Digging Holes

On Thursday before the long weekend I was busy planning Leanne’s big birthday party when Chuck from Ridgewater called. He told me he would be coming by on Tuesday, April 7th with an excavator to “dig a few holes.”


Putting a sign up is one thing, but nothing says, “this just got real” better than machines pulling up to your house. He is just going to be determining at what depth we need the new storm sewer connection, but still…

I have to admit, I’ve already dug a hole myself so I can’t really talk.DSCN2534

A key principle in our approach to renovating the house is investing upfront to save money in the long term. It’s like buying a quality pair of boots to last instead of buying the cheap pair that’s going to fall apart in a season. (It’s also like investing in transit infrastructure, so please vote YES!)

The result is a plan that costs more than we can afford. A big part of the challenge, then, is to get a realistic picture of costs and find ways to reduce those costs. We’re looking very critically at the estimate Ridgewater Homes, our contractor, has supplied us with.

Since we are removing the existing foundation completely and digging the basement deeper, two line items from the estimate are interesting right now:

DEMOLITION Dump fees, clean up Material: $7000 Labour: $15500

EXCAVATION For foundation Material: $12000 Labour:$4800

Naturally we’ll be doing as much of the demolition ourselves as we can and finding ways to recycle the material.

As for excavation, I asked Daryl and Chuck if tipping fees and transportation (I mean how much we pay to haul away and dump the concrete and dirt) are a big part of those costs.

They said yup.

If we can find someone who needs broken up concrete (from 1923) and whatever else we remove from under the basement, we can save $thousands. If that place is nearby, we can save more on hauling. If you are interested, please let me know!

Another variable is whether the ground under the house is easy to remove or not. A friend of ours dug a foundation a couple of years ago and found half of it was clay–difficult to excavate and not very desirable as fill.

It would be good to know what is under there. How much clay is there? Is there a mighty boulder that will need dynamite to remove? That’s why I dug a hole.

We have a lot of nice plants, including some beautiful roses, around the house that need transplanting, so I told myself I was doing two things at once.Dig a rose

There is always more dirt than I expect when I start digging.

I potted the rose and discovered the drain tile was still intact. Ceramic drain tile was used as a perimeter drain. It collects the water that runs down the side of the house and takes it away from your foundation. These days perimeter drains are not ceramic.


As you can see, the drain tile here was made by Haney Brick and Tile, one of the major businesses in early Maple Ridge. It looks to be in good shape, but a few segments we uncovered in 2008 were two-thirds full of dirt–not very effective anymore.

The tile segments are not sealed together so water seeps through the gaps between and is taken away. Where to?

I have no idea.

Is there a gravel pit buried somewhere or does the perimeter drain simply encircle the house with nowhere for the water to go? Leanne’s grandfather, Carl, never imparted these details to Leanne’s Mom before he died in 1969.

We expect that the major changes to our climate here in the Lower Mainland of BC will be more frequent extreme weather events and more rain. (Here is an article from BC Hydro about that.) That is why, when the city engineering department required us to agree to install a storm drain connection, we didn’t fight them too hard.

A storm drain connection will connect the perimeter drain that encircles the house with the municipal storm drain. That’s the connection one that is estimated to cost us about $15 000 (which is lower than what we put down as a deposit). Here is what engineering wrote to me:

The new estimate for our crews to do the work is $14,822.81. For our crews to do the work you will need to provide a depth (in meters) at the property line and a location – we do not calculate the depth of the service for you. You can consult with your plumber or house designer for the minimum basement elevation (MBE) for your services – this is usually the depth that your drain tile will sit at. They can use that to then calculate a minimum 2% grade from your house to the property line and that will be your depth.

To save that expense, we were willing to do whatever the City required to take care of our own rainwater run-off and perimeter drain water. We discussed a gravel pit, rain water cistern, etc., but in the end we relented.

At some point you have to admit that maybe the engineering experts might know what they are talking about. After all, we are talking about Forever here, and I don’t know what “extreme weather events” in 20 years will look like.

The two things we need to look at with climate change are slowing it down and getting ready for it. We can slow it down by getting off fossil fuels. We can get ready for it by making sure we’re ready for the storms that are a-comin’.

The house just stops.
The house just stops.

I made it all the way under the foundation. The foundation wall ends abruptly. These days there is a wider “footing” that makes for a more solid base.

I came across only a few fist-sized chunks of clay. Otherwise it’s nice, sandy fill.

Anyone want some?

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James Rowley

James lives in Maple Ridge, BC, Canada with his amazing partner, Leanne Koehn, and their two amazing kids in their beautiful house. He studied Science and English Literature at the University of British Columbia where he met Leanne. He also studied acting for a while at Studio 58 in Vancouver. He works as a teacher of English and curriculum writer for new Canadians.

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