Home & Garden Columns

About the House: Ask Matt: How to Find Ways to Lift Your Spirits

By Matt Cantor
Friday March 16, 2007

Mr. Cantor, What do you think about lifting the shell of a house and building a new first floor under it? 

Our home needs a new foundation, and if it needs to be lifted three inches for that process, why not lift it ten feet and three inches? Our floor plan is already buggered up, and there is room for a stairway. Are there zoning issues? Height limits? I think the current footprint is pretty close to the property line. As a related aside, how does one find out the basic rules for additions in Berkeley vis-a-vis setbacks, pop-ups, etc. It seems to vary from job to job. 




Dear Anonymous, 

Did you hear about the woman who added a story to her liquor store? Yea, she wanted to lift her spirits! 

Thanks for the great question. My readers are so darned smart. It’s most gratifying (and saves me the trouble of thinking up subjects). 

It’s interesting that the lifting of a house for foundation replacement isn’t very different from lifting a house for the addition of another level of living space. There is some cost difference but it’s not significant, perhaps $5,000 for a smallish house but that’s not much when you consider the real and financial impact of a job of this import. It may seem surprising but the task of lifting a house 3 inches isn’t much less work that lifting a house 10 feet. 

When we’re faced with the sad reality of having to replace a foundation, it’s always worth asking whether the replacement should include elevating the house. Now, all houses aren’t well suited to this exercise but many are. And the first question in determining which is the case is to look at the issue of density. 

Yes, I am dense but that’s not the issue. It’s the density of our neighborhoods that we should be looking at. Neighborhood density has been a political hot-button issue for as long as city councils have been sitting on their exasperating little demi-thrones and our fairest of cities is no exception, meters and all. 

Nonetheless, I do consider city and neighborhood density to be an important consideration and I’ll be frank. I favor higher density. Berkeley, as one example has held to a very low density (by urban standards) for many years and while I can understand the desire to preserve older buildings and to control parking mayhem, there are ways to manage these issues while increasing density. If we don’t we’re consigned to ever increasing urban sprawl and the loss of wild undeveloped land. Also, higher density is green, assuming you do it properly. New York City is one of America’s greenest cities precisely because of its very high density and the low number of cars per capita. But I digress. 

Adding a story means that you will be greatly increasing the square footage of your home and in many cases, doubling it. Your local zoning department should be consulted before you’ve invested very much thought in such a project and also well in advance of your foundation replacement. If you do not currently have proper setbacks (the distance from your house to the fences and sidewalk boundaries), you may be considered to be “existing non-conforming” by your zoning official (you should in response call them “exasperating non-comforting” but never to their faces). 

This designation can mean that the normal allowances for expansion may be withheld in your case but these issues are often complex and negotiations are often successful within some limits. The important thing is to open and maintain a conversation with your zoning official. All joking aside, the zoning official can be exceedingly helpful and most are quite reasonable within the strictures of their department rules, so it’s a good idea to be friendly and play ball. 

I’ll even go a step further and suggest that you come to this expert with a very rough plan and ask them how they would approach the expansion process, particularly if there are non-conforming features to contend with. If you give them a little elbow room, you can get amazing help and sometimes even free design advise. Now, I’m not suggesting that you give away the farm but a little open-mindedness in the early stages can be a great asset. 

If your property is zoned to allow for significant expansion and you have the go-ahead for an enlargement, it’s best to proceed with drawings produced by an architect. 

In fact, the last bit regarding zoning negotiations can also be done by an architect and many know the ropes better than thee or me and can save some tears. That said, the exploratory phase can be undertaken by any sturdy individual. Remember, don’t argue. Ask, negotiate, explore but don’t fight. These folks get a lot of squabbling and you’ll gain nothing by losing your temper. 

If there are questions about the amount of square footage that can be added to the dwelling given lot size and the site zoning limit, the new lower floor can sometimes be apportioned to non-habitable functions such as parking or storage. 

Many a house has been given a garage through this lofty upgrade and sometimes it allows the addition an apartment when lack of parking has been the constraining condition. I recently saw a house-jacking (no, they didn’t steal it) where two garages were being added to the front lower level and it was clear that this was part of a second unit addition. Again, the zoning needs to allow these changes but this can be a way to increase density and income. 

In the case noted above, some special seismic modifications also needed to be included since most of the front wall of the, now two-story building was tossed away and the loss of “shear” or resistance to bending needed to be augmented in that front wall. The point one can take from this observation is that lifting houses often involves some re-engineering or other complication; i.e., there is no free lunch. 

However, lifting a house when the foundation needs to be replaced is an awful lot like a free lunch. You can often get a two-for-one through this process, especially if you think out the requirements and your needs in the process. 

There are a few wonderful things about this project. One is that you don’t need two roofs for the two stories you’ll now have (assuming your lifting a one-story house), the one you have will be just fine.  

Another is that the fine details often seen on older houses get to be thrust upward to greater notice while the simpler details often found in newer construction (which are easier to effect) can be placed closer to the ground. 

Good architectural practice is to place the small, more complex and finer details higher up and simpler, weightier details closer to the ground. This is often referred to as “grounding.” 

People sometimes ask if one can live in a house during this process and the answer is yes, with some serious provisions. First, I would never stay in the house during the lifting process and secondly, plumbing connections are broken and must be temporarily reconnected once the house has been elevated, so a delay should be expected (most electrical systems remain where there are at least for the short-term since they tend to connect by long flexible “drops” from the street. 

Eventually the main panel will have to be relocated). Lastly, when a house is pushed up in the air, access becomes something of an issue and new stairways are needed to provide access. It may be best to allow for some construction to be completed prior to reinhabiting the dwelling. If you’re lifting a house a short distance for a foundation replacement without adding a story, it’s virtually always fine to stay in the home. 

So there are a few thoughts on this most fruitful of building adventures. Naturally, there’s a great deal more to say about any specific project but I do feel that these are worthwhile gains to seek when the arduous and expensive undertaking of foundation replacement is needed.  

A tip I would like to offer is that if you are ever faced with a foundation replacement and consider the addition of a story out of reach for the time being, it’s a really good idea to have your contractor install two-story foundation anyway. That way, when you or the next owner is ready to push the building up and add that extra space, the foundation won’t have to be replaced again (foundation being size for the number of floors they support). 

I would also like to say to all my dear neighbors that I hope that you will support these projects as you would expect other to support yours and not opposed growth or construction on principle. 

Berkeley was once farmland and before that a wild home for Olone, birds and beasts. Growth came and it looks pretty good. I believe that our Urbanness is exciting and lively and that thoughtful, intelligent growth can make us greener. Perhaps we can get dense enough to bring those trolley cars back. Now wouldn’t that be progress! 


Got a question about home repairs and inspections? Send them to Matt Cantor at mgcantor@pacbell.net.