Updated 6 July 2016:
I have just published a 750 page eBook that follows the challenges, frustrations and successes of building a house in Thailand from the very start of us buying the land through to moving in and beyond. You will be part of our building team for every day of construction and I will share many do’s and don’ts all designed to save you time, money, sleepless nights or all three. This book is a must have as part of your research on the subject of building in Thailand and you can find it HERE.
1 – 7 November 2014
This is the first of what will be weekly updates on building our house in Isaan. It is a long post as a lot has happened in our first week here to get the build underway.
For those of you who are new to the blog you can read about how we came to buy land in Si Bun Ruang in the north East of Thailand HERE. Just to give you some idea of the size of place we are building, to make sense of the costs I will share with you as we go along, it has a roof and matching concrete slab size of 260 m2 with an internal area of around 160 m2.
Day One – Saturday, had us starting working through the list I had prepared for a quick start on the building project. The builder himself, a guy called Ming, came over to make sure we were still good to go as we hadn’t signed anything at this point. The calendar was consulted to work out an auspicious day to start the build. Luckily the 6th had a full moon so we had a date to kick things off!
Later in the day a more detailed analysis was undertaken with the help of the local “spiritman” and the 16th came in a winner for the official blessing of the land and house to be. I thought the build would be delayed by two weeks but wasn’t too concerned as you have to relax into the Thai schedule of things otherwise you’d end up a frustrated and alcoholic farang! However it turns out that work can commence on the digging side of things, just not on the “building” aspect, that is things coming out of the ground. Phew. The 6th was still a go’er then.
I am lucky to get Ming, my builder, as this is his last building project before he retires to grow sugar. He’s 64 but looks 80. Probably a damn sight fitter than me though. He is actually a professional builder unlike many who will take on construction in-between harvests to earn some extra income.
With the start of the build happening in five days we needed to quickly organise water and power. Water in the village is provided by a community bore and pumped to houses via small blue pipes that sit almost on top of the ground at the side of the road. There is very little pressure and showers are a slow affair unless you have a pump.
I set up the family home with a 1,000 liter water storage tank and a pressure pump the last time we were here so that I could get a half decent hot shower when we moved in, which is at the start of the cool season. The idea of the tank is that the Moo Baan or village water slowly fills the tank and then the pump accesses this to provide pressured water to the house. You can’t connect a pump directly to the community feed otherwise you’d stop delivery to everyone downstream!
Now for someone like me used to pressured water at the turn of a tap this didn’t seem like an ideal situation. It certainly doesn’t work to if you want to water a garden where you’d use the 1,000 litres in no time.
The solution is to provide your own water supply via a bore or what the Thais call a water-down. My regular readers are used to me rambling off subject so……..Thais also call a waterfall water-down in their very sensible way of applying descriptive words where context is applied to make sense of them. If looking at a beautiful waterfall and you say – in Thai! – “that’s a beautiful water-down” you are obviously not referring to a bore! We English speakers complicate the things by applying a whole separate word to different aspects of the same thing.
Back to subject – are you still with me? Having a good water supply was especially important for us because we want to establish an extensive tropical garden, which will require watering in the long dry season here. Also I don’t see how you can build a house here based on the local water supply. Concrete is the central to the Thai building process and it is a thirsty bugger. So a bore was top of the list.
My sister-in-law Yuan called her bore digger contact and negotiated his normal 15,000 THB fee, which I thought was pretty reasonable, down to 13,000 THB because it was for her sister. No water no charge. He agreed to start the next day. Now in normal circumstances this may seem like a good outcome but the downside in a Thai environment is that nobody has warned the spirits on the land that someone was going to arrive and maybe drill through one of them.
Unfortunately due to the speed of the start of bore drilling a ceremony wasn’t possible pre-commencement. However luckily for us with Thai spirits evidently a “sorry” after the event is equally OK. Gaun’s mama and another elder were on-site early Monday morning to get the spirits back onside. This ceremony also covered off the digging for the footings that would happen shortly after so we got good value from the event.
The final thing we achieved on Saturday was the purchase on a sala or bamboo hut, which would eventually be located on the land under the two mango trees at the front as my “site office”! We had seen a good solid example of sala for sale on the way to Udon Thani, the closest major city to us, last time we were here. A return visit had us selecting a large sala 2 x 2 meters, big enough to hold small parties, and it was delivered that evening.
Day 2 – Sunday, the morning had us clearing the land ready for the build. I have to admit that a lot of the work was done by Gaun, who has incredible energy and can last in the heat far longer than I can. In the 12 months since we bought the land a lot of rubbish vegetation had taken it over especially with vigorous growth during the wet season. Very kindly Yuan and Lud, my sister and brother-in-laws, has got in there before we arrived with heavy duty cutters and taken it all down to ground level again. Now the dead growth needed to be collected up and burnt – there is no recycling of vegetation in Thailand that I have seen.
Just out of interest, as I alway report on the small things, it had rained the night before and everything was damp. Lighting the fires was done with a used motorbike inner tyre, which can be bought for 3 THB, and then cut up to act as a fire starter. Environmentally unfriendly but did the job.
In the afternoon the bore drilling equipment arrived on site and set up.
The first step was to locate the water in the general area that I had selected, which was right at the back of the land where our water tanks would eventually be located out of sight. A high-tech computer scanning device was put into action and the precise spot determined for the bore – or not!
The drilling system is really basic and requires constant human attention to make it work, which I will explain later. Firstly a small trench is dug to the side of the rig. The bore head uses water to lubricate and cool plus the residue from the drilling is pumped up to the surface keeping the hole clean. The water is provided from this trench and a constant supply is required for the system to work. Although what’s pumped down comes to the surface again in a constant cycle, water is lost in porous levels of the dig and a surprising amount is needed. This is a bit of a catch 22 situation as what you are looking for is water but need water to look for it!
The solution in this case was to truck it in using four plastic barrels on the back of a ute. The water is being sourced from the farm pond of one of Gaun’s nieces about a ten minute drive away.
We had ordered a 5 inch hole, which is bigger than the standard, once again dictated by our future gardening requirements more than what we need for house use. A smaller drill bit is used for the initial dig and then the larger bit widens the hole to the full size.
The drill rig is nothing more than a large diesel motor which turns the drill stuck on the back of a modified pick-up truck. In the photo above you can see the water exiting from the pipe, behind that light green bowl. This is being pumped up from the bottom of the bore and then flows back into the trench to be sent down again.
A couple of blue plastic pipes are added to the hole to prevent surface water, which is more likely to be contaminated, entering the bore. You can see this happening in the following photo:
The energy required to force the drill down is provided by that guy in the red top in the photo above, the son of the bore operator. There is a pulley system attached to the rachet he is using which applies pressure to the top of the drill and that’s what makes it work. No human input and the drill would just spin on the surface as there is no motor driven downward pressure. Backbreaking work especially when they hit rock.
Day 3 – Monday, the first task of the day was a thirty minute drive to the nearest larger town, a place called Nong Bua Lamphu, with a list of things to do. With the bore being dug I needed to have the submersible pump ready to be installed once we had the required water flow. I also wanted to arrange for broadband to be connected at the family home through TOT. Finally I also wanted to visit Thai Watsadu a large DIY building centre, the equivalent of a Bunnings or Masters in Australia, to get some information on windows and a order time for our kitchen.
I ended up choosing a DAB submersible pump on the recommendation of a local dealer. Right or wrong who knows. I am the eternal optimist and chose to pay for a supposedly quality product rather than the cheap Chinese alternative a lot of the locals use. Time will tell. Cost 13,800 THB or A$490.00.
While we were in Thai Watsadu the guy who was “drawing” our new plans phoned to confirm they were ready and we arranged to collect them early afternoon on our return to Si Bun Ruang. They ended up costing 7,000 THB.
Arriving back to the land the builder turned up and we were able to give him the updated plans to cost for the labour component. A demonstration of how lucky we are to have him then took place as he took the plans aside and then read them to understand the build and come back with a cost! Now this is a pretty unusual skill I believe in the rural Thai building “profession”. The deal is that he provides labour and I pay for all the materials, which is the best of both worlds.
Ming came back with a contract labour price of 381,800 THB or around A$13,500 to build the house to the specifications in the building plans. By Australian standards this is what you’d pay to contractors in the first month! I don’t know how it rates by Thai standards but it is an amount that falls within my budget so I agreed to it. I know there will be additional costs involved as we bring the house up to western standards. The two fluorescent tubes in each of the rooms shown in the plans aren’t quite my idea of mood lighting. The 40 double power points I want is around the number installed in the whole village 🙂 By the way Ming will instal a powerpoint for 150 THB or A$5.00. My 40 points is not a deal breaker!
Price agreed Apple, a niece of Gaun, was sent of one her motorbike to buy a standard building contract although this project is as much an agreement between Ming, who’s a local, and the family, who have jokingly told him of the consequences if he doesn’t deliver, than anything based in a legal document. However it does provide me some protection and sets out the payment schedule and a four month completion deadline.
Day 4 – Tuesday, if you remember from earlier in this post the two “infrastructure” requirements to start the build were water and power. Back into the working week we headed out early to the local electricity company office to arrange for temporary power to be provided to the site.
I am incredibly lucky to have the full support of Gaun’s family in this build. I am never required to battle translations or fill out Thai forms. I travel with a building support committee made up of Gaun, who translates to English, her younger sister Yuan, who is the negotiator and has the local business experience and often a niece called Apple, who is better with reading and filling out the paperwork.
For those of you thinking of building here one of the questions you need to be able to answer at this stage is the size of the meter for power to the house either 15/45 or 30/100 amp.
Now this was a question I hadn’t researched so was slightly thrown and went for the safe answer, which was bigger is better. Because this is a temporary installation at this time, obviously converting to a permanent one when the house is finished, you have to “buy” the meter box, or effectively put a deposit on it, for the duration of the build. For a 30/100 this was 10,000 THB with an additional non-refundable 605 THB. I think the 15/45 was a 6,000 deposit. Return the meter undamaged at the end and you get your 10,000 back, or maybe a credit on your account. Installing a meter for the permanent connection is not charged out. I think the unit rate is higher for a temporary connection and presume this is why the meter is changed at the end, but could be wrong about that. I will advise when I know.
The actual installation is done by a separate contractor and he turned up that evening to have a look at the site and give us a quote. He recommended we end up wit a 15/45 which he said was ample for what we needed. Another thing you should know is that you have to pay for and provide the electrical cable from meter to site as well as the power breaker. It’s not provided by PEA. In our case we needed 140 meters of cable, which ended up costing 7,400 THB, the breaker 580 THB and the installation cost 1,700 THB.
The other activity on site was that three old and dying mango trees were being removed by my two brother-in-laws, Lud and Tham, as the trees were beyond their use-by date and were too close to the house. One of them was designated to become a temporary power pole and the other two were to be cut down.
Day 5 – Wednesday, In the morning the electrical contractor turned up with two others and connected up the power. The cables now run from the meter and pole on the opposite side of the road to the land, across the road to a tree and then onto the land finishing up at the old mango tree trunk.
The installation has since been improved to make it waterproof:
Ming had previously ordered a truckload of sand and another of gravel and these were delivered from Nong Khai, on the Mekong River, in the morning. This was a three hour drive for the truck but Ming had used them before and felt that they were better value than buying locally, who probably sourced it from the same place. My house is being built with sand dredged from the Mekong River. How extraordinary!
The reason we are having these deliveries is that Ming wants to make the concrete for the columns and footings himself to ensure the quality. I have to diverge briefly and explain how Thai build houses, which is quite different from in Australia and elsewhere I suspect. A picture is worth a lot of writing so I will start with this one:
The columns, which are bear the weight of the roof, go in first and then the footings, the beam structures you see joining the columns together above. These are built on the surface wherever there will be walls to provide additional strength. The space in between the beams are then filled with earth and this is compacted. The slab, which is reinforced, only then needs to be 10 cm thick laid on the beams and compacted earth, thereby saving on concrete. The roof is then added, although they are working to a slightly different sequence in the photo.
The end structure then has the slab sitting raised on the surface, which gives you some protection from the huge quantities of water the sky drops on the place from time to time. The walls, which aren’t load bearing, happen after the roof. In such a wet and hot country I guess this sequence makes sense.
Minimal timber is used because it is expensive and termites are a huge problem here something I will overcome with a built-in anti-termite system under the floor.
The end of the day had our new DAB pump fitted to the bore to check its capacity to deliver water. They had only got down around 28 meters of an estimated 40 and were being beaten by the quantity of water the bore was consuming in being constructed. They could only drill for a short while before having to refill the tanks from the pond a round trip of around 45 minutes. The drill rig was sitting idle more than working.
The test of a successful drill for this guy anyway is to have the bore deliver water continuously for three hours. Unfortunately we failed this criteria as the pump kept running out of water to pump although when pumping it was an excellent result. Without any questions the guy offered to move location and start a new dig on the other side of the land at no additional cost. The good news for him was that the first bore was producing enough water to support the drilling of the second bore. No more time consuming trips to the pond. This photo taken on Friday shows the end set-up:
Day 6 – Thursday, In another example of the incredible support I am receiving from Gaun’s family Yurt, her older sister who Gaun calls sister number 2, works for a Chinese/Thai family who own a building supply business in Udon Thani, a small city about an hour’s drive from us. She has arranged for us to get whatever building materials they can provide at family rates. As an example one of the items on the final invoice was 30% cheaper than if I had bought it elsewhere.
Ming had already worked out a list of the steel we needed for the whole build based on the plans covering our 13 concrete columns, the slab reinforcement and roof trusses. it doesn’t include the Colorbond sheeting for the roof itself. So Gaun, Yuan, Ming and I headed off to Udon to place the order.
Having Ming with us made the whole thing easy because there was a lot of technical discussion in particular about the roof construction, which Gaun had trouble following in Thai let alone me had I been on my own. I am full of awe for those farang who do this whole process on their own without a good grasp of the language. It would be a daunting task.
The final cost for all steel plus things like welding rods, nails, anti-rust paint and steel cutting disks came to 133,110 THB or A$4,700. An initial delivery to be made the next day with the balance on the Monday.
Day 7 – Friday, Our first task of the day was to finalise the location of the house with Ming. He had previously set out an initial position but we wanted it moved a meter away from one of the boundaries. This agreed Ming was straight into laying everything out so that they could start on the groundworks doing it all very professionally with string lines and squaring it all up.
By early afternoon a team of three guys were working away digging the holes.
While this was happening Lud, Ming and another worker were building the site hut. This is a construction made out of tree branches, old timber and rusting iron sheeting. It will initially be used for the 50 bags on cement I am buying on Monday but then will become a general storage place plus a shelter from the rain and sun for the site workers.
The final event for the afternoon was the arrival of our first batch of steel.
If you have lasted this far – well done. I have to say that having lived plans and reading everything I could find on building in Thailand to actually see things start to happen so quickly and for real is all a bit dreamlike. I am still adjusting to the fact that I am building a home in a small rural town in Thailand. Two years ago I was a public servant in Canberra trying to decide what I was to do with my life after the separation from my wife.
It is a strange world and I would like to think the best is yet to come. If it’s anything like the last year here my chances on achieving that goal are pretty good.
If you have any questions about the process you read about you can find me on firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment below. I am learning as I go along but will try to help out as much as possible within the scope of my own experience.
* Note that 10,000 for the meter box is refundable at the end of the build. Costs Week 1 = A$10,800
Thanks for reading.