Straw Bale House: Part 4 (Driveway)

Point A to Point B

One thing in life we must find/have/create is a reasonable way to get from Point A to Point B. We have to get our bodies from sit to stand, our emotions from down to cheerful (☹ to 😊), our brains from first grade to second, our friendships from I-know-you to I-like-you, our careers from entry level to positions of seniority.

No matter where you live, you have to get from public space to private space, from the road to your own front door – a little snippet of your overall journey perhaps, but a vital one. If you live in the country, the thing that comes in handy for this purpose is a driveway. Not a big deal, you say. Simply step or drive off the road and walk or drive toward your house by way of the driveway. Most of the time a house comes with a driveway – a designated, hard-packed (or paved) surface between the road and the house. So simple and straightforward. You just drive on it. Duh.

Unless there isn’t one, as in the case of Lincoln and Julia’s Vermont property that they subsequently built the straw bale house on.

Unless the land immediately bordering the road is heavily wooded and drops off steeply along the entire length of the road-front property line. When I say steeply, I mean steeply, sharply, almost unmanageably. There was no way to walk from the road down to a reasonably level (but still not overly level) part of their property that felt remotely like a path for feet to tread on, let alone vehicles.

I remember it well. The first time I visited in the spring of 2017, we parked up on the road. When I say up, I mean up. Walking down felt like descending nearly vertically into a forest by way of roots, stones and irregular-sized patches of dirt. I found out later that Lincoln and Julia made the patches with a shovel and a good bit of stomping because they knew I was coming and had to create something that vaguely resembled steps. Walking down it while holding four-year-old Rise’s hand as well as a bag or two was not un-doable but still a challenge. How on earth had they hauled lumber, chairs and other bulky/unwieldy items to the yurt site we then carefully navigated our way toward?

Clearly high on the agenda in the development of this property was the construction of a driveway. If you have ever constructed a driveway from scratch, you know that constructing a driveway is different than paving or in any other way surfacing a driveway. Lincoln started that spring making way for it, including countless hours with a chainsaw felling trees, moving trees, setting trees aside for later use, cutting up trees for firewood.

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The property had come with a permit for the driveway, allowing for one to “cut in” off the road at a certain point, but Lincoln and Julia wanted a different entry point, so needed a new permit. Some things go easily (that did), so they ordered the first load of gravel. (Note the mailbox not standing upright in the background. The guy who delivered the gravel worried that he might hit the mailbox, so Lincoln pulled it out of the ground temporarily.)

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This pile included rocks up to 3-5”. The sole purpose of the first load was to fill in the space between the level of the road and the level of the land such that a vehicle could drive on it, the first vehicle being the excavator that would allow him to do the rest of the work — not the thing that might be interpreted as a car in my cross-section drawing that might make all this clearer, though Lincoln says the ground after the drop-off isn’t that flat!

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From below, from the land, that first load looked like this.

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Once this load was smoothed out (by hand) and Lincoln was able to get an excavator down onto the land, he moved copious amounts of dirt from here and there. For eight days straight, he dug, carried and dumped load after load, changing the contour of the land rather dramatically in some places. He had to move not only fill dirt, but also some very large rocks to use for a retaining wall.

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The driveway slowly began to take shape. On six acres there’s plenty of dirt to create an acceptable grade. “Best practices” in driveway construction suggest that 10% is acceptable, meaning a 1-foot change in elevation for every 10 feet that the surface goes laterally. Lincoln got somewhere near that.

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It is hard to describe just how tedious this work was, how stressful and harrowing those eight days of maneuvering of the excavator were, how very many buckets full of dirt and stone had to be moved uphill, how soupy some of the areas became as he took dirt away, how careful he had to be to not get the large machine stuck in mud because you sure don’t want it to sink so deeply into “the soup” that it can’t self-rescue with its own arm. Hours were wasted getting unstuck, and you pay by the hour when the machine is running.

When trying to make a reasonably flat ground, you necessarily aren’t on reasonably flat ground, so not flipping the machine is also a significant concern. Lincoln has flashbacks of ending up 45 degrees over with his feet up on the sides before catching it with its own arm. This happened, for example, while carrying a heavy boulder from one side of the machine to the other; he was not able to swing on the uphill side because of an obstruction (or maybe that tread didn’t have as solid a footing left), and halfway around the whole shebang started to go over. In retrospect he simply says, “Wheee!”

At one point one of the treads fell off, which was its own adventure,

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to say nothing of how the bucket kept losing its teeth!

On the left in the photo below you see the huge rocks forming the retaining wall. Harder to see is the swale on the right, on the upside of the 200-foot driveway, so that any water coming from above the level of the driveway would go into the swale and turn into a stream along the side instead of washing over the driving surface, introducing too much water and/or washing away surface gravel. A swale was as necessary as a wall.

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When Lincoln was done with the machine, he hand-graded for about a week before being satisfied that the driveway was smooth enough and had the right grade. It was still so soupy they could barely walk on it. The earth that became the primary passageway between the town road and their front door took all summer to dry out enough to drive on, but in the meantime, he built the barn (which we will come back to).

By fall it was time to keep going with surfacing the driveway, but reality forced more felling of trees, beautiful trees this time. In September Lincoln rented a truck with a 10-foot bed to bring some items from New Jersey to Vermont – items from his grandmother when she was moving out of her house. He backed the truck from the road to the barn without much trouble, and Rise and Eppie gave us another darling image,

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but once the truck was empty, it was exceedingly difficult to drive it back up on account of there being no weight in wheels where power was trying to be delivered. The front wheels sank into sand, and all manner of spinning and sliding into the swale ensued. To get it up to the road required a winch, that is, hand-winching. During this laborious process, a beautiful maple tree that they had suspected would be seriously in the way was seriously in the way. They knew it would have to go. It’s not an easy thing on your heart to take down a beautiful, healthy tree, even if it just happens to be in the wrong place. Afterwards, visibility was much better, and they knew they had done the right thing, but it’s a pang to this day.

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The three standing trees in this photo all came down. They were leaning heavily toward the road, and naturally you don’t want them to fall into the road. That’s where the car (photo below) helped. The rope you see was longer than the tree was tall, don’t worry.

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Once the grade was correct and those unfortunate trees were down, they could begin creating the driveway’s hard surface. On top of the native soil it is typical to first lay “road fabric” to keep a barrier between your soil and your gravel. Otherwise the earth will just eat the gravel, and in Lincoln’s case, with how wet the soil tended to be, this would happen fast. Lincoln worried about fabric because moisture can go through it and he was unsure how his driveway would behave with so much water. Bottom line: He didn’t want soup again.

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Demonstrating sound problem-solving skills, to say nothing creatively reusing otherwise landfill-worthy materials (wouldn’t Bertie Boyce be proud!), he put down shingles, which later got topped with gravel. Shingles? Yes, instead of just gravel or just road fabric topped with gravel, he created a weather shed using roofing shingles that made a solid surface of the first 100’ of driveway (up to the barn) so water can’t permeate, and soup cannot form. (With the leftover shingles he made a floor for the barn four layers thick).

This came about because Lincoln and Zach were re-roofing someone’s house at about that time, which resulted in a lot of used shingles that, per the contract, needed to go away. Instead of paying to dump them in a landfill, Lincoln took them to use on his driveway. The sticky point was the history of the disposal of shingles. Apparently it has been common enough practice among unscrupulous builders to dig a hole and bury unwanted shingles (causing the homeowner an unexpected sinkhole some years later) that it became illegal to “bury shingles.”

Naturally therefore Lincoln didn’t want to advertise what he was doing, even though his application in no way resembled the outlawed practice. This didn’t stop some people from misconstruing, looking askance and even asking outright, “Isn’t it illegal to bury shingles?” Following an explanation, he got a broad spectrum of responses including “Okay, guess that might work” (tinged with incredulity) and “Oh, brilliant!” (with genuine excitement followed by stories of their own unconventional solutions to similar challenges).

Lincoln’s driveway has been “hard as bones” even during Vermont’s famous mud season. Unconventional works sometimes. May we open our minds to it more often!

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When A Dig Is Big

When you have been waiting seven years to dig a hole, to expose the foundation, to see what’s really there, to assess the problem and to fix as required, and the day finally comes, you want two things: You want to be there and you want the sun to shine. When what you are doing is a dig so big that you can’t call it anything but The Big Dig, you can’t have rain. Our planned dig-date coincided with Hurricane Florence making landfall. Here in Virginia we didn’t get the worst of the storm, but we got plenty of rain. Bother. We had to cancel the plan to dig the weekend after Labor Day.

I didn’t want to miss all the fun, but I was heading out west on Sept 20. It kept raining in Virginia and was too wet to dig the weekend of Sept 22-23, and the weekend of Sept 29-30. Finally, the forecast for October 6-7 looked rain-free. And I flew home on Oct 6. It begins!

Joe had said he could take the old front porch off with the excavator, but I thought there might be salvageable wood. Sandy took it apart board by board on Friday.

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Except for the steps, which were new a few years ago, he found that the rest was rotted beyond further use.

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So it all went in the burn pile.

With no way to get into the front door, this project was officially underway. Now there’s no turning back! A new front porch there will be. But not until we make sure that the front foundation is in no way damaged, in no way compromised, in no way going to cause problems in the future.

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Weeks ago, when I was frustrated at being unable to find a contractor willing to do this work and we had determined to do it ourselves (because it had to be done, and you know, it can’t be rocket science), we had talked to Joe about this project. God bless him. He said, “You don’t want to do this yourself” in regard to the excavating. Graciously, without flat-out saying People who have never operated an excavator should not do this work, he implied that such things were best left to those with experience. I am so glad he said what he said, however he said it to make me understand, and I am so glad I listened! This man is a master on that machine! It might not be rocket science, but it’s a skill he has perfected over the years. You don’t rent a machine and figure this out in a morning.

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Joe removed a lot of dirt. The piles in front of the house looked like this when he was done.

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Coco had to play Queen of the Hill of course!

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Joe dug the hole down to the level of the basement floor, leaving the entire front foundation wall scraped clean, unmarred by that bucket (imagine the damage an amateur could have done!), exposed for inspection and …. drum roll ….. do … we … need … repair?

You tell me. This is from the one side.

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And this is from the other.

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That’s plywood! Been there 45 years! And it is in very good shape! I was thinking that when the house was constructed, some (probably most) of the people on the job site were saying This is stupid. Who puts plywood in the ground? But I bet there was at least one who said It’ll be all right. This’ll work. It worked!

As you may recall, my interior wall begged to differ. It showed bowing, indicating excessive pressure and possibly serious structural damage.

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This is because of what Joe did not find at basement floor level when he dug out the dirt. There was no gravel or drainpipe. When water flowed downhill (as water will do!) – and my land slopes toward the house – and soaked the earth that pressed against that plywood, it was very heavy! It pushed the plywood in, pushed the 2×6’s that stand between the exterior plywood and the interior drywall, and cracked the drywall. But moisture apparently did not penetrate the one sheet of plastic that they had put between the plywood and the dirt (which of course Joe’s machine shredded when he dug out the dirt). As soon as he removed the dirt and the pressure, that wall straightened right out.

Thus the wall is in such good shape! No repair necessary on the outside. Just need to waterproof it and add a way for water to escape in the future. On the inside we’ll add some 2×6’s for extra support and replace the drywall.

I used a wire brush to get as much of the dirt as possible off the exterior surface.

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With a heat gun I did the best I could to dry the surface where, along the bottom especially, it was still damp from the dirt that had been sticking on it overnight. Then Samuel and I got into our paint suits and rolled liquid asphalt on the wall.

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Onto that we pressed a solid sheet of 6ml plastic. Or maybe he pressed and I watched?

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The 6” perforated pipe came next, followed by gravel. There’s a big black snake under my house!

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Samuel drove Tracy’s tractor to bring gravel to where Joe could pick it up and unload it into the hole.

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Sandy raked and shoveled gravel so that it sat where it should on top of the pipe.

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And then got out of the way for Joe to add more gravel.

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On top of the gravel we put a piece of landscape fabric (so that dirt doesn’t seep through the gravel and get into the perforations of the pipe), and then those big piles of dirt in the front yard disappeared.

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The front yard still needs a final grading, and it’s a mess to walk across for now.

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But as the old Alka Seltzer commercials used to say: Oh, what a relief it is! I don’t have to worry about this foundation any more! When it rains, when water gets into the earth, it will seep down (as water will do!). When it gets to the landscape fabric, it will go through it. When it gets to the gravel, it will go through it. When it gets to the perforated pipe, it will go into it through the perforations, and then this water will flow away from the house, out into woods along the side of the house, to where the end of the pipe exits the ground.

Easily, I’d say, there’s more than 45 more years left for this plywood foundation!

 

Work, Mess and One Terrifying Spider

Expecting the worst sounds so pessimistic, but it has its upside. If and when the thing comes to pass and is not as bad as you expected, you can be pleasantly surprised and a great deal relieved – positive emotions both, and most welcome. The truth of the matter is: Some things are wonderfully and surprisingly simple, uncomplicated, straightforward.

That doesn’t mean they are not work. That doesn’t mean they are not a mess. But work is good because it gives us problems to solve, which in turn makes us stronger in many ways. And messes are good because cleaning them up leaves you feeling like you accomplished so much.

At my house right now is both work and mess. But I expected more work and worse mess. Truly I am grateful. For seven years I have been thinking I had a problem. Here’s why.

In my house is a funky circular staircase that leads to the basement. The wall in that stairwell that faces the front foundation of the house has been, shall we say, compromised. That’s what that crack is, a compromised wall. Clearly something has been pushing at it from the other side.

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You can see that the sheetrock has separated along its seam and is pushing inward. It has been that way for seven years. Part of the reason for this problem, we assumed, is that on the other side of this interior wall is an exterior wall made of plywood. Yes, plywood.

In the late seventies, when this house was constructed, they thought a plywood foundation wall was a good idea. A few years later the company went out of business but that is water over the dam for me. I bought the house with the plywood foundation. Over the years I have had both architects and structural engineers tell me it was sound and solid, and I wanted to believe them, but I see that crack every time I go downstairs. Not good, I tell myself, that cannot be good.

I might have watched it a few more years, hoping it’s not a disgusting mess behind that wall just waiting for the tipping point of enough water pressure + enough rot. The land slopes toward the house, so imagine the pressure of all that earth – especially when it’s soaked with rainwater – against my wood foundation. I envisioned a muddy mess busting through some rainy night when numerous other problems were also on my plate and of course, when this happened, I would be here alone. Can you see the creepy creatures that might accompany the burst? Yick!

The work and the mess that are here now might not be as bad as I expected, and I know there are worse things on earth than giant wolf spiders. But encountering them is still a near-death experience for me. (You do NOT want a picture of these, trust me! You will have to use your own very capable imagination.) I had to deal with one this morning and my heart is still beating too fast. It was on the inside of the screen door of the sliding door, which was inside the house, meaning there was no way to get it outside, and no way to sleep at night without killing it.

The spray that kills hornets was standing nearby. If it kills hornets, it will kill a spider, right? I figured I’d spray through the screen right at it. What part of my brain thought that would kill it immediately, I don’t know, but the thing did not roll over and die. It moved! And they move fast. I kept spraying, making a line of spray on the little red rug that, until this morning, occupied that part of the floor. It got as far as the small wooden cabinet in the corner, and I went to step on it (though you have to know I could hardly look at the thing).

What I saw when I lifted my slippered foot was just a bit of ick. No mashed spider. That’s very bad. Where did it go? If I missed it crawl under the cabinet, I’m in big trouble. I looked. I didn’t want to see it. But I needed to. I didn’t see it. I looked around some more. Oh.

That seems to be a bit of leg sticking out from under the red rug. It took refuge under there, clearly not realizing it was not altogether hidden. Probably it was delirious from the poison, probably would just die, and soon, from all that stuff I sprayed on it. But I couldn’t take the chance. I had to step on it. I had to hear the sound. I did. I had to. When it was done I could know it was done and I would once again be safe.

Didn’t I just write yesterday about your home being a place where you feel safe?!

My heart was beating like mad by this time, but I’m finished. There was no more in me. I sat. I waited for Samuel to wake up. Finally he did. I asked him to please clean up the mashed spider from the underside of the rug. He is a wonderful son who just smiled and got a tissue and did the thing. Then I decided that the rug, with its ribbon of poison spray, is probably trash now because what if Coco’s tongue, the one that doesn’t fit in her mouth, happened to touch the poison? Yup, trash.

See what an exhausting time I had?

One time, when I first moved here, there was one of these creatures on the outside of my bathroom window screen. When I told a colleague that day at work about that near-death experience, she calmly said to me, “You live in the woods. That’s their territory.” She had zero sympathy. Zero. I have never forgotten it.

All right, I confess. It’s not just the image of muddy slime oozing into my basement along with all manner of slitherers and crawlies that forced this repair. (You KNOW there would be an army of those things coming through!) It’s also the money. In the end I care about the money. I want a new front porch. I know this old one doesn’t look that bad.

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But it is. Its rotting boards would probably hold up a little bit yet, but it’s fair to say that wanting a new front porch was turning into needing a new front porch. So if I need to spend money on a new front porch, it makes sense to fix what would be henceforth unreachable under that new porch before building said new porch. Imagine not fixing the problem, ignoring the problem, moving forward in hope that there is no problem, and then finding out that there is in fact a problem after investing a lot of work and money in something that renders that problem unfixable without investing more work and money.

As much as I wish that stairwell wall was flat and perfect, it isn’t. It’s mine. I own it. Buck up. Fix the foundation.

On Saturday the excavator was here. That night at almost 11pm, my plane landed and Samuel picked me up at the airport. We talked till 3am. I woke at 730, went outside, and saw the piles of dirt.

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Like I said, I came home to work and mess. But I love it. Despite the downside.

Tomorrow, when I have truly recovered from my near-death experience, I will explain where the piles went and how we fixed the wall. At the moment I am still exhausted!