An Architectural Emergency and How Not to Create One


Architectural emergencies are rare and usually created by a homeowner. Having been in the involved as an architect in residential work for more than three decades I’ve run across only a few real “emergencies.” One experience, from several decades ago, that sticks in my mind started with a phone call from a homeowner on Capitol Hill who lived within the historic district on a close-in street.

The house was small and ancient – probably dating circa 1870 or 1880 and exhibiting details of the Italianate style. It was a rare detached house, of frame construction, and built on a crawl space. These vintage houses are typically of balloon framing (wall studs traveling continuously from first floor to roof) and the original cedar clapboard siding was nailed directly to the wall framing without wall sheathing. The old clapboard, probably quite abused, had been covered with pebble dash stucco. It was a charming house, still architecturally intact with great potential, and for those who are fond of old houses – easy to love.

The homeowner asked if I could come over right away. It seems they were worried that
their house might fall into the hole they were digging beneath the house. Since it was nearby, I agreed as I was curious to see what was creating this emergency.

When I arrived, I found a large hole cut in the middle of the living room floor with a ladder descending. Men were climbing up and down the ladder with buckets of dirt and taking it outside to dump in the back of a pickup truck.  I went down the ladder and discovered they had started digging a basement under the house. The hole was easily 9 feet deep and, at that point, almost as wide as the house. The homeowner had called me regarding their concern for an alley that ran along the side of their house. Cars and trash trucks used the alley and the weight of the vehicles was pushing dirt into the hole they were digging. Rightfully so, they were concerned that the end of the house next to the alley would fall into their newly dug hole.

This was an era when people were lax about hiring professionals for their architectural and engineering needs and getting building permits. But this was crazy. There were no architectural plans, structural drawings or building permit. Nor were they doing anything to shore up the earth as they dug the new basement. It was unsafe for the men digging and unsafe for the homeowner’s residence. The homeowner had thought they could handle it all on their own.

I called a structural engineer I worked with and a meeting was scheduled with the homeowner. The owner agreed to stop digging. Honestly, I was afraid to even get involved. If I had called DCRA they would have gotten a stop work order. At the request of the homeowner I prepared preliminary schematic plans for how the new basement space could be laid out. The structural engineer prepared the appropriate structural drawings for a permit. And we both stepped away. The homeowner got a permit. The house did not fall into the newly dug hole. Although it may have had some settlement. The now house has a basement which added value and living space.

Things could have turned out very differently. A bit of bad luck, wet weather, a stop work order, or other  — could have found the house and a trash truck down in the hole.   

My advice? Hire licensed professionals. Get a building permit.