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September 21, 2004
"How many cubic yards of cement does it take to...?"

040720_p1010186.jpg (207937 bytes)
The septic is installed, but our building site still waits for a house (note piles of gravel left over from septic installation)

With our building schedule already several months behind, we were very anxious to get going with our foundation as rapidly as possible.

A year ago we had made the decision to act as our own General Contractor, rather than hire one.  In addition to the cost savings, we really want the once-in-a-lifetime experience of being able to build our own house.

(During that time, we talked to a friend who had acted as her own G.C. for her home remodel, years before.  When we asked her if she had any advice, she started laughing uproariously and said, "Yeah.  Get a contractor.")

Even so, we expect to hire subcontractors for some tasks that are simply beyond our abilities.  Possibilities include the plumbing and electrical work (Gail believes that we can do those ourselves, but Russell is more skeptical).  Our septic system was installed by subcontractors.  We also decided that we should have a professional lay our foundation.

In our original paperwork from Topsider, they estimated that the foundation work should cost a total of $3,000 to $6,000.

During the many months that our building permit was in process, Gail had already begun searching for a suitable foundation subcontractor.  By the time we actually got our permit, we had already entered the summer months.  It was getting more difficult finding anyone with any availability, but Gail persevered.

Our first bid was from an individual who was just starting out in the business.  We wanted to give him a chance because he was local and easy to work with.  His bid came in at a jaw-dropping $26,000.

When we compared this bid to Topsider's original estimate, we figured that the man was just plain wrong.  So Gail contacted a large, well-established concrete and masonry company.  Their bid came in at $53,000!

There was obviously something wrong.  Gail spoke with the contractor representative at length to find out why the bid was so high.  She was told that the foundation was vastly over-engineered.  Quoting his words, there was "enough cement to launch a rocket off of this pad."  They would have to spend several days just bending rebar to reinforce the thing.  He had even consulted with several other professionals, and they corroborated his opinion.  He suggested that we have the foundation re-engineered.

At this point, Gail contacted Topsider.  She wanted a definitive specification for the number of cubic yards of cement required for our foundation.  We wanted to get realistic quotes that we could then compare.  One person at Topsider gave her a specification.  Someone else at Topsider gave her a number that was 40 cubic yards higher.

At this point, Gail began to lose patience with Topsider.  As she complained to them, "You guys do this for a living.  How can you not know how much concrete goes into your own foundations?"  Gail told them to talk to each other and get back to us.

(These days, Gail was dealing with a new customer service rep named Brian Reed, who was part of the incoming turnover of personnel at Topsider.  Brian reiterated that Topsider had been going through some transition issues.  He had been warned that some accounts might need extra care, and he promptly flagged ours as one of those.)

Gail contacted the original structural engineer who had spec'ed out the foundation for Topsider.  For $400, he was willing to take a look at the blueprints and see if the foundation could be simplified.  However, he could not guarantee that any cost savings would offset the fee that he would charge us to make the changes.

We decided that a redesign would not be worth the potential savings.  Gail continued to get bids.

Our resulting bids ranged from $19,500 to $53,000.  The number of cubic yards of cement ranged from 30 to 90.  In the end, we were delayed almost six weeks waiting for Topsider to provide us with an accurate cement specification... and we never did get one.

On September 21, we awarded the job to Dietrich Construction.  Rick Dietrich was a local professional who had been recommended by our realtor Scott.  We were comfortable with both his price (which was still way above Topsider's original estimate) and his quality of service.

It is now the end of Summer, and we are several months more behind schedule.  Rick's hope is to get the foundation completely installed before the rains get too bad.  However, building this year is out of the question.  Even if the foundation gets finished, we don't want to be doing construction in the rain.  Even worse, we don't want half-finished building materials sitting on top of the mountain for the entire Winter.  We will have to wait until next Spring to begin the actual construction work, which now puts us a year behind schedule.

There's probably a joke in here somewhere.  "How many cubic yards of cement does it take to launch a rocket off of a mountain?"  Or better yet, "How many experts does it take to agree on a number?"

For the time being, though, we haven't come up with a suitable punchline.


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