Chapter 7 - The Foundation
We purchased our land in Colorado in the spring of 1992. After two camping trips with friends and family, we had reconnoitered the land enough to flag the path for the driveway and the power line, find the perfect building site and mark the cistern location. While we were in the area, we located an excavation contractor who would bulldoze the driveway path and install the cistern. Our major accomplishment was the building of the perfect picnic table. My brother in law, Tim, did such a great job that we are still using this picnic table to this day.
Anxious to check on the progress of our driveway and cistern, over the Christmas holiday in 1993, I drove from Pennsylvania with our tiny wood stove, my chainsaw, an old storm window, some leftover brown shingles and a plan to build a shed near the building site. By then I had realized that camping in a tent was no way to conduct the project of building a house. As if to underscore that notion, in the middle of shed wall construction, it began to snow. It snowed for an entire day. Fortunately, I had my tent, a tarp, a picnic table, a campfire and lots of scrub oak for firewood. Tying my tarp over the tent entrance and the picnic table and using the 2x4 scraps for sidewalls, I constructed a porch in front of my campfire and settled in to watch it snow and dream of my home to be. Unfortunately, in my excitement to build a shed, I had neglected to supply myself with adequate provisions to sit out a blizzard. I remember melting snow on the campfire for water and eating carrots and not being the least bit concerned.
The next day, the sun came out and the snow began to melt. I was amazed by how dry the snow was and how quickly it evaporated. By noon, the dirt driveway had dried enough to get my Olds 98 down the mountain to town and get some food. The next day, belatedly well provisioned, the shed decking and walls were dry and within a few days I had a much more comfortable place to be. My 8 by 12-foot waterproof shed featured a twin-sized bed, a table for my propane stove, shelves for food and water, a window for a view and a wood stove for heat. This was a vast improvement over the tent, tarp, picnic table, and campfire arrangement! I returned to Pennsylvania with great expectations.
I officially accepted early retirement from my engineering career in March of 1995. Leaving Pennsylvania on April 12th and arriving in Colorado on April 15th I found three inches of snow on the ground. The shed was cold so I insulated the wall cavities with one-inch blue board and gathered as much scrub oak firewood for the wood stove that I could find. Three days later it snowed seven more inches. This was not what I had in mind. My spirits were boosted by the arrival of the power company to install my transformer on the poles that were installed the previous summer.
The prospect of electricity in my shed inspired me to go shopping for temporary power equipment. I spent the entire next day pounding a six-foot copper grounding-rod into the Rocky Mountains. By the next day, with a 100-foot extension cord strung through the trees, I was the proud owner of the worlds’ most expensive light bulb. Meanwhile, the weather turned beautiful and melted all the snow. Once the snow melted, there was mud everywhere prompting the installation of a stone shed doorway patio and sidewalk.
Just as I was getting comfortable, my excavation contractor arrived. We had decided to hire a highly recommended old local guy name Butch to excavate our 45 by 45-foot daylight basement and install the waterline down to the building site. For the next few weeks, Butch, his son, his helper and his wife came every day prepared, not only to dig a monstrous hole, but also feed a small army. Little did I know that this excavators’ wife was a locally renowned campfire chef. As if my magic, not only did our daylight basement, waterline, two small runoff collection ponds and a circle driveway appear, but so did every contractor in the vicinity. It seems that campfire banquets were a major local event. This unexpected delight not only provided a terrific daily lunch, but the opportunity to meet every concrete contractor in the area. Lunches proved to be negotiation opportunities for the next phase of the project, the foundation. Even more exciting, the new water line featured a frost-free hydrant near the temporary power panel. I was in heaven! With 100 feet of water hose strung in the trees, my shed now had power and running water! Butch also scouted around the property and found a sand stone outcropping near the surface. He dug up this sandstone, spread it on the entire 1000 feet of driveway and crushed it with his dozer. Now I didn’t even need to worry about a muddy driveway and ten years later is still is in good shape.
Selecting an appropriate concrete foundation contractor was easier than I expected. One guys’ dog bit me, that scratched him. The second guy insisted that he needed a gigantically expensive concrete pumper truck imported from 100 miles away. I was later to learn that this might not have been a bad idea. The third guy couldn’t do anything without four walls. The fourth guy had the lowest price, asked lots of questions, looked at my plans, and guaranteed a perfectly square and level daylight basement foundation. The fourth guy, George, got the job.
One of the difficulties that I encountered in this rural area of Colorado was that no one had any experience with building a timber-framed structure. When I took my blueprints, complete with frame and detailed joinery drawings to Vince, the local building inspector, he told me that there were not any timber frames in the county, he had no experience in the building of a timber-framed structure, the building code had no provisions for building a timber framed structure and he hoped that I knew what I was doing! At one point, he suggested that I install rebar spikes in the concrete floor to hold the nine central posts in place. I told him that the plan was to put a foot thick concrete footer in the center of the foundation floor to support the weight of the 80,000 pounds of timbers that I planned for these posts to support. I really did not think that these posts were likely to move with the deck framing attached to them and 80,000 pounds of timbers stacked on top of them. He felt a lot better when I told him that I planned to put copper sheeting plates under the posts to protect them from being rotted by the concrete.
I had similar problems with George. He had no problem with my perfectly square and level foundation requirement; in fact, he was insulted that I would expect anything less! He was however a bit baffled by my requirement for the foot thick 10x16-foot central foundation slab. When I told him that I wanted one inch steel straps embedded in the walls exactly at the positions of all of the frame posts, he was beside himself. He said that normally, houses use sill bolts on 16-inch centers around the foundation. I said that yes, I wanted those too! Being an amiable guy, he cooperated with these strange requests as long as I paid for the extra concrete and the fourteen 6-foot steel straps. George put his foot down when I mentioned that I wanted a keyway, a channel in the footer to lock the walls in place. Once he realized what I was talking about, he pointed out that this keyway of mine was useless. The 4-inch floor will keep the wall from moving inward, the backfill will keep the wall from moving outward, and the rebar that will extend from the footer to the top of the wall will tie the footer and wall together. I could not argue with that logic. Once I saw the finished footer with its 8-foot pieces of rebar sticking up out of the middle of it, I realized that the 2x4 that would need to be embedded in the concrete footer to form a keyway would have to have holes in it for all of the vertical rebar. Once the 8 yards of concrete footer had set up, this 2x4 would then either have to be lifted out of the concrete to the tops of the rebar, or split down the middle to remove it before the wall was poured. Since it was too late for a keyway now anyway, I forgot all about it. George seems to have been right, I have not noticed that the walls have moved. One thing I did not specify was tamping the sand fill before pouring the floor. When the day to pour the floor arrived, George told me that his tamper was broken. He intended to use 27 yards of fiberfill concrete for the floor and this type of concrete would not crack. George was wrong about that. There is a long crack in the concrete floor from one side of the front of the foundation to the other. The monolithic floor that produced the front stub wall foundation down to the front footer is very thick and heavy. I believe that tamping would have prevented this crack. I learned quite a bit about concrete foundations during this adventure.
Sure enough, within two weeks and 25 yards of concrete, the perfectly square and level basement foundation walls with 2-foot returns on the daylight side was completed, thick central foundation, steel straps and sill bolts included. In the process, I learned why the second guy insisted on a pumper truck. While backing the concrete truck along the fill on the side of the foundation to reach the 2-foot returns, the fill started to cave in. Fortunately, Butches’ backhoe was still on site and rescued the truck and the concrete contractor’s forms from certain destruction.
As if that were not enough excitement, the next concrete truck managed to drive over a small pine tree and wedge it firmly between the twin tires of the rear end of the truck. I actually got out my chainsaw and cut down that tree within inches of the tires of that truck. Later, the concrete company owner actually complained that one of the truck mirrors got damaged! Fortunately, the monolithic pouring of the 4-inch floor, front footer and the 12-inch deep central foundation went without a hitch.
While Butch was digging the foundation (another lunch negotiation) he proposed to install our septic tank and drain field. In the bargain, his plumber friend would also install the house drains between the phases of pouring of the foundation walls and pouring the basement floor. On the morning of the floor pouring, I discovered three plumbing errors about to be buried in concrete. Dashing to town and being unable to locate this friendly plumber, I bought a few fix it devices and modified the plumbing myself. At that point, I realized that I was going to be the plumber for the rest of this project. Within a week, I had a toilet standing all by itself in the middle of the basement. Another vast improvement!
Both the excavation and concrete contractors informed me that they did not need my help and in fact would pay me to go away. I was not about to go away and not supervise the creation of my masterpiece.
First, I wanted a French drain around the foundation. I carried buckets of gravel to fill the excavation behind the foundation and leveled it to the base of the footer. Then 4-inch perforated pipes were laid and sloped toward the daylight basement opening, and covered with more gravel. Then a layer of tarred burlap was spread over this gravel to keep dirt from filtering into the piping and covered with more gravel.
I also wanted to get the first layer of redwood sill plates installed. George was very happy that I really intended to use the sill bolts that he had installed. I wanted to protect the top of the concrete wall from all of these contractors.
While the back of the foundation was still open, I had the power company excavate from the transformer pole to where I planned for the electric meter to be installed. They installed the underground cable and left the end hanging over the foundation back. I then put two layers of foundation coating on the walls that would soon be backfilled.
Since the extension cord and hose strung in the trees was getting in the way and I wanted the shed to have these services permanently, I excavated a trench from the foundation to the shed. In this trench I laid a 1/2-inch water line and an underground cable inside a two-inch PVC pipe. This really only moved the extension cord and hose to the basement. However, in due course, these two lines would be tapped into the house power and water systems. As long as I was at it, I put in another frost-free hydrant by the shed.
When I went to hook the shed water line to the house main water line, I discovered that my excavation crew was really good at digging holes, but their plumbing skills left a bit to be desired. They ran the 1 1/2-inch PVC water line through the back of the foundation wall with galvanized nipples and then connected the copper valving contraption that the plumber provided. Unfortunately, I discovered this poor plumbing technique after they had backfilled the foundation and covered the water line. Fortunately, the backfill was not too well compacted yet. I ended up digging down the four feet to the water line input location by hand and replacing the galvanized fittings with copper.