Finished Patio

Another round of apologies for a long absence.  I’ve been up a ladder and/or out in the cold, racing to get the place finished and on the market.

Mas Oms is FOR SALE as of March of this year.  I’m still adding a few “extra” touches, but I consider the project FINISHED.  Below are photos of the “patio” (gated courtyard in front of the main façade) in its current state.

Two general views of the façade:


Two views from the living room windows:


And a view from the balcony off the dining room:


Plantings include lavender, prostrate rosemary, creeping thyme, Mediterranean cypress, plumbago, jasmine and bougainvillea.  Below is a long row of year-old lavender getting ready to open its blooms:


In the planter boxes I placed the farm’s 19th century iron olive press and its original millstones, now in pieces.


And finally a couple of “before” pictures for posterity’s sake:


The final touches I have planned for the patio are more landscaping around the mill stones and a coat of anti-rust oil for the gates and the olive press.  Hope to get this done before the summer heat arrives!


The pool!

This project has stretched out over an unusually long period.  I kicked off the planning in January 2017, with June 1 as the date of completion.  But I failed to get it in writing. Perhaps I have been worn down by the prevailing Mediterranean cazh attitude.  Perhaps I thought it would be impossible for a pool to take more than 6 months to build.  But it dragged on right through the summer.

The architect sharpened his pencils and got to work on a plan that, as usual, incorporated my ideas but refined and improved them.

PISCINA MAS OMS - Piscina -04.05.2017 PROPO MOD 2.jpg

That’s a lot of deck and initially I was skeptical.  But as I see the final product, I think it’s a great use of space.  Previously, I had a long and skinny weed patch outside and lower than the walled patio in front of the house.  Now I have a large, useable space only 2 steps down from patio level.  With a pool!

Sadly, actual construction did not get underway until the full ripeness of spring, 2017.  The first step was to pour the foundation–we are building up rather than digging down, because the pool zone needs to come up to meet the level of the patio zone.


The builders set a brick frame on these foundations to create a tub for the pool and supporting walls for the deck.  The deck consists of concrete beams laid across the walls, filled in with brick slabs and then topped with a 5cm layer of fresh concrete.


We switch over to the pool builders now, who filled in the brick tub with rebar and gunite, a sticky concrete sprayed at high velocity.


Inspiration board:


Glass tile (or gresite) is considered an entry-level construction material for pools in Spain.  But for me these tiles are exotic and blingy–nothing like the traditional plaster in the pools of “mi país.”


When filled with water, the beige gresite with white accents and grout takes on an aquamarine tone.  That is, of course, unless you have a shockingly high iron content in your well water.  In which case, the pool takes on a rich and opaque rust tone:


As Walter White liked to say, all problems can be solved with chemistry.  And so it was that the iron was removed, and my pool became sparkling and inviting.


For ten glorious days in August and September 2017, I had full use and enjoyment of these turquoise waters.  Then fall fell early and more than a pool in se, I had another maintenance responsibility and another set of big bills to sort through.

When the snow melted and the swallows started getting frisky in the spring of 2018, I added the final touches to the pool area.  I added a safety fence in powder-coated black, many square meters of high-end artificial grass, and a pergola for shade during the hottest months, which are right around the corner.


The pool at Mas Oms is officially open for the season.  Won’t you come and take a dip?

Upstairs baths

I have two more upstairs baths ready to plaster!  Both are en-suite bathrooms in upstairs bedrooms.

Below is the first bath I’ve built with a tub, which requires a lot more brick work than I realized.  To start I built a shelf behind the tub and at the back (away from the faucet).  This shelf both supports the tub and acts as a handy place to put your soap, loofah and rubber ducky.


I tiled the tub surround and back shelf before installing the tub.  I was able to work standing on the floor (vs. in the tub.)  This tile is a massive 1 meter by 50 centimeter format–you only need a few tiles to complete the job.

Next I mortared the tub to the brick base and bolted it to the wall and shelf.  Note the tub is elevated to accommodate the plumbing for the drain.  You can’t put the plumbing in the gap between floors because in Spain there is no gap: the floors are not built with wood beams.


Also, unlike in the US, bathtubs come without a finished front face.  You need to build that face and tile it.  First I made a flat face with bricks called supermaó.


Then I tiled the front face and the remainder of the tub surround.


I had to raise the floor by 10cm with buckets and buckets of mortar, my least favorite task in Spanish building.  With the floor in place and tile grouted, here is the plaster-ready product:


For the final en-suite bathroom, I chose antique-effect white subway tile and two formats of floor tile in a color called “dove” by its overpriced Italian manufacturer.


Here, I sank the drain into the concrete slab just as I did in the master bath. The rim of the drain sat 2.5 cm above the floor and I allowed another 1.5 cm for the slope of the shower pan.  This meant raising the shower pan and the adjacent flat area buy 4 cm.  Instead of raising the entire bath floor by 4cm, I sloped downward to meet the 2cm rise in the doorway.  This saved work with the mortar and increased headroom in a bathroom than is a bit tight.  Floor looks flat to me!

There’s one more upstairs bath to share–the powder room or “bath of courtesy” as they say here.  First I tiled a backsplash:


Then more tile on an accent wall behind the toilet.  This was a terrible job because the floor was not level.  I reached row 3 before I realized that the tile was going on crooked (not plumb) and I had to pull all the tiles off, scrape them, wash them, and start again.  Now the tile is plumb.


Because I finished the tile job last spring, I was able to get the plasterer in for this bathroom at the same time as the downstairs baths.  This fall I finished the floor, raising it with an agonizing 8 cm of mortar and adding traditional Catalan hydraulic (also called encaustic) tiles made of cement.  Here is the final product and an action shot showing work in progress, complete with the exit pontoon.


I am creating a highly custom vanity and sink which is In Progress.  I have the countertop and the sink but need to get smitty in to build the iron base.

Next week we will look at the pool!

The Master Bath

They say that kitchens and bathrooms sell houses, so I felt a good deal of pressure as I embarked on the master bath.  It only needs to be PERFECT!

I wanted to get the shower drain as low as possible for two reasons.  1. The ceiling is a bit low in this bathroom because I added another bathroom above it.  2. The shower drain is the lowest point on the bathroom floor and the rest of the floor needs to be raised above it–that involves laborious mixing and hauling of mortar, like I did in the kitchen.

I jackhammered a hole and a channel into the concrete floor for the Schluter Kerdi drain and the drain pipe.  I did so GINGERLY because I did not want to rupture the hot and cold water pipes, which you can see in the photos above.

The drain poked up 2 cms from the concrete slab.  I could not get it any lower.  Given the size of the shower pan, I used a 3 cm grade to the drain, meaning a height of 5 cm at the perimeter of the shower pan.

I tied a 5 cm wooden board to the concrete slab with anchors and screws.  Then I used sand topping mix (4:1 sand and cement with very little water) to establish a 5 cm-high perimeter on the other three sides of the pan.  Finally, I filled the pan with sand topping mix and used screeds to establish a uniform slope toward the drain.  That’s how you build a shower pan.  (N.B. In the USA you can buy a custom-sized plastic one from some very nice people in Georgia.)


After waterproofing, I tiled the shower pan with a black marble-effect porcelain tile.

marble shower

Once the tile was in, I realized I had a problem with the shower door.  The brickwork (false wall hiding upstairs drainage) ended outside the shower zone, but I really needed it to continue into the shower so that I could anchor the shower door to the brickwork.  So I extended the brickwork:


And this is the straightest vertical surface in the house.  By a longshot.  Not to brag, but if you want something done right…

For the shower walls, Roma Statuario from Ceramiche FAP:


Now I had to raise the remainder of the bathroom floor by 5 cm, which involved unspeakable amounts of mixing and hauling and screeding mortar.  In the doorway I made a short ramp to meet the hardwood floor at level.


More Roma Statuario for the bathroom floor:


Custom made zero-profile shower door from Lasser, installed by professionals:


Custom-made wall-to-wall vanity with double sink in acrylic polymer, installed by Rob:


I added a micro-mosaic backsplash that coordinates with the 5×5 cm mosaic in the shower pan.  Once the backsplash was installed, I yanked out the vanity to facilitate plastering.  I’m hoping the second vanity install will be more expeditious.


Ready for plaster in the master bath!

Next week we will take a look at 2 more upstairs bathrooms.


The Stairs

Mas Oms has three floors, with two full-flight staircases connecting them.  A third short staircase leads up to a landing and a bedroom between levels 2 and 3 (Euro 1 and 2).

The frame of the staircases is iron.  For about a year, I lived with the bare iron and provisional (that means temporary) steps I cut out of of MDF (medium-density fiberboard or “chipboard”) that was lying around the house.  They held up surprisingly well!

I sampled a few different metallic paint options and settled on “brown oxide” from Titan.  It has tiny bits of metal embedded in it!  The effect is rusted iron, but clean and pretty rusted iron that will not disintegrate on you.  Below you can see the painted stairs with or without MDF.


Now it’s time for the real treads.  I used the same material as the floorboards [oak recovered from huge wine barrels], but the treads are a whopping 6 cms thick.  All four sides are brushed for the rustic look.  Below is the raw material and the highly technical varnishing process, which was carried out in a clean-room under the highest standards of precision according to ISO 123.456.789.

Below are views of the long flights with the oak treads in place:


Close-up of the fancy hardware:


Below is the finished half-flight to the landing on floor 2.5.  The top 2 steps will remain as is, with brick treads and plaster risers and sides.  I see I need to touch up the paint a bit!


I scraped and cleaned and scrubbed and polished the brick landing at the top of the half-flight. This is the ONLY original flooring in the house that I have been able to preserve.  Before/during:


And after, below.  You can see the winter sun gently reflected in the new satin finish.  You can also see centuries of unidentifiable stains on the brickwork.  I call it “patina.”


And finally, I had Jesús fabricate one last tread for the transition from the living area into the master bedroom.  This step is adjacent to the top of the first flight of stairs.  I’m going to try to use recovered bricks as the risers (the vertical part under the step), but if I am not satisfied with the look, I will use remaining hardwood flooring.


Next week we will take a peek at the master bath!

Hardwood flooring

I chose reclaimed oak flooring for most of the main level.  The floorboards are 1.7 cms (3/4 inch) thick solid oak from old wine casks.  They have been flattened, tongue-and-grooved, and brushed on the obverse for a weathered look.  Sample here:

I signed the fabrication contract in January with Jesús, who together with his brother runs an operation that produces traditional Catalan terra cotta bricks and pavers, as well as flooring and furniture from recovered hardwood .  We agreed that the first delivery of 25 square meters would occur in mid-March, in order to facilitate kitchen installation in April.

I called Jesús the second week of March and learned that he had not started fabrication yet.  Apparently, he got sidetracked.  Jordi, Jordi and Jordi told me the this was in fact my fault because I had not called repeatedly in the interim to remind Jesús that I was expecting the material.  Because we had a contract.

Jesús got to work and delivered the first lot by the end of March.  Here is what that delivery looked like.


The planks are milled at varied widths from 5 cm to 17 cm, which complicates the installation.  Once you pick a width, you have to stay with that width for the whole row.  Organization is key–all the planks here are sorted according to width.

I spent two weeks getting to this point:


and I was out of time and out of material.  The kitchen needed to go in and I needed to wait for more boards.  Towards the end of the lot, you are left with odd sizes that cannot be matched together to make an entire row.

In May came the next delivery.  How much, Jesús?  “All of it.”  A hundred square meters of hardwood planks, which, once unpacked and sorted and hauled up stairs on a warm day, looked like this:


I stacked the planks in the master bedroom, with the idea that I would lay floor there last.  So I got to work on making more meters of finished house:

And trying to keep things clean and tidy.  When I finished the ballroom-sized common area, I got to work on the hallway, which leads from the common area to back bedrooms.

Little trick with the hallway.  The planks are visible from below, so you can see the black “x” marks that Jesús used to keep track of the “wrong side” of each plank.  I noticed this phenom when installation was over half done.  I had to pull all the planks up and shave them with my electric plane to get rid of the “x” marks.  (I LOVE my electric plane, btw.)

To get a smooth transition where the planks change direction at the start of the hallway, I installed the common-room planks too long and then used a hand-held circular saw to cut the sides of all the planks in one go, while kneeling on the ledger that guided the cut.  I’m happy with the results.

At this point I pulled all of the remaining planks out of the bedroom and organized them in the common room.


You can see that there are a lot of short planks  And quite a few long ones too that overshot the distance between the runners.  I hate to waste material, so I decided to opt for a different install technique.  I started with shorter runners than normal (6 cm x 6cm) and added an intermediating layer of plywood.  I screwed the planks to the plywood instead of the runners, which allowed me to achieve a truly random plank layout and avoid cutting every plank strictly at 40/80/120 cms to meet the runners.  The result: less waste and no need to order more hardwood to finish the job.

Once summer was over and I had re-established my perfect solitude on a Catalan mountaintop, I was able to finish the parquet install.  The tricky final hurdle was a landing at the end of the hallway.  Behold an aluminum door leading to the Goatshed.  This is a provisional (that means temporary) door that is common at Spanish construction sites.


The bottom of the door is below the level of the new hardwood floor, so it had to go before I could finish the floor.  This had to happen when it was cool enough to close the windows (to avoid a dust cyclone) but warm enough to have a hole in the house.  First the demo, then the installation of the runners:

And finally the installation of new door.  Toni is coming in March to touch up the plaster.


Next time we’ll finish the stairs!

New kitchen!

I previously mentioned that the kitchen was scheduled for installation in April 2017.  In fact, the install slipped to May, but no one who has ever remodeled (or done anything in Spain) will be surprised by this.

My kitchen designer decreed that self-installation was not an option.  So for a change, I agreed to pay the price in Euros instead of tears, sweat and toil.

Before the kitchen installation could begin, however, I needed to lay the flooring.  More detail later about the hardwood flooring  that covers most of the main floor (Euro floor 1/ Anglophone floor 2).

I don’t like hardwood in the kitchen because of previous experiences with water damage.  Instead, I opted for porcelain tile (Roca) with a hardwood print.  First, I needed to raise the level of the kitchen floor by 8 cm to cover the mole-like trails of mortar that contain water pipes, electrical wires and the other instalaciones of the house.


First I built a wooden frame to divide the tiled area from the hardwood floored area, as well as the invisible under-cabinet and under-island areas.  Then I got to work mixing mortar in the one-legged cement mixer that the builders left in my courtyard for the better part of a year.


I mixed and I mixed.  And I hauled the mortar upstairs.  And I poured and screeded.


And I mixed and hauled and poured and screeded.


And more of same.


I ignored the advice of every Jordi, Jordi and Jordi, who insisted that I mortar and tile under the cabinets and instead installed water resistant fiberboard. to save on money and effort.


Over the mortar I poured a thin layer of self-leveling compound, which (strangely) does not actually level itself.  You have to spread it out with a trowel and even then the level of levelness is inferior to what this amateur can achieve with a screed.  The compound, however, does seal itself for a much more solid surface than can be achieved with the sand topping mortar.  This makes it much easier to slide a notched trowel over the surface when tiling with thinset mortar.


The tile instal was a bear.  I was convinced at the time that the difficulty lay in the unevenness of the floor.  However in a more recent bath install, I discovered that the tiles themselves are slightly bowed.  A bowed tile will never make a perfectly level floor, not matter how hard you try.  With lots and lots of effort, I think I achieved something pretty close to level.  I’m not sure whether to avoid this particular tile in the future or to avoid the 85 x 22.5 cm format entirely.


Once the tile was in, I began laying sleepers for the hardwood.  These are 3m x 8 cm x 6 cm softwood boards, tied to the mortar subfloor at both ends and the middle using screws and plastic anchors embedded in the mortar.   These “skis” have to be notched to clear all the tubes and mortar mole-trails.

I screwed the oak flooring to the sleepers until I was clear of the kitchen area.  I had some problems with the supply of the hardwood (more on that and the hardwood itself in the next post) and as a result I had to stop midrow in the area you see above right.

Words to the wise: (1) Never stop midrow in a flooring install.  Boots and other forms of footwear will destroy your product.  Care will not be exercised by third parties.  (2) Never, EVER, let a Catalan builder into your house until you have two coats of varnish on your flooring.

Once the flooring was installed, magical kitchen-building elves appeared and created what I believe is not too shabby a kitchen!


For the kitchen design, I chose two relatively new materials.  The cabinet doors are opaque tempered glass mounted on an aluminum frame.  The frame concept allows you to use thin and/or fragile materials that have not been previously considered adequate for cabinetry.  The color is piombo, or “lead”, which is a gray with a greenish tint.

For the countertop I chose Neolith, a large-format porcelain that is marketed as granite 2.0.  All the hardness and beauty of granite with the added benefits of heat resistance and 0% porosity for complete stain avoidance.  I wanted to go for a color that contrasted more with the cabinet doors.  There were some striking dark tones and some industrial looks that I muchly preferred.  But dark colors are often seen as risky in a kitchen, and not everyone loves the industrial look.  My Council of Advisors steered me toward a more neutral gray, a “safer” choice that was sure not to offend la señora María.

The appliances are Miele, with a gas range, double European-sized (60 cm wide) fridge and freezer combos (built in), electric oven, microwave and dishwasher (built in).  The range hood is recirculating, thus avoiding a 3 meter steel tube in the middle of the kitchen.

The kitchen is FULLY AVAILABLE for the use of my visitors.  I eat relatively modest portions and I don’t skimp on compliments…