Sunday, July 24, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 205: Listen to the Locals

July, 2006

Construction is local.  Construction in the Adirondacks fascinates me because it's so different from what I encounter in coastal California.  In La Honda we deal with landslides, earthquakes, termites, punishing heat and sunshine.  At Silver Lake they deal with snow loads, frost heave, and simply being frozen for half the year.

Oriole is the name of a simple cabin constructed in the Adirondack style.  Now Oriole is tilting with one side of the cabin 3 inches lower than the other.  The low side sits on cedar posts which rest directly on the dirt.  As the post bottoms have rotted, the cabin has sunk closer to earth.

As I scoop away the dirt surrounding the rotten posts, I find flat stones nearby, set into the surface of the ground. 

This intrigues me.  And I know the man who placed these posts and built this cabin way back in 1943.  Ken Laundry is now 92 years old and still an active tractor-driving tree-cutting man.  I drive to his house and find him out by his woodshed, splitting logs with a double-bladed axe.  He's happy to loan me his jacks and give his advice.

"Ken," I say, "I'm a little confused.  Textbooks tell you never to build with wood in contact with the ground."

"I set those posts on flat stones," Ken says.

"That's kind of confusing to me, too.  Textbooks tell you to dig below frost level for your foundation.  They say you can't just lay a flat stone on the ground."

"Five feet.  That's the frost line.  You want to dig five foot holes for a dozen posts?  For a summer cabin?"

"Uh, no.  But the textbooks say you'll get frost heave if you just lay a stone on the ground."

"Yep," Ken says.  "The worst is if you dig part way down, like three feet.  Then you see the heave in frost."

"The flat stones were all about six inches from the posts.  Either the stones moved west, or the cabin moved east.  Does that make sense?"

"Yep.  It happens around here.  That's the frost heave."

"So you don't worry about frost heave?"

"You take it into consideration.  Every ten years or so, you might have to adjust the stones.  I built that cabin in nineteen forty-three.  What year is it now?"

It was probably a rhetorical question.  Ken's mind at age 92 was totally sharp.  I answered, "Two thousand six."

"So nobody's checked those stones for a while.  Now you have.  Take my jacks, lift the cabin, fix it.  Easy as pie."

I imagine going back to California and explaining to my local Silicon Valley building inspector that I'll just keep an eye on those flat stones and reset them every decade or so.  Do you think he'd sign off on the foundation?

You can't argue with this:  The cabin has been there, actively used, still lovely to sleep in next to the rushing waters of Coca Cola Creek within earshot of Silver Lake and the babbling loons of the night, for 63 years.

May it stand on re-centered flat rocks and new cedar posts for another 63 years.  I borrow Ken's jacks and get to work.

Note: If you follow this link, you'll get another - perhaps better - post about Ken Laundry and local technique.

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