Preparing to Lower the House

[UPDATE MARCH 2016: since this post was written, Leanne and I have entered into a contract dispute with Ridgewater Homes. For more details, click here.]

Last week I showed you a little bit of the day the concrete truck arrived. Here’s a video of what happened afterwards. Much of this is happening on days when I teach in the mornings so I get limited footage, but here’s a taste.

It’s a medley of clips: removing the re-useable forms, Leanne stacking wood for re-use, checking out the new storm sewer, sump and perimeter drain as well as the white styrofoam that went up on the outside of the concrete, and melting off the sealant where the basement stairs are going to go. Nobody likes rubbing black tar when you’re walking down stairs.

“Are you adding a basement?” people ask when they see our house in the air.

Leanne is a highly skilled sorter
Leanne is a highly skilled sorter

That’s when I feel a little extravagant. It’s true, we already had a basement, but it was a cruel one.

The ceiling was high enough to call the space a basement, but too low to spend any length of time down there. It quickly filled up with our crap which we sorted through this past spring.

When it was finally more or less empty on April 30, 2015, it looked like this:

When it was ready to have the holes in the floor jack-hammered, it looked like this:

I guess it seems a little extreme to raise a house only to put it back down at pretty much the same elevation. Most people leave it up there and build a new story without going through the expense of digging. Maybe it looks like we have money to burn or are just not very bright, but what happened was we started to think of keeping this 92 year-old house forever and our Heritage Revitalization Agreement does not allow us to change the exterior look of the house so drastically.

Putting it back down is exactly what is happening tomorrow. Nickel Brothers is coming back to take away their big steel beams and their heavy Jenga-like cribbing.

We had lived with that basement for almost 8 years and it was starting to wear on us. Eventually, combined with other issues like energy efficiency and carpenter ants, it may have made us move. People in Vancouver are destroying older homes for more minor issues. If we can keep these homes happy, everybody wins.

But there were alternatives that we didn’t choose.

  • We talked about creating a new basement space with a reasonable ceiling only in the section that would be created by the new extension above and leaving the existing basement as is.

That would have left most of the space leaky and not very useful.

  • We talked about thickening the walls by 8 inches to improve insulation and sealing.

That would not have addressed the thin concrete floor or the ceiling height.

  • We talked about supporting a section of the outside wall and digging under it, taking out that section of the concrete floor and digging it deeper, then pouring a new section of wall and moving on to the next section.

To do the whole basement and foundation, that would have taken years and, I’m pretty sure, driven us insane. It also would have probably cost more in time, labour, greenhouse gases and therapy.

Nice parallel roof lines

Nope, the best way to retrofit your house’ envelope is all at once. You don’t need fancy new technology, just the state of the art standard construction and lots of insulation.

Oh, and expertise.

Joe (not Steve)

Our new Ridgewater Site Supervisor, Steve, has been awesome. His team of people with names that begin with J: Joe, Jody, John and….Mehdi (plus the other guy whose name escapes me) are also awesome.

They’d better be because for ten days the house will be resting on a) the new exterior walls

and b) two temporary walls inside, constructed by the Ridgewater team, to hold the house up until our new permanent steel beams arrive on Dec. 28th to take over.

To make things more complicated, when Nickel Brothers’ lowers the house, their beams must come out. That means Steve and his team had to make gaps in certain sections of the new outside walls to allow Nickel Bros. beams to come down and then be extracted out the side of the house. They also must leave room for the three new beams to slide in, before we can take the temporary walls out.

It’s like a 3-D jigsaw puzzle.

What makes Leanne and I nervous is that the house will be supported on temporary walls for 10 days over Christmas. However, Steve and his team have taken a lot of care to make everything right, and Adam from Nickel Brothers examined the situation this week and said,

“don’t change a thing.”

One of the biggest challenges, as you know from previous posts, will be the fireplace.

I don't know why I am so happy
I don’t know why I am so happy in this photo.

The reason we kept a portion of the chimney on the house was a) you’re not allowed to re-build a chimney anymore, so if you want one you’d better keep the one you have and b) the brick fireplace inside is a real historic treasure.

Nickel Brothers is charging us extra to lift that chimney/fireplace and it looked as though keeping it intact was going to mean asking them to leave the two beams holding it up for another day or two. They don’t like to do that.

However, once again, it is Ron the neighbour-who-knows-about-bricks to the rescue. Ron figured the only way to line up the new section of chimney at the bottom to the existing chimney above was to keep it supported for a day or two while he worked. Then a couple of weeks ago he figured out a way to let Nickel Brothers take their chimney support beams at the same time as the others which might save us money, especially if they don’t have to come back another day.

“How?” you ask.

I don’t know.

All I know is our dear friend Ron told me he would arrange to be here when they lower the house. I really don’t know what we would do without you, Ron. Thank you!image

Ron asked me to take a photo or two of the fireplace to see if it had cracked during the months of being suspended. There are a few minor cracks, but I assume they will not be too difficult to fix.

Of course, it could all fall apart tomorrow.


Published by

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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