buildingBuilding a house in the hills of Sonoma is very different than building on a flat suburban lot. The issue is rain. Which, in a normal year, comes down in buckets from November to March, then shuts off. That cycle gives us a lot of months to have things dry out and get dusty then a very few months to have all that dust turn to mud. The danger is always erosion which can be exacerbated if your building has disrupted some native plants or changed the grade. While we are trying not to do the former, we’ve had to do the latter. So we find ourselves with a house site, sitting on top of a hill, with the grade, which was steep to begin with, becoming even steeper. With our possible El Niño on the way, even with our extensive planting plans, the young plants we put in won’t be able to soak up the amount of rainwater they would if mature. So we need back-up.

Andy wants the grade brought up to the orange line on the side of the house. That means we have to hold a hell of a lot of soil from streaming down the hillside.

Andy wants the grade brought up to the orange line on the side of the house. That means we have to hold a hell of a lot of soil from streaming down the hillside.

We're doing it all with old railroad ties. Not only do these allow water to seep through, but they look rustic and cool.

We’re doing it all with old railroad ties. Not only do these allow water to seep through, but they look rustic and cool.

Did I mention that each of these ties is about 150 lbs? Here's Memo hoisting one up and scrambling down the hill as if he were just carrying a lunch sack.

Did I mention that each of these ties is about 150 lbs? Here’s Memo hoisting one up and scrambling down the hill as if he were just carrying a lunch sack.

Then we had a curveball thrown at us. While Ranch Manager Louis and I were gearing up for a massive planting of California natives, Andy had a different priority. He wanted an area at the corner of the house graded out. So that would create a flat plateau right where we have some of the steepest natural grade. Add El Niño rains and that whole area could turn into multiple water or mudfalls since the grading was going to create a mini flat topped butte.

There is always an easy way and a hard way to do these things. The easy way would be to grade the way the water will naturally want to go and give up the idea of the area being level. Andy wanted the hard way. Which involves creating massive erosion control and water channeling. Unfortunately, that work needs to be done in an area between the house and mature oaks that is inaccessible to heavy earth-moving equipment. So the whole project has to be done with picks, shovels and very strong men. However, as Ranch Manager Louis noted: “Whatever Dad wants, we can do it.” It’s only doable because Louis himself is our secret weapon. You see, Louis worked for years for the Forest Service and the California Department of Forestry and Fire. So he knows erosion. He knows water channeling. He’s done it in remote sites like the Pacific Crest Trail. So doing it on a road-accessible house site is easy peasy. Except that it involves a lot of muscle and elbow grease. And a race against our expected El Niño.

We've gotten kind of carried away with railroad ties. We're even building a raised bed over one side of the hill. It's got a Fort Apache vibe, so we are calling it the John Wayne Memorial Raised Bed.

We’ve gotten kind of carried away with railroad ties. Jesus, Memo and Jeus’s son Chris are building a raised bed over one side of the hill. It’s got a Fort Apache vibe, so we are calling it the John Wayne Memorial Raised Bed.

When I said "all hands", I meant it. We even pulled in Jesus's little son Chris. Best thing about him: he works for pizza.

Yes, we really are throwing everyone we know at this project. We even pulled in Jesus’s little son Chris. Best thing about him: he works for pizza.

So for the past week or so, it’s been all hands on deck. We’ve called in everyone we know to help build walls, dig in French drains and put in the diagonal water channels with the quaint name of “Thank You Ma’ams”. Again, it’s not the easy way. That would be working with the way Mother Nature wants water to flow. This is the hard way:  convincing Mother Nature to flow water out a different way.

Here’s the protocol: walls made out of railroad ties to hold in the immense weight of the soil that will be graded in there. Each railroad tie wall is fronted by a French drain to channel water away from the wall. However, the railroad ties will allow water to seep, but not spew through them and certainly not build up the pressure that a solid wall might. To help control that water, Louis and his crew are lining the walls with silt fabric which will strain through the water but keep the soil contained.

In fact, we are using so many railroad ties that someone is going to have to rip up more old railroads so we can finish this project.

In fact, we are using so many railroad ties that someone is going to have to rip up more old railroad lines so we can finish this project!

My experience is that Mother Nature always does what she wants. But I trust Ranch Manager Louis to be able to sweet talk her into doing things our way. With our recent rain storm, we’ll get an early indication if she’s amenable to doing things our way.

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