Demolition.  It’s one of the messiest, noisiest, and occasionally, frustrating parts of any construction project.  Sure, it can also be hugely satisfying.  That messy, weedy tree that drops debris all over your garden beds and patio?  Gone!  The cracked pathway that has become dangerous for your elderly relatives to walk down?  Adios!  The deck with rotten posts that looks like it could fall down at any moment?  Arrivederci!  It’s the first part of remaking your landscape:  get rid of what’s broken, not working, too ugly, or too damaged.  Clean the slate.

A lot happens during demolition.  Often, the cause of the issues on the surface are discovered underneath.  Tree roots uplifting a patio, or blocked drainage lines causing water damage could prove a theory, or offer an opportunity for a long term solution that may not have been possible without going through demo.  Most of the time, our theories of what is causing surface problems are proven right.  Sometimes, we get more than we bargained for.

Occasionally there are mysterious clues that suggest more than meets the eye in an old landscape. One indicator that there’s something hidden is a deck at ground level.  Decks, in general, are at least a few feet above the ground.  This is primarily to prevent rot, which increases exponentially the closer the wood members are to grade.  Less air circulation, proximity to pests, or contact with soils equals rot.  Eventually, nature wins.  Decks are best used to create level living spaces on steeply sloping lots, or to extend useable space from a second story, or as transitional spaces between different levels.     Even pressure treated woods that are rated for soil contact will eventually be compromised by enough exposure to water and the elements.  So decks are ideal when that contact doesn’t occur.

After a few interesting experiences earlier in my career as a designer, I’ve learned that decks built at ground level are usually ‘lipstick on a pig’ solutions.   The pig is still there . . . hiding just below the surface.  A patio under the deck is usually the issue.  Demo (as I mentioned above) can be a dirty, noisy, and sometimes, expensive pain in the neck.  So instead of going through the expense and hassle, the patio is left in place and the deck is built right on top.   However, the new plan can’t be implemented until the hardscape, in addition to the deck, is removed.  This equals additional demo time and disposal fees, and thus, additional costs.  Bummer!

Trust me.  You don't want to know what's under there.

Trust me. You don’t want to know what’s under there.

Once, I pulled up a board from a low deck during site analysis and used a trowel to poke around underneath and found several inches of dirt (and weeds).   Standard stuff.  It wasn’t until construction had started that the crew unearthed, about 8” below grade, the top of a 12’ x 12’ by God only knows how deep steel water tank.  Completely submerged in the client’s back yard.  The client had no idea, and nothing was in the property description or in City records.  Uh oh!  In the end, we had to pour an 8” thick concrete patio (twice as thick as standard patios) over a 4” base rock bed to make sure any shifting that may occur with the tank wouldn’t crack the hardscape.  That was 5 years ago, and the patio is SOLID.  My client promised to disclose the situation to the next homeowner, so they aren’t surprised too.

Just recently on a project in Oakland, the plan was to remove a concrete patio and install a lawn area for the client’s kids to play on.  The patio was thick- nearly 6”, so it was already a bit more work than we bargained for to remove it.  No problem, we just kept working.  But under the patio, we did not find the earth we expected.  Instead, we found ANOTHER patio!  The clients had no idea it was there, and luckily it was easy to remove.  But it HAD to be removed in order to continue with the plan as designed, which meant added costs and a longer project.

On the left, the top patio being jackhammered.  On the right, the patio BENEATH the patio, waiting to be jackhammered.

On the left, the top patio being jackhammered. On the right, the patio BENEATH the patio, waiting to be jackhammered.

Sometimes even planting can be deceptive.  Plants like ivy can creep over ground with very little soil underneath, and form a dense mat.  Over time, dead plant material and debris can create a soil-like layer under the ivy, hiding what’s underneath even more.  A current client suspected that the previous owners dumped concrete from a remodel on their slope, and let the ivy take over, instead of hauling everything away.  Lo and behold, they were right- under the ivy is a mess of rubble.  As we were aware of the issue ahead of time, we were prepared and had a contingency plan.  So the project continues smoothly.  Everyone’s on the same page.

It can hide ugly walls.  Lost toys.  Lost cities.

It can hide ugly walls. Lost toys. Lost cities.

Don’t get me wrong, we’re all for simplification and saving client’s money on things like demolition.  It might mean getting one of the cool features we designed for you if you’re not spending the budget on getting rid of junk.  But sometimes you’re creating a potential issue for yourselves (or the next occupant of your home) by not starting over with a clean slate.  We can usually weigh pros and cons relatively quickly and come up with a solution that suits everyone, without significant delay.  Regardless, if a SURPRISE! like this happens on your construction project, bear with your contractor.  There’s a great chance that even with a thorough site analysis and research ahead of time, we’re as surprised as you are.  We’ll get through it together.  With a Bobcat.