Building a Foundation

July, 2016

We could no longer put it off: the time had arrived to put in the foundation of the house. Because we’re doing this ourselves, a full basement is out of the question. Also, throughout our entire property, according to the county soil survey, the distance to bedrock is estimated at 6 inches to 2 feet. Another reason against a full basement. And the homesite is at the top of a hill, so as little material as we have to cart up the hill, the better. It’s not a steep hill, more a long walk with slightly burning thighs, and we had intentionally kept it as a foot path. (Building a house was not on our minds when we decided it would be a foot path.)

Our plans call for hand-digging piers as our foundation. We got our plans approved by the local building inspector. (A process which was nearly enough to turn this Obama voter libertarian.) Because of code, each foundation pier needs to go below the frostline (4 feet) and have a wider base at the bottom. We have 32 piers.

Let that just sink in a little. We will be hand-digging 32 piers.

We didn’t think it would be too bad, because when we built the Screen House, the deepest hole J. dug was about 18 inches. For some of the piers he just scraped aside the topsoil and found bedrock. This spot is about 50 feet away, so we expected something similar.

Turns out, not so.

After a foot of topsoil in the first hole, J. reached a layer of gravel and kept digging through pure gravel till the bottom of the hole was a black void. Apparently the slight hill on which the homesite is located is a drift of gravel adjoining the bare bedrock beneath the Screen House. So much for a quick foundation on top of bedrock.


J. got to digging. He found that, using a post-hole digger and auger, he could dig 6 holes a day, each of them four feet deep by about one foot wide, belling open to about two feet wide at the base. This was enough to enhance his Man-Cred a few notches, but it doesn’t end there. Read on.

Each hole seemed to have a different composition. There was the gravel we had first discovered, then there was a beautiful, coarse reddish sand, and, implausibly, in a vein between the gravel and sand, clay. Also, throughout, many roundish granite rocks, pebble-sized to larger cobbles. The material he pulled out of the ground went into piles according to its composition.

When it was time to mix the concrete, “all” J. had to do was haul the 90 (“No, 92,” J. assures me) pound bags of portland cement up the hill and mix some sand, some gravel, and some cement with rainwater we had collected, and dump it back in the holes. It felt a little silly, dumping the same stuff in that he had pulled out before, but as long as this passes as a foundation in the building inspector’s book, we were willing to do it.


We were about two-thirds of the way through the job when it began to look as if our gravel and our stored water would run out. We dreaded the idea of hauling buckets of water up the hill, as well as bags of gravel and cement. After much weighing and speculation, we decided to begin digging a gravel pit alongside the homesite, with the intention of eventually turning the pit into a willow bog (more on that later, under the category “Where We Put Our Pee”). Gravel problem solved. Also, before we returned to finish the piers–prepared to haul water up the hill–it rained. Enough to fill all our rain barrels.

With much gratitude and relief, we got back to work.


[Here’s the gravel pit. Hard to see it here, but it ended up about five feet across and four feet deep. “Perfect for our future plans,” I say, rubbing my palms together and cackling.]

We may have worked harder that month than we have in our entire lives, shoveling, mixing, pouring. It was July, that nifty pocket of time where both the black flies and the mosquitoes are ravaging. We had to figure out our own personal tolerances for a) more clothing, b) more bug spray, and/or c) abject misery.

Even our children worked their hearts out, shoveling sand with their little shovels into buckets to be measured and mixed with the cement. A. had an additional job: Toad Remover. When J. spied a toad at the bottom of a hole, he called the Toad Remover, who happily raised his arms to be lowered into the hole for toad retrieval. Turns out being a skinny six year old is good for something.


Achingly slow work like building a foundation is a strange kind of antidote to today’s society. The chance to work hard, to sweat and (occasionally) bleed, and then step back when the job is done to admire it, to say “I did this, and it’s done” is rare work indeed these days, and, it turns out, quite satisfying. 

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