Grading begins

Thu Jun 30 2022

After a couple of hectic weeks of final preparation, this week we had our first glimpse of what lies beneath the surface on our property.

Grading begins
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So much has happened in the past couple of months and there's a lot of detail we're excited to share. But in this blog post, I want to fast forward to where we are today and catch you up.

In our last blog post I shared that we had changed our plans somewhat, parting ways with our architects to go it alone.

Change of Plans

After a lot of consideration, we decided to part ways with our architects. Since then, everything has been turned upside down...in a good way!

Change of Plans

In the months since that move, we've been thrust into the details of our build with every decision squarely down to us. It's been tiring but also hugely insightful - we feel really happy with the direction things are going in.

But, we've also had to maintain a focus on the physical build work - getting the site ready for the excavator to arrive and start work. And last week, they arrived.

Pulling stumps

Since arriving back in Vermont in early March, our main focus has been clearing trees. As of right now, we've felled, limbed, bucked around 300 trees - the logs stacked for later milling or firewood, and the branches chipped with our Woodland Mills WC68 wood chipper on the back of our Kubota L3901 tractor.

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FELLING TREES ourselves for our home site

Felling the trees is fairly fast, but the subsequent clear-up takes a long time - we've now probably generated almost 100 cubic yards of wood chips and our log piles are overflowing!

But one thing we didn't have to deal with was the stumps. We had several questions on our YouTube videos about what we were planning to do with the stumps.

Pulling Stumps
With the trees felled we had hundreds of stumps left behind!

The answer is: wait for the excavator!

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House site CLEARED!

Last Monday, the excavator arrived on site - the goal to remove all our stumps and pile them up so we could haul them off into the forest (we preferred this to burning them). While they thought it would take a few days, most of our stumps put up almost no resistance and they were all out by the end of the first day!

Spruce Stumps
The spruce stumps put up almost no resistance at all, easily lifting out of the ground in one go. The hardwoods (birch and maple) were a little trickier, but still came up very easily.

The pressure was then on us to get them moved! Our original plan was to load up our small trailer and tow it with the tractor to dump them deep inside the forest. But that plan quickly fell through - our proposed site was too slow and difficult to reach, and it would have taken us weeks to clear all the stumps!

After some head scratching we settled on a new location, easier to get to with the tractor, off to the side in a clearing along the trail. Then began the slow process of moving the stumps.

Stump Pile
This is where we eventually decided to pile the stumps - easy to access and not too deep into the forest.

Heavier stumps we carried one-by-one on the tractor forks, while smaller stumps and roots we loaded up into the trailer that we're affectionately calling "the wagon".

Oops! We did it again...

Between our travel trailer, equipment trailer and portable sawmill we're no strangers to towing, and this week we added another trailer to our collection!

Oops! We did it again...

We've been grossly overloading it and dragging it down very bumpy terrain, but so far it's holding up!

We loaded the trailer up as full as we possibly could, put a stump on the forks and hauled it all off into the forest.

All the stumps are now pretty much cleared, except for a few which are too heavy for our tractor to even lift (1,200lb+) so we'll figure out what to do with those later.

Removing the topsoil

In a simplified model, you can imagine the earth being made of layers. The top layer, in our case about 12" deep, is aptly called top soil - mainly organic matter and humus. Below this is subsoil, before eventually (or quite soon in our case!) hitting bedrock.

Now that the stumps had been removed, we needed to strip off the top soil off the whole area as this isn't suitable for building on top of. So on Tuesday last week, that's what the excavator did - in just one day, the operator cleared all the top soil from the entire area, piling it up in one giant mountain, and capping it with a stone he found that looks a little bit like the state of Vermont.

Removing Topsoil
The excavator stripped off the top soil into a long line before piling it up in one huge pile.

For the first time, we were able to see what was beneath the surface. While we weren't surprised to see ledge (bedrock) already visible just a foot down, it was surprising how uneven it appeared to be - veins of shallow rock weaving across the area.

Bedrock
It's a little hard to see in the photo, but there are veins of bedrock poking through to the surface.

We knew we were going to have to deal with bedrock, but the sheer amount of rock was a little worrying!

Laying out the site

You typically want to construct a building on flat ground, and our property is anything but flat - there's almost 120ft of elevation gain in our driveway alone!

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Snowboarding... on our driveway 🏂

We had a few days respite from the excavator as we cleared up the stumps, tree tops and other debris that had been left behind (at our request). Before the excavator began work again, our contractor returned to help us lay out the site and measure the grade.

To accurately measure the grade across the site you need a laser and grade rod. The laser creates a perfectly horizontal line which you then measure at different locations on the grade rod using a receiver, giving you the exact height at each spot. Our contractor brought his rotary laser, receiver and grade rod and we began taking measurements.

Site Grading
Standing here and looking across the clearing, the base of the trees in the distance appear to be at eye-level....turns out they're not!

If you stand at the top of our driveway and look out across the area that we had cleared, it looks like there's about 6 feet of elevation gain. That's what it looked like to us, and that's what our contractor thought too.

We were wrong. Very wrong.

It wasn't 6 feet - it was closer to 17 feet!

Somehow we need to create two level areas within that height change - one for our barn and one for the utility building / house. We went to bed that night feeling more than a little anxious about how we could solve this.

The next morning, yesterday, we headed out early, this time armed with our own Dewalt line laser, receiver and grade rod. Rotary lasers have a much greater range than line lasers, but our line laser had no issues covering our site. We accurately placed stakes at each building corner and measured grade, working quickly to assemble a map of the site.

The map confirmed what we had first realized the night before - we were either going to have to dig deep into the bedrock, bring in a lot of fill, or both!

Finding bedrock

We were working quickly because yesterday the excavator was back. As well as removing a few trees that we couldn't easily reach, the goal yesterday was to start digging into the ledge to see what it was like - would the excavator be able to get through it?

By lunch time we were finished with clearing the dozen or so trees, removing the stumps, and the operator had stripped the top soil from that newly cleared area. It was time to dig.

Stripping Topsoil
After clearing some trees in the far left corner, he then stripped off the topsoil and added it to the existing mountain.

I can't say we weren't nervous. If the excavator struggled then at best this project was about to get much more expensive, and at worst it means blasting - an expensive and hard-to-schedule additional step we'd need to break down the rock.

But as the excavator started digging, the rock just began crumbling. In some areas it was already a loose assembly of rocks, and in other areas the seemingly solid bedrock splintered along veins into giant individual slabs of rock.

Quarrying Rocks
Just look at some of these rocks that the excavator was pulling out - not only are they huge, but I think they're absolutely beautiful too!

Some of the rocks he was pulling out were absolutely huge - even the excavator barely able to lift them! I have no idea what we're going to do with these, but they are absolutely beautiful.

In fact, he was making such good progress that before long we had to tell him to stop digging any deeper as he was getting very close to the depth we had provisionally calculated we needed! Instead he began to spread out, expanding the excavation into other areas, in each one finding the rock to be similarly compliant.

Setting grade

By the end of the day yesterday, we had once again made great progress. Our anxieties from the previous day had been largely abated having seen strong evidence that we'd be able to excavate down to the depth we'd need.

Site Grading Vermont
Our site has it stands now (minus the stumps on the right). It looks like a mess, but before too long the site should really start to take shape....we just need to work out what shape that should be!

Yesterday's test digging is great, but the next step now is to get a lot more precise. Our next step is to sit down with all the measurements we have collected, both before and after excavation, and decide exactly what the grade should look like.

We're working with some real constraints - the barn needs a largely flat area in front of it for maneuvering the RV in and out, the driveway can't be so steep as to be treacherous in the snow, the utility and house sites need to be level, and we need to be mindful of water run-off and drainage.

Once we know exactly what the grade needs to be, we can lay it out on paper and on the ground using grade stakes, ready for the excavator to return next week.

Summary

It is because we are so intimately involved in every step of our build - both in terms of the design and physical labor - that we are able to be so iterative in our process. We can take our ideas and evolve them as we learn more, trying to work with the land rather than fight against it to build the best possible house.

We've been out working since before 7am today, moving the stumps that were removed yesterday, stacking logs and generally clearing up the site again. We now have about a dozen felled trees to limb and chip, which will probably keep us busy for at least a day or two.

The warmer summer weather makes forest work that much harder, and the last couple of weeks have been almost non-stop. We have some friends visiting this weekend and we plan to take a well earned break for a few days over the holiday weekend.

But next week we'll be right back into things, and fingers crossed we'll have the site graded in no time!

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