Jacking Up the House

My house sits up on a hill. Down below, about a mile away, trains rumble by several times a day. The house rattles a bit every time. It’s not intense. I don’t have to worry about pictures falling off the walls. But the sound and the vibration are enough to remind me of the air spaces between solid objects like dinner plates that seemingly sit squarely one on top of the next. The train moves the earth just enough to upset the plates just a little. If it upsets the plates, you have to think it upsets other things.

Over time, train after train after train, the nails that were pounded into wood 45 years ago during the construction of the house might loosen up just a little, then maybe just a little bit more. Tiny cracks form. Over time, storm after storm after storm, some rain seeps through the cracks but not very much air, so the wood can’t dry out once it gets wet. Insects look for hiding places and nesting places and make a meal of the yummy, wet, softening wood. Over time, bite after bite after bite, the now-rotten wood is not so strong.

That’s about the time when, in the proper order of things, we humans come along and fix it. After we get over our initial disgust at finding spongy wood hidden under the front porch under the front door, we make a plan: Jack up the house, cut out the bad boards, replace them with good, new boards and give it another 45 years.

I’m not saying we liked the plan or felt comfortable with the plan. Jacking up a house is not fun, let us be clear. This is my house we’re talking about and what if something slips and we are under it (worst case scenario) or what if we make the problem worse (second worst case)?! But you can’t get around it. You can’t get the old boards out unless you give yourself a little bit of space to get a saw in there and cut through the nails that hold them in.

A quarter of an inch. Six or seven millimeters. That’s all the space we need. Okay, let’s lift the house a quarter of an inch, sure. How do you do this? How much does this corner of the house weigh?

Wouldn’t you know it – someone thought of this before us and came up with floor-to-ceiling jacks that hold 38,000 lbs (minimum extension) or 20,000 lbs (maximum extension). You can buy these. And Sandy did because, you know, we might need them again someday. Would the information on this box be reassuring to you?

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I notice it says, “Supports the weight of heavy furniture, appliances, or remodels.” It does not say, “Supports the weight of a house.”  Or even, “Supports the weight of a corner of a house.” Perhaps that is implied by “Supports the weight of … remodels.” That seems vague to me, but with two of them we should be fine, right?

Some things you just have to do. You can hem and haw all day but that doesn’t get the thing done. Breathe deep and put the jacks in place.

The daylight you see in the photo below is not the quarter of an inch we raised the house.

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It’s the (partially covered by insulation) hole in the house that we were able to make because of, and only because of, the quarter of an inch gap. From the outside, before we got the board off, you can see the gap. It’s not much, but it’s enough.

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Once the gap happened, once the jacks did (thank heavens!) what they so boldly lay claim to do, the work on the outside started. First, Sandy got a reciprocating saw into that gap on the outside and cut the nails that held the boards together. He also made a vertical plunge cut in the board so we could remove it in two pieces. Then Joe beat at the longer portion with a sledge hammer from the inside. I’m not sure what was worse: the sawing or the beating. This board was integral to the structure of the house, and we were taking it out. Violently. Ruthlessly. In general I am not comfortable with violence and ruthlessness!

When we started to see movement, it was both reassuring and terrifying.

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The board would come out, yes, Would the jacks continue to do their job? Would the vibration caused by the beating upset them or change anything?

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Once the board was out far enough that the hammer could hardly reach it any more, the beast of a crowbar came into play. In this game, we ultimately win. The board loses. C’mon. Out you come.

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It might have been better for me not to be a bystander during this time, but I don’t have the physical strength to do what Sandy and Joe were doing, so all I could do was watch, hope, pray…

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There we go. The house is still standing. Now the other piece.

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Great. Now we have a hole in the house. Between the floor joists and the top plate had been a 2×2 sill plate, which Joe and Sandy found laughable. You can see it where we found it in this photo

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and in this photo where it was still attached to the old (longer) board that we took out.

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They made a new sill plate with a 2×6 ripped to a width that fit perfectly, which was about 2×3½. Then we connected the upright, reinforced, three-boards-wide 2×6 studs through the top plate into the sill plate with 8-inch GRK “rugged structural” a.k.a. ÜberGrade screws.

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Then we could put in the new rim joist using the same screws but in 3-inch size. This I can do.

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Once the new rim joist is in, securely in, you can breathe. You can take down the floor-to-ceiling jacks and breathe. You can add the ledger boards and begin to visualize the porch that will be here soon.

I want to think the worst of this project is over. We had to remove the old front porch, excavate along the entire front perimeter to basement-floor level, shore up the foundation on the outside with liquid asphalt and 6ml plastic, add perforated drain pipe and drainage gravel, add backfill, dig post holes, fill post holes with concrete reinforced with steel cages, build a retaining wall, shore up the foundation on the inside, fix some electrical issues, remove and replace a rotted rim joist and add ledger boards. We have needed an excavator twice (once a big machine and once a mini), a bottle jack, two floor-to-ceiling jacks, a chop saw, table saw, reciprocating saw, plunge cutter, drills, all manner of hammers, screws, wrenches, levels, squares, hoes, rakes, shovels, 21 bags of concrete mix and lots of muscle.

We did all of this in the past 27 days. In between, when the rain made it too wet to dig, we finished siding the coop with the oak clapboards. I feel sooooo proud of this team, of the energy, skills, humor and experience that Sandy and Joe bring with them every time they come and of Samuel adding strength and assistance (to say nothing of Coco, Queen of the Dirt Mound) at just the right times.

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I’m so grateful to them all for keeping a good spirit despite the rain delays, for tolerating my ignorance and many questions, for dealing with mucky mud, icky rot and various other unpleasantries. They are all so amazing.

A new front porch is coming – one step at a time.

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