Simple Foundations

by Andy Sheldon

in Building

A few years ago my wife and I were fortunate enough to attend a wedding for a daughter of a friend of ours in the Adirondacks. The event was held on their family property on Lake George… several houses, a boathouse and another small building containing the laundry and workshop.

On thing you may not know about Architects is that we cannot see  building without poking around a bit, looking at the details, structure, design and construction.  And of all the buildings on the property, this was the one that caught my fancy the most.

It was a nicely detailed building but unpainted building. Although the wood had weathered nicely, you wondered why it had been left unpainted, while all the other buildings were painted white.  But it was a wonderful combination of being elegant and rustic at the same time.

But the thing that caught my eye the most was the foundation… just several piles of stones.  Not stone piers with the round Adirondack stones with mortar, but literally piles of dry laid flat field stones. And these stones were only about 6″ below grade… not anything close to being below frost.  This is surprising, considering the area freezes every winter and the ground experiences frost heaves.

I began to wonder why this building that is about 100 years old had survived the ravages of winter for so long. After some pondering, I believe I know why:

  • The building does rise and fall with the frost.
  • The reason it was never painted, was probably that with the its movement the wood could never hold paint,
  • Since the piles of stones had no mortar and acted like a dry laid stone wall, they were well drained so were not subjected to ice damage.
  • It was obvious that the stones were constantly maintained by the various kinds of other pieces of brick, steel shims, etc. used to keep everythign in place.
  • This was a summer utility building, and was “unimportant” compared to the more grand other buildings.
  • It was a small building with no need for support except at the perimeter where the stones could be maintained easily.

This whole experience got me to thinking about how simple this foundation was and how applicable it might be for a DIY builder and a small cabin or tiny house in a remote location.

I would not normally suggest that a foundation be above the frost line, but if the cabin is small enough, it would act almost like single structure and rise and fall with the frost primarily as one unit.  In fact, the qualities that allow a tiny house to be mobile would allow it to move with the frost.

I would love to hear from anyone about their thoughts on simple foundations for DIY builders.
As always, your comments are very valuable not only to me but to the others who drop by.

Best,

Andy

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