I have a tricky assignment at work. For reasons I won’t go into here, my task is to adapt a house design to be appropriate and affordable for a middle class family in either Mexico or the United States. The floorplan of the house is more or less established. There are four critical differences that I’m coming up against.
In the united states, I would say this kind of house I’m designing would be a fairly conventional wood frame construction. It’s a house for a middle class family, nothing too elaborate in the finishes or construction, so no steel or cast concrete since you’re talking a lot more money, not so much for the material as much as the cost of labor. In the US, it makes a lot more sense to prefab a building out of expensive components and quickly and easily field assemble because time in the field is really expensive.
In Mexico, wood is a really expensive material. People just don’t build detached houses let alone for the middle class out of wood. They use block or cast concrete or brick since, opposite of the US, material is much more expensive than labor.
So we’re trying to strike a middle ground and develop a house out of concrete block since it's a standard that both countries share and you’ve got a lot of options in terms of colors, finishes, etc.
The Maid’s Room
I had a hell of a time trying to translate this one into English, more from the concept than the actual words. In Spanish, it’s “Cuarto del Servicos." Its the room where the maid lives. In Mexican households, especially for the middle class and up, it’s typical to employ a full time maid. Actually, it sounds like most people either employ a maid or are related to a maid. These are small rooms which include a very small and basic bathroom with a shower stall.
Typical American houses, especially middle class houses, (or lets say, the 3rd and 4th income quintile) do not come with maid’s quarters. There are probably college courses which explain why Americans moved away from widespread domestic service, but it probably has something to do with the high level of class mobility in the first half of the 20th century. Anyway, Americans are generally uncomfortable being waited on or with someone who lives so intimately.
The house is quite big so the (American-based) client is concerned about the budget, and the maid’s quarters is a logical choice to get axed. Unless the project is intended for Mexico, in which case a house of that size without a maids room would be kind of like a 3000 square foot house only equipped with an outhouse in the backyard to an American. It’s just a necessity. Not sure how we’re going to resolve that one because its pretty much a binary decision- either there is a maid’s room or there isn’t one, and unless you’re keeping your guests captive, there’s no way it could function as a guest room. Especially since its just off the laundry room and kitchen.
American families like big kitchens. Kitchens are the unofficial centers of the house. Kids do their homework there, parents cook, people snack, partygoers congregate, it’s an important space, and important to maintain good connections to the rest of the house. American kitchens don’t have doors, and most of them are contiguous to living and eating spaces. As egalitarian as Americans are, we like the idea that we cook for ourselves, and we are good cooks, or at least we should have kitchens which convey that idea.
Mexican kitchens, in contrast, are service spaces. The maid or the chef cooks the food, so the idea of a kitchen is the smallest possible usable space, closed off from the rest of the house, hermetically sealed. These are definitely single cook spaces, with a minimum of counter space.
Mexican bathrooms, even master bathrooms, are tiny. We’re talking one sink and just enough counter space for the sink. I don’t know where Mexican women put on makeup. I’ve seen a lot of them doing it on public transportation in the mornings, or in their cars as they sit in traffic.
Americans like big ol’ bathrooms. Maybe it's a our obsession with sterility and a Victorian culture of bathing and privacy. Maybe it's because when we are in bathroom mode (naked, engaging in biological functions, cleaning) the sphere of what we consider to be our personal space doubles in size.
Urban and architectural explorations from Mexico City to Stuttgart Germany through the eyes of a iterant architectural designer