Property of the Month: December 2010
Historic San Miguel de Allende

This three-story residence is just five blocks from San Miguel's main plaza, in the midst of the 16th-century town's colonial district. Despite the fact that the structure was built in the 1960s, and is therefore neither colonial nor historic, its recent remodel had to confirm to INAH (Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, or the National Institute of Anthropology and History) guidelines. San Miguel de Allende is a UNESCO World Heritage Site; Mexico declared the downtown area a National Historic Site in 1926. Buildings remodeled here must therefore conform to strict guidelines, even if the original structure did not.

Building facades must be painted with one of the allowed colors of cal (lime, which comes from limestone). Commercial paint may not be used. Cal produces a beautiful, soft hue, but one of its downsides is that to maintain its beauty, it must be reapplied every year or so. Among the sanctioned colors are variations of red, yellow, brown, rose, and orange, all derived from natural pigments.

During demolition and construction, the owner ran into a number of INAH-related rules that delayed the permit process. For example, an existing, open-air patio on the second floor had to go; INAH rules state that the façade of the first two floors must be enclosed. Also, all windows facing the street must have a 2:1 proportion, that is, the height must be twice the width, in order to conform to a colonial aesthetic.

Other design regulations are for practical rather than aesthetic reasons. Canales (rain spouts) are no longer allowed, presumably because they pour rain on passersby and parked cars. (This despite the fact that stone rain spouts in the form of animals and other figures are seen throughout historic San Miguel.) Interior rain gutters today must lead directly to the city sewer system. Another derivation from historical construction techniques is that bóveda (rounded brick) ceilings are no longer permitted.

When asked about some of the challenges encountered during the remodel, the owner noted: "You have no idea of what you'll find behind or underneath existing walls and floors." The building team checked the street-level floor to discover that original tiles had been mortared together but not set in cement. In order to provide a firm foundation for the building, the ground floor had to be excavated to 46 cm (18 inches) and reinstalled.

The homeowner was very happy with the services of her architect, Norberto Godinez Estrada, who worked with her on a daily basis to solve problems and propose solutions. Nonetheless she insisted that it's necessary to visit the building site daily to correct errors as they occur.

Many of the owner's own design ideas were incorporated in the remodel. With the carpenter she designed the smallish kitchen to make use of every inch, with integrated spice racks and lazy Susans and many other space-saving features. She designed some of the wrought iron wall and ceiling fixtures and bathroom cabinets, and was amazed how the construction crew turned her simple drawings into the furnishings she had envisioned.

While construction was temporarily halted during the permit process, the bulk of this total renovation was completed in just four months. The result of this intensive labor of love is a compact, centrally located, and very livable one-bedroom abode with home office/guest room, living room, three bathrooms, two fireplaces, and loads of charm.

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