Close: Digging Footing/Column Holes

We’re close. How close? This close:

Close. Real close. (My Spanish isn't there yet, I know. But it is always refreshing to see that Panamanians make the same blunders that I no doubt make.)

So close, that in the next day or two, weather permitting, we will start pouring the concrete footings and columns!

While the guys finished stuccoing the fence low wall, I took a trip down the hill and bought some 1″x4″x12′ pine boards for the batter boards. In the next photo, they are sticking out the back of the pickup, held up by the trailer hitch support rack I made. I still want to paint it yellow and put some reflective strips on it. As much as I get comments at the hardware store about the trailer hitch roof rack extension, this new rack got the attention of staff and customers, too.

Then I got busy assembling the batter boards. Batter boards are erected a few feet outside of the proposed building perimeter. They are fastening points for strings that mark the corners of the building. At string intersections, you can drop a plumb bob down to the ground to locate the exact corner of the building. Below is a photo of the SW corner batter boards. You can see (especially if you click the photo to enlarge it) two yellow strings marking the location of the center of the footing and column that we will pour. On the ground is a template that I made the size of the hole to be dug for the footing. I marked the center point of the template. I dropped a plumb bob down to the template, adjusting the template by kicking it with my foot so that the center point sat just below the plumb bob. Then I took a bottle of blue chalk and outlined the template.

Dig here:

December 23, 2010. Armando makes the first plunge of the shovel, thereby officially starting actual house construction.

In the next photo, I am standing taking the picture in the area where the first two containers will be, looking across the lot to batter boards where the second set of containers will sit.

Armando is making good progress. The first hole is behind him. He is working in the second hole, and I have marked and dug the perimeter of the third hole (foreground).

So far we have had to machete a few surface roots, but haven’t encountered a single stone, rock, or boulder. Good news. But it isn’t all coming up roses:

It is actually easier to work with a lot of water in the hole, because when the mud is just a bit drier it sticks to the shovel and to your boots. Armando keeps a rock nearby to bang the shovel on to dislodge the mud. The mud is this sticky:

So at the end of day two of Armando digging, joined on day two by Hernan, we have seven holes completed in the area of the first two containers.

Thinking a few days ahead, I mentally check the plan.

  • Cement? Check. We have 25 sacks on hand.
  • Sand/gravel for concrete? Check. We still have a big pile.
  • Rebar mats for the footings? Check. Armando and I made them during the rainy season.
  • Rebar armatures for the concrete columns? Check. Armando and I made them during the rainy season.
  • Forms for the columns? Nope. Get busy.

So notebook with sketches in hand, down the hill I went in search of materials appropriate for the forms. I knew this was going to be a head scratcher. The columns will be approximately 5′ high overall, about 3′ of that below ground. Plywood is 4’x8′, and no matter how you cut it there would be a massive amount of waste. Ten-foot long boards cut in half could do, but not really, as the widest available would be eleven-and-a-half inches and I need thirteen-and-a half to end up with a twelve-inch square column. And it would use a lot of good, expensive lumber. Ugh. I could scab the plywood or boards together, but not ideal; too much work and not strong where they need to be.

Pacing back and forth in Deep Think Mode, up and down the aisles of the lumber section, I finally saw it; a stack of 5/8″ thick MDF (Medium Density Fiberboard – basically pressed paper and dust) sheets, oversize at 6’x10′. MDF is glass smooth, and would make a nice face on the concrete. Cutting a foot off the width, I would be left with a 5′ wide sheet, perfect for the 5′ tall columns. And to sweeten the pot, these sheets were just a bit more than twenty bucks a pop! I got four sheets. I also located some cheap pine 10′ 2″x2″s; I could cut these in half to make 5′ strong-backs at the corners of the forms; you really can’t screw MDF to MDF, but screwing to the pine 2″x2″s would be fine. And I picked up one sheet of 3/4″ plywood and some drywall screws. No pun intended, but I lumbered back home with the 10′ sheets hanging out the back of the pickup, lashed in as if I were carrying nuclear waste or a dozen un-caged, very hungry lions. Back home I cut it all up and screwed it together, ending up with forms for seven columns. I slapped on a coat of clear deck sealer to help hold the water damage at bay. Hey, seven forms — that matches the seven holes we have dug! We’ll have to use the forms three times for the twenty total holes. I also cut up the sheet of plywood into two-foot squares, then cut a hole out of the middle of each one the size of the outside dimensions of the forms. When we assemble the forms, we will slip one of these collars over the top of each column to keep it absolutely square. This will be important later when the metal plates are fitted to the top of the columns. Here is the results of my shopping trip and shop time:

Tomorrow will be Monday (My mother told me of the time she asked her mother, “Is tomorrow Monday?” Her mother answered, “Not yet. But it will be.”)

So with that, I think I am done here for today. Thanks for following our progress!

2 thoughts on “Close: Digging Footing/Column Holes

  1. Are cardboard round forms available? Back in the distant past I remember they had twenty four inch by eight foot long sections that can be special ordered to length.

    • I have seen 12″ Sonotubes at one hardware store in Gorgona, but they were only 4′ long and were more than $10. They are expensive because they are imported. I figured that if 24″ ones were available that they would be closer to $20, and still not long enough. Given that I would need 20 of them, that would be $200 and they wouldn’t be long enough. I made the MDF forms for $160 including the sealer. This has been a head scratcher for me for months. I wanted to take the easy route of the round tubes — all the shipping container houses (that are up on columns) I have seen on the Internet have used Sonotubes. But I wanted square columns, I think they will look good design wise. I would like to put tile on them later, but we are having design differences in our committee meetings. So for now they are just nice smooth concrete, and they can be easily cleaned of mold and green slime with the pressure washer.

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