Utilities, futilities and best-laid plans

May 03, 2007, Thursday/ 18:43:00
The joy of building one’s own home is above all that you have a blank slate on which to design your custom-made living space.

As our new house in Turkey’s southern mountains took shape, I felt that I was moving beyond my problems renovating old buildings in the past. This time, I told myself, I would not have to struggle with the apparently irrational decisions and cheapskate shortcuts of a house’s previous owners.

But as my wife Jessica and I finished the roof and moved on to planning the guts of our newly constructed building frame -- plumbing, electrical wiring, heating -- we realized with a shock that we were not truly free. In fact we became locked in a series of struggles to work round all our own mistakes.

Installing our utilities started smoothly enough. A recommendation from our neighbors brought us a shiny solar water heating system, installed faultlessly while we weren’t even there. To shore up its discrete position on the hill behind the house, all we had to add was concrete feet.

Heating for the winter, we had originally imagined, would come from a magnificent fireplace. I was particularly taken by the idea of copying one like an Aztec temple built by Diego Rivera for his lover Frida Kahlo, an artist whose house in Mexico City we had visited during a break from construction. But financial and mental exhaustion -- along with the lucky find of a good cast-iron stove from Konya at a fifth of the cost of fancy French ones -- made us postpone this ambitious project.

Another reason to delay a fireplace was our suspicion that local bricklayers did not do Aztec. Even our simple chimney was too much. We had drawn one of the pyramid-topped brick affairs we liked on a nearby Ottoman and told the bricklayer to get on with it. By the time I next got round to look from the side of the house, however, I saw our fairy chimney was bending over forward. I ordered the bricklayer take it all down before the cement dried and to start again. The chimney seemed to be straight second time round, so I let him go home.

Coming back up from my first argument with Nazlı the water pump the next morning, I then saw the chimney from the front. It was leaning slightly to the left and was clearly a couple of feet too short. Never mind. I persuaded myself that a crooked chimney looks cute, and sets our house apart from the boring mass-produced villas elsewhere on the coast.

But electricity and plumbing are vital for a comfortable life, and here all our rebellions against fate turned out to be futile.

First in were the plumbers. I had met an efficient-looking young man in the nearby town of Kumluca and gave him the job. We bought everything we needed from the suppliers, intelligently and straight-forwardly.

“You’ll do everything with the septic tank, right?”

“Yes, of course,” he said.

“You won’t put any of the pipes under the floor, right?”

“Yes, of course,” he said.

At last, we were in the hands of a professional. We went round the house with the plans, finalizing the height of basins and shower taps. I happily left for the beach. By the time I returned, he and his team of young teenagers had nearly finished.

“What about the septic tank connection?”

“Oh, we never do that.”

“And hey! All the pipes are going straight across the kitchen floor! When the tiles are in, we’ll never be able to fix them if they leak!”

“We always do it that way.”

That was that. As usual, the plumber’s over-buying had left us with a sack of useless joints and great lengths of pipe that we didn’t need. We had also forgotten Jessica’s pet plan to separate exit pipes for gray water from the real sewage. I could have ordered him to start again, but, furious at my own foolish loss of critical faculties, I never wanted to see the untouchable dismissiveness of his face again. I paid him off, barely looking at him. Let whoever lives here after me curse me, I thought.

As for the septic tank, we bought a whole book on the subject from America to properly design it and its leach field. Alas, our first two massive tanks turned out to be set in almost waterproof clay. The volume of gray shower water overwhelmed its absorptive capacity and for a while blessed us with a fetid, mosquito-breeding pond. We had to dig an even bigger third tank 30 meters farther away from the house and line it with stone walls. It too could barely cope. In the end we planted a thirsty plane tree next to it, and tried not to think about it any more.

Electricity was next. This time we weren’t going to be bamboozled. For days we went from room to room, planning a good mix of wall and roof lights, choosing which doors needed switches and arguing about where bedside reading lamps should go. Everything was much easier to visualize now that we could see the real dimensions of the place. The electricians proved to be some of the best workers we were to get, and when they arrived I began to explain our ideas.

“Hmm. Let’s have a look,” said the chief, who had meticulously learned his trade during decades on German construction sites. “Well, we can join some switches together if you like. But most of this stuff, no, no way. It’s not in the official plans. If we don’t follow them, you’ll get no occupancy permit.”

Another assumption was blown apart. We had granted the official wiring plan a bare half-hour of attention during our panicky rush to get our overall building permit approved. So we were forced to look on unhappily as our dream house was duly fitted with a nightmare patchwork of switches and light placements that had never made much sense. Not for the first or last time, I saw the wisdom of the usual tactic in Turkey of building your house illegally first and taking the quicker, smoother and less expensive route of getting official authorization later.

It was time to put in the windows, and, I insisted to Jessica, the doors as well. I wanted to get the building closed up, quickly. And here, for once, our tendency to research every possible option gave us a lucky break. Unfortunately, our eventual choice was also to make things much easier for the perpetrators of our first break-in.

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