Frank Witteman is a retired Dutch geologist living in the northern Philippines with his Filipina wife, Lita. They met in Kuala Lumpur in 2001, were married in Bangued, the provincial capital of Abra in 2004, and in 2008 commenced the construction of a beautiful one-and-a-half-story rural homestead that is nearly 500 square meters in floor area in the nearby locality of San Juan. Frank built his house with no architect, used engineers only for the roofing, had no building foreman, and did it all for under 10 million Philippine pesos (a little under US$200,000) using family labor and local rice farmers. His budget included water wells and a 21 KVA generator. Nearly all of his materials were sourced locally including stones from the nearby Abra River and hardwood from the nearby mountains. This is his story:
It all started in 2006 when Lita’s uncle put 30 acres of (bamboo) land up for sale far below the market price, in San Juan, next to Lita’s family farm; the price for bamboo was way down at that time. We bought the land, which was on a hill, and Lita with her family cut the bamboo, cleared the roots and started planting (grafted) mango and other fruit trees in the two years when I was still working abroad.
Later we bought another 10 acres of rice fields (east and north of the hill) also for a low price from farmers who were in need of cash. Many of the landowners and farmers here are family or somewhat related to Lita’s family. We had our land surveyed and certified in 2009 but started building in 2008.
The house took three years to build. We lived during that time in what we now call our guest house on a lot west of the building site with a separate garage (for two cars) that we are still using today. The guest house was built by my in-laws in late 2003 (that one took only three months) while I was working in Malaysia for Petronas (where I met Lita).
1. Building Site
In February 2008 after clearing the top of our hill, everybody (including the uncle that sold us the land) was surprised by the spectacular vista of the Abra Valley, so Lita and I decided to build a house right there with a large deck positioned, in Asian-Chinese tradition, with the entrance and main deck/living room facing east.
There is virtually no topsoil on the hill. It’s a white weathered soil and laterite which is why little else aside from bamboo is cultivated on those hills. Oxides of iron and aluminum, the soil lacks fertility due to a lower base-exchanging capacity and a lower nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium content.
Some fruit trees do grow wild here and they include banana, papaya, Indian mango, tamarind, lomboy, calamansi and sarguelas. We have plenty of those. In a couple of years we turned our barren land into a lush garden with flowers and exotic fruit trees (rambutan, cashew nut, soursop, star fruit, pomelo, chico, longan, mango, jackfruit, atis, coconut, pineapple, coffee, blackberry and grape vines) but the young plants need a lot of care and work.
We have a full time gardener who is married to Lita’s relative and lives with his family next to the guest house. Regular fertilization (30-30-30) is required, along with pest control (Sevin) and frequent watering, daily tilling of the soil with a rake, removing weeds and checking for insects (especially the grape vines and coconut trees for green larvae, rhinoceros beetle and red palm weevil – those need to be killed by hand). We’ve had no luck with durian trees (grafted or seeds); they always die.
I’ll be writing another article later about the development of our farm and garden, but for now will stick to the building of the house.
2. House Design
I designed the house entirely by myself. In 2005 we did go to an architect in a nearby province with a cottage plan bought from the US, but the architect could or would not understand my modifications and made a real mess of the drawings. The drawing that really did it for me was a front view to scale with a room that did not have a roof!
We also went to a relative in another province who was a house builder/engineer with the same cottage plan, but he wanted to bring all his workers from his province – and that would not have been taken kindly by my uncles here (but he did build two good roads – the driveway to our guest house and another road nearby).
So we did investigate different avenues but Lita’s family convinced me that they could do a better and much cheaper job on day rates (although it would take longer) and the locals here would benefit economically from what would be for them a relatively large project – so I ended up designing it myself.
I have some good architecture books which helped me to decide on the proportions of the windows and doors, roof pitch/size/height, and room shapes to make it all as aesthetic as possible (I am a classic enthusiast and took some inspiration from the style of the old Dutch farmhouses). I mined a lot of technical information from the web.
There were no large floor plans or sections produced to scale – everything was scaled and modified on site like church builders did centuries ago. I did provide technical drawings and stress calculations for the metal roofing and also made computer drawings of the windows, plumbing and electric wiring for the carpenter and myself (I was the plumber and electrician).
The house is a perfect square 22 x22 m with two bathrooms sticking out that were added later. The square shape of the house was designed to keep the construction as simple as possible, to avoid long narrow rooms, and to create a large 22 x 5.5m (121m²) covered deck. The pyramid-type roof with a square house is the simplest structure to build. I did not pretend to be a structural engineer or an architect, but I firmly believed that even I could technically and aesthetically build this house with the help of a local team of reliable workers.
The second condition I had was that there should be a hall (a Dutch trait). I dislike houses that have no hall with the entrance door in the middle of the living room. Third was that there should be a large bedroom on the coolest north side of the house but that must also have a full view east (for the panorama and sunrise).
Lita requested a large completely compartmentalized kitchen (we hate the modern open kitchen concept) with a dining table away from our living quarters (so that there were no kitchen smells or noises in the living area), an entrance door outside of the house for workers and deliveries, a shady covered porch for the washing, and a storage room/wine cellar underground. We have a sunny and airy place (bleekveld in Dutch) to dry the clothes on the southeast slope at the back of the sauna with six GI, 5m long steel wires on two T 2in pipes.
With my three conditions and keeping Lita’s wishes in mind, I started to design the house. The ceiling height in the living room was a result of the roof pitch and minimum elevation of the eaves (to avoid blocking the east view from the living room). The fact that we got a 9 meter high ceiling was a welcome coincidence. It never occurred to us to construct low flat ceilings in the house with a loft, which probably would be more efficient to cool with an air-conditioner. They wouldn’t have been as impressive as a cathedral ceiling, although flat ceilings would have been far easier and cheaper to construct than our vaulted Narra plywood ceilings.
The master bedroom is 100m² which worried the air conditioning guys a lot. They insisted on waivers for “operating an under-sized air conditioner”. We keep two 4-panel room dividers in the middle of the bedroom so only half the room, including our bed, stays cool at night (24-25°C). The vaulted cathedral ceilings of Narra plywood are everywhere including the bathrooms and decks (but not in the kitchen).
The house is large for only two people without children (or live-in dependents) but we like high ceilings with lots of space to move around (you can have a basketball game on the main deck). We also have a 79m² one-bedroom flat in Makati in Metro Manila that feels so cramped in comparison. When we are in the capital we spend more time in the malls shopping than we do in our flat (I know I sound claustrophobic).
3. House Construction
After some months we managed to mobilize a building team of 10-20 workers of all ages, some experienced masons and carpenters, others were young farmhands. We paid them by the week (six working days) at 350-500 pesos per day. We also provided meals (merienda and lunch) at the site. Most of the workers are relatives and neighbors, some were from nearby communities.
Farmers here build their own houses and know the consequences of cutting corners like shallow foundations, skipping beams, not using steel and shoddy masonry using insufficient cement, so we had a motivated crew that trusted and respected each other.
The older builders stayed the three years until the end of the project and were clearly proud of their hard work. The farmhands were often needed for harvesting or found better paid jobs but there was always a good supply of very enthusiastic workers and we were never shorthanded.
Digging the foundation trenches on the ridge with hard dirt full of stones (‘footwall scree’) took a long time, even with a team of 10-20 men. We also had four 40m deep water wells manually drilled by a local contractor using a primitive cable tool that took 3-4 months per well. There were large quantities of pebbles and stones that had to be broken up.
We didn’t anticipate any landslides because although there were cracks in new soil (land fill) and in the rice fields which indicated swelling and shrinking of the land during seasonal changes, there were no such cracks in the area where we decided to build the house or on the slope in front of it. Nevertheless we erected several river stone walls to slow down land erosion.
However, the yard behind the guest house did have some minor landslides so we planted Gmelina trees (the fastest growing tree in the Philippines) there to make the slopes more stable with the tree roots.
The kitchen on the edge of the hill was marked off and the digging of the one-and-a-half story house started. I planned 4 x 12in square columns at five meters distance for each side of the house and several 12in square beams (5m span) with 12mm round reinforcing bar to support the walls and roofing.
In the past 14 years not a single crack has been found in the beams, walls or columns, and everything is still perfectly level after several typhoons. The big challenge of building spaces underground (the kitchen is partly underground) is to counter unavoidable flooding during typhoons.
Occasionally (every 2-3 years) we have a bit of groundwater seeping through the tile joints of the kitchen floor and under door sills during heavy rains. However that is easily mopped up or dried with a HD vacuum cleaner. I designed a deep open ditch with a grated steel cover, a manhole and 4in GI drain pipe running to the base of the slope with a 45° angle, right in front of the kitchen porch that diverts any flood water flowing down from the garden – never spilling over even though several roof drains also dump water in that ditch.
Workers never objected to my presence and constant comments/instructions (translated by Lita), probably because Filipinos are too polite but also since this project was new for them. I left the running of the cement mixer (diesel) and concrete (sand/cement/stones ratio) up to the workers, only checking the quality of locally made cinder blocks that were often too sandy which made the blocks brittle. When that happened, I rejected the blocks and changed vendors.
In the Philippines, cinder blocks are known as concrete hollow blocks, or CHBs, and are readily available in almost every small hardware store throughout the provinces, or you can buy larger quantities directly from the yards where they are made. I prefer to call them cinder blocks because the CHBs in the Philippines are not load bearing, and are often quite brittle like blocks made with cinders or volcanic ash in other tropical countries, and can easily fall apart if those making them haven’t added enough cement. That’s why they have to be reinforced with steel bars and concrete poured inside to strengthen them for load bearing walls.
We used 5-inch hollow cinder blocks which were reinforced inside with round steel bars and then filled up with concrete. Each wall has reinforced horizontal beams at three meters in height and later both sides of the walls were plastered with sandy cement instead of the traditional lime plaster or ‘white cement’ making the outer walls nine inches thick with invisible beams and columns (inside walls are seven inches thick after finishing).
Often walls were not straight, or they were slanted or not level. This was then corrected by the master mason (my uncle Nitong with one bad eye) and that resulted in much thicker walls. If the wall was beyond repair (the master bedroom south wall was like that), we had to partly tear it down and that was very time consuming.
The kitchen west wall was the first wall built and not correctly aligned with the walls above the kitchen (a few degrees off), and we spent months getting that straightened out by adding several inches of white cement and plaster until the wall was running parallel with the living room east wall directly above the kitchen wall. We used a digital compass and the deck (kitchen ceiling) boundaries as guides.
This exercise frustrated the workers as they could not understand the issue. I also had the total floor area quickly checked each morning (square 22 x 22m) before the walls were built by measuring diagonal with a long metal tape and insisted those two lengths to be exactly the same (but they never were, so corner posts were simply moved a bit to match the lengths).
I have a knack of being able to observe planes and corners in two dimensions, and when I visually line up two objects I instantly know if something is straight, level or not right. I don’t need an optical level for that. The workers would make fun of me in the beginning but later learned to check their work better with hose and spirit levels, angles and measuring tape, or would ask me to check things for them.
Every door, every window and every wall, floor and corner of our house is absolutely level, straight, and plumb with 90° wall corners, except for the kitchen storage room floor. I learned that from my father who was an acclaimed goldsmith in Amsterdam and obsessed with detail. He would straighten pictures hanging on any wall and would always point out if something was not aligned properly. Whether it was a slanted door or crooked line, he was very critical (especially of his own work) and a great artist who made beautiful detailed drawings.
Steel and cement was bought at the main hardware store in Bangued. Transportation (40 km) was included and the quality of the (Chinese) steel bars, although a bit sub-standard, was good enough for the structure but not for the roofing. The Galvasteel roofing contractor insisted to get all his material (purlins, angle bar, etc.) from San Fernando in La Union province (more on that in the next section).
Trusses, single and double angle bars are all welded to the 12mm steel bars of the columns and to exposed (dug up) round bars inside the beams where no column is present. The welders complained a lot about that as it added an extra month of work, but the roof survived at least three major typhoons during the past 11 years and has not moved 1mm (still level like all the floors), and there have been no leaks anywhere.
The pouring of the concrete floors and slabs were done just before the rains started. All of the typhoons and thunderstorms in the valley come from the north-east direction of the Central Cordillera which is often under a heavy cloud cover from May until September. Light rain showers (usually from 5-6pm) come mostly from the direction of Baguio in the south. Wind direction is predominantly from the east, often producing a nice draft in all the rooms.
Annual inflation in 2008 was running at a nine year high of 10 percent and the price of cement and steel went up by the day. The 150,000 pesos or so that I allowed each month for labor, roofing, steel and cement were the largest expenditures followed by the hardwood cabinets, doors, windows, tiles and flooring. Our budget for the house of 10 million pesos proved sufficient (excluding door/window fixtures, lamps, furniture and appliances).
4. Roof Construction
The roof footprint is 26 x 26m including two meter eaves. The roof pitch is 21.5° and it’s 11 meters high at the ridge peak measured from ground level outside the master bedroom on the north side. Inside it’s approximately nine meters from the living room floor to the center of the cathedral ceiling (to which are secured two large Spanish chandeliers).
I originally planned for a wooden roof with heavy timber beams and columns in the living room. I’d already got the wood from the mountains for a roof – several truckloads of 4 x 4in, 2 x 4in, 1 x 4in and 1 foot thick columns of white lauan (which has the local name Apait in our area) but my father-in-law warned me that twice that amount of wood would be needed for the very large roof.
I would have loved to have tiled the roof with those pretty Spanish clay type of roof tile, but only ugly, very heavy, tiles made of cement were available in our region (or expensive antique tiles from old restored Spanish style houses that would likely leak). I then considered combining wooden rafters/purlins with metal roof panels but no one had any experience with that idea. I finally decided to make the entire roof of steel with wooden (2 x 2in) rafters attached to the bottom of the angle bars to which would be nailed the Narra plywood ceiling panels.
That solution meant there would be no large wooden columns in the living room and no horizontal beams/trusses running in the middle of the living room, and I would still use most of the hardwood I had bought (cut into 2 x 2s with a chainsaw) for the roof. The cost of a metal roof proved considerably higher than wood trusses and ‘ceramic’ tiles, but the benefits of no leaks, fireproof and strength (for the typhoons) justified the higher costs.
We contacted several metal roof panel providers in 2009, but only Galvasteel in Manila had a representative in Bangued. They had just completed a large Durarib roof for a newly opened Jollibee restaurant in Bangued (nice job) and a modern thin metal panel ceiling for a clinic with a flat roof that proved to be a mistake in the design (the panels became warped because of the heat). However that roof was replaced by Galvasteel at no cost.
A welder with helpers, a supervisor and engineer from Bangued were included in the contract price. I designed the roof construction/trusses with the help from the Galvasteel engineer. I was responsible for the roof pitch and made detailed drawings and calculations for the welders even when the roof frame work had already started (there were frequent corrections, modifications and adjustments needed).
A Galvasteel truck came from Manila, and several of the 12-17 meter long panels had deep scratches and even small holes from the rubbing after the 700km trip. We complained to Manila, and Galvasteel replaced four of the long panels within two weeks, free of charge. The panels were offloaded near the provincial road and then hand-carried in tandem to the building site by our family and neighbors (quite a sight!).
Welders from Bangued and San Fernando were recruited by Galvasteel in Manila. The Galvasteel supervisor from Bangued wanted to skip on the purlins to save material (it was a lump sum contract) – instead of every one foot (one tile) he instructed the welders to use a two foot spacing between purlins (two tiles). I found the two foot spacing not strong enough. Since Galvasteel dictates in their roofing brochure one Tek screw for every tile step, we had to pay extra for more purlins to provide a proper one foot spacing.
To get the very large roof frame symmetric like a perfect pyramid was not easy. I had to check the construction going on like a hawk. Often the center of the roof would wander off or the roof would be eccentric (sides with different pitches). I was on top of the high walls a lot complete with measuring tape, water level, pitch gauge, plumb line and my inseparable (scientific) calculator.
We managed to get the roof peak almost centered over the house. The eaves ended up a bit longer on the east deck side then on the west side, but that is okay as most of the rain comes from the east. More steel was constantly added to the roof frame to make it rigid and it ended up like a 3D spider web of angle bar, double angle bar (T-bar) and trusses until the frame would not move anymore when the welder danced on the top to test the strength of the structure.
Far more steel was used than what the Galvasteel engineer originally had planned, probably an overkill but better than finding out later that the roof sags with time, or panels bend when people walk on the roof for inspection/painting or typhoons rip off the complete roof. The wooden rafters attached later to the bottom of the trusses and angle bars for the ceiling also made the roof frame rigid.
Another issue was the great length of some panels on the north side above the master bathroom (17 meters) that later leaked a bit near the bottom because there was too much water flowing down for the relative low pitch. We fixed that by doubling the metal flashing width at the east and west roof edges above the bathroom.
I determined what I thought would be the ideal pitch (21.5°) for a metal roof and average rainfall in Abra with pitch calculators available on the web. I also made a true scale model of the house in plywood and the roof from thin metal to see if I should make the roof steeper or walls higher (more material, more work and more money).
As it turned out, probably a much steeper roof pitch like the chalets in Switzerland would have been better for the 17 meter long panels (water would run down much faster) but that would have entailed lower eaves to the point that you could easily touch the roof standing in the back yard on the north side. That would not have been safe and would have looked ugly. That would have also blocked the vista from the house and main deck.
An old Dutch friend (an ex-dredging manager from Hong Kong) who visited us during the project pointed out a problem with Galvasteel’s gutter design (the front was higher than the spill point at the roof side so rain water would flow into the house during heavy rain) so I installed a 3in spout with a 45° angle at every 5 meters for better drainage. Most drain pipes in the Philippines have 90° angle spouts (with an elbow below the gutter, resulting in poor drainage (plugging) causing often leaking and rusty spouts.
A higher and larger roof with even higher walls might have worked better, probably with a balustrade and columns in the living room or a loft, but that would have exceeded our budget by far. The roofing construction ended up being a six-months project without the ceiling and wooden rafters (which took forever).
A metal roof with vaulted ceilings can be a bit noisy (and you do hear it when it rains). When the panels get hot in the sun and cool down after sunset or when it starts to rain, the long metal panels expand and shrink which put different stresses on the purlins and trusses resulting in banging and shrieking sounds. One gets used to that very quickly and we don’t even notice it anymore.
We got a written 10-year warranty from Galvasteel on rust and leaks and after 12 years we noticed some small patches of superficial rust staining that we just clean carefully with a metal brush and paint over with two coats of red oxide oil based paint.
I plan within the next two years to paint (with a brush) a single coat of Roof Guard acrylic paint (Spanish Red) over the whole roof. I hope 30 gallons will be enough. The gutter is still free of any rust. I’m not sure why some tiles are getting rusty on all sides of the roof – even on the north side where there is little sun. Possibly strong wind gusts and horizontal rain blasting the roof tiles during typhoons are the cause. Also the roof pitch of 21.5° and water friction by the (fake) tile steps slowing down the flow of water may have some detrimental effect on the acrylic/galvanic coating.
Another possibility is sub-standard coating by Galvasteel; I’m a bit suspicious that rust staining of the panels started two years after the warranty period expired. I believe that Galvasteel no longer mass produce this more expensive type of roof tile panels (Duratile) and mainly stocks the more popular straight duct or box rib type (Durarib) that are not as good looking but less expensive. Ribs may be better suited for the 21.5° pitch than tiles. They are advertised to last up to 40 years but probably wouldn’t last that long in a harsh tropical climate like we have in Abra.
5. Interior Fitout
Partitioning a large space into smaller rooms usually restricts natural cross-ventilation and it does get hot under the ceiling at the top (but you will need to climb seven meters on a ladder to feel that). For that reason I had originally planned an open roof vent at the top of the roof (a separate small roof top with a gap) but my Dutch friend from Hong Kong talked me out of this roof vent plan, predicting leaks during typhoons. So I took his advice, cancelled the roof vent and installed two large ceiling fans instead that run 12 hours non-stop.
It gets a bit uncomfortable sometimes when there is no wind during the dry season but there is almost always some E-NE wind in Abra – quite different from the center and south of Luzon – and most of the time we have a draft in the living room. There are no ventilation issues in the kitchen (it stays cool) and the master bedroom is facing north without direct sunlight (no windows in the west wall) and is also air-conditioned at night.
Only the main deck, master bedroom and bathroom have (fire retardant foam) insulation between the ceiling and roof. The 2nd bedroom (a misnomer because it’s very hot and I wouldn’t want people sleeping there) is 16 x 6m facing west, with direct sunlight on the windows in the afternoon. It gets hot even with the door and windows wide open all day.
This room was going to be my office, but we use it as linen/storage room. It also has two 1.6m wide French windows and a large ceiling fan like in the living room, main deck and master bedroom. If it was to be used as an office or bedroom, we would need to install additional air-conditioning there (an electricity outlet is provided on the wall beam under the ceiling).
I always admire the floor-to-ceiling windows that you see in modern beach houses and the panorama on the east side is perfect for that, but I aimed to keep the living room very shady and cool with the two (fully covered) decks, 2m deep eaves and four 1.6 x 1.6m (square) French windows (no direct sunlight) with 9in thick outer walls which from the outside gives the house the appearance of a traditional Dutch farm house.
All windows and doors are left open during the day if the wind is not too strong which deposits a lot of dust everywhere but we have full-time help from two women (Lita’s relatives) to keep the house clean (the Dutch are obsessed with cleanliness), to do the washing, and also work with Lita and the gardener outside.
Bottom line, the ambient temperature in the living room is bearable for an expat and fine for Lita without air conditioning or a standing fan, even during the hottest days. In any event, we spend most of our time on the decks or in the fields.
Hardwood 2 x 2in rafters were mounted under all angle bar roof trusses with U-shape round bar welded to the trusses. This made the roofing frame not only stronger but also provided a way to properly nail the Narra plywood ceiling without causing sagging of the thin panels.
Again I was grateful to my Dutch friend from Hong Kong for his advice on my ceiling design because too wide spacing of the wooden ceiling rafters would have caused sagging of the thin plywood panels. After 12 years the ceiling panels are all still perfectly aligned. The plywood ceilings were installed in all rooms and on the two covered decks outside. Thick marine plywood with water proof paint was used for the eaves. The kitchen ceiling is concrete though.
We bought two large chandeliers and two smaller ones in Manila that were imported from Spain and installed those in the living area and master bedroom. Small birds (house sparrows) love our high ceilings. First the tiny birds frolicking in the house were amusing but quickly became annoying and now we regard them as a pest because of the terrible mess they make. Birds even breed in the base of our chandeliers and are not shy at all. They act like our house is their home. We’ve just installed three cute wooden bird houses on the deck columns near the eaves hoping that the birds would lose interest in our house and start breeding in the bird houses.
The flooring is underlain by 5in concrete slabs, reinforced with webs of round bar and several concrete cross beams all constructed on a thick bed of river sand. It took a lot of modeling to get the main entrance and hall with the guest bathroom in such a way that visitors have privacy without bothering or being seen by persons sitting in the living room.
The tiles inside the house are made in China and after 10 years still look like new. There are no cracks, scratching or color change. The exception are the delicate tiles in the bathroom (with a classical patina/crackle) that we also used inside the shower and those are getting a bit dark at the bottom due to splashing.
We should have selected a more resilient water resistant tile for the shower stall. The baked clay tiles on the decks are inexpensive, local, and although they are a bit soft and easy to crack, they are easy to replace (I bought many extra boxes on a sale).
A tile shop in Vigan, Ilocos Sur, provided the contractors under a lump-sum contract who did an excellent job in the living room, two bathrooms, kitchen and the two decks. Efforts were made to align the tile joints even when the tile sizes were different like in the bathrooms and kitchen (wall and floor) and living room and decks (but not the kitchen porch and small hall below the kitchen steps for some unknown reason). I keep several boxes of each tile type (with the trimming) in the pump house in case of tile damage or future modifications.
In the bedrooms we laid herringbone parquet floors that took months to install (including treatment of the cement floor). Narra parquet tiles were glued onto the cement floor with parquet glue, sanded and coated with sanding sealer, sanded again and then two coats of polyurethane were applied. Afterwards we had a big job washing the 8m high walls and ceiling that were coated brown with sticky wood dust.
The half inch Narra parquet tiles were dried in a kiln in Bangued. All of the doors, steps, and windows were also made of solid Narra made either on site or in Bangued at Balbin’s wood factory. We didn’t kiln dry the doors as they warped when we tried that. Instead, our Narra doors were dried slowly for two years in the guest house.
We have a senior (disabled) neighbor who is an excellent carpenter but does not have the tools or workshop to make large items; he made a deck chair of pine wood for us, as well as a recliner of mahogany and the seats in the sauna.
A 5 x 5m store at the end of the kitchen is completely underground with large ventilation grills above the ground and to the kitchen (cool and very dry, no mice or insects, no mold or smell as we only store cans, dry food, cooking oil, cleaning agents and our hardware/tools there). Flour, coffee beans, spices, etc., are stored in a special fridge in the kitchen area. Outside the windows are four large wooden storm shutters with classical wrought iron hinges that can be bolted in the open or shut position.
The massive Narra kitchen sink with granite top has two heavy duty stainless pull-out cabinet organizers for each cabinet door for large pots and pans (except directly under the two sinks). Everything in the kitchen is custom-made from solid Narra. I made the steps myself and one of the workers made the wine rack.
All of the Narra cabinets and granite slab (sinks) in the bathrooms and kitchen were custom made by carpenters from the mountains and stonemasons from Bangued (Chinese granite was used for the bathroom, large kitchen top and all the splash boards). We made the mirror frames ourselves from left over Narra wood.
The solid Narra cabinets (like in the kitchen) are now 14 years old and even after daily abuse from water splashing and cleaning with chemicals the doors and drawers still look like new. Compare that to cheap plywood cabinets that after a couple of years already show veneer peeling, visible wear and tear of corners or stuck drawers. The bathroom louvre door and louvre cabinet sides allow plenty of ventilation. There is no mold growth under the sink, only a fresh odor, and the towels dry quickly. The high ceiling is also contributing to that.
Windows, casings, and floorboards (with profiles) were custom made from Narra by Balbin’s wood factory in Bangued. I designed the windows, doors and supervised the installation. We made the handrail, kitchen steps/wine rack and window knobs ourselves and bought the brass fittings for the windows in a hardware store. The large doors and frames were put together on location by the mountain people, and the smaller doors were ready-made in the mountains.
Narra wood fibers are not stable like oak in the sense that Narra looks and ‘behaves’ alive, reacts strongly with moisture (expands and shrinks) and changes texture (becomes darker and prettier with time) even when regularly treated with polyurethane. That’s of course not ideal for French type windows that function with hinges and locks and require well-fitted windows in their frames. In the rainy days we often have to force windows open and during dry days they are a bit loose (they rattle).
For the large 3m (3in thick) doors we had warping issues, not so much the door construction but the door elements themselves like the rails and lock and hinge stiles. Typically the doors were not made from 100 percent dried wood (a common problem here). Our carpenter did his best mounting the very heavy doors without sticking out too much and after five years or so the doors slowly became almost straight, requiring no force to lock and open at all.
We never had to change the position of locks or hinges, maybe the six HD 3 x 4in ball bearing hinges helped getting the doors flush with the frames or maybe this is a (secret) trait of Narra wood. My Dutch friend (the dredger) claims you only need two hinges for doors (no hinge in the middle), more is just for ‘looks’.
Maybe that’s the case for modern (or metal) doors but I would not trust hanging a 100kg wooden door on only two hinges. I even considered installing Besser’s heavy duty pivot floor hinges for our large doors but after witnessing the elaborate job with jack-hammers for our tiny kitchen pivot spring doors in Makati, I decided to keep things simple.
On the placement of doors and windows, positions were constantly changed as we were building the walls. I underestimated the 4m high wall load with roof above the main deck door and allowed too thin a reinforced concrete door beam that caused slight (but visible) sagging in the middle of the 7 x 5in, 2.4m wide wooden door top sill.
We jacked up the door sill a few millimeters in the middle until straight, ripped out the thin beam, constructed and poured a much thicker new beam on top of the door sill, and waited several months before removing the support/jack (we made all beams above the large doors and windows much thicker afterwards).
Most of the door frames (except the kitchen and store where we kept equipment, doors and windows that needed to be locked up at night) were mounted before the tiling and finishing of the concrete slabs. That resulting in different door sill heights. Some are too high (living room) some a bit too low. One door (storage room floor not level – tiled when I was abroad) touches the floor tiles when completely opened (but that door remains open for ventilation, so no issue).
I had originally planned the decks and bathroom floor levels to be slightly lower than the living and bedroom for possible flooding but with the continuous corrections (level and draining issues) going on, my plan failed. Anyhow, a high door sill is good to keep the dust and rain out blowing from the decks, and we like the low door sill in the master bathroom so we won’t trip at night.
One time the northern main rain drain plugged (blocked the screening at the end) and after the first heavy rain the floor drains in the master bathroom started to back-up (luckily during the day, and I was in the bathroom) resulting in minor flooding of the parquet floor in the bedroom northeast corner. Our gardener now checks all the four main drains after a big rain. In hindsight, perhaps should have designed separate floor drains.
The workers wanted to position the doors and windows (fitted with iron wall anchors) in the walls with make-shift supports and then complete the masonry around the doors and windows (the quickest way and the way it’s usually done in the Philippines). I feared that things would end up misaligned and insisted on ‘the long and complicated way’.
That process involved completing the door and window walls first, then making holes in the new walls to accommodate the wall anchors; fitting the doors and windows in the open spaces of the wall (flush, level and 100 percent aligned with the other windows) and finally closing the anchor holes in the walls and filling up the spaces between jambs and wall. I did not get much support but it was done anyway, with some grumbling. As a result, all doors and windows are perfectly aligned, level and plumb.
For security at night we later installed heavy wrought iron grilles in front of the windows made by our relative (a blacksmith) near Tayum, who also made the railings, shutter hinges, front gate and all other iron decorations in the house. The door locks, porcelain door handles and door fittings (made in Spain) were bought in Jakarta where I had previously been working in 2003. The heavy ball bearing hinges, water heaters and other specialized hardware were purchased in Manila and the Narra plywood, faucets, toilets and bathtub are from a hardware store in Vigan.
Mrs Aida in Bangued made a 60in wide Narra TV cabinet with five drawers and is a master piece that weighs more than 100kg. Four large cupboards, also Narra, were bought in furniture shops near the market in Bangued and a large drawer chest in the master bedroom was made from Narra in San Juan by an amateur carpenter (unfortunately it turned out to be too heavy and the drawers won’t open properly).
We painted the outside of the house in a peach latex semi-gloss. Many home owners here finish buildings in ugly grey cement or leave the cinder blocks exposed, without any paint, possibly to qualify for a property tax reduction for “unfinished” buildings. In my opinion, Philippine suburbs would look a lot prettier if the tax perk was cancelled and authorities would promote finished (painted) good looking buildings like in Southern Europe, Greece and Italy.
6. Water Supply
Water for mixing cement, etc., was initially pumped from the river up to the 20m high hill using several small diesel (1” Honda) pumps. After the 5”x 40m deep water well, 10 meters downhill, was completed (with 4” GI casing) we installed a (USA) Goulds 2HP electrical SJ Jet pump with the deepest downhole assembly (and correct size venturi, bronze syphon and foot valve) we could get from an appliances store in Manila for P75,000.
This proved to be one of the most reliable water pumps I have ever used, and after 13 years still provides all our water 24/7 via a 13m high water tower and 1500 liter stainless steel water storage tank on the hill. No booster pumps are required.
It takes 30 minutes to fill an empty tank; 13 gal/min is a respectable flow rate for industrial pumps and the Goulds pump is doing just that easily. Once a day it runs for 20 minutes, controlled by two small floats hanging separately on a nylon line inside the water tank (called “automatic”), tied to a small low amp “on-off, push-to-make, SPST momentary switch” mounted on top of the tank and connected with one well-insulated stranded 2mm² wire, live 220 VAC, running above the ground (bundled with other power cables, on electricity poles) to the contactor down the (brick) pump house.
The pump runs twice on washing days or if we have guests staying in the guest house. Controlling the pumping with the pump pressure switch and a ball valve on the water tank inlet, does not work (according to e-mail correspondence with a Goulds engineer in the USA) due to pressure fluctuations when pipes gets hot by the sun, and the 40 PSI that is required to pump the water up the hill (pump produces maximum 50 psig, not enough pressure left to function properly).
We also have a large pressure tank (rubber bladder type, 20 psig) directly connected to the Goulds water pump that acts as a cushion to protect the fragile ceramic pump impellers from the relentless hammering of water that falls back each time the pump stops. The well has not been worked-over in 14 years and we frequently check how long and how many times the pump runs daily, the pump Amp meter (should be 10 Amp steady, less means leaks, more means voltage too low), pump pressure gauge (50 psig, less means leaks or impeller problem) and flow rate (with a stop watch and 10 liter bucket up on the tower; if the flowrate goes down with 50 psig on the gauge there is a leak in the flow pipe to the tank).
We also check every two years or so for leaks in the plumbing to/in the house by placing a mark (with beeswax or other non-toxic crayons) inside the water tank before sleeping, after showering (and turning off all the toilet taps) to observe the next morning if the water level in the tank has dropped. If the level has dropped we repeat the process with all the gate valves on the fall pipe (water tower outlet) closed (static tank level) then the next day open one-by-one a gate valve till the tank level starts dropping and the leaking pipe has been found (a tiresome process but very effective). I also tried to connect a regular water meter on the 1” fall pipe but those meters are not sensitive enough to detect small leaks (gave false readings).
The 13m head (tank height) can provide up to 18 psig pressure (at the bottom of the fall pipe), regardless of how many taps are open as most faucets/showers have separate water pipes. Water pipe diameter and length/rise, elbows and reducers in the faucets will lower the water pressure a bit, but there is still plenty of pressure left for full showers and the water heater (stop valves).
We use between 1,500-2,000 liters of (free) well water a day. Family and friends also fill up their tanks and bottles at our place as water from the water main, San Juan public works, is often down to a trickle by the time it reaches our locality, We have two deep water wells on the hill with hand pumps and two wells down the hill, one with the Goulds electrical pump and one with a hand pump.
MMC labs in Makati City determined in 2010 that all our well water is 100 percent free of e-coli bacteria and probably safe to drink, although I always recommend boiling our well water. For many years now people have been drinking the water straight from our taps without any problems. No septic tanks are located down the hill where the two water wells are located; some septic tanks are present on the hill but at least 50 meters from the other two water wells that we sometimes use for watering the plants.
Lita and I drink only (distilled) bottled water and use tap water for showers and brushing our teeth. The tap water is slightly discolored in the dry season (when ground water level is low) and at one stage I had a large water filter hooked to a tap outside the kitchen to remove the solids but maintaining the filters proved too much of a hassle.
In 2009 our government built a new irrigation channel in the valley (that also runs through our land) so farmers can have a second rice harvest in May (dry season). This allowed us to install a 10HP Kubota RT diesel engine coupled to a 3in Taro centrifugal pump to pump water directly from the irrigation channel/pool 20m up our hill to water the garden (excluding the lawn) during dry days.
Hot water to the bathrooms is provided by ½in GI (insulated) pipe from an Ariston pro R100V, 2.5kw, 25 gal, 220 VAC single phase boiler (designed in Italy, made in Vietnam) mounted outside under the roof eaves, and cold water by 2 x ½in GI water pipes for the showers, sink and toilet so when the toilet is flushed it won’t affect the pressure or temperature of the bathtub and shower water. A large cold water bathtub faucet has a separate ¾in GI water pipe (total four water pipes and 4 x 2in drains).
Most of the ½in GI water pipes to the bathroom from the water tower started leaking (sub-standard pipe quality) and were replaced by ½in PVC pipes. We also have small one liter inverter, water heaters in the kitchen and guest bathroom but since nobody uses warm water we turned those off.
7. Power Supply
Originally we contracted a local electrician who wanted to run all electrical conduits in the floor. I insisted to run the conduits on top of the beams under the ceiling and the electrician quit so I had to do the wiring myself. That proved very tricky as most of the walls are six meters high. I made nine separate groups (circuits) with 10-60 Amp double throw circuit breakers and included several 3-way light switches (electric engineering is one of my hobbies).
Getting tired of so many black-outs by the local electricity supply company, ABRECO, (euphemistically called “brown-outs” here), we finally went window shopping in Manila for reliable, water-cooled, industrial, single phase, 15 KVA electric diesel generators.
Indian (Kipur) and Japanese (Honda) generators can only run 4-6 hours non-stop and are expensive. We read on a phone company website page that Power City in Paranaque, Manila, provides (leases) industrial generators for remote telecom towers/repeaters that run non-stop, and when visiting the Power City premises we were impressed with the very large choice (and the efficient marketing) of Chinese generators. They offered us a good deal for a brand new (still in Customs) single phase, 21 KVA industrial Chinese diesel generator (with a rugged US Cummins truck engine) for only 280,000 pesos that can run 24/7.
The after sales service by Power City is very professional. We had some technical issues during the past 10 years: the fuel injection system malfunctioned (replaced with a new module), there was a broken oil pump (replaced with a new pump) and the crank motor/switch failed twice (the motor was replaced the second time). Every time mechanics showed up (within days) with the (new) spare parts (at very low costs), they would also change the oil and service the generator.
The one advantage of buying a large Chinese machine is the cost. Dealers in Manila advertise the SRP (nobody will pay that, it’s far too high) but discount as much as 50 percent of the SRP for cash. The disadvantages are: the generators are reverse engineered (copied technology without having any technical expertise), sloppy quality control and no technical manuals or diagrams (in English) available, control panels are often difficult to understand with foreign labels and functions not working as expected.
Power City is an exception as I received many technical documents (in English) and excellent support from the engineer for the design of a generator shack and electrical hookup to our house (but only got 10 percent discount for paying cash).
The generator is screwed to large wooden (mahogany) blocks for insulation during rainy days (and to keep the generator dry) and also to prevent vibration. We are growing many mahogany trees so there is never a shortage of lumber here. The 10HP Kubota diesel engine down the hill is also mounted on a 2in wooden block that rests on a steel rack directly bolted to the concrete floor but you can still feel the ground vibrating 10 meters away. The two outdoor condenser units of the air-conditioners are both mounted on rubber and wood blocks (silent and vibration free) for the same reasons.
After the generator was installed we built a brick house (with sound proof doors) around it. It’s located higher up our hill some 100 meters north of the house, with a floor drain, large screens (vents instead of windows) and 10” GI ducting, facing north, for the exhaust fumes and to provide ventilation for the diesel muffler (ducting was custom-made in Manila).
Generator power (230 VAC, 20 KW, single phase) to the house is supplied by 2 x 10 mm (84 mm²), stranded, copper cables (AWG 000) inside two separate heavy plastic waterproof conduits, two feet underground (no digging allowed in our backyard) to the manual X-Y ABRECO power switch, outside, directly behind the master bedroom.
Some years ago we had an invasion of mice above the master bedroom ceiling and also a nest inside the generator. The mice would eat the rubber door insulation of the generator and some electrical wires were found damaged (the engine would not crank due to a cut wire). The mice above our bedroom disappeared after one year, possibly scared off by prowling cats at night, but we had to kill the baby mice that lived inside the generator. We screened off the bottom vent in the shack afterwards.
We can hardly hear the generator running at night, and during the day we only notice the diesel exhaust fumes when the wind direction is from the north. The Chinese X-Y double-throw, 100 Amp (not fused) circuit breaker at the back of the master bedroom is operated manually, so in case of a blackout our gardener “cranks” (starts electrically) the generator and then runs back to the house to switch the X-Y switch from Abreco to generator power. This has become such a routine that we are not even involved anymore till there are issues with the generator (won’t start, flat battery) or problems with the X-Y switch (bad contacts).
We keep battery LED lamps near our bed as the switching can take a while at night if the gardener is asleep. Sometimes mains power is restored after only a few minutes. The Abreco field manager is Lita’s cousin who keeps us informed most of the time when there is a power interruption planned or when power will be restored during a blackout.
Installing the Abreco power line (220-240 VAC, single phase) at the main house was a major undertaking. There was a very long waiting period after our request in 2009 for a dedicated power line with a 15 KVA (private) adjustable transformer, and lots of issues. We paid 300,000 pesos (too much) for the new power line which was connected to a Phase B provincial power link with three large GI electricity poles and a modern digital meter (new for Abra) that proved unreliable.
Our power consumption reading was multiplied by a “correction factor” by Abreco’s staff in Bangued to obtain an estimate of the KWH consumption of all our electrical appliances, whether we ran the appliances or not. Our monthly electricity bills were in excess of 22,000 pesos which is twice what we pay for a flat in Makati City that has 24 hours air-conditioning and a large electric stove/oven in the kitchen.
I complained bitterly to the Abreco manager in Bangued about this form of billing (that included a three percent compulsory contribution to the Abreco cooperative), but my calls were ignored. I asked for help from the San Juan mayor (who was an ex-Abreco manager) and finally I filed a complaint to the Hon. Agnes Vicenta S. Torres-Devanadera, chairperson of the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) in Manila, which had results. After the Abreco management in Bangued stepped down in less than a year, Manila took over the entire administration and accounting for Abra.
All electricity bills are now calculated and issued in Manila. We pay the bills at the Abreco office in Dolores (with complete transparency about tariffs) and the maximum amount of the monthly electricity bills dropped to 15,000 pesos, but have since increased to 17,000 pesos after the latest electricity price hikes. This will hopefully be less next month as we replaced a faulty 4HP non-inverter air-conditioner (EER 2.7 w/w and a bad compressor) for a 3HP inverter unit (EER 10.8 w/w) in our bedroom.
Abreco replaced the digital meter for a regular GE analog meter (with the small turning wheels) and our previous ‘Commercial-Industrial’ tariff was lowered to ‘Domestic-Home’ status. The guest house has a separate power line and meter on a Phase A powerline that ends at our place. That line is at full capacity and between 6-10 pm the power can drop to 180 VAC or even lower when everyone starts running fans and air-conditioners. Most people on Phase A have voltage regulators/stabilizers to protect their electrical appliances and suffer less from blackouts than we have on Phase B.
Our maximum consumption exceeds the Phase A capacity of the guest house and would cause blackouts for the entire San Juan community, so we had no alternative other than installing a dedicated power line connected to the Phase B link. Also, because our 2HP Goulds electrical motor requires 240 VAC and will run hot (limiting life cycle of the motor) if power supply drops below 220 VAC.
We have five fridges and two air-conditioners and (except for the two air-conditioners) everything runs on AVRs. Our new Chinese 3HP AUX inverter air-conditioner in the master bedroom supposedly has a built-in AVR with an incredible range of 130-270 VAC according to the salesperson in Manila. It didn’t come with any technical information or diagrams, but I confirmed that with AUX HQ in China by e-mail.
The Phase B power link runs all the way to the mountains (Tineg). The disadvantage of Phase B is frequent maintenance (very long trajectory with lots of big tree branches and bamboo touching/breaking the power lines) and consequently many blackouts during bad weather, but that’s why we have our own generator.
The 15 KVA Abreco transformer (that we own) can be manually adjusted between 210 and 240 VAC by an Abreco lineman but the power line needs to be disconnected and requires booking days in advance.
8. Rural Life
Some people may ask what it is like to live in a rural area in a fairly remote part of the Philippines. Am I ever concerned for my safety? I’ve never had a security issue in the Philippines in the 19 years I have lived here. Mind you, I am surrounded by relatives. We decided five years ago to install heavy wrought iron grills everywhere so we could leave a window open during the night and it turned out that it enhances the look of the windows.
We did lose some cheap tools like hammers, measuring tapes and spirit levels during the project but lost nothing before and after the house was built. We never lost tools or items stored in the different buildings. Our gardener (and “overseer”) who has our complete trust is in charge of supplies, sharing of our (power) tools, the rice store and keeping a tally of material movements.
Walking in our rural town is still a lot of fun as everybody knows us and will stop for a “conversation” in English. The San Juan public treat us as elite, never disrespectful, which is a big improvement after Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta where I also lived for 20 years.
I enjoy the rural lifestyle and I enjoyed the challenge of building our own house. The reason for choosing Abra to settle down was to be near Lita’s family, and to provide a secure and familiar environment for Lita while I was still working abroad. But I also found the Philippines an ideal place to retire, and living next to my family-in-law was the best way to get used to the way of life in my new country.
It took us three years to build our house as we had to stop during the rainy days until the roofing was finished. It’s now interesting to see that some recently built houses in our community are taller and look straighter (more level) than when I first arrived here. I see workers now even carry water levels with their cement bucket and trowel when walking off a project.
Another wonderful thing about the project was how it enhanced Lita’s technical skills (and now also our gardener who can fix anything in the house, with Lita’s help). She became proficient with electrical chores in the house like replacing switches, sockets, plugs and changing fuses. She also likes to make extension cables for the whole family and replaces faulty fan/lamp plugs in a very professional manner with soldering irons and crimping tools. Another job Lita is very good at is plumbing, fixing drains and leaking faucets. Our housing project left an impression on our community and on the family!
All images: © Frank & Lita Witteman