Doesn’t Everyone? Apparently Not.

I had dinner (largest meal of the day, generally noonish) with a friend of the family who is in the skilled trades. “Jerry,” as I’ll call him, is in very, very high demand because he’s so good, and his crews are so good. He’s been going non-stop since April, and was filling me in on some of the more challenging recent work, of which he is quite proud. He should be, since twice he has had to persuade a builder and a home-owner that plumbing cannot, yet, defy the laws of physics. You might be able to get away with skirting around some of code if you live outside a municipality, but gravity is universal. We were also commiserating about code requirements developed in one part of the country and then imposed on places where it is at best a non-improvement and at worst a three-pill migraine. [See “Why a large Phillips-head screwdriver was kept near the hot water heater enclosure at Festung Kleinrot for use during fire marshal inspection season.”]*

So, from “water and stuff just can’t flow that way, even with a pump which you can’t use in a house anyway,” talk moved to “times I couldn’t save them.” Also known as “when remodeling goes very, very wrong.” You know, like when a home owner decides to re-do a house into an open floor plan and starts removing a dividing wall between the living room and kitchen, and notices that the ceiling is cracking. Assistant plumber saw the cracks, the removed section of dividing wall, gulped, and raced to his boss, while calling quietly “Guys, get out of the building now.” Boss plumber saw the cracks, gulped, and warned home owner that removing a load-bearing wall was a Bad Idea. Jerry’s not a general contractor or structural engineer, but he’s seen so much of the good, the bad, and the “Oh Lord, I don’t want to know what he was thinking” that he can predict some problems and explain others, even if they don’t involve pipes and flushing.

So I tossed in the “you can’t just add a second story onto the house” misadventure I’d watched unfold, along with the Mike Holmes episode (only got to see part one, so I never knew if they salvaged the house) that started with “we wanted to widen the staircase and modernize the plumbing” and ended with evacuating the shell of the building because load-supporting and wall-holding joists and beams had been cut through, among other nightmares.

Now, I find this fascinating. As we were leaving the cafe, Jerry observed, “You know, most people outside the trade aren’t interested in structure and construction.” He’d enjoyed talking about it, since it wasn’t his problem most of the time (aside from the occasional “but why can’t water flow uphill?” moment). I hadn’t thought about it, because I like it, and enjoy learning from other people’s disasters and rescues. Why things work has always interested me.

But I’m Odd, and fortunate that DadRed was into carpentry and cabinet making, which also meant learning about building trades. From there came “This Old House,” “The Woodwright’s Shop” and eventually Mike Holmes stuff. Clamps, varnishes, cabinet carcasses, pocket screws and rabets, planes and corner levels, “racking” and “orange peel,” all these are terms I know about. I learned basic power tool use (still do not trust table saws) and hand tools as well, and why DadRed never did varnishing indoors. Only in the driveway, or on the back patio, well away from the house. I can look at a house interior and spot details that might or might not be worrisome. It also means that while in castles and old European buildings, DadRed and I are studying the woodwork and furniture instead of listening to the guide. Or confusing the guide mightily by occasionally calling out, “Bun feet again!”**

*The New and Improved Code required that the Heater part of the HVAC not pull air from inside the building. However, the New and Improved air intake didn’t draw enough air to keep the blower motor from overheating and trying to catch fire. So, when rumor of an inspection circulated, the New and Improved Code-mandated blocking panels over the old air intake were screwed into place for the Fire Marshall’s benefit. Once he departed or when the heater was needed, the panels were once again removed and stored.

**Dad and I started noting that all the old furniture in Poland had bun feet instead of claw feet. Which we speculated about, then started looking for. It became a bit of a game to see if we could spot Polish-made furniture with other-than-bun feet.

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13 thoughts on “Doesn’t Everyone? Apparently Not.

  1. One of my pet peeves is conflicting code requirements, especially at the local level*. For example, the energy efficiency code requires minimal or no outside air, coupled with a low leakage building envelope. Air quality codes require minimum fresh air supply, with a way to exhaust an equivalent amount of building air. Depending on the building occupancy and use, a tight envelope coupled with almost no fresh air supply, leads to “sick building syndrome.” Note that even houses are not immune from this, remember visiting a friend and smelling last weeks fish dinner?

    *Generally in the U.S. municipalities adopt the Uniform Building Code (UBS) with additional code requirements for local conditions. Often these local additions are either a pet peeve of a local politician, or a “continued employment” clause for a favored contractor or architect.

  2. I can’t sufficiently express my contempt for the average Fire Marshall. My job kept me traveling across the country and around the globe, designing and inspecting security systems for a federal law enforcement agency. The average Fire Marshall is somebody’s dim witted brother-in-law, who makes rulings based on how he feels that day and how much the project paid his cousin. I’ve actually been told that offices can’t have locks on their doors. One guy refused to pass the office, because his brother was in federal prison.

  3. If you trust a table saw, circular saw, or angle grinder, you have no business using one in the first place.
    (Yes. I’m absolutely paranoid and systematic about using the bloody things. I’m capable of learning from the mistakes of others and like all my important bits to stay intact and attached.)

    It’s amazing how otherwise intelligent people expect Reality to bend to their wishes.
    It takes time, effort, and expense to build a wall. If one exists, it exists for a reason.
    If you don’t understand the reason, leave it the frick alone until you do. (And don’t blithely say “I don’t think it’s load bearing” like it’s a minor detail. Know. Before making plans.)

  4. All power tools are sentient and are out to get you, use them with great caution. From personal experience radial arm saws are particularly evil. Still have all my fingers but it was a near run thing.

    • My problem (one of several) with the table saw is that when pushing a full sheet of plywood through the beast, I could not reach the power switch or emergency cut-off until well into the exercise. That made me a little uncomfortable, as did the risk of kick-back (since I was on the pushing end of the sheet, while DadRed dealt with the other end.)

      • My small barn is crowded and an OSHA inspector would throw up their hands and run from the place screaming due to the limited space I have to work. When I cut plywood I cheat and have the lumber yard cut it to the general width I need which they do at no charge so far. Gives me a lot more room and I can usually work from the side thus avoiding the main danger of kickback and also allowing me access to the big red off switch.

  5. Ah yes, pumping ‘up hill’ is always interesting… Usually NOT in a good way. And concur, ANY power tool is out to get you!

  6. I don’t know that I’m all that expert at construction, but I hung around when my dad did small house repairs, and helped when he and Mom were building their retirement house. I know about load-bearing walls, have watched Mike Holmes … and heard stories from friends who were doing renovation, or having it done.
    No, do not mess with load-bearing walls. That ought to be the Prime Directive of home renovation…

  7. Yeah, I do not have any really practical knowledge of load bearing walls.

    All walls have mass, and hence weight, hence need at least the strength to hold that up.

    If you learn to draw a free body diagram, and get some practice in, it is possible to learn some basic structural calculations, in 2D for static cases, with the concept of a truss. A truss, in theory has a bunch of members that are only in compression, or tension, because they can rotate at the joints where they are connected. Doing a free body diagram, and treating it as unmoving/static for each joint gives you a relationship that lets you solve for the forces in each member for the assumed loading, by setting up a system of equations. If you have the correct number of members, and have otherwise set things up properly.

    Start deleting members, and the force distribution changes, and you may no longer have a static situation; the truss falls down in some way.

    Similar stuff can happen with other structures.

    With a 3D structure in the real world, you aren’t just doing static calculations of weight and stuff. If something is being held up, there are two other directions it can move, that you probably don’t wnat it moving. Plus vibration.

    Load bearing basically means ‘delete and have problems’. But, zero force through part of a house right now, might not mean anything when the wind is blowing hard enough to make the house tilt a little one way.

    You can look at a structure, and figure out if it is able to hold up its own weight. But, the original design made assumptions about design loads, deflections, and stuff. If that information is not preserved, and available, good luck reverse engineering it if you do not know both structural calculations /and/ the specific art of designing that type of structure.

    I’m definitely not smart enough to know how to calculate which walls are load bearing, and which not, in a house. At least not without someone competent holding my hand all of the way.

    • A basic rule of thumb: If you have a 40′ long space, divided into two rooms, one 15′ long and the other 25′ long, the wall in the middle is most likely supporting part of the weight of the ceiling. That was the case Jerry described. As you say, find blueprints, or hire someone who does building structure for a living and have them sort things out before you start tearing down interior walls.

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