Apartment renovation is one of my big projects lately. My grandfather was a carpenter and my dad picked up a lot of his handiness. I picked up some of this and mixed it with my engineers eye to look at how things are put together. As an adult I figured I could fix a lot of things in a house or at least knew how most things work. Wow, most of what I thought I knew about architecture applies only to US construction. This should be pretty clear, but it still hits me sometimes. So much of the knowledge I picked up in the US doesn’t mean much here.
Just the other morning I was talking to the handyman about putting in new carpet. He is someone I trust and who seems to know his craft very well. However he looked at me askance when I asked what kind of pad gets put under carpet. Americans build with wood and the pad is important to keep the carpet from having problems and so you don’t walk on nails. My floor is concrete covered by sand covered by another inch layer of some other padding. He said you don’t need any more padding and that gluing down the carpet is how it is done. Like I say, I trust him so that made me rethink my common sense.
Under the Putz
One of the most bizarre things about renovating in Germany that I have learned is the concept of Putz. The Putz is a layer of gypsum that is a few inches thick over the structural bricks. Wallpaper goes over top of this to be painted. This is a perfectly normal thing in Germany and all of the handworkers understand how it works. Me? Nope.
In renovating a building here, the question of “auf Putz” or “unter Putz” comes up. This is the decision of whether to have pipes, wires and such outside of the wall or laid inside the venerable Putz. The later certainly looks nicer but is more work and thus more expensive. I decided to get the new wiring laid “unter Putz”, which means I got great big slits cut in the wall. I thought I could fix the walls myself, but in the end I had to hire someone to come do it. I am ok with this as it means he will do a professional job while I’m at work and I can spend my weekends doing other stuff.
In the US, we have gypsum, but it comes in the form of 4×8 foot sheets called drywall. You nail it to the wood frame and spackle it together. That same concept is here, but no prefab board. The gypsum that is inside drywall gets put on the walls as a paste. It makes for wonderfully thick walls to dampen the sound and provide insulation, but is much more difficult to manage. I have dealt with drywall with my dad, but this Putz I am just learning.
Do you own this place?
A question that I get from most handworkers is whether I own or rent this place. Huh? Why would I be asking them to tear out walls and put in new carpet and wires if I didn’t own it. Apparently though it is actually common for renters to do renovations, I assume with the owners permission. Renters stay a lot longer in places and have a lot more rights than renters in the US seem to. In a land where you bring and install both your own lights and kitchen including stove, sink and counters, I guess it sort of fits.
Speaking of which that concept of taking the kitchen and lights with you when you move is another place where common sense from the US just doesn’t work. When you rent or even buy a place you assume everything that is attached(nailed) to the floor to come with the apartment. Sometimes the refrigerator gets taken and often the washer/dryer, but definitely not the countertops in the kitchen or the lights. In Germany this isn’t true and may not even be true if you rent a place. Even renters bring and install their kitchens and lights as they move.
Other Breakdowns in Common Sense
Architecture is not the only thing a lot of common sense is different as an expat. Would you assume that having a cold stomach would make you go to the bathroom? Annie at Wayward Traveler talks about the Italian men believing just that. Germans believe a cold neck is the route to sickness and yet open windows in the middle of the winter.
There is a lot of information in our heads about the buildings we live in (ok, maybe just my head). Much of it we have acquired without even noticing after years of living in a place. When you become an expat and shift into another culture and architecture the common sense may not work anymore. It can feel jarring or just plain weird for things that you assume are correct to just not be. What do you do when your common sense doesn’t apply?