Week #15

The structure is now 40% complete. To be clear, that gets you a building with exposed brick walls and openings for doors and windows. Plus, a roof, electric wires and plumbing lines in place. But no “finishes”: construction-speak for bathrooms, kitchens, lighting, plastered and painted walls, final flooring, etc.

We’re a day away from pouring a concrete floor for the living room, dining room, kitchen, bedroom and bathroom level of the residential side of the building (above the basement slab), as well as pouring concrete for the mezzanine level on the guest side of the building (above the ground level for two guest units).

It’s so nice to see the building grow. Overall I’m very impressed with the strength of the Balinese construction methods. Compared to wooden beams and plywood floors that are used in the USA, the concrete floors in Bali are incredibly well-built. There’s large support beams between big, fat columns and double layers of wire mesh for the concrete slabs. It’s a solid system that is also quite labor intensive, and so its understandable that such a system can’t be used in the USA because of high labor costs. With nail guns you can knock out a rough wooden floor in a day. Here it takes perhaps ten times as long for a proper concrete floor.

Legitimately bending the truth

Let’s be realistic for a moment: to lie is to be human. From our earliest days of playing in the sand, we tell stories with partial or metaphorical truths.

In the case of building a house, we need to tell a story to the government about how the house will be used. And then the government will tell us whether the uses we have in mind are acceptable or not.

Since lying is such a core element of who we are, different governments have different approaches to resolving matters of deception among it’s citizens. In the USA there is a massive number of building inspections (at very high costs). Your ability to cover up something (cheap wiring, etc) is obviously very limited. However, converting a legitimate storage room that happens to have good lighting into a bedroom, after the inspections are over, is not really preventable.

In Indonesia the approach is remarkably different. From my understanding there are only two inspections: the first is when you have completed the foundation; the second is when it’s done.

The in-house consulting office of the building department is very aware that all sorts of deceptive practices may happen, and what’s amazing is they are willing to help you submit the deception in order to get it approved. This may sound radical, but I would argue that the Indonesians have a deep understanding of human nature.

Let’s take one example. A roof cannot be a livable space. But there’s a requirement that only 60% of the top of a building structure needs to be covered by a Balinese-style roof. In my case I’d like to use the uncovered part (40%) for a rooftop bar, in order to offer drinks and sunset views of the ocean. AND I want to comply with the government and NOT use the space as livable space. So except for maybe a drunken nap, you can’t sleep on my rooftop level.

It would seem that both my interests and that of the government are aligned perfectly. We tested the hypothesis by placing a small pergola on the 40% side of the rooftop level, but the government didn’t like it. Perhaps their use of livable seems to include mingling around, in addition to sleeping.

Above: An X placed across the pergola and the staircase to the rooftop by a government official.

However, the government consultant knows what we want and he also knows that the definition of livable is fungible. Many folks like to hang their wet laundry on the flat part of their rooftops. Should the government fine them for creating illegal, liveable spaces? Of course not.

It was resolved that if we remove the staircase up to the roof, and the railings around the edge of the roof’s flat 40%, as well as place the water tank and air conditioning units in the middle of the rooftop bar (um, utility space), then the design will be approved by the government. This was a two-way process of either creating a legitimate lie or working within the bureaucratic process of seeing eye-to-eye. Wink wink we all know that mingling for a couple of hours with your mohito or hanging laundry where the sun and wind is unhindered are not permanent, liveable spaces. The government just doesn’t want you building bedrooms where you’re not supposed to have them.

We are moving into a world where we are going to use smart machines that will increasingly be programmed to control our ability to deceive each other. As parents we tell our kids not to lie, and so perhaps these artificially controlled machines will become our robotic parents. In China today there’s a school that’s using cameras and facial recognition systems to determine if students are drowsy. The teacher never has to ask the student if she’s paying attention, and as the accuracy of the system increases, the little white lies that have been keeping us human are going to be deleted.

In other words, a world without lies is inhuman!

Stepping forward & sideways

With any building project, or during the process of any lasting endeavor, there will always be a variety of bumps in the road. In our minds we’d like things to progress smoothly. We make predictions based on an internalized _flow_ from one task to the next. But then there’s a bump and the flow stops. Anxiety sets in. You start wondering whether the project is really moving forward. Doubts start to magnify. You don’t sleep as well.

And then, hopefully, the clouds part and you sense some progress:

In my case I was able, with some help, to get the Banjar (local community) and district signatures and stamps that I needed — as part of the building permit process. Neighbors on all sides of the property sign off, then the neighborhood Banjar, then the regional head of the local Banjar groups, and finally the director / head of the district. None of this includes the Indonesian government. They have their own set of processes that have more to do with land zoning, ownership, and the purposes of the proposed structure. However, they require local and regional representatives to sign off on the project too.

In terms of the government permit (IMB), we made some changes to the drawings (this is our second attempt for building plan approval) but there were still a few mistakes.

In the drawing above, on the left side, we reduced the number of levels from three to two, as there are a maximum of two levels that are allowed for a Pondak Wisata (home stay) permit. Bali has always had building height restrictions but the architecture team didn’t know about the limit on residential levels. Our height restriction is fine, as its below 15 meters.

A Pondak Wisata is a renewable license for five years at a time, with income taxes paid monthly or annually. You can have up to five rental units, plus a unit for the owner.

On the right side of the drawing we showed roof access (the pergola), two residential levels, and a parking area. We were told to get rid of the pergola and the staircase leading to the roof. If we want to build access to the roof it can be done after the permit is completed. Like most government procedures, if you follow their restrictions you will eventually get what you want — on paper. In reality you have to make a plan for the builder, as well as one for the government.

Finally, we were told to make an elevation drawing so that the parking area is below the ground. This way it cannot be mistaken for a building level.

As stated above, we had progress (the signatures and stamps), but also went sideways with the government. The good news is that the government is willing to work with you. In exchange, they want plans that they can approve, even though it may not line up with what happens on the building site. This is expected in most places. Here in Indonesia its a bit more than just re-naming rooms. You may have to build a staircase after the fact. And the government will tell you that when you consult with them, which is strangely reassuring.