Level Up

Lee is a real estate agent who hired PERCH to help sell a condo. A severely sloping floor in the foyer reduced the home’ resale value, and I came in to diagnose the problem and propose a repair.

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When I visited for an evaluation, the floor sloped down to the left.

Climbing under the back deck to a dark basement crawlspace, I ran a level along the floor joists and support beams for assessment. I also set up a level string line so I could measure down from successive joists and determine how the elevation changed. Now I am a fan of simple explanations and solutions, but in this case I concluded the problem was twofold. Certain joists were sagging in the middle, and also one support beam was crushing the column that held it up.

To remedy the first problem, I suggested running a new beam under the joists at midspan and raising them with a pair of hydraulic jacks. I specified cranking the jacks no more than ¼ inch per 24 hours, a strategy that minimizes damage to the house’s interior finishes during the lift. As for the second problem, a metal angle plate bolted to beam and column would do the trick. Lee passed my findings on to the homeowner and the property manager, and they made a successful repair eliminating the floor slope.

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Repair sketch.

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Tiny Tuesday: House Moving in Volcano Country

Residents of Hawaii’s Big Island face a unique threat to their homes: lava. Kīlauea, a volcano on the east side of the island, has been particularly active lately, with a lava flow in 2014 that threatened the town of Puna and surrounding communities. One woman used a novel strategy to avoid losing her house: she moved it.

Tamara Norrbom relocated two of her three Puna houses when the 2014 lava flow neared. This Hawaii Tribune-Herald article describes the project. Fortunately, lava moves slowly – this flow spread about a mile per week – giving Norrbom plenty of time to plan the relocation. She worked with Makakoa Contracting, who split each modular-looking house into two pieces and hoisted each piece onto a trailer. Makakoa has experience transporting buildings away from molten danger, having moved the landmark Painted Church in nearby Kalapana 20 years earlier.

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One of Norrbom’s houses during the move.

As far as I can tell, Norrbom is the only Big Island resident who has gone to such lengths to preserve a house. In this video she says it was too risky to leave the houses where they were, but at $20,000 apiece to move them (not including the cost of the land she moved them to) this solution is not available to most people. It’s also not clear how Norrbom and Makakoa Contracting handled the trickier parts of house moving – foundations, utility connections, permitting – and whether the moves were temporary or permanent.

I can’t help thinking a tiny house on wheels would be a great choice near Puna. If you’re serious about living in volcano country, you can give yourself peace of mind with a home that’s relatively easy to relocate.

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Tamara Norrbom and family stand outside one of her Puna houses that she moved.

Thanks to Leslie and Dave Silverstein.

Oversize Load

Old buildings are on the move in northern Vermont. Last Sunday, a 19th-century house was transported 2 miles by truck, on flatbed trailers, from Winooski to Burlington. The following day, during an unrelated project in the Northeast Kingdom, a similar feat was performed using oxen.

Bridport-based New England Building Movers managed the job in Burlington. They moved the private home basically in one piece; only the dormer window was removed. The route included crossing the Route 7 Winooski Bridge (I envy the engineer who got to analyze this load case), and power lines and traffic lights were swung out of the way as necessary. Compared to the self-propelled modular transporters used for rapid bridge replacements, this convoy traveled at a surprisingly quick walking speed of about 3 mph. I guarantee the Burlington Free Press video of a house rolling down the street will make you giggle.

Developer Nate Dagesse plans to build housing and offices on the now-vacant site in Winooski. He gave away the structure for free; the new homeowner, Chris Khamnei, needed only to pay the cost of moving it. I wonder if the $100,000 price tag includes construction of a new foundation… although even if the foundation cost another $100K, it’s a bargain compared to building a similar-size house from scratch. Add a hefty savings in embodied energy – new construction materials were minimized, and old ones didn’t go to a landfill – and moving a house looks like a very smart thing to do.

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Oxen move a historic Brownington structure the old-fashioned way.

Not to be outdone, East Montpelier-based Messier House Moving & Construction moved a Brownington schoolhouse a third of a mile using 44 oxen. The choice of power was historically driven: draft animals moved structures frequently in 19th-century Vermont, including this very schoolhouse. (Town officials say this building, formerly the Orleans County Grammar School, was simply returned to its original location.) Messier began the project by excavating around the schoolhouse and inserting steel support beams under the structure, then using jacks to lift it. That’s exactly how the same company lifted a house I worked on last summer. Working with beasts of burden was new to them, however.

Thanks to Laura Schutz for both stories!