Bali: a culture of MacGyvers

It seems extremely odd that my Balinese builder would reference the TV show character MacGyver when discussing our hole-digging contractor.

(Photo of MacGyver courtesy of Wikipedia)

I mean the guy is as far from an Indonesian hero as possible on the surface, but perhaps because of his Swiss Army Knife, his duct tape and paper clips, MacGyver’s ingenuity elevated him into a universal male idol.

The contractor that the builder and I were referencing is this guy (next to the man in the white shirt);

He built his digging machine by hand so that holes could be dug 5-6 meters deep for steel and concrete, supporting the above-ground columns that will secure the structure. The photo below is of a steel frame getting ready to be lowered into one of the 46 holes the contactor dug for us:

The effort is muddy and physically demanding, but every day the contractor pressed on, digging 2-3 holes a day.

To build his contraption the contractor essentially took a large portable engine and attached a gear system to a custom-made blade and pipe, supporting it on either side with steel posts. The mud would cake up and the blade had to be cleaned regularly:

My builder and I calculated that after 25 jobs or so his investment was fully recovered.

In Bali only tall buildings need holes dug deep into the ground. Typical one-story villas don’t require more than a meter or so of hand-digging for the foundation. I imagine if all villas required deeper holes then a commercial hole digger would be made available for contractors. And if course you can buy an auger machine from a first-world country, but the price point makes it impossible.

The solution is a MacGyver!

Week #09

Ok I know I mentioned some excitement around the idea of getting the concrete slabs in place for the basement and living areas, but then the workers went off to another Balinese ceremony for three days (it was supposed to be two days).

I was warned that there was going to be plenty of ceremony breaks and for that reason many builders hire workers from Java. But my builder is Balinese and I really don’t mind it too much, since my confidence in my builder is very high. I know he wants to do an excellent job and so that keeps my spirits up.

We will have to push our excitement for the slabs into the near future (this coming week!). The main benefits of having slabs are: no mud around the structure itself, and secondly that the slab provides a flat and solid surface for the scaffolding (which enables the construction of floors and walls).

The Invisible

There is so much going on in the early stages of construction that becomes completely invisible as the structure progresses.


Just like so many things in life, it is hard to appreciate the unnoticed. Of course there is a good reason why our consciousness doesn’t pay too much attention to the fine-grained details of our existence. For example, if we had to be aware of our breathing each time our bodies needed oxygen, what kind of life would that be? If we had to remember to turn on our immune system when encountering potentially harmful substances, we’d all be extinct.

When we walk into a building, do we wonder about the foundation, the plumbing, the electrical wires, or the sweat (and sometime blood) of the workers that fell upon surfaces that later became painted or polished?

This worker is hand-tying a steel column that will soon have a temporary wooden box around it, in order to keep the poured concrete in the proper shape.

For months and months a crew of workers toil away at bringing a structure to life, and in the end the guests who enter and exit the spaces are completely unaware of the people who built the structure and the effort involved. It is as if too much awareness of the world around us is, in a strange way, toxic. We can only survive with minimal awareness of the infinite amount of gears that turn and the cosmic grease that keeps it all in motion.

These iron “boxes” are also bent into shape manually. Behind them are rusting thin steel mesh “sheets” that were made by machine. The iron boxes are placed into holes and sit horizontally, on top of 2-4 vertical columns that have laboriously been set 3-5 meters into the ground. These “boxes” become a stable platform for the vertical columns that will support the three levels of the future structure.



Week #08

Workers returned with a vengeance. All of the foundation holes are completed: 44 holes, each between 3-5 meters deep. Steel and concrete to fill the remaining holes are almost done. Forms are being built for the retaining and boundary walls, as well as the columns that arise out of the foundation holes.


The exciting parts are about to begin: an open basement with columns that rise to the residential level. A slab that runs across the entire building, from the guest space to our future living space.

A slab for the basement too, for a maid’s area and for the cars and scooters.