The (first) Ten Commandments for Building in Turkey (or any other country for that matter!)

From before to after on the last project

I’ve built twice in Turkey and I’m about to build again. I am at the girding of loins stage, the long drawn out planning stage because it is all in the planning and the timing. This is where I remember; where I reflect on all that I have built before and all I learnt then and since and apply it to the new project. It takes a while, but thinking is free and every lesson learnt is already paid for!

Here are the basic rules of building, not the technical ones but the practical and ethical ones, the ones you think about and incorporate into the project plan before you start getting mucky. They don’t apply just to Turkey; they applied in Mexico and to a lesser degree in the UK when we built there and in the past if I’ve down played them or tried to bypass them I’ve suffered accordingly.

1. Thou shalt be present on site throughout the entire course of the build, day in and day out, even if this means developing the bladder capacity of an entire rugby team and the endurance of a transatlantic rowing team. If you are not on site you will suffer the consequences and those consequences will often not be immediately apparent because someone will have rendered over the mistakes by the time you next put in an appearance.

2. Thou shalt not build in the summer. Don’t even bother trying. Your labourers will bugger off to work at their brother’s restaurants at the drop of a hat, your cement will dry too quickly and crack, those workmen that bother turning up will be half hearted and their work desultory and error prone in the horrible heat. Particularly do not build when Ramazan falls during the summer!

3. Thou shalt be nice to thy neighbours. Don’t ever underestimate how much impact your build has on your immediate neighbours. Be nice to them, explain stuff, apologise for stuff and do things to make their lives easier. Dust is the bane of our lives out here and Turkish housewives wage a 24/7 battle against it, so be nice to them about any mess you create or inconvenience you cause. Bring little presents, smile, drink tea, apologise a lot and make your men be considerate too. If you don’t, when your build is done, you won’t have friendly neighbours and boy do you need friends here.

4. Thou shalt employ local people. Your rendering team may come from Torbali, your carpenters from Soke and your engineer from Ankara but for the small jobs and the ad hoc labouring employ local people wherever you can. Spread the wealth a little, become part of the community, it shows you want to belong and when the build is done you’ll have a network of local connections to help you with the inevitable shakedown problems that all buildings produce and which normally turn up ten minutes after the main construction team has vanished into the sunset.

Phil (sadness), Metin and Sezai working on the foundations for the main house, November 2006

5. Thou shalt do thy homework. You need to have a basic working knowledge on everything from earthquake construction to foundations to damp proofing, if you don’t have this knowledge then you won’t know what questions to ask on site and you won’t be able to make informed choices on things and will have to rely on whatever is currently en vogue and which possibly doesn’t work or isn’t the right choice for this project.

6. Thou shalt respect the climate. We have a forty degree temperature variance over the course of a normal year. Here on the Aegean coast we can go from -5 to plus 35 in under a month. We have torrential winter rains. We sometimes have snow. We will have frost every year. We will have summer winds that blast like a hair dryer on hot. We basically have a climate that plays holy hell with the fabric of a building. Paint will flake, wood will warp, guttering will struggle to cope, and assorted other issues will arise with the ebb and flow of the seasons. It’s hard to explain to people who haven’t experienced it but the climate dictates the building or you will be fighting the elements for decades to come. My advice, very wide eaves, position your windows so they get the low winter sun and are shaded in the summer, pay more than usual attention to the orientation of your house on the plot and plan for shade, you’ll need it, lots of it, and if you want a lot of wood be prepared to maintain it annually.

7. Thou shalt respect the land. Builders here have this horrible habit of using a sledgehammer to crack a nut and when they see a plot of land to build on the first thing they do is get the bulldozers in and scrape it clean of every living thing right down to the subsoil. Which is silly and lazy, and causes problems and whilst it makes their job easier it makes your job of living in the resultant house much harder. Treat the land gently, study it before you start building and understand that everything you change about the lay of the land will impact on your home and your neighbours’ homes in the torrential winter rains and the burning summer sun. If you don’t need to alter it, don’t alter it, adapt your design rather than re-engineer your plot because basically, if your design calls for radical changes to the topography then your architect was lazy and you’ve bought the wrong plot.

8. Thou shalt go for tried and tested technology. Turkey has a tendency to adopt the new, which is super, but not helpful if that technology is untried in Turkey and is going to be installed experimentally by someone who doesn’t have any real experience of it but is really keen on the idea. A German architect down in Dalaman once said to me, with the benefit of her 20 years experience of building here, “Give it five years, if something is in common usage in your home country give it five extra years before you incorporate it into a design in Turkey because otherwise nobody will know how to install it or repair it properly.” I’d say that five years has shrunk to two years now as Turkey leaps forward but if you are off the beaten track tried and tested features are best unless you really understand the processes involved yourself.

9. Thou shalt insulate and insulate and then insulate some more. It doesn’t sound particularly important but honestly the biggest regret I have with my previous projects is I didn’t insulate more. I doubled the insulation between the first project and the second; I’ll double it again for the next one. You can’t have too much insulation; it’s as simple as that.

Working on the artist's impression for new project

10. Thou shalt understand how things work and play by the rules. Here in the laid back Mediterranean countries of Manana and Yavas people tend to have a relaxed attitude to authority on the basis that out of sight is out of mind. Builders are fond of casually telling clients that there are no rules here, you can build what you like where you like and everything is “problem yok!” That’s not true, you do need planning permission, even in the villages, you do need to follow building regs and you do need to do things properly. It is your job to make sure the authorities know what you are doing because having them on your side is very, very important. I recently bought a new renovation project but before we bought it we took the draft project plans to the village president and asked him how he felt about them and what the zoning situation was (villages have zones too!). One meeting of sharing information and asking for opinion got him onside and enthusiastic about the project and offering resources like a free structural report and got us a certified zoning plan of the property showing what we could build. It also allowed the president to put faces to the people who were coming to his village and that’s important too, anonymity makes for spurious gossip!

10a. Thou shalt pay attention to thy construction rubbish – just as an after thought, because I live in a beautiful valley that gets blighted every now and then with crap fly tipped from other peoples’ build projects. Please ensure you know where your rubbish goes, and that means everything from hardcore rubble and empty cement bags to the nasty plastic straps that hold bundles of roof tiles together and the dangerously sharp rusting off cuts of rebar. Make sure the guy who transports your rubbish away is taking it to the right place and not just sloping off into the mountains and chucking it over the nearest ledge. It is your responsibility, you chose to come here because it’s beautiful; please don’t let your first act be to bugger it up with your rubbish.

After these Ten Commandments there are a hundred more to learn, this is not a definitive list, there is no definitive list, but it’s a starting point to plan from and it is about developing a way of thinking about a project that is holistic; it looks at the environment and the community around the project and the country the project is in rather than just the building itself.

Houses are homes and homes are part of communities in the country they are built in, you can’t just look at the building, you have to look at the whole picture.

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