Tuesday, May 29, 2007

A house of Railway Sleepers - Part 1

I recently bought a piece of land by a lake from a friend to build a house. At some point which I quite don't remember I decided it was going to be built using Railway Sleepers.
This is is the first of a series of blog entries to document the progress of the construction to share with family and friends, and also to force me to complete the project properly, as I believe public humiliation to be one of the best incentives.

(Click photos to enlarge)

The lake in case you want to know is Rapel in Chile, a 40 km long artificial lake created by a hydroelectric dam in 1968, and my house will be in the upper left corner of this map.

I don't know what is it with me and railways, but I've been collecting railway nails since I was a kid (with no objective in particular) and I've have a thing or two made of railway sleepers: a big TV table, and the base of a log-slice center table I built with a huge log slice given by a friend, and a sleeper found in the Chilean desert.

One more background detail, I love to work in wood and have done some fairly large projects (like a garage/workshop with a gambrel roof for my bikes), so I decided early on the process that I would build the house myself from plans to finish, with the help of a very skilled local handyman (Don Hernán who is truly precise in his work) that handles the heavy tasks and advances during my weekend visits.

Step 1 - Find the ideal spot

This was an easy one, as we had decided we wanted something close to the shore, the ideal spot is just 3 meters from the shore. Once that was decided we hired a local guy (Don Rubén, to give him credit) to level the terrain using excavation equipment. As the land already had the access road built, once the place was leveled and compacted it was ready.

Step 2 - Draw the Plans

If you plan to do anything like this, Googling some pictures or log house plans from the various sites that offer them is a good idea. You could buy plans or hire an architect also, I decided to draw my own plans. The site http://www.railwaysleeper.com also has a lot of good project ideas and tips (like how to fasten two sleepers together), but no houses, yet.

To make sure the plans actually matched the terrain I did it the other way around, I laid the outline of the house on the leveled spot with stakes and string (I already had an idea where I wanted the kitchen, living room and dormitories based on the best possible lake view and septic tank position) and then measured everything up and transcribed it to 1:20 scale plans.
I drew a fully detailed plant and an elevation in one day. Then I had to go back and do some corrections on the field to correct some not so right angles and stuff like that.

I had already decided I would use sleepers at this stage, as I said earlier I don't remember when, but my wife Carolina reminds me that we were looking at sleepers at railway stations in the south a year before we got the land (again for no particular use) so It's probably something that was on the back of my mind for a little while.

Step 3 - Get the Sleepers

I found a guy offering 100 reclaimed sleepers for a very reasonable price at a local auction website, but I never got him to actually make the sell, later I discovered that he didn't really had them, he just had the picture and the sleepers were still property of the national railroad. So I waited for a while and called the railroad old active sales office and got the same price. I had to check them out and tell how many I wanted.

I took a Friday off work and rode with a digital camera on my Buell Thunderbolt motorcycle on a sunny day to look at them at an old railway station 100 km north from where I live. I took a bunch of photos and decided on which of the towers was best (there where ones with substantial damage done on the removal process), and you couldn't choose the sleepers one by one, the deal was by tower (or castle as they called them, but they don't really resemble a castle, do they?).

Step 4 - Move the Sleepers

A week later I went and purchased a 120 sleeper tower (my plans called for 100 sleepers but I allowed for 20% damage or landscaping uses). I had to take another day off and go with Toño the trucker to pick up the sleepers and carry them to my land on the lake, a 220 km drive that with the truck loaded took 5 long hours (uphill at 15 km/h... can you believe it?), but it was fun anyway, except for the greasy grilled chicken and fries (the house special - read only choice) we had with Toño and his quiet buddy for lunch at a truck stop on the road. After that I felt like I needed an oil change.

An average 2.75 mt sleeper weights about 70 Kg so we were moving 8.5 tons of oak. We loaded the truck with help from a fork lift driven by a sleeper-loading-experienced guy (trust me this is important when moving pieces of timber that will crush your hands if not handled properly), but moving them and arranging them on the truck was very tiring anyway.

Unloading was supposed to be easier since we were using a dump truck, but the things hang to the truck like sticky monkeys, they were so nicely inter weaved that we had to remove them in small bunches using levers.

We finished unloading at dawn, and there I sat at night... with a silly grin on my dirty face and a drink in my hand, looking at a mountain of second hand wood in the same way a pirate looks at his newly found treasure.

One word of caution, if you are using 120 pieces of heavy timber to build a house, don't unload them on the construction site, or you will have to move them to actually build something (I wasn't this stupid of course...) or on the access road (Yes... I was this stupid). Plan ahead on a large spot to dump them.

Next: The construction begins...

No comments: