Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Parable of The Shed: Why 30 years is not forever.


One useful aspect to all of us forcibly attending Camp TEOTWAWKI now, is that many people truly are starting to be more mindful of their choices.   Think before you invest.  Look before you leap off your burning bridges.  That sort of thing.

Guidance in making long term decisions though, is hard to come by, and harder to judge.  Does this expert advisor actually have a clue, or ...  have I wound up with Alfred E. Neuman,  yet again?

Not long after Spouse and I built the Little House, and actually started living here, it became quite clear that we needed more space.  15' x 20'; including a wood stove, piano, and kitchen sink, and dining room table, just does not leave a lot of room for projects, like building a set of shelves.  No place left to walk, while that is under way.

Virtually all farm type operations include outbuildings; a barn, a shed- a workshop.  So it wasn't too difficult to decide that we did, indeed, need a multipurpose shed, not too far from the house.  We figured it should serve as a: work shop, bad-weather wood shed, seasonal storage space (eg. storm windows and skis in summer), materials storage (eg. boards, plywood), tool storage, empty mason jar storage.  You know.  A shed.

So quickly, you get to "where, exactly"; "how big", and "how".  "Where" was pretty limited; by the need to be close; "how big", it turns out, was partly determined by "how".

Standard construction around here would be a "pole barn" - treated wood poles, gravel or concrete floor, pre-fab roof trusses, and sheet metal sides and roof.  You just go the lumber yard, and order the stuff.  And there are loads of experienced construction teams who can zip it up for you in a couple days.

It was very easy to decide not to go that route- we had no money whatsoever.  Which meant- materials out of our 40 acres of oak/maple woods, and/or scrounged materials, and a "barn-raising" party for labor.

Then, you have to work out the details.
Something you pretty quickly find out, when you're living this kind of do-it-yourself life; the details are NOT "important".  The details are EVERYTHING.

Oddly, we teach our children the opposite, these days.  "Sure, teacher, I got the answer to the question wrong, but you can tell I understood it!" - will often get you a pity-pass in schools, even in universities.  But not in real life.  My father pounded this one in when he was an engineering prof, and I was in High School; and I got to listen to him gripe about his students.

  "But Professor, yes, I got the math wrong, but it's just a decimal point!  You can tell I totally understood the problem!"  "I don't give a good goddam if you 'understood' the problem!  Your goddam building FELL DOWN; and 370 people died!!  The only thing that matters is the right answer.  The F stands. "  And he would shake his head in amazement at their incomprehension.

So, I was well trained to do my homework regarding construction, and I'd adsorbed quite a bit of information via osmosis- and from helping my father re-build most of the houses we'd lived in (many).  Looking around at the old homesteads here, I found quite a few old chicken coops and corn cribs that were made with just white oak posts for their basic support; planted in the ground; and easily 50 years old.  Obviously, white oak can last a long time in our soils; the stated lifespan for chemically treated poles in direct soil contact is usually 30-40 years.

Doing more homework- the expected lifespan for white oak fenceposts around here is less; 20-30 years.  The difference is attributed mostly to the roof- poles under a roof should spend more of their life dry.

Most of my available poles are not exactly "white oak" - Quercus alba; but burr oak; Q. macrocarpa.  The textbooks say, though, that in this case, they're pretty much the same in regard to rot resistance.

So, using my own oak poles, we should be able to put up a shed that will last 30 years; no sweat.  We had a good supply of 12"-8" diameter red pine poles for rafters and plates; pine boards and 2/4's for other structure- and we helped a friend tear down a local railroad station for windows and siding.  We did buy metal for the roof.

When you're 30 years old- 30 years into the future looks indistinguishable from "forever", or "until we die."  And, guess what?  It isn't.  Here I am- 30 odd years later-

And sure as heck; the time has run out on some of my burr oak poles.

This is the SW corner pole.  And, as you can see- it's entirely rotted off- the bottom of the pole is now a good 6" above the ground.  Hm.

We just discovered it, absurdly enough.  The shed had gone through a phase where it got increasingly cluttered and useless, to the point where I only referred to it as "The Dread Shed"; and it got to the point where Middle Child and his wife decided to totally overhaul it, bless them.  Unburying the corner- where we already knew a woodchuck had chewed through the outer wall (and wrought havoc inside for months); we discovered the rotted off pole.  Oh, so that's why the windows have been breaking.

The shed is not falling down.  One of the advantages of using big logs for plates and rafters- they're enormously strong, and well secured on the other poles- most of which are not rotted off.  This corner is the wettest one.  But- the building is sagging, putting stress on everything.  

So now what?  Fix it?  Tear the shed down and rebuild?  I don't want to.

Dammit, I'm 60 years old now, busy, and I want the bloody shed to be in usable shape; I don't want to be building, or fixing.

Why didn't I build it to last in the first place?

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That turns out to be a complex, and highly significant question.  Lissen up; and maybe you can avoid my mistakes.

A)  I was young (30) and stupid.  I thought 30 years was forever.  It really really isn't.

B)  Everybody I asked thought 30 years was forever, too.  Or plenty long enough.

C)  The entire construction industry is built around the idea that structures should not last more than 50 years; even homes.  Then you should build a new one.  You want to benefit from the constant improvements in modern materials and design, don't you?  Well then.  They really like that- so if you read their text books, or go to them for advice- that's what they'll tell you.

and

D) Building structures with longer life-spans is quite a lot more expensive.  Like double.

E) Financial advice is always- that investments in durable structures are not sensible.  The reasoning there: if you put that money in the stock market instead, it would give you better returns (no laughing, now); and, they're quite sure you will move to a better, more expensive location later in life, as you become more successful; so you won't get the benefit of the more durable structure anyway; and whoever you sell your old place to will not pay you any premiums for the better buildings; people just don't.

F)  That's the way we build stuff in the States- always have.  Ever since Europeans arrived here- they've been sure they were going to move in the next 10-20 years, to someplace better. Why build for the long term?

See any holes in any of the logic here?

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I'm cogitating, pondering, and kneading all this stuff right now for a couple of specific reasons; I've got to figure out what to do about this shed; and- about future construction here.  We're in the process of building space for animals (guineas! ) - and you can check out a recent rhapsody on barns by Sharon, here.

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More in the next post.   Think about it!  And think about all the stone farmhouses in Europe... and how old they are...

23 comments:

Beelar said...

This one made me grin, except for the part about needing to help you fix the shed...

Interestingly, I definitely do not think of 30 years as a long time for a building, even at my young age. Not sure that I ever did, or would ever have taken anybody who said so seriously. 30 years is okay for a "temporary" building, but rarely have I seen a temporary building that was actually temporary enough to be no longer wanted at 30 years. It _can_ happen, but I'd need to give myself some serious convincing before I considered actually building something like that. Temporary with a 1-2 year life span I would be more likely to do, but really one would rather avoid that as well.

I think I've been successfully raised in such a way that "lasting forever" means "you can't foresee it totally failing". Of course this always requires serious maintenance! But that's more, you know, sustainable.

helwen said...

Good post. Although having just moved last year from a house built in 1901 to a house built in the early 19th century, not sure as I agree with your comment on European construction. Then again, I live in Massachusetts, which has a different architectural history than where you are. And of course these houses wouldn't be standing without some maintenance and TLC, but both houses have been homes to families - kids, dogs, cats, etc., and lived to tell the tale, so to speak.

Re: your shed -- may I make a suggestion? Seems a shame to re-do the whole building when it's only one support pole that's causing problems.

Bring in some poles to prop up the corner, see if you can slowly jack it back up to where it needs to be. Although since it isn't that large (compared to a regular house), it might not be too hard to raise the corner.

Then saw off the jagged bits of the pole. Then get a big chunk of wood and whack it in under the pole into the gap. You'll likely either need to temporarily raise the pole another 1/2 - 1" during this time, or a sledgehammer, or maybe both.

We've done it here and there with the barn and the sugarhouse too, and they're still standing. The barn is huge and will need some more serious work as well that we're still working on the details for (it's older than the house), but it does help. The sugarhouse kind of grew, so some parts are older than others, but more or less goes back around 50 years.

The poles we've done this with are usually indoors, but since you have a wet spot to work in, I guess I'd go with either a big rock or a piece of black locust. Don't know of that grows in your area, but locust makes the best fence poles and the best floor boards for over damp areas. We also have a lot of rocks, here in New England ;)

Once the pole is re-situated, then you can get to fixing up the windows.

Good luck!

- Heather Gray

BoysMom said...

Um. I'm thinking about going back to school for archetecture (can go for cost of materials, books, and daycare as long as my husband has his job). The department here is big into green building, carbon neutral, all that.
I hadn't even thought about how long buildings are supposed to last. I always thought they were supposed to last, well, forever. Like European cathedrals (my music background is showing, I suspect). I mean, why would anyone want a building to fall down? I guess I have another question for the advisor. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

It's not poor construction its just self-elimination by shed falling. Another poor quality American way to go.
In the old days you wouldn't have lived on or and reproduced. Oh, well... guess you learned now.
TD

Crunchy Chicken said...

Concrete. Lots of concrete.

Young Snowbird said...

I worked for a real estate developer that built shopping malls. Their maximum timeframe for a building shell to "last" was 20 years. Most of their big boxes were designed to last at the most 12 years. They had the lease term in mind when planning for building stores. Since the trends in commerce is so fickle, and retail companies rise and fall so quickly, they saw no need to dump huge sums of money and materials into something that was going to be vacated in a decade, and most likely torn down to make way for a bigger store.

My 2 cents about rationale for not making things last.

Now Riana over at These Days in French Life can tell you about her "new" home which was built, I think, in the 1700's. Now that is building homes to last!

knutty knitter said...

I think we're onto about the seventh renovation of our various houses not including the ones I was too young to help with.

We always improve things in houses because that's what my mother likes to do - she would have been an architect in this day and age.

This is probably a bit not green but you could dig down a bit and then box round the pole and use concrete (or limecrete which is more environmentally friendly I believe) to reconstruct the pile.

Our present house is 1912 and still going strong. We are rebuilding the kitchen and bathroom at present - lots of rotten wood removal etc but will be well worth it as we intend to stay here for the forseeable future. Look us up if you like. There are lots of pics of our house if you look up Baldwin street in New Zealand (Worlds Steepest Street). Ours is a white cottage with a picket fence and lacework veranda across the front. I think we'd be millionaires if we got a dollar for every photo taken of it.

viv in nz

jewishfarmer said...

Good post, Greenpa - and good food for thought. I've been guilty of thinking "yeah X is a good amount of time, no worries" Our roof will probably come to need replacing when I'm about 70, which, since I hate roofing at 36, I'm sure I'll be right thrilled about.

I think one of the underlying issues is that no one expects anyone to be living in the same place 30 years from now - the idea that you yourself might actually have to bear the consequences of your younger actions - or that your children might inherit them, is mystifying to most people. And yet, an awful lot of us are finding ourselves fixed in place - and IMHO we're likely to find that the hope our kids have for a home and roof and some land is the home and roof and land we live in now.

It is a completely different mindset - the idea that you are stewarding something that lasts, not a lifetime, but forever.

Coming from New England, I really ought to know better. I grew up in a 17th century house (yeah, I know, nothing by European or Middle Eastern standards, but for the US pretty damned old), that documents suggest was built in a matter of about 10 days for a rapidly arriving bride. The house, by the time my mother and step-mother acquired it, had been used some years as a stable, and lacked certain bits - like floors and roofs in places. And yet, despite all that, despite the elements, despite 250 years, that 10 days work - well, it was something.

Sharon

Abbie said...

My husband and I built our home (are still building our home...) on the premise that it will last. We plan to live here until we die, barring some horrific unforseen circumstances that would cause us to lose our house for some reason. Instead of the band aid fixes that people put on crappy old houses to make them look less crappy and sell them for a profit, we built our own. Every time we finish our latest project, we imagine whether people will like it or not in 100 years. But our style is very simple and traditional, so we hope they will. We can' imagine someone taking down our stair railings (which is what my husband does professionally) or removing our shaker-style cabinets. I mean, they've been in style since the shakers, so that should remain classicly nice.

Anway, we need a barn/shed. BUT we're waiting until we can build one that will last instead of having to replace it in 10-20 years. Until then, our cars live outside and the garage is our workshop of choice.

Hank Roberts said...

Just read this before I read your shed post. Synchronicity:

The Last Viridian Note
by Bruce Sterling

"... Stuff breaks, ages, rusts, wears out, decays. Entropy is an inherent property of time and space. Understand this fact. Expect this. The laws of physics are all right, they should not provoke anguished spasms of denial.

You will be told that you should "make do" with broken or semi-broken tools, devices and appliances. Unless you are in prison or genuinely crushed by poverty, do not do this. This advice is wicked.

This material culture of today is not sustainable. Most of the things you own are almost certainly made to 20th century standards, which are very bad. If we stick with the malignant possessions we already have, through some hairshirt notion of thrift, then we are going to be baling seawater. This will not do.

You should be planning, expecting, desiring to live among material surroundings created, manufactured, distributed, through radically different methods from today's. It is your moral duty to aid this transformative process. This means you should encourage the best industrial design.

Get excellent tools and appliances. Not a hundred bad, cheap, easy ones. Get the genuinely good ones. Work at it. Pay some attention here, do not neglect the issue by imagining yourself to be serenely "non-materialistic." There is nothing more "materialistic" than doing the same household job five times because your tools suck. Do not allow yourself to be trapped in time-sucking black holes of mechanical dysfunction. That is not civilized."

---- from the very last posting of one of the earlier green blogs
http://www.viridiandesign.org/

Hank Roberts said...

PS, we have a similar shed, older than I am -- and I found I had to dig out some rotten post bases, jack up the solid part slightly with a truck jack, and pour a concrete pier with a metal bracket in it underneath and bolt it on. It'll do.

Anonymous said...

The word that americans never have learned to understand: quality.

Instead you worship the almighty cheap. And look where its gotten you: everything made in china, no one knows how to do things well, vinyl clad, uninsulated suburban "homes", junk food and junk jobs.

What do we have that is worth passing on to our grandchildren? Skills, tools, homes, culture?
EJ

feonixrift said...

I did some restoration work on adobe buildings as a kid... They were often over 100 years old, people still lived in them, the walls and roofs were still solid. We came in mostly to remove 'improvements' that had been intended to last 'forever', where forever was under 50 years. Stripped off concrete coatings and waterproof paints that trapped moisture in the walls, removed shrub plantings that made no sense, and shook our heads a lot. These buildings, they could last 300 years, easy, if people didn't keep tacking short-sighted improvements onto them. We pulled out worn-down blocks of adobe, put in new ones made on-site, made plaster with cactus mush for the outside, painted murals of vines along the doorways. Not only did these buildings last nearly forever, but the pieces could all be pulled out and replaced a few at a time. When I started thinking about my own home while living near there, I wanted an adobe, and I wanted to build it to last 500 years if I could. (With maintenance, of course.)

Abbie said...

I think EJ's oversimplified. Not all Americans live in a culture of cheap junk.

Emily said...

Just found this blog. But one big quetsion. Refrigeration? Don't need it? Really? I know everything doesn't have to be kept in a refrigerator, but how do you get along with no refrigeration?

Good writing about the chimney fire problem.

Thanks
Emily at riverfever51@hotmail.com

MojoMan said...

Hello. I'm new here. I look forward to reading your very interesting posts.

I never understood that conventional wisdom about Americans building house to last only X years. That may apply to the crappy commercial boxes that go up everywhere today because it is reasonable to expect them to be torn down or seriously modified with each new tenant.

But houses? My house is well built and nearly 80 years old, and if I do the basic maintenance, there's no reason it shouldn't last basically forever. If I neglect to care for it and the house rots away, that's my fault, not the fault of the builder. I do repairs on many newer homes that are necessitated by poor design and/or poor construction, but I don't think anyone INTENDS to build or buy a home that will last only 30 years. That happens because of greed and/or ignorance.

Maybe when we emerge from our current economic crisis, people will come to understand that good design and quality construction are more valuable than square footage and granite countertops.

Regarding your shed, I'm with Crunchy Chicken. Jack it up, dig down below the frost line, pour concrete footings and piers, and put some flashing between concrete and oak.

Heather said...

Thought provoking.

Currently we live in a 1969 shell. Our house and me are the same age, but I've aged better.

My parents on the other hand live in a house that was built by my family in 1875/6. My family were some of the first pioneers (arrived in 1846) in Oregon...and amazingly we still have some of the land. Their house was built entirely of cedar after the original log cabin burned down. I'm serious...every beam is cedar. The walls and floors are tongue and groove cedar...even in the attic! It's a bizarre work of love apparently.
I imagine it will still be here long after my great, great grandchildren are grown up.
I've been to the UK, and had tea in a farmhouse from the 1400s. The house was amazing. It felt like a fortress.

Good luck with your shed by the way :)
Heather

RC said...

Because I live in the tropics, I would have to also go with those that said concrete footings. Although mesquite and teak logs perform pretty well too. In the Midwest, you probably don't saw those down or even find any. And mounting the post into a metal holder set into the concrete pier {as someone else recommended} is what we do. Red oxide the hell out of all the steel before laying it into the wet concrete pier and after, oxide the part of the mount the post will forever block access to. Happy repairs.
Oh, where ARE the guinea photos? Geez!

Pangolin said...

Plant some black locust for the fence posts you are going to need to replace in a few years or porch supports or something.

I saw a house once in Petaluma CA that had redwood logs for a foundation. They simply trenched the local clay, squared off logs about 2 foot square, dropped them in the holes and built a house on them. It was old growth redwood and lasted one-hundred years. Today I can point to whole neighborhoods that will be gone in 30 years because they were built on lava cap that doesn't drain. The water just sits there in the rainy season. It's termite heaven.

So much of modern building is engineered to fail that people really don't understand when they DO fail what is happening. They just stand there baffled when you try to explain to them that the walls are held together by termites holding hands. Then they low-ball the repairs despite the fact that this is exactly what screwed them before. Those miles of suburban boxes on good farmland aren't going to last. We need the soil and they're falling down even as they're built.

Sandra said...

Knutty Knitter, is yours the first house that pops up on Wikipedia's page about Baldwin Street? Awesome.

tickmeister said...

A word about posts. Hedge. Or Osage Orange or Bow-dark depending on who raised you. I set nothing else in the ground on my place. A lot of posts that my dad set in the early 1950's are still holding up wire. Also the best firewood on the planet.

knutty knitter said...

Yes. The first house is ours Sandra.

How about those bird photos greenpa? I'd love to see them :)

viv in nz

Anonymous said...

I'm now ready to sheet-rock a "country cottage" my wife and I put up these last two summers. (It's 72 miles from our driveway, not too far, but still 100 miles from Times Square)
We used 23, (twenty-three), tons of steel, 2x8 walls, and high quality casement windows. The 40' side walls have a 4' roof overhang, and the ends have 2' overhangs. It should stay dry from top to bottom. The crawlspace is a minimum of 30" above the ground, inclined to 60", so I can store stuff underneath too.
I expect this house to be standing most of this millinea. (Sp?)