With the construction contract signed and all planning and building permissions in place we’re now breaking ground on site. This is the heavy machinery phase of the build and there’s something cathartic about using heavy machinery to exorcise the tension of all those delicate negotiations that happened during the design, planning and quoting stages of the project. There’s something of a release in the process of knocking a site down to its stone and substrate foundations. It’s like ripping off a scab. It’s satisfying to see the clean, exposed, untouched skin of the earth you’re going to build on, an image that is attractive to me because I’m a minimalist. Right now there’s nothing there. No clutter. No anything. Also, if there is a better expression of “Ma”, the Japanese concept of the pause between ideas I’d like to see it. The specter of a back-to-bare-earth building site in a built up architectural hodge-podge like Hamilton is a rare image worth savouring, even for a moment.
The thing is, I’ve had more than a moment to savour it because after only three days of digging, the job has been stopped, for over a month. It started out OK. We even took the precaution of having a Japanese Buddhist priest perform a traditional Ji Chin Sai (or groundbreaking ceremony) on site the day before we began work.
This was a genteel ceremony, a ritual blessing of the project involving the entire team of architect, engineer, builder and client. It was a request for good luck, for happy communication between the team, for safety and solid construction and in the end for the enduring happiness of the home to be built there. So far so good.
The day after the Ji Chin Sai ceremony the activity on site was a little less genteel. With our heavy machinery, we ripped mercilessly into the loose fill that we knew was there beneath the ground cover. Mid morning saw the arrival of a big digger, an 18-tonne monster of a machine that would do the bulky work. It was driven with a combination of gung-ho and considerable skill directly up the steep face of the site to begin digging the platform at the top.
By the middle of Day Two, the rear platform had been leveled and the loose fill on the slope was being dealt with. The builder thought that the best approach would be to terrace the face of the site so a second platform could be used midway up. From there other smaller machinery could be put to work from a stable footing. These things don’t always go to plan of course. As the big digger tore into the slope, the loose fill continued to give way, to a depth that we hadn’t planned for. In some places, where we thought we’d be going down a metre, we were digging closer to two.
The soil engineer confirmed what the builder was saying. Ground water had been running across the face of the underlying rock and had destabilised the fill, so it all had to go. More truckloads of fill were taken away. With the unstable fill gone, the digger made its way down the hill to the road where it began the excavation of the garage, a job made much less difficult now that the weight of all that rubbish soil had been removed from above.
It’s now a good-looking site, but as it turns out, that’s a problem in its own right. It’s now looking too good, or rather, too developed. The difference between it and the neighbouring vacant lot is now too dramatic. Both my site and my neighbour’s vacant site share the same geology. It’s more than likely that the problem I discovered on my site will be mirrored on his.
In a perfect world, we would have developed both our sites at the same time. So while the fill was being removed from my site, his site would also be taken back to the same level. People live their lives on different time frames though and despite some early indications that my neighbour may have been keen to develop his site in tandem with mine, it’s no longer the case and so right now we have a problem of timing and one of landscaping.
The profile of my site is now a fair bit lower than his due to the digging I’ve done. This has created the need for some form of retaining wall at his and my boundary line. I have contingencies in my budget for this, but not much. The question is would that landscaping money be better spent removing some of the fill from my neighbour’s site to smooth out the difference in profile between his site and mine? There’s no doubt that the fill on his site will eventually have to go for safety reasons anyway and that would make any retaining wall I build redundant. There’s also no doubt that a smoother transition between our neighbouring sites will improve the look of both, so the smart money would be on this option. But removing the fill on his site requires my builder to work on my neighbour’s property and that is where good neighbourly negotiations come into play.
So that’s why we’ve stopped work, to negotiate the extent of the work that will be done on my neighbour’s site. To complicate matters I have no idea how long my neighbor will take to build, or even if he’ll build at all. He has his block up for sale at the moment, so there’s the chance that he won’t be my neighbour for very long anyway. In some ways it’s weird to be spending a proportion of my budget improving someone else’s property especially if he decides to sell it and move on. But if it improves the look of mine, if it’s money I’d be spending anyway and if it’s good for neighbourly relations, then it’s worth it. That’s what good neighbours do. They do mutually beneficial things. It’s also about taking control of the outcome. You have to take a positive approach when you build and to assert your site cohesively on the surrounding environment .
There’s also an element of good faith that you need to employ. You need to have faith that the design is going to work. You need to have faith that the engineering will hold up. You need to have faith that every piece of the build will come together as planned. And you need to know that you’re doing the right thing by your neighbours and that your neighbours are going to be doing the right thing by you in return. (Feel free to chip in at any time, Dear Neighbour.)
It may have helped that I’ve had the Christmas break to consider my options and to arrive at this view … you know, Christmas is a time for spreading the love around, appreciating the relationships you have. It’s still frustrating of course to be paused like this. The work has been stopped on site for several weeks and now the builder is off on his annual two-week end of year shut down. All I can do is think positively about the next phase of the build and hope that by mid January we’ll all be back on site working up this solution with my neighbour and moving on to put in footings. And in the meantime, I’ll be spending my break admiring the bare earth of my site and stopping to appreciate the openness, the simplicity and the pure minimalism of it. Because right now, that’s all I’ve got.