Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Destruction Before Construction

For ME?? I'm a five-year-old child on Christmas morning. And yet it's much more than that.

All this machinery arrived in front of my land Thursday morning (about the only day without rain since I got the building permit... what?) to install a pipe and dirt for the driveway, and to clear and grade the building pad.

I was still nervous about the clearing. I did about all I knew to do to make clear which trees I wanted removed. I marked each tree. I flagged the outside corners of the house, and the inside corners of the courtyard, where a group of trees are to be saved. Then I walked the site with the guy who would be leading this work and showed him everything. I even gave him a site plan showing the footprint of the house and each tree to be removed marked with an X.

And I was nervous. It's against about every experience these guys know to save trees. As this contractor told me, typically his crew go to a site with a bunch of equipment and mow down all but maybe three choice trees. This is easy and quick. You might think it would be quicker to take out fewer trees, but in fact that just makes it more tedious because the backhoe has to be maneuvered around all the trees remaining, not to mention taking care not to knock down large trees onto the others.

My particular arrangement of remaining trees required lots of three-point turns with the backhoe. Of course I didn't intend this; I just didn't think about it. I guess I imagined a couple of people walking through the lot with a chain saw and taking out trees one by one. That may be another way to do it, but then how do you remove the "root mat" (in my case basically six inches of pine straw covering the ground) and grade the building pad? Anticipating how a backhoe would move around the site to do its work is something I failed at here, but will consider in future projects because of this experience. I was lucky that there were no huge problems; the backhoe had just enough room to move without having to remove trees I've designed the house around. I shouldn't say "lucky"; one of my constant prayers is that God will take care of the things I will inevitably miss.

When I first saw the backhoe bouncing through my pine forest I thought, "bull in a china shop," and a new wave of nervousness infected my stomach. But as I watched him work I realized that he's a "bull in a china shop" IF the bull had the soul of a mouse. This guy was a master at maneuvering that clunky thing, touching with the steel-clawed bucket only what should be touched, reaching between trees to scrape up the forest floor but also snapping pine trees like match sticks when he saw red tape.

He took a break after the first wave of clearing (to consume a Red Bull and two Reese's peanut butter eggs) and said, "This is a tough little lot to clear right here." His brother chimed in, "Because of all the stuff that's stayin'." I joked that I just wanted to give him a challenge. He echoed what I'd heard before, that what they usually do is clear the whole lot, and how much easier that is. Then they told me what my next challenge would be: maneuvering the concrete truck around these trees.

The easiest way is not always the best. I think that's true here. It is sad that the usual way of dealing with a wooded lot is to indiscriminately remove everything - just because it's easy. And this deference to what's easiest seems to be the default mode for all the construction trades these days. Which is why just about every phase of building this house will be a special chore for the workers. The goal of everything in the design was to be good, imaginative and true - not to be typical. This clearing job is just the first in a long line of efforts where I will have to ask the workers to forget the easy way.

But I was encouraged about the whole project by the fact that this clearing job was a success. I stopped by the site on the way home from work on the day it was finished (praying all the way) and saw the group of trees for my courtyard standing like an island in an ocean of dirt, huddled together for dear life, a small church of trees. I smiled. And then I realized that this part of the work was a whole other burden: it's one thing to clear only a spot in the middle of a forest, but another thing entirely to leave a spot of forest within the clearing. He even hauled the largest logs to a local mill to be converted into usable lumber. Icing on the cake. I sent a text to thank him for the extra effort. He replied, "It was a pain, but we got it."

So, seven years after the first sketch of this project - and now I get my first whiff of fresh-sawn pine and turned earth. It's exhilarating, and a bit surreal, to see something that has lived so long only in my mind and on paper suddenly mark the physical world. Below is a five-minute video I put together from that first day's work on site, and from a later visit when clearing was done. The last clip shows a small bird, a nuthatch, finding food on one of the trees I saved, ascending with song and dance. Mark the physical world, yes, but with reverence for what God's already done.


  1. Wonderful job & follow through and not settling for less than excellence & your vision! Make those men use their brains and not just their muscles! I love how you are challenging them. So awesome! Great job :) look forward to seeing it!

    the courtyard trees - a small church together in the wilderness... distanced/removed from the rest of the forest..the rest of the forest probably feels pity for them.... but they would say they were not separated but "set apart". :) they have a special unique purpose to live amongst the people and not just around their houses... but actually INSIDE in a way. love it.

  2. This is a good common sense Blog. Very helpful to one who is just finding the resources about this part. It will certainly help educate me.