YOU won’t find many expats who live in a traditional Thai house they built themselves. Briton Graham Catterwell is one of them. He’s been working on two such structures for almost ten years on land in Panya Village, a high-end gated community off Bangkok’s Patanakarn Road.
Construction began in 2005 on about 220 talang wah (880 square meters), excluding the klong on two sides, and Graham has controlled the project at every phase. Now both houses are almost finished, and Graham and Jenjira, his Thai wife of 22 years, are living in the main one, a two-storey, 30m long building, together with their son and his wife’s family. There is also a smaller guest house, across the swimming pool from the main one.
“I have lived in Thai houses most of my time in this country. I have another small one nearby that I am renovating at the moment. I always wanted to build a masterpiece traditional Thai house myself, but with modern conveniences inside. There are quite a few splendid traditional central Thai houses around, but few new ones are being added. Consider it my humble contribution to Thai heritage.
“Generally speaking the space organization isn’t well-adapted to modern living in a traditional Thai house – even former prime minister Kukrit Pramoj complained of this forty years ago. That problem has been addressed in this house. It looks nice from the outside, but it works from the inside,” Graham said.
“I came across this property which had been foreclosed by the bank. It was previously owned by a Thai man who had a logging company and sawmill. He collected the best pieces of timber he could find during his lifetime and built a monstrous wooden house. He couldn’t sell it because nobody liked it. I looked at it and saw not ‘land and house,’ but ‘land and wood’ and bought it in 2001.
“Actually, there were two houses here when I bought the property, one concrete and the wooden one next to it. I started dismantling them in 2002, disposing of the concrete but carefully salvaging all the wood, taking measurements and planning how to use each piece again.
“In 2004, my wife pushed in the marker for the first pile of the new main house even before we had demolished the original houses, which was a bit silly, but never mind – it was a lucky day. During the construction of the new houses we lived in an old one nearby.
“The demolition was completed in 2004 and we started construction in 2005. Our house at the time was too small, so maybe we went overboard in the plans for this house.
“As for the design, we went through a lot of architects and in the end we used a company called Massive Design, but changed many details whilst building. I had specific requirements.
I wanted it basically in an ‘L’ shape with a wind channel to let the air come through and keep it cool inside, also I wanted at least most of the seven main roofs to be oriented to avoid catching the morning and afternoon sun.” explained Graham.“I have air conditioners here in my library and study but haven’t turned them on once,” he added, bringing attention to the constant breeze coming through the open windows. “I don’t have a problem with mosquitoes here either – the wind blows them away.”
He also designed the electrical systems in the houses because the people he hired weren’t up to the task of delivering what he wanted, including wiring to UK standards.
The house is basically finished now. “We are doing the landscaping and the last thing I do will be the swimming pool. In fact, it is there, but without water. I have the cleaning system here already. It doesn’t use chemicals; it uses ionization and oxidation.”
Graham isn’t sure how much he has already spent on the construction, but estimated it at around 40 million baht, excluding the land.
“A long time before the main house was finished, I received an offer to buy from some Thai people. They saw the house half built and loved it. They offered 150 million baht but I couldn’t sell. I have put a lot of work into this. My life is here. The price they offered at the time was probably way too high, except for something you really love. The would-be buyer was probably mad to make such an offer, and I was probably mad not to accept; it is called love.
“I spent two or three years before starting construction driving around the country finding good carpenters. I went to Ayutthaya for example, and looked at the work of crews that are famous and advertise a lot. However, I wasn’t impressed with their work. Finally, I found a team in Ratchaburi and they introduced me to another team in Phetchaburi that I used as well.
“There were different people working on the construction depending on the work being done at the time. The roof and fah prakon walls were made in Phetchaburi. It took a few years to build because the guys were busy. They had a long queue of customers. I went on my knees to beg the chief carpenter to work on my house in far-away Bangkok. He accepted, is now proud of his work, and occasionally brings visitors to see the work.
“Most of the wood came from the old house except for a few bits I didn’t have. The type of wood is a mixture, mainly ‘mai dteng’ and ‘mai daeng,’ along with other types of very old tropical hard wood.
“There are few small things, like furniture, to add to the house. The garden is almost finished. I don’t plan to build anything else, but it will never be completely finished because there will always be something we want to change,” said Graham, pointing out a natural fish pond with Victoria lotus.
“We have two monitor lizards living in the compound. They are about two to three meters long. They go for a swim in the khlong in the morning and walk around in the daytime. They are harmless and shy.”
Graham is proud of his achievement, and definitely has a right to be. When asked about his plans for the future, he replied: “Thailand is my home. I have spent more time here than anywhere else and this is where I will stay.”