Breaking ground in winter: pros/cons?

zone4newbyNovember 14, 2012

We've finally sold our house! So we now we can move forward with our build without risking having two float two mortgages. We are not at a point with our design where we could break ground tomorrow, but I think we could get there by mid-January. Alternatively, we could wait until April or May. Our rent will be less than our current or future mortgages, so delaying the start of construction wouldn't be a financial burden, we just don't want to stretch things out, because once the builder has taken his first draw on the loan, we start paying interest.

Relevant details:

1) We're building in Minnesota.

2) Multiple builders have told us they can build year-round here.

3) We know we would have to pay for heaters to cure the concrete foundation if we pour during the winter.

4) Our lot is heavily wooded, so a significant number of trees will have to be removed from our building site.

5) The extended forecasts I can find all point to a mild winter (as Minnesota winters go-- it will still be below freezing for all of Jan. and Feb.)

6) A friend has said that we ought to be able to get cheaper labor rates in the winter, and that might compensate for some of the added costs.

7) We're planning a stick-built, vinyl-clad, two-story house with a full, poured-concrete, walk-out basement.

Obviously, I'd like to get into my new house as soon as possible, but I don't want to pay a huge premium for a couple extra months, and I don't want to have a house that settles more than normal or something because all the framing was done when the wood was frozen. My builder will be able to give me an idea of the cost implications, but I'm wondering what else might be impacted by building in winter.

My gut feeling about snow is that it's easier to shovel or sweep our snow than undo the damage of a strong thunderstorm. Am I wrong about that? Do either make much difference?

Thanks for any feedback!

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Freezing rain is the thing to be worried about in terms of schedule. Colo would be better than Minn.

One of the biggest issues is to keep the bottom of the excavation from freezing before concrete can be poured and backfill installed.

You should include a complete specification for winter construction in the contract.

I did an office building in northern VT and the foundation contractor went out of business because it was one of the worst winters in history. Don't believe anyone who thinks they can predict the weather 3 months in advance.

    Bookmark   November 14, 2012 at 9:32AM
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We should be breaking ground in the next few weeks here in Minnesota. My GC assures me there will be no issues, but I'm still going to pepper him with more questions about pouring the foundation, what they use to retain heat, if they use any additives in the concrete, etc.

Renovator8 - can you provide more details about what a complete specification for winter construction may entail? Any help is appreciated!

    Bookmark   November 14, 2012 at 12:27PM
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Annie Deighnaugh

No one knows the weather....the wooly bears in our area predict a late but very long winter followed by a short spring....if wooly bears know anything.

Curing the foundation is a big thing. Keeping the winter weather off the other building materials is also important...typically you try to close up the house before the worst weather, but that won't be possible in Jan. Also workers are human, they get cold and are less productive in the winter.

But our bud who worked on our house said the worst time for digging for a foundation is in early spring with rains and thaw when you're trying to excavate mud. Not fun.

If you can afford to wait, I would can clear the lot now, nail down the pricing, permitting, septic design, where the materials will go that you pull out of the foundation hole... and then get your ducks in a row for when the actual build takes place....there are about 10,000 decisions that need to be made between start and finish of a home and the sooner you make them, the smoother the build will go.

    Bookmark   November 14, 2012 at 10:42PM
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Epiarch Designs

we tend to avoid it on the commercial side just because winter construction adds so much cost to a project. Protection, temp heat, blanketing. Commerical is far more costly since a lot of what we deal with is brick, block, concrete, so even more costs involved such as using warm water in the mortar.
The biggest issue is as mentioned, not putting anything on frozen ground. If they wait and dig for footers right before they are ready to form an pour, this will help. Your ground will not be frozen at that depth obviousy. They would need to dig, then blanket the area until the footers are poured, and then blanket them.
Otherwise freezing rain and snow piled on materials can have some effect on them.

One thought would be to switch to ICF construction. You can pour the forms year round with little concern of frozen curing. Your result is a super tight, strong and quite home.

    Bookmark   November 15, 2012 at 9:00AM
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I've often wondered about the same thing being in MN also. What part of MN are you in? I'm up in Duluth.

    Bookmark   November 15, 2012 at 11:21PM
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Thanks for the feedback & help! Frozenelves, we're building in the Northern metro of the Cities.

    Bookmark   November 16, 2012 at 7:48AM
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Cold weather concrete work is not as difficult as you might first think because only the air temperature would be below freezing and the earth as well as hydrating cement produce heat so by heating the materials used in the mix, adding an accelerator, and covering the forms with insulating blankets, it is usually possible to avoid the high cost of tenting and heating.

The most important issue is to not let the bottom of the excavation freeze and that is often a matter of timing. If the setting of forms is delayed the surface can be temporarily covered with straw bales or back filled.

Any cold weather concrete construction specification would be based on ACI 306R-10 "Guide to Cold Weather Concreting" which costs about $60 in hardcopy or PDF download. I would hope your contractor has a copy but I suggest you not ask.

You could just stipulate in the contract that the concrete work will conform to ACI 306R-10 but you can get the basics of the its recommendations by googling "Grace TB 0106". This is good stuff but there is no substitute for an experienced contractor.

    Bookmark   November 16, 2012 at 8:18AM
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My husband is an excavator in central MN, and when all the construction guys get together the consensus is that they would never build their own house in the winter. But, yes, it can be done.

    Bookmark   November 16, 2012 at 9:18AM
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Well the footings were poured today in the north metro area of Minnesota, perhaps not too far from zone4newby. There is no turning back now :) I hope the weather stays relatively nice.

    Bookmark   November 30, 2012 at 2:03PM
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Good luck MNTwins! Hope we won't be too far behind you (waiting turns out to be more complicated than I originally thought).

    Bookmark   November 30, 2012 at 3:47PM
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After the spring thaw is the best time to start in our cold climate. But I've broken ground in December and March too.

As mentioned above, you might want to include some reference to cold weather standards in your contract.

You're avoiding the biggest extra cost by going with non-masonry veneers. Installing masonry in winter adds thousands for tenting and keeping the propane heaters cranked. (Let alone worrying every night that a vandal hasn't tipped one over for some fiery fun.)

I've also spent a pretty penny a few times running the heaters in the garage and basement to thaw out the ground sufficiently to pour the concrete.

A hazard of winter construction. Propane heaters were running 24/7 when this house in Toronto, Ontario, tented for brick and stone work, went up in flames on Christmas evening 2010.

John Hanley Photo

    Bookmark   November 30, 2012 at 5:51PM
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