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Left Coast / Right Coast: Tricks when building a house

Mike in the middle of one construction project. Photo credit: Frank Hammer.
Mike in the middle of one construction project. Photo credit: Frank Hammer.

By Mike Gold, A retired entrepreneur living the dream in the Pacific Northwest.

For those of you following my Facebook page, each day you can see additional progress being made to the house we are building just down the street from our current home.

What has been of tremendous interest to me (as an actual engineer) are all the little tricks gained through the school of hard knocks when it comes to the individual parts of home building.

Let’s start at the beginning. Our first major task was taking down a gigantic evergreen tree which was at the front of our lot and which would have blocked a good portion of the view from the house. We hired a tree service. First day, up showed four guys. The “oldest” one (about 35) was the actual climber who got up into the very top of the tree (at least 100 feet off the ground) with a running chain saw hanging from his belt by a rope. The other three were much younger and were: a. Helping the actual climber, and b. I think learning the craft.

What absolutely stunned me was the casualness with which the climber made his way around the tree. The actual order is you start at the bottom most branches then work your way up. As there were many structures near enough to the tree to warrant careful operation (another house, power lines, and the access street directly in front of the lot) I was duly impressed by the skill the actual climber displayed in making the branches (some of which weighed over 300 pounds) fall exactly where he wanted them to fall. This was done by a combination of ropes draped over branches above, and which he used to “guide” the falling trajectory, and just the right “push” as the branch was separating from the tree trunk.

Also the climber would balance on a relatively thin branch as casually as you might stand on level ground. Yet he was 60 feet or more above the ground. He did have a safety rope fastened to the tree above him – but he walked back and forth never having to use the safety rope. I learned from this guy that he was nearing the end of his “useful” life as a climber. This is strictly a young man’s game.

Next, we had to use soldier piles to reinforce where the foundation was going to be as the foundation backed directly up to a steep hill directly behind the house. They are steel girders, which get buried up to 40 feet into the ground. Then they put wood lagging between the steel. The combination provides massive strength against the hill pushing the house off its foundation.

They are inserted into holes dug by a drilling machine. Then concrete is poured into the hole cementing the steel girder in place. One trick is that sometimes the drilled hole may hit water. One has to keep the hole “open” in preparation for the concrete pour. So they fill the hole to the top with water. The water keeps pressure on the hole sides – keeping it open. They use a special concrete, which can be poured into standing water – and still “cure” in the normal way.

Next, the vertical walls of the foundation. One has to erect wooden forms on both sides of the foundation walls (approximately eight inches thick). Then reinforce them with rebar (a painstakingly slow manual process). Then the actual pour. Our foundation took 65 cubic yards of concrete. There is an “art” to the pour. You have to pour sufficient depth with each part to insure it hardens correctly, but not too much as it could possibly push out the wooden forms.

Next, the horizontal slab. Before you can do this, you have to put in place all the under slab stuff like runs for power, water, and sewage which must be precisely located. There is also an art to pouring this such that it comes out perfectly smooth and level. Another 35 cubic yards of concrete. Also in all the pours you have to synchronize the concrete truck arrival such that the pour is continuous. No small feat as the concrete plant was about 30 miles away. (Each truck holds about nine to ten cubic yards. Hence the expression, “The whole nine yards”).

Then we start the framing preparation. More work to get the physical site prepared. It takes a tremendous amount of lumber to frame a large house. You have to figure out where to store it on-site and in what order. Finally, over the past three weeks, we have been framing. These guys are so fast and so good; I never saw them use a tape measure. Yet each dimension followed the blueprints exactly.

And most amazingly, sometimes they would point out where the plans were inaccurate, even though they were done with a computer cad/cam program. And they scamper around on the beams up above each floor – balancing (no safety ropes) themselves on four inch wide beams. The most I could do was use a nail-gun on some plywood planks so I could honestly say I did actual work in building the house.

Next, after framing is done, plywood is attached to the roof trusses then the actual roof (at which time the house is mostly water tight) is put on. Then all the interior work, plumbing, electrical, wall sheetrock, on and on.

We hope to have the house done by late summer. Here’s hoping the market for high-end waterfront homes remains strong until then.

And each of these steps has lots of “insider tricks” learned by generations of previous builders. What I’ve learned so far is not to ever attempt to do something like this by myself.

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