Stress: -starting new projects while trying to finish others.

So far, my time in Panama has been no different from any other visit.  Despite my continued optimism, things just don’t happen as quickly or efficiently as I expect.  So what else is new you say?

It should not surprise me every time I visit the project that I don’t accomplish as much as my plans dictate.  I know the answer but I have to admit that sometimes I expect too much from people and then tend to take on too much work myself in order to get the job done.

We’ve all heard one of the most popular definitions of insanity and when things don’t go my way, I tend to get stubborn, keep my head down and keep on pushing.  This feels like I’ve been using a hammer to pound screws into wood when I should be using a screwdriver.

On the other hand, there are some accomplishments that have come together nicely despite the fact they may seem short-lived.  There’s always another task waiting its turn;  in reality all this frustration is coming to and end.  There has been progress and I’ll put up some photos of the more recent accomplishments in the next day or so.

The last few weeks I have managed to unpack the rest of the furniture that’s been waiting patiently for almost a year and I actually have a real living room without cardboard boxes.  I have a master bedroom and bath that does not need any further finishing.   I’ve purchased some new outdoor furniture and now we have a great lounge for the outdoor terrace.  The kitchen finally has the new counter top.

There have been some disappointments with regards to previously finished work and so we’ve had to back up and re-work some areas.  The spa for example has required us to remove the water-fall feature wall and replace it with a large piece of stone along with the removal of the concrete floor to make way for a wood slat floor.  This required a week’s worth of jack-hammering and there is nothing as painful to wake up to than the rat-a-tat-tat of a jack-hammer.

The spa remains 15% unfinished but it’s almost there.  Some paint and the wood slat flooring is all that’s needed.  You can see the workers hauling the big-ass piece of slate through the powder room to the spa in these photos.











There have been three other projects that are new and of course this adds more dirt and debris when I’m supposed to be cleaning up and getting the house in livable condition. One new project is the installation of the underground pipes to take rainwater from the roofs and terraces to an eventual future cistern.

This required digging up the ground immediately in front of the guest house and laying out the pipes and valve to take and re-direct the water.  This is much easier to do now than in the future when the grounds will be fully landscaped.   A little discomfort now to prevent later pain.



Of course the area in front of the kitchen area needed to be dealt with at some point so why not start now?  This is the outdoor kitchen and barbecue area.  I could and probably should have left this project for another time but once again, doing so would require me to destroy the newly planted landscaping.




So I drew up plans for the raised platform and I have Juan Carlos heading up his team to complete the job before Xmas. 

Pedro’s Door

Its been a couple of weeks since I arrived in Panama and there has been a flurry of activity around the house.   We have electricians, carpenters, landscapers, plumbers, and workers digging up things that were covered with dirt long ago.

My closest neighbor laughs when there is so much activity around the house, he instinctively knows that I must be coming into town because Pedro has all his workers scurrying about like bees to a hive.   Of course this makes me happy as I know that many of the overdue small projects are finally getting attention.

I’ll be writing rapid fire posts over the next couple of weeks as those unfinished projects become complete and I’ll include photos of the new spa, landscaping, counter tops, and unveil the furniture I purchased over a year ago.

One of the projects that needed serious attention is the door that connects the interior of the house to the upper terrace.  This door provides access to two bedrooms which are only accessible from the outside terrace.  The door also keeps the outside elements from entering the interior of the house so it’s importance is more than just decorative.

Over the last year, I have sent Pedro drawings and photos of the style of door I’d like to see in that space and for many reasons unknown the door would simply not materialize.  I will attribute the delay to the Panamanian experience of getting anything accomplished within a reasonable time and coupled with the lack of skilled craftsmen to make this type of door.

So over the last few weeks, Pedro has been running around between carpenter and blacksmith to window glazier in order to have the door ready by the time I arrived and it looks great.  The biggest surprise, Pedro decided that he was going to give me the door as a gift and all I can say is what a wonderful and generous gift it is.  I think this is Pedro’s way of making up for some of the challenges we’ve had in getting this door organized and it’s a testament to his good-natured personality.  While not everything can be perfect or done on time, the job will get done and correctly.  Muchas Gracias Pedro.

The entrance to the terrace that required the door is quite high and large.  Pedro employed the same fellow who built the rest of the solid doors for the house.  You can see from the photos, the design is very close to one of the drawings I had sent Pedro and the doorway now provides a beautiful view to the exterior palms which brings in wonderful light to the corridor that connects the top of the circular stairs to the upper bedrooms.

Cararra Conundrum -updated

I’ve been working on a number of problems related to materials that I ordered from Texas and later shipped to Panama.  For the most part, I’ve had fairly good luck with the majority of items I have purchased, especially given the number of pieces I ultimately shipped overseas.

It’s no surprise to run into problems when so many things have to go right in order to have shipment leave one country and land at your doorstep in another a few thousand kilometers away.  For example, I’ve had a number of items go missing from my container when it was held for ransom on the docks in Panama by the customs officials.   Everything had to be removed, inspected and then re-packed into the same container.  Things can go missing and it’s not a surprise when they do.  So I have to replace a few new light fixtures, a couple of shelving units and a chair.   One would think if you were going to steal a chair you would try to get both chairs as they are a matching pair. In my case, it appears one chair is enough.  This is Panama and nothing has to make any sense.

I’ve also had problems with missing granite counter tops that did not make the container in Texas,  so problems can happen on the other end, not just Panama.  I’m working on resolving that problem now with the supplier and I’m hopeful we can come to a happy resolution.

At the moment, I’m working on the Blanco Carrara marble that I ordered from Emser Tile in Texas for the entire powder room.  All of it arrived in good condition but not all of the tile is Blanco (white) Carrara.  This may not make much of a difference to most people but in my case, I ordered White Carrara for good reason and it has to be all White Carrara for this room.   It’s easy to confuse white marble for White Carrara marble.   There are certainly Carrara look-a-likes or people who may try to sell you Carrara marble that is white but quarried from some other country.  The reality is there is only one Carrara marble and it comes from the Pyrenees in Carrara, Italy.   It might look similar but if it’s not from Carrara it’s not Carrara. End of story.

Update:  Today, I travelled to the local importer of Italian Marble and Granite called Bordignon.   I spoke with the owner who is Italian and travels to Italy a few times a year to buy product.  He spent a considerable amount of time explaining the differences in Carrara marble and he also stated that they have other types of Carrara marble.  It appears that the product that was shipped to me matches perfectly with a marble called Calacatta Carrara which has warmer undertones of beige and light yellow.  This is exactly what was shipped to me, not the Blanco Carrara that I ordered.  You can see the difference in this photo:











The photo below shows the same sample up against the warmer Calacutta Carrara marble and you can see it matches the warmer Carrara perfectly:

In my case, I received an order of Carrara tile that was simply labeled as “white marble” and sold to me as Blanco Carrara.  The true color of Blanco Carrara is white with streaks of grey to black and combinations of both.  It does not have any other colors and it certainly does not have warm undertones.  The white is usually a cooler white when it appears without any grey or black and there are variations in color from white to grey with streaks of black like these photos:

You can see the distinct bright white, grey and black streaks.  No other colors!



If you look at the last photo of Carrara tiles you can see the difference between the old product and the replacement that I reordered from the same company.  The small 1×1 inch marble tile has colors of light yellowish beige color in them and the larger 2×2 tiles are correct in color.  Further investigation with Emser tile states that the marble came from India where their supplier supposedly originated tile from Carrara Italy.  What’s your opinion? 

Emser Tile has agreed to refund my money if I get the tile back to them –  That leaves me with another problem;  The cost of the shipping the product back from Panama is equal to the price of the tiles.   Certainly a good move on Emser’s part knowing that it’s unlikely that I will pay for the shipping costs.  Bottom line, these are not Blanco Carrara tiles.  They don’t match any of the rest of the shipment that came along with this order from Emser Tile and I have now confirmed with another importer of Carrara marble that the product I received from Emser is not Blanco Carrara.  As far as I’m concerned, Emser is playing nice knowing that I’m not going to spend the money and it won’t cost them anything.  I intend to take them to task and will report anything new as it become available.

Update June 28, 2012:  Emser has refunded half my cost and let me keep the original order of marble.

Spiral Staircase complete

My first post since I returned from my quick trip to Panama.  It was a very busy couple of weeks punctuated by the Easter holiday, which is one of the biggest events in Panama.  Unfortunately, I was unable to get as much accomplished as I had hoped. 

We have officially started the bathroom tile installations.   It was important to make sure the tiles were going to be installed correctly and they waited until I got to the site to ensure I was ok with the install.   Juan Carlos who has been installing all of the tiles at the house made a sample of each wall in every bathroom with the correct tiles and we approved each bathroom one by one.  I did not take any photos simply due to the fact that I did not want to show them to you until the work is completed.  I think you are going to be amazed at the look of the bathrooms especially the powder room which will be 100% white Carrara marble.  This look will evoke the “revival” component of the house which harks back to the early part of the 20th century.  The polished nickel hardware and white pedestal sink will complement the black and white mosaic floor. 

Juan Carlos has been doing a terrific job of keeping the tiles in their rightful place.  Both the floor tiles and now the wall tiles will need careful attention in order to give justice to the patterns Nicola had originally designed for each bathroom. 

He has also just finished the spiral staircase and I’ve taken some photos to include in this post of not only the staircase with the re-finished Canterra stair treads, Talavera tiles, belly picket iron railing but a photo of Juan Carlos himself. Here he is sitting on the completed stairs, which is not something I see him do often. 

Juan Carlos, Canterra stair treads, Talavera Tiles, Wrought iron railing:

Double click any photo to enlarge:

Wrought iron railing installation

The iron railing that I spent so many months agonizing over the design and fabrication is finally ready to be installed on the staircase. 











You may remember from previous posts,(,  that I tried to find a blacksmith in Panama that could fashion such a staircase but to no avail. I finally made the decision to work with a blacksmith in Canada to fabricate the wrought iron balusters and railing based on a model we had taken from the plans and drawings.   Afterwards, we dismantled the staircase into parts and had them shipped to Panama.  That was a lot of work but it’s beginning to look like it is coming together nicely with the crew in Panama working their way up the stair case. 





The hand-painted Talavera tiles are now on each stair riser.









 You can see that each baluster is connected to the side of each stair rather than on top.

It gives the staircase a decorated look while it remains clean and functional.  I was particularly cognizant not to over decorate the wrought iron.  Overall, the circular staircase with all the different elements is fairly busy and I did not want the wrought iron to overtake the look of the staircase, but to complement it. I’d like you to see the rustic hand hammered wrought iron details but not at the expense of the Canterra stair treads, Talavera tiles, wrought iron light fixtures,  tall windows and the 5 meter chandelier. 

 Here’s where it all started, Manfred from Custom Ornamental Iron works:









Stair treads


Things are getting back to normal at the project his month.  The road that fronts the house will be paved with the addition of sidewalks and as this endeavour progresses, I’ll be posting photos in the weeks to come.

A year ago, I spoke of the stair treads that I had ordered from Mexico for the circular stairs inside the tower.  At that time, I had to have templates of each stair tread copied on site and sent to Mexico where the stone workers cut each slab of stone into individual stair treads. 


The Canterra stone is a softer material similar to limestone and if we were not careful in packing them, they would most likely break on the long journey from Mexico to Panama.  So a great deal of care went into ensuring they were crated properly and I was happy to see they arrived without breaking.  Each tread is four feet wide, two inches thick and heavy.  You need two people to move one tread.

It was not until recently that we were ready to fit each tread to the concrete steps.   After all that planning, we discovered that almost all the treads had been bullnosed on the wrong side!  The templates we provided to the stone cutters were not clear as to which end of the tread should have been bullnosed.   Thankfully, we have Juan Carlos who has been able to re-cut each tread to fit each stair and re-bullnose the correct sides.  Whew!  It would have been another awful and costly mistake.  Here are some photos of the tower stairs with the Canterra stone placed on each tread.  The hand-painted Talavera tiles are still to be installed on the riser of each stair along with the wrought iron railing I had shipped to Panama from Canada.

The Tower takes cover


Well, here you go, a couple of quick snap shots taken earlier this morning on Pedro’s cell phone.  What you see is the wood roof that is now being installed over the tower.  This is a little different process from the previous roofing installation.  This time, we want to achieve an exposed wood ceiling between the rafters that you can see from the interior of the house.  The exterior of the roof will still receive the same treatment as the rest of the other roofs including radiant barrier and plysem.

It’s the last roof to be completed and the reason it has taken longer to finish is due to the lack of dry wood that has turned into a dry wood obsession of mine.   I think I could make a lot of money drying and selling dry wood in Panama.  At the moment, the roof  is still in rough form but will look great once it’s all up and properly finished.

You can also get an idea of the height of the tower and entrance to the house by looking at the two workers standing next to the tower.  Mind you, I don’t think they are tall men, but you get the idea.

I’ve always felt the house looked smaller in photos that do not have people in the frame.  In some of those photos, the house looks like a photo of a play house.  Anyway,  here are the two photos sent from Pedro this morning.

On a technical sidenote, you can see the 6 square openings at the top of the tower in both photos.  I designed these to be open without glass, just mosquito netting on the inside and louvered wooden slats on the outside to keep any rain from making its way into the house.

Warm air naturally rises to the highest point in the house and cooler air tends to want to stay near the bottom. That is why your refrigerator is colder on the bottom than on the top (despite the fact that you might have a freezer on the top)  Depending on the house, the difference in temperature can be as much as 10 to 20 degrees between the ceiling temperatures and the ground temperature.   The idea is to take advantage of the  way warm air behaves in an semi-enclosed environment.  In my case, the warm air naturally wants to rise to the highest point in the house and as it exits the upper portion it causes the air in the lower portion it to take its place. Essentially its a natural cooling system.  Of course, I’ll let you know how theory compares to reality when I get to put it to the test next month.


Back on Top

The sun has finally come back and the workers are back on top of the roof(s) to finish installing the last of the clay roof tiles.   The smaller roofs that cover some of the lower windows and doors were also started and it’s great to see the shape of that part of the house come together.












                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     The new Moorish arches in the livingroom,  master bedroom, kitchen and the entrance to the 2nd and 3rd bedroom are now roughed-in.



Wrought Iron is driving me crazy

Well, what else is not driving me crazy these days?  I’ve been thinking a lot about what needs to go in the next shipping container destined to leave Texas in September.  There are bathroom faucets, kitchen faucets, toilets, showers and appliances not to mention furniture and light fixtures.  Most importantly, I’ve been worried about how I was going to get the wrought iron I need for the circular stairs, window treatments and grilles designed -hopefully by a blacksmith in Panama.

The problem I have is the wrought iron I want needs to be hammered and worked by a craftsman with an artistic eye for detail.  The area in which I am building my house has no artisans that can provide these services.  Most iron work and welding that I have seen locally is fairly basic and designed to be practical.  So once again, I am looking to find someone who is probably nowhere to be found in Panama.   I’ve considered using artisans in Texas that my designer has recommended and I have also spoken to an individual in Panama City that works with Iron.   The latter lacks the artisan hand-made and hammered look that I would like to achieve.  I’ve also heard of an individual in Boquette, Panama that comes recommended but not sure of the quality of his work.  I have made some enquiries and I am hopeful that he turns out as good as his recommendations.  I’ve discovered that most Panamanian workers do not like to travel very far from home.  Boquette is about 6 hours from the construction site so this would be a problem I would have to overcome.

Back home in Canada, I’m now thinking that it may be a better idea to have all the window grilles made here so I can personally work with the blacksmith  on the design and I can also have all the items powder coated to keep the steel from rusting prematurely.   I would then ship the product to Texas where I would have the items crated and placed in the 40 foot container.  The window grilles don’t require any welding or work once they’ve been made and would only require installation which could be done by a couple of the construction workers on site.  The real problem I have is finding someone who can install the circular staircase which would come in pieces and require on site bending and welding.

I’m hoping to have a solution to this challenge soon.