Working to Tame the Hillside Earth Movement, Terracing, and Back-Filling

Today, Kevin sent a long explanation of the “lay of the land” situation. Some of the major earth moving has been done, so he went to check out the status. After being on site, he decided we need to make some changes to the grading and terracing plans.

Virtually all of what he says makes sense, so rather than rewrite it myself, I will more-or-less quote his email, but I’ll add some comments and pictures.

The concerns and changes all stem from the slope of the land. Anne, in particular, has commented about it when we’ve seen pictures.

Let’s go to Kevin:

I wanted to review the subject of earth movement, terracing, and back-filling.

The main impetus behind this is the fact that excavation and terracing plans are like battle plans … the first shot is fired and the plans are obsolete. As we dig and as a house takes shape those plans invariably evolve.

Last week, on Monday, I was on site and did not like the “feeling” of the house having earth on two sides — front and left side, looking downhill — that was just too high. To exaggerate the point, I didn’t like the sense of looking down at the house from those two spots. In addition, out in front of the house, the steepness of the drop was not to my liking.

Part of what was contributing to the issue was that when we/you moved the position of the house further back on the plot, it meant that we were closer to the triangle point that forms the top extreme of the property. I don’t want you to misconstrue that the way in which things were taking shape was a huge problem; it was not. It was just that I thought it could be improved and I thought it needed to be more reflective of our conversations when you were here.

So, I got the various people on site — Francisc, Jimmy, and the head of the earth moving company, plus Pippo given his experience in such things. We reviewed various ideas and options.

Grading Plan Changes

We decided to do three important things that have required a significant amount of planning and execution.

Indicating Edge of Portico
Indicating Edge of Portico
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Unfinished Slope Behind House
Unfinished Slope Behind House
Reclaimed Brick at Left
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Excavation and Cherry Tree
Excavation and Cherry Tree
Cherry in Bloom, Pool Further Down
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Pool Terrace
Pool Terrace
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  1. Parking Area: We rearranged the parking area above the house, pushing it up, closer to the triangle point and changing walking access to it from a direct line to a meandering one, which is actually far superior to the direct line as it’s more “dolce” (Pippo’s word) and natural. It also is more practical as it allows “everyday access” to the kitchen door, and makes the main entrance a more dramatic one. This is in contrast to the direct, up/down, straight line that was originally in the plan, The latter proved too steep and required keeping the height of the earth at a level I found to be just TOO high.
  2. Area Near Portico: We have maintained the distances at the portico side of the house — portico 2.8m (9.2ft) plus 5m (16.4ft) farther out from there — as per plan, BUT, we have extended the slope of the earth down to the next level. In practical terms we have added a LOT more dirt to that bank and that has allowed for the slope to be far LESS steep.
  3. Pool Area: We have significantly altered the areas surrounding the pool. The idea was to carve out a lot of FLAT space for the area (i.e. the “house” side of the pool area) where you look out at the mountains, and then, to significantly reduce the slope of the drop off on the other side of the pool that was just too steep for my liking.
What Does All This Mean?
  1. Slope Reduction: We have dramatically reduced the severity of inclines both front and back of the house.
  2. Increased “Breathing Room”: We have maximized the house’s breathing room on the parking lot side and the left side (left when you have your back to the house and look at the mountains)
  3. Parking Area Higher on Hill: We have maximized the parking area and pushed it back slightly up the hill (to allow for more breathing space on that side of the house)
  4. Improved Access: We have created a much more pleasant and natural (and dolce) entrance to the kitchen door and main door.
  5. Better Pool Area: The pool area has been sculpted and back-filled to create a lovely, open space heading back to the house and a gentle slope on the side versus the mountains.
Practical Implications
  1. Earth and Fill Equipment Needed: To do all this we require 130 cubic meters of earth — that is, the earth, its transport, the machines to move it around, and the machines to compress it. Francisc has been a star on this. He has recovered 20-ish cubic meters from the plot (mostly from where he’s removed earth to create breathing room), he has another 80 he has trucked in from another site he has open, and, he’s done a trade of 2 days work with one of his crews for 30-ish cubic meters trucked in from a 3rd place. So, our cost of earth is zero, amazingly. The costs of this work that we do have to incur are found in (1) the need for VERY HEAVY equipment, machines capable of serious digging, moving and compressing and (2) the transport of the earth from two other sites. Total cost is likely to be around €2700-€3200 when it’s all completed. We had previously communicated a back-fill number of around €800, but we have significantly increased both the amount of earth and the amount of work needed to move it and shape it.
  2. Olive Relocation: Due to the magnitude of digging, we have had to prune and transfer the parking lot olive trees or we would have risked killing them. At the end of the heavy work, and with the landscape planning, we can decide the optimal places to position olive trees for maximum esthetic effect. (Pippo has pruned half the olive trees and will do the rest this week.)
  3. Budget: Regarding the money to do this. If we take a mid-point of €3k we can handle it any number of ways — 1-take it out of the contingency line, or, 2-take it out of the landscaping line and see when the time comes to do the landscaping, how far that remaining budget takes us.

To cover the last point first, I decided to take the money from the contingency. The landscape budget is only €15,000, which seems low to start, so I don’t want to reduce it even before we have a landscape plan. And this was a contingent/unexpected expense, not one caused by a design change.

As Kevin said, the parking area has been relocated higher on the hill and the driveway shortened. I wonder how that might affect access.

I have three questions about the land near the house: Do we have enough flat land? Could it be extended? To accommodate the cherry and fig, will we need tree wells?

As to the slope, despite all these changes, I’m concerned it will still be steeper than we’d like going from level to level. That leaves me with a question about the way to deal with the level transitions:

The plan calls for the levels to be divided by earthen slopes, not retaining walls, and connected via paths, not stairs. I posed to Kevin the question whether this is still reasonable. I’m sure retaining walls and stairs are more expensive, but I don’t want things sliding down the hill or having it too difficult to go up and down.

Further, when I look at the picture of the pool, I really wonder if we don’t need a retaining wall to keep the earth from sliding down into the pool after rain.

Finally, Anne commented on how far down the hill the pool seems to be. I have to say it didn’t surprise me, having walked the land, but it will be a hilly hike down and back.

A Final Point

It certainly seems that the contractor, Francisc, with Kevin’s urging, is keeping costs down as much as possible: the zero cost earth here, the assumption of work from the utility company on the water line before, the supply of larger and chestnut beams. We have to be pleased.

All the photos. Notice that in the last one it shows that them preparing to build the walls:

All images: Copyright © Our Big Italian Adventure

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