Turnabout is Fair Play
Great moments in building history: Flipping a brand new house
Unlike some builders, I’ve never had anything against clients who wanted to be their own contractors, per se. I’ve even worked for some who kept the job moving, the subcontractors coordinated and saved some money. But this time, I had to admit, I’d been warned. When I’d signed a labor-only contract to erect a timber frame for a local merchant who would be acting as his own contractor, my helper Russell, an old Vermonter, snorted, “He’s the kind of fellow who’d skin a hide for a nickel and bust a 50¢ jackknife doin’ it.” But winter was coming on fast that year, and my crew and I really needed the job to get us through.
I did suggest to our client that his narrow, rutted driveway might benefit from some grading and a layer of gravel. He assured me the expense was unnecessary and said we’d have no trouble getting in. This might have been so before two weeks of hard rains, alternating freezes and thaws, and the passage of concrete trucks and heavy equipment churned it up into the knee-deep glacier of half-frozen mud that greeted us the morning we arrived. Through the snow I could see the logging truck, loaded with timbers, buried up to its floorboards. It took most of the morning to unload the timbers and pull the truck out.
The client also tried to trim costs by skimping on the drawings. At least that’s what the architect said when I’d told him the drawings lacked, among other things, a compass orientation. The architect pointed out that the framing was keyed to the cellar bulkhead, and because the foundation was already in place, there was only one way the house could face.
Once the road was rebuilt, work went well. On the afternoon the client and his wife arrived for their first inspection, the frame was already finished up to the plate beams. While the client’s wife chatted with the crew, I stood with the client, gazing north out at the rolling ridges framed between the timbers of the dining-room-to-be. Pointing to a knee brace, he asked, “Why is this in the kitchen window?”
“Uh, I think you’ve got things backward. This is the dining room. The kitchen’s on the south side of the house.”
“What’re you talking about? We’re standing in the kitchen!” His voice was a rising wave of disbelief. “The dining room is on the south side! You’ve got the whole house backward!”
I felt a sickening black pit open under my feet. It wasn’t possible, was it? In a barely audible croak, I said, “Let’s look at the plans.”
With shaking hands I unrolled the drawings. Sure enough, the frame was laid out the only way it could have been, according to the fixed reference point on the cellar bulkhead.
“See, it’s built exactly like the plans show.”
There was almost an audible clank as the machinery of outrage shifted into shock. “Didn’t the architect tell you we decided to turn the house 180°?”
“No one said anything to me about it. I guess he must have figured you’d do it, seeing as how you’re the general contractor.”
The client followed his wife as she wandered around the deck, gasping between muffled sobs, “I’m not going to live in it. I won’t live in a backward house. I’m not. I won’t.”
I was groping for a way out. It really wouldn’t be a big deal to rearrange the floor plan.
My client must have had the same idea. His wife’s voice rose to a snarl, “If I’m going to be in the kitchen all day, I want my view!”
It’d be easier to pick the house up and turn it around than to convince her to change her mind… That’s it, I thought to myself. We could do that. Turn it around!
I looked up at the beams. The frame was really two smaller frames on each side of a center stair/chimney well, joined by a continuous spliced plate beam. The simple half-lap joint was held together with carriage bolts run through a concealed steel plate.
“I think I’ve figured out how we can solve your problem. All we need is a small crane.”
I explained that if we separated the plate at its center splice, we could use a couple of steel girders to lift the frame one half at a time. The first section could be set down in the field while the second section was lifted, rotated 180° and set back on the floor deck. Then the first section would be lifted, rotated and returned to the deck and the halves rejoined at the splice. The posts were mortised into the sills with a simple tenon and tied to their girts by knee braces, so the frames could be lifted from the deck without damage.
The crane the client hired belonged to a friend who owed him a favor or two. It looked like it hadn’t seen much action, or grease, in the last decade or so. But the operator assured me it would be more than adequate for this job.
And so it was. As the crane snugged each 30-ft. long steel girder up against the timbers, we levered the posts free, and the first section rose easily. We stopped to take a picture of it balanced on my fingertip. It was eerie to have several tons of steel and timber floating above us as we turned each frame and guided its post tenons into their new mortises. By midmorning the kitchen was back in the kitchen, and the dining room in the dining room.
We were enjoying coffee while the operator readied the crane for travel. The boom was almost horizontal when we heard a sharp twang, like a monstrous guitar string breaking, and then a crash, as the support cable snapped, and the boom slammed into the ground.
It was a few seconds before anyone could find enough breath to curse with. We’d been under that boom all morning! When my pulse returned to normal, I made a note to talk with the contractor/client about the unnecessary expense of a liability policy.
—George Nash, Scottsdale, Ariz.