foun’da’tion ‘The most epic pour ever’

  1. The lowest load-bearing part of a building. typically below the ground

Well, there is nothing typical about what we decided to take on here.
In early June we started, what turned out to be a very long, expensive, and complicated foundation process for the Eh Frame.
I would say that having just completed two and half months of the hardest work I’ve ever done with the pressure of time, cost, accuracy, and environmental factors nobody could have foreseen…I am never doing this again! Crazy…let me explain. 
Thank goodness for friends who called and cheered me on and reminded me that this is the hardest, dirtiest, slowest, and most expensive part of the build. Foundations, especially this one, aren’t for the faint of heart but we made it. We are done and it worked. But that’s not the whole story.
The concept was to try and be strategic with the placement and quantity of concrete, disturb the bedrock as little as possible, and find solid bearing to make sure the structure would stay in place. The angles and placement of these components needed to be extremely precise; a variance of millimetres. To quote our engineer “There is no wiggle room, it needs to be exact”.
Exact means angling all buttresses at 66.55 degrees (or for you builders 11/5) with anchor bolts tied in to receive the brackets with less than a 1/4” variance, precise elevation at each and every point of contact, hitting the gridlines precisely north/south as well as east/west, and securing each location on a different piece of un-level un-forgiving granite.
I will tell you I got to work VERY closely with Jim, our structural engineer who came up with the ‘setting out’ points and design we worked from. Also, Jeff, our surveyor, who would come and layout, then come back to check it again on the next visit… and the next visit… and the next visit. I love Jeff, he’s a great guy but I’m paying for this relationship; it gets expensive when you have no choice but to have him confirm each step along the way.
Emotionally it was tough because is was relentless. It took double the time and double the budget than what was predicted. Where have I heard that before? The tough part is that there was no turning back. Once we started there was no option but to continue and ignore the desire to make things easier…
How did we find ourselves in this predicament? Well, we picked an A frame structure on a steeply sloped site, at the edge of a lake, the elements of which enhance the beauty but also, the challenge. In order to accomplish this plan, the architects came up with a proposal.
The design concept was twofold:
  1. Find a cool way to perch the eh frame, allowing it to ‘float’ above the rock, which would not only give it a unique look, but also prevent any moisture or run-off down the mountainside from hitting the house. With nearby creeks, and neighbours dealing with water in the basements, this was idea (not to mention climate change increasing that risk over the coming years).
  2. Use this strategic design to limit the cost by not having to pour a ‘traditional’ slab all over the site.
Well, how’d we do?
As far as number 1 is concerned, I’d say we have accomplished the goal.
You can totally see how this amazing undertaking is going to be one of a kind and also be resilient and safe moving forward. Not only from water but also fire and allowing us to reach our net zero goal.
Number 2 was a bust. The labour we dedicated to forming was crazy. We got to work with Patrick and I full time in June and in a short while added Rob, Rick, Tom, and Aaron, almost full time. Once our neighbour’s son Peter, a contractor in Calgary, came to the lake at the end of July and saw the undertaking, he joined us full time as well.
The complex forming took ages to scribe and then to pin each and every component. After excavation prepped the bulk of the landscape, each piece of the puzzle had to be hand dug to clean and clear the rock, so that during the pour everything stayed in place.
Beyond the crew working on site every we day, we have an amazing extended team:
Josh French has stood by me the whole way and is supremely connected in the valley. He took on dealing with all the rebar (much to his chagrin) delivering endless custom rebar bends and materials, coordinating labour (stealing guys from other sites of his), provided accommodation for my family (we are living in their trailer). He shares his expertise, of which he has plenty, and goes above and beyond on so much more.
Jim inspected and reviewed each form and rebar assembly and was a call away even on his vacation.
Tyler Smith is our geotechnical engineer who would, in the nicest way possible, tell me to keep digging.
Jeff Ennis surveyed at every stage.
T&A Rock drilled over 130 three inch dowels into the granite
The guys from Concrete Creations set the concrete with us
Pump Pro came out with a massive pump truck - twice
Kelowna Ready Mix delivered 78m of the best concrete
Shepard’s Hardware in Armstrong delivered 2x4s, post saddles, rebar, form ply, and anchor bolts, amongst other things.
Ray, the neighbour we lucked into who’s like a third grandpa to our kids, came to bail us out in the 11th hour as we raced to our deadline.
I realize the little details can be boring so I’ll skip the fact we had to rent clips, buy ties, pour strip, chamfer, and innovate a way to pour buttresses while hitting angles and elevations. The entire team deserves a massive round of applause. BUT I’d give us a failing grade when in came to cost and rationale for this type of pour. The amount of rebar alone that went into this was absolutely crazy, the quantity of concrete was way more than anticipated and the time and labour were off the charts. This was a fail from that perspective. But the buck stops with me so ultimately my responsibility.
The eh frame structure is held up by 17 buttresses strategically positioned at 23.45 degrees with four hooked 3/4’ anchor bolts on a concrete footing. This design accommodates a custom bracket (close to 80lbs each) bolted to the concrete which holds a 6x12 Douglas Fir #1 grade beam shooting up to the main floor elevation. This alone was a massive engineering and construction feat and it all happens before we even get to the main floor.
This was the process: We drilled four one inch dowels 3 feet into the ground, two vertical, and two at 65 degrees. Then a complicated rebar cage was added around those dowels. The cage consisted of four custom bent, buttress shaped 15m bars (that’s the thickness of the rebar) with four horse-shoe shaped 15m bar with hooks. The smallest one was placed vertically and the rest were added incrementally at an angle until the largest angle of 65 degrees. We then added 5 rings at 5 different sizes…is your head spinning? It took a lot of smart guys some serious effort to not only come up with the design but then, build all that bar and on top of that, to assemble it in a 14 inch wide buttress.
I need to give special mention to Peter Chow at this point, who got the unenviable task of not only building all the buttress forms and making them look great but also tying in the bolts before we poured. This may not sound like a tricky detail but I assure you it may have been the most frustrating yet precise detail of all. It took Peter 2 full days just tying in the bolts and there were still 6 left for me and Patrick when Peter had to return to Calgary.
The north side of the structure is a more traditional style pour with walls and post saddles for vertical framing but we still had to dowel every wall into the rock at a one foot spread. These walls were strategically formed around each rock. The most north west corner of the build is the highest part of the rock and I spent the better part of a few days with a jackhammer and my friend Jackie. breaking out rock to get down to an elevation that we could work with. Holy crap that was tough…not so much the hammering part but moving the jackhammer from location to location was deadly… especially in the weather.
I think it’s worth mentioning that during this process we also had to face the hottest temperatures ever recorded in the area. The Okanagan is always hot in the summer but this year there was a heat dome that had peak temperatures of 47 degrees Celsius. It was a bit dangerous. Many outdoor workers on other projects took time off during the worst of it but for that week, we would start at six in the morning, while the site was in shade, jump in the lake a few hours in, and then continue until 1pm. I’d often continue for a number of hours by myself after the boys left. We would all be soaked with sweat by 7 am and on the hottest days, even a jump in the lake could not relieve any of the intense heat. I suffered from dehydration regardless of the amount of water, Gatorade, and infused powdered drink I tried to ingest.
So we soldiered on. Without the ability of a machine to get to where the pour was we had to do the final 20% of the excavation by hand. It was extremely difficult work and I felt bad asking others to do it so I would be the lead digger and worked beside anyone I asked to help. I learned from my first boss ‘never ask anyone to do a job you aren’t willing to do yourself’.
The lower section of the build, unfortunately, wasn’t on bedrock and therefor we had to pour a massive footing to simulate the rock and then build our actual footings and buttresses and columns on top of it. Again, there wasn’t really another option so I watched as thousands of dollars went into this component.
Now if you haven’t been involved in ‘pour day’, count yourself lucky. It’s extremely stressful. I don’t care who you are, the pace at which you need to move, the accuracy of the pour and vibration and setting, the prediction of quantity, the ballet of trucks arriving, concrete setting and everything happening very quickly is a ton of pressure. This isn’t your average wall system with a slab basement…so I guess I asked for it :)
After a successful first pour we jumped right back into stripping those forms and diving into the wall systems the buttresses and all the pads and colunms. Weeks of forming and tying bar seemed to go on forever. Embarrassingly, I pushed the second pour 4 times but knew that I had to pick a date and stick to it. That was Friday August 6th. A fateful day…
By this time, due to the extreme dry conditions, massive fires had started and the smoke had become quite bad in the valley and the lake. Rebecca and the kids escaped to Calgary for a reprise to stay with family. We had rented out our house in Vancouver till September so it wasn’t an option to go home.
Pulling extremely long hours, our crew was down to just Patrick and me and we worked from 6 am till dark for many days. We finally arrived at pour day. Side note: don’t schedule a complicated pour on a Friday afternoon under an evacuation alert. We ended up pouring and setting till almost 9pm that night. The boys on the ground with me were machines…we powered through and got it done.
But that’s not all, that Friday at 2 pm, Patrick was evacuated from his house (during the pour) only 20 min up the road from where we are. His wife had relocated to Vancouver earlier during the alert in order to avoid the smoke. Patrick drove that night back to Vancouver as I collapsed in the trailer only to get up at 3 am and pack our absolute essentials and drive to Calgary to see my family. Exhausted. Much like me, Patrick and his wife assumed they would get back into their house in a week. But two weeks went by with the evacuation in place and no updates or information about their property. We now know that their house was lost in the fire.
While my mom and others suggested savouring the moment we are in right now, safe and healthy and celebrate what we have accomplished but it’s been hard to do so under the circumstances. It’s hard to enjoy the moment with the struggles we went through as well as the pressure of time and the fact that we are still a good month behind schedule and already over budget. But I’m a stubborn (describer) so onward we go…time to frame.