A springtime cottage
Where am I?
If you wake one morning in a pretty but unknown village, and see some homes with windows leaning both right and left... there’s a good chance you’re in Russia!
Larissa’s country cousin, who calls her ‘sister’ according to village custom, was born and raised in one of the old homes of Zaloz’ye. Some have kept their original trim appearance, while others with simple foundations have sagged with age and past years of poverty.
There are houses which are off plumb, with some boards and logs not parallel, corners not so perpendicular... a wavy effect. It all goes back to the parable Jesus spoke two thousand years ago.
Hidden but welcoming!
Take our house...
Built in 1988, our foundation settled unevenly. The logs on the lower part of the southern wall were rotting badly by 2003. We had major surgery to the foundation the next year... new logs, more stones and cement... but this was just a partial repair, and still the house argues within itself as to which way it wants to slope.
Volody, from the town of Ostashkov, is one of the few who carries his own tools, trains his helper, and is proud to be a carpenter. He was installing a window in our summer kitchen a while back and asked, “Would you like the window to look level from the outside or the inside?” I knew then we had a house with stability problems... forever!
The window Valody tried to level
Our house fails the marble test in every room. We have a stoop-down basement where we keep preserves over the winter. But the basement wasn’t excavated to below the frost line, and expansion and contraction of frozen clay has done a lot of damage over just a few years.
Blue trim is the traditional color
It’s as old as the Bible!
It reminds me of the The Parable of the Two Builders, Matthew 7:24-27 and Luke 6:47-49. The Bethsaida area in Galilee where Jesus spoke has alluvial sand which hardens much like our village clay road in dry warm weather. The parable tells of a hasty builder, unreasonably hopeful, and not building for posterity on bedrock, who saw his house collapse.
Akilter but standing!
Freezing depth a powerful concept!
A fellow-teacher once told me about her childhood memory of rocks. The winter in their part of Pennsylvania froze the ground down to the frost line, pushing up a new crop of rocks that had to be removed from the fields every spring. It was her task as one of the children to follow the manure wagon and throw in the stones.
When rocks are pushed by expansive soil, water-soaked clay or clay loam frozen in the winter, it’s like a slow motion earthquake. Foundations are fractured. The house above is now askew, windows akilter, roof lines may be slightly curved.
Our neighbors across the way
How foundations should be built...
You have to dig until you get to bedrock, or failing that, until you have the foundation footers dug or driven below the frost line. A crawl space or shallow basement will accomplish this goal in some mild climates if the foundation is surrounded with crushed stone and gravel. Without a basement, it’s necessary to replace clay soil with crushed rock and gravel that won’t shift around the footings in winter.
Water is the enemy of foundations, especially where clay soil abounds and tall trees grow. Wood ideally should have 14 – 15 % water content, just like the air. That’s why beams should be aged for one or two years, and (ideally)pressurized and covered with pitch on the last 30 cm. sunk as footing.
The building inspector will have your town’s maximum winter freezing depth, another term for the frost line... but how deep your site will freeze will depend on soil conditions, the trees around, and what and where you are building. Northern Minnesota and Maine have frost lines of around 80 inches, that’s slightly over 2 meters down! Moscow’s frost line is 60 inches, just 1.5 meters below the surface.
Tradition, ignorance, defeatist mentality...
Until recently few builders in Russia’s villages had the understanding and gumption to lay a good foundation. Heavy drinking, longtime poverty, and poor skills have colored attitudes in Russian villages. ‘Good enough’ and ‘that’ll do’ are the slack mindset of many.
Traditional shallow foundations might hold up in the early years, close enough to get the work done in a way acceptable to most at the time of construction. But a so-so foundation will eventually announce itself to the world.
An old house next to the lake
Russia has regulations but they are generally ineffective, as building inspectors are likely to only enforce rules selectively, and are usually not eager to run a tight operation. The United States has similar problems or there wouldn’t be such a large foundation repair industry.
Better ways to build a good foundation.
Steel piers down to bedrock, or below the frost line are effective. An even better way is to use helical piers (from helix), to build a screw pile foundation, screwed into a load bearing strata that must hold two times the weight of the house being built. They can be effective at about 1/3 the distance to the frost line, saving a lot of digging or driving.
A measurement of the individual.
You can tell a lot about someone’s character if you watch him build a foundation, just as Jesus indicated in his parable. Poverty and ignorance can also play parts in the final result. It’s one of those things in life where someone’s poor effort can later have big effects on your comfort and security.
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