Building a hollow block perimeter wall around our Philippine lot. A first step in our Philippine house building project.
Katherine Boo, writing in the February 23, 2009 edition of the New Yorker magazine makes what I feel are over-politicized theories on fences in the developing world. Basically she says that electrified fences, walls jagged with broken glass and security gates have gone up as inequality grows, “that however the rich wished to consider the details of the poor, the poor might fully consider the details of the rich.” The idea is that the rich build walls to protect themselves from a growing revolutionary consciousness on the part of the poor. In the Philippine context, everyone wants a fence, not to protect themselves from a revolutionary mob, but rather to protect themselves from pervasive ordinary crime. The poor have as good a fence as they can afford and always a dog to raise the alarm. If a relative goes overseas and sends money back, a hollow block house and glass-topped concrete wall, may well result. Read an abstract of Boo’s article (you have to be a New Yorker subscriber to get the entire article) at:
Now that we’ve defended ourselves and the fence project from political incorrectness, here’s a continuation of our posts on our house building project in Tigbauan, Iloilo in the Philippines. In this segment we describe building a hollow (concrete) block perimeter wall and digging a well on our lot in Tigbauan.
We described shopping for hollow blocks and well tiles in an earlier post. View it at /our-house-project-cement-blocks/
Earlier we described buying our property, why a wall is needed:
This narrative will continue until we’ve moved in to our new house. This post is about building the hollow block perimeter wall itself. We’ve reconsidered our ideas regarding the kind of fence we want. In urban areas of the Philippines, high solid block fences topped with broken glass or barbed wire are the norm, but in rural places such as this, we just don’t feel that such a fence is appropriate. When we traveled through Antique Province we saw that most non-bamboo fences were built with concrete posts about three meters apart, with perhaps one meter of concrete block above grade and the rest of the fence being cyclone wire. This keeps animals in (or out), allows breezes, does not make you feel as through you are in a penitentiary and, in our case preserves views of the surrounding rice fields and mountains. However, we’ve recently learned that the land around our lot will be subdivided for residential development we’re going to compromise. Our wall will be seven feet high. The first three feet will be hollow block topped with four feet of cyclone fencing.
A first step was building this bamboo “office” for my visits to the job site.
In the U.S. wells are almost always drilled. Dug wells are a remnant from an earlier era, considered prone to contamination by surface water. Public health officials generally will not approve their use. That said we had dug wells at our farm in Essex, New York. There was a well which must have been dug around 1810. Then I put in a new dug well using concrete well tiles very similar to those shown above. In Iloilo dug wells, sometimes referred to as “deep wells” are standard. Many of them are contaminated and are only used by the affluent for laundry and washing. Of course the poor have to drink well water.
I was not exactly sure how a 25′ well could be dug by hand, but it’s really not that complicated, at least until water is struck. A shallow hole is dug and the first tile placed in the hole. The digging team consists of the digger in the bottom of the well, and his helper who manages a pail on the end of a rope. The digger digs around the bottom of the bottom well tile, putting the dirt in the pail. Gradually the tile is undermined and the well tiles settle downward. As the top of the tile approaches ground level, members the other members of the construction crew pitch in to put a new tile at the top and then the digging continues.
We used reinforced concrete well tiles (which are actually culvert tiles) 36″ in diameter and 18″ high. These are larger tiles than are usually used in the Philippines. The tiles cost P885 each, delivered. We bought ours from the same supplier as our hollow block, Damasco Marketing in Pavia, Iloilo (phone 329-6461). We have been very pleased with Damasco. So far we have received 4,200 6″ block. The count of blocks delivered has been accurate and very, very few defective blocks. Many well diggers have forms to produce their own concrete well tiles on-site. This can save money.
As of Jan. 30, 2009 twelve tiles were in place, ten below grade and two above. There was six feet of water in the well. The well diggers seemed inclined to stop digging, but January is just the start of the dry hot months. The water table can be expected to fall further. The original plan, based on local recommendations, was to have a 25′ deep well, with another 5′ above grade but the well diggers stopped digging, cemented the joints, and back filled around the tiles and left. By April we only had three feet of water and the level was still falling. We had to bring in a new crew to completely redig the including removing all the tiles which had already been placed. I’ve made a separate photo essay on the amazing and terrifying work of the new crew. See /digging-water-well-tigbauan-philippines/
At the same time as the well is being dug, the foundation trenches for the hollow block perimeter wall are being dug. As you may be able to see from this photo, our rice land soil is unbelievably heavy clay. The mountains in the distance are in Iloilo Province, in the Bucari area. We decided to back fill the trenches with gravel fill so that we could save the soil from the trenches for use a lot fill. The gravel fill is better for the fence and the clay soil is better for our future gardens and landscaping. Later we found out that the heavy clay soil cracks so badly during the long dry season that the crack can cause structural damage to fence and house foundation walls. The photo below was taken in March of 2010. There had been no rain since late October of 2009. Backfilling with gravel can create a barrier or buffer keeping the cracking clay from damaging foundations. This is a growing problem in the U.S. also as reported in a New York Times article: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/04/garden/04foundation.html
It’s been a surprise to me that such extensive foundation work is needed for a simple hollow block wall. The trenches average four feet deep. One reason may be that the wall will be retaining up to one meter of fill, so it has to have considerable strength to resist the outward pressure of the fill. Many poorly built walls tip. They are everywhere. When we were in Cebu City we saw a huge section (100 feet?) of concrete boundary wall collapse into a stream during a rain storm. Our lot is slightly sloped so that some wall trenches are five feet deep, some more like three feet.
On my way to the job site I stopped at Bong’s Eatery in Oton and bought saipao (steamed pork buns) for the worker’s merienda (afternoon snack). I was completely upstaged by a this neighborhood woman and her son who arrived with an afternoon meal for the workers. For ten pesos (about twenty cents) the workers get a plate of pancit (noodles with meat and vegetables) along with two or three small pan de sal (wheat rolls). She and her family live nearby, “over behind the coconut trees”. She keeps an account book on collects for the meals on each Friday payday. Eventually I stopped bringing snacks for the workers as I did not want to compete with Mercy.
This worker is fabricating steel reinforcing for the concrete fence columns. The columns are 30cm x 30 cm. Each contains four 12mm rebar vertically, wrapped with 9mm or 10mm stirrups. Although the fence will end up being seven feet above the final grade, each column is four meters (12 feet) high — (a four foot foundation, two feet of fill and seven feet fence height = 12 feet). The columns are spaced three meters apart.
Vertical rebar is 12mm. Also shows column footer.
February 22, 2009 Update. A litany of disasters. The workers had done a great job digging the trenches. Then a typhoon arrived two weeks ago with very heavy rain. The walls of the trenches collapsed back into the trenches, almost filling them with mud and clay. They have to be re-dug. The muddy soil is not a promising base for the footers.
Lesson: it was unwise to dig all the trenches in advance. One side of the fence should have been dug, the footers poured, the block laid and the trench back filled. That would have limited the trench collapse problem. Why was it done this way? I suspect (see below) that digging trenches is cheap because it requires only labor — not expensive rebar and cement.
We made other mistakes. We advanced too much money to the architect-contractor at the beginning of the contract for “mobilization”. Although we had advanced nearly 50% of the project funds by the fifth week, work was not commensurate and then almost stopped when there were no materials being delivered by the architect-contractor. The workers had no materials to work with. We suspended payments to the contractor and had to pay the workers ourselves. We should have known better than to let payments outstrip actual work completed. This is unwise anywhere. Mindful that the rainy season is not far off, we have had to start paying workers and buying material.
Because we had to pay workers directly, we became privy to what wages were being paid. Wages ranged from P170 per day for laborers to P280 per day for the most experienced worker. Payroll for the week was P9,320.00 for eight construction workers and one supervisor.
Feb. 23, 2009 a basic materials list for our fence project. This is for a fence of about 180 lineal meters. The wall height is about 10 feet, four feet below grade and six above.
- 6″ hollow block – 8,475 pcs – paying 13 pesos delivered.
- Cement – 1,299 bags – Apo brand, paying P209 delivered
- 10mm rebar, 6m length – 1,446 pcs – paying P111 delivered
- 12 mm, 6m length rebar 252 pcs – paying P161 delivered
- Sand 90 cm – paying P290 per cubic meter
- Gravel 111 cm – paying P340 per cubic meter
- Ordinary fill material for back filling the trenches was P170 per cubic meter, delivered in six cubic meter loads.. This is a stony, sandy gravel. We’ll also use the material for the driveway and underneath the carport and house.
Some of these prices are a bit high for the Iloilo City area but the job site is about 30km outside of the city so transport adds to the cost. The sand and gravel costs seem high. Soil fill is about P225 per cubic meter.
We have a watchman sleeping on the site along with his family. Yesterday we had a big delivery of hollow block. Our watchman, who works as one of our laborers during the day, said he could not work today because he was kept up at night by people trying the steal block and escape with them across the fields on foot. They must have cursed us for the heavy six inch block! No block was lost, and in fact two years later we have become dubious about his tale. This type of theft is routine in the Philippines, although, so far we have had no problems.
March 2, 2009. We take our son to Boracay, leaving behind instructions that no concrete be poured until we get back. We want to inspect the placement of the gravel, the rebar and so forth. We return the following day to find that about sixty meters of footer have been poured. Explanation of site supervisor, “I forgot what you said”.
March 4, 2009. I return to the site to see that block is being laid atop that new footer, but the block is not on the footer itself but on a hump of stony mortar several inches high.
I’m furious. A fence which will be nine feet high is teetering on a hump of mortar! The explanation — the grade of the newly poured footer was not right and the “hump” is to correct the level. Finally it becomes clear that this crew lacks proper supervision. Perhaps this is the way of ordinary Filipino building, that all of these problems will be adjusted away, hidden away and that the completed fence will look fine. The “hump” will be buried with the footer back fill. If I had not been on site every day, the trench would have been back filled and I’d have never known about this bit of creative construction, unless the fence failed. When you buy a already built house, or if you are not present during construction of your house, you have no idea how many sins are hidden beneath the finishing. This could have just as easily been the foundation of a house as a fence.At least we’re learning these lessons on our wall and not our house!
We decided that we had to terminate our contract with the architect-contractor. Although we had paid advances of almost P350,000, the project was being stalled for lack of material and inadequate attention and supervision by the architect.
We hired a new crew who began work on March 13. So far we’re very pleased with the work. Bob and Carol are responsible for buying and arranging for delivery of all materials. Given the rate at which this big, hard-working crew consumes cement, rebar, sand and gravel, keeping them supplied is a real job.
The new supervisor and crew have made a dramatic improvement in the pace and quality of the work.
The amount of concrete and steel being used to fence a small lot seems really excessive. Perhaps this concrete overkill is to compensate for local construction methods. Materials and mixing are not always up to proper standards. Sand and gravel can be dirty, mixtures impromptu, and mixing done with a shovel. Filipino concrete construction often seems overbuilt in this way, as though the buildings are designed to last forever. In reality, the buildings are transitory and are often knocked down in a few years. The New York Times has an excellent article on concrete at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/31/science/earth/31conc.html?_r=1&hpw
The east wall (above) will be eight feet above the preexisting grade. If we add two feet of fill, the wall height will end up at six feet. The east and south walls are the only walls which will be solid block. The others will be two or three feet of block topped with four feet of diamond-mesh (“Cyclone”) fencing suspended from a 1.5″ schedule 40 pipe embedded in the top of the columns. This will allow air circulation and views of the surrounding rice fields and mountains in the distance.
The east wall will be all block because we adjoin an undeveloped subdivision on the east. There are five five 300 square meter lots along our 65 meter long east boundary so we eventually have neighbors, very possibly owning roosters and karaoke machines. We were concerned that we’d lose some of the cool breezes during the northeast monsoon — the Amihan. We did not have to worry. We have found that the Amihan is VERY strong here because we are surrounded by vast plains of open farm land. The solid wall is appreciated as a wind break.
The construction of the wall consists of panels of hollow blocks between 30×20 cm concrete columns. The columns rest on 80cm x 80 cm reinforced concrete footings. The blocks rest on a slightly shallower reinforced concrete footing. The columns are spaced about three meters apart.
Above the footing there are nine rows of filled, reinforced hollow blocks topped by a horizontal reinforced concrete tie or banding beam running the length of the wall. The rebar for the banding beam can be seen in the photo. Then will come six more courses of block topped by a final tie beam.
The above photo should show an engineering problem with the fence. The lot slopes up about two feet during the 65 meters from the road to the rear of the property. The footers must be level so the footer trenches so they get progressively deeper as the grade rises. This means the fence will be somewhat lower in the rear than in the front.
Our electric utility is ILECO, the Iloilo Electric Cooperative. Ileco’s power lines run right by our property. We wanted to get temporary power installed. Our crew was mostly from Iloilo City and stayed overnight at the project site. Lighting would make their evenings more civilized — they could see the food they were eating. Power will be essential for welding.
As a temporary measure we bought a kerosene-powered pressure lamp — similar to the Coleman lamps in the U.S. and widely used in the Philippines for night fishing. Lamps and parts available from Senor Hardware, Iznart Street, Iloilo City.
A neighbor suggested we hook up to his power connection and that we could pay him for the power we use. We preferred to have our own temporary connection so we asked our architect to apply for a temporary electrical permit to the Tigbauan Municipal Engineer’s office. Although the Engineer’s office had a form for a temporary permit, actually getting the permit approved devolved into an endless, frustrating bouncing back and forth between the ILECO office and that of the municipal engineer’s office. Of necessity, we capitulated and accepted our neighbor’s offer. We had power the next day. It seems that you get your electrical hookup when your building is complete and that ad hoc hookups are normal for construction projects.
Like dumb novices, we did not pay too much attention to the quality of the road leading into our bit of paradise, other than ensuring that we had the legal right to use it. We saw the property during the dry season. The road was rough but very passable. Of course, that all changed when the rains came. Access to our property was just about impossible. Fortunately, it’s only about 500 meters to a fairly solid barangay (municipal) road. As is typical, our road served dozens of families traveling mostly by foot, motor bike or tricycle. The road also served a dormant subdivision just beyond our property.
The seemingly inexorable pace of development in the area helped save us from our road problems. Owners of lots in the subdivision just beyond us complained that they could not access their lots and road improvements resulted. The improvements consisted of truck hauling in loads of rough sandy-gravel fill and dumping it on the muddy road. The trucks appeared and then disappeared, the job only partly done. Still we were grateful and learned how easy it was to improve the road. We decided to continue the work in a small way. We filled bad spots with a total of about 25 cubic meters of sandy gravel, using our worker to spread the fill. This cost us about P6,000 and made our access (and that of our neighbors) better.
We bought this “Dragon” brand hand pump at Senor hardware on Iznart Street in Iloilo city for P2,500. For many Filipino households, this would serve as the all-purpose wash area; for taking a bath (while dressed for modesty’s sake), doing laundry and dishes. Even some rich households make their help use hand pumps to save money on electricity and to avoid using “NAWASA” — municipal water which costs money. Most Filipinos must use ground water, whatever its quality. They have no other option.
Postscript. The well pad shown above had to be demolished after five years. Reason? It did not have an adequate foundation and so heaved and cracked. The clay soils found in many Philippine rice lands expand when wet and shrink when dry. This effect is strong enough to crack concrete. So if you are thinking that our fence foundations are “overkill” keep in mind that many fences in our area are damaged in this way. Our fence is 100% intact after five years.
The water level is nothing more than a length of plastic pipe filled with water. It allows builders to keep projects level.
Initially neighbor Mercy sold merienda to the crew, but later we hired her to cook a lot lunch for them each work day. We paid her P200 per day to buy food in the market and P100 to cook and deliver the lunch. We also bought rice for the crew, a 50 kilo sack lasts about two weeks and costs P1600.
We put a short length of pipe in the top of each fence column. The purpose is to allow us to easily add barb wire to the top of the fence if needed. A length of rebar can be inserted into the top of the pipe and the barb wire welded to the rebar. We don’t really like the idea of barbed wire but neighbors tell us we should have it.
This photo shows the fence nearing completion. The north and west walls are mostly cyclone wire so that we can keep views and breezes.
Gates are installed by chipping holes in the newly-constructed gate posts to expose the rebar in the post. The gate hinges are then welded to the rebar and the damage repaired with cement mortar.
We put more than 100 truckloads of fill. We wanted to be sure the house, driveway and carport would not flood.
The workers decided that such grand gateposts were not compete without “capitals”, decorative moldings at the top of each post. An impromptu workshop was set-up to make the moldings.
COST OF THE FENCE: While the fence is not quite complete we can see that the total cost will be about one million pesos including the fence, three gates (two vehicle, one pedestrian), well, pump and fill. This comes to about P5,500 pesos per meter of fence.
Several factors drove up the cost. We used better quality six inch block rather than the crumbly four inch block usually used. The six inch block required more concrete to fill the larger cavities. Our footers were deep and strong, our columns 30 x 30 cm., our well had to be completely redug because the first construction crew did not make it deep enough for a reliable water supply, and our large downpayment to our first architect-contractor was never recovered. In general, we erred on the side of doing things right rather than cheaply. We are well-satisfied with the result.
Still, there is a danger in our approach, especially when it comes to building a house. Being so perfectionistic, choosing the quality (and more expensive) option for each of the hundreds of decisions when building a house can really drive up the cost. Speaking for myself, building can be an addiction or compulsion, especially in a place where labor is cheap and the foreigner can indulge every building fantasy. The foreigner builds his dream home but, if circumstances change, he can be imprisoned in it because he has too much money in the house and cannot sell it except at a big loss. He may have spent more of his savings than he really could afford leaving him (and his widow) short of money.
Many foreigners are uncomfortable with the idea of living in a walled property or compound. It is so much at odds with the way life is led in America and modern Europe. It’s un-egalitarian. Walling oneself off from ones neighbors and community does not sit well, especially when those walls are topped by broken glass or barbed wire. Generally it’s best to get over those romantic ideas and understand that Filipinos don’t live behind walls because they don’t like their neighbors. The Philippines is not suburban Connecticut. It’s best to plan on having fences and dogs. Many properties are very small. Without a fence there would be no privacy. Crime is definitely a problem. Noise is a problem. In our area roaming chickens, dogs, cattle and carabao would make themselves at home. A cement wall creates a small island of relative safety and tranquility in a somewhat chaotic (but enjoyable) society. We could have surrounded the property with a simple, durable fence of concrete posts and barbed wire, or we could have used bamboo for fencing. These approaches would have saved money but, in our view, not have been so satisfactory for us. At first we were a bit embarrassed by our walls. Now we appreciate what they give us.
Finally, Carol and I would like to pay tribute to our construction crew. Over the years we have read various complaints about Filipino workers. We were so fortunate. Our crew consisted of the amazing and indispensable foreman “Tatoy” Fortunato Pornel, 73 years old, and nine to fifteen other workers. Tatoy has worked construction all his life, all over the Philippines and in Saudi Arabia and Guam as well. He’s a natural leader and a gentleman who had the respect of the crew and enforced a discipline through example, high standards and constant and good-natured exhortation to the crew. The rest of the crew consisted of local workers from Tigbauan and workers brought by Tatoy from Iloilo City. They were a great bunch of workers; good humored, hard working, honest and intelligent. Nothing was stolen. When I miscalculated and overpaid a worker. He came to me to point out my error and return the money.
Carol and I tried to treat our crew well. We provided a sack of rice every two weeks. We hired a local woman to cook a hot lunchtime meal for them and paid them a nice bonus at the end of the job. We endeavored to treat them all with respect. Carol and I both felt sad when the job was over and these great guys left the site for the last time. I have overseen numerous construction projects in the U.S. Our Filipino crew measured up in every way.
Now on the the next steps, drafting plans, getting permits and building our house……
Read all about our Philippine House building Project at /building-our-philippine-house-index/