Tuesday, April 10
Christine here today, Bob actually did have to go do some paying work…
The excavation and grading is starting! We stopped by yesterday to see the equipment on the site and was told by our contractor that they found oil underground. WHAAAAT? My mind raced in three directions all at once.
1) Don’t you know we’re trying to build a fossil fuel-free house? NO MORE OIL!!! KEEP IT IN THE GROUND!!!
2) We did find a car chassis that was leaking oil into the creek when we first bought the lot. Were there more? How many people had car accidents on our vacant lot? Will they find dead bodies? How much of a delay is this going to be?
3) Beverly Hillbillies? Could we be rich?
Note, while it is April, this did not occur on April Fools Day, and yet the joke was on me! We are just getting to know Noel and Sean Fox, our general contractor Irish brothers. They have a sly “fox” side about them! Gullible as I am, I like it! Bob and I made a list of goals when we started the project, the top one, in all caps with exclamation points, was HAVE FUN!!! It took a few years to get to this point, but I think we found the right contractor. (special thanks to Carol Pugh for her coaching advice last year!)
So, today, the soils engineer was supposed to come and inspect the first couple of drillings for the piers. Because of the sloped site, our foundation is a grid of (quantity) 26, 18” diameter concrete piers, connected with concrete beams at grade level. The depth, based on previous soil testing, is to be at least 12’ deep. From our perspective, this is the greatest unknown on the project, as there are perils of potentially having to spend a lot more money than budgeted before we get out of the ground if the soils engineer decides they need to go deeper. The digging, the steel rebar cages, the concrete, all more money literally down the hole, 26 times.
It was fun to watch the excavator, Matt working the backhoe. He had already leveled the soil before I got there and was attaching his screw-like enormous drill bit (new word for me, an auger) to the backhoe. The soils engineer, Joey, arrived. He was to inspect the drilling of the first few holes and confirm the depth needed. 11’, 12’, 12’-6”…and then water started seeping in. Did I mention our property is at the transition of steep hills above to a moderate slope on our street? There is a LOT of water naturally coming down the hill during rain, but some of that continues underground even after the rain. We had the original soil test done after a drought winter….
So, what does that mean? Sean, Matt and Joey talked at length and decided that the drilling and concrete pouring needed to happen at the same time so the holes would not collapse from the water intrusion. Not great news, and (to me at least) it seems like it will be quite a complicated juggling act, but they took it in stride. A small delay to next Monday, the 16th, which should be quite an exciting process to watch! Joey felt 12’ should still be OK depth wise, so hopefully it won’t add too much more to the cost…
Sunday, April 8
We came out to the site to look around and found Sean had been busy. There were boards raised on stakes around all four corners of the property, with fluorescent colored string crisscrossing the site, forward and back, left and right. It looked like some kind of laser maze game.
The boards have an old Anglo-Saxon name, like so many things in a tradition bound industry like construction: batter boards. They are erected parallel to the building footprint, but several feet away so as to be outside the excavation area. Then the dimensions of the building are marked on the top edge of the boards on each side of the site. Strings are stretched from mark to mark; which allows the corners to be located by dropping a plumb bob down (more old English vocabulary) at the intersection of the front-back and left-right string lines. Thus the building corners and edges can be located in space without having to mark them off on the soon-to-be torn-up ground surface.
The batter boards, which are themselves referenced off of the surveyors corner stakes, will stay up until the foundation form boards are completed. It’s a very old, excellent technology; one wonders if the Egyptians used it while building the pyramids.
As the earth moving equipment does its work on the site during the next few weeks, the batter boards are occasionally breached or destroyed and re-created, but they always come back as the contractor’s handy guides to laying out the house.
Tuesday, April 3
A busy day.
Before we can formally request PG&E to give us power, they want the temporary meter installation inspected by the city. We also need the erosion control measures that Sean installed last week to be inspected before the grading starts. So I called yesterday to schedule inspections, the first of many that this project will need. The city gives a 9:00 to noon window for the inspector to arrive, so I’ve come at 9:00 to hand over the official permit documents to our superintendent, and maybe watch the inspection take place. Maybe he’ll come early, and I can get back to work by 9:30 or so…
We’re also expecting a surveying crew to come to ‘stake’ the building site – they will precisely locate points on the site from which the contractor can measure to the building edges. There are some questions about exactly how to do this to be most useful to the contractor.
I wait in vain, fiddling with locks, chains, fences, signs, as 9:00 turns to 9:30. Several texts and phone messages to our contractor and his superintendent. It seemed there was a miscommunication, but the contractor would be out shortly.
Our nice neighbor, Rod, who we’ve come to know over the last ten years, stops by. A retired policeman, beekeeper, and jack of all trades, he seems to be busier than the average ‘working’ person taking care of a variety of businesses, homes and hobbies. He’s been mowing the weeds on our lot the last ten years, as we’ve vacillated on our plans for building.
Rod had offered to let us use his water for our project, as the site doesn’t yet have a water supply – no services were installed when the land was subdivided in the fifties. We were going to pay his water bill during construction in exchange, but he had told me yesterday that he was going to stop by the Water Department and see about getting a meter that he could put on his hose, so we’d only pay for the actual water that we used.
The Water Department offered a meter all right – for a $500 fee – and let Rod know that the extra use of water would boost his sewer rates for the next two years. He said he, unfortunately, couldn’t offer water if those were the consequences.
This was a bit of devastating news. The only other options for water were the neighbor on the other side, who we just barely knew, or running a hose from a fire hydrant across the street with the same expensive meter. Rod suggested we could get a water tank on a trailer – not an easy option either, it seemed. Eventually we would have a water service from the main in the street, but that wasn’t scheduled to happen for months.
In the middle of this conversation, the surveying crew of three shows up. They’ve been told by their (overloaded) boss to locate and stake each corner of the building and have come prepared with all of the data programed into their high-tech transit. Unfortunately, this is not at all what we wanted or asked for – most of the building corners will be deeply excavated and any stakes in those locations will be trashed by the grading contractor. What we asked for was offset points from the property lines, outside of the excavation area but available as benchmarks for the contractor to do his layout later.
The surveyors get it, and promptly phone their boss to obtain the right data. Crisis averted.
Our contractor arrives, oks the staking plan, and I introduce him to Rod. They get on famously, bonding over trailers, living in Arizona, and construction tools. Noel convinces Rod that there won’t really be much water use till later in the job, and promises to keep a tight watch on the valve. Rod relents and says just use the hose when we need it. Whew, crisis averted.
10:30, the inspector arrives, sporting a Beach Boy haircut and, by appearances, just out of high school. He takes a quick look at the erosion control installation – a series of straw wattles, staked to the ground at the lower perimeter of the site, and pronounces that “everything seems to be there”. He takes a more careful look at the temporary meter and pole. All is good to go; inspection passed, break out the champagne!
11:00, the surveyors are wrapping up their work, the contractor leaves to have a late breakfast, and I take off for work. A successful morning of ‘not’ work.
Monday, April 2nd
So exciting: the porta-potty/temporary power rig that I worked so hard digging a pad for is arriving today. Just as before – one could have guessed that – instead of getting a warning call before they arrive I get one after they arrive. The two guys hustle to open the fence and get the porta-potty onto the lift gate, down to the ground, and muscled into position.
There’s another surprise for me. I’ve assumed (do I need to go into what ‘assume’ makes, or do you get the picture here?) that the door to the porta-potty will be on the front and that the meter panel and pole would be on one side or the other. Either will work. Instead, the meter panel is on the rear. My carefully drawn site map, which shows the porta-potty jammed into a corner of the fencing, doesn’t work with this arrangement. So either the door will be tight to the fence, or the panel will be. Knowing that electrical meters need to have 3’ of clear space in front of them by code, I tell the guys to face the door to the fence. We’ll have to adjust the fence and squeeze to get in the door, but at least we’ll have power.
I’m pleased that the pad is big enough and that the rig sits almost level. The guys stake it into place with a half dozen steel rods, then drive two 7’ long copper ground rods into the ground and hook them up to the panel. The last step is to hoist the mast up to where PG&E’s cables will connect to it 16’ off the ground.
Looks good. I guess I don’t have to worry about lightning strikes while I’m peeing after all, since I can’t get in the door.
The guys leave and I adjust the fence, heaving sections uphill till there is at least eighteen inches of clearance for the potty door. This just pulls the fence away from the opposite corner – nothing important is going on there so no problem. Of course, with the shift, now our company sign is blocked by the existing traffic sign. Sigh…
Friday, March 30th
The temporary construction fences are due to arrive today. I’ve had a very frustrating time arranging for the temporary services, which include security fencing, a porta-potty, and a temporary power supply. It seemed efficient to try to get all of these items from one company. I thought I would call two or three companies, get some quotes, and be able to check that off my list in half an hour. Instead, after an hour or so I had about four companies say they didn’t supply one thing or another, one company say they would call me back, and one company say they would give me a quote. As near as I can tell, the temporary services industry has been consolidated into one or two national players and a few local hangers-on. As you can imagine, with this kind of oligopoly, service goes down and prices go up.
A week later, when no quote has arrived from the one company, and no return call from the other, I try again. And again a few days later. I finally get an email with some bare costs (which I imagine could have been read off to me originally) and determine they’re my only choice. Then I wait for a contract, and wait, only to be told that this company just does “handshake deals”. My comment to my service rep that I didn’t think I wanted a handshake deal with people who serviced porta-potties gets a laugh but his response doesn’t improve. I do get a verbal commitment that the fencing will arrive today, however.
I’ve drawn up a detailed fencing plan, as the site has to be tightly organized, made a screen shot from Google Maps with locations marked on it, and sent it off to my rep with my contact information and the request to give me 15 minutes warning so I could meet the installers. So, naturally, I get a panicked call from the installers, who have arrived and want to know if I have a vacant lot. They haven’t gotten the plan or the picture but at least were able to track down my phone number.
I race out to the site. Julio, the supervisor, introduces himself, and I explain the plan to him. I had assumed (‘assume makes an ass out of u and me’) that fencing products would be on 10’ modules. Instead, they unload a pile of 12’ long panels, which doesn’t fit my careful layout. So we improvise, and what they set up in an hour or so will do. The panels are set onto ‘feet’ which keep them upright, and joined at the top. It’s a perfectly logical, efficient system for flat ground. Unfortunately, most of our lot slopes at 5 to 10 degrees, so the installation is a bit awkward at the corners and not too stable. They brace the panels with a couple of struts, jammed into the earth and resting on the panel hardware – not firmly attached. In the end, we have something that provides poor security, is liable to fall at any moment, but which is at least flexible enough to move around and modify as necessary.
We return to the site in the evening, to very proudly mount our company sign and custom project sign on the fence. Now we’re putting it out there for the public to see. No turning back.
(fast forward to April 7th) The first bill for temporary services arrives, wildly inaccurate as to the agreed costs of the fence and asking for more than a year’s rental in advance. The fence itself has been moved around by our contractor, two sections of fence are lying flat on the ground, and several gaping holes are available for trespassers at our ‘secure’ perimeter. I’ve just checked the Home Depot listing for chain link fences. It looks like we could have bought the same amount of fencing for a small fraction of what our rental charge will be. ARGRGRG! Not the last time you’ll hear that, I’m sure.
March 24th, 2018
Well, this is it. Groundbreaking for our new house on Monterey Road, Pacifica. No ceremony, no bands or champagne, no guys in hardhats. But there is a shovel, and a weed-wacker, and me and Christine.
No, we’re not digging the foundations. It’s a bit premature for that operation, which will indeed require guys in hardhats and some large, loud pieces of diesel powered equipment. The task for the day is cutting a flat pad on our rather sloped lot for the porta-potty. Construction is so glamorous.
It’s got to be precisely located, somewhere along the front of the property, as it’s not going to move for the duration of construction and there aren’t many locations on the lot which won’t be messed around with during the next 12 months. It has to stay out of the way of the pile of earth we’re expecting to amass at the front right corner of the property, and the future driveway at the left center, and the excavation for the foundations. There’s just one corner, at the extreme front left, that will be relatively clear. Nicely, just behind the sidewalk, the first five feet or so aren’t too steep, just before the slope rolls over and dives down at twenty degrees. This spot will do. Of course, I knew this already, having drawn a plan ahead of time, which I now whip out of my pocket.
Besides not wanting to pee in a slanted Mystery Spot style porta-potty, the other reason to level a spot is that there will be a 16’ long pole attached to the porta-potty to which our temporary electricity service will be attached. From the connection point at the top of the pole, a conduit will run down the pole to a meter and switchbox, from which the constructors will get power. The porta-potty sits on a base like a pallet, with the pole secured to one corner, and its weight and a few stakes driven into the ground stabilize the pole against the pull of the overhead wires. The installation has to be inspected by the city and by PG&E, and I imagine they may not want a slanted pole. Luckily, the selected location is right across the street from the utility pole where the cables will come from.
I’m not sure if I like the idea of a metal pole carrying 200 amps of electricity running in close conjunction with me and tank full of excrement, during a lightning storm, put hey, we probably won’t be working on rainy days.
Enough. Get digging.
The shovel is a marvelous devise, it’s sharp end digs easily into the soft earth, propelled by my weight as I step on its shoulder. The blade goes in, I lever the handle back, and a nice chunk of loam breaks free, to be tossed aside. My dad, veteran of San Diego Gas and Electric, the Army Corp of Engineers, and an avid gardener, taught me how to use a shovel when I was about six. Using your feet, your weight, and the leverage of the handle is way better than jamming it into the ground as if you’re poking a sharp stick into a rhinoceros. We’re definitely talking an iron age invention, not stone age.
Twenty minutes later I’ve moved a few cubic feet of grass and soil, and have a five foot by five foot, relatively flat patch of dirt. A bit winded. I’ve also murdered a clutch of Naked Ladies. Did I forget to mention that the one spot where the porta-potty can go has the nicest patch of flowers growing wild on the lot? The Naked Ladies, so called they grow lush leaves which die back without producing anything, but then a single stalk grows out, seemingly overnight, with a lovely pink flower. Half of my digging has been through their clutch of bulbs, which now lay scattered down the hill.
So, Naked Ladies, death, excrement, electrocution, this story has everything.
In the meantime, Christine has been whacking the weeds at the other side of the property, making a path for the heavy equipment. The burly grading subcontractor who we met on site last week, and who looks like he could lift up a bulldozer with one hand, had expressed fear of holes in the ground that were hidden by the high grass and weeds. I’m not sure if his backhoe’s five feet diameter tires are really in danger from the gopher holes and ruts on our land, but we agreed to cut the brush down before his arrival.
For this, a twentieth century tool, the battery powered weed wacker. Christine has been sweeping it back and forth, taking down the grass, dandelions, clover, anise, and dozens of other weed varieties that have sprung up tall in the rainy season. We’re leaving a bit – there is still rain in the forecast and we don’t want to risk erosion – but at least the shape of the ground is clear to see. After an hour of whacking, we’ve cleared maybe 20% of the lot, but that’s enough. There’s a path down the hill for the excavator, and we’re tired and covered with green fuzz.