The post where I talk about walls and Mexico without mentioning you-know-who
Earlier this month, my girlfriend I visited San Miguel de Allende in the central highlands of Mexico.
The AirBNB we stayed in north of the city centre was lovely, but I will admit some trepidation walking around the neighbourhood it was in. Many of the buildings stood unfinished with graffiti and bits of rebar sticking out. After a while I came to think that in this part of the world it is entirely feasible to live in a partially finished house. Because their weather doesn’t have the extremes we have in my part of Canada, you don’t need to obsess over the “building envelope”. The result is houses that are a constant state of “worked on”, like a hobby car.
(As an aside, this different relationship a relatively mild climate allows with the outside was part of what was so appealing about our AirBNB. Like all the houses on its block, the house presented a two story brick wall right up against the sidewalk, within which was the parking apron, the house itself, a courtyard, and rooftop gardens. The outside wall wasn’t meant to keep conditioned air in, it was to keep outsiders out and create a private, shaded area to enjoy a garden oasis.)
And just like a hobby car, these houses gave me an interesting glimpse into their inner components which are normally hidden behind a smooth facade. I’ve done a little research and found that the construction style is called “confined masonry” in which brick walls are built and reinforced concrete pillars are poured in after to create an earthquake resistant structure.
This is a great video that describes the process and its advantages, one of which is that it can be built without engineer supervision. This undoubtedly contributes to its ubiquity.
Once you see the pattern of this construction, you begin to see it all over Mexico, at least in the corridor between San Miguel and Mexico City. We took a bus to Mexico City and along the way every small town had buildings in this style.
Surely this is overkill
During the bus ride, what surprised me the most was seeing property walls in this construction – what looked like miles of it in some cases, cutting through the dry, thinly vegetated landscape.
I speculate that this style of construction may be favoured because it can use local materials and local labour. Furthermore, and more importantly, I think it has become a kind of shorthand. If you order “a wall” then you know how much it will cost, how long it will take and be able to assess the quality of its construction relative to countless other examples in the area. If you agree to build one, you know how much it will cost, how long it will take and where to get the materials.
The example of constrained masonry may be more common to this area than around my home in Toronto, but the idea of using shorthand that neatly describes both a need and the fulfilment of that need is common to all our daily lives. The risk is that the shorthand becomes a thoughtless pattern we follow even when better options exist. I can only speculate why a landowner might want an brick wall to surround their property when a presumably cheaper fence would do, but I suspect it has more to do with entrenched patterns than a thoughtful analysis of available options.
Seeing this as an outsider (again, I may be missing the reason behind such a brick “fence” – maybe its advantage over other fencing is durability?) makes me wonder how much shorthand we have here in Canada and how many better options we overlook.
Another thought is that shorthand often finds its way into regulation, and regulation often finds its way into shorthand. So if I ask for a house to be built here in Canada, it will invariably have a poured concrete foundation, timber frame with fibreglass insulation and plastic vapour barrier clad in brick, with a sloped shingle roof. This is “a house” both in terms of shorthand and regulation. Is it the only way to build a house? Is it the best way?
Sometimes shorthand gets so entrenched that seeking to modify it can be bothersome, expensive and even risk getting a raw deal. It can be like saying you want the breakfast special but juice instead of coffee only to discover the bill is considerably higher than you expected.
Nevertheless, rewriting the shorthand – asking for substitutions – can often be where the opportunity lies. Tesla – like a regular car but with electric propulsion. Apple – like a regular computer but aesthetically appealing and intuitive to use. Amazon – like a regular store but you can choose online and have it delivered.