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In the end you may decide to dig by hand. This is reasonable if your earth is not too rocky, or doesn't consist of clay which will stick to your shovel, and if your house isn't to be large. Digging time on the $50 house was three weeks for one man digging 6 to 8 hours per day. It was a little more than twice that for the $500 job.
A guy should not try to dig that long in one day. On days when there were eight hours of digging done at jny place it was divided up between two or three men. If you're working alone spread the shovel time out over the weeks. In the end you'll come out ahead, for there is a point during each day after which you will slow down, the point of diminishing returns. Better to jump over to another aspect of the job then, peeling posts, or gathering material, or even working in the garden. Myself, I usually dig for two or three hours in the cool of the morning when I'm fresh, then do other things for the rest of the day. If really pressed I'll add a second shovel session in the cool of the evening, but only if sufficiently fueled with beer. Pour a couple of quarts of high octane brew in me and for the next several hours I can throw dirt like a dragline.
• There are certain secrets to digging which can double your output. One is NEVER SWING A PICK UNLESS YOU ABSOLUTELY HAVE TO. Unless you are in very rocky soil, or hardpan, you probably won't have to.
To avoid swinging a pick dig in level strips or sections which traverse the slope. When you have dug a three or four foot section level make a hole in one corner as deep as the blade of the shovel. Next extend the hole into a small trench the same depth along the wall that runs down the slope. Now stand facing the trench and place the blade of your shovel six inches, or whatever is comfortable, back from the cut. The blade should be positioned so that it will dig straight down into the ground which means that the handle should be tilted slightly forward over the ditch. Stomp the blade. Step on the top part of it and begin wiggling the handle to loosen the dirt. If it is tough digging you may have to stand on the shovel with both feet and ride it into the ground as you wiggle the handle. When it is as low as it will go, step back and pull the handle slowly (so you don't break it) towards you and down. You should have broken off a good chunk of earth. Scoop it up in one motion and throw it out of the excavation or into a wheelbarrow. There will be considerable loose dirt left in the trench. Leave that dirt where it is for the time being. Position the shovel so that it slightly overlaps the bite you have just taken and repeat the process. Continue doing this until you have dug a swath as wide as your ditch, step back six inches and begin working a new row always facing what you've just excavated. Work back and forth until you reach the far end of the excavation. You will find that the loose dirt left in the ditch helps to keep the initial big bite on your shovel so you don't have to make a special effort to get it back on each time you pull down on the handle.
When you've reached that far wall step to one side and clean enough of the loose dirt out to give you standing room. Now, facing the same direction you have been the whole
time, bend over and begin scooping the loose earth out, working forward. The loose earth ahead will help you get an effortless shovelful each time much the way a piece of bread helps you load your fork during meals. You can scoop it up and into the wheelbarrow in one movement. You have never once stepped on the loose earth and it comes up sweet as vou could wish. This is the gravy part of the job. When you reach the original wall, dig a small hole in the corner and begin again.
A second secret, applicable to hillside jobs, is NEVER PUSH A WHEELBARROW UP OUT OF AN EXCAVATION. You should have designed your house so that you have a Royer Foyer entrance on the downhill side, or an entrance through a gable, or at the very minimum, a firewindow. If so, the level of these will be as low as the lowest floor of the house (the possible exception here being the floor of the root cellar).
If the house is to have two or more levels, concentrate the digging on the upper levels first. You can roll the wheelbarrow out right over the lower levels which have yet to be dug. Then, when you begin on the lower levels, excavate the lower entrances at the same pace you excavate the floor. Roll the wheelbarrow out these entrances each time you dump it and you will never once have to push a loaded wheelbarrow up out of the excavation.
A third secret is, MAKE USE OF EVERY WHEELBARROW LOAD YOU DUMP. Since you already have the earth in the wheelbarrow and must dump it somewhere anyway, why not make use of it? We did so by sinking posts downhill some fifty or so feet from the house and putting rough shoring up. Then we dumped all of our surplus earth in behind this on the uphill side and made terraces which were the same level as the lower level of the house. The result is that you enter the house on the same level as the work-recreation-cooking area outside. No more climbing up or down. No more scrambling after rolling logs you have been bucking or chopping on the hillside either. No more fighting the pitch of the hill as you go about your business. The terraces have made hillside living a blessing, not an effort. Not many features of the house have added to its comfort as much as those terraces.
The shoring need not be elaborate. The only requirement is that it be strong enough to withstand the pressure of the earth. We didn't even use polyethylene. We used dead fallen timber scrounged from around the land. Sometimes we split the bigger logs, other times we used smaller pieces of wood. Sometimes we even used brush as shoring between the posts. The only real mistake we made on this part of the project was in not sinking the posts deep enough. There was nothing to brace them against and, though still holding, they have tended to push out.
An especially nice feature came when we used some living trees rather than posts to hold the shoring. The trees not only help to retain the earth, they add greatly to the
appeal of the terraces and provide summer shade while at the same time being positioned out of the way.
By using the earth in this manner you put an end to the eventuality of unsightly piles of earth lumped here and there.
A variation of this, one which is highly recommended, is to build a PSP structure with windows facing downhill while using the uphill wall as terrace shoring. The roof should be especially sturdy since you will cover it with dirt and use it as part of your terrace. It would not do to have a dozen or so guests at your first barbecue disappearing into the earth with shrieks as the roof of the terrace structure collapses.
This structure could be used as temporary housing for you as you build the big house. Later it could be used for food or tool storage, as a chicken coop, as a hog house, as a milking parlor or in a number of other ways.
Some will perceive that what I am recommending here is (heaven help us) a First-Thought House, and one without an Uphill Patio at that. The back will doubtless leak, there will be entrances from only one side, there won't be cross ventilation, balance of light . . . and so on. But I'm not recommending it for other than temporary human habitat, something to pull you through those first few months. This project should also give you an opportunity to practice your building skills where your errors will not much matter.
Our fourth secret is to USE THE EARTH FROM THE UPHILL PATIO TO COVER THE ROOF OF THE MAIN HOUSE. It is simplici ty itself to lob earth over the roof when you are digging from above. One motion then digs the patio, gets rid of the earth, and covers the roof all at once. This will be the last large amount of digging that you do.
This applies to only the uppermost portions of the Uphill Patio. The lower portions such as the barbecue area should be excavated when you do the main portion of the house and that earth may be removed by wheelbarrow and used for the downhill terraces. This is because the lower portions of the patio involve larger amounts of earth displacement than you will need on the roof. It would also be tough to throw dirt from those lower sections up over the roof.
You should remember to reserve the top two to four inches of earth on the roof for the top soil which you took off at the beginning of your excavation and cleverly piled to the side. This soil which you took off first will go on last, in other words. It will greatly aid in the revegetation of the roof. Don't worry about leaves, pine needles, twigs and such. They make fine mulch and humus.
Our fifth and final secret is IN TOUGH DIGGING SITUATIONS, BLAST. This seems scary but it is actually pretty safe if you use a few simple precautions such as not smoking around the dynamite, not crimping the blasting cap with your teeth and the like. It is a rush to work with powder. It is also surprisingly inexpensive and most effective.
Virtually the only tools needed are a blasting auger to dig the hole and crimping pliers. You may even be able to borrow both of these. We figured it out once, and the cost of powder, blasting caps and fuses came out to a matter of pennies per wheelbarrow load of earth—a great bargain if it keeps you from swinging a pick. Most every rural town has a hardware store which sells dynamite and caps. You will want ditching powder as opposed to stumping powder. Remember to tamp dirt back in the hole after you lower the stick in. Need we advise you to run like hell and get down behind something once you've lit the fuse? If it doesn't blast give it an hour or so before you go digging it up because sometimes the fuses smolder.
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