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Houses on stumps

Tuesday 24 May 2005

Old houses in Queensland are supported on tall stumps, with a space underneath where you can walk without bumping your head. At least, here in southern Queensland we call them stumps. North Queenslanders call them blocks. You sometimes hear people call them stilts, which goes to show that they are rude, ignorant, and probably from down south.

Scholars have argued about the reason for building houses so high off the ground. Termite protection, adaptation to hilly sites, the usefulness of the space under the house, and access to cooling breezes are plausible suggestions. The architect Don Roderick says the explanation lies in nineteenth century medical advice to avoid the bad air that lurks near the ground, by lifting the house up off the ground. It’s now understood that disease is carried by mosquitoes, not by the air itself. Elevated, breezy houses don’t suit Mosquitoes, so the elevated house still makes sense.

Today I read about another reason for elevating houses. This is part of a message to the oldtools mailing list from Phil Koontz (who I have already introduced):

The summer housebuilding frenzy is in the pilings and freight stage now. First thing in the spring, everyone drills and installs the pilings for their new houses (probably four new houses are going up this year). We live on permafrost, so the houses need to be a few feet above ground to keep the ground cold enough to stay frozen. The state of the art for pilings is steel pipe set about 12 to 15 feet deep in the ground, with a flat cap on the bottom, and usually some steel rings or teeth welded around the pipe near the bottom, to sort of anchor them into the ice. They project up a few feet above the ground, and people cut the pipes off level, weld an anchor plate on top, then set the house sills on top of the pilings. Anyway, that’s what has been what’s going on at my smithy lately—cutting pipe and steel plates, and welding them together for pilings. We’ve only had one small freight barge so far this year, but the first big one should arrive this week, with fuel, new vehicles, housebuilding supplies, a new supply of beer, and so on. We get maybe a dozen barges a year to Galena, and they all need to arrive after the ice goes out on the Yukon, and before the water gets too low to make it through the critical shoal water at the mouth of the Tanana River, so the barge season is about 4 months, late May through mid-September.

After the barges arrive, the attention turns from pilings and logging to freight transport and storage (picture an entire house kit stacked along the road in front of your lot) then to construction. This year we are building Ben and Jen’s (son and DIL) new house, and we hope to get the roof on before snow, so that means that we need to get the pilings and platform done, raft the logs down and mill them, stack the walls (scribed logs with dovetail corner joints), and frame the roof by about October. Just thinking about it is making me type faster. Gotta go do my day job today, before I get to work. I still need to get the kicker back on that boat and load it with tools, not forgetting the GGGDB, of course <G>.
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