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There comes a moment in the foundation project when you contemplate how much of a warning creak your house will give before it collapses on you

So. This morning we went outside to tear away siding and general rubble at the base of the house to get an idea how bad the beams and joists of the bedroom floor were.

The Wandering Monk was hammering and prying away and the bottom of the west wall. I was hammering and prying away at the bottom of the north wall. This wasn’t a particularly tough job because … well, there wasn’t much solid wood to pry at.

That’s the north-wall foundation beam, such as it is, bending, cracking, and diving deep into the earth. Those are floor joists with their rotted ends hanging in mid-air above the beam. The rest is … well, was … some other part of the house’s support system.

I began to wonder how much of a warning — snap, crackle, pop — the back of the house would give before it collapsed on me. Understanding that the same thought was dawning on the Monk at the same instant (and that according to him, by the time we heard the noise it would probably be too late), I called a halt to the operation.

It turns out that a single 4×4 corner post, precariously set on a small slab of 2×6, is all that’s holding up that corner of the house for a span of about six feet in two directions. That corner post was evidently Jim Beam’s or Jack Daniels’ idea of a fix once they realized the foundation and a large part of the wall above it was going completely to hell. Oh, and their other idea was to cover the mess with siding so nobody would see how bad things were.

Plan B: Finish tearing up a 4’x12′ section of bedroom flooring along the back wall and get some jacks and posts under the non-rotted parts of the joists to stabilize the house before returning to mine the rot. Prior to jacking up the northwest corner we’ll have to rebuild the northwest corner. Because there’s nothing there to jack up.

While not a moment of great happiness, it was also no surprise to discover that the bedroom has mainly been held up by air, liquor, insects, and bad judgment for many years.

Nothing on this project is a surprise.

The only thing we’ve discovered that was done right is the two layers of lovely, sturdy flooring under the crappy linoleum in the bedroom.

And the Monk is in the process of ripping that to pieces right now.


  1. Pat
    Pat May 2, 2017 11:29 am

    Damn, Claire – while ignorance is not bliss, it certainly helped not to know what you’ve been living in for this long. Now you’ll shudder with every step, wondering if the house will continue to hold up. OTOH, it must have been pretty strong to last this long in the face of all the rot and poor construction.

  2. Claire
    Claire May 2, 2017 11:38 am

    Pat — No worries. While I didn’t quite know how bad that northwest corner was and couldn’t really have pictured in my wildest dreams, I’ve known from the beginning that that corner was one of the worst spots in the house. There were many signs hinting at what we ended up discovering, even if the signs didn’t tell us how really awful it would be.

    On the good side, the foundation on the entire front half of the house was in better shape to begin with, more easily accessible for inspection and repairs, and was repaired in the first year I owned the place. Other rotted walls and floors have mostly already been replaced.

    I’m actually quite pleased about this. Not the rot and the fact that nothing was holding up that corner. But the fact that this is the last of the really bad-bad-badness. Once we’re done with this terrible project, the house will be structurally free of rot. Free at last! Free at last! 😉

  3. Joel
    Joel May 2, 2017 12:37 pm

    Wow. Last night I contemplated that simply putting bottle jacks under the beams wouldn’t do because they’d just punch holes in the beams. Now I see even my worst imaginings understated the problem.

    Y’know, it’s never *entirely* too late to give it up and just tear the whole thing down. Just saying.

    But I’ll give you the same advice I got about using bumper jacks: Never trust it not to kill you. Don’t get entirely under it.

  4. Claire
    Claire May 2, 2017 12:42 pm

    Joel — You’re right about the bottle jacks. They’ll never be directly against the beams. They’ll be against plates that will be against the beams. Also, we’ll always have a backup support. And there’s only one instance where anyone will have to “get under them.” Briefly. Very briefly.

    And you know, before tackling work in the back of the house, I did, quite seriously, consider tearing that whole wing off and replacing it with a new wing containing only a bathroom, laundry room, storage area, and back door. It would have left the house a studio with no bedrooms. But that would be okay for my needs.

    The back wing of the house was so problematic in terms of both rot and godawful haphazard stupid design that, in retrospect, tearing it off might indeed have been the easiest and most sanity-saving course. Had I known the full extend of the problems we were going to run into (not just on this project, but every project involving that rear wing), I’d have ripped it down.

    Too late now, though.

  5. Howie
    Howie May 2, 2017 12:58 pm

    With the bottle jack use some scrap steel the width of the wood square. This will help distribute the weight on the wood and make it safer, and like Joel said don’t fully trust the bottle jacks. You can use 8×8 concrete blocks to support the weight weight till you get the permanent work done.

  6. Claire
    Claire May 2, 2017 1:10 pm

    Good one, Howie. Or good two. Steel plates and nice, easy concrete blocks. Thanks.

  7. jc2k
    jc2k May 2, 2017 1:16 pm

    All this foundation talk is inspiring me to go back and finish the Foundation series. I only ever read the original trilogy.

  8. Coyote Hubbard
    Coyote Hubbard May 2, 2017 1:48 pm

    @jc2k: In 8th grade I read thru the Foundation trilogy, and in English class. we had a book report due and this one happened to be an open one, as in, we got to choose our own book.

    I did a darn fine report, teacher told me it was well written and well referenced.

    But my grade was a D+, only because it was science fiction. When pressed why, she smugly stated that its a genre just above comic books…


  9. Joel
    Joel May 2, 2017 2:07 pm

    But my grade was a D+, only because it was science fiction. When pressed why, she smugly stated that its a genre just above comic books…

    Have no fear. After I have betrayed the revolution and installed myself as President for Life, she’ll be among the first against the wall. Then we’ll see if English teachers wish to continue blaspheming against Asimov.

  10. jc2k
    jc2k May 2, 2017 2:29 pm

    I don’t think that will be necessary Joel. They’re now offering a ‘Comics Studies’ minor at the University of Oregon, so I assume the view of Sci-Fi has been elevated as well –

    It was actually one of my high school teachers that suggested I read Atlas Shrugged. While I’m no Randian, I do credit that book for planting the seed of anarchism.

  11. Claire
    Claire May 2, 2017 3:51 pm

    Well, didn’t the Monk and I just have a lovely day today? After discovering that the NW corner of the house was a ruin that couldn’t even be jacked up because it would crumble like a piece of birthday cake, we moved over to the NE corner. And guess what?

    Yeah. Same problem over there. Only worse. Because on that side there’s even less ground clearance, a whole lot of plumbing pipes, and limited space to work on one outside wall.

    Basically, we spent the entire day examining new problems and discussing how to create a temporary support structure that will allow us to apply jacks to something solid. Then after we’ve set those supports on jacks and raised the structure temporarily, we (mostly the Monk, of course), begin constructing the “real” foundation underneath.

    I particularly appreciated the Monk’s suggestion that we have a giant crane come in, slip a steel I-beam under the back end of the house, and haul the whole north end off the ground. (Never mind that that wouldn’t solve the crumbling like cake problem.)

    I’m ordering another four 20-ton jacks in the morning and praying that we’ve found the last of the complications.

  12. Arthur Murray
    Arthur Murray May 3, 2017 1:50 am

    “…….I did, quite seriously, consider tearing that whole wing off and replacing it with a new wing containing only a bathroom, laundry room, storage area, and back door.”

    That might not be a bad solution. If – big “if” – you have room on the lot, before “rot repair” consumes too much money, it would be interesting to run some numbers on a modular “drop in” unit, set on pilings. You don’t specify how much square footage is in the wing, but a 12 ft X 24 ft unit can easily be brought in by truck (actually, 12 X 48 can as well), and craned into position. A 12 X 24 might be able to RORO (Roll On, Roll Off) onto pilings depending on room available and skill of the crew doing the RORO.

    As for the pilings, 12 inch diameter holes 48 inches deep – easily done by a common tractor with a PTO-driven post hole auger – on a grid, 6 ft on center and extending 12 inches above grade (use Sonotubes) is less than 2 cubic yards of concrete for 24 pilings (buy pre mix delivered on a truck, don’t kill yourself mixing it, time is money and you’ll get a better mix).

    Connect the new space to the main structure with a gerbil tube (short enclosed hallway) and you’re done (I’d bet it could also be manufactured off-site and craned in; depending on length it might require its own pilings, but that’s what tractors and PTO augers are for). Coordinate manufacture of the new space with whomever’s putting in the pilings so anchoring the unit to the pilings is simple and connection to buried utilities can go smoothly.

    And, there’s no reason that, over time, should the remaining base structure show need for major work, additional modules couldn’t be brought in and attached. The only difference between a gerbil tube connection and an interior hallway is the need for insulation and watertightness.

    Yes, it’s money, but so is what you’re doing now, and loans for a new space are much easier to obtain than loans for patching what may be a structure of quite questionable integrity.

    Before i got too far into reconstruction I’d run some numbers on “repair properly” versus “demo and replace.” Unless The Monk works for almost free, and the necessary lumber for repair is priced similarly, you might be surprised how those numbers turn out, especially if your repairs have to comply with building codes. Companies that make such modular structures frequently have engineering staff that can help with site work planning.

  13. Claire
    Claire May 3, 2017 6:21 am

    “Yes, it’s money, but so is what you’re doing now, and loans for a new space are much easier to obtain than loans for patching what may be a structure of quite questionable integrity.”

    Arthur Murray. ‘Fraid what you suggest will never happen. First of all, I hate all things prefab. Second, although in retrospect it might indeed have been wiser to tear the back end of the house off, it’s not a good idea now that I’ve already put money (including contributions from blog readers) into making it right. It has been re-roofed, replumbed, and already had one foundation beam replaced, among other things.

    Also, the money that it costs to hire the Monk and assist him myself is a tiny fraction of what it costs to do what you describe, which is all done by other people and with heavy equipment. Even with all the troubles we’re discovering, I’ll bet the foundation work will still come in under $5k — a lot more than I budgeted, but an order of magnitude less than what you describe.

    I simply do not have money to have prefab structures brought in by cranes, then attached to the house. And I would not be willing to get a loan, even if I qualified (which I probably would not).

    The structure will never be “as good as new.” (It never was as good as new even when it was new.) But it will be safe, sound, charming and livable.

  14. Claire
    Claire May 3, 2017 6:56 am

    Oh, and should anybody wonder why I had the house roofed before completing all the foundation repairs, one word: necessity.

    Quite a few things in the house have been done for livability even when “the proper way of doing things” would have dictated tackling them in a different order. I knew this at the time. (I did, however, check with several construction people to see if raising the foundation later would cause problems with the new roof, and they said not as long as the lift was only a few inches.)

    The one really unfortunate thing about that back wing is that, theoretically, part of that foundation was supposed to have been fixed when the bathroom was remodeled. But an incompetent handyman (who aside from not really having the skills, was preoccupied with troubles in his life and not paying attention) actually ended up making matters worse for us now. I should have realized what was happening and simply put a complete stop to that project before he messed things up. But mea culpa.

    Still … what’s done is done. And aside from a couple of major goofs, it was done of necessity. Because of the way we’re doing it it’s costing less than doing everything the “right” way. And above all, it’s being done in such a way that I can continue to have NO MORTGAGE.

  15. Laird
    Laird May 3, 2017 8:10 am

    No mortgage is a wonderful goal. I envy you that (even though I don’t envy you this ugly project!). Last year I refinanced into a 10-year loan (at 2.75%!!) so I could get it paid off as fast as possible.

    jc2k, the Foundation Trilogy is one of my absolute favorites; I’ve read and re-read it (or parts of it) numerous times. But FWIW, the two sequels are pretty bad. Book #4 is bad; #5 is just awful. He wrote them many years after the original set, and frankly I think he just did it for the money. I’ve never re-read either, and wouldn’t waste my time on them. Just my two cents. I hate to diss Asimov, but in my opinion those books are much like Heinlein’s posthumously-published “For Us, the Living”: none should have ever seen the light of day.

  16. R.L. Wurdack
    R.L. Wurdack May 3, 2017 8:48 am

    I once rebuilt a rotting barn. For four months I had to force myself back to the project through despair and dissolution. It was excruciating. Once done, however, there was the supreme glow of satisfaction.

  17. Claire
    Claire May 3, 2017 9:39 am

    Wow, R.L. Wurdack. Four months. Based on what I’m seeing now, I can very, very easily envision despair and excruciating misery. Yesterday I looked at the work ahead and thought, “How will I ever get through it?” But with more than a little help from my friends and blog readers, I’ve gotten through everything else on the house. So why not this one, big, final, awful project?

    So thank you and Laird for understanding why I might want to forge ahead with this.

    One kind friend privately offered a combination of a loan and donation if I’d stop this right now and rebuild instead. It was a generous offer, but I don’t want to be in debt, especially not to a friend.

    The only thing that would cause me to halt this project is if it can’t be done safely. In that case, I’d call a screeching halt immediately. But what Plan C would look like, I have no idea.

  18. Claire
    Claire May 3, 2017 9:43 am

    One thing that just struck me — and I have zero idea if this is feasible — is a compromise. Cut of, say, the last six feet of the house. Prop up the roof beyond that point and eventually turn the area under the roof into a screened porch.

    That would turn the bedroom-to-be from 12×16′ to 10×12′ and it would mean (OMG) moving and rebuilding the bathroom again. But it would slice through the Gordian knot of all that rot and many of the difficulties it poses.

    OTOH, I hope nobody forgets that I paid just $10k for this place. With your generosity and my own funds from selling the flatlands house, I’ve put another $25k or so into it. I can do a LOT more patching and improvising before I’m overspending on the place.

  19. Paul Joat
    Paul Joat May 4, 2017 2:48 pm

    If you could scrounge or borrow some old school screw jacks it would make the lifting a lot safer, like these, they don’t leak down over time and you can lift slowly a little bit at a time. I’d lend you some but shipping them from Minnesota would be prohibitively expensive.
    If you do use bottle jacks have a solid stack next to the jack with a pile of shims next to it so you can add a shim every 1/4″ or so that way if a jack does fail it can’t fall far.

  20. Claire
    Claire May 4, 2017 6:35 pm

    Oh, Paul. I’ve used those before and thank you kindly for offer of a loan. However far from reality it may be, it was a chivalrous thought. By tomorrow we’ll have 12 — count ’em — 12 hydraulic bottle jacks. So those will just have do to.

  21. Joat
    Joat May 4, 2017 8:50 pm

    Good luck with the lifting, and please be careful.

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