If you think you’ve had building headaches, try remodeling a house in China, as I did over the past three summers. You’ll never again complain about American contractors.

Things start off easily enough: Neither building permits nor inspections are required for residential remodeling. But that’s just about the last of the good news.

The first step, of course, is demolition. In China this is no small task, however, since the floors are 4-inch-thick concrete slabs, and even the most trivial closet partition is made of bricks plastered with cement on both sides. 

Due to the difficulty of running pipes and wires through this kind of structure, plumbing and electrical work have to be very carefully thought out. Drilling a hole for, say, a sink drain isn’t a matter of whipping out your Black & Decker–it requires a huge, water-cooled concrete coring machine and a good hour of time.

In China, the plumbing and electrical trades are one and the same, as the term shuidiangong (“water electricity worker”) rather unnervingly suggests.

Copper water piping is unknown, so a light gauge of PVC (like our lawn sprinkler pipe) is used for hot and cold water as well as for waste piping. While Chinese plumbing systems are fairly similar to ours, electrical work is another matter. With no codes or inspectors to get in the way, wires are frequently just draped across anything convenient, whether pipes, ducts, or protruding nails. Sometimes they’re even embedded directly in wet plaster. The only bright spot in all this is that, in a brick-and-concrete house, there’s not much to burn.

Just when you think the worst is behind you, the contractors begin installing–what else?–the hardwood flooring. They attach the planks to wooden strips nailed to the concrete slab, which ultimately raises the floor a whopping 3 inches. The completed floor then serves as a giant workbench for every succeeding phase of construction. Hammering, sawing, plastering and painting all take place on top of it, quickly turning the formerly pristine surface into a disaster area.

Cabinets are typically built onsite–yes, on top of the new floor–using no power tools other than a small table saw. The carpenters make very rough cuts on a sort of crude plywood called mugongban, composed of recycled lumber sandwiched between thin plies of Lauan mahogany. Then they square up the results with lots of laborious hand-planing.

The completed cabinets are painstakingly finished with delicate hardwood veneers and coat upon coat of lacquer. Naturally, this is when the plasterers arrive and, without so much as tossing down a dropcloth, proceed to splatter the newly finished woodwork from top to bottom.

Painters follow the same routine: No dropcloths, no masking, and no particular interest in avoiding things that weren’t meant to be painted. The concept of protecting finished items, whether cabinetwork, floors, hardware or appliances, simply doesn’t exist. Thanks to this puzzling work sequence, Chinese contractors spend dozens of hours repairing damage needlessly inflicted on previously finished work–though only if the owner insists on it.

Still, what’s most amazing about a Chinese remodeling project isn’t the indescribable bedlam of the process, but the fact that it’s often quite beautiful when it’s finished. It’s a bit like an American hot dog: The end result is good, but you’d rather not know what went into it.


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