Tag Archives: Backyard Leveling Project

Measure it as it is

One problem that I run into while building is measuring things as I want them to be.

If I need a long course of a wall to line up, it's easy to close one eye, squint the other, and make a range of possibilities work. There I am, head down, looking along the back line of a wall block, rotating my head this way and that way, one eye closed until—hey presto—it looks like it's aligned to the longer line of the wall. It's magic. I didn't even have to adjust the block, I just had to will its current setting into alignment—or, rather, I had to will the alignment to the current setting of the block.

Obviously this is insane and wrong.

The block is how it is, and the larger alignment of the wall is how it is, and if the block and the wall are aligned then the block is correct, and if not, they're not. The block (or the wall, but the wall is so big I'm not going to adjust it, so it is de facto correct) objectively needs to be adjusted if there is a difference.

But. If it's hot. If it's been a long day. If I've been working on the wall for weeks or months. If my back is sore. Well, then subjectively that block is aligned. Then, ironically, all that work before that block is somewhat wasted, even as it's used as a rationale for making the shortcut.

The only correct answer is to pause, close your eyes, open your eyes, see things as they are, and act accordingly.

Unrelated, but made me think of the futility of objectivity, which isn't even always necessary:

So much for Objective Journalism. Don't bother to look for it here — not under any byline of mine; or anyone else I can think of. With the possible exception of things like box scores, race results, and stock market tabulations, there is no such thing as Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms.

—Hunter S. Thompson. "January". Fear and Loathing: on the Campaign Trail '72 (1973).

Throwing dirt, 2

Previous: Throwing dirt

There's one more point to make.

Making a work area look nice—whatever "nice" might mean—isn't just an abstraction. Something shouldn't just look good to look good if it's an intermediate stage between not-constructed and constructed. There isn't much use in that.

And it's not all about making the scene better for someone else to look at—or not have a mess to look at, really.

Sometimes it's nice to clean things up to have a clear look yourself at the thing you're making so you can enjoy the journey from not-constructed to constructed. Parts of the yard are still full of rocks and blocks and bricks and dirt—but there's one spot now in the middle that isn't. It's flat—measured, packed, flat—as it should be, and now there are grass seeds put out to start turning it green. There's still work to do. But at least some of the work-in-progress looks like completed work, and it gives a little motivation to keep going on the rest.

Throwing dirt

There's something to be said about keeping a work area clean—mise en place, more or less. Wash dishes as you cook, put tools away when you're done using them, etc. It makes final cleanup easier, it makes the work go faster because things are prepared and organized, it makes the final product better because there aren't things in the way while you're working, and it looks nicer.

Those first three things—easier, faster, better—are self-evident. The fourth one is basically the aesthetics of work—not aesthetics of the act of working or of the final product, but aesthetics of the state of the work at any given time.

There is still a big pile of dirt in my backyard. First there was a huge pile of clay dirt from digging the trench for the retaining wall and digging down the high side of the yard to the desired level. Then I pushed that out and made a new pile in the middle of that area from topsoil that I ordered. Then I really flattened the clay pile into what will roughly be the new shape of the flat part of the backyard—but it still doesn't look good because the topsoil pile is sitting there in the middle making what should look like Victory Field look like Mt. Trashmore instead.

There's nothing that can be done about it, really. I have blocks and rocks and bricks and dirt stacked in various places behind the house, biding their time. "Just-in-time" delivery of these things is a fine concept, but the reality is that every truck delivery from the material yard costs $125, so I've got materials for four projects back there to save some money. Also I have no concept of what "in time" means for these projects, because I'm stealing time—tempted to call it "free time", but it's not even cheap—to work on them, an hour or two after work, a weekend day or two. (This is also my trick for not shattering my back, I think: not working very much for any long stretch of time.) Although the final result will be what I'm most proud of, all of this staging that I'm doing—managing where this or that goes, what order to do things in, etc.—is what I'm secretly feeling good about. It's a complicated problem to solve. I'm not winging in, despite how it looks.

Still, it's bad form to let the backyard construction site look like trash all the time. It's a curse to be able to see, inside my head, how all of the pieces will move and the game will play out when it's not obvious to observers who see only the visible situation. Sometimes it's worth taking some time to reorganize things. "Things" here are pallets of 45 30-kg (70-lb) blocks or truckloads of rock and dirt, so you really have to believe that it's worth the trouble to convince yourself to do it. It's a matter of taste. And sometimes it's a matter of comparing how much time it takes to move those things versus how much time it takes to explain to your significant other that the yard actually looks better than it did before, OK, there's just a pile of dirt there that will be moved soon, come on.

Sometimes you just have to throw dirt for a while—from this pile to that pile, from this pile to that pile—in order to keep the right people satisfied that the job is getting done. It's locally inefficient, sure, but if you have to repeatedly spend time explaining the current state of things, then it might be globally efficient. Form should follow function as a general rule, and like all rules you should really consider what the rule means so that you know when it's time to break it.

Watching the grass grow, 2

Previous: Watching the grass grow

There' something more to it than I said yesterday. I tried to pass it off as something respectable—as some kind of feedback problem that I'm managing, some kind of work that I'm doing, some kind of activity that I am accomplishing.

Look closely: action verbs. For grass.

Yeah... probably not entirely accurate. It's grass.

The thing I meant to say is that I go to a window—upstairs, downstairs, doesn't matter—several times a day to check out... the grass. I'll step outside the garage back door to have a look at... the grass. I'm not doing anything. But I am taking credit for the biological processes taking place in the backyard. (Maybe you've worked with people like this.)

There is an aspect of feedback correction, but it's very low frequency. It's hard to take credit for it, especially when the most difficult thing I have to do is walk around the yard and spin seeds out of this little seed throwing machine. It's an action—there is an act—but it's low effort.

What am I trying to get at here? (An honest question to myself.)

It's a funny thing to take credit for something that you're not really doing. I have these impulses frequently—maybe you do, too, I don't know. When your favorite sports team wins, or your university where you haven't been in ages gets some kind of credit for doing well, or your colleague gets an award, or an aspect of your work project has a breakthrough, and so on and so on—it's hard to take credit for doing those things, but still there's something inside that feels... something. It can't be accomplishment, but it feels like accomplishment. It's tickling the same brain receptors.

Grass in specific, but gardening in general: you can affect where the seeds go, you can affect the shape of the area you plant, you can affect the soil somewhat, you can add water, you can shade the sun—but you can't make a seed grow. There's effort and luck and environment, and then there's all the many variables inside the seed that you can't know (other than in some probabilistic sense). You can envision the outcome—and you should, sometimes that's the best part, before reality disappoints—but you can't know the outcome until the outcome comes out. Until then, I watch and watch and watch—not doing but waiting, patiently and impatiently, for what happens next.

Watching the grass grow

I do it. I admit it. It's just as boring as the saying implies, but since I'm doing it intentionally, it's not that bad—subjectively, in my own head, at least.

In the backyard there is an area in the southwest corner that never really has any grass when we moved in. It was shaded by the pine tree to the north, the hackberry and mulberry trees to the south, and a bunch of honeysuckle on the west boundary of our backyard. Also it's on a slope, so it was eroding every so slightly each time it rained.

Listen: I'm trying to justify why I wrote a post about grass.

Last fall we got rid of the mulberry tree, which wasn't healthy, and also all the honeysuckle that was arguably on our property, and all the low branches on the pine tree. Suddenly there was sun in the dark corner of the yard—but also a lot of exposed dirt.

This year I made the dirt worse by rolling the wheelbarrow repeatedly through the area while moving wall materials to the backyard. But once that was done, and when any residual trench-digging dirt (clay) piles were moved out of the way, it was time to reclaim the dirt slope.

(Please clap.)

So that's been one of my side projects this year: tossing grass seed on the dirt, turning on the sprinkler, seeing where the grass grows (some areas are still susceptible to fast moving water when it rains, and some of the dirt is exposed packed clay), then adjusting my approach (blocking the erosive flows with bricks until the grass grows, scratching or breaking the clay before throwing more grass seed). Then watch. Then adjust. Watch. Adjust. Over and over until it's right, whatever that means.

Mostly I just want something to stop the erosion, and something to hold some water in and shade it from evaporating away. Grass works for that—we are, after all, living in a suburb, where grass is the national animal. It also looks nice—soft and green. But it seems to work best if you keep an eye on it—not just to watch it, which I do 1000 times a day, keeping up with patches of new grass which have recently joined the party, the but to keep that watch-adjust feedback loop working.


It was clever to talk about designing for interruptibility, but the truth, as ever, is more bothersome.

I'm rounding the bend of the deck with the wall now. Getting the curve right is hard enough, and the wall drainage is on the curve as well, adding slightly more difficulty. The drainage also means that when it rains, even if I cover the part of the construction I'm working on directly, some water still comes in from the side—not much, just enough to make the work grind to a halt.

The base rock is 3/4-inch limestone with a bunch of fine bits of dust and tiny rock, smashed down again and again until it's basically a solid layer. It's solid, but there's an interesting feature to deal with: it has enough pores to hold some water when it rains, but not enough to evaporate efficiently. And when the pores are full of water, the water-rock aggregate behaves like putty when pressure, like a sledgehammer flex smashing down the rock, is applied. Smash it here—, but it blurps up there. You can't compress it, you can't level it properly. You're stuck.

There are two ways to fix it. One, wait a week and let it dry out on its own terms. Two, dig out all the water-saturated rock, let the hole dry for a day or two, then fill the hole and keep going. Either way, it's annoying—you really are stuck until nature does its part.

That's where I found myself today. It rained Saturday. Sunday I discovered the mistake saturation situation and dug it out, then today went crazy filling the hole, smashing and leveling the rock, beating and leveling and aligning the blocks —just trying to get one block past the drain pipe so that when it stops raining in a few days, I can get back to a plastic-covered, not water-saturated rock to work again.

Design for interruptibility

Trailhead:Design for assembly

"Focus and finish" is a nice adage for projects. Do one thing—and focus on that one thing until it's done. I've never seen it actually happen like that in the wild, but it seems like a theoretically sound idea for getting things done right and done quickly.

At home that theory shatters into pieces. For any large enough project I have to deal with the effects of fitting that project into the times when it will fit between work, school, and other around-the-house activities, and if the project is being built outside it has to fit during the daytime and around the weather.

In reality, "focus and finish" is more like "prepare to get interrupted".

Really I'm thinking about this project with the steps and wall in the backyard. I started working on it in November during a long stretch of warm, dry weather. Fairly early on in the project—after I dug the trench, but before I finished laying in the base rock—the weather forecast called for rain. OK, no problem. The finished project has to live outside in the elements, so we'll just let the project under construction live in the elements.

After bailing out that water, I still had to wait for some time for the water in the crushed rock to go away as well because it wouldn't compact correctly while wet. (Side note: with the use of this free water level I could tell where more base rock needed to be added to make the whole thing level.) Also, some of the dirt (clay) washed off the sides of the trench—not enough to cause problems with stability, but it was inconvenient to remove and, if it happened often enough, sure to cause some problems with the trench.

Now I keep an eye on the forecast and plan for the interruptions. It doesn't prevent water from getting in, but it limits the effects and lets me get back to work sooner. It's not just about preventing the water from getting in that one spot, but not starting too much at once so that more work is exposed to problems.

Backyard model

I've been meaning to share this for some time, but the actual work on the wall and steps in the backyard have been occupying that time.

In the backyard, the boss wants (1) steps from the garage back door down to the backyard and (2) a flat backyard. It took a long time to design it (some early steps here, starting with measuring the level of the backyard) because I didn't really know how it was going to work. Somehow the steps needed to be integrated into a wall. Somehow the final level of the yard needed to be sorted out. Etc. So I had to teach myself how to use SketchUp, a solid modeling program, to figure it out.

Here's what I came up with. I don't know how to efficiently show the dimensions in the model, so:

  • West-east: outsides of outside piers are 30' 1" (9.14m) apart
  • North-south: steps from garage to end are 36' 4" (11.07m) long
  • Up-down: top of top step to top of bottom step is 7' (2.13m) high (and then each block is 6" tall with 6" of limestone base underneath it, so it's a great deal of Fun if you love Shoveling)
The yard itself, showing the west-east (left-right) slope and the north-south (top-bottom) slope, as well as the deck piers, garage door (upper left) and basement door (lower right).
Adding the wall and step models to the original terrain.
Replacing the original terrain with a flat yard. The wall area under the right side of the deck is a notional design for a shed—not going to look exactly like that, but it's a future project anyway, so we'll deal with it in the future.
Here is, more or less, what has been installed as of... now, except for the curve at the top right. The notch near the upper left corner is a pass-through for the underground electrical cable. I was planning to make this wall one more block deep, but the cable sort of set the max depth.
Comparing the model to a recent pic.
Comparing the model to a recent pic.

Which was harder? Modeling? Or building? Ambiguous. Eventually, while digging, you'll find bedrock and need to stop, but modeling can go on forever. (At least, that was the criticism I was getting.) However, moving blocks in a model was so much easier than in real life, although I appreciated the one week of Popeye forearms after moving 600 of those bastards, plus rocks, etc.

This all divides itself into four phases:

  1. Build the deck wall
  2. Build the steps (this is the boss's most important feature, but it has to sit on the wall)
  3. Build the wall around to the garage
  4. Build the under-deck shed
  5. And then later some of those other blocks sitting around in the yard will be used to build a retaining wall on the northeast corner of the house, but we'll burn that bridge when we get to it.

If any of you want to learn how to use SketchUp, hit me up. I haven't done any solid modeling of my own since college (Unigraphics, which has been subsumed into some other company and software now), and I used to be able to open and explode (technical term) SolidWorks drawings of our flight control to put diagrams in specs and test reports when I was at Mason. Like most things in life, it's pretty easy to do once you know how to operate it, and then the difficulty is in knowing how to organize things.

Overabstraction of the Backyard Steps Project and Backyard Leveling Project

I'll tell you one of my personal hells:


"Ce qui vaut la peine d'être fait vaut la peine d'être bien fait". ("What is worth doing is worth doing well".) You've heard that one before. That's just a gateway drug, though. Doing something well leads to wanting to understand the patterns and causes and then, once you can start to get a grip on the classes and methods of that something it's only natural to want to start building a machine of some sort to do that something for you.

(I'm saying "you" but I know I'm thinking "me". Bear with me on this one. I need to talk about this like it's your problem. It's easier to deal with, etc.)

My big Home Project now is building some steps from the back door of the garage down to the back yard—the Backyard Steps Project. In isolation: it's not that difficult of a problem.

Plot twist.

My wife would also like the backyard to be leveled—the Backyard Leveling Project. In its current state (which I was tempted to call its "natural state", although this would be a casual lie because it was certainly modified during the installation of these suburbs in the ~1960s, and perhaps even before that, I don't know) there is a downslope from north-to-south and from west-to-east. As the proud owner of a shovel (a collection of shovels, really, don't judge), the solution to the leveling problem is simple: take a shovelful of dirt from the high side and put it on the low side. Repeat until there is no high side or low side.

Simple specification, simple implementation. I'd crawl on my knees and beg for a spec to be this easy to implement at work. However, there is some coupling between the Backyard Steps Project and the Backyard Leveling Project that is giving me a headache.

How many steps does one need? Assuming you care about your user (you should—I do), the steps should be an equal height—an obvious assumption, sure, but we're just building out the model here. Now you have h_step, and n_steps * h_step will be the total elevation change (h_total) from the landing at the top (z_top) to the landing at the bottom (z_bottom); or, in reverse, the total elevation change will give you n_steps, just divide h_total by h_step. z_top is fixed—the garage slab is not going anywhere. But z_bottom is z_backyard, and the value of z_backyard to use is its future value, after leveling. h_step—we'll limit the values for this one between 6 and 7.5 inches.

And, to some extent, since setting z_bottom affects the rise-over-run of the whole set of steps, z_bottom also affects d_step, the depth (or amount of run) of each step—and we'll also assume d_step to be equal for all steps. But this can be somewhat mitigated by changing the length of the top and bottom landing. (w_step, the width of the path, was fixed at 60 inches through what we might call stakeholder feedback.)

A diagram would be helpful, no?

[TBD: diagram]

I've also gathered measurements (good ol' stick, string, and bubble level) for the project. The measurements break down into two groups: (1) the ground leading from the garage door to the edge of the deck (a single arc); and (2) the back yard measured in 2-ft increments 32 feet south of each deck pier (so, basically, six arcs of data). Call it data_1 and data_2 for reference.

data_1 is easy because it is just measured from the deck (the top edge of the deck planks) down to the ground with a (large) ruler. It assumes that the deck level is fixed because otherwise why bother. It also assumes that the east-west slope here is zero, which is not accurate, but not far off—since this bit is not part of the yard leveling scheme, it doesn't need to be accurate, I'm not accounting for the volume of dirt to move.

data_2 was massively annoying to capture. I attached the string a clamp on the wood supports one inch above each of the concrete piers to provide a reference height for each series of measurements. But each pier has a different absolute height—so, essentially, there is a z_string for each series of measurements that defines the height of the fixed string above the ground to give the raw measurements.


This all needs to be adjusted so that the height measurements are taken from the same level—deck level.


There is one more transformation that I did, that might be overkill—but what the hell. As mentioned at the start: if it's worth doing, it's worth overdoing. The distance measured south of the deck is really the distance along the ground, not the distance measured along the north-south axis—so a little trigonometry needs to be done to pull out the y-axis (north-south axis) component.


Then add in the distance between the piers for x-axis (east-west axis):


Then, at this point, I've got the transformed (x,y,z) field data for leveling the backyard.