We knew our plans were pretty ambitious but decided that this was to be the year that we replaced sidewalks, stone planters and built a new deck. We had been planning for these projects for several years and felt confident we could manage them without much anxiety. We hired professionals for the sidewalks and planters and my husband, Denny, his brother, Tom, and I would build the deck.
It started with the City Building Department by submitting plans and drawings for the deck and getting approval. That was a grueling process with many visits to their office, making sure every detail was to code. I eventually got my permit…. The inspector said he loved my plans. He told me most people walk in with a sketch on a matchbook or an idea in their head. Hey, does this mean it will be smooth sailing ahead?
Before we could begin construction we had to remove a large concrete patio and walkway. Our sidewalk guy was hired to do that and told us we were about two weeks out–with good weather. We set new records for the wettest July we’ve ever had. When they were finally able to come over and do the tear out, they underestimated the work it was going to take to get all that concrete out. After trying to manually bust it out with sledgehammers, they called for a bobcat with a jackhammer tool on it and proceeded to tear the hell out of our whole back yard. Well, if that’s all that goes wrong, not too bad. We’ll do a little landscaping back there and by next Spring it will look fine, right?
We also hired the same company to tear out the old planter boxes and get the site ready for the stonemason. When they removed the old dirt they placed it on large sheets of plastic on our grass and left it for us to deal with. So now we have dead spots in the front yard to deal with. They also stored large equipment all over our yard to create even more dead spots. We now knew that we would be dealing with major landscaping when everything was done.
A few days later the stonemasons showed up to build the new planter boxes. No complaints about them, not one. They had the new stones delivered on pallets the day before and they finished the project in one day. They didn’t kill any grass and they didn’t damage any plants. They did a super job of cleaning up when they finished. And their work was professional and beautiful. Thanks, Total Scapes!
Now on to the deck. All the weather reports indicated that we would be in unusually hot, steamy weather for a while. That was an understatement. It turned out that we were in a heat advisory every day for over three weeks. The heat index was never under 100 and the dewpoint stayed in the mid 70’s.
But Tom and I decided we could handle it and so began by staking it out and squaring it up. While we were doing this our electrician came to move an outdoor outlet. She did a great job. Thanks Nelson Electric!
We marked the post holes and began digging. One went okay. Then, horror of horrors. Tom hit some buried object. He moved down to the next mark, got about two feet and hit the same thing. Down to the next mark, same thing. It appeared to be metal and we were pretty sure it was about fifteen feet long. He had no choice but to start digging out the entire thing. It was buried about two feet down and ended up being about 14 feet long. We think it was an old auger housing and whoever put it there was using it as a buried downspout. It measured about 16 inches in diameter ans was filled with heavy, smelly mud. When it looked as though we’d have to give up the dream of a deck out back, Tom got creative and figured out a way to move it. He removed as much of the mud as possible, inserted one of our 4 x 4 posts, placed a floor jack under it and slowly began raising it. When it wouldn’t come up any more, he jammed the post in as far as it would go and muscled it out of the mud. The loud sucking noise it made when it became free was music to my ears. We were able to roll it out of the trench, Tom cut it in half with a metal blade on his skillsaw and we moved it to the dump pile with a wheelbarrow. We spent the rest of the day filling in the trench. Only one post hole had been dug. Okay, so now nothing bad can happen, this is the worst of it.
Denny had the next day off so he and his brother planned to finish the post holes. Every time they’d start to dig at a mark they’d hit some old buried footing or something of that nature, and would have to deal with that before they could go on. Eventually they got them all dug and were now ready to set the posts. They spent a couple hours getting them plumb and level. We purchased about 40 bags of concrete and thought that would be more than enough. Wrong. Each bag has to be mixed by itself for proper consistency. And each mixed load had to be wheeled up a hill and poured into the post hole. It was after about 10 trips that they noticed the hole wasn’t even halfway filled. So now we knew each hole was going to take 30 or more bags…. We needed to get them done today as heavy rain was predicted. Plan B: It was 3:30 in the afternoon, only one hole was partially filled. Although it was late, I called King’s Material and asked if we could get a truck out today. He said yes! I ordered a yard of concrete and they were here in 10 minutes. The truck couldn’t get in the yard to pour but we had two wheelbarrows and, although they still had to be pushed up a hill, it went pretty slick. We ended up about two holes short but this driver, bless his heart, called dispatch and asked if anyone was returning to the plant with anything left over from a job. There was a truck 2 blocks from our house and he came right over. He had just enough on his truck to finish our job. He said there was no charge so we tipped him and he was delighted. The posts were finally set!
The next few days were insufferable. The work was going well but the humidity was almost unbearable. We were soaking wet from head to toe and to me that was a condition I would never be able to get used to. Tom was more conditioned to it than Denny and I but still he looked miserable at times. We moved on to the beams and joists. Hey, no surprises!! We even started got the floor boards started.
With Denny back to work it was just Tom and me. We proceeded to finish the deck boards and called it a day. It was a horribly hot and sultry day but a satisfying day of work and that shower was only moments away….
We were now on to the railings. Luckily we able to build them in the garage with a fan on us. It took all day to assemble five panels and install them. We saved the top rails for the next day. We then took the weekend off. Tom went camping with his family and I caught up on housework and laundry. Still better than being out it that damned inferno.
Next came the steps. We first had to pour a pad where we thought the steps would end. City code is very strict on the size and grade of the landing area. We had to get this right. Tom measured, set forms, poured and we left them to set overnight. It looked good to the naked eye. We put in an extra step that city didn’t require and finished it off with paving blocks to make it better yet. It was so perfect, it was damned near handicap accessible! Would it pass muster? We’d have to wait for final inspection for that.
Tom and Denny decided that we should go with precut stringers from the lumber yard. Apparently, the lumber yard doesn’t use a jig or pattern to cut them. I think they just guess at tread width and riser height because each and every cutout was different. And, needless to say, they didn’t meet city code. We knew we’d have to go a different route with them.
None of us had ever cut or installed steps so we decided to call in a pro–Tom’s best friend, Dick, who had been a finish carpenter before he retired. He brought over his knowledge and carpenter’s stair-making tools and after making a trip to the lumber store for uncut 2 x 12’s, we had a set of stairs that afternoon, and they were to code! We finished the day with a cool beer in the garage and a smile of satisfaction. Thank you Dick!
Now we had to install the stair hand railing. Again, the city is very, very fussy over these details. It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. Math genius I’m not. And the whole railing installation was nothing but math. All I can say is, we thought we had it perfect and it looked great, it functioned great. It was safe and it was pretty. It was time to call for final inspection.
The inspector arrived the next morning. I held my breath while he measured the landing. He didn’t say anything and he didn’t write anything on his pad. I slowly let my breath out. He measured the steps and said good job. Whew…. He then got under the deck and when he came out he was writing. I was hoping he was writing something like, very nice under here. But he wasn’t. Then he began looking at the hand railing. Measuring, writing again.
He told us the railing didn’t meet code. We needed to put a return at both ends. Easy fix he said. Well, it’s not because in order to make it up to code we’d have to install the top of the rail on a window frame of the 3-season porch!
Then he told us we used the wrong nails on some of the joist hangers. Easy fix, just pull out the wrong ones and replace with the right ones. It’s only an easy fix if the deck boards haven’t been installed yet and if we had more than four inches to work in….
I combed through the city handouts on deck-building and it doesn’t mention handrail returns and the joist nail requirements only mention length, not type. So I’m marching down there with my file in hand and arguing the two points. Wish me luck, because if they don’t agree with me, ugh, I don’t even want to think about it.
While the deck-building was going on, the concrete guy came back and finished the sidewalk tear out and poured new ones. They did a nice job on that but again took every opportunity they could to destroy what little bit of grass we had left. They also broke a couple of my plants, too, and I’m not too happy about that. And, and this is the unacceptable and unprofessional part, they did a terrible job on cleanup. In fact, they didn’t do any at all.
They also didn’t include the backfill in the bid so my husband and I had the pleasure of handling that ourselves. Can you guess what the weather was like the day we did that?
So everyone is paid and gone, we’ve begun the landscaping and we are enjoying all the new things around the house. We bought a new gas grill and it has been wonderful cooking outside and not heating up the house. And doesn’t the food always test better out there, anyway? And of course, true to our Hawkeye spirit, we had to have this for it….
Expectations: Everything will go smooth, be completed on time and come in under budget.
Reality: Some setbacks but nothing we weren’t able to work out. We finished ahead of schedule, in spite of the weather, and we came in under budget!
UPDATE: I called the Building Department a few weeks later and told the inspector that I wanted to challenge the changes he suggested. He said, “Go for it!” I did, he agreed with me (actually he said, “Why not…. I have bigger fish to fry.”) and I got my certificate, passing final inspection!!
Now all we have left is to put up the lattice on the bottom and paint or stain it next year after the wood has had time to dry out. And of course get some really, really pretty furniture, and maybe some patio lights, and, oh I don’t know, lots of other pretty, pretty things….
So, what did you do with your summer?
Tom showed up to inspect his work the following Spring. We enjoyed a cool beverage on the new furnishings while we discussed painting the floor and railings and adding lattice sheets to the bottom of the deck. Those were accomplished in a few weeks.