Wednesday, November 20, 2013

I'm Fixing A Hole Where The Rain Gets In

Well, this situation looks fairly straightforward, doesn't it? I'm fixing a hole where the rain gets in. The rain, and mice, spiders, stray cats, chipmunks, squirrels, snow, mud...

[If you just toddled in, Ive been describing how I jacked up part of my ramshackle house in Maine and put a foundation under it. I have done so without mentioning anything about my house, Maine, or jacks and foundations, for almost a week. I deserve a trophy or a beating, I think]

Now, then. The Point.

I've been coming to The Point for quite some time now. I thought I was on its scent about a week ago, but I came up empty when I checked the traps. I put more thesaurus urine on the legholds and put them back in the river of words where I like to go trapping, but haven't had any luck since, either. I thought I had The Point up a tree a few days after that, but I got cold and wandered off after waiting for it to come down. In my defense, I waited almost fifteen minutes before I got bored; I'm not made of stone, you know. I don't have a pointer to hunt The Point with, so I left my cat at the base of the tree with The Point in it. He turned out as useless as a fat clerk in a Victoria's Secret.

I thought if I pretended not to be interested in The Point, he might show himself, figuring that he'd outlasted me, so I looked off into the distance a good bit, and pretended to write about other things instead of telling you about how to slip a basement under a house rather than doing it the other way 'round, like God and the building inspector intended. But instead of coaxing The Point out in the open where we could club it to death in the comments, I just ended up with a sort of Dumb & Dumber edition of Palladio's The Four Books on Architecture .

I don't know Mr. Palladio; I think he went to public school, and I had the nuns, so we're bound to travel in different circles, forevermore; or perhaps he's full-blown Presbyterian, and no one like me gets to talk to any of those. But I'm pretty sure he wouldn't approve of me putting out a version of his book with so many fart jokes in it. Worse, after a while I got tired of changing all those Latin "V"s he favors into plain old "U"s, so it wouldn't be so easy for his publisher to catch on that I was plagiarizing him, and so I pried the Vs and Us off my keyboard and tried to swap them, the duct tape I used didn't hold, they both fell off, and now I'm trying to make The Point using only 24 letters, like a drunk reciting the alphabet for a State Policeman by the side of the road.

Oh, yeah. The Point. More than a few years ago, I took the Massachusetts Construction Supervisor license test with hundreds of other schlubs at the UMASS Dartmouth campus-cum-abattoir, handed it in, and went outside.  I knew no one there. Once again, I was all alone, because everyone there knew each other, were standing outside in a kind of park that looked more like a black ops landing strip than a place for humans to congregate, and they were all talking furiously to each other. Right there, I got the only education that I was likely to get from the whole episode.

They all knew each other because they had all been taking that test, and attending those stripmall classes together, forever and a day, over and over. They always failed. They failed long. They failed hard. They failed often. They failed regularly. Miserably. Spectacularly. With bangs. With whimpers. And no one that passed finished before I did. They left forty-five minutes before the allotted time was up because they were only on the second question at that point, knew their answer to the first one was wrong anyway, and figured there was no point in continuing.

I didn't bother to introduce myself to anyone. I didn't need to, after all -- I was famous. I was the moron or genius without the tabs; a celebrity of sorts. I simply walked up to the closest big gaggle of hangdog expressions and they adopted me immediately like a pound puppy. They were all comparing notes on how exactly they failed. I gathered that they met so often that they had formed softball teams and dart leagues and began to marry each other's sisters. I didn't quite understand how it could be, I didn't think the test was that hard, but they all assured me it be.

They were all framing carpenters. They had reached the period of their careers where they had to take over for their old man the framing carpenter, and let him move to Florida with the seven fingers and one thumb he had left and be retired for at least fifteen minutes before he had his complimentary myocardial infarction. Of course their fathers never had to pass the test; they were grandfathered in, and the Building Code was small enough to be printed on an index card back then, anyway. But they had to, and they couldn't. One man, who had the rangy look and laconic voice common among framers I have known, said nothing for a good long time, and when pressed, came to The Point in one, brilliant, heartbreaking sentence:

"Not a lot of questions about wood on that test."

Unlike people like me, who are inoculated with a phonograph needle, he was prone to saying very few words and stuffing them with meaning. He was right. Dead right, and I mean that every which way. He knew, by instinct, and training, and custom, and experience, intergenerationally, exactly how to build a single-family house in the State of his birth. And that knowledge, experience, and desire was worthless to him, because there's not a lot of questions about wood on that test...

Listen to me. If you're reading this, you're the person that test is geared towards. The meek have not inherited the earth. The meek have been sent home to tell their father that there's not a lot of questions about wood on that test. The test, and the whole industry, was being geared up to be the province of people that are willing and able to wade through fens of text bogged down with legalese, much of it contradictory, a great deal of it useless, in order to have anything to do with building or altering a single-family home.

No one that reads this blog can't understand how to build a house, or anything else, for that matter. It's statute turtles all the way down now. You're all intellectuals. You're all used to traversing minefields of legalese to get to your porridge. You're smart, in a very particular way.

And so, we come to the second part of The Point. As I said, you and I are smart, in a very particular way. And that way of being smart is completely useless to the problem at hand: What makes a good, sturdy, liveable house. Being that particular kind of smart has become worse than useless. It's become antithetical to good housing. It's a trifle to figure out the structural problems presented by a single-family house. The things that make a house pleasant to live in are subtle, not complicated. There's nothing subtle in the CMR.

We drove out every single person that built good houses to live in, guarded by common-sense, not statute; produced by tradition, custom, habit, or by accident --what difference does it make why someone is right? Everyone that knew what they were doing are all gone, driven out in a tide of superfluousness, and we're going to have to do it ourselves if we want it done at all. I can tell you that "the experts" in these matters don't know squat about what makes a pleasant place to live in. The "experts" built UMASS Dartmouth, and teach there. By the mark of that beast you should know them. You've been told  that building and repairing a house is an arcane, complicated business left to professionals. You're warned never to try anything substantial to repair your house. They tell you to change out the kitchen counters and the tile like they're underwear, spending the same money over and over again, but the rest of the house is as complicated as the building code is. No it's not. In my experience, if it's in your house, and it's fussy or complicated, it's bad and you don't want it. A good house is simpler than a bad house, and that rule of thumb gets truer every day.

You're plenty smart enough to know, or at least figure out, everything you need to know to build or fix anything worth living in. The only question is whether you have the sense to know what a dullard used to, and stop building and buying and living in houses a dumb person, in recent memory, knew enough not to build, buy or live in.


Leslie said...

I have grown weary of experts. (But, not of this story. "It's statute turtles all the way down now". So good.)

Thud said...

As I'm reading this I can hear the wind crashing through the woods around my house as it charges in straight across from Ireland (I think it blew me here at some time) I'm dreading going out in the dark in the morning to fit some rather heavy lintels.... a heart attack in florida would be blessed relief.

vanderleun said...

"Mr. Palladio; I think he went to public school, and I had the nuns"

Given his era and location I'm pretty sure Palladio had his share of educatin' by nuns

vanderleun said...

Actually, when I did take a tour of his houses I noted that there were nuns every which way in that part of the world.

Anonymous said...

There is an old joke about experts, and breaking down a word into component parts.

An 'ex' is a has-been, and a 'spurt' is a drip under pressure.

Therefore an expert would be a has-been drip under pressure.

Anonymous said...

I built a house on a small lot once. The design had a one foot bump out to give the living room a little character which was needed since it was so small. The bump out put the outside wall of the house 19 feet from the sidewalk. The city code said 20 foot set back. The general contractor said it should be no problem the city will give you a waiver. So I applied and sure enough for $1900 it would give me a waiver. I asked why the 20 foot setback was necessary and they said to allow for possible street widening if it were ever necessary. I asked how the $1900 would mitigate this problem and why wouldn't $19 mitigate it just as well? After a long dirty look I was asked if I wanted the waiver or not. So that's what a lot of the code boils down to. Someone's hand must get crossed with silver and then the code can be waived.

KCFleming said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
KCFleming said...

When we repaired our porch, built in 1898, they required us to increase the railing height from the old 24 inches to 28 in.

When it was inspected, the city inspector demanded it be raised further, to 36 inches, for reasons entirely unclear.

So our carpenter partially screwed in a piece of 2x4 above the pretty handrailing and balusters.

The inspector okayed it.
Two weeks later I removed it.

Thud said...

Vanderleun, you can rent one of his houses in the Veneto.

leelu said...


Can you keep this going until New Year's??

Sporf said...

I once heard Herman Kahn define the phrase "trained to capacity" as the inability to solve simple problems that would have given no trouble had one not taken graduate training.
Those who can, do. Those who've never tried, take graduate training — then do assessment.

Lorne said...

This is the most enjoyable series of blog posts I've ever read. I've copied all of them and the photos as well. If you write this all up as a book or pamphlet I will buy it.

Hat Tip to Gerard van der Leun for posting the link on his site.

SippicanCottage said...

Hi Leslie! And the turtles are all upside-down.

It's Thud, my bruvvah fum anutha muvvah.

If anybody wants to see someone who actually knows what they're doing, building something amazing, instead of watching me doing ham and egg carpentry on a free hovel, go to Thud's page. He's got cute kids, too.

Gerard- Your continuing enthusiasm for this little literary excursion is essentially the reason for its existence. So if anyone doesn't like it, I'll send them over to put toilet paper in your shrubs.

And I was just kidding about Palladio. He was in my class in Parochial school. He used to sit in the back and eat paste.

Pogo! I love Pogo. One of the great hearts on the Intertunnel.

I admit I've cheated like that railing, and worse, many times in my life. Man's gotta do what a man's gotta do.

Leelu- I dunno. Sooner or later I have to fix the basement, don't I? All the pictures look like July, and are going stale.

Hi Sporf- Thanks for reading and commenting. Overthinking is not a trait common to carpenters, only people that can pass the exam.

Hi Lorne- Many thanks. I'd like to finish a book called Maine Family Robinson, a project I started years back that got shelved, but I must hit my thumb with a hammer all day and can't write much. A book is a speculative project, and I'm too poor to speculate in anything except Guinness futures -- one can at a time.

I did write one book though, already, and you can buy it on Amazon here: The Devil's In The Cows.

Anonymous said...

A few years ago, I noticed a friend's commercial auto-repair garage had one of its beams in need of some uplift and additional bracing. I went online in search of a jack with the obvious capacity, not trusting the abilities of a garden-variety hydraulic jack such as might be purchased from the likes of Harbor Freight...
I found one, and it did the job quite nicely.
I am now the proud owner of a Bridge Jack (made in Oklahoma). They claim on their page that they managed to break one at 100,000 pounds....
Look for a "bridge jack," if you ever need to raise one side of your house, without first removing the Armageddon Beer from your refrigerator....!

Anonymous said...

You could turn this all into theater, with Mountain Man from Duck Dynasty as the lead. At the rate he speaks, it'd be a 6 hour mini series.

Anonymous said...

Thank you. Thank you for that.

I just built an adobe addition onto the adobe home my ol' man built for me and my issue. Every, um, guy who looks at it starts in on: "Well, I woulda done this and you coulda done that..."

Well, um, guy, I didn't see you on the ladder with me at 100deg F slopping mud and setting adobes until I couldn't hold on. I didn't see you anywhere when I shouldered the 16ft 6x8 beams onto the bond beam I poured by myself.

There aren't a lot of questions about mud on those tests either.


bogthing said...

UMASS Dartmouth was the beginning of the end of the town, in my eyes anyhow. One of the last houses the old man built is on the north side of Cedar Dell. Built for a Hawaiian biology professor. Neither he, nor any of the other Manchester alumni that he rolled with would have stood for the test, nor had any patience whatsoever with them that administered it. Great stuff as always, Sipp.

dadofhomeschoolers said...

I smell another book. Or it's my breath backing up on me. Could be either, or both.
Cracking writing Sipp.

Rob De Witt said...

I recently employed the old "vaccinated by a phonograph needle" trope only to be met with blank stares. It's like "dialing the phone;" hardly anybody under the age of 40 can translate that phrase.

Damn useful once, gibberish now. Alas.

chasmatic said...

Off music for a while, are we?

Sam L. said...

Rob De Witt, it is a Dad's job to replay bits from old TV shows and other obscure and outdated references to his children. Or youth not his own. Give them the Whistler's "I know many strange things..." and "The Shadow knows..."

Anonymous said...

Having stepped over & in a few statute turtles it seems to me sir that you have the capacity of Sam'l Clemens to grasp the enormity of the situation, or perhaps that of the Dire Straits lyricist.

Yet, and this I simply must know, to what extent does the pink board serve a structural employment?

Anonymous said...

I often do real estate arbitration. I had one case where the buyer was suing the seller because the electrics weren't up to code. We took testimony and then went to inspect the house. (the buyer wasn't there, just his lawyer.) I was very suspicious of buyer's claim because seller was chief electrician on a nuclear submarine, and he'd done all the electric work himself.

Got to the house and buyer's expert witness (retired master electrician who gave the test for journeyman status) pointed out all the things that didn't meet code.

After the hearing was over, the master electrician came up to me and said, "Damn, that guy did a fine job; especially that thing around the hot tub; genius. Better than code, much better."

But, the law was clear, and I had to order seller to pay buyer the cost of ripping out the great install and put in a worse one that met code.

James said...

My Dad was a highly successful masonry contractor for over thirty years here in Austin. Started out as a bricklayer (his father a founding member of the mason's local here) and went out on his own. Anyway on one of his jobs (a city project) in the plans was a detail for a stone pilaster that if followed would have resulted in cracking of the wall. He notified the architect who felt there was nothing wrong with the design and rejected my Dad's proposed free fixes (installation of control joints, etc) finally the architect stated that the detail was a "conception", but was still good.My Dad sent a letter stating he had looked up the definition of "conception" and that it was nothing but a f**king idea. Control joints were installed at every pilaster.