bed and breakfast construction

A Sundial in the Rainforest

The lawn in front of the rainforest inn villa overlooks the Caribbean sea. Because it's often too muddy to walk on Curtis Humphrey, who volunteered with us a couple of years back, built some amazing brick paths. He designed them to spiral out from the center. This design, like the rays of the sun, called for something interesting for the focus. We found an old stone carved bird bath at an importers and installed it in the center. 

Normally that would be the end of it. Beautiful bird bath and lots of birds in the rainforest.  But the birds never visited our welcoming bath.  And we are lucky to have plenty of birds. Lizard cuckoos in the tree by the driveway, the monkey call of the Puerto Rican screech owl, Guaraguas high overhead, humming birds, vireos, Puerto Rican todies visiting every tree and bush, hovering over the pond, everywhere you look except the bird bath. Our rainforest birds weren't  the least interested in our bird bath. It rains here constantly, there's water everywhere, so a bird bath in the rainforest is completely useless. 

It's pretty sunny on the villa front lawn (when it's not raining) and it seemed ideal for a sundial. They're not available in Puerto Rico (I didn't consider that there might be a reason you don't see sundials here) so I started searching eBay for sundials. They are plentiful on eBay. Lots of choices, different materials, brass, ceramic, cast iron, and different styles: horizontal dials, vertical dials, equatorial dials, polar dials, analemmatic dials. We settled on horizontal dials as thats the one you most commonly see in a garden with the wedge shaped gnomon pointing north. You see I was learning the nomenclature. Sundials aren't that simple. Ebay had lots of horizontal sundials for sale and I measured the birdbath to see what size it should be.

Next I filled in the birdbath with concrete and tiled it with a nice compass dial pattern of Travertine (limestone) tiles. I cut them to size around the edges and glued the vertical ones on with epoxy and later set the surface ones in thin set. Then I grouted it with a nice bronze colored sanded grout. It looked great, ready for the sundial.

Luckily I didn't buy one of the factory made sundials on eBay. They would have looked good but they wouldn't have told time. It turns out that bird baths aren't the only thing that doesn't work in the rainforest. Sundials, the factory made variety, are setup with a gnomon and face markings for the northern latitudes. Down here in Puerto Rico, near the equator, they have to be custom designed. So now the whole sundial project was in question. As you can see in the photo though the bird bath did look good with a tiled face and it certainly wasn't a bird bath anymore.

I kept looking at sundials on eBay and then I saw the perfect one. The eBay listing said: "Working sundial custom made for your location." would design the sundial based on my latitude and cut it out of steel using a plasma torch. He had an example of his work shown (held by a goat) and it looked like exactly what we wanted. I sent Jamison the PayPal purchase and a couple of phone calls later (turns out he's from Maine like my wife) he built our new sundial and mailed it down to us in Puerto Rico. He powder coated it with bronze paint baked in an oven so it wouldn't rust in the constant rains and I mounted it slightly raised so it would drain off and stay as dry as possible.  And it tells time. 

Now we're into Permaculture

It seems like every year there's a new buzz-word for the way we do things at the rainforest inn.

  • Sustainability
  • Eco-resort
  • Permaculture
  • Appropriate Technology
  • Recycling

We do them all. We collect rainwater in cisterns. We compost. We built the high post-and-beam ceilings out of old cedar recycled from the large old multi-family home that was here before and destroyed by two hurricanes. We grow lettuce in old gutters. We're just finishing an aqua-culture pool, recycled from a big old cracked swimming pool, that will grow tilapia for our dinner from the many decorative plants that thrive in the pond water (actually pond scum). We save electricity every chance we get and are moving on to the installation of a large windmill (when the technology is there with enough reliability and absolute quietness like we're used to here). Our septic system is split with gray water for the gardens. The aqua-culture filtration tank will have lettuce and tomatoes growing in it (and big beef steak tomatoes are impossible to grow in the heavy rains up here any other way).

But why do we happen to be running a bed and breakfast that fits in with all the new eco-lodge projects and incorporates so many buzz-words? Do we study on the internet all the coolest things and copy them or is it a coincidence? I think there is an explanation for the coincidence. We built our finest "wedding suite" from recycled cedar because it was beautiful wood but mainly because re-cycled wood was free. We collect rain water in cisterns because, at the time, there was no other water source. We conserve electricity, have green hot water heaters, high ceilings with large breezy windows and many fansbecause electricity here is so expensive. We orient the houses and the windows to catch the constant cool trade winds. All the power on the island is from imported oil burned in inefficient power plants and very costly. We grow spices, papaya and bananas and everything else we can because it makes the best yummy fresh breakfasts for our guests and (similar theme here?) it saves us money.

I think the same thing is happening with a lot of other small businesses and households like ours. The solutions seems to be to try and supplement your power with solar and wind resources. Grow your own. Enjoy what you have and be creative with your new projects.

Don't feel bad if someone asks you why your latest project is taking so long to finish.  It turns out that doing everything yourself slowly and buying each of the components as you can makes for far more interesting results. It isa lot more fun and rewarding to know that most of that construction was done with your own hands. And it is sure a lot of fun showing guests around our completed projects and basking in the admiration.

To Be or Not To Be... Chlorinated

We have a huge ugly hole in our courtyard that’s big enough to bury a dinosaur,  thanks to an old visit from hurricane Georges. Like Bill said in the previous blog, sometimes even a much needed project to make the place beautiful for the guests has to wait it’s turn. We have looked at this hole for so long we hardly notice it anymore, kind of like the mother who ceases to hear her child screaming every day while the rest of the world wants to pull their hair out. I’m sure the guests notice it though.

For over a year now we have been telling our guests,”Please excuse the huge hole in the back that used to be a pool, as we are waiting for the perfect weather and to schedule the workers to repair it”. Ha! How long can we really get away with that one, before one of our returnining guests calls us on it? Finally we have agreed on my idea, which is one we had discussed during our first year of work here, of making a natural  pond with fish and beautiful aquatic plants in and around the water.

We will continue sending all of the bathing beauties to our natural swimming hole at the end of our hike for a swim and spa pedicure (by the shrimp), which is a  whole lot more private and romantic than any ordinary pool could ever be. I know our dogs will love the natural pond on a hot summer day. It will be a lot easier maintaining it if the frogs, bugs and leaves that might possibly fall in don’t have to be removed every day and are just part of the new aquatic ecosystem. Also at this high elevation in El Yunque the pool would have to be heated in the winter and we do not have our massive solar panel project going yet either and the pumps and filters would still burn lots of electricity belaying our eco-lodge green foot print.

We do plan on putting in a solar heated  hot tub outside beside the pond on the deck for the guests to soak after long hikes. It will have a view of the Caribbean on one side and the rainforest on the other. For our guests who enjoy swimming in a traditional swimming pool they have the option of renting Margarita’s 5 acre secluded estate home that we manage next door.

We plan to landscape our pond to achieve a serene and zen like effect. We will  be building a thatched gazebo beside it which will house the hot tub. One side of the pond will be used for a waterfall that is the outflow from the bio-natural filtration system. The  tranquil trickle of the waterfall with the solar outdoor lighting will give it a nice romantic feel and night blooming Jasmine will fill the air with a lovely scent. Outdoor lounge chairs will be scattered about for our guests to hang out there.

Most Inns and guests houses on the island have traditional swimming pools. We will be taking a risk by not having a pristine turquoise blue swimming pool on our web page as an advertisement like everyone else. Our Inn is a true eco-resort which shouldn’t have a pool with pumps, energy wasting heater and  chemicals. We would prefer to spend that money on really nice linens and other amenities for our guests’ comfort.

Not to be.... chlorinated, no! To be a new home for fish, frogs and beautiful aquatic plants.

Fixing the porch railing

The chalet had a porch railing all around it still even after the main house it was connected to was destroyed in hurricane Georges. That railing ended behind the chalet where the big porch over the old pool used to be. We have replaced the old scary rotten wood deck that was around the pool with a big new concrete sun deck. Later I'll have to tell you about what we decided to do where the big old pool is. Laurie hated that old porch railing from the day (four years ago) we started working on our rainforest bed and breakfast. She thought it looked like a horse corral (appropriate since there were horses on the property when we moved in that we had to find homes for). We're a team but I convinced Laurie to give priority to jobs that didn't involve tearing something down that was at least useable until some pretty major things were done first like hooking up the electricity, installing pumps in the cisterns, fixing the plumbing, and putting on a couple of roofs (it is the rainforest so roofs are important).

We have made the central part of our complex (where the chalet and the villa are) the priority -- making it as nice as possible.  Laurie found a picture in one of our many design books and she told to make the railing just like that picture. I took a few liberties and came up with a design which looked, somewhat, like the picture and was fairly easy to do. We have a nail gun that shoots galvanized ring-shank nails that have a coating of hot melt glue on them so that is my weapon of choice. The new "balustrades" are treated pitch pine 2X2's with the lower end cut at a 45 degree angle as a water "run-off" and an interesting detail.

The whole project came together very quickly. Laurie tore off the old 2X4's and we fitted a top and a bottom 2X4 for attaching the new balustrades to. Then we marked out a good spacing (we chose 6.5 inches) which varied according to the space between the existing railing posts which like everything in this old house seems to be from a measurement system that didn't depend on any crude instruments like levels or tape measures.

Then I cut all the 2X2's on the cut-off saw, adding the 45 degree detail on each end. We nailed them in place with the gun and had most of the front railing finished in one day. The next day I put the rest in place with the help of a visiting friend (Julio - now a skilled carpenter) and Laurie painted everything a dark gray to match the cedar.

Our bed & breakfast building techniques

When we moved in and started building there was no electricity, no water, and the one mostly finished building was full of destroyed furniture and had a leaky roof. The property had been abandoned for five years after hurricane Georges destroyed the main house. As I have told many guests when giving them tours of the property, we filled five 30 yard dumpsters of garbage when cleaning up the hurricane damage. My immediate goal was to finish the villa and chalet so we would have rentals to have some income as soon as possible to help with the monthly home depot bills. Laurie's goal was to clean up the property and make everything look nice. You can guess which one of us does the accounting. We finished the chalet first and started renting it out that summer (2004) and had a few guests while we worked on getting the villa ready for the season which starts after Thanksgiving. To help keep us on our toes I had the first renters booked in the villa November 15th so if we didn't have it finished by then we would have had some explaining to do. It worked out that the day our first renters showed up Laurie was still sweeping sawdust out the front door as I was leading our new guests in the back door after checking them in. Now that we had two rentals completed and enough income to defray the constant Home Depot (we call it Home Despot) bills our next goal was somewhere for us to stay. The chalet was built over a large garage. We cleaned out the horse feed, tack and god-knows what else and I built a temporary kitchen on one side. The kitchen was fairly important as we bill our place as a bed and breakfast so Laurie needed somewhere to make the breakfast. In the wall dividing the new kitchen from the rest of the garage I put in pantry shelves. This temporary kitchen is the one we still use today and our guests comment (when seated on the long mahogany table) that the farm house style kitchen is so romantic. They don't know that if you open the dishwasher door all the way it may unbalance and fall over because I haven't installed it completely only just resting it on the packing pallet which it came in and hooking up the pipes and power. I installed the stove top in a mahogany cabinet that was part of my shipping agency office (very nautical) in the distant past and the oven is on blocks. The central work table we made from an antique examining table from a pediatrician. I finished it with a large cast iron sink mounted beside the dishwasher. On the other wall we have two large refrigerators, one a commercial unit recycled from Laurie's flower shop and the other a very nice two door well-known name brand "Elite" machine with an ice maker that is only capable of working 91 days or until the end of it's warrantee whichever comes first.

I think I better make a new paragraph. I didn't realize that describing our quant farm house kitchen would take so many sentences. The worst part, the embarrassing part, is the bedroom which Laurie and I slept in for the first year of operations. So our bedroom was behind the wall of pantry cabinets, basically on the other side of our quant farmhouse kitchen. There were several things about this location for a bedroom that were annoying:

1. Whenever the commercial refrigerator's compressor kicked-on you stopped being able to hear yourself think which would disturb my REM sleep patterns (Laurie was more annoyed by other things further down in this list but since I am writing this I will order the list with the things that most annoyed me first). The lesson to learn from this is that no matter how cool it is to have an expensive commercial refrigerator in your kitchen remember that the people who make the household units know a thing or two about what you might want in your home as opposed to your factory and being startled out a sound sleep by the jet-taking-off sound of a commercial refrigerator's compressor kicking off is not a selling point.

2. The bathroom we used was not very close to our bedroom. For our first year the only working bathroom was under a tarp in the north wing of the main house (which became the villa). Running through the rain on the slippery tile floor was hard to get used to. Sometimes we would get stuck inside waiting for a rain to subside. Remember that we live in the rainforest. Later I built a bathroom in the south wing (we call it the Anderson wing after the volunteer who did most of the masonry work). But access to that bathroom still involved walking through the kitchen and then across the south breezeway. We decided that having a bathroom adjoining your bedroom is not a luxury.

3. The roof over our heads was the floor to the upstairs. That is a convoluted way of saying we were living downstairs. I know that lots of people live downstairs but I never was a very good apartment dweller (witness the fact that I moved a mile into the heart of the rainforest) so I didn't suffer the pitter patter sound of feet upstairs very well. Sometimes in the middle of the night my imagination would take over and I would try to deduce what the sounds coming from upstairs were--perhaps heavy fishing boots and a game of musical chairs? I didn't know but I laid awake anyway.

4. Occasionally guests would ask us where on the property we lived. Our place is a rambling mansion of five houses in various stages of repair so a wave in almost any general direction usually dismissed this question but Laurie was never comfortable with it. We certainly weren't going to say: "Our bedroom is the squalid nine-by-nine room with the cement floor on the other side of the pantry."

Laurie just came in--interrupted this writing--to tell me the dishwasher fell over. She bought some new cutlery that is very heavy stainless steel and you really can't pull the drawer out all the way when it is loaded with that weight. She has already forgotten how bad our first couple of years were and wants me to mount the diswasher. Now that we live in the south "Anderson" wing of the house and have our own private bathroom and a front room with weight training equipment and all sorts of other luxuries but it is all in your expectations. Maybe if we had spent our first year staying in the stable down below with a straw floor and a mud path to an outhouse, maybe then the dishwasher falling over wouldn't be so serious.

Laurie and I still have conflicting goals. I want to finish the jungle suite (it has a huge bedroom high in the tree tops with tree ferns and epiphytes at eye level). I want more rentals available for next season. Laurie wants me to finish repairing the swimming pool (like that isn't a hole for throwing money in) and she spends hours working on the grounds tying orchids to trees and planting heliconia. The rainforest is so prolific that, lucky for me, she just concentrates on the paths between the buildings and the yard in front and is willing to let the rest of the acreage be wild. Sometimes she will be working on the grounds and forget about everything else, like dinner...