From my late teens I always wanted to build my own house and do it just the way that I wanted. Emigrating to Brasil in early 2001 to be with my wife at the time provided that opportunity when we decided to swap the horribleness of Sao Paulo and 14 million people for a small holding where we wanted to establish a place that represented us and the lifestyle we wanted.
There is a sense of freedom here in Brazil with regards construction that would be impossible in the UK. Outside of Sao Paulo state and outside of major cities in other states there are very few if any regulations. Now on the one hand it means that individuals have to take a certain amount of responsibility. For example where we decided to build our chalet it is only 10 meters from the stream making a septic tank inappropriate so we settled for trying a composting toilet. Having tried it, we don’t like having it in the house (smelly at times and difficult to control flies) so, when we have the time we will build a composting toilet block close by in the woods.
I had about 4 months to think about the chalet design, playing with sketches on bits of paper measuring things out in our rented house to get an idea of for example how much space you need for a shower, placement of stairs so that you don’t hit your head and so on. Eventually I had about 4 scale drawings on A4 paper, and this is basically what we used – adapting as we went along. We had decided to build in a cleared area in the wood which had already been levelled ready for a house sometime in the past.
For building in general, we wanted to build in different styles and materials. So, the chalet is mostly wood which feels great for us. For the guest house we let the builders follow the local design which although initially fast and seemingly cheap as it uses large breeze blocks later on it costs an arm and a leg to finish the walls nicely which came as a bit of a shock when we compared the total cost with the chalet. Having experienced this we then built our separate kitchen and conservatory with the walls made of natural bricks which required no cement / plaster finishing.
Before starting the Chalet we built a basic tool store to keep our tools and sacks of cement locked away from the local thieves. We made the Chalet as natural as possible, using bricks for the walls rather than concrete blocks which are energy costly. I would have preferred to use ceramic tiles for the roof but it was easier to use fibre boards and also we found that the local builders had not a clue about how to build a chalet and so I had to figure out how to do everything before the rainy season started and fibre boards seemed as if they would be an easier and quicker option.
We started in June, we always employed 2 helpers or builders but all of the time I worked every day and my partner worked most days so between us we probably did about 70% of the work overall. As neither of us had any experience of building then it was very helpful to have lets say semi-professionals there to work with us.
In the future if we had stayed we wanted to get back to working more with wood to make tree houses, cabins, gazebos, tree platforms and lots more. Acting as site foreman / manager in a second language especially when your not good with languages was interesting. There were some surreal times for example when I was explaining how we were going to install wooden stairs to reach the second floor but unfortunately I was using the word for escalator rather than stairs which had the builders wondering if the crazy foreigner had finally really flipped.
Overall building a house in Brazil was an experience. It was a combination of satisfaction balanced by exhaustion and frustration. The place where we bought the land was difficult in terms of finding people that would take responsibility and treat us right without trying to rip us off. We had to watch ever penny and every deal, we sacked three sets of builders over a 6 month period for various reasons. The culture is very laid back and no one takes responsibility. When we ordered the wood for the A frames it was going to take 10 days to get the wood; it took two months. This coincided with two sets of builders being sacked which delayed construction enough that this delay made no difference. The electricity company said that it would take 2 weeks to push the power lines to our land maximum 4 weeks; we waited 7. You spend a lot of time running around chasing bureaucrats who only exist to try and make themselves seem important. The office where we had to register the land had one belligerent official who obviously had something against foreigners and tried every trick in the book to prevent us from registering the land. In the end we had to get a lawyer and have the Brazilian land management department fax him the regulations before he would move (only possible because we were friendly with another lawyer who had connections in that department). You go to an office ask them exactly what documents you need to do such and such, you spend a week tracking these down, then you take a day out to present these documents to the original place to be told that you have bought the wrong ones and that we must now go get these, and these . . . . from the same official that told you the wrong things in the first place.
To read about us building our chalet then go here;
To read about us building the guest house and kitchen then go here;