My Observatory Odyssey – Part 5

Harry Keller 80By Harry Keller
Former ETCJ Science Editor
& President of SmartScience

Let me tell you about over-excavation in case you have never heard of it before.

May 10, 8:36 AM.  With a building permit approved and issued, we could move ahead with ancillary structures, which meant our 10’x10′ observatory. Here’s how we arranged everything. We paid Tuff Shed for a 10’x10′ standard shed without a roof attached. Because of the extra charge for the awkward location, it cost about the same as it would have with the roof.

The observatory foundation.

After some research, we chose PolyDome in Minnesota to provide a dome, including all automation, for about $10,000. We ordered the advanced telescope, made by Meade, that best fit our budget at the time. It is a fourteen-inch reflector. We also purchased a really nice digital camera. A local contractor put up our foundation for a reasonable price long before we had the permit because it is not a “structure.”

The observatory floor being installed.

I suspect that there is an art to dealing with county building officials. Contractors must master this art. I had to learn what I could on the fly. Mostly, you do your best to establish a rapport with them. Find out where they received their degrees and how long they have been on the job. Use any opening in the conversation to interject something personal and not controversial. I wish that I had had a better concept of how to do things in the beginning.

The Dome is the dome after schlepping it up the hill. I was assisted by two other men, and we barely made it.

Of course, the weather intervened. Our excavation contractor did the grading, a huge task. Then, the over-excavation was next. We could not have Tuff Shed deliver and install the observatory shed materials while backhoes were bouncing around the site. Let me tell you about over-excavation in case you have never heard of it before.

It’s really simple in concept. You dig a hole that is larger all around the foundation by five feet and is three feet deep. When that is nicely done, a geotechnical engineer comes by and certifies it. Then, you put the dirt back in the hole. If that sounds like the WPA to you, you must be as old as me or a real history buff. The over-excavated area was 1,400 square feet. The volume was about 155 cubic yards. The cost was $14,000.

The approximate observatory location on the land.

The over-excavation could not be done if the ground was frozen or muddy, and we had plenty of weather delays due to snow, rain, and temperatures in the teens. A few weeks went by, and, finally, the work was done. The excavator gave us the go-ahead for the shed.

I cannot begin to tell you how excited my wife and I were on that Friday when the installation team were scheduled to start at 9 am. We were there on time, and so were they! If you have had dealings with lots of contractors over the years, and you have been told, as we were, that they would be there between 9 and 11, you do not expect to see anyone until near 11 and maybe after. It just blew me away. The pair of workers were there with a small trailer holding the materials.

This driveway and grading image gives you some concept of the scale of the grading.

Everything was wonderful in that moment. The sky was blue. The trees had their first tiny green leaves on them. The air was crisp and clean. Happiness comes along now and then and usually doesn’t hang around. This day was to be no exception.

“Where is the power?” If you think that an unimproved lot in the mountains has power, then you have another think coming. Then, they looked at the hill up which they had to carry the pre-assembled 8’x10′ walls. No way!  The walls should have been built in two pieces, 8’x5′. After some calls to their boss, they installed the floor and left. They would return next week with a generator and the halved walls.

The plans for the foundation.

Click image to view the large topographic survey.

One Response

  1. I am enthralled by this story; the detail in its telling reflects the determination of the owners, against significant odds, if I may say so. It’s a modern folktale to perseverance, intelligence, human ingenuity and purpose; with a firm eye on a set goal; a clearer vision of the stars above us. So far so good. I am a committed follower. TK.

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