It was still raining lightly when we all went to bed last night, but overnight it got much heavier. The first surprise when arriving on site this morning was that the partially finished roof on the larger house had been roughly completed, so that the whole house was covered. It turned out that Jacob (the local pastor who oversees the projects that Grassroots supports in Romania) had worked on the house for two hours overnight to keep it as dry as possible. Unfortunately there was nothing he could do for the smaller house, and by morning large pools of water had formed on top of the polystyrene ceiling with holes in the ceiling below where it had been dripping through.
We all huddled inside the larger (and dryer!) house for a morning briefing and waited for the rain to subside enough so we could start working. One team set off refitting the corrugated bitchumen sheets on the roof that had been laid roughly overnight, and I joined a group working on roof structure for the smaller house. Finally, a small team set about digging a very large hole that will house a septic tank and soakaway for the toilet in the larger house.
We hadn’t been working long when the rain became much heavier, which wasn’t ideal when we were working on an uncovered roof with power tools! It took us about two minutes to cover everything over, climb down from the roof and get inside, by which time we were completely soaked through! At this point, Richard started punching small holes through the completed ceiling to try and drain the standing water from the top of the house. This, in turn, meant that all the water dripped through and started filling the inside of the house, so he had to create a hole through the bottom of the wall to drain that away. As soon as the rain subsided we continued working on the roof but the conditions made it very difficult. It goes without saying that an alfresco lunch wouldn’t have been so pleasant today so we squashed inside to eat.
In the afternoon work on the two roofs continued in the rain. Normally we would have used corrugated bitchumen sheets for both houses, but some traditional roof tiles had been donated to the project for use on the smaller house. Therefore a few of us started the big job of transferring the tiles from one house (where they had been delivered) to the other – wheelbarrows with flat tyres and very muddy ground don’t go together too well!
Five of us left the site slightly early this afternoon to visit the family living in the house we built last year. It was great to see them again, and they seem to be doing much better than there were when we last saw them. The house has been painted since we left and they’ve turned it into a nice home, though it currently has nine people living in it! Amazingly their old house is still standing – apparently because they can’t afford to have the electricity meter moved out of it and into the new house. Nick presented them with a framed photo that we took of the whole building team with the family just before we left Romania this time last year.
After that, we drove to a church where we met the rest of the group for a 6pm service. Normally we would try to go to a church in the village where we are doing the house build, but it seems there isn’t anywhere suitable at the moment, so instead we returned to Magarus – the town where Olivio lives, whose house was built by a Grassroots team three years ago. The pastor, Augustine, has also helped out with a couple of the house builds so we know him quite well. Although we couldn’t understand most of the service, it is a very vibrant church with lots of young people heavily involved. We were very warmly welcomed and they arranged for a translator so that Sharon and Stuart could tell everyone a bit about our work here.
The main topic of conversation over dinner tonight was about the weather! Although different websites are giving various forecasts, they all seem to agree that there will be much heavier rain and storms tomorrow. Hopefully they’re all wrong!
At our briefing this morning, Richard felt that today might be a slightly easier day for the team. The main target was to get at least one of the roofs up, which would occupy a group of 4-5 people. Although there were other jobs that needed doing, a local team was also due at the site today to work of the internal ceilings and the wiring for the electrics. This is where logistically the build gets more complicated, with lots of people involved and a mix of very different British and Romanian techniques.
My first job was to add a half height course of blocks to the internal walls in each house, which would raise them just above the wall plate and allow us to bind them into the joists for extra strength. Having cut all of the blocks for the smaller house, I had just started laying them when the Romanian team arrived to start work on the ceiling. Adding the polystyrene insulation for the ceiling at this stage made it difficult to lay the blocks that I was working on, so we had to come back later and find an alternative solution for bracing the walls. Normally we would complete the walls and roof before starting on the internal ceilings – working on the project out of order certainly makes it more challenging. However, with many local volunteers giving up their time to help, we do our best to adjust the schedule to work around them, especially as we are guests in their country.
Unable to work inside the houses, one team worked on the roof of the larger house while the rest of us started working on the exterior walls of the smaller house. The two houses will have slightly different finishes on the walls both internally and externally. The larger house will have plasterboard inside and polystyrene outside with a thin layer of tile adhesive to provide the final finish. Meanwhile the smaller house will be rendered inside and out with sand and cement. It takes a lot of muck to render an entire wall so it took us most of the rest of the day to mix and apply it. A good percentage of that time was spent at the back of the house where there is a very steep bank that can only really be described as a rubbish heap. Sitting in it to get access to the bottom of the walls was not the most pleasant experience we’ve had so far!
The other disadvantage of building the house in the wrong order is that the interior is not protected from the weather until the roof is on. The interior work completed this morning meant that we couldn’t walk on top of the smaller house or start the roof work in case the vibrations damaged the ceiling. Unfortunately, despite the good weather we’ve had so far, the rain started falling by early evening. By this time the larger house had a partially completed roof but the smaller house had nothing. We did our best to cover it with some plastic sheeting and wooden boards, but heavy rain tonight could potentially leak through and damage the interior.
Back at the hotel there was time for dinner and a couple of rounds of Monopoly Deal before bed. Most of us have found it a difficult day, not least because the tiredness, aches and pains are definitely setting in, but progress has still been really good. Hopefully it won’t rain too much tonight!
The target for today was simple – we needed to complete the walls on both houses so that work on the roof and ceiling can start first thing tomorrow.
After arriving at the site, we had our daily briefing which covers the plan for the day and any specific safety issues. Health and safety in Romania is not taken as seriously as it might be at home, but as a British team we are essentially operating under British law and insurance guidelines. That means safety notices, hazard tape, hard hats, steel capped boots and documented briefings. The Romanians seem to find all this very excessive, which some of it might be, but it does keep the insurance and therefore the cost of the houses down. The real challenge from a safety perspective comes from the large number of children who are very curious to have a look inside their new home.
The team split in two again with a slightly larger group on the first and more complicated house. Although we began the day more than halfway through the block laying process, the higher blocks take much longer to lay due to us having to work at height. There is also the need for specially cut blocks to fill the areas around the doors and windows. Nick took on the role of chief block cutter on the house I was working on, keeping a constant stock of blocks in various shapes and sizes so that we could quickly fill all the gaps. We also had a couple of local volunteers helping us with the building work. One of them, Olivio, had a house built by Grassroots three years ago, and he has come along to help the team on each build since.
Our lunch (vegetable soup followed by pork and rice) was prepared by another volunteer from the church. Unfortunately the soup had a meat stock but one of the Romanian volunteers (Silviu) is also vegetarian and decided to order a takeaway pizza for us both! By late afternoon all the walls were up in the smaller house and while team moved over to the larger house to help get that finished.
The final job of the day was to lay the wooden roof plate and joists on the smaller house so that it is ready for the ceiling to be constructed tomorrow. Everyone is really pleased with progress so far, though there is still a lot of work to do.
Unfortunately we had some bad news this evening – that Olivio’s 20 year old brother had died in a scooter accident earlier today. All our thoughts are with him and the family.
After a good night’s sleep the team were up for breakfast at 7am and by 8:30 we were back in Lechința.
Today’s focus was very much on laying as many blocks for the walls as possible. Both houses are single storey, roughly 8m by 4m, and have a fairly simple layout. There are 2 bedrooms at either end, with the kitchen area and front door in the middle. The kitchen has enough space for a small working top and a wood burning stove, which will be used for cooking as well as heating. This year we are adding a larder to both houses, which will use space from the corner of one of the bedrooms but be accessible from the kitchen. In addition, the first house is slightly larger than the second to accommodate a small bathroom with running water for a handheld shower and a toilet.
Once Richard and Si had put the corner blocks in place, the team split in half so that we could work on the two houses simultaneously. Martin and Sam took charge of mixing a huge amount of sand and cement (affectionately called muck), which the rest of us used to lay and point (fill the gaps in between) the blocks. I’ve been learning how to lay blocks this year, which is essentially an ongoing challenge of keeping blocks level and stable in every direction. This is made more complicated by the foundations sloping from one end of the house to the other! Once the first three courses (or layers) of blocks were in place, we started adding the windows and doors.
An al fresco (and very substantial) lunch was provided on the building site by a couple from the local church who had volunteered to provide food for the team. All of the food we have been given so far has been excellent, despite it not always being vegetarian-friendly! Other than lunch, our only official breaks are a morning and afternoon coffee break, which means we’re working for about 10 hours each day. Everyone is able to work at their own pace though and the team is full of enthusiasm for keeping the project moving.
The afternoon was more of the same – in total we will need to lay around 1000 blocks between the two houses. By the time we left the site at 7:30pm, we had completed 5-6 of the 9 courses of blocks, so we’re already over halfway to getting the walls in place!
Sharon and Ruth (who are both Grassroots staff) spent the day traveling between different villages to visit families of children who are already sponsored by British donors, and potential future recipients of support from Grassroots via sponsorship or house building. Over dinner they told us some of the individual stories. Typically these are single-parent families with many children and little or no income – often a mother will go without food so that she can feed her children. Many are living in run down houses or tiny council accommodation. The child sponsorship programme helps pay for health care, school uniform and equipment, and a birthday present which some children have never had. More information on the project as a whole can be found at www.grassroots.org.uk/projects/romania.
If you happen to be walking through Luton airport on a Wednesday morning in mid September, then the Grassroots building team is not hard to spot – a group of nearly all guys, wearing steel capped boots, carrying hard hats, and cases full of more tools than clothes! It was great to see so many old faces from last year, and plenty of new volunteers as well. Despite the early hour and lack of sleep, everyone was eagerly anticipating the week ahead. We have a couple of professional builders and carpenters on the team, including Richard who will be in charge of the project, while the rest of us have varying levels of DIY and building experience!
Having checked in and made our way through security, the twenty strong group boarded the short Wizz Air flight to Romania – at least it would have been short if we hasn’t spent the next 45 minutes in a queue for the runway! Fortunately the heavy rain that greeted us this time last year was nowhere to be seen – in fact it’s quite hot here at the moment. We took a minibus for the 120km journey to Bistrița, and the Hotel Don where we will be staying.
After a quick lunch and safety briefing we drove to a village called Lechința, which is about 25km south west of Bistrița and home to two families who are in desperate need of a new house. Fortunately the families live in adjacent properties, so our two building sites are only 50 metres apart. This should make it easy to share tools, resources and expertise between the two. At first glance the houses that the families are currently living in look fairly intact, certainly in comparison to the collapsing house we encountered last year. However, understanding more about each situation soon makes it clear why these families are in such need.
One family consists of a 15 year old boy and three girls aged 12, 17 and 20. Their mother died over a year ago from cancer, and shortly afterwards their father accidentally ate some poisonous mushrooms leaving them orphaned. They care for their house very well, as one of the few legacies from their parents. However, constructed from paper, straw and manure, it offers virtually no insulation from the winter temperatures (which can drop to -20°c) and is full of damp and leaks. The younger three siblings have recently been in care while their older sister traveled to Spain to try and raise some money for the family. Unfortunately she couldn’t find work so she is now back in Romania and we hope that they can all live in the new house together.
The second family is a mother and her five children. The father died three years ago and since then the mother has been struggling to look after the children, which is unsurprising given the state of their current house, particularly on the inside.
The foundations for the new houses have already been laid by local volunteers, so that they could set in time for us to start the build straightaway. We spent the last few hours of sunlight unpacking some of the blocks and laying the corners for the walls so that we will be able to get straight into constructing the walls first thing tomorrow morning. We also sorted through the pile of various second hand doors and windows that had arrived to decide which could be used where. There is no doubt that building two houses will be a big challenge, not least because the expertise of the professionals will need to be shared across two sites for the first time.
After a traditionally filling dinner back at the hotel we all got some much needed sleep ready for our first full day of building.
After the success of last year’s house building trip to Romania, I’m joining the Grassroots team once again for their latest project. It seems that the achievements of the 2013 build have gone beyond the completed house and the relationships we developed with the local community last year. The awareness of the work of Grassroots has also grown significantly (mainly thanks to this video made last year), to the point where the building team has nearly doubled in size. This year, therefore, we are fortunate to have sufficient volunteers to attempt two simultaneous house builds. I’ll be posting daily updates on our progress here, and you can also follow the build on the Grassroots blog at www.grassroots.org.uk/blog.