The Construction of Living in the Philippines

I can’t take all the credit. It was my wife’s idea over 7 years ago to purchase a double lot in the barangay (village) where her sister lives. It was also her decision to begin building shortly thereafter. So for several years, we have scrounged and pinched, sending whatever we could afford to her sister, who along with her entrepreneur of a husband, overseen the entire project of the construction of our home. When we arrived here in April 2012 for a visit, it was necessary for us to evaluate exactly where our construction project was in relation to our time-table for retirement. We had held up the construction until our arrival so we could asses what could and shouldn’t be done until we arrived permanently. We found the house at a good point where we could have just a few things done until we got back. As our good fortune would have it, we arrived for our permanent stay just over 1 year later.

Large kitchen area  for cooking and enjoying company.

Two separate kitchen areas for food prep/cooking and cleaning dishes.

For a long time, the asawa (wife) felt that the house should be completely finished so that we could occupy it as soon as we arrived. After getting here, she realized that my entire argument, about waiting to finish the house after we arrive here, had much validity. Although the Filipino can be very talented, ingenious, and be of hard-working character, their concepts of western living standards are literally non-existent. Take for example the standard Filipino kitchen – one small sink, 3 cabinets, and about 3 liner feet (total) of counter space. And a stove? No…more like a two burner gas-fired unit that sits atop the counter which eats up the counter space, leaving not much space to even slice a mango. Then take color schemes into consideration. The Philippines is full of wild, vibrant colors, much like that found in Mexico, but of a differing species of rainbow. Contrasting colors, flowering prints, and eclectic collections of furniture and everyday living items are the norm here.

CR design not left to chance!

CR design not left to chance!

Our personal tastes have been culminated from nearly 3 decades of living in the U.S. and subscribing to cable television ideas of earth tones, neutrality and the idea of comfort and coordination. We did not want to leave all that to the imagination of the Filipino contractor. So, as we found the house at a good stopping point, we put any continued interior construction on hold until our return.

Once we returned here permanently, we were able to make a quick assessment of plumbing changes needed to accommodate our needs for cold & HOT running water, and making sure drainage and septic systems were functionally efficient. I insisted on cutoff valves wherever there was a water supply line and an additional cutoff valve conveniently located outside the back door for emergencies. The idea of a “wet” comfort room (bathroom) never really appealed to me and we made sure we had complete separation of toilet and shower, with proper floor drains located where needed. We also added another electrical supply box as the one initially installed would not sufficiently carry more than a 50 amp load. Not good when we planned on having multiple air conditioning units, refrigerator, stove, and a good many outlets to plug in all our modern gadgets. All in all, we upgraded the system to support 150 amps. I should also note that homes here are not equipped as electrically grounded so we had to make some modifications for grounding our water heater systems and range. Also, you may notice in the kitchen view photo above, the location of the small circuit breaker panel above the counter…right where we planned to locate upper wall cabinets. These are the type conflicts and problems you want to avoid with careful planning. When building from afar, you should expect to find a few WTF’s or three when you do show up.  I cannot stress enough that communication is more than paramount!

Interior designed to be functional.

Interior designed to be functional.

When it comes to decorating, well I’ll just say this….you should wait to choose flooring, back-splash, and comfort room materials, tiles and patterns to your liking, otherwise you are leaving your sanity to chance. You also have kitchen design which I touched on earlier. In our case, we communicated early on that we would have a western styled kitchen with plenty of cabinets and granite counter tops (because I can’t stand tiled counter tops), and in our case, we installed a second sink. Here in the Philippines it seems someone is always cooking and someone is always eating or washing dishes (all at the same time). Hence the reason for the two sinks. Hot water…yes! For each of the two comfort room showers and the kitchen. How anyone can wash greasy dirty dishes in cold water is beyond my comprehension.

Main cooking area.

Main cooking area.

Six weeks after arriving to the Philippines, we found ourselves moving in the day before our household goods shipment arrived. It is a good thing we did what we did or we would still be in a state of disarray, making change-mods (do overs for you non-construction types) to everything while trying to settle in. That can become costly and would be difficult and very trying for most anyone. Except for the exterior colors of the house (sister-in-law’s pick, not ours!), we are happy that we were able to have a hand in all other decorative touches, before we settled in.

Front Terrace and Motorcycle Port!

Front Terrace and Motorcycle Port!

So, if you plan on retiring to the Philippines and want to build a home here, take it slow. There are no strict requirements for timely construction of a residence here, at least in most areas. I can suggest that if you know someone you can trust (a lot), it is never too early to begin building your dream home before you actually get here. Many have done it. The biggest challenge of long distance building will be conveying your ideas and plans to your construction crew, and the literal implementation of those instructions. Most times they will not understand the concepts of why we do things in western fashion, unless you have a seasoned contractor who has previously built homes for foreigners. Now after moving in, my wife’s family better understands our needs and why we made many of the decisions that we made. If you plan on arriving beforehand, you should rent somewhere to learn the lay of the land. Look around and find your spot. Build at the pace your budget allows and never get in a hurry. You might just find that if you plan well and begin early enough, you may wind up with a comfortable home and no house payment. That is a such a wonderful thing on a fixed-income retirement. Now, if I can only get someone to understand what a front door sweep is!

My next Construction article will discuss the actual construction of our compound.