How to jack up a house

A quick warning: there is precisely zero guitar content in this blog post. I had an adventure last week, jacking up a house, working outside in temperatures of -30 degrees, and some folks asked about the outcome so I am writing this summary.

I own a small cabin in the mountains of western Canada. I’ve had it for 12 years and I’ve spent a fair amount of time there in the summer months. I’ve never dared to visit it during the winter. Originally it was a small A-frame cabin built in the late 60s but over time, various owners have added various extensions and it’s become a slightly bizarre looking conglomeration of shapes. Here is a shot taken during the summer. The sloped roof on the far left, over the kitchen, is the most recent addition, and the subject of this posting.

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Over the years, the newest addition has settled and the main door into the kitchen is getting harder and harder to open, as the door-frame twists. This fall, because the main door could no longer be closed, I decided to finally tackle the problem. First I asked a couple of contractor/specialty firms to come and provide estimates to “fix” the settling. To my horror, both estimated that it would cost “at least” $40,000-$50,000 to address the problem but neither could say with certainty what was wrong, making the estimates no more than guesstimates and giving me the heebie-jeebies.

In the meantime, a good friend of mine, whom we will call “Mark from Houston”, told me this was simple to fix. He suggested we simply jack up the left-most corner of the cabin, shim it like one would shim a guitar neck, and presto! Easy peasy, lemon squeezy. At first I thought this was madness. Who jacks up a house? And with what? But Mark is an incredibly handy guy and an accomplished woodworker and after hearing about “estimates” of $50K to fix the problem, I decided to re-evaluate his suggestion.

He agreed to meet me in Calgary (nearest city/airport), where we would rendezvous with another good friend, whom we’ll call “Kevin from Calgary”. Kevin would supply us with a bunch of equipment, halogen work lights, levels, various hydraulic and pneumatic jacks, etc. We would all drive to the cabin, about 50 miles west of Calgary into the mountains, jack up the cabin, shim the foundation with tar roofing tiles, then head into Banff for a bison dinner and lots of gin and tonics.

We had agreed to travel to Northern Canada to do this project in December, which was not terribly wise, but even so, being Canadian boys, we figured this was no big deal. After all, this was where we’d all grown up. Unfortunately, the day we landed ended up being the start of a week of the coldest temperatures the area had experienced (literally) in years. Here is the temperature on the second day of work, in the morning. It would actually get colder the next day, hitting -32.

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Now if you haven’t spent time outside at -30, it is hard to explain how much clothing and gear one needs to wear to survive for extended periods. For example, before I left for Canada, I bought the most extreme gloves I could find at REI here in California, choosing a North Face pair rated for “extreme cold”. Ha. They should have been rated for “mild spring in the Canadian Rockies”. I  bought XXL gloves, added a thin fleece liner glove, and they were still not enough in the end.

Clothing? Here is what I wore each day, outside: a wool hat, a wicking t-shirt, a flannel pullover, a PolarTec 300 fleece jacket on top of the pullover, a second windproof fleece jacket on top of the first, and a heavier ski jacket on top of all of this. There are warmer coats available in Canada, but you’ll need to spend upwards of $1000 to buy them. Finally, two pairs of pants, the second made from lined GoreTex.

And what about feet? Many years ago, when I lived and worked outside in Northern Canada, I wore Sorel boots, made by Kaufman, a Canadian boot maker, in Quebec.

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These boots had a 1″ thick rubber sole, 1 1/2″ thick rubber heel, waterproof canvas uppers, and a 3/8 inch thick felt boot-liner. With a few pairs of woolen socks, I have personally tested these to -40 degrees, years ago.

Unfortunately the company that made these boots (Kaufman) went bankrupt(!) in 2000 and Sorels now come from China. Reports suggest they are nowhere near as good as the original ones. But as luck would have it, Kevin from Calgary had a spare set and I borrowed his. Thank goodness because there are few things worse than your toes frozen, feeling like glass marbles inside your boots, and you wondering if you will end up losing one or two.

Anyway, we woke up on Wednesday and started the process of looking under the cabin to try to understand what was wrong and how to fix it. To help with my explanations, here is a very rough schematic of the work site.

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After some measurement, we established that one side of the interior door was almost half an inch lower than the other and the low point on the door was in fact an inch lower than anywhere else in the kitchen. So it became clear we needed to jack up the house from the foundation, on the right side of the door (if you were facing the door from inside the kitchen). Only we could not find a way to do that. There was simply no jack point on anything outside of the foundation.

Eventually, Mark discovered that at the front of the kitchen, instead of a foundation wall, there was a 6 foot long sheet of pressure-treated plywood. He proposed pulling that off and looking at what was hiding behind, on the other side. Here is what he found.

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In this photo, he has removed the plywood sheet and is looking at a small 16″ by 12″ hole leading under the kitchen floor. The plywood above him is the sheeting covering the support beams for the mudroom. Through this hole, Mark could see floor joists, the foundation, and a lot of dirt. Now would be a good time to go back and look at the kitchen schematic again.

I also need to mention that sadly there are no more exterior pictures since my iPhone quit working, presumably from the cold, since once it warmed up it resumed worked again.

Anyway, we went inside to warm up and to determine if it was even possible to get into this sub-floor crawl space. In an effort to determine whether it was possible, we identified a chair with similar dimensions and had Mark crawl through that. He was able to do so and we concluded he might get into the sub-floor.

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When Mark then crawled into the crawlspace, and lit the place up with some halogen work-lights, he quickly discovered the source of the settling. When the idiot builder was building the kitchen, he ran 2×8 wood joists across the kitchen (see diagram) and each side of the joist was intended to rest on the foundation. And then the kitchen floor, the walls, the roof, etc would all rest on these floor joists, which in turn were suspended on top of the concrete foundation. Except that one of the joists wasn’t long enough to reach from one side of the foundation to the other so the end was left floating. Instead of obtaining a longer joist and spending a few dollars to complete the job properly, the moron builder put a screw-jack under the joist  and left the joist to be supported by the screw-jack, which was sitting on a 2×4 plank, in the dirt. So of course the dirt had settled over the years, deforming the kitchen.

Eventually, the solution we chose (given that we had only a couple of days to do this work and given that it was horrifically cold outside) was to get a 4″ x 4″ x 6′ beam, run it perpendicular to the floor joists against the wall, and to jack up that 4 x 4 beam at a point directly under the floating joist, using a hydraulic 12 ton jack. On one side of the 4 x 4 beam, we screwed a 1/8 inch steel plate where it met the jack and then we placed the jack on top of several 2 x 8 planks, with the top most plank sporting another 1/8 inch steel plate, upon which the jack sat. Once jacked up, we cut up a bunch of tar roofing shingles to act as shims, and shimmed the newly jacked joists.

Finally, the screw-jack was moved from its old location to a new location underneath the 4 x 4 beam, to act as a backup for the shimmed joists. This is a temporary solution and we are still discussing how we might do a permanent job. However the kitchen door now opens and closes perfectly and for now, the problem has been fixed, though the kitchen floor is not completely level.

My description of this project does not adequately do justice to the overall unpleasantness of this job. All of the jack work under the cabin, in a tightly enclosed and dirty space, was done by Mark and all three of us were outside in extreme temperatures for hours at a time.

After the jacking:

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The face lines are from dirt which was not able to get past the breathing mask.

To be honest, after first looking at the place and finding precisely no jack point, I never expected we would fix anything. But Mark’s relentless drive to solve this problem, to get past all the challenges we encountered along the way, and to do the nastiest jobs himself was pretty darned amazing. And all of this work was only possible because of Kevin loaning us professional grade equipment to do the work. I owe Mark and Kevin a tremendous debt of gratitude. They are great friends.

P.S. We did eventually drive into Banff to eat bison. We dined at Saltlik, a first rate steakhouse deep in the mountains.

 

 

3 thoughts on “How to jack up a house

  1. This is a fantastic story! Thanks for sharing! And I can completely relate to the fact that California “extreme” cold gear is insufficient for Canadian winters 🙂 I am from Los Angeles living up in Thompson, Manitoba…. 😂 today I walked to the grocery store in -30 and my face has never felt so cold. I think it is still frozen in the silly grin I had when starting out on my adventure!

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  2. “Mark from Houston” and “Kevin from Calgary” sound like good guys indeed. Haven’t been in weather that cold for a long time, though I can still remember the effect and don’t envy you. I can only guess the quantity of g&ts “Mark from Houston” went through…. thanks for sharing and glad you managed to fix the cabin!

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