One of the things that I’m learning about construction is that plans change. The original idea for the foundation was to pour a monolithic slab. The word “monolithic” means “single stone”, and the idea is exactly that. We would fill the giant hole in the ground with a mixture of clay and sand, put up 3/4″ plywood forms, dig a four-inch trench inside the forms down to the clay, wire up some rebar support, and pour in concrete that goes all the way down to the clay at ground level.
This idea appealed to me because it got the foundation done in one shot, instead of requiring several intermediate steps. Those intermediate steps all cost money and time.
Larry came to me one morning and told me that he’d woken up in the middle of the night and couldn’t sleep. Putting up the guidelines revealed that the back wall of the foundation is nearly 4 feet tall. Pouring a one or two-foot-tall monolithic slab is one thing. When you get to 4 feet, you’re talking about a lot of weight on that wooden form. Literally tons. Maybe more than it can handle. Larry’s nightmare was that the wooden forms would blow out and several yards of concrete would spill out all over my backyard. That’s a mess that turns into a solid block of nightmare pretty quickly.
When in doubt, consult.
So we called a concrete guy who happens to be a member of my community. Don Small is retired so he very generously offered to come out to see what we were doing right away.
When he got there, I explained Larry’s concern. He looked at what we had done so far for about a minute and then just laughed. When Larry arrived a few minutes later, they chatted for a while. Larry then came and told me that we needed to do something different.
The plan that we’d rejected in the first place was what we needed to do. I needed to dig and pour a concrete footer, put up concrete block walls, fill the space with compactable sand, and then pour the slab on top of the sand. There was just no other way.
Laying Down the Line.
If you’ve never dug a footer, as I had never dug a footer, then you might not know that it needs to be 8 inches deep and 16 inches wide. The concrete blocks are 8 inches wide and sit on the footer with a four-inch margin on either side.
This doesn’t sound like too much of a task until you multiply it by 94 feet and consider that the clay is only slightly less resistant to shovels than the concrete that will make the footer. But before I could start digging, we had to put up batter boards.
“What’s a batter board?” you might ask. I had to ask that too. The batter boards were kind of like the stakes that we used to mark out the outline of the house but much sturdier and more precise.
We started by driving three stakes into the ground on each corner of the house. Then using a construction level, we marked the stakes at the same level as the subfloor of the existing house. This is the height of the slab that we’re going to pour. Then, we mounted some 2×4’s on the stakes using the marks.
Then we measured out the perimeter of the addition. Some finishing nails serve as mounting points for the strings that marked out what will be the top outside edge of the slab. These strings guided my digging the footer trench and the mason who laid the block wall.
The World’s Nastiest Sand Trap.
The first full week of April is Master’s Week, and the entire world looks to Augusta for the legendary tournament. I didn’t get to go, because I was in a different kind of sand trap. On Tuesday, it rained approximately 127 inches. A slight exaggeration, but you can see the results. All of the sand that I put down prior to digging the footer got completely soaked and slowly drained out during the next week.
That doesn’t look like much of a problem until you consider that I was digging in that sludge. Georgia clay is as hard as a rock until it gets wet. Then it somehow becomes something like a gorilla glue paste. It attaches to work boots, building thicker and thicker layers, making feet heavier and heavier. And it’s a pain to scrub off.
I got to digging. Because of the slope of the land, I had to put three step-downs in the footer trench. This way I didn’t have to dig the entire trench at the lowest level of the grade. Each step dropped 8 inches, enough for a new course of block.
I had a couple of sweet encounters with two of my children when I was digging this trench. Joseph (7) and Catherine (4) both came up at different times to ask me what I was doing. “Do you know why I’m digging this trench?”
“Because I love you.” When Catherine heard that, she gave me the sweetest smile. She realized that I was out working and sweating in the mud because I wanted to build something for her.
Calling for reinforcements.
Over the next week, I worked steadily to get the trenches neater and drained. On the Saturday of Master’s week, I took 8-inch strips of 3/4 inch plywood and staked them into the ground wherever the walls of the trench were not 8 inches deep. I gave my thumb a good whack with a hammer while driving in an 18-inch galvanized grade stake. You know how that’s always really funny in Looney Tunes? The big throbbing thumb and howls of laughter. It’s a lot like that but without the laughter.
Nothing like a bandaid to keep the work going. The week after Master’s Week was Holy Week. Fewer celebrities, but certainly more important. I was running into a time crunch. The footer had to be done so I could move to the next stage of the project. I scheduled an inspector to come the Monday after Easter and ordered the concrete truck for Wednesday after that. So I needed the footer ready for inspection by the close of Easter Sunday.
No problem. I only had two major projects left, along with a little clean-up. The first was rebar. The footer needed two pieces of rebar glued into the existing foundation with epoxy and resting on four inch rebar “chairs.” The steel rebar gives the concrete strength and prevents the foundation from cracking and sagging. The chairs keep the rebar off the ground when the concrete is poured over it so the rebar is right in the center of the footer.
If you’ve never bent rebar by hand, it’s kind of like wrestling an iron anaconda. That stuff just does NOT want to obey. The most difficult bends were for the steps. Trying to put an 8-inch “S” curve into the rebar took three grown men.
Larry helped me to cut and bend all the rebar that we needed and then left me to get it all wired up.
Working with Dad.
God often uses my relationship with my children to help me see my relationship with Him with new eyes. I spent Holy Saturday down in a muddy ditch, tying the rebar to the little wire chairs to get ready for the inspection on Monday. I asked my oldest son to help me.
He was super enthusiastic. By which I mean, he complained for about the first 10 minutes that he had something, anything else that he’d rather be doing. I stopped what I was doing and sat him down next to me. I told him that my number one job as a father is to teach him how to work. He might be super gifted (and he is), but if he doesn’t know how to work, then he’ll never get anywhere. A person with mediocre talent and a strong work ethic will almost always do better than their brilliant but lazy counterpart.
“Life is work,” I told him. “But don’t you get to take vacations?” he responded. “Yes, I do. And I have to work 50 weeks a year to take our family to the beach for that one week.” Something clicked, and he worked with me happily for about the next hour. He did what I asked when I asked for his help, then he ran around on the sand and told me stories until I asked him for something else. We both enjoyed it, and I actually got more done with his help than I would have without it. He handed me the grade stakes that I was pounding into the middle of the trench so we could tell the depth of the concrete when we poured it.
Later, it dawned on me. How often do I go to God with my projects and ask Him to bless them? Or how often do my prayers echo my son’s fascinated monologue about the glories of MineCraft but in a somewhat more adult context?
It’s humbling to see in my relationship with God the behavior that I’m trying to correct in my son. Just another opportunity to grow in humility. But it’s also an opportunity to grow in my relationship with God. I need to be asking God, “What’s Your Project? What are we doing today, Abba?”
His project is as much higher than my project as building an addition to house my family is higher than building a new fortress in MineCraft. Infinitely higher. Because His project will last forever. And He’s doing it for me. Because He loves me.
By Easter Sunday, the only thing I needed to do was clean up the trench and put in some dams at the steps. The dams stop the concrete and give a nice flat surface for the mason to use for the block walls. It took me a little while to get those in place and then I started cleaning.
If you’re ever in the position where you need to clean out a muddy trench, you need a Shop-vac. This thing is a beast. It sucked up dirt, mud, rocks, wet sand, dry sand, and dirty water. I had to stop a few times to rinse out the filter because it got so caked with filth, but I threw it back in wet and kept on trucking. I think it was that Shop-Vac’s finest hour.
A Concrete Step Forward.
On Monday, I had to work, so my wife and Larry met the inspector. He looked at the open trench, the rebar, the epoxy, the grade stakes, the dams, and the side walls. I’d like to imagine that he marveled over the immaculately clean, vacuumed trench, but I don’t know. I did pass the inspection. So I called Augusta Ready Mix and confirmed the concrete delivery for Wednesday. I took the day off.
I’ve never poured a concrete footer before, nor have I done any concrete work besides putting the occasional 4×4 post into a hole. So ordering a concrete truck was a big deal. It was a big deal for the neighborhood, too. Many of my friends and neighbors homeschool their children, so a concrete truck is “Big News.”
A swarm of children came to watch while we worked. It made it really fun, even though it was still a lot of work. Kind of a carnival atmosphere.
The first thing that we did was pour several wheelbarrows full of concrete into the step-downs. Apparently, the first concrete off the truck is the thickest because they will often add water to the concrete after the first pour to make it flow better to cover larger areas.
Then we got to work filling the rest of the trench from the top down. The skill of the driver impressed me tremendously. He aimed the truck’s metal channel and poured the concrete into the trench with great accuracy. We came along behind him and flattened it down a bit with shovels and hoes, feeling for the grade stakes under the surface of the concrete so we could tell that it had reached the correct depth.
I’d like to say that was that, but it turned out that I didn’t order enough concrete. Not by much, but enough to send me driving to Thomson to get 9 bags from Culpepper Lumber before the rest of the concrete set. God was watching over me. They had been completely out of concrete until about an hour before I arrived. They had just finished unloading a fresh load of concrete off the truck.
This had an unexpected side effect. The bags of concrete were about 200 degrees Fahrenheit. I”m not kidding. Imagine lifting a 75-pound steaming hot baked potato and put it in the back of a truck. I didn’t get blisters, but I could still feel the burn in my fingers when I got back to my house. I was smart enough to use gloves when I started mixing the concrete to put into the trench.
While I drove, Larry and our volunteer crew finished smoothing out the rest of the footer. The last bags of concrete went into the trench and I signed my name in the edge.
It feels like the end of a big project. I put in a lot of hours and sweat. But the footer is really just the beginning. You might consider it the cornerstone, because the weight of the entire addition will rest on that footer. Without a solid foundation, none of the other work that I do will last. But this footer should last a lifetime. Probably several. Solid as a rock.
If you want to read more of my adventures building the House of Krupa, check out the archive!
Jesus snatched me out of the darkness and saved me from complete madness. If you want to hear more of that story, check out Demoniac, now available on Amazon.