The Big Floor Pour

As Armando and I planned, I arrived in his neighborhood at 5:45 Tuesday morning.

Actually I was a few minutes early so I drove to the hole-in-the-wall bread bakery just a few blocks away and bought three dozen hot-out-of-the-oven small rolls. They only make one thing, these rolls, and they make them by the thousands every morning.The bakery is sold out and closed by 8:00 or so every morning. The rolls were still so hot that they steamed the windows in the car. But what an aroma!

Armando arrived with his five, hand-selected men (he made a point of telling me that he took great care to choose only men who would work hard). I gave them the option of riding in the pickup bed or in the car. Normally they would ride outside in the air, but this morning the thermometer in the car said the outside temperature was 67-degrees F. (19.5 C.). Down right chilly. So Armando, being the crew boss, got in the front seat. The other five men sardined into the back seat!

Two days earlier I ordered 50 sacks of cement. Here they are being delivered:


We arrived at the house (now it’s a house… I used to call it “the project” or “the job”…) at 6:00 sharp. The men all took to different corners of the house and changed from their street clothes into their work clothes. One man had a new hole in one of his rubber boots. We tried various methods of patching it, including a bicycle tire patch, sticky-backed aluminum tape, duct tape, and electrical tape. Nothing stuck. The entire crew was involved in solution finding, and finally someone suggested putting his foot in a plastic grocery bag and then his foot in the boot. That was the answer and all day he was singled out by the crew as having “the extra-special boot.”

Armando dispatched the three wheelbarrows and six shovels and they went right to work. All totaled for the day, they mixed 90 wheelbarrows of sand and gravel with 45, 94-pound sacks of cement. They made it in three batches, plus one more batch of four wheelbarrows full to finish the job. If you have never seen anyone putting stuff in a wheelbarrow, here they are loading the sand and gravel:


And dumping it:


They spread the first 24 loads of sand and gravel out and threw a dozen sacks of cement on top:


They opened the sacks of cement and spread them around:


Next they turned the entire pile two or three times to mix everything together:


And finally they added water to the mix. I got a big laugh from the men when I told them that I would handle the hose, hard work for a boss. At this point all were dripping with sweat and covered in cement dust. I told them to sit down and rest while I got a good puddle of water.

Here is a video showing how damn hard the men work for their day’s pay. The second part of the video has no audio:

At this point friend Jim showed up to supervise, and Cynthia arrived with my morning dose of oatmeal (oatmeal, raisins, cinnamon, chopped raw pumpkin seeds, and coconut oil). Here’s one of today’s many good photos by Cynthia:


Jabo was very interested in my breakfast:


After I make sure that there are no raisins, I let Jabo wash the pan.

The first batch of concrete is poured and screeded. Jim and I did most of the screeding (leveling of the concrete).


As the concrete set up, I ran my homemade bull float over the surface:


I told the men that they had free access to the bag of fresh rolls and a cooler full of soda. Here Manuelito (back to the camera) and Junior take a well deserved break:


Here we have finally reached the east end of the space:


As we completed an area, we pulled the 2×6 metal carriolas that we used to strike the concrete level:


Here’s a tuckered out Jim. And he said he was only going to supervise:


Armando tucks some concrete into a corner:


As we neared the end of the pour, we needed fewer and fewer planks, shovels, and wheelbarrows, so I had one of the men start washing all the equipment:


At 2:00, eight hours after we started and when everything was cleaned and put away, I held payday and Jim took the five extra men home. Armando and I stayed to bull float and wooden float the floor. I sent him home at 4:00 because the remaining concrete still had water on top. I stayed to finish the final work with the wooden float when the water evaporated.

Here’s a lonely Armando in the middle of the Big Floor with the wooden float:


The far end of the slab has been wooden floated. The foreground has been bull floated but still needs to be wooden floated when more of the water evaporates.

I called it the end of a long day at 6:00 p.m. and tottered my way home. Cynthia had tacos waiting. Our tacos are more like handheld salads. We make a big pizza pan full of raw grated carrots, onions, red cabbage, tomatoes, green peppers, a can of corn, and sometimes radish or whatever else is in the refrigerator. Cynthia dices and seasons a (pregrilled then frozen) chicken breast for herself and I get a serving of (pre-pressure cooked and frozen in serving-sized plastic bags) seasoned pinto or red or black beans. Yes, we reheat the chicken and the beans. We toast taco shells in a little coconut oil in a frying pan. I could eat this every night!

And through it all, Jabo was the only one that didn’t do a lick of work all day. Unless you count licking the oatmeal pan:


That’s all for now. The rest of the Big Roof and the front porch concrete are next. Thanks for stopping by.

Progress On Big Floor And Front Steps

Lately we have been working on framing the big floor (front entry, living room, dining room) and on building the broad staircase leading to the front door.

While Armando is occupied digging footing trenches for the steps and laying block, I have been welding the floor joists that will support the concrete floor. Here is a photo with some of the joists in place:


These joists are 24-feet long and fit perfectly between containers 2 and 3. The joists sit on three beams that are supported by the columns that we poured earlier. We still have to raise the third beam into place, but we are waiting for our neighbor to cut and remove the tree at the west end of the floor; the tree is blocking the space where the beam needs to be and he has the best chainsaw in the neighborhood!

The front steps will have the same long-and-low design as the steps from the carport up to my shop. While I am welding, Armando has the more difficult job of digging footings, pouring concrete, and laying blocks. During the dry season, much of the clay-based soil turns rock hard and has to be attacked with a pickaxe. I try to plan his day so that he does the most strenuous work in the morning before the 80 to 85-degree afternoon sun bakes us into the soil.

Each one of the steps has its own concrete footing and row of concrete blocks, so these steps are an ambitious several-week project. Here is the main wall that will support the east end of the big floor and another slightly shorter wall that will support the top step:


While Armando set the blocks, I drilled holes to receive pieces of rebar which will support sheet metal, which in turn will support the concrete steps. Here are the rebar supports in place:


I used a bunch of scrap metal to make the support for the concrete:


The next photo shows the top step all poured and the next one down ready to be poured. I am using 2″x6″ metal cariolas for the front-of-step form. I cut the cariolas on an angle and welded them together where the two cariolas intersect so that each step will have the same slant at the front of the step:


Here are two steps all poured; only three more to go! Preparing a step and pouring it takes the two of us an entire day:


The next photo will give you a feel for what the front entrance steps will look like:


I knew that this stairway would eat a lot of concrete, rebar, blocks and labor. But I also knew that the entry sets the stage for the house. I just couldn’t bring myself to build a one-day, contractor-grade, four-foot-wide puny set of stairs. It just wouldn’t have been right.

That’s all for now. Thanks for stopping by.


First Window Frame Installed ~ Plus Odds ‘n Ends

I have installed the first window frame, and I’ll get to that in a moment.

But first, In my last post I mentioned that we ordered some tile for the columns at the front gate and for the two buttress columns at the garage. On the scheduled day of delivery, the nice woman at the Elmec company called to say that they were going to deliver only half the order because they were still searching for the rest of the order that the computer said was on hand.

“Hold your horses,” I said. “All or nothing, please.” I know how it is here, and I knew that there was a high likelihood that the second half would never be found and I would be in a pickle. Sure enough, some hours later she called again and said the balance was nowhere to be found. So Cynthia and I made a quick trip to the city and chose another tile. This one, also porcelain, looks like slate and has a slight green cast to it. Here’s a photo:

There would be a delay of another week because they only deliver here on Wednesday. As promised, the entire order arrived as scheduled. The truck driver, however, was the Worst-Backer-Upper-In-The-World, and promptly backed off our little side road and into the muddy ditch. To his surprise, I easily pulled the big truck free with the Honda Ridgeline and a tow strap.

But now the driver was completely unnerved and refused to try again. He suggested that I back the Honda up to his truck, and we would do a relay transfer, his truck to my truck to the house. We started, putting about 25 tiles in the Honda. But it was raining with gusto and I could see that this wasn’t going to be any fun at all. I baulked in my best Spanish and exclaimed, “No, no, no, no!” I dug my heels into the mud and told him he would have to use the other, better road and back the truck up to the house. I wasn’t going to do this 500-tile plus 13 bags of thin-set mortar transfer dance.

He caved, and after much backing comedy he finally made it into the driveway and within a few feet of where I wanted to store the tile. The rest was uneventful, and the deposito now looks like this. I’ve got my work cut out for myself:

I mentioned all of the above first because this tile delay gave me two weeks to fill. I decided to install the window frame that goes in the white wall between containers 3 and 4.

I cut the hole with the angle grinder because it does a neater job than the torch, although both options work well. I installed the frame just as I did the door frames. Here I am dry-fitting the frame in the opening:

After it fit plumb and level, I tack welded the frame in four places, ground the welds smooth, and using the pneumatic caulking gun, caulked the joint with the black urethane windshield adhesive:

Next I welded the security bar frame to the window frame and gave everything a first coat of polyurethane oil red oxide primer:

With hinges and locks on the security bar frame, in the future I will be able to open the security bars to wash the windows and to repaint the metal.

I had made the hinges some time ago:

I also welded short pieces of angle iron to the window frame and the security bar frame, the pieces having aligning holes for bolts or padlocks when the security bar frame is closed:

I should have waited to caulk until after I welded on the hinges and angle iron pieces because heat from the welder damaged the nice caulk line. I'll touch this up later.

You can see the installed window frame assembly in the next photo. This photo is my new banner photo at the top of the blog; I’ll change it from time to time as visual progress warrants:

I still have to install the glass, but I’m holding off for a while so it doesn’t get damaged during construction.

For another time-filling project, remember that I had previously made forms for plant pots:

Armando and I poured concrete in the form and I put a broom finish on it. I’m letting it cure for a month or so:

Then I noticed that the jobsite was messy:

So I spent two days cleaning the area and it looks a lot better. I also sprayed the quart of potential paint color on the white panel. It’s close, but it came out too blue. We want the same color only in green (more sage but not sage) if that makes any sense to you. I’ll pick another color the next time I go down the mountain. I also took some time and removed all the decals on the doors of 3 and 4. It was an easy process; I used a propane torch (a heat gun would also have worked well), heated a decal for a second or two, then the decals peeled off easily. The trick is to get the decal and surrounding metal just hot enough to activate the adhesive but not so hot that it doesn’t melt the decal or raise a heat blister on fingers. Here’s a photo:

All cleaned up, door decals removed, and the wrong color sprayed on the wall.

I ended up with the small pile of scrap metal shown in the next photo. I had Armando flag down the recycle truck, and along with a bag of flattened Coke cans, Armando picked up an extra six dollars in his pocket for the day. I always give him the recycle money; it’s not much for me but is a big boost for him:

Let’s see, what else has been happening? Oh yeah, Armando put the repello (stucco) on the squat wall in the carport:

Jabo sits on the squat wall.

And the carport roof over the doors of container 4 wasn’t quite finished so I tackled that one day:

A Plycem (tilebacker) wall and a good bead of mortar stop rain from entering the garage here.

This area of the completed roof looks like this from below:

So that’s been my past two weeks. I’m excited to begin the tile work, but that will need to wait just a bit, as Cynthia and I will be going to Texas for at least a week.

Here’s the story. It is a very personal story, and if all you want from this blog is information about building a shipping container house, you should stop reading now. Otherwise, what follows is an intimate view into our lives together.

I’d like to tell the following story as a tribute to the woman I love, to my wonderful wife, Cynthia. She was dealt a life-altering, ability-reducing, medically-induced injury. She can’t always be pleasant about it, and neither can I. Although it has been a grueling couple of marriage- and character-testing years for the both of us, I am constantly amazed at her grit and determination to recover. Not a day goes by that I am not impressed by her ever-renewing fight to improve her life and our lives together. Thank you Cynthia, you are the definition of bravery.

As some of you know, a year ago last November Cynthia had open heart surgery at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. They replaced a failing heart valve, and in the process something went very, very wrong. For whatever reason, she was without sufficient oxygen to her brain for an extended number of minutes. As a result, she suffered brain damage to numerous areas of her brain. When they brought her out of anesthesia, she suffered convulsions, so they kept her in a medically-induced coma for nearly ten days while they tried to figure it out. We don’t think know that they didn’t figure it out, but they were finally able to bring her out of the coma. The damage was done. Since then, even with numerous changes and tweaking of a lot of anti-seizure/epilepsy drugs, she still suffers convulsions nearly every night; three or four or five of them, and they last ten minutes to an hour each. I wake up with each convulsion, stroke her hair, keep her from falling out of bed, and neither of us gets enough sleep. A lot of her fine motor skills were also affected and she has worked valiantly long and hard to regain functions that the surgery took away. I give Cynthia massive, massive credit; I have never met a person more determined to overcome her significant medically-induced injuries. Yes, the surgical team did save her life, and that is noteworthy, but beyond that I don’t give her doctors much credit at all; the surgeon simply told me that the surgery “went very well with no problems.”  Add on top of the convulsions the side effects of the ineffective drugs plus debilitating headaches, and it has been a very difficult time for us both.

In a recent email, a Panamanian friend noted that a friend of hers, in a similar situation, went to an epilepsy hospital in the States and returned medicine and seizure free. That started Cynthia on a Google Frenzy of searching for answers, and the upshot is that we are going to an epilepsy hospital in Texas, initially for a week of testing. The results of those tests will determine future medical tests and possible “curative” actions. Here’s a couple pictures of Cynthia during and after the haircut I gave her to prepare for the week of electrodes she will have to endure on her head in the hospital:

Cynthia was a great sport about cutting her hair. I asked her if it was a badge of courage and she said that yes, it was.

We recently read a book that says that you can't see brain injuries. I think she looks great. Is that Jamie Lee Curtis?

So my blog will be quiet for a few weeks, I hope you will understand.

Thanks for stopping by.



Odds ‘N Ends

I know, I know. A lot of you read my blog to see how we are working with the shipping containers, and there hasn’t been a lot of that lately. There will be, but not just yet.

Cynthia and I were remarking last week that other than the inside of my shop, nothing else is completely done. At two years into this project, and although we have accomplished a tremendous amount given our small crew, six-hour work days, long rainy seasons, and time out for health issues, everything has raw edges. We decided to focus for a few weeks on getting a few items DONE.

Columns: We thought it would be nice to drive up to the project and see the front entrance columns  done, so I started there. About a year ago, we built these two columns for the front gate:

May, 2011. Note how much has been done since then.

The columns still needed a concrete roof cap like the one on the electric service wall, so I set about making some forms. Here is one ready to be installed on a column:

It was somewhat strange working with wood again. I almost tried to weld it! For the nice tight corner joints I used my Kreg Pocket Hole Jig. You clamp your board in the jig, then insert the special drill bit into the appropriate hole in the jig and drill away:

Then you use special screws to screw the corners together:

Here are the forms in place and the concrete poured:

To prevent rainwater from flowing over the edges of the roof and staining the edges with dirt and mold, I pitched the concrete down toward the center line of the roof (to create an interior gutter) and toward the drain pipe.

Here is one of the roof-itos after I stripped the forms:

Of course, the columns are still too stark, so we went down the mountain and picked out a porcelain tile, to be delivered next week. We chose porcelain because the color goes all the way through the tile; regular ceramic tile has a thin layer of color that would be sure to chip when Armando cuts the grass and the weed whacker throws a stone at the tile. The photo doesn’t do it justice, but here is a peak anyway:

This tile will go on the two front gate columns, the electric service wall, and the two buttress columns at the carport.

Driveway: With the rainy season upon  us, the driveway has been muddy nearly every day. We had a big pile of crushed gravel, so Armando and I spread it on much of the driveway. I rolled it with the Honda Steamroller. Quite a difference from the first photo in this post:

Carport Wall: The carport columns and roof are in place, but we wanted a short wall in line with the columns. Because the carport roof is done, Armando was able to work even when it rained:

When the wall block work was done, Armando and I built a form and poured concrete for a shelf on top of the wall:

Here’s the wall and shelf with one side of the forms removed. It was raining cats and dogs all day so I couldn’t get to the outside forms:

Next week Armando will repello (stucco) the wall inside and out (weather permitting).

Plant Pots: I’ve had this little wall in my head for some time. I thought that the shelf would be a great place for plants that don’t need a lot of sun. One of us said, “How about bamboo?” Pots of a nice thin, leafy bamboo would look great on the shelf. It would create a natural curtain for the carport and create some mystery when viewed from the side road. That brings us to pots. We could spend a bunch of money on nice pots, so I said, “I could build them.” In the next photo I put some plastic on the floor of one of the containers and nailed forms to the floor. Armando and I will pour plant pot parts (say that three times fast) next week, then let them sit for a few weeks to cure. I plan to screw the concrete pieces together with plastic anchors and stainless steel screws unless any of you have a better idea:

I'll reinforce the concrete with 1/4" rebar. I'd like to mix in some strengthening fiber, but I haven't seen any in Panama.

Paint: Now that the shop is done and the repello has cured, its exterior walls can be painted, as can the container wall under the carport roof. This will do a lot to unify disparate parts of the project. Cynthia and I have had a Dickens of a time deciding on a color for the exterior of the house. Most Panamanian houses are white or cream or yellow or shocking pink or shocking green or, you get the point, and we would like something different. Any shade of gray was blah and reminded me of my military Navy days so that was out. A light yellow would be pleasant but it is overdone in our neighborhood. So after choosing the porcelain tile (but before we bought it), we went to a paint store to look at colors. Surprise of surprises, we chose a gray teal I guess you could call it. We think the house painted this color will blend nicely with the surrounding greenery. But as always with paint, we could hate it. So we bought a test quart and will withhold our decision until we see what it looks like on the exterior walls. 

Even though I am aching to get back to the windows in the containers, it felt good to work toward completing a few projects. I think seeing more pieces and parts finished will keep us jazzed and moving forward. Even Cynthia looks happier:

That’s all for now.


Slow News Day ~ Being Tourist

I have some construction in the pipe, but it’s not yet ready to post. In the meantime, I was looking through some photos that our recent guest D and I took when she was visiting. A travel log of the area, this post is photos from her visit.

I’ve already posted about our visit to the pueblo of Chichi Bali.

Another road trip was to the annual celebration of Carnival in the town of Ocu’. Our guest really wanted to go, so I collected information from our Panamanian friends. Most had good memories of going to Ocu’ many years ago, so we headed out on Sunday morning for the two and a half hour drive. We made a pit stop at a gas station where D picked up a container of juice. She couldn’t stop laughing about the list of ingredients intended to be in both Spanish and in English. More prouf reading neded. Oops:

We had heard that Sunday was the day of Carnival that had the most traditional folk displays. But what we found was far from that. There was a mass of people gyrating in the street, with rock and heavy metal music blasting from closely-packed music venues. And between each venue was at least one boom truck (really, really big boom boxes on wheels), vibrating sheet metal bending to the thumping beats. Discerning one “song” from another was impossible, at least with our fingers firmly pushed into our ears.

The music was so loud that it vibrated internal organs, and with no folkloric events planned until later at night, we decided to leave. We just aren’t that young and that interested in sweaty dancing, drinking cheap beer all day, and being hosed down by fire trucks. Even 18-year-old Cedelinda thought it was all “tan mucho” (so much). The trip was worth the drive, though, and we had a good day when we weren’t around the boom business. On our way back to the car, I asked a jolly man if I could take a picture of him shucking yucca. He was delighted to oblige:

We also passed some floats. This one was asleep with eyes open, waiting for more nighttime revelry:

On the way home, we stopped at a beach-side restaurant for lunch. The road to the beach cuts through a wall of weather beaten sand or sandstone:

Two girls were enjoying the cool sand on a hot day:

Another day, I took D to the house of nearby friends. They have several watch dogs peacocks:

NBC peacock in the days of black and white TV?

And we went to the local frog sanctuary. Frogs are a big deal here, and they are in big trouble. Between losing habitat to human encroachment and a deadly fungal infection, the Golden Frog has been extinct in the wild since 2007. Because frogs are so important to the earth’s ecosystem, scientists say no frogs = no humans. Here are some frogs at the sanctuary:

Just hanging out on the front porch.

This is one of the few remaining golden frogs in the world.

If you take the main road into El Valle, then drive through town and out the other end, there is a recently improved back road going back up and out of the volcano and through the mountains to the city of Penonome’ about an hour away. Up on the rim there is a hill with two crosses that overlook the valley. One cross marks the spot where a young couple tragically took a wrong turn and careened off the mountain. I don’t know about the other cross. Here are two videos. The first one takes you through El Valle, and the second is the back road drive from El Valle to the crosses:

From our vantage we can see over the crater rim and down to the Pacific Ocean. Here is a panoramic photo looking down to El Valle in the crater:

Early one morning we went bird watching, or rather bird listening. The mountains were alive with the sound of birds, but their camouflage made them all but invisible. But it was a wonderful four hours in the wilderness, and luckily our guide knew where to take us to see a hummingbird feeding chicks in the nest:

An Oropendola sits on its nest, admiring the neighbor’s much better nest building skills:

And we went to the Canopy Adventure on the outskirts of town. This is an adventure where a guide hikes with you to the top of the mountain, pointing out flora and fauna along the way, then guides you on a zip line back down the mountain. It is a lot of fun. The highlight for me was crossing high over the big waterfall:

Here’s our guide zipping ahead to catch D when she arrived a few moments later:

And a nice walk back out to the road:

That’s all for now. More soon.