Cutting the trench
By July 24, the utility trench from the street had reached the barn. Waist-deep at this point, the trench is nearly eight feet deep at the street.
Like many an American garage, the old barn behind the Bernards' house was lacking a few amenities. It had makeshift electrical power run from the main house, and no plumbing or heating hookups. As a separate home, with its own address, the cottage will need its own utilities, connected to the town at the street. If any part of the project would seem to require brute strength and not much more, it would have to be the utility trench. Dig a long, deep slice down the driveway, fill it with pipes and wires, and call it a day — right?

Not quite. The laying down of water, sewer, gas, and electric lines is actually something of a science, which is why a civil engineer was called in to map out the utility connections for the old barn. As it turns out, the trench is actually four separate trenches, one for each utility, each with its own special needs.

"There are pretty exacting local codes about what can go where," says general contractor Tom Silva. "The code regulates how far apart the water and sewer lines have to be from each other, and how deep each one needs to be. The electric line has to be in a separate trench, at a different depth. Then the gas company has its own rules about the gas line."

None of this was news to Tom, who has worked with his share of utility lines before. What was news as work began, though, were two permit requirements that posed a sudden threat to the schedule and provided an early blow to the project budget. First was an unexpected "pavement-cutting" permit, which carries with it a fee based on the age of the pavement — in this case $1,700 that the homeowners hadn't planned on. The second budget hit was the Concord hookup fee for the sewer connection, for an additional $2,000. Both required a civil engineer to inspect the site and prepare detailed drawings of the proposed work (more than $1,200) before permits could be issued. With assorted other application fees, inspection fees, and new-meter fees, the unexpected budget damage came to more than $5,000.

"These permits are the kinds of things you need for new construction," says Tom. "Bringing utilities in from the street is new for us, since This Old House is usually working with existing service. It was a hassle, and we had some misunderstandings and miscommunications. But we're still in good shape — we started work on the framing, so it's not as if we were sitting around waiting. We didn't lose any time on the schedule, but it was a bit of a scramble."

Homeowner Janet Bernard did a lot of the scrambling herself, to make sure all the paperwork got done. The special permit that allowed the Bernards to convert the barn to a dwelling had to be picked up from Concord, run over to Cambridge to be recorded, then proof of the recording had to be run back to Concord so that the building permit could be issued. By the end of the day on Tuesday, the building permit was in hand. Before anyone could celebrate, though, the other permit requirements suddenly surfaced. With an excavator booked for Friday, and the camera crew ready to film the work, there was no permit to cut the street, and no permit to connect to the town sewer.

Project architect Holly Cratsley started calling civil engineers, hoping to find one who could produce the necessary drawings in record time. Thursday, as the clock ticked on toward the building department's 4:30 p.m. closing time, Janet stood over the engineer as he completed the first set of drawings, for the pavement cut. "I ran in the door of the building department with them at 4:23," she says. "Then I ran across the street to the water department and begged the superintendent of the department to wait a few minutes for the engineer to come over with the sewer drawings."

The good-natured superintendent waited for the engineer, but there were two more wrinkles to come. First, the permit could not be issued without the excavator posting a $5,000 bond for liability. Second, even with the permit issued, the town would not allow the trench to be cut on town property without a site inspection first. And there was no inspector available on Friday.

"So we would have been able to cut a trench down the driveway," says Janet, "but we couldn't have cut the last few feet to reach the town utilities. And of course we couldn't do anything without the bond. But it worked out okay. Tom was here on Friday morning at 7 a.m., and the first thing he did was to call the excavator, who faxed the bond to the town and took care of that. There was nothing we could do about the site inspection, but at least we got the permit taken care of by Friday, and we'll try to get the inspection on Monday so we can get the trench done next week."

In the end, the excavation did happen the following week (see Photo Gallery, below). The camera crew showed up to capture the dig for an episode of the show, and new host Kevin O'Connor got his first lesson in utility lines. By the end of the week, four individual trenches and their accompanying pipes and conduits were in place, and jackhammers had opened a hole in the foundation of the barn to bring all four utilities into the building.

The meeting of the lines at the barn seems unremarkable, but underground it's part logic problem, part ballet. The sewer line can never be above the water line, to protect the water supply from any future leaks in the waste pipe. Both water and sewer lines have to be placed below the frost line, and they have to be properly pitched. That's why the sewer, which has to be at least four and half feet below the surface to avoid freezing, is actually eight feet deep by the time it reaches the street.

The electrical conduit, just two feet below the ground, contains not only electrical power but also the television cable and a "future" line for connection needs down the road. Electrical lines, impervious to frost, don't have to be buried as deep as water and sewer lines, but they do have to be deep enough to keep them safe. "You don't want people digging in the garden and hitting a power line," says Tom. "It's even a good idea to run a red "caution" tape above the conduit, so anyone digging will hit the tape first and not cut the power line."

While the excavators were doing the digging, Tom's team was reinforcing some of the 2x4s in the barn's frame with 2x6s, coaxing bowed walls back to true, and framing out windows and doors. In the next week or so they'll be lowering the floor on the old barn's loft to create a second story for the cottage, framing the dormers, and pouring a foundation for the sitting room addition. Fortunately, there shouldn't be any more holes to dig.
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