Category Archives: Building

La Ducha Caricola- The Snail Shower

The Inspiration

So this is the story of how we decided to build a spiral shower out of rocks. And then, because I am a construction junkie, exactly how we did it.

When we first came to Vilcabamba, we were guests at the bioreserve  Rumihuilcos for a few nights. Rumihuilcos was once featured in the New York Times in the Seventies as part of an article about how people live longer in Vilcabamba. Apparently there are more centegenarians on the hoof here than is average, and one of the possible causes is the idea that the feathery Huilco leaves, like in the name Rumi Huilco, filter the air.  Anyway, there was a charming picture of our hosts’ children hanging out the windows of the stilt house where we stayed, just above an outdoor shower built of river stones in a spiral shape. I was struck with the beauty and practicality of the design.

The spiral means that you don’t have to have a door, which would decay without a roof, since you just walk in and disappear from sight, and the river stones are readily available, pretty, and feel nice on your feet. I decided that having a spiral shaped outdoor shower would be very Vilcabamba, and would also free up some bathroom space in our small house. My grandmother had an outdoor shower which was attached to a very cold artesian well, wonderful during the steamy Maryland summers, but the stall was made of wood and usually had a few wasps nests in it, which made showering risky. We wanted a structure that would be more open and easy to clean, so we decided we would build the initial shape with edge-on brick and just sheathe it with flat round stones. I had also seen a shower like that in Africa, with a pattern of pebbles around the drain so you didn’t slip.

Getting Started: Foundation and Plumbing

We started by selecting and leveling the spot, measuring a circle big enough for me to spread my arms. Edgar hammered in a stake, tied a string to it, and traced a shape like a big snail.  He must have been great in geometry class. We installed a drain and brought in the hot and cold water lines from the house system. Then he made slip forms out of strips of flexible plywood, and filled them with closely fitted mountain rocks.

note the rocked in slip form as we begin to run wheelbarrow loads of cement into it.

Once the rocking in was done, the  empiedramiento, he and Francelin mixed rough mortar and filled it, leaving 3/4 inches of space for the stone tiling from the lip of the drain to the cement floor.  In screeing the floor level, Edgar somehow managed to achieve a gentle grade down to the drain (regillo) so that not only shower water

but even rain water would all drain perfectly. We ran a two inch PVC pipe from the drain out the bottom of the shower wall, headed in a downhill direction. Later I attached two 45 degree elbows to drop the drain pipe low enough to bury, and ran it out into the garden below the house, using about 20 meters of two inch PVC pipes that I perforated with shallow saw cuts along the bottom.  I used up some leftover pipe as well, and zagged around the flowerbeds with 45’s. I dug a 10 inch deep trench which was partially filled with gravel. I found that once some of the gravel was in the trench holding the pipe in place, it was simpler to pour the gravel over the pipe, as it would vibrate itself into the middle of the stones, I then filled the trench by raking in small rocks out of the soil, and then smoothing soil over everything using a leaf rake.

The Brick Wall

Edgar traced the final line for the wall, using a nail on a string tied to a central nail to score the line for the inner showering area, and then using the inside wall as the midpoint.  We brought in bricks and he and Francelin built the wall, leaving space for the plumbing.  We decided to leave a little porch at the snail’s opening. I began collecting stone; hand sized for the walls and smaller for the floors.

spiral shower

We decided that the bricks could go on edge, which is the thinnest, fastest way to lay them, since we would be cladding the thin brick wall with cement and rocks, and there was no load going on top.

Bricks were laid on edge, and went up fast. Notice the cut left for plumbing.

Using the ancient body-measured, builds-itself method, we decided the the wall was high enough when I stood in it and knew the shower head wouldn’t bang into a tall person’s head. It was time to start applying stone.

Cladding the Wall With River Stones

After measuring the total length of the wall, we bought 20 meters of 2 inch plastic hose to use as a handy flexible guide for laying the stone. (Note the mixed measurements which are common in Ecuador. Viente metros, dos pulgadas.)  In retrospect, we could have used thinner hose. The flat round river stones I chose were thinner, and we ended up using more cement than we had to. We nailed the hose to the wall along the top and the bottom.

Notice the hoses nailed in place as guide.

Holding a scree bar against the hoses, we could check the straightness of the wall,  ensuring a uniform look, or, as the guys would say, que se queda bonita., which means the same as “so it will turn out nice.” The stones were wetted down and attached to the wall with a 1:1 cement to fine sand

Using a scree bar to check that the stone cladding is of a uniform thickness

mix. After they were fitted to the wall, they were tapped into level with the others, brushed clean with a paintbrush, and left for about a half and hour before cleaning again.  Watching Edgar, I learned to lay the stones out and search for a particular shape that would fit into the space I had.  My favorites are the oval blue stones; slate that broke into a regular shape and then was worn oval by fast moving water over the centuries. The slate is so blue. Walking along the river I sometimes find what wore off; balls of gritty, dark blue clay in the sand.

Lloronas

We used a lot of stone, so we ended up making the shower the go-to filler project when we were stuck on another project, waiting on materials, etc. Everywhere I went, my eye was coveting the smooth, bluish stones. If I had a minute, I slung a rice bag over my back and went along the river searching for stones that were just the right size and shape. I added variation with the strange, nodule-like white quartz, the glittery brown granite, and even the odd green rock from the beach.  Big flat stones inserted sideways into carefully chiseled slots in the brick made perfect shelves for shampoo, razors, etc.

I learned that certain rocks are called lloronas, like the famous Chavela Vargas ranchera, “weepers.” First I understood it to mean that the stone contains iron oxide and would weep rust onto the wall, and then I understood it to mean a rock that is more porous and retains moisture when the rest of the wall is dry. I wonder if it gives new meaning to the song. Rocks are to these Andean people as snow is to the Inuit.

That’s as far as we got- I’ll finish this chapter when we get going on the shower again!

Nibbling at the Edges

Staring at the formless void of the entire job, my husband looked a bit bleak. I had spent hours imagining various landscaping ideas. But as our friend Bill Salomon said of housebuilding, in the end, it builds itself. Form follows function. One day at a time, Poco a poco. Whatever.

We decided on two driveways; one upper one lower. The bottom entrada needed a ramp, so we made one using a bulldozer. That created the need for two retaining walls.  “Huh, that looks messy and if water comes down that gully it will erode the driveway. Bet some rocks would help.”

The first one I built myself, laying one rock on top of the other, puzzling out how they fit together solidly until somehow it became a sitting height wall. Then we backfilled it and started planting.

Francelin looked at it, smiled kindly, or maybe smirked,  and started making more walls where earth might otherwise slide or an edge needed tidying.  Needless to say, his are much finer than mine, especially since he can maneuver rocks weighing  more than he does with the delicacy and precision of a Japanese netsuke master, using only his hands and a large baretta.

I walked in one day and there where there had been only a weeded slope was a tidy little bench terrace. So I filled it with walking iris, succulent flowering sedum, and pineapple plants. Then we put in a massive dry rock wall to hold the driveway, and it seemed logical to terrace and put in a bed to use the earth that had been between the rocks.  The place that is windiest seems a good place for lavender, but further in, I need to start some things to eat, like kale and lettuce, and then there need to be some things to hold the slope, and my friend has some coffee plants that a client is ripping out, that are bigger than mine. A jump start on having our own coffee. So bit by bit the area around the road in is taking shape.

Thanks to photographer Gloria Davis

Terraforming

All I really need is for the river to allow me two trucks and a bulldozer. Maybe three trucks. I need gravel (grava) and coarse sand (arena gruesa) for the foundation of the toolhouse, and fine sand (arena fina) to mix mortar. My bricks will be fired in ten days, says my ladrillero, so no rush on the fine sand, says the maestro. I say rush, as the river may abate on a day that the road is blocked by a landslide, or the bulldozer operator has a toothache, or there is a week-long fiesta. The bulldozer has to carry all of our leftover supplies from building the pumphouse up to the bodega site, and tidy up all the mess at the site.  After that all the bulldozer has to do is flatten a few areas, push a few piles of rocks, and dig out some terraces.

All it has to do, say I, with desperate optimism. Actually I am pretty nervous about the terraforming. The topography of the land is rather lovely, but it doesn’t hold the water long enough, so the objective of the bulldozing is to help with permaculture, but without wanton destruction and burying of topsoil.  There are two driveways; one at the bottom and one at the top. The rock piles from the building of the road present the first dilemma. Either they should be shoved over to the boundary fence, which is made up of live young porotilios, for eventual use on a stone boundary wall, or they should be pulled down to the next level to broaden the top of the hill. The downside of the first option is that I may hurt the porotilios, which were planted last year and will be a live fence, in order to plan for a stone wall that I may never get around to. The downside to the second option is that the breadth I add to the top of the hill may need years to stabilize, and may just be a big mess. I’d like the top of the hill to be a possible home site, because the view is spectacular, and it is convenient to the road so we wouldn’t need to big driveway destroying land.  So that is something I hope will be resolved by facts I don’t have yet.

About 20 meters in from the top entrance, the land drops a little. If I were to flatten the whole area, it would make for a pretty homesite. However if we did less damage, it would make a lovely split level site, which the property really lends itself to. My conclusion on this is that if we do less damage now, we can change our minds later. So all I really need to do is deal with the big row of rocks from the road building that was done years ago, and flatten the area enough to start landscaping the entrance.

1/15/2017

We managed to get one more day in before the rains swelled the river again. All the materials have been carried up from the lower site where we built the pumphouse. All sand. coarse sand, rocks, and bricks have been delivered. We had to break the bricks into half loads in a smaller truck so that we wouldn’t exceed the bridge’s 5 ton limit.

2/1/2017

Bodega built, small argument about a price increase on the roof welding, doors and windows fabricated and installed.

Who’ll Stop the Rain

 

In Ecuador seasons are either wet or dry. While occasionally the rainy season here in the sierras can feel hotter because of the humidity, it really isn’t. It is cool and pleasant at night, just right for a light blanket, and sometimes the pattering on the roof is just what I need to fall asleep. The mist rising out of the newly greened mountains in the morning is lovely, and the rivers rush down…..the streets.

Sometimes it rains so hard the locals say it is a lavado. A wash. No time to soak in.  A heavy rain in Vilcabamba rolls golf ball sized rocks down the street. Families without the traditional horse-mounting high sidewalks brush gravel off their porches. Storm drains?  Ha! Somebody had that clever idea who either wasn’t from here or just wanted the work. All storm drains are full to the top with gray sand. From our apartment I can see the street turn into a fast moving river. Of course is it gone in less than an hour, leaving the street sandy but clean.

Out at the property it is a different matter. Our bridge is big and has aletas, wings, so the river won’t get behind it, but the rains bring huge amounts of water down from the Podocarpus National Park. The river becomes wild and muddy, and not until it drops below a certain big square boulder can we bring across it the trucks and heavy machinery that exceed the bridge’s weight limit. You see my problem. Had it not been for Burrocracia, we would have gotten all the construction and terraforming done before the rains.  Now we wait with bated breath for a day and a night without rain. If that happens, we pressure the operators and pray that they won’t blow us off for a bigger client. Not everybody has our particular set of issues, so I am hoping for tomorrow or the next day, -like I always do.

All I really need is for the river to allow me two trucks and a bulldozer. Maybe three trucks. I need gravel (grava) and coarse sand (arena gruesa) for the foundation of the toolhouse, and fine sand (arena fina) to mix mortar. My bricks will be fired in ten days, says my ladrillero, so no rush on the fine sand, says the maestro. I say yes to rush, as the river may abate on a day that the road is blocked by a landslide, or the bulldozer operator has a toothache, or there is a week-long fiesta. The bulldozer has to carry all of our leftover supplies from building the pumphouse up to the bodega site, and tidy up all the mess at the site.  After that all the bulldozer has to do is flatten a few areas, push a few piles of rocks, and dig out some terraces.

All it has to do, say I, with desperate optimism. Actually I am pretty nervous about the terraforming, see post. But days go by, demoras after demoras. Sometimes it is the rain, and sometimes it is a polite lie. Today the sky is as blue as the flag of Bavaria, and the soft fresh breeze barely stirs the branches of the nispero tree in front of my window. I may ask my neighbors if they would like to go get some deadwood for their pizza oven. We are in Ecuador. Poco a poco.