Finishing Foundation, Getting ready to install Lifting poles

We didn’t have any blowouts on the foundation. I waited seven days for the concrete to dry, and then I started pulling the plywood off the piers. They looked ugly:

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The neighbor even came over to have a look. He said, “you gotta cover those up with mortar- if water gets in there and freezes, it’ll crack your foundation.

“But they’ll be under the house- and there’ll be a ten-foot wide porch to protect them,” I protested.

“Doesn’t matter- humidity in the air can do it, too. The building inspector might not like ’em looking like that,” he reminded me.

I knew he was right, even though I didn’t want him to be right. I bought several bags (like 20) of a structural mortar mix rated at 5500 p.s.i. and started slathering it on. It was no fun.

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It took about 3/4 of a bag to do each pier, and it took about 45 minutes to cover each pier. I also had to dig up the plywood to get it out.

Why so bumpy?

As I dug and slathered, I tried to figure out what happened- why were my piers so bumpy? I think there were two problems: my plans call for “3,000 psi” concrete. But when I called the concrete company, they said they had 2500 psi and 3500 psi. That didn’t make any sense to me, so I asked the guy what the difference was. He said you usually use the 3500 psi for footings, while the 2500 psi was for walls. That still didn’t help- are piers considered footings or are they considered foundations? So I went with the 3500 psi. I think it had a bit more rocks in the mix. That was one problem. The other problem was that I buried the piers in dirt to keep them from floating during the pour. I put collars on them and buried them up to their necks with dirt. This wasn’t a problem except that you’re supposed to use a concrete vibrator to shake the concrete during the pour so you get nice smooth faces when it dries. But the driver said you don’t need that- just bang on the pier form with a hammer or the tip of the shovel, and that will shake it up good enough.  But obviously not- I think the dirt softened the blows, and that’s why the face of the concrete was so bumpy.

Getting Lifting poles ready

Well, I finished up on Saturday morning with the mortar. Next up is installing the lifting poles. First, we had to pick which four logs would be the lifting poles- I wanted small logs that were very straight, minimum of 12″ diameter, and they have to be 30 feet long.  The photos below show the preparation of a lifting pole.

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I also had to dig 4 holes in the corner of the foundation- the holes have to be inside the perimeter of the foundation (because the lifting poles will be on the inside of the walls while lifting). The holes have to be at least 4 feet deep. These are temporary poles, and I’ll cut them down when the walls are complete. I have to install cleats to stop the block and tackle from sliding down the pole. The lifting strap in the photo holds the top pulley. The log hangs from the bottom pulley. Since I’m using triple blocks, the rope goes back and forth 7 times. So, a 30 foot pole needs at least 210 feet of rope. The plus side is that the force needed to lift a 4,000 log is 4,000 / 7  = about 600 lbs total, and since each log is lifted by 2 sets of pulleys, 600 / 2 = 300 lbs for each side, which my tractor can easily handle. To tie off the logs while lifting, I plan on using a prusik knot as a “progress capture knot” to stop the log from dropping when I release the pressure from the tractor.

Next, moving the lifting pole into position:

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And then a fail on getting it vertical. I tried to lift it with the tractor, but the pole just wanted to flop around and not go up. So I tried to get it up on a little bit of an angle, but it was still no good.

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So, we gave up trying to do it ourselves. We need help. I asked at church for some guys to come next Saturday- that gives me a week to prep all four poles with cleats, get them into position, have enough rope ready, and get all the pulleys “reeved” (that means getting the rope attached to the pulleys), and get two more 4′ deep holes ready in the corners. Got my work cut out for me.

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Even More Committed

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We could have backed out after cutting all the logs- could’ve called a logger and said, “come get ’em”. Or the water and power. But it’s getting harder each time we add something. Today, we poured concrete. Looks like we’re committed now. But I should back up a little…

Where we left off

In my last post, I thought it would go smoothly (why did I think that?) when I called the building inspector (BI)- after all, the city had already approved my plans, which were designed by a licensed engineer; I was following city code (minimum 12″ below frost line for foundation), I had water and power as required. I called the city to schedule the BI, and he came out on a Thursday.

He wasn’t the most talkative guy. He walked around looking at my holes. I had a printed copy of the foundation plan on four 8 1/2″ by 11″ paper that I had taped together so it had plenty of detail. I don’t think he liked them all taped together. He said, “you drew these plans yourself?”

“No, they were drawn by a professional engineer in Washington state.”

“Hmmm…” More walking around.

“Well, this is very unconventional- no one uses this style of foundation anymore- I’ve only seen it in hundred year old houses.” (Wait- if you’ve seen it in hundred-year-old houses, doesn’t that mean it’s pretty good?)

Then the disheartening news: “I’m going to have to see some stamped plans before you can continue work on this project.” (‘Stamped plans’ means that a local licensed engineer goes through your plans with a fine-toothed comb and calculates all the stresses involved in your structure. Things like wind speed, tension forces, sheer forces, compressive forces, and earthquake zones are measured, based on the type of wood you use– oak is different than Southern Yellow Pine.  All of the factors and calculations can be combined into a detailed report that can be 50 pages long. You can imagine what it might cost for a local engineer to produce such a report.)

“But the city already approved them,” I protested.

“I have to be sure they will work in this soil condition. Have you run into any clay? Your soil looks pretty good; usually this area has a lot of clay.”

“No clay that I’ve noticed. I should be able to get them stamped pretty easily,” I bluffed.  I actually had no idea what getting them stamped would involve. I really hadn’t seen any clay. But now the whole project was in jeopardy of a huge delay.

I told my wife the bad news- she was very sad about it too. I posted about it on Facebook- because I had asked the guys at church for help with pouring concrete on Saturday. I mentioned that the BI was now requiring me to get the plans stamped by an engineer, so the pour was canceled. One guy from church commented that he might know someone who could review my plans and stamp them.

We pay tithing

That night, my wife mentioned, “but we pay our tithing!” In our church, we believe in the Old Testament promise that if you pay tithing on your income (a ‘tithe’ means ‘tenth’, so we pay 10%), the Lord will “open you the windows of heaven and pour you out a blessing that there shall not be room enough to receive it.”  I prayed on it that night.

The next day, Friday, I went to work. The suite next to mine is a group of civil engineers. I’ve been friendly with the head engineer. He’s been interested and supportive of my build from the beginning. I headed over and asked him for help. He said they don’t do small projects like mine- they do huge civil engineering projects for commercial construction- like resorts and malls. He did offer to print the plans on professional sized paper (2′ x 3′), so that was a positive move. But I still needed an engineer to stamp the plans. I checked on Facebook- the guy from church that commented had sent me a private message saying he was the guy that was an engineer, and he would review the plans for free if I wanted. Wow! I’ve heard of others in our group having to jump through hoops with their plans- and having it cost into the hundreds or even thousands to get them approved, not to mention if the local engineer requires changes to the structure or plans.  He asked for contact information for the LHBA engineer, so I found that and sent him my plans. He asked if I wanted the entire plan approved, or just the foundation. I thought about what the BI might think, and decided to go with the entire plan. It would take longer, but having the whole thing approved would make the approval air-tight.

He asked me questions about the soil quality and construction method- I told him I hadn’t found any clay. He said he was thinking about requiring a pedestal foundation with a continuous footer, just to improve the strength of the build, but needed more information from the LHBA engineer on the building method.

I didn’t sleep well that night. I kept having this dream where I had to dig a three-foot wide trench all the way around the perimeter for a footer. This would mean either hiring the excavator again (probably another $200), probably at least a week or two of work to level the holes, missing the good weather window, and setting the project back about a month. I was very worried about the piers- they were made out of plywood that sat in the back yard all winter covered by a tarp. But the tarp blew off several times, and some of the plies had separated on several pieces, and couldn’t be used. Even the rest weren’t that great. I was worried the plywood piers would fail when the 2,600 pounds of concrete was poured into each of them. In my dream I was trying to calculate the extra cost for concrete and rebar. I woke up at 2 A.M. and actually had to calculate the extra concrete. It would be about $1600 more. I just don’t have it.

The windows of heaven

The engineer from church had a detailed conversation with the LHBA engineer. The LHBA guy sent a 50-page sample engineering report for a 40×40 home on piers- like what I’m building. He also gave some detailed insight into the pier method, emphasizing that although piers aren’t as strong as a stem wall foundation, the piers work for the butt and pass method because of how the logs are tied together with rebar (a stem wall foundation usually has a continuous footer around the perimeter of the house along with a continuous wall that stands about 18″ above ground all the way around). The log walls are many, many times stronger than a conventional wall (built with 2×4’s), due to the rebar pinning method- a piece of rebar is spiked through the logs every 2 feet on every row. Combined with the piers, the structure is very strong. The guy from church said he would consider all of the information.

I sat on pins and needles waiting for the final report. It took one more day, but he sent a letter that the plans were approved with 3 caveats-

  1. All the piers had to be 12″ or more below ground
  2. I had to follow the new IRC fastening requirements (tells you how to attach the floors and walls and roof together). No big deal, I would have had to do this anyway- the notes on my plans needed to be updated anyway.
  3. The large piers had to be 20″ below ground. I had already increased the size of the top of the 3 largest piers from 8″x24″ to 12″x36″ to accommodate the larger logs I was using. Doing this changed the geometry enough that they were now taller. And due to the slope of my property, they were already within a few inches of being 20″ deep anyway.

Basically, I was already doing all of the above, so the cost to meet the BI’s requirements was $0.  I sent the original plans to the civil engineer guy next door, and he came over a few hours later and handed them to me, saying, “good luck with your build. These are free.” I plan to continue paying tithing for a long, long, long time.

We move ahead

While waiting for the okay, there was a lot of rain in the forecast, so I covered everything with plastic. I knew the piers were weak, and I was praying they wouldn’t get any wetter. I was planning on burying the piers up to their necks with dirt to ensure they didn’t “float up” when the concrete was poured (a common problem with truncated pyramidal piers), and also to counteract the tremendous pressure from the concrete pushing out on the piers. Some folks have reported that even though they had two guys standing on the piers, they still floated up. Others report that their piers busted, and concrete poured out all over the ground. I didn’t want to take any chances, but I had to wait until my plans were approved.

The day I got them approved was a big rainstorm. But the BI agreed to meet me the next day to go over my plans. It was exactly a week after he shut down the project. He looked at the printed plans, and the letter from the local engineer. He was a lot friendlier, too- talked about how he’s remodeling a house, and it’s very expensive. He likes old Ford trucks, like me, and noticed my Ford 3000 tractor (that’s a plus). He wanted to look at the logs.

“You moved these with that little tractor? How much do they weigh?”

“I figure the heaviest ones weigh between 4,000-6,000 pounds.”

“Wow.”  He said he was excited to see things move forward, thanked me for the letter, and said I could pour concrete. Yay!

Things go smoothly when I listen to my wife

I was working like crazy to bury the piers. Each one took 8 wheelbarrows full of dirt to bury- and there were 31 of them. Thursday, I went crazy trying to bury them. My wife suggested that we do a little pour on Friday to get our feet wet, and then pour the rest on Saturday. I wasn’t sure about breaking up the schedule into two days, but I figured she was right. Friday, I got up early and headed out at 6 A.M. I had to meet my boss for a couple hours and pick up a wheelbarrow from a guy on Craigslist, and then headed right back out. My wife picked up the two older boys and brought them out to help that afternoon. She said we should pour the 7 piers on the inside first, then do the outer ones on Saturday. Each truck can hold 9 yards of concrete, and each normal sized pier holds .67 yards of concrete. So I ordered 7 yards on Friday after 3 P.M., and then 17 yards (two trucks: 8 in one truck, and 9 in the other, each an hour apart, since they charge by the minute for any pour over an hour).

The pour went so smooth. Everything was perfect. The concrete truck driver gave us a lot of tips- like give two taps to each side of the pier with a hammer- it makes the concrete nice and smooth.  Was it that obvious that I had never done concrete on this scale before? 🙂

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After the pour, I still had the outer piers to bury. There were 24 of them, and I had until the next morning at 9:00 to bury all of them. Julie and the boys helped, but the boys weren’t used to this much hard work, and Julie had already had a long day. They helped for about another hour or so, and then left. I stayed until 7 PM, then it got too dark. I had put in 13 hours that day, minus the 1.5 hours with my boss.

Saturday, I still had half the piers to bury before the concrete showed up. I got out there at 6 A.M., and started going at it. I finished burying the last pier at 9:00, and then the concrete showed up. My wife was running a little late, but got there in enough time to help smooth the concrete and place the rebar. She is quite a hard worker. Just as we finished the last of the first truck, the second one showed up early. The outer piers were easy to pour. I had three that separated a little at the top, but not enough to endanger anything.

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Overall, I couldn’t have been more pleased with the result, and all the little miracles that made it happen. I was so dead from all that work, that I laid on the couch all Saturday afternoon. Next is some site clean up like removing the plywood from the piers, and then I’ll be setting the lifting poles.

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I messed up.

The last four weeks…

We spent the last four weeks burning branches, got the water hooked up, power installed:

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Digging 31 holes and moving the driveway

I checked the weather for the second week of April – and noticed they were forecasting about a week’s worth of dry weather.

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If you read my last post, you know it’s been raining every 2-3 days for a month or more. So this little break meant go time. I called the excavator- he said he could come Monday.

I busted my butt finishing up the last of the pier collars on Friday, but then the excavator called on Friday and asked if he could come Saturday instead- great! Except all the rain washed away my month old paint marks for where to dig the holes. So, Friday night, I loaded the trailer with the collars.

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I left early Saturday morning to meet him out there at 8:30, and the trailer was fishtailing with all the collars on it. I didn’t know it at the time, but some of them had slipped a little after I tied them, and were hanging out the back of the trailer. It wasn’t many, but enough to shift the balance of weight. I took the drive very slowly- 20 mph, but it wasn’t enough- after fishtailing, the tongue of the trailer wore out and broke in half.

Looking at the tongue, I was surprised-  they used 1/8″ thick angle steel everywhere on the trailer except the tongue. On the tongue- the most important part of the trailer- they cheaped out and used 1/16″ square tube. I’ll never understand people. I could write a whole post on fixing the trailer, but let’s just give the short version: had to leave it on the highway, get my holes dug, then go back for the trailer. Used a blow torch to cut the hardened steel pivot bolt off the trailer side of the tongue. Brass welded the tongue back together at the neighbor’s house, hooked onto the trailer, and went to property to unload collars.

Then, the tongue broke again on the way back (empty). Stupid thing did a cartwheel on the highway. 5-6 good people stopped to help, and nobody got hurt. Met Matthew Hunter, who hooked me up with a new tongue and paint job on the trailer. Tongue is now 1/8″ x 4″x2″ tube steel- it’s a beast. And the trailer no longer tilts (I hated that “feature”), and pulls like a dream.

I got the holes dug- took him only two hours instead of four:

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and moved the driveway:

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I also fixed a flat tire on the tractor

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So, how did I mess up?

Details about the plans:

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Above: You can see the detail of a corner of the pier layout:

  • red: pier outline
  • purple: outer edge of log walls
  • white: center of log wall

As you can see, the plans don’t specify a measurement or offset from the edge for where to place the logs on the piers- probably because they don’t know what size logs you will use- the plans state they are for 12″ logs, but mine are a little larger- like 18″ or something. Starting with what you know:

  • base of pier is 36″ square
  • top of pier is 8″x24″
  • log (according to the plans) is 12″ diameter
  • log is supposed to set just in from the edge of pier, not the center.

Thinking about the above brings up a practical question: How far from the bottom edge of the pier do you place the rebar (i.e. the white line goes over the top of each stick of rebar in each pier)? To ask another way, if I hang my string layout at 40’x40′ square, how far out from the string is the edge of each hole for each pier?

My mistake in laying out the foundation was that I never considered this. So I spray-painted marks where I thought they should go, but I can’t prove that is actually where they go. So I messed up.

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I spent all day Wednesday burning in the hot sun to place 4 piers. I had to dig about 12″x36″x18″ of dirt to get the forms lined up correctly under the string. My wife finally talked me out of my stubbornness- and had me call the excavator. It took me five hours to fix 4 holes. I got better at it, but 31 holes means 31 hours of work if I do it by hand.  I did accomplish one thing: I know how far from the string the bottom edge of the pier goes- in my case, to get the rebar 8″ from the top edge, I need the bottom edge to be 16″ from the string. I got a plumb bob and a tape measure, and spray-painted marks. Then I called Jim to have the excavator come back and cut some more out of my holes. He couldn’t do it right away, but said he would call. I was worried he won’t get it done before the next rain, but he pulled off of a job he was doing on Cloud Trail road, came over to my place and fixed the gravel and the holes. He left before we showed up- under an hour.

Moving forward

Leveling the holes is now taking me about 10 minutes, instead of an hour. There’s a small chance of rain next week. Cross your fingers, and pray I can get concrete before anything happens.

Rain, Rain, go away

 

I need about a week of dry weather. Here’s the story:

Contacted my excavator- he still says he can dig 31 holes for about $400. He came out to look at my site on March 3, and said he can dig the holes any time I want, but he did  point out that I should have the plywood forms ready to drop in the holes the day he digs them. Which, at the time, I didn’t have any built, but I did have the plywood for them.

That sets up a few things that needed to happen:

Pour schedule

Day 0: foundation is dug, forms are ready to put in ground, rebar is onsite, and cut to size.

Day 1: level holes, install forms.

Day 2: Orient forms perfectly so the rebar will be ready to accept logs. The whole focus is to ensure the line of rebar sticking out of the tops of the piers is within 1/16″  perfectly lined up along the center of each line of piers along each side of the house. This helps with attaching the dreaded first layer of logs to the foundation, which is a pain, from what I hear.

Day 3: get pre-pour inspection done. Not sure what to expect here, but this is one of the inspections required by the city. I assume they are checking code to ensure piers are a minimum of 12″ below grade.

Day 4: pour concrete and place rebar in the forms.

Day 11:? pull plywood off forms. I think I wait a week after the pour to remove the plywood.
I have to do this over a short time period (think: days), because I think my forms (due to winter water damage) probably can’t take any more moisture. I don’t want them sitting around in the rain in holes in the ground while my rebar is on order, or while I try to get them oriented correctly. I just want to get them in the ground, orient them, get them inspected, and pour the concrete- preferably over the span of 2-3 dry days.

I did a final calculation on the volume of concrete needed. It’s a little tricky to calculate the volume of a “truncated regular pyramid”:

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Fortunately, the internet is a fantastic place for letting someone else do the heavy lifting, and there’s a website that will calculate the volume if you provide the a,b, & h. Turns out I need 0.66 cubic yards for each of my smaller forms (28), and 1.28 cubic yards for the larger forms (3), for a total of about 23 yards of concrete (about $2300).

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Building the forms

I left the property after talking to Juni (the excavator) to go home and build forms. I built them all afternoon, and most of the next day (Saturday). Then I spent all week (when it wasn’t raining) building more. I almost finished building all 31 after a week of work. I need to put together the last three (which are the big ones- 54″x54″ base, 45 1/4″ tall).

My plywood was covered by a tarp all winter, but it still soaked up some water, which worries me. Concrete weighs about 3,700 pounds per cubic yard, and each pier is about 0.66 cubic yards, so I can figure about 2,400 pounds per pier. So the forms have to withstand 65 pounds per square foot (at least at the top). I also have to worry about the corners of the forms blowing out, or the bottoms, or maybe the whole pier will lift when the concrete is poured. I plan on using the extra dirt from the excavation to hold the forms down during the pour, and I’m adding collars to each one- found a cheap place (Mike’s Merchandise) to buy bolts – they sell surplus bolts and nuts for $1.00 per pound (13 nuts and bolts were a pound). I bought all they had in one size and ended up at about $20 of bolts- enough to do about 70% of the collars. If I had bought the same bolts at HomeDepot, it would have cost me $1.00 per bolt/nut, meaning, I would have paid about $372.00. So, my deal of $20-$30 is pretty cheap. Pays to shop around.

After building the forms, I have this huge pile of scrap leftover that I plan on using as part of the collars to strengthen the forms.

Getting Utilities installed

This has to be done before I can pass inspection- must have running water on site before you can pour concrete.

I went in January to get the utilities installed, but the utility company said I had to have a building permit. I went to the city to get the building permit, and they said I had to have utilities installed. Arggh! Will someone just please take my money so I can build?

I went back today, after getting the building permit- and they said, “Oh, do you have a copy of your building permit?” Well…..yes….posted out there on the property, like the city requires…. No matter- have to wait for the city electrical engineer to go out now (something else they didn’t mention last time….) and decide whether there’s enough power in the area to drop a line onto my property. She said she’ll take a picture of the permit while she’s out there tomorrow.

And I got the quote, too: normally, they come out and install a temporary utility pole with the meter on it. When you’re done building, you move the meter onto your house, and they come get the temporary pole. Of course, my build can’t be that simple, no- there’s no poles near my property – they are all across the street. So I have to pay for a permanent pole, plus a temporary pole (not sure why they can’t be the same). I also have to pay for a transformer. Expected cost: $5,000 for water, $385 for the temporary pole, and  $1800 for the permanent drop. Things are adding up…..

Sourcing Rebar

HomeDepot (hate to pick on them because they actually do sell 2×4’s for a good price, and they do have a lot of stuff in stock when you need it) sells rebar for about $0.50 per foot.

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On the LHBA forum, there’s a section for posting “Craigslist finds”. On there, I discovered $0.30  per foot is a good deal. And just the other day, an advertisement popped up in my search:

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I did the math- 7,000 ft for $1,000 works out to $0.14 per foot- a screaming deal. Except the guy (or gal, I guess), didn’t leave a phone number. Of course, 7,000 feet of rebar weighs 7,000 x .668 = 4676 lbs, so I’d need a bigger trailer (I think mine is rated for 2,000 pounds). But I only need 2600 feet for the cabin, and maybe half that for the garage. In the end, I could probably sell the scrap, and make my money back. In the end, the guy didn’t post any contact info- I pressed the “let poster know they didn’t leave any contact info” button. Several times. And again yesterday. And today. Twice. Maybe three times.

So I looked again for other ads, and found this guy in Decatur that says he’ll beat any price. I called him, and he did- $0.29 per foot. And he’ll cut it for free.  The old “a bird in the hand is better than two in the bush” holds true. And he spent all week last week cutting out plywood for forms for a house he’s building for himself. He wants the rain to go away, too…..

Summary

All of this adds up, of course, to a lot of money, time, and exhaustion. The main thing I’m worried about is that my forms don’t get left in the rain for days while I wait for an inspection, or the concrete, or the excavation. Getting all the materials, inspections, installations, and people lined up is quite an adventure. But once the foundation is done, the next adventure begins: getting ready to stack logs.