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A Home In Khon Kaen Part 1

  • Written by Rahiri
  • January 18th, 2008
  • 10 min read



"So how long do you plan to keep working in the bar?" I asked the sweet lady I met after my disastrous obsession with Dtoy had finally ended last January. N was unusual in that she had begun working in the bar when 39 years old, after she finally spat the dummy with her long standing ex. They had run a recycling business together for some years n Bangkok, hard, dirty graft, but capable of returning up to 25,000 baht a month, and she could have had a house already like her sisters, but while N worked hard both in the business and caring for their two children her ex was squandering the returns on booze and other women.

"Just until I can finish my house", N replied. "Oh, you have a house? Where?"

"Near Khon Kaen, but cannot live in it yet, not finish".

"How long do you think it will take to finish?

"I don’t know, darling. Maybe one more year…"

Back then I had no intention of getting involved or making any handouts…but I was enjoying my time with N who was proving to be totally without guile. I won’t describe how it happened but by March I loved my now 40 year old late to the scene bar lady. I was almost too late…she had actually left the bar after a motorcycle accident to live with a Pattaya resident Englishman, but I knew she didn’t love him and I took her away. So here I was on the all night bus from Bangkok arriving in her village at 4 AM to a host of barking dogs. Greetings were perfunctory then, and it was quickly to bed in the upstairs portion of her sister’s shell home just down from her father’s house, where her daughter lived.

This is a story about the house…but from the outset let me say for the record that my welcome was warm, friendly and unfeigned from all her family and to this day they have never asked me for anything, but at the end of my first stay her father presented me with a small gift – a new cloth which the men use as a sarong and towel and even sometimes as headgear…and I was touched.

Next morning it was off to see the house. I did not have the foresight then to take photos so a description must suffice. Down a dirt road in farmland outside the village, where her father had subdivided his customary rights farmland into blocks for each of his children (N’s mother by the way had long passed away, her father, already 75).

The earth had been raised slightly for the building site using a tractor and a blade, but was clearly uncompacted – there was no real means to do this in the village. Her brother, a one-eyed rice farmer doubled as a local builder – his equipment poor and his methods worse, but a hardworking and well-intentioned soul I have come to love like my own brother – even if I could sometimes kill him! The house was approximately 12 metres long and 6 metres wide with post, block and render construction. Concrete posts (of fairly dubious construction (I have broken one of their smaller ones by standing on it accidentally), manufactured locally from varying mixes of cement and reinforcing steel no thicker than what New Zealanders would recognise as number 8 wire) are concreted at 3 metre intervals into the ground. The concrete blocks are not what we would recognise in New Zealand, i.e. not substantial blocks about 8 inches thick and a foot long with the concrete each side a full two inches and the four inch gap in the middle filled during construction with concrete and steel, but rather fragile affairs not quite 4 inches thick with the concrete around about 1 inch and the hole in the middle almost 2 inches…almost certainly not filled. No steel is used in the walls except to tie the posts at the corners to the first block in the wall using the No 8 wire grade steel ties extruding from the posts. Basically the blocks are mortared together with a runny mix of mortar (Thai builders everywhere seem to like runny concrete and mortar as it is easier to work with – they have no understanding of how excess water weakens it and seldom use plasticiser which would provide workability without compromising strength}. The blocks are then plastered.

Of course I knew none of this then…I just looked out on a 12×6 metre concrete construction on the raised mound and thought…"Hmmn, I can do something with this for N". Fools rush in…

The roof was constructed from colour steel supported by a simple and minimal set of timber roof trusses. These are made from locally available timber (probably illegally logged Burmese rainforest!) cut green, dried fast, twisted and already infested with insects…I could see the holes…and I should have addressed THAT immediately but it remains a more difficult job now yet to do. When I say "trusses" I don’t mean the dense braced and gang nailed affairs we are used to in NZ, but a simple triangle at every 3 metre apart row of posts with a centre post for each row. This is held together at the top by the light purloins to which the roof is nailed, but diagonal bracing was completely absent. If I had got to it before the roof was on I would have used steel but…

A concrete floor had been poured…it looked fine, but I have since discovered is of variable depth on uncompacted ground, using local readimix which was far too wet and not properly agitated or vibrated when poured so there are too many air pockets which reveal themselves when the ants break through from underneath… No drainwork had been laid before the concrete was poured…not surprising since the typical bathroom in the village was an outhouse with only the toilet running into a drain – bathing water just ran out though a hole in the wall onto the ground outside…

(Here are photos of what was to be my frequent accommodation during the long period of work on N’s house and my bathroom.) These scenes will be familiar to most countryside visitors.

The colour steel roof was a patchwork of two different blues. "Why is your roof two different colours?" I asked N.

"They bring like that" was her answer. Apparently it never occurred to anyone to send the offending batch back and get the right colour, nor to use the different shade all in one block… My first glimpse of typical Thai builder aesthetics and attention to detail.

The roof had been nailed to the purloins – I mentioned the lack of bracing…the nails were only 2 inches and ordinary steel, not galvanised, with a colour steel cap but no washer. I later found the colour steel used for the roof was barely thicker than cooking foil, and the colour coating of poor quality. I expect the roof will have to be replaced in about three or four years at which time, money permitting, I will also replace the timber trusses with steel and replace the colour steel with colour coated concrete tiles. But I digress.

Inside the house two bedrooms were partially constructed – the same block and render between the posts method as used for the exterior walls. Unfortunately this meant the rooms were only 3 metres by 3 metres – too small for a King size bed and bedside cabinets. The doors were pygmy sized – 1.8 metres high and were also to prove a problem.

A magnificently carved wood double front door graced the entrance – unfortunately the timber was poor quality, infested with insects, daylight was visible through some of the joins, it had been stained and varnished – but not sanded first. The re was no proper shimmied door frame, rather the timber that made the hole in the concrete block wall was roughly rebated. Unfortunately this was not straight, and the doors were ill-fitting and misaligned.

Louvre windows had been installed at every three metre interval along the sides of the house and one also at the front on the right hand side (the door on the left). These also proved of dubious quality – the aluminium retaining the louvres was beer can strength and the gaps left when the windows closed were wide enough for armies of grasshoppers to march through! Again I was not to understand this problem until well into the project.

"I can do something with this". Such bold thoughts from someone who failed 3rd form woodwork and whose previous construction experience was limited to retaining walls, fences and a garage…although the methods I used were probably far advanced from the local Thai ones, of which then, I knew nothing..

I was impressed by N’s thrift in financing the work so far – about 140,000 baht while supporting her children. What did she intend for the house next?

"I want to make bathroom at the back and somewhere to sit out the front." In fact plans for a lean-to construction at the rear were already advanced somewhat, as also for a high ceiling front verandah. It remained for me to make an input.

I went back to Australia drew a plan and presented it to N on my return. I had nothing to offer regarding the front verandah. At the rear however I designed a 6 metre square lean-to extension. The existing back door would be removed and an arch constructed leading from the dining area in the main part of the house to a rear entrance hall. To the left would be a 3 metre by 2 metre wide bathroom and to the right a 3 metre by 3 metre western style kitchen. The back door would lead to an external verandah which would house a laundry to the left and outside kitchen and dining area to the right.

I was determined that the drain pipes should be laid before the floor was poured and that there would be a proper septic tank system (no reticulated sewage available). This would prove difficult. I designed the drains with a proper system of vents and with the main line along the side of the house for ease of access if there was a problem. But when we visited the local hardware shop in Khon Kaen I was informed the largest septic tank available was 2,000 litres. "What!? Only 2,000 litres. The Australasian standard is 10,000 litres, I protested". The hardware shop man didn’t blink. Eventually I realised that part of the reason why a tank in Thailand is so tiny is that ONLY the toilet is run into it. Grey water typically just runs onto the ground. (I later discovered too late that 3,000 litre tanks WERE also available.)

Oh well. I was going to run the bathroom and kitchen waste into the system also, but not the laundry (more about that later!) So I purchased a 2,000 litre tank and a 1,000 litre tank with the intention of running the big tank into the small tank and then into a 20 square metre drainage field. If I had been smart, I would have kept the black water and grey water separate…it would have been possible to aerate the grey water after septic treatment and use it for the garden – but we are all brilliant with hindsight! I also purchased all the necessary drain pipes, a small grease trap to remove kitchen grease before draining, and left a detailed plan showing how to run the pipes, distancing the septic tanks 8 metres from the rear of the house with a four metre run from the second tank to the drainage field.

Yes, everyone was sure they understood exactly what was required…it was a bit different but I was in good hands. I flew home to my new job in New Zealand brimming with optimism and contentment for what I was about to accomplish for dear N.

Next episode will have photos so you can picture more clearly…

Stickman's thoughts:

I am very interested to see how this project goes because, with all due respect, from the photos we're not talking about The Ritz here!