09/10/2013 11:28 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

People Who Live in Concrete Houses - Part 2

The condo we own in Ecuador is one of eight 1,150 sq. ft. units in a four-story building.

The entire building, inside and out, is poured and block concrete and large, red clay brick called ladrillo here, faced with plaster inside and out.


Photo Courtesy of Hugo Ghiara,

Down below us, the other units are divided to have two or three bedrooms each. But up here on the top floor, a third of our unit is outdoor terrace... perfect for enjoying the remarkable weather and even more remarkable views up here in the Andes Mountains. Under roof is one large room -- kitchen on one end, bedroom on the other, living room in the middle -- a bathroom and a large walk-in closet.

After four years in this place, we like it even more than when we first moved in. But...

It could use just one more room.

So, we decided to cover and enclose half the terrace. And in Ecuador, when you need to add a room, or cover a terrace, or do almost anything to concrete and brick, you call the guys with the hammers and chisels.

And this is where we apologize once again to our neighbors in the building. One of the characteristics of a stone (concrete or brick) structure is that, no matter where you hit it with a hammer, it sounds like it's happening right next to your ear. Fourth floor, first floor, doesn't matter. Everyone gets hammered, so to speak. So, sorry again, guys.

But why would you need to chop things up to add a room? Why not just put a roof over it, install some windows and a door, and be done with it?

Well, that's what will eventually happen... after a large built-in terrace bench (cement formed over metal mesh, then covered with tile) is removed. And after a huge view window in the bathroom is filled in to close up the dividing wall and another window is chopped into the adjacent wall. And after sockets are chopped into that dividing wall and into the terrace floor for supports and roof beams that need to be seated. Et cetera, et cetera.

And what all this produces besides insanely loud pounding is enormous amounts of concrete and brick dust. The kind you can taste on your tongue and grit between your teeth and feel sucking the moisture out of your eyes. We've done remodels on several places in Latin America now, and each time, we vow not to be present while the tear-out is being done. So far, for reasons we cannot fathom, we haven't managed to do that yet.

But there is an upside.

With a project like this, you get to watch two or three guys get amazing amounts of work done, some of it pretty delicate and detailed, with tools that haven't changed in any significant way since the advent of the Iron Age. And you get to talk to them while they work and practice your Spanish asking them questions. And you get to marvel at how different their Spanish is from the Spanish you hear in the shops and stores of the town, mainly because it's about half Kichwa, the local indigenous dialect.

And when you ask them to make a change or do something different or undo something they've just spent hours doing, they say, "Of course," and they do it. Unless it's something stupid. Then they say "Of course," and call the maestro, the guy who assembled the crew and oversees the job. Then he stops by and tells you "Of course, but..." and explains why you're asking for something stupid. And if you insist, they'll do it anyway because they don't like arguing or making you mad... or they'll just go home and wait for you to calm down and wise up.

Aside from the pounding and the dust, it's all fairly low-key and relaxed and interesting... unlike some remodeling projects we tried back in the U.S. And in the end, eventually, after the dust has settled, we'll have a new room and half a dozen more guys we can say "hi" to when we see them on the street or at the mercado.

So, as different as living in concrete boxes can be, we've grown to love it in our time abroad. And we've even grown to find the bright side of hammering and dust. It's the way things are done around here, and it's actually starting to make sense to us.

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