By Jim Bishop.
Last month, I discussed how we came up with a design to replace our pool with a casita, stair tower and several garden rooms. This month, I’ll discuss the construction process.
We decided to hire the same contractor that had done the earlier remodel on our house. A pleasant surprise was that compared to house remodel, the cost of the project was less than expected. This was because the project involved no drywall, paint, plumbing and only minor electrical work. Also, although we added a lot of outdoor entertaining space, since we didn’t add to the square footage of the house our property taxes remained the same.
First up was filling in the pool. Scott rented a jackhammer and set out trying to remove the old pool decking. I collected the larger pieces and took them down the hill to construct rubble retaining walls and steps. However, the contractor said that we’d need as much material as possible to fill the pool and to start throwing everything into the pool. It turned out there were several older patios below the existing pool decking and eventually the contractor had to bring in more power tools and people to remove all of it.
Fill Dirt and Gravel being mixed before being blown into the pool
Amazingly at the time, the city didn’t have any regulations or require a permit to fill in a swimming pool. So the contractor devised his own plan and we proceeded. They jackhammered several large holes in the bottom of the pool and then jackhammered away the top 3 feet of the pool. All of this material, the cracked concrete pool planters, plus any old concrete, tile building materials and maybe an old toilet and sink or 2 all went into the pool.
Firehoses pumping soil and decomposed granite into the pool
When the pool demolition was done, a large portable cement mixer was placed on the sidewalk in front of the house. Two firehoses ran from there down the side yard and into the old pool. Trucks of decomposed granite and top soil were dumped in the street and a small backhoe dumped it one scoop at a time into the cement mixer. After a slight mixing the dry material passed through the firehouses and was sprayed into the pool area 3 stories below. In the pool were 2 people with water hoses and 2 more with portable soil compactors. The men with the hoses wet the material as it entered the pool area. They were followed by the 2 men with the soil compactors. 8 hours later we had beautiful and level dirt pad.
I was home during the process to deal with any problems that might occur with the neighbors due to all the dust and noise. At one point the doorbell rang. It was the men that were delivering the fill materials. They wanted to know what to do with the 2 truckloads of gravel in the street. I said that I assumed it was to go into the pool. However, they said that it couldn’t go in the pool since the area needs to be compacted to 95% and the gravel can’t be compacted that tightly. So, I suggested they return it to the supplier. However, they said the supplier couldn’t reuse it since it had picked up dirt in the street and he wanted $3000 to dispose of it…or I could have it free. At first I thought no way, but they suggested that maybe I could use it for pathways on the hillside or something else. So they blew it down to the side of the pool area. It quickly filled the area with a pile over 6 feet deep and 9 feet wide and started going over the top of the pool wall. I’ll explain later what we did with all that gravel.
Lumber for construction
Since the casita was a free standing structure with lots of open walls, it required steel posts and beams for construction. The building code for footings was that that the bottom of the footing had to be 7 feet from daylight from line drawn horizontally to the downhill slope side. So after filling in the pool, they dug four seven foot deep footings into the newly added fill. The hole needed for the footing for the new balcony off the living room was even deeper since the hill is very steep in that area. The next day the city came to inspect the footings…we passed inspection and no mention was made that just days ago there had been a swimming pool in this area.
Casita footings and steel frame
The construction of the stair tower was next. Interestingly even though it was over 30 feet tall, it did not require a steel infrastructure or deep footings since it was back much further from the slope and would be tied to the retaining wall. It did however require lots of wood. More wood than we could have imagined. We felt very guilty about the amount of wood. Since the tower was octagonal and had a spiral staircase inside a special construction team was brought in to figure out all of the calculations needed to fit exactly into the spot. All the wood, spirals and angles were quite interesting and artistic to watch being constructed. We almost hated to see it all covered with stucco.
Stair tower construction
After the undercoat of gray stucco, we had decided that we should tile some of the walls, arches and built-in benches before the final finish coat. I had a magazine with photos of a garden in Coronado that had an outdoor room that used mostly blue and yellow tile. I had also seen an exhibit on Talavera tile at the Metropolitan Art Museum in New Your City and had learned that blue, yellow, white and terracotta were some of the first colors of glazes that were used to create Talavera tile. Talavera was first made in Pueblo, Mexico, by Spaniards trying to copy the tiles of Spain. However, many of the artisans were Chinese who had arrived in Mexico via the Spanish Galleon trade that ran from the Philippines through central Mexico and then on to Spain. Along the way it also picked up some of the designs of the indigenous people in the area. So, the resulting Talavera designs are a unique mix of styles from many cultures.
I had already learned a little about Mexican tile from some of the work I had done in the house when we remodeled 2 of the bathrooms and knew that so much tile would be quite expensive if purchased in the U.S. So we borrowed a truck and drove to Tecate where we purchased much of the tile. I also knew a local tile importer and had used some of their tile on other projects in the house. I had mentioned to them they might be able to sell more tile if they expanded beyond Talavera into more traditional Spanish designs that were more appropriate to older homes in San Diego. They asked where they could get ideas for designs and I suggested Balboa Park. So based on tiles from Balboa Park they created a new line of tile named after the California Missions. I have some of their first tiles on the floor in the casita and the backsplash of the wall fountain.
To be continued….