Demolition, Excavation, and Skid Steers

Now that I had the brush cleared and a dumpster to put my detritus, it was time to start demolition in earnest. The first step was to get rid of my retaining wall, sidewalks, and driveway apron made of cobblestones.

Basically any hardscape besides the driveway proper was going to go. In a blinding flash of naivete, I went ahead and rented a breaker (a.k.a jackhammer) and had the notion that I would be able to take care of this trifling demolition effort in a mere afternoon. 2 days later, I had barely made progress on that damned retaining wall, and it wasn’t looking good for the completion of the demo that weekend. I had to lift that heavy jackhammer and get it into all sorts of crazy positions in order to get proper purchase on the wall, and even then, it took forever to bust up the concrete — especially the foundation. So, I stopped the foolishness with the retaining wall and focused my remaining efforts in breaking up the sidewalk on the side of the house so I at least accomplished something during the weekend. I went back inside, cleaned up,  and nursed a beer while I licked my wounds and began plotting plan “B”.

The problem that I had was that I needed bigger tools and more power, preferably something that I didn’t have to lift and lug around. Fortunately, I rented a mini “skid steer” for use during the Columbus day holiday weekend, and I was initally planning to use the skid-steer to do excavation and grading. But these little beasties have all manner of attachments, and all I needed to do was to rent the companion breaker attachment. So, for a mere $700 extra (it was $800 for the skid-steer), I would be in business. Now, I just had to do some replanning and figure out how to operate the damned thing.

First, a little background on what a skid steer is. These are smaller versions of a standard power shovel, with a bucket on arms that can be used to scrape, scoop, push, pick up, and dump stuff. It has a small diesel engine that powers a hydraulic pump, and it has 4 wheels which are powered by hydraulic motors. These motors are controlled by handles on either side of the operator such that when you push both forward, the machine goes forward, and when you pull them both back, the machine goes back. And when you push one forward and the other back, the machine skids and spins around and does donuts. Hence “skid-steer”. The best thing about these little guys is, well, they’re little. Perhaps compact is a better work. They weigh about a ton and a half, but they’re only 36″ wide, which means they can fit into your living room through your front door. Not that you’d want to excavate your living room, but I’ve seen videos of folks driving them into garages and using them to bust up garage slabs. Which is where I got the idea to rent the breaker attachment to help me finish the demo work. Here are some pictures:

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The day came when the rental company delivered the skid steer and attachments (hydraulic breaker and two buckets). I had downloaded and printed a copy of the operator’s manual, studied it, and watched some videos on operating it. With my hard had and safety glasses, I nervously strapped myself in the seat, checked everything out, and fired it up. After a few tentative moves, I found that it was very intuitive to operate, so I set the bucket down and disconnected it from the arms so I could mount the breaker attachment. Bad move. I went over some uneven ground and got stuck. Turns out that you need the weight of the bucket , or attachment, to balance things out. So the lesson is that you put all of your attachments in one place next to each other on level ground and make your changeouts there. I put on the breaker attachment, and then went to town on the front sidewalk. Awesome! That thing broke apart fairly quickly, and using the machine to pull out deeply buried chunks of concrete with the breaker was a real labor saver.

One of the conundrums I had to overcome was getting the little guy in the back yard. There was not enough clearance on the sides of the house (yep, less than 3′), but fortunately there is a common walkway on one side of the property, and there are gaps in the masonry wall that borders that walkway, covered with wood fencing. So all I had to do was remove the chunk of fence and I was in business, right?  Well… not so fast! The walkway is about 20″ higher than the level of the ground in my back yard. So I had to build a ramp. The first version looked pretty sturdy, but literally broke apart after a few uses. I had to build another one, at a critical time while I was still paying for use of the skid steer (that $1500 clock was ticking), and it was better lasting a whole day, but in the end, it didn’t cut it either. Plus it was too steep, so I was on the edge of doing wheelies going up with 1.5 tons of machine and another half ton of load. Not cool. Especially when I slipped off once, had to back up, and ended up bashing a support column on my porch cover. Ahh… the joys of DIY! At least I had to replace that column for other reasons, so NBD. I’m trying a new scheme  for next time which involves railroad ties. I figure if it can support a locomotive, it can support a measly skid steer!

Here are some pics of the failed ramp(s) and the broken post:

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In the end, I moved 2 loads of concrete and rocks (about 25 yards) and loaded up another 15 yard dumpster with excess earth. I still have some grading to do, so there will be more earth removal. And my grading skills suck. But I relish the chance to improve for next time, and I’m carefully studying YouTube videos as part of my heavy equipment apprenticeship program. Nonetheless,  one typically learns by doing. Either that, or I’m going to have a really bumpy landscape!

 

More pics:

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Site Planning Complete — Digging Has Commenced!

Although I had to submit a “site plan” to the city for inclusion in the building permit plan set, I really didn’t have a plan that was detailed enough for me to work with. Additionally, when it came time to start digging, my wife and I took a second look at the front yard and decided to completely change it since it had to be gutted anyway. As mentioned in my previous post, I had to add an irrigation system, and I determined that all existing retaining walls had to be re-done because when I lowered the backyard grade to the correct level, it would undermine the existing retaining wall. Talk about project expansion! So, I went about revising the site plan, and I’ve uploaded it here: 1370 BFD LANDSCAPE PLAN R 0.0 for your reading pleasure.

The first action that I had to do was remove all of the bricks and sand from my existing patio. Rather than toss the bricks and buy new ones, which would be tremendously expensive and wasteful, I decided to pressure wash them and stack them up. For the sand, I needed a way to screen out all of the mess, and after some research, I came upon a website that had plans for a hand “trommel”. This is a device that was used by gold prospectors, and it turns out that there is an active hobby community that goes out and does this sort of thing. Hence, there are resources available. You could buy a motorized one, all assembled, for a lot of money, but a guy developed a plan for a real DIY trommel that is made of Home Depot (or Lowe’s) buckets, some PVC pipe and fittings, and some screen. Here is a link to his page, and here is a picture of my finished model.

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I also needed to get rid of all of the plants in front of the house. This would be no easy task as it was overgrown with agave and rosemary. They were pretty plants, and it was a nice ecosystem with zero maintenance (no watering), and buzzing with bees who were hard at work gathering rosemary nectar. (That would make awesome honey!) Alas, with heavy heart, we called in a landscaper to do the dirty work. Good thing because he got attacked by the bees and had to go to the drug store to get some benadryl. Plus, digging out that agave is a royal pain. It as well worth the $850 I paid him and his helper. Here are before and after pictures:

Front Yard After

Front Yard After

So, work is now well underway. There’s still a lot of site work to go, but I’ll have more updates along the way. Next up: Dumpsters and Steer Skids!

Front Yard Before

Front Yard Before