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porch & exterior, part 4: back porch repair

11.05 requiring the structural equivalent of an underwire bra

click to see the full photo galleryWhen we moved into the house, the back porch had a strange assortment of fiberboard and low-grade plywood scraps attached to the bottom as some kind of "skirting". Originally, it would've been skirted in the same hardwood siding, but at some point, the previous owners apparently decided they really didn't go for that classic practical style, it just wasn't white trash enough for them. Undoubtedly they had a reason for removing the siding to access the porch underneath, but why in the world they chose to replace it with whatever scraps they could scrounge up is beyond me. But then, why they did 95% of the things they did to this house is beyond me, so that's not really saying a lot.

Still, we let it be for quite awhile. It wasn't hurting anything, ugly though it was, and at least it served the purpose of preventing critters from taking up residence underneath our back porch. And really, we had more pressing home improvement priorities.

In the Fall of 2004, after a couple of inspirational days at the the Home & Garden show, we had a burst of motivation to put the yard in order. We were at least a year away from doing any real work on the yard and landscaping, but we figured we could at least tame it a little.

So we took advantage of the last warm fall weather and spent some time doing some general maintenance on the yard that we’d been neglecting all summer while we worked on the attic. Sorted through all the leftover paneling to decide what could stay and what to get rid of, ordered a big dumpster for all of that plus the leftover drywall scraps, moved the last pile of dirt in the yard up to our little “turret” area where the shed will eventually go, chopped down the primeval forest of grassy weeds in our big front planting bed (don’t even get me started), weeded out the beds along the back fence, tilled the two sidewalk beds and put down corn gluten (all natural weeding miracle of the gods), cleared out the miscellaneous stuff we’d been stacking on the back of the house for lack of anywhere else to put it, and just generally organized things. You know.

Clearing out the stuff along the back of the house meant we could finally – finally! – level out the patio area at the base of the slope in anticipation of putting down the gravel surface. It also meant we could tear off that bizarre "skirting" menagerie. And it felt great! One less reminder of the previous owners, one step closer to putting this house back in order.

Of course, it never, ever, just ends there. Of course it doesn't.

So you know what the owners before us were like. And you know the small- and large-scale disasters they’ve wrought on this poor house. If you need a refresher course, reacquaint yourself with the horrors of such gruesome tales as, “The Bathroom, Part 1 – Demolition”, “The Attic, Part 1 – Work Begins”, or, if you have the stomach for it, “The Living Room, Part 1 - Tearing Out the Carpet”. Viewers are strongly cautioned. And if you were a reader of the newsletter, you’ll recall the charming little episodes, like when we first moved in and had to clean the kitchen. And that god-forsaken stove. And when we planted the Japanese Maple. Remember that whole thing about burying the plastic sacks all over the yard? Well, apparently, “all over the yard” also includes “under the porch”. And “plastic sacks” also includes “other miscellaneous junk”. Like disintegrating t-shirts. And more weirdo concrete formations. And broken toys. And bits of unidentified something-or-other. And a skeleton of a small animal. Oh, and also? Plastic effing sacks. Grrrr.

The back porch sits about three feet off the ground (hence the necessity of skirting). There are three main support posts that sit on concrete footings, several large support beams that run horizontally the length of the porch, and three large crossbeams* that run from the support posts into the foundation. All very sturdy and well-built. This is a Craftsman, after all.

*(I say that there are three large crossbeams, when in point of fact we actually have two large crossbeams and where the third one should be, we have instead a stack of TWO BY FOURS in lieu of an actual CROSS BEAM! FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY WHY WOULD ANYONE DO SOMETHING SO INCREDIBLY STUPID AND OMG SO HALF-ASSED THAT IT GIVES HALF-ASSEDNESS A BAD NAME AND SERIOUSLY WOULDN'T YOU JUST HAVE TO CHECK OUT OF THE HUMAN RACE IF YOU WERE THAT LAZY BECAUSE OXYGEN IS COMPLETELY WASTED ON YOU?)

Ahem.

When they built things like this back in the day, concrete foundations were pretty low profile, so they barely cleared the surface of the dirt. Newer houses use pier blocks instead, because they keep the wood several inches off the ground, which significantly decreases the chances of dry rot or insect infestation. We knew from our house inspection that one corner of the porch has a small case of dry rot because over the years, the concrete post foundation got covered with a layer of dirt, which eventually led to the rot. Not the best thing in the world, but hardly a crisis. (Our neighbor fixed a similar problem by jacking up the corner of his porch and replacing the offending post with new treated lumber and reinforcement braces. In other words, something we could handle ourselves.)

Turns out that was the least of our problems. In the course of Sal’s cleaning operation, he accidentally knocked against the center crossbeam with the shovel...and the wood showered down to the ground in a horrifyingly fine rain of sawdust.

The energy went right out of us at that point. Because it meant either carpenter ants or termites and either way, yet another detour of time, finances, and energy on our other projects. Although I don’t know why we’re still surprised by such developments. After all, it’s not as if we haven’t been conditioned in the time we’ve owned this house to expect these things.

For your own reference, if you find yourself in a similar situation, cross your fingers and pray to whatever deity you worship that it’s carpenter ants. Takes longer for them to establish themselves and do significant damage and they’re relatively easy to get rid of. Termites require the insect extermination equivalent of full out nuclear war, along with the GNP of a small third world country.

The pest control guy came out, took a look, and in five minutes, pronounced, “Carpenter ants!” And my sigh of relief was big enough to topple nearby trees. He inspected the basement (the east side of the house is where the back porch attaches and the cross beams underneath run right through the foundation into the basement) for any signs that they’d penetrated that far and delivered the additional very good news that we caught the problem early and the damage was relatively contained. They hadn’t made it into the house itself, were basically nested in that support beam, and hadn’t even compromised the floor or any of the rest of the porch. If I had been single and not already suffering through the fifth day of the ten day flu (or possibly, malaria), I would’ve kissed that man.

Unfortunately, that was the best news of the whole affair. We still had, after all, a structurally-compromised back porch that would require significantly more work, tools, and skills than we possess. And resources, for that matter. It wasn't something that had to be taken care of the next day, but it also wasn't something we could put off for long.

It took a year before we had the resources to hire a general contractor to do the work. It was costly, though they did a really great job and were well worth the price for all the work they did -- jacking up the entire porch, pulling out all the damaged posts and beams, installing new pier blocks, putting in new support posts and beams, treating everything, bolting everything together, installing Simpson braces, and finishing it all off with nice, new hardwood siding. The whole project took about a day -- when I left for work that morning, our poor porch was all deteriorated and sad, and by the time I came home, it was all strong and spiffy.

There's no way we could've done that work on our own, never mind as quickly as they did it, which just proves Home Improvement Law #3: know when you're in over your head and it's time to call in the professionals.

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