Sippican Cottage

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A Man Who Has Nothing In Particular To Recommend Him Discusses All Sorts of Subjects at Random as Though He Knew Everything

Lumbering Around the Back Yard

Alright, we’re going to need some lumber. There’s no way around it. We have to spend money. Luckily, we did this job ten years ago, and lumber was plenty cheap then compared to now. It didn’t seem cheap at the time, because no one had any money back then, especially me. Lumber is expensive now because everyone has so much money that money is damn near worthless. The effect is the same. In any case, we have to be thrifty.

So it pained me to buy pressure treated 4x4s just to use them as the shafts for our screw jacks, so I didn’t. I bought them to use as shafts, all the while planning to cut them up after and fix the front and side porches with them when we were through. Nothing would go to the dump, except me, looking for more wood to take home. There are some regular old SPF (spruce, pine, fir framing lumber) 2x8s in there, too. The floor above the basement basement was laid out in the “every once in a while on center” motif, instead of the usual 16″, so we’re going to add some joists to take a little of the sproing out of the floor while we’re at it.

Before we begin banging nails, we have to determine what’s what, once and for all. Any medic will tell you can’t stop the bleeding properly until you find all the exit wounds. We had to figure out a proper height for the back wall of the house, and aim for it. That doesn’t mean I was going to put the house entirely to rights. I’m of a practical nature, and practically speaking, the house was just north of a tear down project. I know how to completely renovate a house, and truly straighten everything out. I also know when it just ain’t worth it. Good enough is good enough, I always say. We’d just like to stop listing to port when we walk through the kitchen.

So we laid a level on the wall to get some idea of how bad the house had sagged over the last century. Look at the difference between the level and the lines on the back of the board sheathing. Jinkies, this is going to take some effort. The house has too much slope for plumbing pipes, never mind a supporting wall. There’s a lesson in there, too. No house slumps like that all at once. If it did, it would get it over with and collapse in a heap tout de suite. What happens is that slowly, over decades, it loses a little bit of its underpinning at a time, and slouches a bit, and then a bit more, etc.. Then someone tries to deal with the result, instead of the actual problem, and adds props and patches and whatnot. The house slowly morphs into another shape. And something that takes a century to move is going to put up quite a struggle when you try to put it back. At that point it isn’t really a renovation. It’s somewhere between an intervention and an exorcism.

I figured out what we could get away with,  and made a reference mark on a foundation wall in a handy spot. The mark itself didn’t signify anything. It was simply there so that every other measurement could be compared to that mark. You can do a lot of renovation and building work with simple approaches like that. If you watch TV, you’d figure you’d need a laser level and other fancy electronic stuff in there. Good luck using it in the forest of props holding up the floor above. Besides, we don’t have the time and material and manpower necessary to hit laser lines anyway. When good enough is good enough, you can use simple tools and barbarous measuring schemes and rules of thumb while hitting your thumb, and get a decent result. We just used a long level, a short level, some straightedges, tape measures, a plumb bob, and some string to lay everything out and keep track of it. They built the pyramids with just that sort of stuff, and a little ingenuity. What do I need a particle accelerator for?

Now we’re doing demolition in earnest. If you get your construction cues from shelter shows, you have a very warped idea of what demolition entails. TV thinks that women who weigh nine stone perform demolition by kicking their foot through walls and giving each other high fives. They’re generally wearing open-toed shoes and safety glasses, an amusing combination.

When you’re doing renovation, you don’t just wreck everything by smashing at it. The exact term for the operation is selective demolition. You’re supposed to remove what isn’t staying, and make room for the new stuff. You take things apart, preserving what’s still sound. You don’t wreck stuff in a frenzy. I’ve done all sorts of construction, and people hurt themselves most often during demolition. They’re terrified of ladders and power tools but don’t have any respect for rusty nails and things falling on their heads.

Selective demolition is especially selective when it’s hard to figure out what the hell the people who came before you were up to. You don’t want to start whaling on things that might have pipes, or wires, or structural functions they shouldn’t. We took the basement basement apart like an unexploded bomb. We appraised the function of each piece, which was generally comic relief, and then removed it. We use pry bars and a sawzall, generally. As quickly as possible, we’d clear out the remuddling puckerbrush and add the screw jacks we were going to use to raise and support the house. Like this:

That’s a big, steel plate that one is sitting on, that we found down there and repurposed. By taking the place apart, instead of just wrecking it, we were able to salvage all sorts of lumber, too. There was more than enough material down there to make all the repairs they attempted to make. They just didn’t know how to actually fix anything.

Each thing we removed opened up the construction vista and let us get at something else, which was gratifying. After a while, we were able to remove most of the cobwebs, which we assumed were structural at first, due to their density, but they turned out to be mostly decorative. The big thing to get out of the way was the ridiculous steel beam sticking out of the back of the house. First we had to get the back of the house suspended on five screwjacks inside and out, like this:

Steel be heavy, people, but we smart. Not smart enough to avoid buying this house, but smart enough to drop the beam on some round iron pipe and roll it out. Aah, now we can really start working.

In the next photo, you can see a ten-foot 4×4 beam we’re using as cribbing. There are three, ten-ton bottle jacks moving everything skyward. They all have steel plates on top of their plungers to keep them from simply boring a hole in the cribbing. You lift with all three, scurrying from one to the next to keep it moving evenly, then turn the wing screws you see at the foot of the jacks. You turn the screws by banging on the wings with a rubber mallet. That area you see where the bottle jacks are working is where the foundation is supposed to be, but isn’t. And so you see why the screw jacks are located both inside and outside the wall, instead of relying on anything pushing straight up. It’s durn difficult to built a house in midair, and then slip a foundation under it, but we’re going to do it.

[More foundation tomorrow. Feel free to mock me in the comments, and tell a friend about]

2 Responses

  1. I’m enjoying this serial as it plays out.

    Sort of the internet equivalent of the “Perils of Pauline”.

  2. Hi browndog- Thanks for reading and commenting.

    They’re similar. If I recall correctly, Pauline was always getting tied to the railroad tracks. In our case, we’re just trying to avoid having the railroad tracks dropped on our heads when we take out the columns.

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