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Sound base: Detail is essential to building a good foundation

by CHERYL SCHWEIZER
Staff Writer | June 6, 2021 1:00 AM

EPHRATA — It’s a common expression, from education to business to almost any endeavor, that a successful project starts with a good foundation. It’s especially true when it’s an actual foundation for an actual building.

And Nick Blair, owner of Evergreen Building LLC in Ephrata, said one of the keys to a good foundation is paying attention to detail.

“I always say it’s the little things,” he said. “Are they (the excavators) watering the ground? Are they getting out and compacting, or are they just pushing dirt in the hole? Because that dirt will settle.”

The whole point of excavation, after all, is to dig up and rearrange dirt, to get a site that fits the project. But a good foundation requires a solid subsurface.

“Compaction is everything,” Blair said. “You don’t want a bunch of loose soil or dust.”

There are certain signs -- big, heavy machines being the most obvious -- that will tell a landowner if the excavators are providing the right base.

“It’s easy to spot, whether they show up with a compactor or not. Just look for those compaction machines. There are a ton of different types, but they need to show up with something,” Blair said.

Loose soil and a foundation don’t mix, especially in the case of the concrete footings or a concrete slab.

“You definitely want your concrete on something really stable,” he said.

“I just can’t say enough how important compaction is,” he said. “It’s everything. There are a thousand different kinds of compactors, but I went out and bought the biggest one I could find, so that I didn’t have to worry about compacting things.”

Water plays an important role when it comes to settling dirt.

“Water helps compact, too. They go hand in hand,” he said.

People also should look at the way the site is built up. It should be graded so water runs away from the building.

“Having the positive drainage away from your house, so when it rains it doesn’t flood you out and sink your foundation,” he said.

The building site will make foundation work harder or easier.

“You’d be amazed what we can put homes on. I’ve dug in some steep stuff,” he said. “Aside from steepness, I’d say moisture is a big deal. That can definitely hold you back. And then unstable soil.”

On a steep site, lenders often will ask for a geological survey of the site and its composition, Blair said.

“I’ve actually seen homes where they’ll hire well drillers to come in. I’ll dig the foundation, and they’ll drill down until they hit bedrock, and some of those pilings are 80 feet deep.”

That was while he was working in Montana, in a well-known – and high-end – ski resort. There are things landowners should look for if they want less involved site preparation.

“I would look for good soil types,” Blair said. "Good soil is great to have.”

And level ground is easier to work on, too.

“Flat is nice. There’s something to be said for nice, level ground,” he said.

In Grant County, people should pay attention to rocks, especially rocks that are partially buried. Blair is working on a commercial site near Ephrata, and there was a rock, apparently a small rock, poking up above ground.

“(The rock) ended up being 13 feet long and about five feet around,” he said.

Blair said picking a buildable site is more than just soil and whether it’s level.

“A nice, spacious lot is really nice to have,” he said. “I always look at the neighborhood in general.”

People should think about commute times, and if they’re selecting a lot in a development, they should look at the amenities already in place, like sidewalks and water systems.

“Make sure it’s a nice, vegetated area if it’s in a development,” he said. “Otherwise, you might be chewing on dust for the next couple years as they keep building. Sometimes those little lots that are hiding in an already-developed area are the ones to go for.”

Evergreen Building is new to Ephrata, but Blair has many years in the excavation business. He worked for other companies, but he started building his own inventory of equipment in 2009, at age 21.

At the moment, it’s a one-man operation, he said.

“It’s just little, old me,” he said. “Me and five machines.”

Cheryl Schweizer can be reached via email at cschweizer@columbiabasinherald.com.

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Evergreen Building owner Nick Blair works on a building site near Ephrata.