Funny how one’s settled world can alter in a blink.
Our little brick farmhouse’s exterior in Saginaw is being repainted, after 37 years. The bricks had held on to their good looks until just a year ago, when the facade suddenly began to look tattered and washed out last fall. I decided that I’d have it repainted this spring.
The weather warmed to the low 60s this mid-April, so the painters and I got to work. From the roofline to ground level they scraped and smoothed the bricks, whose surfaces the English ivy’s imbedded footpads had marred. (I’d pulled away every scrap of that vine, a huge job.) Then the painters washed decades of dirt from the bricks. All went well- until we discovered that the bricks in the front of the house, hidden by the foliage of three giant pine trees planted fifty years ago, had totally detached from the frame at our home’s front corner! The trees were so much a part of our home’s landscaping that it had never occurred to us their thick roots could make the structure so vulnerable. But now, we had an impending disaster!
We could pull the bricks out easily: the mortar between them had disappeared. Furthermore, the stone foundation below looked suspicious, too: deep cracks above ground probably indicated that fissures could be found deeper down. (Clue: Water, ice and time had worn away the mortar between each stone that I could see above ground.)
A fine contractor, Russ, who owns J and J Contracting, has 40 years of experience in exactly this sort of thing. He came right out, hearing the urgency in our voices, took one thorough look, and rang for Miss Dig, stating he had an emergency. They came within 20 minutes to mark the gas lines.
Work began immediately.
As his men dug, they exposed a situation that was far worse than we’d feared. Russ took me on a tour.
“I’m sorry to tell you that this partial collapse extends around the other corner of the house. We can’t dig such a large area by hand. I’ll need to bring in my excavator. It can remove in a morning what we’d take a week to do, by hand...”
I groaned. (There went our brand new landscaping. And goodbye, lawn.)
The next morning a tree removal company he often used came right out and took the entire morning to cut down the three pine trees, and grind out their stumps. ($1,200.00.)
Then the Bobcat was brought in. First, Russ expertly scraped away all the baseball-sized landscape stones extending from the house walls to ten feet out. Then he used his big machine to dig five to six feet straight down, right up to the foundation itself, exposing the beautifully set in boulders, which hadn’t seen the sun for nearly 150 years. Sure enough, there was little to no mortar between them. Mixed with lime, that ‘glue’ had mostly dissolved, leaving room for the pine trees’ thick roots to worm their way between, allowing water and ice to stealthily dislodge the smaller boulders and bricks’ mortar, grain by grain. The damage extended to nine feet above the ground, and was obvious, now that the pine trees had vanished. Fortunately the much higher bricks on our home’s facade seemed solid enough...
A bit later, though, Russ called me outside again.
“Look up high, just below the second story window. See the bricks bulging out, there? One of my workers noticed...”
I looked. Oh, my God! The billowing was subtle, but definite. The whole front of our home might have collapsed!
Seeing my shock and horror, he smiled reassuringly. “Fortunately you caught this in time. Peek inside this big fissure.” He pointed at a place about chest high. “There are the giant supporting timbers that Victorian workers hand-cut and framed in. They still look really good, well over a century later. They’re doing the hard work. My workers will power-wash the foundation boulders, then re-mortar and waterproof the entire foundation and reset the bricks everywhere, so that your home will be impervious to weather for eons. It will take time and more than a little money, but I’ll fix it perfectly. It’s what I do.
“Be glad the former owners didn’t plant regular trees, like oaks, elms or maples. Those roots splay out, get super thick, and can destroy a structure even quicker.”
He paused, then said, “By the way, I’ve seen a lot worse...”
Two horror stories stood out.
One family, during a heavy rain, woke up to a loud roar in the middle of the night: the whole frame shook as the entire front of their posh, two-story brick home collapsed and washed into the basement because their giant maple tree’s roots had finally undermined the old foundation.
Another family came home after a two-week vacation to find part of their home’s kitchen hanging by a thread; a corner had collapsed, leaving only the exposed frame to hold off total collapse. Huge tree roots, combined with inadequate drainage, had ruined much of the kitchen area.
“People should never plant trees near home foundations,” Russ warned. “Years later that landscaping decision will come back to haunt them. If you have friends looking to buy an older house, remind them to note what’s growing next to it. If big trees are set too close to its foundation, watch out! Have a house inspector look hard at the basement, and even dig down a few feet to check the state of walls beneath the earth...”
For form’s sake I rang our insurance company. No joy. They don’t cover long-term damage, and it was clearly written in our policy. Fair enough.
Russ’s labor force is still hard at work after nearly a week; in another day they’ll push back the mountains of earth they’d shifted, and I can begin to sort out and rebuild the landscape.
Our bill will be well over $10,000.00, but our little home is rock-steady once again.
All things considered, we consider ourselves very lucky indeed.