Archive for July, 2011


Wednesday, July 27th, 2011

After a couple of quiet, and blissfully rain-free days, today started too early, with the 0550 arrival of a pickup truck full of rebar. A large truck specialty truck arrived with a big hydraulic boom on the back, and a load of cement forms. Before that truck had an opportunity to cause further damage to the platinum-coated driveway, yet another specialty truck showed up. This one was a long hopper, with a big concave conveyor belt hinged along the side. It pulled up to the cabin, and then barn foundations, unfolded its conveyor, and proceeded to spray river gravel all around the sides of the footings, covering the drain pipe. It was a big truck, and it made a big impression on the driveway.

At this point, the poured walls truck had its chance at the driveway, parking behind the cabin site, setting some outriggers, and then unloading the forms. Two young guys, one apparently Amish, and the other apparently not, spent the entire day stringing rebar, putting forms into place, and setting in frames for the windows and doors (those are the wooden things in above picture).

Meanwhile, Sam arrived, sat down with his subcontractors, and then called Redi-Mix for another 15 tons of big limestone chunks, which was enough for about a 4 inch layer on half the driveway. By the end of the day, the forms looked to be pretty much done, and the crew left for the night.

Anticipating a return of the cement pump and truck tomorrow, I spent my evening working on the drive, bringing in some additional stone in the Kubota’s bucket, and using the blade and bucket to spread it into some of the low spots. That #4 stone is hard to work with, and its a real trick to even scoop up half a loader load with the tractor. I ended up doing about half of it by hand, scavenging some more slate and tossing in some stray limestone that had escaped beyond the edges of the drive. I’m a lot slower than a bulldozer, but I can go a LOT farther with a ton of gravel.

Around mid-day, the water level in the pond finally dropped below the lip of overflow pipe. It’d been a cheerful and loud gurgle ever since the storms on Saturday and Sunday. The pond overflowed for a solid 4 days this week, which is a lot of extra water. Although today and yesterday were gorgeous days, that felt almost cool in the mid to low 80s, the cabin site is still very muddy. Unprecedented for July, fresh grass is growing on the bare spots on the dam where I’d tractored out to repair the subsided soil above the overflow pipe. Much of the dirt under the new drive is still like pudding, sagging visibly under the weight of a tandem axle fully-loaded gravel truck.

We should get the foundation walls tomorrow, which will be the first time this year that I’ve looked forward to it pouring down here.

[The first entry for Building the Cabin was July 18, 2011.  The next entry is Basement Walls.]


Saturday, July 23rd, 2011

The storm woke us up just before midnight last night. By 1pm, the National Weather Service had issued flood warnings for our corner of the county. By 2pm, they’d revised the warning. Some time after 3pm, the last of a chain of highly concentrated, noisy, and wet storms finally left us in peace. A couple of the lightning bolts seemed to hit nearby, and as Dad said, there was enough lightning to read a book by. After a couple of hours fitful sleep, I woke up at 5:50AM when a pickup truck drove past the motor home. After all that rain, I wasn’t sure if they were actually going to be able to pour the footings, but they quickly unloaded and were hard at work soon after dawn.

Our rain gage showed 2″ (50cm) had fallen overnight. It left deep ruts in the new new driveway up to the cabin site, and also in the existing drive from the township road. Dad started grading the drive with the Kubota, and we took a quick spin down to inspect the NW corner of our property, where the township road was flooded. The front 4 acres of Heiser Hollow was completely flooded, with the Big Run well out of its banks. We met the first of 2 cement mixers on our way back from the bridge.

The cement pump had already arrived, and was fully outrigged, and the crew had laid forms for the footers, cutting rebar to size with a gas cutoff saw, and lacing it into place within the forms.

The actual pouring went pretty quickly, with a team of 5 guys inside the excavation,

while the cement pump operator controlled the boom from above with a handheld remote control.

After completing the pour, the cement pump and mixer moved down the hillside to start in on the barn, leaving huge ruts in our new 150-ton driveway.

The crew very carefully marked out the dimensions of the wall on top of the footing, and inserted vertical rebar for the walls, which should arrive next week.

The last task was the installation of a set of drain pipes around the base of the concrete footings, connecting them to the drain pipes installed earlier in the week.

The job was done before lunch time, and Dad and I were free to start regrading the driveways with the Kubota. Between the two of us, we spent at least three hours using the scraper blade, and the back edge of the scoop to smooth out the ruts from last night’s torrential rain and today’s heavy equipment.

All that tractor work paid off, with only a minor bit of additional erosion this afternoon an additional series of thunderstorms brought another half inch of rain in the gage. The accumulated rainfall map on tonight’s news shows a big red 5″ splotch just to our west.

[The first entry for Building the Cabin was July 18, 2011.  The next entry is Forming.]

Drainage & Driveway

Friday, July 22nd, 2011

A foggy wet Wednesday dawned with Diane dumping 15 tons of limestone in what later turned out to be the only possible place to turn around my parent’s motor home.

A rainy evening and night resulted in two inches of soupy clay on top of the driveway between the meadow, the barn, and the cabin. Before he was ready for Diane to spread any stone on the drive, Sheldon scraped off the worst of the muck.

Sheldon started with a foundation of clay and shale, using tons of the heavy rock that he’d dug out of the building site.

On top of that went 65 tons of the fist-sized limestone that Diane brought in her first load. Additional work included a pair of drainage pipes leading out of both foundation sites, and a large plastic culvert under the platinum-plated driveway.

After backfilling the poured cement foundation, a great deal of cosmetic sculpting remains to be done with the tons of dirt currently surrounding the cabin. Although we’re not at all sure what form that should take, based on practical, economic, and aesthetic considerations, it was becoming increasingly clear that a clump of trees that had been left next to the cabin were just not in a convenient spot. Sam had arrived for an inspection, and the 3 of us discussed the relative desirability of leaving those 4 trees in place or taking them out. Both Sam and Sheldon agreed that not only were there visual considerations, but it also seemed to be the optimum location for the septic tank. We all agreed that the trees needed to come down. Sam, who had arrived in something more along the lines of a New Order business suit than a tree-cutting outfit, explained that he had another appointment he had to get to, and he and his driver took off. Sheldon explained that he was not really a professional timber cutter. I handed him our Stihl chainsaw and wished him luck, feeling slightly guilty about sending a human poison-ivy magnet into that particular clump of trees. Inside of an hour, Amos used the dozer to haul 2 pair of 60′ trees into our meadow, joining the existing 8 trees that somehow had been overlooked when site prep and tree disposal had been taken care of.

Sheldon filled in that spot with about a 20′ high wall of dirt, clay and shale. At least he’s got a nice place to put the septic tank when he and Amos come back after the cabin is farther along. He also put a lot of effort into the slope behind the house, cutting a wide swale to drain water away from the back of the cabin, along with an area where a car can turn around at the back of the cabin.

The drive was topped off by inviting Diane back to spread 75 tons of a much finer crushed limestone. The result was about 3x what I expected we’d be spending on gravel. Wednesday was a long and muggy day of detail work to ensure that cabin and car function properly in rain or shine. By the end of the day, we had something like a rural superhighway across our little piece of woodlands.

The last two days have been pretty quiet. On Thursday, I spent about 40 minutes with the chainsaw, trimming branches off the trees that Amos dragged into the meadow, and I used the Kubota’s loader to sort of roll them down the hill to a brush pile. That lopped about 10′ off of 200′ of branches. Then Dad and I decided to take the chainsaw to Moore’s store for some encouragement. All I’ve done today is drive up and down over 150 tons of gravel, so it was well-compacted before the rain, which arrived around dinner time today. Tomorrow, the foundation crew arrives at 0600.

[The first entry for Building the Cabin was July 18, 2011.  The next entry is Pouring.]


Tuesday, July 19th, 2011

I have a new found appreciation for the earth’s skin, after watching Sheldon and his assistant dig two foundations today, seeing what they uncovered, and observing how they used it.

Originally planned as a pole barn, the location for the barn turned out to have a much steeper slope than anyone realized, with the result that the only practical way to build something that would be practical to park a car or tractor in would be to excavate it like a basement, with a solid cement wall on the back, and sides. This also had the effect of doubling the estimated cost of the outbuilding, so we compromised on the budget ceiling by reducing the size by 50%.

The speed and accuracy of the dig was greatly facilitated with a laser level, sitting on a tripod. Sheldon’s assistant held a long adjustable pole, graduated in inches, with a sensor clamped to the top, which peeped whenever it detected the laser. This enabled a precise relative depth measurement, ensuring that the floor and footers were all at the correct depth, and level.

After finishing the garage excavation, including laying some drainage pipes under the drive, the digging duo carefully pegged out the corners of the cabin, and began excavating through what turned out to be about 10 feet of dirt along the back. The garage site had a surprising amount of fine brown topsoil, but there was a much thinner layer at the steeper house site. On both sites, the topsoil was sitting on top of a heavy layer of light brown clay. Under the clay was a layer of shale that crumbled into 2-6 inch thick flat pieces, under the impact of the excavator’s shovel.

The excavation team expressed a great deal of satisfaction with the shale, pronouncing it not only an excellent underpinning to the foundation, and also the perfect material to lay before spreading gravel on the drive. I pointed out that it was a deep layer of that stuff underneath the dam, deeper than could be reached with 1970s excavators, that caused the pond to leak. Cool and dripping with water, it also suggested to me the reason why this property has so many springs.

I picked up a flat chunk of the shale from the cabin and hosed it off. It turned out to be bluish greenish, very different in color and texture from the coarse sandstone boulders on the facing hillside (none of which appeared during excavation). While it probably isn’t sturdy enough to bear a lot of weight, it seemed like a great material for building a small wall or something, so I hand selected some pieces that I felt I’d like to build with some day, filling up 4 Kubota loaders full. OK, so it would be a small wall, or maybe stepping stones.

Its impossible to fully appreciate Sheldon’s hydraulic artistry from still shots. He very carefully positioned his shovel along his fluorescent pink lines, often preparing a spot ahead of time by digging down on one side, or piling up some dirt to raise one of his tracks, ensuring an appropriately level and steady surface. He often used the shovel as a sort of crutch, pushing up the machine and holding it steady while rotating the tracks underneath it, or to gain some extra traction when crawling up a steep and slippery slope. He carefully separated the different forms of dirt and shale for different purposes. The floor of the cabin is completely flat, surrounded by deeper channels for the footers, with completely straight cuts around the outside, with a chamfer of several feet around the lip.

Starting at 7am in a drizzle, the excavator’s worked until an unscheduled and heavy shower arrived at about 6pm. There’s a bit more digging to do tomorrow, but I think the building crew can start building their forms so that they can pour a basement and a barn this week. Looks like it’ll be beastly hot and humid, but at least it isn’t supposed to rain for the next couple days.

[The first entry for Building the Cabin was July 18, 2011.  The next entry is Drainage & Driveway.]

Starting the Cabin

Monday, July 18th, 2011

40 years after my family bought Heiser Hollow, we’ve finally decided that its time to build something permanent here. Maybe its a bit bigger than most people would think of when using the word ‘cabin’, but its certainly going to be a lot smaller than many English ‘cottages’. The shell will be made from rectangular logs, with dovetailed corners, and even if the chinking is only cosmetic, it will at least be reminiscent of many local and Appalachian cabins. Unlike virtually everyone’s experience with Lincoln Logs, we’re pretty sure that we bought enough to finish the entire building.


After almost a year of investigation, planning, and negotiation, and after about 4 months of delay due to unseasonal rainfall, Sam, our Amish builder, started clearing the site last week. The stump at the lower left of the above photo is approximately the front left corner of the future porch. The half acre pond, 35 years old, and still holding most of its water, is barely visible to the right. The white area to the right of my blue Subaru is the dam.

Sam had rented a large chipper, and the plan was to feed it all the leaves and small branches. That turned out to be problematic, so the fall back position was to return the leaves to the CO2 from which they came, starting with a can of kerosene and a bale of straw.


Sam and James, with the able assistance of Sam’s skid steer loader, and a Stihl saw, chopped down the trees and cleared the site in a couple of short days. The tourists assume that all Amish have a horse and buggy, but what truly characterizes an Amishman is his Bobcat. Its an amazing little workhorse that not only pulled all the logs out of the site, but also smoothed the driveway, much rutted after this year’s unusual rainfall.

After Sam graded the drive, Elizabeth’s new friend, Diane the dumper, brought in 15 ton of crushed limestone, leaving such a smooth spread of stone that it looked like it had been painted. We’d always used local river pebbles, which look very authentic, but don’t hold up as well as the more angular limestone. Given all the traffic we expect, it made sense to go with the sturdier material. Right now, the driveway looks uncharacteristically white, smooth, and perhaps unfortunately inviting to curious ATVers. I’m hoping it fades to a utilitarian gray.

Today, Sheldon the excavator and his young sidekick spent a solid 8 hours burning up diesel oil with a Caterpillar excavator and dozer. Sheldon doesn’t so much drive a Cat as he plays it, deftly manipulating the joy sticks and practically standing the excavator on its head.


In the shot above, he’s using the smaller of the buckets to dig out the stumps, while his assistant pushes them onto a discard pile with the bulldozer. After pulling a stump free from the ground, Sheldon uses the excavator to violently shake the stump, like a terrier killing a rat. This knocks the soil loose so that the stumps will rot faster.


Sheldon took over the controls of the dozer, and quickly began to change the local topography. As the side of the hillside flattened out, and a drive back to the cabin site began to appear, it lead to multiple decisions about elevations, locations, and the removal of additional trees. A couple of the most difficult trees had been left until today, so the excavator could be used to nudge the things in the right direction.


Sheldon is fast, and reminiscent of Mike Mulligan and Maryanne–the dirt flies and you don’t really know where they are until the smoke and dust clears.

At this point, I think we’re ready to start digging foundations tomorrow. The cabin still goes where we always thought it would go. The pole barn/garage is a bit more problematic, with a slope issues that might translate into a 50% increase in the cost of that auxiliary building. It’s decision time at 7am tomorrow.

Cabin: “a small house or cottage, usually of simple design and construction.”


[This is the first blog entry in the Building the Cabin series.  The next entry is Excavation.]