Construction in Cuba offers slew of challenges


Christman Co. is working with Cuban laborers on the site of Ernest Hemingway’s estate near Havanna. Photo by Pat Evans

Even some of the most basic construction fundamentals, such as the use of a chalk line, are lost on many Cuban laborers.

As a consultant on the restoration and construction of buildings on Ernest Hemingway’s 12-acre Cuban estate, Finca Vigía, Christman Co. Senior Vice President Ron Staley has witnessed a whole new world of construction. Staley made six trips to Cuba during the past four years, as Lansing-based Christman Co. helps Cuban workers build a conservation lab and administration building for Finca Vigía. The lab will be used to help preserve and document the home’s collection, which includes letters as far back as the 1910s.

Boston-based Finca Vigía Foundation received special congressional approval to assist the Cuban government — which owns the property and operates it as a museum through the National Cultural Heritage Council — on the project and chose Christman Co. and Staley as the consulting contractor because of their restoration work on various buildings in Washington, D.C., such as President Abraham Lincoln’s cottage. Staley said the partnership between all parties on both the American and Cuban side has been excellent to make the project work.

The foundation brought in Christman Co. to help with the additional buildings because of the priceless collection residing in the estate, which includes Hemingway’s clothes and mounts from his trips to Africa, furniture, half-drunk liquor bottles and 9,000 books and magazines, 2,000 of which have edge notes. His fishing boat, Pilar, also is on-site near his swimming pool.

His neurotic tendencies also are on display, including his daily weight log next to his scale in the bathroom.

“He walked out in 1960 with the intention of coming back, then he committed suicide,” Staley said. “Everything is there as if he walked out yesterday.”

The Cubans always have treated the home and collection as precious and began building the administration building and restoration workshop and asked for help on work that had been completed. As the Cubans expected, the building was not up to standards to house historically significant artifacts, and the American consultants confirmed the inkling.

New buildings were restarted, and Staley found similar issues on his next trip.

“We started to realize material availability and worker training was a huge issue,” Staley said. “By now, the foundation was getting concerned, as this priceless collection had no air conditioner, no humidity control, little security and no fire protection.

“The architecture isn’t exciting; it’s the collection that’s important.”

Staley had conversations with a construction counterpart in Cuba and found the work would essentially take forever because of the limited construction materials. There are no Home Depots, Lowe’s or even corner hardware stores. If the crew had bricks, they likely wouldn’t have the mortar, and by the time the mortar was there, a neighbor down the street probably had a use for the bricks by then, Staley said.

Christman Co. signed on to identify the materials, cost and logistics for what it took to finish the project in a timely manner. Finca Vigía Foundation put together a group of organizations, including American Express, Ford Foundation, ATT, Caterpillar and Bob Vila, to support the $900,000 project.

A list was compiled of every conceivable piece of equipment the project would need, right down to nails. Each of those pieces had to be documented and licensed by multiple U.S. government departments, as well as the Cuban side.

The licensing is very strict.

“Case in point: we had agreed Caterpillar would donate 10 gallons of motor oil and our license had 10 one-gallon containers, and they sent two five-gallon (containers),” Staley said. “We had to redo the license so what we said would go, goes. If we send nails, we have to say how many.”

Each shipment of the materials corresponded with a segment of the project to ensure pieces would not disappear. So, the first shipment was meant to enclose the building and keep things dry and the second was lighting.

“The other assumption we had to make was we were shipping to a distant island with no tools to do the work,” Staley said. “Most tools were primitive, and so we put the tools and fasteners and spare parts and all that had to be licensed to ship down. Yet, every time we go down, we forgot pieces, so we have to ‘MacGyver’ tools. He’s alive and well in Cuba.”

On another visit, the realization of worker knowledge truly set in. Workers said they understood a task, but pieces like windows and flashing were not installed correctly. The roof tile was not laid straight and when workers were asked about chalk line, they had a puzzled look on their face. The boxes of chalk lines were unopened.

“What we found out, you have a country that hasn’t built anything in 60 years, but it’s a pride issue,” Staley said. “Roof tiles were laid up and none fastened down. The roofing guy said, ‘Our hurricanes aren’t that strong.’

“He lives there, I don’t, but still, we like to have things fastened down. What we found was there was a lack of understanding of importance of materials and what we were trying to protect.”

With the decades-long embargo still in place despite some easing by former President Barack Obama, Americans aren’t allowed to actually complete the construction work but can only train the Cuban workers. In December 2016, Christman Co. scaled up its training efforts and sent five carpenters for two-on-one training.

“It’s intensive training and education getting the Cubans to international norms and standards,” he said.

Staley said he might go down two more times, but Christman Co. crews likely will go there four or five times this year, with hopes the project will finish up by the end of this year.

Staley said Cuba is a fascinating place, because it’s like going back in time.

“The first time, it was pinch yourself, and luckily, I had a few days to check out Havana,” Staley said. “Now, after the sixth trip, it’s work. The minute you land there, it’s, ‘Ahh, I’m back in Cuba.’

“I don’t think until you go there you can understand. It’s going to a third-world country, but it’s only that way because it stopped in 1960.”

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