Learning from the Masons

There is a lot to be learned both for and from the masons here in the Dominican Republic. Building something in the United States involves a trip to a well-stocked hardware store. Having wood is a matter of choosing which type of tree you’d like to use, balancing cost with durability. My New England born instructor of all things construction quickly taught me to pick up the smaller hardware before the larger wood so you don’t have to schlep wood all around the store. And of course, always stop by the contractors’ entrance for your free cup of coffee!

While building a house is fundamentally the same here as it is in the US, you need the same roof, walls, supports, windows, doors, and a foundation. But there are so many little differences. There are different size nails, but we don’t use screws, as there are no power tools. The one drill that the masons have uses a nail as a drill bit, and it’s only used for very small pieces of wood you don’t want to split when you nail into them.  When choosing screws or nails in the US, you take the total width of your wood (say, 3”) and then buy something that is a little shorter (say 2.5” or 2.75”) so that the screws don’t pop out on the other side. While the nails here come in several sizes, none of those sizes have anything to do with the width of the wood you are using, simply how secure you need the wood to be. If the nails you are using poke through, either you don’t bother making it safer, or if you’re really feeling ambitious, you bend them downwards and upwards, roughly alternating.

There is strong ingenuity for recycling resources, and a strange stupidity in organizing supplies and tasks. We unbend hundreds of nails, making sure to get the most use out of all of them. And to save money, instead of filling the concrete walls with rebar to reinforce, the Dominicans use barbed wire stapled into the posts. The plywood that we use as a mold for pouring concrete was partially used when we started, and we use it over and over. Through our construction of concrete molds, we made sure to nail almost every nail in mostly, but then bend the last 1/8 of an inch over so that once the concrete had set, we could remove the nails (unbend them for reuse), and then pull the plywood out without ripping the nails through it.

The organizational skills that are lacking are quite frustrating from the American perspective. It is on the volunteers, many of whom have never done this work before, to anticipate where the masons are going to not think ahead, and try to get things done before them. Putting up a wall requires a bunch of steps, some of which take longer than others. Tacking in the barbed wire takes time, as does making the plywood moldings and reinforcing them. Carting sand, gravel, and concrete into a big pile and filling the walls with concrete doesn’t take as long, and neither does prying off moldings from completed sections. Yet somehow for every wall we have made through two different weeks of work, the masons instruct all the volunteers to focus on removing plywood and piling resources. Those of us who see the error in this thinking end up starting work crews to do the tasks that take more time under our own initiative, and often against resistance from the masons. It is a strange dance of having them needing to be right and in charge, but it being obvious to an American’s eyes that the process is inefficient.

There are other glaring examples of both ingenuity and lack of it. The Dominican soil around here is filled with rocks both small and large. Anywhere that the wall needs a few inches of concrete where there is no way to pour it in easily, we will fill the space as much as possible with rocks before adding tackier concrete that we’ve mixed without gravel. This way you can use less concrete to fill the space and still get a smooth(ish) finish. On the other hand, the masons insist on mixing all the concrete on literally the hardest to reach area from the piles of supplies. The piles of sand and gravel are right by the front of the house, where the dump truck could put them from the road. For some reason the masons insist on mixing concrete behind the house so that every wheelbarrow, bucket, and shovel of sand and gravel has to be carried the longest possible distance to a pile before being brought back most of the distance as mixed concrete to be put into the walls.

Not a day goes by where I am not made happy by the companionship and irresistible humor of my Dominican hosts, and also frustrated by the dearth of initiative and problem solving techniques. The whole thing epitomizes the American phrase of taking two steps forward and one backwards. Of course here, after you’ve done that, it’s time for a break to dance to some Bachata.


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