When we first got to Jameswood, the house was an absolute disaster. With so much seemingly wrong with the building, it was hard to know where to start. We quickly decided a structural engineer's survey of the house would be needed - in order to find out exactly what was wrong with the building, and how to fix it! Commissioning this report was one of the best starting points we had for tackling our renovation.
For self builders who are interested: Ours cost about 500 pounds and was really worth every penny. If you are ever taking on a restoration or investing in property of any kind, I would highly recommend getting a structural survey done to the house!
When our report came back to us, it obviously didn't say that Jameswood had a clean bill of health. The structural engineer had even gone as far as to say that it would be easier to knock her down and start over.
Thankfully, however, our structural report did find one thing that wasn't wrong with our home: her main foundations. Our engineer told us that the main foundations were sturdy, and built onto solid, unmoving ground, (With no evidence of any rivers running underneath it…!)
But, unfortunately, this could only be said for our main foundations. Our engineer was worried about our sleeper walls.
Sleeper walls are a set of foundations that run parallel to each other, from gable-end to gable-end, every few meters below a building. They are separate from the outer foundations, which uphold the solid stone walls of a home.
The sleeper walls hold up the ground floor joists in a suspended floor system. In the Victorian era, it was not uncommon for the sleeper walls to consist of a few feet of stone wall sat on top of the surface soil. This was unlike the deeper outer wall foundations, which would be dug into the ground and sat on a firmer layer of ground far below the surface soil.
At Jameswood, the surface soil our sleeper walls sat on is particularly…squidgy… for lack of a better word! Over time, the weight of the ground floor compacted the muddy surface soil beneath the sleeper walls, and the floor slowly started to sink.
As it turns out, this problem was one of the reasons for the partial collapse of the bay window! As the roof was left unrepaired, and timber started to rot, the trusses were bending under their own weight. This problem was compacted by the sinking floor, which meant the roof was no longer receiving any structural support from the walls below! The roof eventually bent out of place, and pushed out stones in the bay window!
Before we could add any new timber framing into the building, we would need to replace the shallow sleeper walls with deep concrete foundations.
A digger would usually excavate trench foundations, but there was no way we were getting one in through the doorways, and we wouldn’t want heavy machinery disturbing the outer foundations. We had no choice but to hand-dig our new foundations.
Unlike many parts of our project, we didn't have anyone to help us with this task. It was the winter months, and it was far too cold to host friends and family.
From test holes, we knew that the firm till we would be setting our foundations onto was about one meter below the grounds surface.
Wheel-barrow by wheel-barrow, we set out to dig long, deep trenches inside our home.
Cal and I took turns digging and wheel-barrowing mud out of the building.
Admittedly, Cal would take on the digging job as the trench went deeper, and allow me the more satisfying task of digging the first few feet of trench, where the mud was drier and you were stood at wheel-barrow height while working.
The work kept us warm, and we certainly grew stronger as the weeks progressed. Finally, we managed to dig all the trenches out.
Filling them back in with concrete was an equally difficult task, but when we had poured all of our foundations and stepped on solid concrete for the first time, a relief washed over us.
For most moments in our project, I can look back at times with fondness. Even if the going got a bit tough, we managed to have fun while doing it.
But that just isn’t the take-away message for this piece of the project... I never want to dig another trench again in my life!
Looking back on this time in our project, I am amazed that we had the strength to push through and I am so proud of us for persevering. But I am even more happy that it's all over!
Now, with solid foundations that will stand the test of time, we are off the ground, and can truly start rebuilding home.
Thank you for following our journey, as we restore Jameswood Villa.