Experience with construction techniques in Thailand

Posted: April 18, 2010 in Thailand

My father was a carpenter and later became a building contractor. He built many houses and apartment buildings in southern California. I worked with him when I was a teenager. The buildings were wood frame stucco, the way most buildings in that area are constructed. They are lightweight and relatively safe in earthquakes since they shake around a lot and the stucco cracks but they are pretty flexible so usually don’t collapse. They are terrible fire hazards, however, as the annual fire season has demonstrated again and again. That’s the type of construction I was familiar with when I moved to Thailand. Things are built differently here.

Here in Thailand most modern buildings, including homes, are constructed of concrete and steel. They use a post and beam structure of reinforced concrete with brick and mortar walls. That kind of construction is deadly in earthquake prone areas. The structure may survive a quake but the brick and mortar crumbles quickly, showering building inhabits with tons of debris with little chance of survival. But strong quakes are rare in Thailand so that’s how things are built here.

It represented a bit of an adjustment for me because I was used to doing things the southern California way. If I wanted to hang a picture I just stuck a nail in the wall – it was just wood framing covered with dry wall. But over here it is brick with cement plaster and requires a hammer drill to drill a hole and then a plastic insert with a screw to hang the photo. That’s just one example. A whole new set of tools was required since I’m pretty handy around the house and like to do things myself.

I resisted the concrete jungle effect for a while and tried to do things more like I used to, with wood. But there are some reasons those ways don’t work so well over here. For one, the weather. It is very hot and humid most of the time, and very wet for many months of the rainy season. Woods like those used in southern California for construction, mostly Douglas fir, last a couple of years before they are completely rotted out if they have any exposure to the elements.

Even if they don’t get rotted out by molds and mushrooms the wood eating insects in Thailand are much worse than in the U.S. Subterranean termites are ubiquitous and voracious. Leave a piece of wood laying on the ground for just a few days and then turn it over – you will find it complete infested with termites. The only exception is certain tropical hardwoods that seem impervious to everything, like something called “mai makhaa” which I believe is known as ironwood in English. It’s beautiful stuff and extremely durable but also sort of rare and expensive. The Thais cut most of the forests down many decades ago so now tropical hardwoods are imported from Myanmar and Malaysia where they are still in the process of destroying the forests.

Another pest is the powder post beetle. It particularly likes bamboo, which is a shame because bamboo is an amazing material and very beautiful. But it gets attacked very quickly by powder post beetles which bore small holes in the culms and eat the high sugar content lining, pushing out steady streams of fine powder. Untreated bamboo lasts about two years before it collapses in a pile of dust. There are some techniques, however, for protecting it against the hungry little monsters. I’ll do a post about that sometime.

When it came time to build our new house I had to relent and go with the local standard for construction, the steel and concrete with brick and mortar method. I took a number of photos during the construction and some of them are interesting (to me) in how much difference there is from what I’m used to. To end this post I present the following photo showing the foundation being poured for our house. Notice the metal for the floor – two layers of 9mm re-bar grid on 25cm spacing, and the footings for the posts – the small ones are 1 meter x 1 meter x 1 meter of concrete poured into a 16mm re-bar cage while the two large center post footings are something like 1.2 meter x 1.2 meter x 1 meter. The amount of steel and concrete used in the structure is just massive, all this for an average size two-story house. The engineer said they have to guarantee the structure for 20 years. It seems to me they built it to last a thousand.

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