Getting the House Out of the Ground ??‍♂️??‍♂️?

By: Lee LeFever

I write books and run a company called Common Craft. I recently moved from Seattle to a rural island. Here, I write about online business, book publishing, modern home construction, and occasionally, dumb jokes.

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

Out of the Ground

In the parlance of contractors, home construction is completed in phases. The first, is “getting out of the ground”, which means laying the foundation. They say things like, “Once you get out the ground, it gets easier.” and “The project is more predictable once you get out of the ground.”

I suppose it makes sense. The ground is the big variable in construction; an uneven and unpredictable interface connecting the building to the property. And in this phase, stakes are high. The entire house depends on the placement of the foundation. It has to be right when the concrete is poured.

Like so many parts of the project, you have to trust the professionals to get it right and on this project, that was Kelly, the owner of the concrete company. The first time I saw him was on our construction site and it was immediately apparent that he had a unique sense of style.

It was summer and he was wearing a tank top and shorts with gold chains around his neck and wrist. On his feet were brand new, spotless sneakers. While this isn’t typical northwest attire, it’s really not construction site attire. But that’s Kelly. 

I chatted with him over a couple of days and grew to like him. He encouraged me to ask questions and be a part of the process. He said multiple times that he really liked the design of our house, in part, because it was simple. I suppose that’s relative. We set out to have a simple house, but the concrete work to make it happen seemed anything but. I took his word for it. Kelly has seen it all.

Having never been through the concrete phase of a house project, I didn’t know what to expect. My frame of reference was the Yurt, which was not a fine specimen when it came to quality construction. The deck was stable, but not very strong. It bounced and swayed just enough to notice when filled with visitors. I worried about its integrity. 

On a few occasions, I inspected the underside framing, just to be sure that braces remained connected. I saw no crumbling concrete or rotting wood. I deemed it as safe as a layperson could, especially knowing that its days were numbered.

Like nearly everything about the building, the Yurt’s connection to the rock was, shall we say, serviceable. The posts that supported the deck were small and connected to concrete footings attached to the rocky surface of the property. To me, it looked like the deck was supported by little concrete feet.

The Yurt's Little Feet
The Yurt’s Little Feet

While relatively young by northwest home standards, the Yurt was a relic of a bygone era when houses weren’t expected to stand up to earthquakes and strong winds. I doubt it was built with input from structural engineers or to adhere to strict regulations. Needless to say, things have changed and it all became very clear as our house got out of the ground. For us, nice little feet were out of the question.

The complicating factor was where we chose to place the house on the property. It sits on a small knob at the edge of a downhill slope made of rock. On paper, this is obviously the best location for maximizing the view. It’s as close as you can get to the water without building the entire house on a slope. 

Being on a knob, half the house will sit on the rock and half will be supported by posts and steel frames. What I didn’t understand in the planning phase was the incredible engineering and structure that would be required to make it work at that location. According to the regulations, the house must withstand 144mph winds and earthquakes that could cause it to tumble down the hill.

half the house

The people in charge of preventing these problems were structural engineers. They are like the doctors of the process and are responsible for ensuring the house is safe and strong. And like doctor’s orders, what they specify about the construction must be followed. They designed the all-important connections between the house and the ground.

Their designs all became very real when Kelly’s team started building the boxes, or “forms” that give the concrete shape and strength. These forms were wooden boxes, filled with rebar and eventually concrete, that creates the foundation for the house and the posts that support it.

Seeing the size of these boxes blew my mind. They were huge! I couldn’t help but think of the little feet on the Yurt which seemed like tic-tacs compared to these emerging behemoths.

The deck piers
The deck piers
The deck piers 1
Foundation for a steel "moment" frame
Foundation for a steel “moment” frame

At first, I was incredulous. It almost seemed like there had been a mixup. The forms, from my perspective, seemed like they were meant for a much bigger house. “These are for our deck?” I thought. Surely not.

Later that day, I looked at the plans for the property and tried to imagine a different scenario. If we had decided to pull the house back away from the slope by twenty feet, most of the house would be on more level ground. We could have avoided a lot of excavation and rock work. The engineering could have been simpler and more affordable. 

But we didn’t do that. We weren’t thinking about engineering or excavation when we planned the house’s location. Along with John, our architect, we were trying to execute a dream. To us, this specific location is special and deserving of a house that’s designed to take advantage of it. Anything else would be a compromise we’d likely regret.  

our architect

Of course, it’s easy to justify past decisions when your property is covered in rebar and forms. We were literally locked-in.

rebar and forms

There is, now, no room for revision or second-guessing and from that fact, I take comfort. I take comfort in having those decisions behind us. And I also take comfort in knowing that this house, our forever house, is being built to last in spot we chose.

Years from now, once the last nails have been driven and the concrete boxes are hidden underground, we’ll have confidence that we feel every day. When we walk onto the deck, there will be no swaying or bouncing. There will be few worries about wind or earthquakes. We’ll know the house will outlast us because we saw the rebar and concrete it took to make it work.

More On YouTube

The video below is a fly over of the project. More here.

Drone Footage of the House’s Foundation


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On most Tuesdays, I share a story from my life on Orcas Island and a recommendation for something I love. I'm interested in how to design work and home for lifestyle, livability, and fluffy dogs. Learn more.

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