146 Days Later

Russ arrived at 9 o’clock Saturday morning. As I had done nearly every single weekend since March, and Russ probably a dozen or more times himself, we set about working on the deck. It started out just like so many deck-building days before it: drag tools out of the garage, review goals for the day, laugh mightily at naive ambition, reduce goals by 70%, commence sweating.

Over the course of this project, we learned it is best to accomplish as much work as possible before 1PM. The reason for this should be fairly obvious. The rear of Tall Brown faces East and is heavily wooded. During the morning, it is actually quite pleasant in the backyard. However, at approximately 1PM during the summer, the sun comes over the trees, and you suddenly realize how all of those poor ants and G.I. Joes felt under the terror of your magnifying glass.

I started this project in early March (March 6th, but who’s counting) specifically so it would be finished before the weather became Georgiarific. I thought it would probably take all of March and a couple weekends in April. Rather than have me do all of the work for you, please look at today’s date on a calendar and insert your own joke about my life. I’ll wait.

Seriously, it has been so hot out there I just want to crawl into a storm sewer and weep softly. Many days I wore only gym shorts and shoes while I worked. Yes, gross. This was my routine while installing the actual deck boards:

  • Install a row of 3 16-foot boards, drink a pint of water
  • Install a row of boards, drink a pint of water
  • Install a row of boards, drink a pint of water, re-apply sunscreen to my spare tire
  • Install a row of boards, drink a pint of water
  • Install a row of boards, drink a pint of sunscreen, wonder aloud whether ’tis wiser to simply burn the house down than continue putting my friends and family through this parade of retarded
  • Install a row of boards, drink a pint of water
  • And so on

    Armed with this knowledge, Russ and I hit it hard right when he arrived. The job for the day was to install the 2×2 balusters on the railing. There were a helluva lot of them (204 total, but who’s counting), and, while I wanted to get them all installed that day, I also knew this step could drag into the following day. You know, just like every single step before it.

    We worked hard (and smart), and around 11:30AM, something very strange happened.

    The deck was finished.

    Wait, what? I mean, I know the system we designed for measuring, cutting, spacing, and attaching the balusters was genius, and it allowed us to knock out one baluster every ten seconds or so, but that’s it? Just like that?

    The finish line kind of came out of nowhere, and it’s passing was actually rather anticlimactic. Russ held the last baluster in place against our brilliantly designed spacing mechanism (a 2×4), I fired the final two nails–POP! sssss POP! sssss, and all of a sudden it was like, Oh, hey, the deck’s done. Huh, I guess you’re right. Neat.

    Naturally, there is a list of outstanding tasks that still need to be completed before I can really get to work burying this project deep in my subconscious, but the construction part is OVER and not a day too soon. Next Saturday, August 6th, would have marked the 5-month anniversary of demolishing the old deck. Turns out I am more sensitive about this than even I might have realized. Earlier today, Gia was saying something about something, probably using the really low, dumb voice she uses to impersonate me, and she finished a comment about the deck with, “Yeah, and now it’s August,” to which I snapped, “IT IS NOT AUGUST. IT IS JULY. TODAY IS JULY 31st.”

    Leave it on the court, Tony.

    So Just How Bad Was The Old Deck?

    Throughout this saga, I haven’t really taken the time to establish a benchmark around why even bother to spend millions of dollars and billions of man hours replacing some rectangular boards with … other rectangular boards.

    When this project was still [apparently] picking up steam in 2008, I snapped a bunch of photos of the old deck to document its design and condition. Would you like to see them? SUPER!

    Here are two shots of the entire structure, the first looking Southish, the second looking, uh, Northy:

    From these angles, there is little to indicate any impending catastrophes (aside from the wildly out-of-code balusters; must be less than 4″ apart). What I did not capture in the photos to follow:

  • There was no flashing between the deck and the house. This may seem trivial for the uninitiated, but it is a one-way ticket to a rotten deck and rotten house. Someone throws a party and suddenly there are 30 people on your deck; fast forward to EMTs pulling bodies out of deck rubble. I will go into much greater detail about flashing in a subsequent post (with pictures!).
  • There were about half as many bolts holding the deck to the house as there should have been. This alone is not a reason to tear the whole thing down–I could have added bolts pretty easily. The point is, EMTs pulling bodies out of deck rubble.
  • Now then, let’s take a closer look.

    Notice how the south end features a sweet-ass wall, likely intended for privacy. I try to stem the rage by thinking back to 1985 when the neighborhood was being born. The trees were likely a lot smaller and more sparse 26 years ago, so a privacy wall might have seemed like a good idea. In practice, it was mostly an exercise in WTF.

    The sun pounded the outside and top of the wall somewhere between 21 and 29 hours a day, while never once so much as kissing the inside. For a structure made of interior-grade 2x4s and cedar siding, this was a recipe for success.

    Here is a better look at the wall from the outside:

    Aaaand, the inside, complete with cosmetic siding repairs done by moi because the siding was already rotting when we moved in:

    Here’s a shot up the top of the wall. Looks fine to me:

    Here is the wall’s killing field. This is as much sun as this part of the deck/house ever received. Couple this with the lack of flashing and … let’s just say lingering moisture was stoked:

    As you can see from the first two photos at the top of the page, this was not what one would generally call a “small” deck. Yet, somehow it was infuriatingly tiny. The deck ran the entire length of the house (45′), yet here are the views from either end:

    ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME? Look at that spot between the chimney and the railing. I’ll tell you: Not much more than four feet. What the hell good is any section of deck anywhere that only extends four feet from the house? I could maybe see it if that little span connected two large usable areas, but this is the usable space we’re talking about here:

    I just … I am getting angry all over again going through these photos. Why would you … god damnit.

    Let’s close it out with a series of super-fun photos titled, “Why They Invented Homeowner’s Insurance.”

    The steps don’t look too terrible, until you notice there is no center stringer supporting, you know, the part where people walk up and down the stairs. The squeaks from these over-extended boards sounded like they were saying, “You’re fat, you’re fat, you’re fat, you’re fat”:

    Also, the stairs weren’t attached to the concrete pad at the bottom, but don’t worry about that:

    I don’t really know what is going on here. I just always assumed this part of the railing was only for decoration:

    Again. What.

    Oh, here’s a good time. Holding the deck up were an assortment of powder-coated iron poles, much like the ones you see used [primarily] in interior basements:

    At first glance, one would think, Dude, awesome. My deck is being held up by IRON POSTS. EFF A BUNCH OF STUPID TERMITE BAIT. IRON. Despite the powder coating, all of the iron posts were rusted at the bottom, as a result of, you know, iron living outside with rain and Georgia humidity. Also, we discovered during demolition that the iron posts were not in any way attached to the cement footers. An ambitious meth head could have kicked the deck over. I have actually contemplated contacting the previous homeowners about this part because it is so shady. Let’s just say this project has made me a more conscientious homeowner.

    Finally, the picture you’ve all been waiting for … The Cobra:

    In the photo above, I would say the Cobra is at roughly half mast. When it was persistently rainy, he would lie down flat, even with the other boards. During long hot, dry spells, however, he would rise up so high that the two “fangs” would point right at you. That we let the Cobra exist, as is, from 2003 to 2011 is a testament to how often we visited that end of the deck.

    As I sit here typing this, the new deck is nearly complete, so a lot of the rage is retrospective, which I think is good. Still, I am very glad to be able to get these pictures down “on paper” as it were.

    [Name To Be Revealed Later]

    Let’s quit screwing around and pick this pig up where we left off three years (!!!) ago, which is talking about the GHAT DAMN deck I have been building nonstop since my last meaningful post. You knew that was why I quit updating the blog, right? Oh, you thought it was because I got busy at work or had a kid? No no. I have been building a deck every day for the past 37 months. I was fired from my job back in 2008 after not showing up for several weeks. That red-headed kid in all the pictures on my Facebook whom many of you have met? Yeah, we’ve been borrowing him from an orphanage here in Smyrna just to keep up appearances. Sweet kid.

    Well it certainly feels like I’ve been building the deck that long. And I’m sure it’s felt that way for the numerous friends who have donated entire Saturdays and Sundays to risk heat exhaustion and slipped disks only so that I can have ~1000 ft² of pressure-treated lumber to pee off of late at night. And during the day.

    So, following the sink hole rodeo from our last episode, I fell out of attack mode and into a spiral of uncertainty. Did I really solve the problem? What happens if I spend thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours on a new deck only to have it fall into a hole in my yard? What if the solution costs hundreds of millions of dollars? I might have to get a loan for that kind of cheddar!

    The Summer of 2008 came and went. I changed jobs in the fall, which was demanding, but, let’s be honest, ain’t nobody building shit during football season, not because of the football games, but because somehow it’s always like, “HURR, AUTUMN, WHAT DID YOU DO WITH ALL MY WEEKENDS?!!” To my credit, however, I did install bamboo floors on the entire first floor of our house that fall. By myself. Like a boss. All day. Real talk.

    Then the holidays.

    Oh, is it 2009 already? Oh, is your wife pregnant? Sounds like a FINE time to forego nesting and spend your time hammering together a tree house for the grill. Good luck with that. Despite the CIIIRRRRRRRCLE OF LIIIIFE disruption, there was one notable deck development in the summer of ’09. Since the original sink hole project a year earlier, I noticed a couple spots had settled, meaning I was inevitably going to need to get out the big(ger) guns if I wanted this problem solved. In June, I rented an excavator, and Danny and I spent an afternoon trying to figure out how to stop almost killing each other. We also managed to move some dirt. Look, there’s a [bad] video:

    We dug out the hole until it felt like solid clay on all sides and the bottom; much, much more than I had done by myself the previous summer. After replacing all the dirt (kill me), everything seemed pretty solid, albeit compressed slightly. (Lest it seem like this is foreshadowing, I’ll go ahead and tell you everything has remained stable since the excavator exercise. Exhale.)

    In September, Mattias was born, which was rad. I showed Matty off to the deck project, and the deck was cool about it, but I could tell he was more than a little resentful. I even caught a couple off-handed comments over the following months. “Hey. What’s up? Just chillin’ in the back yard like, uh, every day. Listen, I thought, maybe if you weren’t busy this weekend, you could maybe, I don’t know, it seems like it would be pretty easy to start the demoli–oh, right, you did already tell me about that. No, I mean, of course you should. Kids these days certainly can’t like raise themselves or whatever. I guess I’ll still be in the yard if you need me. Fuckin’ kid huh? What? I didn’t say anything. Yeah sure, later.”

    So Matty was born in the Fall, and we’ve already covered what Fall is like. So … THEN THE HOLIDAYS!

    I’d like to pause and reflect on how cavalier I am about my life going past me like a bullet train. I should probably take some time to sit down and wri-ONWARD!!!

    Let’s see … 2010. Two Thousand and Ten. I don’t remember a god damned thing about 2010.

    So here we are in sunny 2011. At some point during the winter, my inner monologue convinced me to quit agonizing over every little detail and just start the stupid piece of crap. There was a slow clap and everything. How does the saying go? A journey of a thousand miles begins with numerous, confidence-draining false starts?

    So start we did. On Sunday, March 6th, a little hungover, we (Russ, John, Dave, Keith, and Garrett) tore the old deck off of Tall Brown.

    I guess I should pause and tell you why I am replacing the old deck to begin with …

    Premature deck announcement (aka – SINKHOLIO)

    So … we’re going to put a new deck on our house. I originally planned a big announcement (which really just means a long blog post with lots of capital letters), but I’ve come to realize if I try to plan something to completion, I will spend the rest of my life in the planning phase. It’s best to just start whatever needs starting and figure it out as I go. SO HERE WE ARE.

    I mentioned the deck plan a couple months ago, and since then, I’ve done quite a bit of research and talked to a handful of professionals. My original plan was to have a contractor do the entire project. It’s going to be a very large job and as I tried to wrap my brain around it, I convinced myself that it would be worth a couple (THOUSAND) extra dollars to just have the pros come in and knock it out.

    After having no less than three contractors take a look at the project and give me high level estimates, I realized that I had underestimated the market by about two-thirds. We could have purchased a nice automobile for the money this was going to cost. The options we were left with were A) pretend we live in a high-rise condo with no deck or yard, or B) build the damn thing ourselves. I found as I socialized the project that my friends and family tended to agree with whatever my plan was.

    “We’re going to build a new deck.”

    “Awesome! Deckbuilding is fun. I will help.”

    “Actually, I think I’m going to have professionals do it. It’s a huge job.”

    “You should totally have professionals do it! Your time is worth too much to spend all your weekends building a deck.”

    “I talked to some professionals, and I think I’m going to do the whole job myself.”

    “You should totally do it yourself. Deckbuilding is fun. I will help.”

    I’ve been reading books (including this one put out by the Forest Products Society — highly recommended), talking to people, and creeping around friends’ houses looking at the underlying support structure(s) of their various outdoor leisure areas. Mostly, I’ve been preparing myself mentally for the project, which will doubtlessly gobble vastly more time and resources than I have ever invested in a home improvement project to date. It’s going to be a huge job. Like, retarded huge.

    And we’ve already hit our first significant speed bump!

    Two weekends ago, I was in the back yard outlining the proposed new deck with string to help visualize the project. As I was anchoring a pole where one of the new deck posts would be located, my foot sank into the ground. And it wasn’t like sinking into soft dirt or mud. It was like the top 2 inches of clay gave way and a hole about a foot deep opened up underneath me.

    Oh. Great. A sinkhole. Right there. Where the deck … of course. Where else would a sinkhole … SENSATIONAL!!

    I grabbed a shovel and quickly unearthed a problem area. A hole like this should take more than 10 minutes to dig:

    After the existential freakout subsided, I contacted several of my landscape architect friends (Note to self: Why the hell do I know so many landscape architects?) Their initial diagnoses were identical: It’s an old construction bury pit and I would need to “over-excavate” the area and re-pack the dirt. So that’s what I did last Sunday. I wish there was a more entertaining story to tell, but I don’t know what to say about me digging a hole and then filling it right back up. Living the dream, indeed.

    Photo set of me moving thousands of pounds of dirt with a spade shovel.