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What design features make a house comfortable?


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I am interested in what you have learned about the design features of that contribute to general comfort in the climate and milieu - things like ceiling height, open floor plans (or not), orientation of the house, layout.  So I am not looking for reminders about noise, neighbors car dependence etc.  Having looked at many photos, I see lovely bright houses with lots of tall windows (which I suspect is expat, but also perhaps modern comfortably middle class Mexican style), and dark interiors (which I suspect is a traditional Mexican solution to heat and sun).  One book I read mentioned poorly designed newer houses for the expat market (which I took to mean that expats want houses that incorporate features they are used too, even if not suited to the local climate and building materials)_.

An example would be: shade on the south side of the house.  Not: I would hate to not have a bathtub (though in fact I would hate to not have a bathtub!).

FYI, we are planning an exploratory visit this summer. If we feel this is for us, I anticipate renting rather than buying, starting summer 2018.  So right now, this all goes into the information hopper.  But it's fun for me to speculate and learn more.  I have already learned so much from comments on this board - like how much less  storage space there is compared to most NOB houses built after about 1960.  Thanks to all in advance, Elisabeth

 

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When making the big move to Mexico, one soon discovers that most people have entirely too much to store. If people haul out all their clothes, they may end up dong some culling and sorting with three piles (1) things you actually wear (and will bring) (2) things to give away and (3) very nice things nobody wears;  going to the consignment store. Same deal in the kitchen.  (Even so, I have kitchen stuff I haven't used for 12 years.)

Once in Mexico, with the typical older house with few closets, we discover the "armoire" as a substitute.  Works well and many local carpenters will make them plain or fancy, at a reasonable cost.

The cost of utilities here will make you seriously doubt the appeal of high ceilings. 

Af first, many people loathe the idea of barred windows and doors.  Then, they are robbed and start looking at the decorative wrought iron solutions.

Good luck, and welcome to the adventure!

 

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Have plenty of windows for cross ventilation and the front living side of the should should face the south to get the sun in the winter to take advantage of the heat from the sun and the back non living area on the north where it gets the sun in the summer when it is warmer.  Also in the winter the north side of the house is colder since there is no sun on that side.

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We have high ceilings and low utility bills.   Almost no energy is spent heating or cooling.  We do not own a heater or a/c.    Our home faces south with a large shaded veranda on the south towards the view.   The passive heating and cooling is about all we need.  Inside our home rarely gets colder than 68F or hotter than 83F.  The shaded south facing veranda is a blessing not a problem.   The concrete and brick construction of the homes in the area provide decent insulation and mass for passive heating/cooling.   There are a few days where a heater would be nice, but it's not essential.   For us noise is a bigger issue than climate so don't ignore that when designing a home ( double pained or laminated glass).  If anything the good climate provides freedom in design like glass door walls, skylights, and large verandas.   The UV radiation is strong here, we ended up putting tinting on the 19 skylights in the living room.   

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Tough question to answer as it totally depends on your style. I like character in my home. So I have niches and wrought iron rectangular grilled windows. I am not a fan of really high ceilings because, for the couple of months that it is cool at night makes it very hard to heat. I face east but have no windows at all on the north side and am grateful because the sun blasts the north side all summer long. And, as stated above, cross ventilation and good fans are a must.

You can always renovate but as a friend stated "brick dust travels further than you would expect". Make sure you like the floor because it will be nasty to replace the tile. If your house is not grounded, it's not that big a deal to ground it...been there done that. Storage can be created. And DO take that marble with you and check both the terraces and the roof to make sure, not only that the rain drains away from the house, but that it also drains towards your exit pipes (gutters in the U.S. or eaves troughs in Canada)

It's a journey... old Scottish saying "when your house is finished, the hearse is at the door"

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Our Chapala centro home faced south, was large and had three interior patios, which provided light and cross ventelation to all rooms.  The north side had a full length veranda with screens and a doggie door.  East and west walls were common with other homes. There was parking for two or more cars in a courtyard off the main street, plus two other garages off a privada, with space for three or more additional cars; an important consideration in Chapala or Ajijic, where streets may be crowded.  We did add gas taps in several rooms during remodeling, but used only one radiant propane heater, on low, in the living room, as using the fireplace was too hot most of the time &  good hardwood is very expensive.

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North/South orientation. Windows in the right location to provide cross ventilation. We have a long hallway with doors at both end and are grateful for the lovely breeze. (Just the same as when I was a child in South Louisiana!)

I like interior patios and we have several. I like skylights, we have several. 

We happen to have a lot of storage capacity in the kitchen, which is great.

Most places here do not have enclosed garages as in the US and Canada, so little storage for "outside" things, except for a small bodega. 

I do wish we had a tub.

Ceiling fans in every room are very handy.

We have no heater or AC.

Look to where your gas tank is located, so that the accessibility is easy.

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I will think I am in heaven if I can have an interior patio.  We aren't looking for a particularly large house, so I don't know if interior patios will otherwise fit what we need.  Of course it would be great for cat containment (I worry about them climbing plants against exterior walls, and escaping).  Of course, sometimes the interior courtyard flooded in my Tunisian house, and water spilled over into interior spaces.

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I keep just such a folder if house notes & ideas in case I build another one some day. Our ceilings are 10'  high. Take a lesson from the old south; the height lets the heat rise and cool so living level is always cooler. Terraces are hugely important as you will do a lot of living outside. To put a dining table and chairs and a seating grouping a 21' depth (front to back) on terrace is neccessary. Don't forget to include small tables for holding your drinks or kindles in your seating group. Ceiling fans in all rooms are very desirable for the couple of hottest months March and April. Don't forget to put fans over seating area and over table on terrace.  We do use heat or air and the fan is all we ever need. Strange as it sounds, an outside fireplace on your terrace in a corner out of the wind is a real delight in the three cooler months for entertaining or just sitting.  A faucet to water plants on terraces is desirable. The wonderfrul "miradores" are usless unless you have an elevator to haull you drink and snack cart to the roof level. You do not want any 3 part sliding doors to outside as it is very difficult to use a stick in a tripple. If constructing run conduit for speaker wire to any place you might ever want to have speakers, same for camera wiring and satelite cable for TVs. You have to really watch and verrify that the electrician actually runs the ground wire to all outlets and to the main box and then to a ground rod or two. Plan to bring quality receptacles like Levitron from the states or replace them latter. Closets need ventilation or small fans. An out of line of site for a clothes line would be really nice and I don't have one. The interior court yards or terrace gives burglars an out of site place to work at breaking in so designing it requires some thought. The drying conditions are always good here and electricity and propane for dryer is expensive. You will find drying the laundry outside and then tossing it in the dryer to soften it up would be the best choice. We have nearly all glass on the south side and we have tinted glass in all windows and doors. We have the darker tint, called "Uva" in the glass shops here and it makes the house much cooler.  Skylights over your lavatorys and vanity counters are very useful and will need to be barred inside or outside for security. Electricity here is expensive, so think about sloping the roof to the south at proper angle for solar photovoaltics someday, or solar heat panels for the pool. With the price of electric power you need to use all LED bulbs to control cost. You will want outside security lights around the house and they should be on one curcuit and have a photo sensor to turn them off and on. You could use a utility sink somewhere for the house keeper/cleaner to fill her mop bucket. A fill pipe for your propane tank on the outside of your boundry wall will allow it to be filled without the gas guys coming inside. If you have a wall at the street you will need an intercom or camera to see or ask who is at the gate and you might want the electric lock you can open remotely. It is not customary for a contractor here to ask where you want phone lines and or computer lines, you will have to initiate this discussion. If you don't tell him differently the builder here will give you a dozen keys with every door keyed differently instead of all alike, be insistant! The clay tiles for the floor require refinishing and wear, spend the money and get good ceramic tiles (eg. Interceramica).

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One thing we didn't think about before coming down is that we're South of the Tropic of Cancer, so sun actually hits the north side of the house at some points during the year, so don't neglect to plan for that as well. This includes planning for plants as well as humans. Having lots of cross ventilation is important for cooling, as others have said. During the hottest time of year, it's usually low humidity, so having shade, ventilation and fans are important for comfort if you don't have A/C. 

I'm with others who miss having a bathtub. We have 2 bathrooms, both with showers, but no tub. Occasionally I'd love to have a nice soak with bubbles, but we've survived 4+ years without (I take advantage of hotel tubs when we travel). 

Off street parking near the house entrance is a real convenience when bringing in groceries and other shopping items, plus it gives peace of mind about safety of the vehicle.

When power or water pressure goes out, we use a bucket and get water from our fountain to flush toilets. Doesn't happen often, but it's a great convenience to have available when needed! Water features at the house are nice to have anyway, and that's an added bonus people don't think about.

Look at the living area and consider where you'll put a TV. We have LOTS of windows and it's almost impossible to avoid glare when watching TV during the daytime, which we do more often now since we're retired.

Consider water drainage during the rainy season. Look for streets with high curbs, indicating they might become temporary rivers when it rains. Will you be able to get to/from your house when it's raining? Will high water on the street possibly get into the house or parking area? If in doubt, ask neighbors about when happens when it rains. Remember that some streets are called "Rio" for a reason! :D 

I hope some of these are helpful. Enjoy your shopping!

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3 hours ago, elisabeth said:

I will think I am in heaven if I can have an interior patio.  We aren't looking for a particularly large house, so I don't know if interior patios will otherwise fit what we need.  Of course it would be great for cat containment (I worry about them climbing plants against exterior walls, and escaping).  Of course, sometimes the interior courtyard flooded in my Tunisian house, and water spilled over into interior spaces.

This entire thread has some really excellent feedback for you. Lots of thought has gone into all the posts.

I have a small one bedroom/one bathroom house all on one level and it has TWO interior patios (with drains) and a front courtyard with a full covered porch facing east. I have a LOT of windows but none on the north side or the west side. It took me exactly 15 minutes after seeing it to put an offer in. Some things just feel right.

I love this little house and intend to leave it feet first. All things are possible in Mexico.

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Comfort for me is the kitchen; I bake at least once per week and often will prepare meals ahead and freeze for those days when we just are too busy. We saw many houses that the kitchen was, shall I say, meager . New meaning for galley kitchen. For some that works but not me.

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I like high ceilings for the feeling of space, many houses here with those.  I like a nice large veranda and large garden space.   And at least one room that is quite large.  My house has all these.  I also like an interior room that is open to the air where I can hear the rain.  Those are somewhat common here too, not, unfortunately, in my little slice of heaven.  My house doesn`t have windowed space open on the south where the sun can burn it`s way in.  I am grateful for that.  I think windowed space on the north would be ideal for allowing light.  A light house is important to me.  Mine has skylights that bring in the light quite well. 

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For me a covered mirador is essential. A place to keep cool on hot days. A great view. And a place to hang my laundry if it is raining (otherwise I use my clothsline). Cross ventalation in the house is essential. As is openess and brightness. I need privacy from the neighbours on my property and a good view. 

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Hmmm - those lovely breezes, especially in the summer. We too have the super high ceilings and walls of glass. On those walls the "shear" fabric billows with the breezes. Also lots of green around to clean the air, our community has many mature, gigantic trees- over 40 years old. Many people from the town and lakeside take a deep breath of air when they visit, or deliver, - and it is not because we smell nice, or are burning some magical incense. To check for breezes, look for the buzzards circling above - they are gliding the thermals, they know where the fresh air is.

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I have found most kitchens in Mexico, even in new, "fancy" houses to be very poorly designed. There is a "golden triangle" when designing a comfortable, functional kitchen- the fridge, sink and stove should form a triangle, no two should be on the same wall or line. Doesn't matter much the length of the legs of the triangle. Most fridges here are stuck over at the end of the kitchen like an afterthought, with no counter next to it where you would conveniently set your groceries down in preparation to transfer into the fridge, or when taking things out to use.

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Here's a video of our floor plan, which we really like. You can see a snapshot around the 3:00 minute mark. Two cupolas for light/ventilation, two boveda ceilings, kitchen triangle per mudgirl, center courtyard.  We also have a Mirador with stairs outside. We haven't lived here long, but its been very comfortable so far this "winter."

 

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I like a traditional Mexican home WITHOUT steps up and down between rooms. We leveled our main floor (and replaced all the tiles, which was easy). I know I can wander around at night without doing any real damage to myself.

The gardens and courtyards and fountains are what make it really wonderful.

 

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Prudent, you are so right. Mexican building "standards" and worry about flooding has made it so that almost every house has a small step or two somewhere, that can be lethal at night to aging bones and vision.

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I bought an ancient Mexican style home with thick walls, low ceilings here and there, crummy foundation and nightmare kitchen.  The central courtyard around which all rooms revolve had long since been roofed over and had a  single skylight covered with dirty yellow corrugated plastic.  HOWEVER, it was a perfect location (for us) in the heart of Ajijic with off street parking on one of the quieter streets.  Eight years and a bunch of money and aggravation later, it's just about all MY way with a large north light skylight in the center, a galley kitchen that WORKS for two cooks and I'm "snug as a bug".  Location is ALL! It can make your life hell for any number of reasons...or can make any old house lovable with good remodeling.  And lots of patience.  Remodeling is the ultimate PITA, and it's not for everyone to tackle.:rolleyes:

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Important design features for the type of climate Ajijic/Chapala has are:

Higher ceilings to increase ventilation (the house will be cooler in winter too, but that can be solved with well placed south windows). 

Avoid a design that faces west, sun radiation year round will overheat the house.

Use brick or adobe (heavy materials) to gain thermal mass which will maintain indoor temperature stable and confortable year round. Outdoor temperature starts at 5 or 6C in winter and by 3 pm it can be 30C... and 18C to 33C in summer....those temperature swings if controlled with thermal mass will result in confort indoors. If possible avoid the cement blocks (they tend to expand with solar exposure and create a bunch of little cracks on the interior plaster)

Take advantage of the exterior, make sure your design includes a proper relationship between the indoors and outdoors. The climate allows it and it is the best part of living in Chapala. So shaded terraces, patios etc... make for very confortable spaces.

Be careful to have your interior house level is at least 12 inches above surrounding garden and soil. There is a lot of humidity in the ground and if the house is not above it you will find humidity on the walls fairly soon.

 

Solar radiation and illumination levels are high in Chapala, so you dont need huge windows to have good daylighting. And the ones you have should be well placed to avoid direct sunlight into spaces or they will overheat. Especially the ones facing west and north west. 

 

Hope this helps,

 

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