Construction – What I’m Learning
As we’re getting closer to finally having our house/office done, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about this whole process that we’ve been through and what I’ve been learning along the way. So much learning! I thought it might be interesting to share it, especially for people who might wonder what it’s like to DIY such a huge undertaking in a place like Haiti.
So, let’s jump in!
I’m a strong starter, but not a good finisher.
This has probably been one of the hugest things I’ve learned about myself through this process. And, as I think about it in relation to the rest of my life, for my whole life, I can see how it’s true in a lot of areas. I’m great with getting ideas and getting excited about planning and doing the leg work and the start stuff, and can grind away at something to the point where I forget to eat and what not, but then I get worn out and have to really work hard to finish up. Interestingly enough, we have a friend here who has had his own contracting business back home, and he said he struggled with the same thing, so he had to be intentional about not accepting the last 20% of payment on a job until he was completely DONE because he struggled with the finishing. And, when you’re doing construction, it’s often the nit pickly little things that are in that finishing. Having to haul the saw out to cut one more piece of wood. Caulking. Touch up painting because something got dinged during installation. Not having that one right thing to finish up, then having to move on to something else until you do.
I’m having to really push myself to finish some stuff up right now, and the irony is that it’s the stuff that will bring an entire room together and let me see the full execution of stuff I’ve been planning and dreaming about for years. And, none of it is hard work. It just needs to get done. The job this week has been making the drawer fronts for all the office and kitchen cabinetry. This is literally the last part that needs to be done for both rooms to be finished. The drawers are all in and we’re using every cupboard and drawer, they just don’t have fronts. I literally found other things to do for the first two days this week because I was just procrastinating. It was literally a case of cutting plywood and nailing it together, then filling, sanding and painting. And, I have Johnny to help me. Lame! But, we’re making good progress and I know that by the end of next week there’s a good chance that most of it will be done, so that’s great.
I’m a creative.
This is directly related to the point above, and in fact the reason for some of what happens. And, it’s something I’ve really only come to terms with in the past year.
I am a creative person. There, I said it. #owningit
It’s who God made me to be, and I can use that creativity in so many wonderful ways to serve the mission, as well as in other ways in life. And, I’ve always been that way, but it was disguised as other things, like being organized and administrative, which is so interesting to me. For example, I worked as a youth pastor before coming to Haiti, and a lot of my job was administrative. I was the one responsible for putting together materials, planning, even leading a team of other youth pastors to run a conference for 600 students. At the time I saw all those activities as organizational and administrative, but the truth is they started out as a creative process of dreaming and planning, and the organization and administration was part of the process of creating whatever it was, whether a conference or cirriculum.
When I look at this whole process of what we’ve gone through, it was me who was able to say, “Okay, what’s important to us?” and then take that info and make it into a plan. But in that planning, there was a process of thinking about everything from how we use space to flow and what we wanted to accomplish with the facilities. Once I established those things I started getting ideas for how to make it more functional, how to maximize storage and usability, and how to make things feel like less work over the long term because they were easier to live with/maintain. I had a vision that was in my head for each room and sometimes had/have difficulty in fully explaining that, and many times actually said to Chris, “I really just need you to trust me with this, it’s going to be great.” And as things started taking shape he was able to see what was in my head become something tangible, and it came together.
Never in my life have I gone through such a hugely creative process on such a big scale. We’re not talking about redecorating a room here. We’re talking about designing the entire layout of a home/workspace, tweaking things with the engineer, then being very hands on in the build and finishing process. Everything from how a room flows to where I wanted to put key things. Part of the reason I feel so worn out some days is because of the creative energy that I’ve been pouring out. After going through this process in the past year, and especially the past months, I think I better understand artists/musicians/creatives in general, and why they can feel so frustrated at times. It’s so much a part of who you are, and you need to just get it out, but it’s so hard to explain to people in full detail what’s going on, and it feels easier to just create it and let them experience it later.
About halfway through the process I realized that the three of us that were in charge of making all this happen – me, Chris and our friend Andy – were all in very different places. Andy was onsite almost every day, and it was his job to make sure that what was on the engineering drawings is what became reality. Things like making sure that each block was in the right place, each piece of rebar, etc. Chris was at a greater advantage because he’d been part of the planning where we would sit down and look at floor plans, what we wanted, and then discuss that with the engineer. He knew what the shell was supposed to look like, but not the details. When I said, “The office is going to have a wrap around work space,” he had no frame of reference for that, even if I showed him a sketch, and struggled to envision it. For me though, I worked backwards. I thought about the things that were important to us and sketched those in, then spent a huge amount of time pacing things out and planning the actual space while considering where everything would be. Yes, the kitchen “shell” is 20×14, but what will the countertop configuration be? Where will the couches go and where will the table sit? As I was working through all of it I was placing furniture in my mind and thinking about how rooms would feel when we were all done. Such hugely different perspectives! And again, so many conversations of “I just need you to trust me on this.”
In my mind there were some things that I felt very certain about and thought they were set in stone, but when it came time to work on that particular project things changed. Case in point, the wrap around work space in the office. For over a year I knew what I wanted, but a couple weeks ago when it came time to put the last two cabinet pieces in place, it just felt wrong. So, we changed it up at the last minute and I love the results. It’s a much better version of what we wanted that also fits how we were starting to use the space and what our goals for the space were.
It’s worth it to stick it out.
Being so worn out and feeling just done has meant that there have been several times where I find myself wanting to cut corners or just accept something as it is, even though I know a little more time would fix it or make it fully what I had planned. Things like a slightly wrong cut, or changing up a closet configuration just for the sake of getting it done even though it wouldn’t be what I really wanted.
Thankfully my doer self has been good at the pep talks and has been able to step back and remind my whiny self that there was a reason I put so much effort into the planning, and that this will (Lord willing) be our home for a really long time, so it’s worth it to do it really well now to use for the long term, rather than lesser than and always feel frustrated/disappointed/cruddy about it. And, I’ve never regetted it. When a job is done and I love the results it makes that extra bit of work totally worth it.
Sometimes you have to do it afraid, and hope for the best.
So many times through the last few months I’ve been stressing over something I was working on because I felt completely out of my league. I’ve never built cabinets/countertops/everything before! Literally, last night just before we went to bed I was thinking about the measurements for the kitchen drawer fronts and started panicking thinking I’d measured wrong and that I’d have to redo a bunch of them. I had to go and remeasure the drawers and the fronts and then let out a huge sigh of relief that things were right on track. And, today I admitted to a friend that I have this fear that things are going to start falling apart on us because I’ve never done any of this before. Crazy, huh?!? I’ve pretty much been scared for the past three months! Ha ha! And, so many times our staff have asked where I learned how to do all of this, and I laugh and say with some hesitation, “The internet…” :)
Tools make all the difference.
We always hear how the right tools make all the difference, right? It’s so true! I think living here in Haiti over the past decade, and seeing things shift from literally having to make due with limited resources, to having way more options available has left me feeling especially grateful for this lesson. In the past five years we’ve had a whole bunch of new hardware stores open up, which means things that we never would have had available to us before are available in multiple places. For example, when we built our last house we got the crazy idea to put in a bathtub, but only because we stumbled upon this store that sold to contractors, and they had 3 bathtubs to choose from – that were all brand new! Up until that time, if you wanted to put in a bathtub you bought whatever random used tub you found for sale on the street. This time around when it came time to do all of this we had so many more choices available, and I could comparison shop. I made spreadsheets of where to buy stuff.
And tools! I’m so thankful that we decided that whatever we did, we were going to do well. That meant making sure we had the right tools for the job. We knew we were going to be mixing all of the cement, so it made sense to spend the money on a cement mixer we would use everyday for over two years, and it’s been worked hard. We knew we were going to be doing all our tile work “in house” so we bought a tile saw. Not a counter top version, but a stand alone electric tile saw. For me, that meant ordering specialty tools on Amazon that meant rather than having mediocre results, we had great results and stuff that would serve us well for a really long time. Is it all perfect? Nope! But, it’s so much better than it was with our last build. And, having the right tools make the work go smoother because you spend less time fixing the things that are not quite right because you’re making due.
Things will never be perfect.
This one has been hard for me to accept, but a good lesson. I think in the days of Facebook and Pinterest, and pretty much anything online, when it comes to home design and DIY and everything in between, it’s easy to look at a finished space or project and see how well done it is. Then, when we try to do something similar we get frustrated because the results we see along the way seem so far off from what we see presented to us.
It can be hard to remember that a) People always put their best foot forward, b) A lot of that stuff has probably been touched up, and c) Caulking covers a multitude of sins. #biggestlessonever
There is no perfect carpenter out there, or any professional. People make mistakes. Sometimes you can fix them or work with them and no one will ever know. Sometimes you can’t and you have to start over. The people that we look at as professionals have taken the time to do it over and over and over, to learn from their mistakes, to use their tools well, and then how to finish things well so it looks really good.
This leads me to my next lesson…
See through the process.
All those great spaces have come together with a lot of learning behind them. It sometimes means things have been done over to get them right. Sometimes it means recognizing that perfection is this floating idea. Most of the time though, it’s all about not getting frustrated when you’re only halfway through, and there’s still work to do.
Most of the time when I’ve been working on something big, I start to stress because it’s not looking like what I visualized it would, and I want to beat myself up for my lack of skills. Then something happens, like my friend I mentioned above comes along and teaches me how to cut the tip on the caulking tube to get a really good bead out. And I start filling cracks and joints. And things dry, and I prime them. And then I start to get excited because we’re getting closer. And then I paint, and wait a second – this is looking like what’s been in my head. Maybe it won’t look exactly like what I had envisioned, but when I do the work, and give it time, I’ve seen the satisfaction of seeing it all come together. And more often then not, I realize I’ve gotten better at things and I’m turning out some pretty great stuff.
People won’t notice the imperfections that you see staring you in the face.
One thing that I’m trying to work on is not always being so honest about something. What I mean is, when someone compliments something I’ve done or a piece of clothing I might have, I have a tendency to say, “Oh thanks, I got it at a consignment store for $3” or “Thanks. That drawer front isn’t very well mounted and I keep worrying it’s going to fall off.” Another friend here stopped by one day while I was varnishing our interior doors and kept complimenting me on how great they looked, and while we were talking about them we shifted to talking about using a sprayer and he said, “Any of the imperfections that you see now, you and other people won’t even notice when they’re hung.” I thought, “Okay, great…” but I’ve kept coming back to that. He wasn’t saying I was doing a bad job – I wasn’t, they looked great. He was saying that no matter how hard I worked on it and even if I did everyting perfectly, there will always be some imperfection, and that’s okay. Down the road you won’t even notice.
Because I’ve been so close to the process I’m going to look at things and see everything that’s a bit off about something, whereas other people will come in and look at the whole picture, and would only notice those things if I pointed them out, which takes me back to my example – stop pointing them out and just let people appreciate all the hard work and the results. It’s okay to just say “Thanks!” And you know what? Our friend was right. All those imperfections I saw on the doors, the ones where I thought, okay, we’ll put that one in a less visible place so no one notices? Yeah, I don’t even know where those are anymore because the doors just got hung and even when I look for them I can’t find all the stuff that bugged me before.
Take a break.
Sometimes you just need to step back. Whether it’s because you’re getting twitchy from being overtired, or making stupid mistakes, or just feeling frustrated, sometimes the best thing to do is to walk away, let it rest, and come back later. In our case we were under a deadline, so there wasn’t always time for that. I shared that we did get to a place though where we had to make a decision about what was most important – what we needed done so we could move in and use the space – versus what could wait until later. I struggled with that because on some levels it felt like failing. BUT, I also realized that taking a break meant that I would do it better, rather than feeling like I was throwing it together just to get it done.
Now that we’re in January and I’ve come back to the to-do list, it hasn’t felt as overwhelming. I did come into the year feeling like I was still under the gun and had to get back to work and get it all finished so I could get back to my admin work, and it was Chris that literally said, “You can do whatever you want. We pushed really hard last year, were here now, you got all the really important stuff done, step back and slow down.” It meant working on plywood for desks for a few weeks, but now we have a great office. No, we have an amazing office. It’s meant spending a couple days each week doing my admin job, and a few days each week plugging away on construction stuff.
A house is never really “done”.
Through the weeks leading up to moving in I kept feeling pressure to “get it done!” We went into this year and I kept looking at the list of stuff that wasn’t “done”. Yes, there are certain tasks that need to get finished so a space is functional, but does that mean the house is “done”? Nope!
Things are always in a state of “being done” in a house because you live in it. Living means things are constantly changing. It means things need to be maintained. It means things get changed to adapt to how you’re living life at any given moment.
When we moved into our last house it literally took me 3 years to get any kind of decor hung on the walls. Why? Because we live in concrete houses here and putting a nail in the wall felt so final. What if I changed my mind about where I wanted something hung???? Gah! Once I finally hung stuff up our house felt entirely different, so this time around I told myself I wasn’t going to put things off. I was going to hang the pictures!
And, the day I took down the Christmas tree I did.
And now I look at some of those things and think, “I already know I don’t love that. I know it’s going to change.” And I’ve talked with Chris about how my thought process has shifted with this place. Yes, putting a nail in a concrete wall does feel more permanent, and yes, when you take it out it leaves a chip and exposed concrete. But, like I told him, if there’s anyone in this entire country that should feel the least scared of putting holes in concrete walls, it should be ME. Because we have a room in our depot that holds 400 sacks of cement. And there’s always a pile of sand in the yard. If I ever decide that I don’t want a nail in a particular place, I can take it out, then walk 70 feet, and ask any of our 22 guys to mix up a cup of mortar in 2 minutes, fill my hole, slap some paint on it and call it done. It’s only taken me 10 years to put all that together…
There will always be something that needs attention in a house, so it’s never going to be in a state of being finished. Our tastes might change and we decide we want to repaint. Things leak and break and you have to fix them. You decide to move the furniture around or redecorate. There will always be little projects to do.
Sometimes you have to slow down.
This one has been rolling around in my head a lot, and it’s because it balances off my last point. While I’ve given myself permission to not wait three years to hang pictures, that can also mean that I might feel the urge to plow through certain things and then later regret the decision because I/we don’t love it. I really want our home to be a place that we feel comfortable in, a place that is inspiring, that welcomes other people, and is “us”. And that doesn’t happen overnight.
That process of making a home takes time. I could slap pictures up on the wall for the sake of putting something up, but sometimes it’s better to go slow. Sometimes I need to ask the rest of the family what’s important to them. Sometimes it takes time to live in a space and let it become what fits, not what we force into it. I’ve heard people say, “I needed to let the house tell me who it was” and thought it was crazy, I think because I didn’t have the space or the luxury of doing that. I’ve had so much fun picking out tile and pulling spaces together in a way that is a foundation of who we are, and as I start putting up pictures and things I want to build on that, not try to make something work because it’s what I have to fill space.
That doesn’t mean I’m tossing all the old stuff, totally the opposite. It means it might get moved to a different space than where it was in the old house. It might get a face lift, like a coat of paint, to freshen it up. And, maybe it means it’s time to pass it on because it just doesn’t work anymore. By going slow we can create a home that truly feels like a home to us, a place that we love to be.
There you have it! I’ve learned so much in the past few months, and really the past two years. I have so many other things that I’d love to share with you too, and am planning on doing that in the coming weeks. And yes, because we’re SO close to being done most of the stuff on the main floor, I’ll finally be sharing pictures with you. I’m actually really excited to do that because we love our new house and it’s been a fun process of bringing some great things together.
Have a great weekend!