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Demolition man (a renovation update)
See the full builder's quote, plus: lots of dirty work ahead, if I can get unstuck on the Spain project
It’s starting to hit me just how much this renovation project I was super excited about has been interrupted.
I’m not complaining—I moved with my son to Barcelona so he could go to school here and I am incredibly gratified to be giving him this experience. Nor am I complaining about the endless croissants, cheap wine, amazing climate, and la calidad de la vida en general.
But I’ve been chafing at not being in Cornudella de Montsant to work on the house project full-time. I’m doing well on the parenting front (more than once I’ve been called “the cool dad”)—just not so well on the renovation front. Work is stalled.
Living two hours away, it seems I am limited to carving out tiny chunks of time here and there, which is not enough to make a proper start on anything big. When I do have a free weekend, I tend to want to climb outdoors, since during the week I’m more or less limited to the climbing gyms.
I’ve started thinking through what time I do have, and how best to use it, but it’s kind of a complicated puzzle, and I don’t like any of my options.
Option one—start contracting out
Option one is I spend more money than I want to hire contractors to start doing work when I’m not there. I have a bid from a builder in the area to do a lot of major work, and a somewhat smaller bid to do less major work, but in both, I’m paying what feel like obscene amounts of money for various things I could and want to do myself.
For example. Before I even bought the place, my architect got a bid for replacing the roof, demolition, and removal, sealing and constructing a new rooftop terrace, and reinforcement of each of the floors. Total damage: €70,889.
That just gets me to a shell ready to go. After that, I’d start work on everything else: framing, electric, plumbing, floors, finishes, etc.
But included in that bid is a lot of stuff I could start to plug away at if I had the time. Here, check this out, this is the entire initial proposal (excuse the Google translations; the highlighting all involved discussion points from my architect):
It’s a lot.
First: by now I’ve done enough projects in the U.S. to have developed a decent idea of what different materials cost, including all the materials listed here. I also have the brochure for the roof panels and have done some independent research on materials costs in Spain.
Altogether, I see perhaps €10k in materials in the proposal or maybe €15k is a better number just to account for everything I’m not thinking of.
Of course, contractors don’t separate out the cost of materials, which helps to obscure exactly why everything costs what it does. But essentially, I’m paying for labor. Which happens to be the one thing I really want to give to this project.
If I only look at the line items that involve “demolition” or transport of demolition materials to the dump, they add up to more than €13,000.
There’s €1,700 just for taking down the old chimney box, which—trust me—considering its current state can be done with a sledgehammer and a long day of dust and noise. Then there is also €2,548 for “Complete demolition of outbuilding in backyard,” which I actually already did myself in two days when I was there in April— and they weren’t even long days.
So I know I should not be spending this kind of money for that kind of work.
What I really do need is expertise. It’s hard for me to research solutions to building challenges in Spanish (in Cataluyna, no less, where I’m also likely to come across a lot of Catalan).
When I self-educated about building and renovation in the U.S., I had three main sources: YouTube, textbooks (I actually bought and read through the certification textbooks for both plumbers and electricians), and the expertise of local friends who were in the trades.
All three were essential.
The textbooks get you an education in general principles. This is how, for example, I was able to wire an entire apartment and build a water supply system from scratch (in the middle of a pandemic when I couldn’t get any contractors to show up).
YouTube is bad at that kind of general principles education, but it’s great for point solutions to individual problems. Plus, once you know general principles, you learn to adapt what you see on YouTube to your particular situation and to know what potential mistakes you could make.
Finally, there is obviously no substitute for a friend in the trades showing up to tell you what they would do and to correct your individual little mistakes or help refine your technique. I had friends willing to show up and work with me for a few days here and there in New Hampshire, and the experience was invaluable.
Now I have to translate all of that to Spain. Which brings me to Option 2.
Option two—start plugging away
If I’m not willing to pay thousands for a contractor to come in and demolish stuff for me, then what?
Start plugging away, poco a poco.
Over the next say, six months, I do have a few weeks to myself, mainly during my son’s school breaks. This is the time I’m trying to figure out how to make the best use of it.
The first thing that likely needs attention is the roof. But the roof is not a simple project.
First, part of the roof is fibrocemento—a waterproof, fireproof, totally strong material used in a lot of old Spanish homes. Oh, and it contains asbestos. Spanish law requires that I remove it in any renovation, and of course, I definitely want to remove it.
(Actually, it’s not just in the roof. The rain gutters and some of the drain pipes are also made out of it, and there is also a huge, oil-barrel-sized fibrocemento water tank on the top floor that needs to be removed).
All this removal needs to be done by a licensed company. They come in with hazmat suits, do the dirty work, and document the removal. So far so good, I can hire one of these companies to do the work.
After that, a third of my roof will be gone. That means I need to have the rest of the roof project more or less ready to go once the fibrocemento is out of there.
My plan for the top level is to create a rooftop terrace where the current fibrocemento roof is, which is about a third of the surface area. I’ll need to demolish or rebuild brick walls, create a new waterproofed terrace, build a new exterior wall leading in from the terrace to the top level, and add a glass sliding door.
Next is the roof itself. I need to remove the existing traditional clay tiles, demolish what’s underneath, clean (likely sandblast) the existing wood beams, and seal them. Then comes the roof itself: sandwich insulation panels, covered by waterproof onduline panels, and finally replacing the clay tiles. Plus flashing, along with new rain gutters.
All that is just the first big thing.
First things first
I could go on, but I’d start to feel overwhelmed pretty quickly.
Besides, realistically, my first actual step is just demolition. I’ve already taken care of the back roof structure, which was falling down and a safety hazard. There are also internal walls, the chimney box on all three levels, and carting it all away to the dump.
If I’m lucky, I’ll have taken care of that €13,000 worth of demolition by the time Spring rolls around.
It’s just that I’m impatient.
If I were a better businessman, or if I cared more about profit and money and such things, perhaps I would borrow money to pay the contractors to do the whole job over the next six months before flipping the property at a profit.
But that, of course, would be robbing myself of exactly what I want: the challenge and the learning experience and one day to sip coffee from my rooftop terrace while admiring the cliffs of Montsant in the distance.
It’s a pretty motivating vision. I just need to keep going.