The Blind Builder Guy…

When I lost my sight, in June of 2014, I was a very sick chap. The virus that attacked me after my scooter trip through Africa had not only destroyed the light reflecting cells on my retinas, but had also messed up my body and its immune system. I was weak, and by the time I was discharged from the Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town, I had lost over 30 kilograms. I spent a couple months bouncing from my bed to a wheel chair. For the best part of six months I could not bath myself and standing up in the shower was so disorienting that it was impossible. I even struggled to wipe my own arse after having a crap. It was a tough and painful time. Friends deserted me and all that I had was the sound of my struggled breaths and coughs to break the monotony of my solitary confinement. I spent many hours afraid to close my eyes for fear that they would never open again.

The second six months were my time of getting strong again. I slowly learned to navigate my way around our home and through much frustration and difficulty, how to use a laptop with a screen reader talking to me. I started to go outdoors again and even managed a walk on the beach with my good wife guiding my bare feet around jagged mussel shells and rocks that were forever finding the bottom of my soles.

My folks came to stay with us as a way of assisting me. My father was away at work all day, as was my partner. My mother was left there to help me during the long days.

After a year of living blind I was strong again. I picked up all the weight I had lost, as well as a few extra pounds of spare weight around the belly. Every day I figured out new ways to do things on my own.

After a year and a half, I was well. Not only was I cooking most of the food by myself, I was also navigating my way around alone. It was then that my wife and I decided to look at building a small cottage in the corner of our property so that my folks could move into their own space. We longed for the solitude of having our home to ourselves again and were certain that my parents would be much more comfortable in their own space. Luckily we had some extra funds available that we had paid early into our home bond. We called an architect in and before long had the ball rolling.

The builder’s quotations shocked us. They were not only expensive and way beyond our budget, but they were so varied and confusing. It took us a few months to get the plans approved by the local municipality.  Even though the architect turned out to be a total incompetent idiot, we eventually had the council’s go ahead.  We had also found a building project manager who we were prepared to work with.

Our mortgage company had made the funds available and we were ready to go – then the builder disappeared. This was so strange to us as we had not paid him anything as yet and he simply stopped replying to emails and answering calls. Perhaps he got cold feet? Perhaps he realised that he had bitten off more than he could chew? I was very confused by this and sat wondering where to go from here. Back to the drawing board was our only option.

I posted a request on a local neighbourhood Facebook page asking everyone if they had any recommendations for a contractor. I waited.

Minutes later builders started to approach us. People with crazy prices and some that just did not look the part. Everyone tried to convince us that they were the best to take on this job and all were ready to jump right in. Somehow nobody we met convinced me. Here I was, a blind man, who was a little OCD at the best of times. I needed a person who was prepared to slow down and explain things to me in a way that I could understand. I needed a person who understood that we were looking at building on a tight budget and would only be prepared to participate in a project with someone that could make us, well, me, comfortable. And most of all needed someone that when meeting us, spoke to both of us and not only to my wife – as if the blind man wasn’t even in the room. Then we were approached by an unlikely fellow who wanted to come and talk to us. I called him up and he said he could be with us in ten minutes. Ok, I thought. Lets meet this guy and see what he was proposing.

A short while later we were sitting chatting to a guy who specialised in modern and alternative building methods. Walls made out of sand bags and roofs made with old car tyres. Floating bag floors and all sorts of eco methods that sounded impressive. They also sounded expensive. Walls using building blocks that were similar to Lego bricks that children assembled in minutes and all sorts of ingenious techniques of plastering the walls. CreteStone, solar heating systems, LED lights and grey water tanks all sounded very good. When our enthusiastic new fellow spoke about all this stuff he sounded like a child with a bag of sweets in him as well as 2 litres of Coke who had eaten a mountain of candy floss in a few gulps. He was excited and so were we. Then it came to figures. Ouch.

For our small 46 square meter little garden flatlet the eco, modern, alternative method of building would not be cost effective in its full capacity. We needed to rethink.

Our new friend sat with us and together we came up with a plan. I would manage the building project myself and as he had some projects in a distant town keeping just some of his workers busy, he could lend me a guy or two to get the first stages going. What was he offering and what did he want in return? He was offering to come by a couple times a week and be my eyes. Luckily he lives close by and was able to do this. What did he want for his services? Well, a case of Jack Daniels whiskey would do. Deal.

The following week I started. My chap came by and brought one of his workers and together we marked out the foundations. I collected a couple casual labourers and we started to dig trenches. A couple days later and sand was piled up high all over the place. We had trenches in the ground and they were ready to be inspected by the municipal building inspector. He would check the trenches before concrete footers were cast. He would check and approve the sewage lines. He would check the roof was correct before ceilings are installed. Finally he would come and sign off that the place was complete and fit for occupation. This suited me fine. Another set of eyes would be appreciated. Someone to make sure all was going right.

I spent hours calling around for sand and stone suppliers. I visited hardware stores with my wife every weekend and purchased items as we needed them. I juggled between dealing with brick yards and tool hire companies. I made sure that we always got the best deal on everything. It is amazing how different the charge for hiring a concrete mixer can be from places all offering the exact same item and even from places located right next door to each other.

After one week the trenches were ready to be filled with concrete. The steel support rods are suspended in the holes. The sand, cement and stone was on site, a concrete mixer was hired and the inspector had given his vertical head bob indicating go. The footer was cast and we were moving along nicely.

Labour is one of the most expensive parts of a building project. I had between 4 and 8 guys on site on a daily basis. The portable toilet I had hired worked over time. I will just add here that when the truck came by every week to empty it, everyone took cover. The air was filled with the most vile smells emitted from the suction pipes. I was often found falling over myself as I scrambled to shut all the house windows as soon as I heard the pump kick into action. This type of truck is lovingly known, by those who work onboard it, as the Honey Sucker. I cannot imagine a more unpleasant employment opportunity. They did assure me that after a couple days on the job, they no longer smelled the shit. Not for me thanks. I was just happy to pay and have someone out there doing the dirty work. I feel like such a privileged ass when I think about it though. I guess someone has to do it. I just hope the fellows are paid well.

Ok, back to the building. So, when you build a new dwelling you first cast a footer. This is about 750mm wide and 250mm thick. You then build your double course of bricks on top of this. The first bricks that lead you up to the buildings floor level, or plinth height, is slow. Each row of bricks gets a steel wire support grid placed into the mortar between the bricks. This is called brick force and keeps the bricks strong and crack free. Concrete is also cast between the two rows of bricks up to the plinth height to make sure that the foundations are strong. Once the plinth height is reached, the trenches are back filled and the main floor area can be filled in with old rubble or filling sand.

Our little flatlet was pretty far from the sewer mains. We therefore had to build up a lot to allow for a gradient so the poop could wash down the pipes that led all the way to the street side sewer outlet. The sewage trenches were almost two meters deep by the time they followed an angle and made it to the manhole that was twenty something meters away from the new building. This proved to be a massive task. Our ground is luckily clay free, but rocks called ‘koffieklip’ blocked our way for more than half the dig. Much swearing and many hours of manpower and the building inspector finally gave that box on his forms a tick.

Next thing was to get the walls up. Our bricks were made of concrete. They came from a yard that manufactured them using rubble from some old silo towers that were recycled from an old local power station. About 5 years earlier we had watched the city authorities demolish these towers – together with most of Cape Town community. It made an interesting afternoon out and a cool stop off during our monthly scooter ride. Yes, I was riding a scooter. Before I become ‘The Blind Scooter Guy’,  I was just ‘Chris The Scooter Guy’.

It was nice to think that at least some of the building was going up using some sort of recycled product. We used 8000 bricks for the build. They are called maxis and are the same as normal bricks, just a little taller. They each have 3 holes on top to allow the cement to bite on well. There is a cavity of air that is about an inch between the two courses of bricks, left behind as a form of insulation. I was learning so much as I figured this all out and chose what was best.

The walls went up over a couple weeks and although a few different brick layers had to be hired, fired and sworn at for building skew walls, the grey bricks started to reach for the skies.

Back fill was a problem and this was something that really shocked me. We used a total of about 40 cubic meters of rubble to get the massive cavity filled in. Then one 6 cubic meter truck of sand and two days of rumble from a diesel compactor. Then more steel laid out on top of bags filled with a dry mortar mix. They then got a light compacting before water was hosed over the bags so they could set. This new building technique was interesting and although costly as well as labour intensive, I could at least do it myself without the need of specialised assistance. My Jack Daniels chap was anyway coming by and saying yes, yes, yes, all is ok every few days. His favourite term was actually, cool bananas. I assume and hope that meant that all was right.

The floor was then cast on top of the bags. This is called screeding and gets everything up to floor level and ready to tile.

Walls were up, floor was in and windows were set. These are made of meranti timber frames glazed with 3.5 mm glass that came later.

After some shopping around, the timber roof beams were delivered. The roof is a single pitch with a small six degree angle to the front of the building. We built right on the neighbouring boundary wall, so could not over hang the roof to the rear. The sides and back are finished off with something called barge boards.  The roof sheeting is called zinc alum and apparently carries a 35 year guarantee. So, lets hope.

The rafter beams are massive heavy timber struts that overlap to the front of the cottage by a half a meter of so. Then smaller timber runs perpendicular to the rafters. To these purloins, the roof sheets are attached with stainless steel self tapping screws. The rafters are attached to the walls with something called hoop iron and at each join between the purloin and rafter, there are two little steel brackets called hurricane clips. A left and a right one. This should keep the wind from ever being an issue. The cape doctor is known for blowing pretty hard down here in the mother city. I wanted to make sure the roof would be more than strong enough.

The roof sheets are also industrial ones that are thicker than their domestic counterparts. These are normally used on commercial buildings like shopping malls and big warehouses, so should be strong. After all the little extra cash spent here was worth it for me. I did not want to compromise on the roof and made sure that I would not have to be up there in a couple years fixing leaks. The roofing carpenter that helped me for the first part of the job was a donkey who obviously had a different idea to me as to what was acceptable as a level of standards. He was replaced with someone who could listen and follow instructions better. To finish the roof off we lined it with a nice rhino board ceiling and packed the cavity with an isotherm insulation that is 130 mm thick… the normal is 40 mm to 80 mm at best. Again, making sure that it was an overkill.

The last thing that happened was for the floor and bathroom walls to be tiled. This was a job for a contractor. The chap that quoted and got the job was a Zimbabwean guy who came recommended again from the neighbourhood Facebook page. His name was Shepard and yes, he started preaching to me from the moment he arrived. Would he really be able to ask the god he believed in, through prayer, to heal my eyes? I have had this happen to me a few times since loosing my sight and have learned to just smile and say nothing. Perhaps it gives people like him some comfort to believe what they do. For me, I don’t think so. Being an atheist, who only believes in science, I wished he rather knew a good doctor who would come up with a breakthrough in medical advancements. I bit my tongue and kept my thoughts private. He was a good tiler after all.

Only 8 weeks after breaking ground with the first swings from the pick  axes and working of the spades, here we are with a shell completed. Walls are now painted and the place looks good, or so I am told. Next step is for the carpenter to come and hang the front door. Then it is kitchen and bedroom cupboards followed by some wall tiles on the kitchen walls. More preaching I see a coming no doubt. Then blinds go up as well as some security bars and I can call the building inspector in once more. He needs to come and make a final inspection to ensure the place is habitable. He will need electrical and plumbing compliance certificates, all the erf plans showing the new sewage line route, something called fenestration calculations, whatever that is, and then, hopefully, all will be signed off.

Lastly I will get to have the pleasure of a couple workers here again to help me move some furniture in. A bed, fridge, sofa and cabinet, etc. then, I get to evict my folks from my home so that the house can once again belong to my patient wife and myself.

If all goes well, by August at the latest, we will have a spare room in our place again. Soon friends and family from afar can come visit us without having to sleep in a tent in the garden. Yes, this has been the only option of late.

I will leave you with a funny story about at least ten people who have arrived here to either quote or work over the last couple months. Generally, I would have spoken over the phone to these people and or emailed them a few times before they came here. They would arrive and be greeted by me at the gate just for them to tell me that I had not sounded like a blind guy on the phone. Really??? The first time it happened it was funny, then it became somewhat ironic.

After folks got to know me and realised that, yes, a blind guy can manage a building project, they would ply me with questions. What happened to cause your sight loss? How long have you been blind? Do people try take advantage of your inability to check things properly? The answer is yes, by the way. At the end of it all they learned to be patient with me, to explain things properly and most importantly to not stand or leave things in my way. Blind builder coming through…

#Blind #Accessible #ChaosConstruction #BlindScooterGuy

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