The Craigslist House
  Description of the Property
  Tree Removal Services
  Pests and Pest Removal Services
  Mold and Moisture Problems
  French Drains
  Sealing the Stucco
  Legalizing Second Unit
  Engineers, Architects andtheLike
  Parking/Retaining Wall Project
  Foundation Types
  Foundation Contractors
  Helical Screw Contractors
  Dirt, Debris and Demo
  Rain, Rain, Rain
  Fire Sprinkler Vendors
  Framing Contractors

Replacing the Decks

  Engineers, Architects and the Like  
Soils Engineers

Here in southern Marin, two names popped up more than others: Bob Setgas (415-492-1747) and Jay Nelson (P.O. Box 3410, San Rafael, CA 415-383-0935).
Setgas had a reputation as a guy not always trying to cover his ass. (Apparently many soils engineers avoid any risk of liability by requiring everything to be overengineered.)

I had Bob Setgas out for a visit. He raced around the hill, pointed at things, came into the house, put a level on the floor, commented that the house had been here for more than half a century and wasn't going anywhere. 

Among his comments:

 "You have to be careful when you start repairing; you'll never finish." 

 "This house should have been torn down. You'll never bring this up to current standards."

His one-hour visit cost $200.

I ended up having Jay Nelson do the soils report - because he was easier to schedule. This was not an inexpensive proposition - the price was $1500 for either the parking area or house to be analyzed, or $1900 to do them both... The immediate project was the retaining wall for the expanded parking area, but I knew that at some point I would have to consider the house's foundation issue. I agreed to the $1900 "deal."

Jay showed up with a crew of a half-dozen. They quickly broke apart into teams, and started digging holes. They dug perhaps nine holes total, each about a foot across and six feet deep. Then a pipe was placed in each hole, and a weight gravity-dropped to a care-sampling device at the pipe's base. These "hammer-blows" are recorded, and the density of the clay calculated by how much penetration is achieved by each blow. The core sample is also examined - to determine what kind of dirt it is and how likely it is to slide. Nineteen hundred bucks… Not a bad business.


Although I spoke with a few surveyors, Larry Doyle (P.O. Box 1609 Mill Valley, CA 415-388-9585) had the soonest appointment - six weeks out. Since the purpose of the survey was getting the county to approve the parking spot expansion, I contracted for just the front corners of the lot, plus a topography of the front portion. 

The charge came to $3200: $220/hour for a two-man crew for six hours plus 17 hours of office work billed at $110/hour. Wow. For a partial survey. Seems high...

Structural Engineers

The parking space retaining wall was engineered by Tuan and Robinson (221 Main Street, Suite 860, SF CA 415-957-2480). Eugene Tuan's a friend, but it seems that I purchased drawings that were overkill. It was my fault. I hired an engineer whose specialty was commercial work. After spending over $2000, I threw the drawings away and hired another engineer, David Olnes (Oakland, CA 510-568-2162). Read more about the parking space, retaining wall and stairs at Parking Cutout.

At the same time that I was commissioning drawings for the parking area retaining wall, I was also shopping for a structural engineer comfortable with hillside foundation upgrades. Two names popped-up in the conversations I had with different Marin contractors: one was Buhl and the other was Henry Larsen (200 Gate 5 Rd #206 Sausalito, CA 94965, 415-332-7754). I don't remember whether I spoke with Buhl or not, but somehow the Larsen relationship took root. He visited the property and seemed like a good enough guy, and over the past few years I've written plenty of checks to him. 

The price for the foundation upgrade for the old square and pantry was $3300. That's real money. However, contractors that looked at the drawings said they were good drawings. I asked others if the foundation was over-engineered and was told that it wasn't. 


Although an architect seems like a luxury, the articles suggest that it is penny-wise pound-foolish to skip this step. 

I interviewed a few architects about the expanded parking area and the house. One contractor suggested Jared Polsky out of Larkspur, (415-927-1156 extension 301.) He came by. His portfolio was beautiful; it contained the types of homes you see in the richest neighborhoods of Tiburon and Aspen and thereabouts. It was somewhat embarrassing to have him look at our home. He suggested that perhaps we should get drawings done elsewhere, to save a few bucks, but he would be glad to look at them, limiting our total expense with him. That was classy, and I liked the guy. 

Next architect: James Mallot. (P.O. Box 555 Tiburon, CA 94920, 415-435-9994.) I think we met him via Craigslist. He came out, seemed rock-solid, had opinions, seemed a good man. We hired him. I was working on the parking space/retaining wall. He came out, and sketched a vision. He came out again during the soils engineer visit. At the time I was excited by all the activity, but in retrospect, it's not clear why the architect was there... other than to bill me $160 an hour. 

At this same time I was studying hill trams - the 50 stairs to the top seemed like a liability and Terry and I have a few friends who can't visit us as a result of the climb. Mallot added a hill tram track to his sketch, and correctly advised me that the tram's landing typically was not flush with the ground, but up a few stairs, as a result of machinery required underneath the landing area. 

I received a bill for $800+. I noticed that his daughter was billed at $85 an hour for apparently having picked up some papers from his office in Tiburon, so that I could then pick them up from her, in... Tiburon.  Huh? I paid his bill, but knew that Mallot was not my kind of provider. I stopped contact. Remarkably, he billed me the next month, for conversations, including some that I could prove did not take place, since I had been in Mexico at the time with no phone. So - What can I say about the architect Jim Mallot? It's best that I simply stick with the facts, and let the reader decide.

Another architect we spoke with Bill Cullin (147 Lomita Drive ste L, Mill Valley, CA 415-381-2443). Bill seems to be connected to the Marin bureaucracy and that's useful. He understands the magic of certain words in a permit application (like my "voluntary" foundation upgrade). He understands the power held by different departments. He came by our home and spoke about what building permits are required, what might trigger re-assessment, remodels - he knows the game.

Finally, in January 2008, after the foundation remodel was started, we hired an architect to look at the house layout options. This is an architect we met on Craigslist (of course); his name is Brent McDonald, (129 Jasper Place San Francisco, CA 94133, 415-362-7441.) Brent was clear up-front that nothing was free - even his initial visit. "If you ask me to breath I will charge you." However, his rate was better than the others. And when he came out here, he had opinions. Although we haven't bonded, I think he's smart as hell. And that's what I want. I highly recommend Brent McDonald.



The soil engineer's team taking a core sample.

A core sample.

Engineer Dave Olnes, at the work-site, checking progress.

Engineer Henry Larsen, inspecting the rebar for the downstairs slab.

Henry Larsen checking the deck piers.

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Last Updated Feb 2014.