Green builders have an uneasy relationship with chainsaws and bulldozers. To some environmentalists, these noisy inventions conjure up images of ecosystem destruction and irresponsible land development.
However, just like a hammer or a level, a bulldozer is just a tool. It can be used for good or ill.
Bulldozers are extremely handy when you need to change the grade of a site. Grading matters, and novice builders who ignore grading will eventually be forced to pay attention to the topic.
Hippies don’t do grading
How do hippies build a house? They look for a natural clearing in the woods, they put a few piers in the ground, and they build a house on top of the piers. (Although this sounds like a caricature of the hippie approach, it’s fairly true-to-life. I should point out that as an ex-hippie, I’m allowed to make hippie jokes.)
It doesn’t take long to realize the many disadvantages of leaving a natural grade around a building:
- In many areas of the country, the natural grade is lumpy — characterized by protruding stones and woodchuck holes — and therefore hard to mow or maintain.
- During a heavy rain, the natural grade may direct surface water toward your foundation.
- There’s nowhere to play croquet.
Although I have had plenty of experience hiring equipment operators and directing the work of backhoes and bulldozers, my own experiences with grading have humble roots. I have spent many years grading with a shovel, rake, and wheelbarrow. Using these simple tools, I have changed a steeply sloping hillside behind my house into a flat yard that is big enough for my sons and me to practice passing a football.
The shovel-rake-wheelbarrow triad limits how far one can go to obtain material to use for fill. It’s possible to make a back yard with the cut-and-fill method, but whenever you strip topsoil from one location, you have to be careful that you don’t bury the topsoil too deeply. The opposite problem — filling a depression in your lawn with subsoil — should also be avoided, although most types of subsoil can eventually be improved with soil amendments and good maintenance practices.
Hippies who do their grading with a shovel, rake, and wheelbarrow soon learn the rules of hippie landscaping. Here is one: you never have enough clean topsoil or gravel to meet your needs.
I have performed many hippie landscaping tasks over the years:
- I have used a shovel and a mattock to dig up the stumps of 14-inch-diameter spruce and maple trees. After several years of struggle, I graduated to a hybrid approach: partial excavation followed by pulling the stump with a chain attached to my 4-wheel-drive truck.
- I have excavated around large boulders, and then I have dug a hole beside the boulder, twice as deep as the boulder’s diameter, and I have rolled the boulder into the hole to bury it.
- I have dug two 7-foot deep cellar holes with a pick and shovel.
- I have spent 30 years gradually graveling my very long driveway, hauling the gravel one pickup load at a time, and spreading it with a shovel and rake.
- I have celebrated the small victory of turning the wild land around my house into yards that are smooth enough to be mowed.
I recount these experiences not to brag, but to remind bulldozer-hating environmentalists of the nature of life without bulldozers. It’s nasty, brutish, and short.
I learned several things from my hippie landscaping experiences. I’ve learned the many advantages of having crushed stone and gravel delivered in a dump truck from a quarry rather than scrounging for these materials in the woods. And I’ve learned that bulldozers and backhoes are useful tools.
Whatever evil that environmental activists want to pin on bulldozers should properly be pinned on clumsy equipment operators or evil land developers, not on the tools themselves.
Good moisture management starts with a bulldozer
Although I wouldn’t want to go back to removing stumps with my bare hands, I’m glad that I spent years grading with a rake. All that patient cut-and-fill work gave me time to meditate on grading. I now look at houses with a more educated eye. I see things I didn’t used to notice.
So what does grading have to do with green building? The grade around a building establishes a baseline for proper moisture management. If a site is poorly graded, a house is at risk for peeling paint, siding rot from splashback, and a wet basement or crawl space. If a site is poorly graded, the necessary repairs can be extremely expensive — especially if the problem isn’t recognized for a few years, after concrete walkways, landscaping plants, and patios have already been installed.
Here are a few basic grading lessons that I’ve learned over the years:
- A happy house sits on what amounts to a knoll, with the grade at least 8 or 10 inches below the lowest wooden components of the house, and with the grade sloping evenly away from the foundation in all directions. An unhappy house sits in a depression, with the grade directing water toward the basement.
- It is far more common for the grade around a house to be too high than too low. (If you see a house on a site with high grade, look for splashback damage; you’ll usually find some, especially on the north side of the house.)
- A well-graded driveway has a crown down the center, and subtle ditches on the edges of both shoulders.
- The minimum requirement for a well-graded lawn is that it must be mowable.
- A level vegetable garden is much less subject to erosion than a sloping vegetable garden (a fact known to farmers in mountainous regions, where steep hillsides are always terraced before they are tilled).
- It’s always unwise to try to create an embankment that is steeper than the angle of repose (about 45°).
What should a lawn look like?
There is an art to grading. Like any art, grading holds the promise of deep satisfaction. At its most basic, all types of grading work are variations on cut-and-fill. Whether working with a wheelbarrow or a Caterpillar D6, a worker who removes a bump and uses the soil to fill a depression usually ends up smiling. The art, of course, is to know when to stop.
Although we can all agree on the importance of keeping rainwater out of basements, not everyone agrees on the appearance of a perfect lawn. Two hundred years ago, large expanses of grass were usually called pastures, and they were maintained by sheep or cattle. A few European aristocrats had lawns — all painstakingly created by peasants with wheelbarrows and rakes, of course, and all mown with scythes while the lord of the manor watched from afar, sipping his glass of port.
According to an old story, a young gardener once asked an old gardener at a great English estate to tell him the secret to creating a perfect lawn. His answer was, “Mow the same piece of land for 300 years.”
When only aristocrats could afford to grade land, a perfectly flat 5-acre lawn was the ultimate example of conspicuous consumption. The formal garden styles favored by European nobility in the 17th and 18th centuries, with their strict geometrical shapes and dead-level lawns, are examples of this aesthetic. In the 19th century, especially in England, a more “natural” aesthetic emerged — one favoring rolling hills punctuated by clumps of bushes and trees.
Regardless of which aesthetic you prefer, it’s worth noting that neither look is truly natural. As an ex-hippie who spent almost 40 years battling the wilderness, I can attest that any lawn that can be mown with a lawnmower is far from natural. Nature is characterized by half-rotten stumps, protruding rocks, and unmowable gullies.
The formal geometric gardens of the 18th century were the unwitting ancestors of many mindless grading errors of the 20th and 21st centuries, including countless cookie-cutter housing developments with flat, rectangular yards. Suffice it to say that there are more attractive ways to landscape the land around our homes than the methods used in Levittown.
A good operator is an artist
If you build houses, you probably need a bulldozer. So what are the signs of a good equipment operator?
- A good operator (like a good roofer) is always thinking about heavy rainstorms. When grading land, it’s important to anticipate where the water will flow. The creation of swales and retention ponds, as well as careful grading, are all tools to manage rain.
- A good operator conserves topsoil. If a lot of material needs to be moved, the topsoil should first be stripped and piled for later spreading. If large stumps need to be removed with an excavator, the stumps should be repeatedly dropped from a height to release the topsoil clinging to their roots.
- A good operator knows that everything in nature is useful. If your property is large enough, there is almost always somewhere that you can put a stump or a large rock. A good operator knows that these undesired items turn out to be valuable when they are placed in the right spot.
- A good operator doesn’t waste movements. Every pass of the dozer blade, and every scoop of the excavator, is performed for a reason. The actions of a good operator appear fluid and elegant.
Once your site is graded and raked, be sure to get your grass seed and hay mulch spread quickly. When everything turns green, the sight should bring a smile to your face. A well-graded property is a pleasure to behold.
Martin Holladay’s previous blog: “Is Your Pool an Energy Hog?”