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How to excavate

March 3rd, 2009

This is what a properly excavated hole is supposed to look like:


not this:


Each excavator who came to quote on cleaning up the mess left by Premier Construction took one look and said “Who would do this?”

Excavations are not completed from outside the hole (which is what PCMS tried to do). The excavation equipment will go all the way to the back of the property, and begin to dig out a square and level hole, gradually moving forward to the front of the property. This makes perfect sense when you think about it.

Posted by Colin
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Demolition Recap and Alternatives

March 1st, 2009

I’m not sure how much worse demolition could have gone. It’s great that no one got hurt during this phase but in all other ways it was a disaster. I think I should have been more demanding of the demolition company and obviously less trusting of their expertise.

In watching tv shows like Holmes on Holmes, I felt that if something was ever being done incorrectly on our project I’d be able to spot it right away because it was always so obvious in the show by just looking at the poor quality of the work.

Looking back now, it does seem obvious that the site was out of control. But the strange thing is: at the time, I couldn’t see it. I thought this is the way it was done. I now think a responsible crew would have demolished each day, only what they could clean up by the end of the day. As it was, the demolition was so chaotic there was dangerous debris constantly overflowing to neighbouring properties.

We went through the standard process of taking bids and researching who each company was before making our selection so there is not much I feel we could have done differently to assure the company was a good one, except for one thing: we could have gone with a really big name.

Priestley Demolition was one of the companies we approached to bid on the demolition. At that time, they were thousands of dollars more than the company we hired. In retrospect, they would have been thousands of dollars less. They also would have completed the work in a week instead of a few months.

I believe that the demolition company we hired cut-and-run because they were over their head, and realized the job was going to be incredibly costly to complete. But if that had happened with a large company like Priestley, their reputation is far too valuable to throw away on one job. They would have bitten the bullet and finished the work that was started, no matter what.

The good folks at Priestley were even kind enough to spare us some of their time to discuss what went wrong with our demolition and give some advice, even though they had never been hired and were no longer needed at the point we were talking to them.

If you have a build of your own coming up, I would encourage you to strongly consider going with a well established company. They will almost certainly cost more than the no-name brand, but they will do the job safely and correctly.

What would you be willing to pay to not have your project endanger your neighbours and be put months behind schedule at the first stage?

Posted by Colin
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Contract Signed. Demolition Delays.

February 8th, 2009

We finally got our contract with our builder signed last week. That probably should have been done much earlier or we could have been left with an empty hole in the ground and no builder. It helps that he comes recommended through our architect (and is in all ways an extremely nice and smart guy) and so we felt could be trusted at his word. In general however, it’s good to remember: “Verbal contracts are not worth the paper they aren’t written on.”

With the temperature swinging into positive digits for the rest of this week, we were really hoping to have the hole dug so the footings could be set while it’s a bit warmer out.  The footings are the only tricky piece of our build as far as building through winter goes. The ICF walls are self-insulating as they are poured so the concrete will have no problem setting properly (slowly).

But if the ground is frozen or we failed to keep the footings warm enough, it could cause problems with the curing process. Our builder plans to be on site as soon as the demolition guys have cleared the ground so he can lay down hay. This will apparently prevent the ground from freezing.

Unfortunately the demolition team is now saying “Friday at the latest” for their completion date, which seems like a really long way off considering the amount of work remaining. We’re now 3 weeks behind schedule just for the demolition.

The builder still feels like he could be finished his part by the end of May. 😯

Posted by Colin
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Demolition Progress and Contract Negotiation

February 3rd, 2009

The demolition crew are now removing the rest of the debris from the lot and are simultaneously moving into excavation. My summary of our interactions to date: A really nice group of fairly unreliable guys.

For example: they were supposed to recover several things from the construction site:

  • The kitchen cabinets: Countertop was broken and disposed of before we could say “we’ll take it anyway”. We did reclaim the rest of the cabinets.
  • The wrought iron arch from the kitchen: Smashed. Large pieces missing. It’s inconceivable what their strategy was for removing it that resulted in *any* damage to it, never mind this.
  • 100 year old solid wood 2×6 joists, 2×4 wall supports, up to 1×16″ planks on the walls: “It was all rotted by termites and water damage. We saved what we could.” That was a about 1 dozen *new* 2x4s from the latest addition to the house. It almost makes one wonder how the house could stand if *everything* else was rot. (It also makes one wonder what the value of 2nd hand 100 year old wood is. :-\)
  • All power outlets and light switches: This is weird because I was half done the job. They seem to have thrown out what I had collected up to the time they showed up on the first day.

We did get to keep the front & back doors, breaker box & breakers, and the main power-connection point for the house.

Another oddity: constant contract renegotiation.

They initially wanted $6,500 up front and then a series of payments during the job. We argued that given the widespread corruption problems of their industry, we would be foolish to hand over $6500 — they may just not show up (as is common practice). We have no security.

They, on the other hand, can lien our property for $25 and 10 minutes of their time at city hall. They can lock up our biggest asset if we even hesitate to pay them. Plus since this is the beginning of the build process, they can’t be worried that we don’t have enough budget to get through demolition.

They ultimately agreed to a structure whereby they would be paid in 3 stages as work was completed: Removal of ground floor, removal of basement & foundation, excavation. This was all fine and well until they were partway into the job started hitting us up for early payment.

To make a long story short: they kept offering up factually incorrect reasons why they should be paid early, and blaming the ‘head office’ for making them ask. We ultimately agreed to give them partial payments for the portion of the work we thought had been completed.

In part I really like these guys, but another part of me considers the possibility that we really are just one poorly considered payment away from them running off with what money they have and abandoning the job.

I kept feeling like by saying ‘no’ we were just pushing our interpretation of ambiguous contract language and therefore it was somewhat unreasonable for us to refuse their interpretation. But that wasn’t even close to reality. Our contract could not have been more simply worded, or more clearly defined about when payment was due. It was in no way due.

e.g., it stated debris is to be hauled away before payment. There were 6 (!) bin-loads of debris awaiting removal when they were demanding payment.

You should be prepared to feel like a jerk even when you’re completely in the right, and consider the possibility that holding back payment is the right thing to do, even when the case isn’t so clear-cut. This is another reason why it’s so important to clearly define the work and payment schedule.

Everyone in this industry wants their money early but for 100% of cases where people get scammed, early payment was the crucial mistake.

Posted by Colin
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The return of the surveyor

February 3rd, 2009

Our surveyor from way back at the beginning of this project returned today to mark the “outsets” (I think that’s what they were called). He puts stakes around the property noting how far from each stake the house begins. This includes one marking how far down the bottom of the footings need to be.

The footing depth is absolutely critical for several reasons:

  1. If the house is too deep, the outging sewer connection will not flow properly. (It won’t be installed at all, actually.)
  2. If the house is too high, we’ll be in violation of the building code which limits the height of a house to 10m above grade at the front wall of the house.
  3. The footings must rest on undisturbed soil. There is no acceptable way to recompress the soil once it has been disturbed. If the footings did sit on disturbed soil, the house (especially one made of concrete) could tilt and/or sink.

The surveyor marked the bottom of the footings based on traditional building practices because the documenation we provided didn’t stipulate exactly what was going on beneath the surface of the basement floor.

For our project, we have some extra height requirements because our footings are 10″ deep (typically 6″), we have 2″ of insulation between the ground and our basement floor, and our floor itself is 4″ instead of 3″ thick. The net result is an extra 7″ of depth to the bottom of the footings.

Posted by Colin
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Demolition Starts Tomorrow

December 28th, 2008

There has again been a lot of activity with the house but no time to blog about it with the continued need to work to pay for all this. 🙂

We’ve shut off all utilities (that was quite an adventure) and hired a great demolition company. They are one of very few who offered manual demoltion of the house. Apparently they recycle 95% of the materials in the home (which seems staggering to me). They are also happy to reclaim any materials we want.

We’ve already removed or are in the process of removing the main power panel (seems to be worth about $400 with breakers), electrical outlets, light switches, kitchen cabinets and the bathroom sink. We’ll be asking them to reclain the 100 year-old 2×6 wood joists, the brick from the foundation, the front and back doors, etc.

More details on all this in the future but since I have 14 hours until they arrive, I better get back to the house to finish moving things out!

Posted by Colin
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