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A hole no more - FINALLY above Grade!

There have been many times over the last year and a half that I questioned my sanity and wondered if I would EVER get out of the hole Diamond and I dug in September of 2014.

From the lowest lows that fall/winter when I could not get ahead of the ground and storm water and also loss of the first B.A.T., to the fear I would not be able to continue at all when in the winter/spring/summer of 2015  I first suffered from debilitating back pain and then the even a more limiting broken shoulder.

While on most days a noticeable volume of work was completed, Days turned into Weeks, Weeks turned into Months, and Months turned into Years.  What I original scheduled to take 4 months has in fact taken 2 years.  And the most depressing part is that most builders would complete similar tasks in about 6 weeks on most sites.

But I just kept going day after day and am finally able to say that I have completed the foundation’s; placement, waterproofing, exterior insulation, dimple membrane, granular drainage plane, and backfill.

As they say, I am finally ‘Above Grade’!

I expedited the final 20-25% of the backfill activities by electing to use 3/4″ crushed recycled concrete in place of native soil.  The soil would need to be compacted (especially on the north wall where it is also supporting a neighbours house, where the crushed concrete is self consolidating as it is poured into place.  It was also difficult to find any suitable dry backfill material at this time of year as most dig sites were very wet and I had long since exhausted my stockpile on site.  This also meant I could skip the whole drainage plane with plywood on the north wall as ALL of the backfill would be a drainage plane.  I paid about $3500 for the privilege of an expedited backfill.

North elevation backfill is complete finally bringing my backfill activities to a close.
North elevation backfill is complete finally bringing my backfill activities to a close.

I have to admit, I feel a little lost at the moment.  I have put so much energy into this process for so long, it is all I really knew and to now switch gears and think about the start of framing is a bit disconcerting and frankly scary.  But this is the task I am most suited for and have been looking forward to.

SO – why did it take 2 years and would my delays have effected other ‘professional’ builders.

Delay 1: 3 months

The first delay was totally out of my hands and would effect most builders.  And that was Municipal bureaucracy.  For me, it was the redesign needed when the building department refused to comply with Part 9 and deemed my design as ‘complex’ and needing full structural engineering of wind and seismic loads.  But many builders are faced with delays at the beginning of the project.  We have 3 in our neighbourhood alone that have been delayed from 3 to over 12 months so far.

Delay 2: 1.5 months

The next delay was a result of the fact that I was one person and could only be in one place at one time more than anything else.  Because I spent most of my fall and winter of 2013 designing and drawing up the plans for the build (including the structural drawings), this meant I did not get a chance to start purging and packing our belongings before our planned move out March 1, 2014.  So in May 2014 when I finally started taking down the house, I still had weeks of cleanup, purging,  and packing to complete – about 6 to be exact.  This really should have taken a lot less time, but I was already burnt out from the very long office days over the previous 6 months  completing the design and drawing packages. So I was not really on board with working long days at that point and probably average only 25 hours a week.  This task was also extended by my desire to have a low environmental footprint.  So instead of just having a big garbage bin delivered to site and chucking anything I did not want, I spent the time to post over 175 posting to Craigslist Free section and  In the end almost everything I did not want and was still at least somewhat useful found a new home with only painted wood or plywood and some plastics going to the landfill.

Delay 3: 2.5 months

The next task that added a lot of time to the process was again motivated by my desire to keep a lower environmental impact.  I deconstructed the entire house by hand bit by bit and kept, sold, gave away, or recycled the vast majority of the structure resulting in separated product streams. In the end, I sent about 10-15% of the house to the landfill representing a serious reduction the the footprint that most demolitions represent.  And while it took me a long time as I was again not yet motivated for long days and generally only one person (had wonderful assistance from Father-in-Law who pulled nails from salvaged wood and similar tasks, and help from neighbours form time time), I have calculated that for about $5000 of labour, any builder could perform a deconstruction of a dwelling and therefore save on dump fees offsetting more than the labour cost.  The cost associated with deconstruction would then only be holding costs which depending on the property value could add another $2000 – $7000 dollars as most builders have borrowed money to buy the land.  If a builder threw 3-4 people at the task however, the house would be down in 1-1.5 weeks minimizing the holding costs and further making this method affordable.  But sadly the typical process involves 15 minutes of an excavator and $15K – $20K of dump fees.

Delay 4: ~6 weeks

The next delay or more appropriately – extended task – was caused by the site conditions I was faced with.  While most of the basements in my neighbourhood are excavated in 3-5 days, mine took just over three weeks.  This was due to the soil conditions faced.  While many sites in neighbourhood have soft sandy soil, I had 9′ of heavily cemented glacial cobble and it just took time to break through.  Any builder would have suffered the same delays on my site.

I also suffer from a heavy flow of ground water which has plagued me throughout the entire build.  I suspect an underground spring but we are still going to further investigate this as a possible leak from a nearby municipal water line, storm, or sanitation sewer.  What makes this condition of particular inconvenience is the fact that my municipal storm sewer connection is only about 3ft below grade, so I have had to collect and pump up all of the collected ground and storm water till this point.  Many sites in the neighbourhood have gravity feeds to the storm sewer and are able to connect even before the basement is poured to ensure a nice dry job site.  I would give this a lot more attention if I did this again, ensuring I slopped the pit floor and installed a gravel drainage plane very early in the process and then had better quality sump pumps ready to take collected water away.  Lesson learned too late.

Delay 5: ~8-10 weeks

Again, because I am one person, I can only be in one place at a time.  So if I am needing to meet with vendors, pick up material, medical appointments, illnesses, injuries, design work, finances, etc, all work at site stops.  And to date I would estimate this adds up to just over two months including the down time or reduced functionality during the peak of my back and shoulder injuries.  But the alternative of hiring a labourer during some of these times would have still cost me more than a months holding cost for me (we own our land outright so our holding costs are low).  SO in the end, it has still been cheaper for nothing to get done during these times.

Delay 6: Too Many months

Trying to incorporate best practices.  By far the biggest delay is the methods of how I am building in my desire to showcase best practices from a Building Envelope/Science point of view.  And many of these have been VERY labour intensive.

  • Instead of applying the code minimum ‘damp proofing’ to my foundation (a task that would usually take a crew with a spray rig a few hours), I elected to waterproof my foundation with a full adhered torch on membrane.  This took about 7-8 days in all but will keep my basement dry and will provide an ultimate defence against the heavy ground water movement on site.
  • I also demonstrated best practice by installing a vertical granular drainage plane along the foundation.  Unless I was willing to spend thousands of dollars on material and labour to manually pack the material, this involved a careful choreography of backfill on one side and gravel on the other of sheets of plywood that were raised in 12″ lifts. On sites with better access and higher budgets, the gravel is just poured against foundation with something like a skid steer in small triangles interspersed with backfill (with two layers separated with fabric).  But this uses a lot more gravel and I did not have the room for the machinery anyway. I would estimate that this task alone added about 3-4 months to the backfill process.
  • Finally the code requires it but no one ever does this on residential builds.  All of my soil backfill was compacted in 12″ or shallower lifts.  This too added months to the backfill process.  Something normally done in 2-3 days on many builds.  Why do it?  If the soil is not compacted, it will settle over time leading to the very typical slope of sidewalks toward the structure.  This then directs storm water against the foundation where it can easily bypass the ‘damp-proofing’ typically applied.  The moisture can then migrate into the wall cavity inboard of the foundation where it usually becomes trapped by the poly that is often incorrectly installed as a VB below grade.  Result is inevitable mould and rot of wall components.

So there you have it.  A summary of a majority of the ‘extra’ time it took me.  The balance of around 3 months to make up the 2 years is just the fact that many tasks are easier and more efficient with two people compared to one.  That extra hand to hold something in place while you fasten it down, hold the far end of a tape/string line/etc, or passing something when you are down at the bottom or top of a ladder, hole, or wall. Even just the physiological benefit of having someone being there to motivate you to be at the site will improve your production.

I will now ramp up for framing.  I have a lot of final AutoCad design work to do in areas of stud layout and plywood optimization.  I also need to finish off the tweaking of all wall locations n the model to match the as poured foundation dimensions.  I also have some clean up at site and especial the floor deck that needs to be complete prior to installing the new B.A.T. (Big Ass Tarp).  I may also be called upon to assist in the tarp manufacture in order to assist in keeping my costs down below the quoted $4500.  I hope to get the new tarp at the end of April and have it installed and to start framing by early May.

Many thanks for continuing on this journey with me.  It is always a treat to here from those that have been following the process with me.  I would love to hear from even more of you with comments or questions you may have.

“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” —Lao Tzu (600-531) Philosopher

“Creativity requires the courage to let go of certainties.” —Erich Seligmann Fromm  (1900-1980) Social Psychologist


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