Tilt-Up Stone Masonry Questions
with replies by Thomas J. Elpel
Note: My article A Stone House in Two Weeks was featured in the January 2003 issue of Fine Homebuilding magazine. An expanded version of the article is available on our website under the title Tilt-Up Stone Masonry: A Technological Lift to the Ancient Art of Stone Work
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Is tilt-up construction practical for a novice builder on a limited budget?
Dear Mr. Elpel,
I really enjoyed your Dec. 2002/Jan 2003 article in 'Fine Homebuilding' entitled "A Stone House In Two Weeks". Ever since my wife showed me that article, I have been somewhat enthralled by the beauty of the tilt-up system. It seems so much simpler than stacking stones one on another, and I am considering this technique for a combination recording studio/home that I will be building this spring and summer. I am wondering if there is any further documentation I might access about Nick's experience, and about Tilt-up construction (small scale) in general.
One particular issue I am wrestling with, is the Stone/Concrete ratio. The land I own came with piles upon piles of field stones, that I would like to put to use, especially If it would save me money on concrete. I am definitely going for a maximum 'bang-for-buck', as I have a very limited budget.
In the article, Nick used his flat Montana stones as a face. My stones are of every shape and size. If I make 7-1/4'' thick walls, as Nick did, I am wondering if I should limit the size stones that I use. On the other hand, concrete costs money (though at 71/4'' not so much) and of course, the stones are free. I am not sure how this would affect the strength of the walls in terms of being able to tilt them up, or how to determine these variables, or how tall/wide it is feasible to make the walls in one piece. The building I am trying to design is 30' x 50' and two stories on half of that. If I decide that I can afford to, I may increase the size. I also wonder what sort of problems to expect in obtaining a building permit for this type of structure.
I would like to know more about the house Nick built: how much did it end up costing?; what were the final dimensions?; what is the square footage of the house?; what was the layout like? (it looks like there is a second floor --at least on part); what size crane did he use?; what did that cost? Any information you would provide would be much appreciated. I have called for a copy of Dayton/Richmond's Tilt-up Construction Handbook.
I don't have much building experience, but I have a couple friends who are going to help: one is a carpenter, and the other does concrete work (though he has never done tilt-up work). I guess I thought that if I was dedicated enough to the project, did my research, followed the Tilt-up Handbook, asked questions, and if I was careful and calculating, that I could probably make it happen.
I have already arranged for a leave of absence from my job, starting a month from today, and lasting at least until the fall. Building this House/Studio is to be my job for most of this year. My wife and I own the property outright, and live on it in an old mobile home, that we bought for $2000. We borrowed $40,000 total, and paid it off over the last 5 years. Our plan was to pay it off at that accelerated pace, and then to build, hopefully making use of our 'many piles of stones'. The mobile home is drafty, and we hope to be out of it one way or another by this winter.
I like your philosophy. It sings to me. I would like to get free of debt (again after building --we are essentially debt free now --not even a car payment), and then to live simply, making music and money in my studio --though not for 40+ hours a week, unless I'm enjoying myself that much.
Thank you so much for the article. I'm really hoping I can use this technique.
Thanks for writing. For structural purposes during lifting, the tilt-up stone wall should be mostly concrete and rebar, with smaller rocks for stone-facing. The biggest panels in Nick's place were 24 feet wide by about 20 feet tall, but these were not square panels, since the upper story was sloped for the roof. The approximate dimensions of the house are 28' x 38' on the ground floor. (The house is more than 24 feet wide because Nick used conventional concrete forms on the back of the house where it is completely built into the hill.) I'll have to check those measurements some time.
As for time, let me say that the title given to the Fine Homebuilding article was mis-leading, since it took Nick just two weeks to form, set stones, and pour the walls on the ground. It took about three years to build the house, and as yet he hasn't finished the kitchen.
Cost-wise, if you are looking for a cheap way to build, this isn't it. Tilt-up demands a higher concrete-to-stone ratio and more reinforcing bar than slipform stone masonry. Add in the specialized hardware and the high cost of renting a crane, and you could easily add $10,000 to the project cost, compared to doing a slipform stone wall. Granted, tilt-up is much faster, and you might be able to save a comparable amount if you are hiring help. But keep in mind that tilt-up work is potentially very dangerous, and someone could be pancaked if a failure occurred when lifting the panels, so this isn't a project you where you want to skimp on materials.
However, there are additional hidden costs that might not be as obvious when comparing the two types of construction. For example, the tilt-up stone walls required wood frame walls inside the house to accommodate the insulation and to provide a means of attaching sheetrock. Basically, this means building a wood house inside of a stone house.
We demonstrated a way to eliminate the need for this redundancy in our video The Art of Slipform Stone Masonry by building a workshop out of insulated building panels first, without any wood framing. The insulation panels served as forms on the inside of the structure, and holes were drilled into the panels to allow the concrete to grab it with "finger-holds" for a permanent bond. Then we did the stonework up the outside.
Finally, let me emphasize that tilt-up construction is not for beginners. I don't normally recommend it to first-time builders, but in your case, you may be able to pull it off, since you have friends with professional carpentry and concrete experience. I suppose it depends on their ability to accurately measure, build and pour--or to guide you in that respect. Keep in mind that if something goes wrong, you could have some very expensive slabs of concrete and rock sitting there where your house should be.
Thomas J. Elpel