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The house-move makes its final landing

by admin on October 11, 2012

A few farmers’ markets ago my son Wesley and I accepted an offer to tour the crawlspace under Phil Joy’s big Queen Anne house. This is the house that arrived in Benicia by barge from Napa several years ago with the intention of being transformed into a Bed and Breakfast Inn and is occasionally written about here. The house had recently been lowered onto its new foundation – a red-letter day for a house-move  – especially for this one because it was years in the making.

We all felt at home kneeling in the dirt under the old timbers of the 1895 house. I’m the architect for the project; Wesley works summers for Phil as a laborer; this particular house-move is Phil’s most personal project. So we were like one big happy family admiring the new atmospheric spaces created by the lowering of the house. I daresay we even felt a sense of triumph as we crawled about in that 4’ tall space. There was the new concrete smelling foundation, the twists and turns of the labyrinthine spaces with their crawl hole openings, the exotic mine-shaft feel of the utility lights strung out at various intervals.

The house’s journey started in 2006 when Phil brought the old house on a barge down the Napa River and ‘round the Horn of Mare Island to its new “forever home” on the edge of the boatyard in Benicia. It’s been slow-going transforming the old Vic into a genteel B&B, mostly because Phil and wife Celeste are paying for things as funds have become available. I once asked if they had a business plan for the B&B. “Well, if we ever did, it blew off the back of the truck the first day,” said Celeste with a laugh.

It’s been a labor of love, with Phil simply deciding he needed to save the old house when he saw it sitting alone in a Napa field awaiting demolition to make way for a golf course.

I like that sort of energy – doing something just because you have passion for it. I once sold a fourplex in Vallejo in order to build a big fancy rental house in Benicia just because I could. Decisions like these go against standard investor strategies, but they‘re fun and, well, life is too short. Enough said.

The three of us took turns crawling past the steel framework that had been welded in place to support the brick chimney during the move. It was now resting on a very solid concrete foundation, as were all the bearing walls of the house. These walls no longer were cantilevered out on temporary steel beams, stretching the house in unusual ways, like some sort of house yoga. Now the house was at rest, the floors extra solid with a permanent feeling.

 

Here is how you add a new foundation under an already-built house:

The house is supported on a carefully arranged array of steel beams underneath. If it is to remain in place, these beams are supported on very solid wood “cribs.” If the house is to be moved, these beams are supported in three locations on dolly-trailers with many wheels to support the huge weight. Having three points of support allows the house to roll over uneven terrain and simply tilt as needed and still be fully supported. If there were four points of support then it’s likely that any high or low spot in the route would cause the house to rack and twist.

The house is then pulled by tractor or truck to its permanent location on the property where it will remain temporarily suspended 6’ or so in the air, giving the carpenters the room to move about underneath and build the forms for the concrete foundation. Stout wood cribs are added under the beams and then the dollies are removed. The framers then build the foundation exactly under the edges of the house hovering over their heads. It’s quite simple and ingenious. Handheld levels are used for this. Plumb bobs (a favorite tool of mine because builders have been using them since Roman times) can be used too, except in Benicia where the breeze tends to make them sway a bit.

In addition to this, you have to allow for the various little ups and downs in the house’s framing so that the concrete foundation will fit the house framing just like a yin fits a yang.

Another option is to add a whole new living level underneath, achieved by lifting the house a little higher, and then building the foundation and an entire first floor with walls framed underneath the hovering house, which is then lowered onto the new walls below. This can be one of the cheapest ways to double the size of a house. This makes sense only if you needed to replace the foundation in the first place.

“John’s guys did a great job with the foundation,” said Phil, referring to John Laverty’s team of framers. I looked for a flaw and found none. Earlier that very day I had seen a foundation for a house-move in Suisun that was ill-fitting and required special metal flashing to run the water off. Yep, Laverty’s work was dead on. If guys like Phil and I didn’t notice and appreciate such a thing, who would?

The highlight of the tour was the sunken room for the elevator. We crawled across the dark void of the room on a plank and made our way down a ladder into the concrete chamber. A few years ago Phil and I had agonized over where to locate the elevator in the house in order to minimize the impact on the house’s best features and to avoid poking through the top slope of the roof on the attic level. This concrete room was the result of that.

In the dim light we discussed the future glory of the cold dank room. One side will have the elevator; the other side will serve as a wine cellar for the B&B. Phil went though much extra work sinking a shaft cylinder a whopping 35’ deep into the earth because then he could have the kind of old-world elevator with glass and steel sides that he felt was worthy of the house.

“You’ll be able to see the brick of the chimney alongside the elevator as you go up and down,” said Phil, quite pleased by such a notion.

I liked it. It sounded fun – therefore, good. After that we made our way up the ladder and out the back hatch into the sunshine and the music and bustle of the farmers’ market.

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