Up on the roof with trusses, a storm and a dog

HOME WORK

November 05, 1994|By Karol V. Menzie and Randy Johnson

This past week was a bad one to be up on the roof in Maryland. Of course, any day on the roof can be bad when you have to haul giant, heavy objects 15 feet in the air and nail them down. When you add a little heavy weather and a dog that does ladders, you're talking really bad.

Randy spent last week framing the roof on a house in the country. County building codes require the use of pre-manufactured roof trusses, which are triangular support frames built to contractor specifications by companies that specialize in them. For this house, the trusses had to span a space 32 feet, 2 inches, with a pitch of 7/12 -- that is, a rise of 7 inches for each horizontal foot. With that pitch, the trusses measured 32 feet, 2 inches long and 11 feet tall. They're made of 2-by-4 lumber, so they're not that heavy, but they're certainly bulky, and the plans called for 17 of them.

Just getting them on the site proved to be a trick. They arrived, clasped together with steel bands, on a flatbed truck. The house is 100 yards off a small country road. The gate has a clearance of 11 feet, 4 inches. The truck couldn't make the turn into the driveway and get through the gate -- there just wasn't enough room. Meanwhile, the struggling truck was blocking traffic on the road, including a kindergarten school bus.

The driver detached the tractor from the trailer; that allowed room for traffic to get by. The flat bed is set up like a dump truck, with rollers on the bed; normally the trusses are just rolled off. But it seemed likely that rolling trusses in the small space of the driveway would take out the gate. The only solution seemed to be handing each truss off the truck and hand-carrying them, one by one, up the hill to the house -- what contractors call a real back-intensive experience.

That left a pile of trusses in front of the house. The next trick would be to get them to the roof. A big construction company putting up 100 houses would rent a crane. But Randy and his crew of two, by now beginning to feel like slaves building the pyramids, had to devise another solution.

Like the ancient Egyptians, they devised a fairly low-tech system that made sure the laws of physics were on their side.

First they built a catwalk all around the inside of the exterior wall, a few inches from the top. (The alternative would have been trying to walk on the 2 by 4 tops of the walls, a scary thought.) Then they made a sort of skid, or ramp, of two 20-foot-long 2-by-10s from the top of one wall to the ground, a distance of 15 feet.

All three crew members would place a truss against the bottom of the skids. Then Randy and Gene attached ropes to the ends of the truss and got up on the catwalks. Mike pushed from below while Randy and Gene hauled from above. Each truss slid into place, with Mike in the house below to help raise it vertical at the end.

The roof wasn't done when the last of the 17 trusses went up; there were still two lower portions to frame. The crew built and installed 2-by-10 trusses on those areas.

This is the point when the storm struck -- an afternoon blast of wind and hail that ripped roofs off rowhouses, dropped limbs and scattered garbage cans all over the Baltimore area. Randy and Gene were on the roof and saw it coming, but expected a standard Maryland thunderstorm. This storm moved like a freight train. They had time only to grab their power tools and -- to the enclosed crawl space under the house.

As they crouched amid the cinder blocks, they realized the homeowner's dog was still in the house. This dog, a big beautiful spaniel who loves people and hates other dogs, spends her days on the site, barking at squirrels and looking after the crew, whom she adores (she usually gets part of their lunch, sometimes intentionally).

Randy managed to call the terrified dog to the kitchen door, then pull her into the crawl space.

They expected to see toppled trusses when the storm had passed, but fortunately the only damage was some tar paper blown off and some bracing left dangling. The trusses had held.

They were ready for the next back-breaking step in the process, putting on the sheathing -- 4-by-8-foot sheets of a special grade plywood. And the question again was, how to get the plywood up there.

Their solution: A 32-foot extension ladder from the roof to the ground, carefully placed at an angle so the plywood could be pushed up. The angle was important; it had to be flat enough that the plywood was easy to push, and steep enough to allow the treads to still be walked on. One crew member could lay the sheet on the ladder and shove it up to the top, where another could grab it and pull it onto the roof.

Randy and Gene had hauled some sheets up one afternoon and were nailing them down when Randy turned around and saw the dog standing on the roof.

She was extremely pleased with herself, grinning, her ears flying in the wind.

Randy felt his heart skip a beat. "Gene, did you bring the dog up here?"

"No, I didn't bring her up," Gene said, indignantly. "She must have climbed the ladder."

She did. She had taught herself to climb the rungs and now there she was, 15 feet above the ground, happily reunited with her humans.

So how would she get back down? At 45 pounds she was just light enough to carry -- but not on a ladder. Finally Randy got hold of her collar and led her slowly back down the ladder. Then he put the site's picnic table bench across the bottom of the ladder so she wouldn't try to go up again.

Randy wouldn't want to relive this week, but it did give him an idea. If spaniels can climb ladders, maybe they can be taught to paint. Randy hates to paint.

Mr. Johnson is a Baltimore construction manager. Ms. Menzie is a feature writer for The Sun.

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