The Craigslist House
  Description of the Property
  Tree Removal Services
  Pests and Pest Removal Services
  Mold and Moisture Problems
  French Drains
  Sealing the Stucco
  Legalizing Second Unit
  Engineers, Architects and the Like
  Parking/Retaining Wall Project
  Foundation Types
  Foundation Contractors
  Helical Screw Contractors
  Dirt, Debris and Demo
  Rain, Rain, Rain
  Fire Sprinkler Vendors
  Framing Contractors

Replacing the Decks

  Parking / Retaining Wall Project  

This was the first serious project here at the house. Folks wondered why we were spending money at street side, when we have a crumbling inside. My logic: the parking space was separate and improvements wouldn't be torn out six months later when we saw something better or something else. So the three independently accessible parking spaces was a go.  I mentioned the project to a friend of mine. He reminded me that a UC Berkeley classmate of ours, Eugene Tuan was a structural engineer. I had forgotten this. I contacted Eugene at Tuan & Robinson (221 Main Street, Suite 860, SF CA 415-957-2480) and explained the project. My wife had sketched a vision of the spot, with three spots, nose-in and a staircase climbing the hill at 45 degrees and a parallel spot on the other side of the staircase. This was fleshed-out by the architect Mallot.  Eugene agreed to draw the plans and offered me a discount since I was a friend. His plans cost $2,500. I showed them to different contractors for construction and received quotes. The numbers definitely required sitting down: 

RWR Construction: $96,000;

RV Stitch $80,000+;

Hughes Construction: $70,000 + $10,000 for extras;

Volcoff: $78,000;

Jim Cullen: $56,000 (but many important components treated as extras);

Ward Construction: $58,000; $65,000 with the fourth spot;

Len Hatton: $80,000 (Did ask if he would get the work at $75,000.)

Somewhere in the midst of these quotes one or more of the contractors said, "Hey, beautiful drawings, but possibly over-engineered. You may not need that much steel." This was a heads-up. One of the contractors mentioned a different engineer, Dave Olnes (510-568-2162) in the Oakland Hills.  I reached out to Dave and he agreed to look at my plans. He said he would use the staircase detail but expected that he could reduce the number of beams and the weight of the steel. Leveraging this first set of drawings, he would charge me $1,500 for his set of plans. This was a tough call. I did it, and it's one of the best construction lessons I've learned: it can be rational to revisit drawings. 

Mike Pinsker at Lou Dogg Construction (415-259-7234), working down the block on a spec home, quoted $46,000 building to the new set of plans. Now we are talking! I would have been appalled by that number half a year ago, but it sounded like a bargain. I was ready to move, and Lou Dogg suddenly wasn't ready to move. He offered to pass me over to a David Hoffmire, a contractor friend of his that apparently had capacity right around now. 

Hoffmire came in quoting $52,000. It seemed to be a complete quote and I went with it. 

Additional costs did pop-up during construction, but they weren't Dave hitting me with (infamous) change-orders. The rules required that I pay the soils engineer to revisit as the piers were dug (those visits - by an assistant - cost $400), and Dave Olnes, the structural engineer had to be paid to visit too.  Oh - big points to Dave Olnes - he worked with me, made a point to be in Marin on Tuesdays for other jobs and also allowed me to document, with emailed photographs, events that he could have demanded to be present during. I highly recommend the engineer Dave Olnes. 

The parking space project took place in March-April of 2007. Although it was a dry winter, we did have one big rain, right after the crew had torn-up the hillside. All work stopped for perhaps ten days. Each day there was sloughing - large chunks of hillside breaking off and falling into the hole. Some mornings I would find trees in the hole. Not sprouts, but 20' tall acacia. I have no pictures of this. I guess it was stressful for me, and something that I did not want to record for posterity. Every day cars driving by would slow down and spare at what must have looked like a massive sink-hole. The contractor wasn't worried - That's just the nature of working in the wet season."

I did quit my job around this time in order to keep an eye on the project. Being at home allowed me to participate in decisions in real time, and get the retaining wall that I wanted. 

"Do you want the wood lagging to be parallel to the road or level?"

Hmmm... I drove around, looking at walls.

I decided that parallel-to-the-road walls often look like they've collapsed whereas level look... level.

"Do you want gaps between the lagging?"

That's another good question. Again I drove around. I also researched on the web, and made a few phone calls. I determined that gaps created a nice horizontal look, and mentioned it to Dave, the engineer. He added a very valuable point: "Many builders simply use whatever's convenient as spacers. So their scrap lumber shims are the first thing that will rot out. Use half inch re bar, cut to 4" lengths." It was a great suggestion - the gaps between the wood lagging do look great, and the rebar spacers will last longer than I will. 

"How do you want us to slope the concrete pad; do you want an extra step at the base of the stairs?"

This was tricky, since the county requires that parking spaces be close to level, and the street in front of the pad definitely wasn't level. Of course the uphill side of the pad would match the road (actually be a little higher, so that rainwater didn't flood into the space) but the downhill side was calculating to be almost 2' above road level. Never mind cars bottoming out, it meant that an extra step might be needed somewhere below the stairs - something that sounded like a real hazard at night. This sounds boring, but here in Marin there are plenty of $50,000 driveways that don't work. I worked with the county, received approval to change the pad's slope slightly, and managed to create three nose-in spots that work, and a staircase that's safe.

The original space. Cinder blocks and railroad ties had lasted for years.

The drawing showing the required 3 spaces superemposed on the original space.

Truckloads of dirt were removed.

The beams were massive, especially considering that cinder blocks had worked before...

Beam-allignment is double-checked.

Streetside, with the new parking.
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Last Updated Feb 2014.