07 June 2011

The Akilter Windows of Zaloz’ye, Russia



           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.


Further reading.



Pro Foundation Technology, Inc.


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  1. In my country they tend to make a concrete slab or raft with very little (if anything) going down to bedrock. But we are a warm country with no frost line. How would that work in Russia?

  2. Reply to Anonymous...

    You probably have your own special foundation construction problems, but I think you are lucky to have no frost line. Here, when people don't go down to bedrock or the frost line they are asking for leaning windows and doors that don't close right. My neighbor built his log house last year and already I can see it isn't plumb, but I'm not about to say anything to him about it!

    Thanks for commenting.

  3. This is all very interesting to my husband and me. The "unpainted" part strikes a chord with us. In Japan, old farmhouses are unpainted, but Western-style houses and those built a few decades after WWII, houses almost always get paint. When we built our first and only house, we opted for light blue paint (a pale sky-blue) and were considered just a trifle eccentric. We had only seen one other house painted blue in a wide area around.

    I was pleased to know that not painting doesn't increase the likelihood of a house's rotting quickly. In my native Massachusetts, some like the effect of unpainted shingles, but perhaps they are using a preservative. By the way, it seems that most houses in Japan are considered
    old and practically worthless when they reach around 10 years of age. Why, I can't imagine, unless it is because in the old days before insecticides, the termites probably saw to it that they did fall down soon. When I was a kid, there was an old house in my town that was condemned due to termite action, and that gave me a life-long fear of them. My own house, though I think it was not protected against them, was considered to be at least 200 years old, owing to the hand-hewn (or should I say, hand-forged?) nails visible in its attic. How I loved it! And I never minded that you could roll marbles across some of the floors in our apartment on the second floor.

    We were also eccentric in being happy not being able to see our neighbor's homes in Japan, as we built up on a steep hill that was covered with a type of thin bamboo. Two of the other 4 houses were occupied by our friends, and we were easily within calling distance of each other, but liked the privacy. However, several times, complete strangers, Japanese who had occasion to come up the steep, 2-cars-can't-pass-on-the-slope hill (with two 90 degree turns within 10 feet of each other at the top) to our house "reassured" us that within ten years or so the top of the hill would be covered with more houses! We always replied that we loved it just the way it was--hoping to discourage them.
    Tani from BM


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