Notes of a Builder:

Catastrophes do happen

By Ted Bowers
Reader Columnist

In my last article I wrote about safety and what we can do to prevent accidents and injuries. My wife pointed out after reading it that I had left out a very important aspect of safety; keeping a clean and orderly work site.

I, of course, agree. Not only is it safer to not be tripping over cords, hoses, tools and boards, it is much more efficient.

Other elements of a safe and efficient job are patience, forethought and attention to detail. Having had the experience of rushing to finish a project and screwing it up at the end, I have learned (and relearned) the wisdom of keeping a calm and steady attitude from beginning to end.

Here’s a story full of examples of how not to do a job:

Shortly after going out on my own in the business, I was asked by a fellow builder to take on building a slab floor in the basement of a new home he was contracting. It was on the river down by Laclede.

There were three eight foot walls and an open wall facing the river. This was to be a nice home and I was being trusted to do a good job on the slab. The floor joists, a stack of 16’ two by twelves were on the site to be used as floor joists once the slab was finished. It was late in the fall and the rainy season had begun and we were losing good weather. A series of rain fronts had been passing through every few days and a guessing game began to fit this concrete pour in between storms. I had scheduled the batch plant to come out with trucks twice and had to cancel both times due to rain.

Finally, it looked like we were going to have a few days of relatively clear weather to pour and let the mud set up before another rain, so I called the trucks in. I say trucks because this was a good sized slab—roughly 32’x32’ and it required two large trucks for the job.

We emptied the first truck without incident although the sky had begun to darken ominously. There was no turning back though and the second truck was already waiting to move in and begin unloading, so forward we went with nervous looms toward the sky. We were discussing a backup plan as we worked. It involved using the 2×12’s laid flat on a temporary wall we’d build using ten foot studs and beams from more 2×12’s. We would then spread plastic sheeting over the top to protect the wet concrete in case of rain. Sure enough, as soon as the last truck was empty, it began to rain. We hurriedly put the plan into motion, erecting three studs, one at each end and one in the middle, nailed two of the 2×12’s on them, and began laying floor joists flat on them every two feet to carry the plastic. It was going quickly and we had hopes that things were going to turn out fine when the whole mess collapsed into the wet concrete!

Exhausted, drenched, with rain and night falling on us, we could only stand there horrified at the catastrophe. It turned out that in our haste to erect the shelter we had nailed our 2×12 beam to the center post with one 16 penny nail. A sixteen penny nail is 3 1/4” long has a sheer strength of around 300 lbs and that can vary with many factors. Suffice to say that 1500 lbs. of wet sixteen foot 2×12’s was enough to break that nail loose and drop everything into 20 yards of wet and getting wetter concrete at around 1:00 on a November afternoon, with about 4 hours of daylight left. I about shit my pants, or as Earl would say “I was sittin’ on a turd a foot high!”

There was nothing to do but rebuild the whole thing and continue on. By 10:00 that night we sitting around a fire drying out—the rain had mercifully stopped a few hours before. The slab was screeded—leveled and reasonably flat—and curing very slowly. We were finally able to finish trowel it sometime in the morning. It wasn’t a thing of beauty but was fine for a basement floor that was to be carpeted. We lucked out, really. The price we paid for our stupidity was small compared to what might have happened. Someone could have been standing under that load when it dropped. Patience, forethought and attention to detail could have, at any phase of that operation, averted disaster.

Sometimes ya gotta wonder how we survive this long.

Write with your comments to: bowersconstruction1980@gmail.com

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