Post-Project Review from Construction of a Small House in Chiang Mai, Thailand
This is a brief recap of one of my recent construction projects. It’s a relatively simple one that I would like to use as an example to share some of the reasoning that is involved. Maybe it will help you to understand the process. Maybe you will be interested in working together with me on a construction project.
I often write something like this for projects that I work on with the intention of recording lessons learned for future use. It’s usually more detailed and formal, including input from other stakeholders.
Sometimes I’m not at liberty to share specifics about projects that I work on because of confidentiality agreements with clients, but on this one, I can explain some details, show off a bit, and explain some humbling lessons learned.
I have family, friends, and business interests in Thailand so I try to go there as often as I can. I can’t sit still for too long, and I’ve already done many of the typical vacation activities, so I usually end up learning about different crafts from local artisans and doing some volunteer work when I’m not doing remote work via the internet. This time I was able to combine all of that while doing a personal/family investment project.
With a lot of help from others, I led this design/build project which was completed earlier this year in Chiang Mai. This is a 1-bedroom accessory dwelling unit (ADU) on the same property as a larger house of similar style which I helped design and construct previously.
I applied lessons learned from my previous experience, designed this house myself, and managed the project directly. In the end, this project came in about 10% under budget and right on scheduled finish time. I attribute this to being prepared, managing expectations in advance, and being engaged throughout the building process to make necessary adjustments to stay on track.
The design criteria included;
- Low-cost construction budget
- Long-term durability
- Energy efficiency of the finished building
- Matching style of the adjacent house
One of the main considerations was timing. Choosing the ideal season for this work was crucial to meeting the objectives of this project. I scheduled this during the time of year (Nov. – Jan.) which is typically the least busy for my work in the U.S. and when weather is dry and cooler than usual in Thailand.
I designed the building simply, partly with the intention of not requiring many highly-skilled workers. Of course, there are many highly-skilled workers in Thailand, but it would have cost more and taken longer to do a fancier project using them when they would be available.
Based on notes from my previous building experience there, I specified materials that are readily available, durable, and in common use.
Roof overhangs and placement of windows were carefully considered for shade to prevent excessive heat indoors. A ventilated and insulated roof cavity also makes a difference for staying cool. Much of the growth of energy use in that hot climate is for air conditioning, which does not need to be used much in this house.
A structural engineer reviewed my plans and added notes to ensure compliance for local regulations and inspections. Even if that were not required, I would have wanted that input for the long-term durability of the product.
For the previous construction of the larger house on this property, I hired a general contractor. This time, I hired a local building foreman to supervise his team of workers instead of hiring a general contractor. The scope of work for his team included the structure, utility rough-ins and finish, roof and trim, and interior tile surfaces. I hired separate contractors for the doors and windows, appliances, etc. Family and friends helped me with interior painting and exterior clear coat.
Despite budget and schedule constraints, I made sure that all people involved were compensated fairly well and that nobody got hurt. Being a construction worker for much of my life, I appreciate the skill, risk, and value involved in this type of work. Also, my long-term plan is to live in that local area, so this is more than a one-off project for maximum profit to me. It is part of my ongoing effort to grow a network of mutually beneficial relationships.
Side note: The foreman’s name is Yu. He is a younger fellow but quite competent and was key to making this project go smoothly. During discussions about how we were going to divide our responsibilities, we had some funny moments of confusion about what Yu (him) or you (me) would do, reminiscent of Abbott and Costello’s old “Who’s on First?” comedy routine.
Another side note: I’ve noticed that there seem to be more women working on construction sites in Thailand and some other countries than I see in the U.S. — This project had a lot of tile surfaces so there were two husband/wife couples that split up that scope of work. It was interesting to observe that cooperation. — Also, my wife helped me a ton during each phase of this project and honestly could be described as my boss.
Since this simple project did not require much management after gaining momentum, I was able to spend some of my own time making furniture such as tables, a bed with drawers, and an armoire/closet. I also made a few extra tables of different shapes and sizes that I gave to the neighbors. These days I usually have fewer chances to do hands-on craftsmanship than I used to, so this was my pleasure.
After completion, several passers-by stopped to look and ask who designed and built these houses. These experiences have led me to start occasionally consulting for a local real estate developer. Eventually, I would like to do more building projects in Thailand and it seems like plenty of opportunities will be available.
I would not pretend to be a real design professional, as I only have basic training and a little experience. Most times when someone needs a project designed, I usually refer them to one of my more qualified contacts who may be in a better position to provide specialized expert help.
However, as a “construction guy” in various roles at different times, I have designed some cabins and outbuildings, interior improvements, exterior decks, sketched rough conceptual outlines for some systems-built projects (pre-fab, panelized, modular), and provided value-engineering for several custom building projects in the planning process.
My experience has let me know my limitations and led me to a greater appreciation of the value of an excellent design professional.
I should hire a photographer because the photos that I took do not do justice to how it really looks. Someone else with more skill could figure out how to better show the project, especially the small interior spaces.
When I first started traveling internationally for construction work, I was especially challenged by trying to impose my means and methods on others. I am proud that the ways that I was taught to build are often better than others, but I am also humbled to find that my standard ways do not always fit the local conditions or the culture of the people involved. I’ve realized that it is beneficial to learn about various nuances. Now I try to accept some differences, pick my battles carefully, and be tactful when explaining my reasons. That is a continuous learning process.