, though I think just as well we stopped him when we did. Neu replaced the tiles and Reca went back to the bar, we were told that two of his mates had to carry him home, unconscious. The next day the heavens opened but the roof was fine, perhaps Neu should take up roofing. Reca appeared a few days later, looking terribly embarrassed and with no memory of his exploits on the roof. He went back on the roof and fiddled about a bit more, before pronouncing the job done.
©Claire Pattison Valente 2009