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Leveling a 1950’s pier and beam summer cottage

AndrisSkulte | Posted in General Questions on

Our family’s summer cottage has settled, and I’d like to level it with my civil engineer PE brother, but I haven’t been able to find any books on the subject. Any suggestions? 

The cottage is a 22×34′ single floor stick framed house from the 1950’s, supported by beams sitting on 15 or 20 loose concrete block piers, about 3′ tall, on top of the dirt or granite bedrock. We’ve got a fireplace at one end with a brick chimney, supported with a U-shaped hollow concrete block foundation. Electricity is via overhead service and plumbing is a flexible line going down to the lake and a PVC line going to the septic (with about 4′ unsupported length, so it should handle a little leveling…). Walls are simple chip board, no worries about drywall or plaster cracking…

I haven’t measured how much leveling is needed, we’re 500 miles away unfortunately, but I’m headed up this weekend. The northwest corner seems to be on the Canadian Shield granite bedrock, and the opposite middle has the fireplace – I’m guessing both of those would be the least settled, and will be the high points I use to level the rest of the house. I’ll probably use the fireplace as the reference, since I can’t level that, and it’s well supported.

I plan on going slow, 1/4″ at a time with a water level (brother couldn’t borrow the rotary laser from work), 20 ton hydraulic jack and my 20t press plates to spread the load. It seems straight forward enough, and worst case, I can call in a pro.

Do I start leveling from the lowest spot, 1/4″ at a time, and work towards the reference? 

Long term, I’ll get a pro to lift the cottage, demo the chimney, and excavate for a full walk out basement & block wall dug to the bedrock/frost line, but that’s a few years out. 

I wasn’t sure where else to ask, and you guys here have been a wealth of info for improving my house (we just upgraded to 200A service and have 3 of the 4 mini splits installed!).

Other than a few internet how-to pages and advertisements from foundation companies, I couldn’t find a thorough reference book. 

Thank you for the suggestions.

Edit – I found this book from our friends at Taunton, but wasn’t sure if there’s info about leveling already constructed buildings: Foundations & Concrete Work (For Pros by Pros)

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  1. Jon_R | | #1

    > 3 of the 4 mini splits installed!

    4 mini-splits in a 750 sq ft summer cottage?

    1. AndrisSkulte | | #4

      Jon - Ha, no way! No plans on air conditioning in Canada at the moment, although my wife did ask me to put in a ceiling fan in the cathedral ceiling this summer. That'll be interesting... The mini-splits were for my house, sized for winter heat. It's a 2 story cape, so a wall mount in each bedroom for even winter heat with doors closed, then one at each end of the house downstairs. It was a lot more efficient to go with four single zone units than a multi-split. So far it's been fantastic. Very happy with the 6k upstairs and a 9k downstairs running.

      Peter - Beers on the dock is the main plan, but the doors are so racked that the deadbolts barely function! Rather than re-mounting the hardware for a settled house, I figured I should level it. It's been done before, but before I remember it. Probably 40 years ago... Thanks for the tips - The underside is fully accessible, with easy access to the main beams. I'll find the connections and keep an eye on them.

      Malcolm - Thank you. I get it, and would think going slowly and evenly would keep the damage to a minimum. With leveling it (rather than lifting and cribbing - I'll leave that to the pros), I'm hoping it's small enough that the wood can take it, especially if I go slow and evenly. The exterior doors already bind and the locks barely match up. The slider windows also bind when fully open or closed. Thanks for your suggestions - I'll keep the windows open in the middle and check with the water level as I go along. We do have a large fixed pane glass window, though. I wonder how to address that (other than go slowly in that area)...

      Good stuff - thank you fellas!

  2. Expert Member
    Peter Engle | | #2


    The minisplits were for a 1600 sf Cape. Still possibly overkill, but there have been a few threads working him through that process. He's coming back to talk about the cabin as a separate subject.


    If you plan to lift the cabin in a few years and replace the foundations, why the rush to level it now? Leveling is a relatively time-consuming, dirty and demanding process. If you are really planning to lift it in a few years, I would sit back and have a few beers by the lake instead.

    As far as process, you can jack at each of the existing piers, shim, move the jack, and repeat. From your description, so long as you go slowly, you'll probably be OK. The main thing is to watch the connections between beams, joists, etc. and spread the load as much as you can. Jack from primary members (beams) when you can. If this is your idea of a good time, knock yourself out. What could go wrong?

  3. Expert Member


    Jacking up a house is fraught with such complications that my builder's insurance specifically precludes me from doing the work. Because the house adjusts over decades as it slumps, sudden movement in the other direction often causes a chain of things - like doors no longer filling in their frames, window glass breaking, new loading on structural members, and problems in the interface between things that may have stayed still (your chimney?) and those that moved.

    Once those possibilities are acknowledged, jacking most structures up is relatively straightforward - especially those on piers. A few bottle-jacks, working systematically around the load-bearing points, and you may be pleasantly surprised by how quickly it goes. I wouldn't be tied to a specific amount of lift on each cycle. You may find some areas adjust more easily and can go closer to an inch each time. Work towards a reference, but realize that jacking one area may move another and change that reference as you go up.

  4. AndrisSkulte | | #5

    Update - House leveling went great (with only a few scrapes and bruises from hitting my back on joists...). My brother and I spent most of Saturday with a 100' length of vinyl tubing and my 20 ton bottle jack and 2 others from my neighbor. The range was +.5" high to -1.5" low relative to the joist nearest the fireplace. The main doors no longer bind, and the house feels more solid too... One oddity is that one bedroom door would bind on top, and when the closest joist was adjusted to fix that, the neighboring bedroom door would bind on the bottom. Anyways, we sanded the door :) Thanks for the words of encouragement and tips too.

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