The first step to putting up a house is to go down into the ground


August 20, 1994|By Karol V. Menzie and Randy Johnson

One of the few things wrong with doing a rehab -- apart from the dust -- is that you never get everything exactly as you want it. Old houses have their own imperatives: walls that won't move, plumbing that won't go, budgets that won't stretch. That's one reason a veteran of a major urban rehab now wants a brand-new house, built to fit.

The new house will still be "old" in one sense: It's a reproduction of a type of house common in the Carolina Low Country. It's one story, with a sweeping roof line that comes out past the full-width front porch and rests on its own columns and brick piers. We've heard this type of roof that overhangs the porch called a "rain roof."

The house itself is frame, with a brick fireplace at one end. It was designed to sit above the ground with no basement, so air could circulate underneath and provide cooling. This works well down South, but it didn't seem practical for Maryland. The design was changed so the house would sit on a crawl space.

Getting bank approvals, rain, getting county building permits, rain, a broken backhoe bucket, rain, the excavation subcontractor's vacation and rain delayed the project.

At long last, the day to break ground arrived. Breaking ground on a little house in the woods is done a lot differently from on big downtown buildings named after former indicted politicians -- there are no speeches, silver-plated shovels, ribbons or oversized scissors.

Instead, two or three people show up and get right to work. It's a serious business, making house-size holes in the ground. Someone jumps into a bulldozer and starts pushing giant loads of dirt around. The ground shakes, the machine belches black smoke and some earth gets hollowed out to form a basement-shaped depression.

A house seems like a big object, but it's a collection of a lot of little structures. Houses are built by degrees, by inches, in tiny pieces. Each step builds on the one before. You take it for granted when you walk into a house, the floors are flat and level, the walls are straight, the windows and doors are square. But those are results of deliberate efforts by guys with big machines, little machines, and simple tools, like hammers and tape measures.

In this case, because it's a crawl space, the excavators would dig down only 48 inches from the high side of the site, so the bulldozer needed only about three hours to tear out a space big enough for the house to go into.

Actually, before any digging could be done on the site, the excavation subcontractor had to file a sediment-control plan, which had to be approved by the county sediment control office. The plan called for 200 feet of "sediment-control fencing," black plastic film abut 2 feet tall that is stapled to stakes driven into the ground every 8 to 10 feet. The fence is installed on the low side of the site to catch any run-off. The fence allows water to pass, but holds back the silt that could find its way into streams and kill fish, destroy watersheds and contribute to all sorts of pollution problems.

Once the ground was hollowed out, it was time for more delicate work, digging the footings. Footings are a concrete base for the foundation walls. They must rest below the frost line -- that is, the bottom must be far enough below the soil surface that an average winter won't freeze the ground around it. (In this area, that's 30 inches.) For this house, the footing itself is a slab 24 inches wide and 12 inches deep.

To start, the excavation subcontractor set up a transit, a kind of telescope on stilts that allows you to "see" a level line as far as 200 feet, far enough to go across most sites. What you actually see is the markings of an ordinary tape measure held by another site worker. Once the level line is established, it's relatively simple to measure down from it to the bottom of the footing.

It takes a master of the backhoe to dig the footings. The hole has to be just deep enough: if it's too deep, the contractor will have to spend more money on concrete to fill it to the required level.

All this digging and measuring may seem mundane, but on the site, as the backhoe worked its way around the outline of the foundation, the house set its first footprint on the earth. And that was pretty exciting.

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