Monday, September 29, 2014

Raisin' Da Roof!

The roof has been in the works for a few weeks now.  Our plan calls for a traditional wood beam structure clad in red tile. The tiles are in fact required by the historical society. The structure could have been done in other materials, but we wanted wood so that we could leave the cross beams exposed.

Our engineer developed a plan using metal brackets to hold the beams together, but the roofer suggested to do the entire structure in a more traditional tongue in grove technique. The change had a few ramifications, but we were able to work out the details, and I'm really glad we did because the structure looks great!

We had a few rainy days over the past few weeks, and it slowed down the delivery a bit.  Next month the rain will become more frequent and continue that way through to late February, so it's good news that they are putting the roof in now.  At least they would be putting it in now, but we have to leave part of it open because we have a massive pizza oven on order and only way to get it into the building will be to lower it through the roof. It should be here on Friday, and I'll be sure to get some pictures of the delivery. Until then, here are a few more pictures of the roof structure in place, and a video of the beams coming in.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Mystery Pipe

A few months ago, during excavation and demolition on the house, the workers encountered a strange pipe. The pipe was connected into the sewage box of the house, but did not seem to come from the property. Even more mysterious was the fact that on occasion, the pipe was delivering water... dirty water. Attempting to follow the pipe to it's source confirmed that it was coming from a location off our property, and pretty soon we were able to confirm that it is a sewage pipe coming from my neighbor's back toilet!

Porto is a very old city, and most of the construction in our area seems to predate indoor plumbing. The original bathrooms in our house were built as a closet size room on the back patio. This is not unusual with old houses like ours. When we were looking to buy a property, we found that almost every house we saw had a toilet built onto the back of the property in a tiny closet (usually only accessible from the exterior of the building). There were of course showers, kitchens and other bathrooms inside, but they were likely added much latter, and most of the houses seemed to keep the extra bathroom in the back, which was probably the first installed.

From the looks of the situation in our house, it seems that when these back bathrooms were built, there wasn't much concern about isolating the plumbing connections. It seems probable that the municipality built the sewage line and then all the houses on the street built a toilet on the back. Probably this happened in the late 17th or early 18th century, but in a lot of cases, those back toilets still exist. Since they were likely built on many houses at the same time, sharing the connection through one house was just seen as a natural expediency.  Who would guess that 300 years latter it would cause some future owner (me) a painful headache?

When we discovered the situation, the natural assumption was that it would be our neighbor's responsibility to fix it.  However, we anticipated that this was going to be a problem. The pipe is in the back of the property, and all the houses on our street are all joined wall to wall, so for my neighbor to fix the pipe, he would have to dig up a large part of the ground floor of his building. Even before I contacted him, I was anticipating that we would probably have to come to some kind of agreement.

Here's where I got a big surprise. It turns out that my neighbor had already discovered this situation, and tried to fix it, but the municipal water company told him it cannot be changed at this time! It turns out that this situation is common enough in Porto that there is even a law in place that makes it MY RESPONSIBILITY to keep my neighbors pipe connected though our house!

The water company has told my neighbor that he cannot fix this pipe for 5 years because they need to dig up the sewage line in front of his house first, and the work is not scheduled now. I'm still investigating, but apparently, we are legally required to literally take my neighbors shit until then!

Monday, September 8, 2014

Progress in August

August is traditionally holiday time in Europe. It's not unusual for businesses to close for the entire month. Naturally, we had some concern that things would slow down a bit on the worksite, but our contractor assured us that work would continue, and he delivered.

The main thing that got finished was the structural work on the bathrooms built into the back garden.

The roof above the bathrooms will be nearly level with the rest of the garden. It will be a patio space with some tables/chairs. The six squares in the picture above will be filled with panels that contain a matrix of small circular glass sidewalk bricks.  This will filter some light into the bathrooms, and add some character to the space above.

On the left of the bathrooms will be stairs leading down to the bar.  The patio will also have stairs connecting to the 1st floor balcony which will be connected to the mezzanine level in the bar by a cast iron catwalk. The effect should create a space with many different environments on different levels.  Hopefully it will also feel bigger then it is.

Inside the house, the workers have been busy cleaning up the masonry work on the walls.  We are going to leave the stones exposed which is not unusual in Porto. I love the look of the stone wall, and seeing it cleaned and finished is really nice. Stone gives a strong feeling of permanence to the space, and the matrix created by the different stone shapes always catches your eye.

When we lived in New York and London, having an exposed brick wall was a sought after feature.  Brick is nice, but this is better!

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Best Architect in Porto

We are about 1/2 complete with the construction of the house/bar, and it seems like a good time to reflect on the people and companies that have helped us.  I plan to do a few of these posts because we've got a great team. I will start with the architect.

First, the Architect

The importance of a good architect cannot be overstated.  While it is technically possible to build without professional architecture, the maze of modern regulations, and requirements make it inadvisable, and even putting aside the regulatory requirements, the art of architecture should not be ignored. That said, because architecture is a delicate balance between art and real world practicality, finding a good architect is critical.  We were lucky to find a GREAT architect, João Fonseca and his firm Arquitetura e Design Lda..

I cannot say enough to recommend João. His technical competence, ability to navigate the approval process, and work to a schedule are noteworthy, but his real value came in his design ability. João took the time to really understand the project, and worked with us to find the best use for the space available. The design process was a collaboration between us and João, but without his experience, knowledge and guidance, we could have easily overlooked important elements. João brought to the discussion considerations of light and layout that will have sublime effects on the final product. Of course the final result is still coming together, but I believe this space will have an effect on people when they visit our bar.  Our discussions encompassed subtle elements that may not be noticed directly by our clients, but WILL have an impact on them.  This is going to be a special place, and we couldn't have done it without João.

João presents TerraModel
We have several engineers on the project too, and João took on the task of coordinating all their work to create the final plan and specification for construction. The construction plan created by Joao and the engineers runs to several hundred pages and is unbelievably detailed. I will write a separate post plugging our engineering team because they have also done great work.

At less then 5% of the overall value of construction, we found João's fees to be very reasonable. Of course, we saw it as a necessary expense, but now I can see that actually, João has SAVED far more money for us then we payed him! The degree of detail he supplied in the plan allowed us to press the contractors for the best price during the bid phase, and it also made it possible to have a fixed price contract for construction. Another big saving came during the approval process where João's ability and persistence navigating the process shaved months in time (which translates to a lot of money). Of course these savings are hard to quantify, but don't worry, I have an example (among quite a few) that saved actual euros:

When excavating the space for the the bathrooms which are being built into a cutaway section of our garden, the contractors encountered a massive rock. At the exact moment the contractor was explaining to me that this was an exceptional circumstance that would require him to bring in more equipment and manpower (and charge me extra for it), João pulled out the specification and showed us the exact section where it stated that any rocks encountered in the excavation were the responsibility of the contractor, not us. The contractor just shrugged his shoulders and got to work with the jackhammers, and I paid nothing extra.

Rock query at no extra charge.
João has been our advocate, he spends a lot of time on the site with us, and he admittedly refuses to let anyone take a Euro out of our pocket!