• Erin

All About Excavating

If words like “backfill,” “zero-step entry,” and “granular fill” aren’t in your vocabulary yet, they will be once you build a home! Looking back, this is an area of the home building process that I knew very little about when we started… but it truly is some important stuff. So, if you’re like me and digging basements isn’t really your thing, then keep reading and you’ll be able to talk with your builder about excavating like a pro.

This is what a lot looks like right after the top soil is stripped and stockpiled.

The plan for excavating really starts before you finalize your house plans. Meeting your builder on-site at your lot is super important, and something that we always do right from the beginning with our clients. If you’ve already purchased a lot, then you’ve probably considered some of the big decisions. First, what type of home are you building? Do you want a 1-story ranch style house, or a 2-story? Next, there are other features you might want to think about before your final plan is done and before beginning any excavating at all:


WALL HEIGHT: How tall with your walls be? For example, standard basement wall height is 7’10” (often referred to as an 8’ basement) but many people decide to make their home with taller basement ceilings. The reason is because if you decide to finish this part of your home someday, then it looks more like “normal” living space. Meaning that it won’t have that low ceiling that basements often have, even when you finish the ceiling under the ductwork. In my own home, we decided on 8’10” basement walls (referred to as a 9’ basement) for this very reason.


EXPOSURE: Another big decision during this stage of home building is based on the topography of your lot. Do you plan to have an exposed basement (meaning that you could walk right out of a basement door to your backyard), a partially exposed basement (meaning that your basement has windows), or no exposure at all? The way that your lot is sloped is a huge determining factor in which of these options you’re able to consider. Speaking of the slope of your lot, you might also want to look into making your home “zero-step entry.”

Getting ready for footings, right after excavation.

ZERO-STEP ENTRY: Zero-step entry means that there are no steps to enter your house. So, your garage floor would be graded to the same level as your home and also the sidewalk and porch at your front door. This isn’t an option for everyone, because it depends on the slope of your lot, but it’s a great idea for many. Homeowners who decide to go with zero-step entry are typically looking at their home in a long-term type of way. They consider that they want to be living in this house when they get to retirement age and want to be sure that it’s easily accessible. A zero-step entry home is also a common choice for any homeowners who may be in a wheelchair or have visiting family members who are.


PLACEMENT: Next, the placement of your house on your lot is determined. In situations where you’re building on a city lot, the municipality’s setbacks and rules for building often determine this for you. Usually, you have to stay a certain number of feet away from the lot lines or there could be other restrictions. If you have a larger property, then it comes down to what you want to see out your windows and how you want your property to look from the road. When you’re drinking your morning cup of coffee at the table, what view are you hoping to be gazing out at? In my own home, we placed our house specifically to be able to take advantage of the country views facing the backyard. To achieve this, we walked around on the lot and visualized the house in different placement scenarios until we came up with a plan that matched our vision – and this is exactly how your builder can help you, too. You can also consider the existing trees on your lot. Are there certain ones that you want to keep? Would you have to shift your house to a different spot in order to preserve the ones you want? And finally, drainage. If you’re like me and don’t know a lot about this, ask your builder to help you pick good house placement that will allow the best drainage options as well.

The dining room view!

Now, it’s time to get ready for digging! Staking out the basement is the very first step in excavating. The builder and excavator meet on-site to stake out the project, go over trees that are being saved, and to talk about whether or not any of the excavated material will be saved for filling the garage and/or porches. After a home is excavated, the garages and porches are filled with gravel (granular fill) that is easily compacted. To prevent settling as time goes on, we only use “good” granular fill for filling these areas. Some of the times, granular fill needs to be imported if the excavated materials on your lot are clay. Importing fill is something that adds to the cost of the overall project, but it’s something that we typically account for right from the start. Our clients appreciate that they know about the potential cost up front and also like that they are getting good quality fill material which will hold up better in the long run.


When the big, heavy machines arrive on your lot, that’s when you know that things are really ready to get going. And… if you have little kids, this could be the highlight of the experience for them – watching the diggers! The top soil is stripped and stockpiled on-site to be used later. Then, the basement and garage footings are excavated, meaning that a hole is dug for each. It’s so neat to watch your lot transform as the excavating begins!


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