Lifting the House A Chronicle of Mayhem and Plunder

The Basement Remodel Gets Off the Ground

Our house is now two and a half feet taller than it used to be, perched atop six piles of lumber. Feels about the same, but the view is slightly better. It's good to literally get this project off the ground.

The basement had been completely emptied (a monumental task in itself). The concrete floor slab had been broken up and hauled away in little pieces, leaving a dirt floor. We figure the old foundation and floor slab were probably poured in the 1940s as a do-it-yourself job. There was no re-bar used, and the floor had numerous small cracks that let in moisture. No actual flooding, just a lot of that old familiar damp basement smell. We're going to pour a complete new foundation and floor slab. But first we had to get the house up in the air.

The house lifters had built six "cribbing piles" -- square stacks of short 6x6 timbers, piled up Lincoln-log style. Three heavy steel i-beams were shoved through the front wall of the basement and out the back, each resting on two crib piles. Pneumatic jacks were placed inder the i-beams, on cross timbers inserted near the top of each pile. Today we would lift those beams and take the house up with them.

They let me stay under the house to take pictures while it was going up. I just had to keep moving to stay out of the way of the crew. Eddie, a veteran of house raising, operated the control panel that fed air the six pneumatic jacks from a huge, wheeled compressor out on the sidewalk. From his position under the center of the house he yelled a stream of orders and questions to the other guys, who were doing things like building up the piles of cribbing as the house went up, and yelling back numbers from the "story boards." These are sticks that they drove into the ground next to the corners of the house. Next to each stick they made a mark on the house wall, and a mark on the stick at the same height. They call that mark on the stick the Zero Mark. Then they made a series of numbered marks going up the stick at 1-inch intervals from the zero mark. As the house is raised, the original mark on the house moves up past the inch marks on the stick, which tells them how high each corner is. The guys at the corners yell numbers at Eddie, and he adjusts the air to each jack so that the house rises evenly. When all the corner marks have reached the desired height (in our case 30 inches), it's done. Sounds simple, right?

First Eddie applied force on all 6 jacks to "break it loose" (not an entirely comforting term to the homeowner's ears). As the house creaked, groaned and popped, the guy at each corner yelled out where his mark was. Eddie was puzzled that it only went up about a quarter inch at first. The northwest corner initially refused to budge, but a few judicious sledge hammer blows knocked it loose. Then Eddie started going up 2 inches at a time, first with the front jacks then with the back. Two crewmen outside the house ran back and forth from corner to corner to report the numbers. The rest of them added timbers to the cribbing piles under the beams. At one moment a beam under the kitchen broke, which is a scary sound. It was a used timber they had borrowed from a stack that had been part of our garden border. Apparently it was rotten. They quickly replaced it with stronger timber and that was that. Various other pieces of wood fell over as the loads they had been bearing were removed. I had expected the posts holding up the main beams to fall over as the weight of the house was lifted off them, but since they were nailed in place at their tops they went right up with the house, hanging loosely above their concrete footings as if levitating. A strange sight.

After about a half hour the house reached the 30-inch marks all around, and liftmaster Eddie shut off his machinery. The crew added some final wooden blocks between the cribbing piles and the i-beams, and the jacks were lowered and pulled out. We were able to go right back into the house immediately, but getting in the kitchen door was a big step up. Somebody threw together a few 2x12s and made a ramp, to which I will add some temporary hand railings later. Some of the crew rushed off to other engagements right away, as it was Saturday, and the rest relaxed with some BBQ chicken and beverages provided by us in what's left of our backyard.

I spent the rest of the afternoon helping to restore the plumbing connections.- One of the crew guys reconnected the sewer line with a temporary pipe while I worked on the incoming water line, which is basically a thick rubber hose clamped to the stumps of the incoming water main. It's long enough that they can move it out of the way as needed. This proved to be a wise choice of assignments on my part, as one of my daughter's visiting friends innocently flushed a toilet during the procedure. Fortunately the guy working on the pipe heard it coming and got out of the way in time. By nightfall we ended up with a working kitchen sink and one fully functional bathroom. We have been using the other bathroom for storage recently anyway, so we won't miss it for a while. The electricity didn't have to be disconnected because we have overhead power lines. They just sag a little now because the house is higher. Unfortunately nobody remembered to reconnect the gas line, so we are cooking with microwaves until tomorrow.

At the end of the day I was so tired I didn't take the time to go through these pictures carefully. So here are just a whole bunch of shots at various stages of lifting the house. The pictures taken underneath during the lift are a little hard to see, because of the glaring daylight streaming in through the widening between the foundation and the walls, but you get the idea.

The house is safe sitting up on these cribbing piles, but it's very shaky and takes some getting used to. Sort of like being in a minor earthquake all the time. When the wind blows you start to wonder...

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