House Jacking: a Realistic View, Pt 1

The first house jacking project with which I can remember being associated was the raising of key points on the interior floor of my childhood home, built around 1920. I was about 10, as I recall. I can remember standing in the dining room, feeling a slight sense of motion beneath my feet, and watching cracks appear in the walls. I also recall being allowed to look, but not participate, in the underpinning of piers and beams. For a few days, our basement became some eery kind of dark laboratory with warm islands of light surrounding the greasy ramjacks and steel supports.

The team assembled for the job was my dad, my older brother, and a friend who said he knew how to fix our floor problems. Although I was confident they had everything under control, I do remember that there was a vague kind of uncertainty that came up through the floor with those muffled conversations.

Twenty years later, when I was married with kids and a house across town, I came back to my parents' house (same one) to do several follow-up jacking chores.

The occasion was the remodel of my parents' living room and the reconstruction of the old fireplace and a few special windows. But before dealing with any of that, I knew I had to deal with the sloping of the floor on one side of the room.

So down into the old basement I went, trying to reconstruct the history of the sinking and the logic of the two-decades-old house jacking. Now, at this point, I had studied structural engineering and worked several years in that industry. I had also done a handful of other “subsidence remediation” projects on my own and with others. But actually crawling under the house and trying to understand what was happening and what was needed, I could appreciate the uncertainty that the crew felt years earlier.

I think there is a kind of “fog of war” that tends to cloud the judgement under these circumstances. It's dark, it's dirty and buggy (maybe even ratty), and space is confined. Then you've got the utter tangle of wires, plumbing, HVAC, and trash to deal with. Somewhere there's a rule that there must be one rusty bicycle in every crawlspace. (To be continued in part 2…)