Building On Rock: Why It’s Critical To Get The Foundation Right

Last week a work crew dug eight deep holes under my home’s foundation. We’re talking coffin-deep holes. The purpose was to solidify the house, which clings to a steep hill, but a series of unexpected setbacks made the project more exciting than planned. At the same time I’ve been reworking a manuscript that needed a little more steel in its structure. 

Here’s what these efforts have been teaching me: fixing a foundation is the hardest work there is; it’s also the most important.

picture by Me. Artistic lens by  Prisma .

picture by Me. Artistic lens by Prisma.

Cracks Reveal Things Worse Than You Think

The definition of “crack” is a line on the surface of something along which it has split without breaking into separate parts. A crack means things are moving, but not they have not entirely broken...yet.

So cracks are an odd blend of danger (it’s breaking) and hope (you can still fix the problem). That makes hidden cracks the worst.

This makes hidden cracks the worst. But the most important part of a building’s foundation is underground. That means the cracks you see above the dirt are only signs of what lurks below. At my house, after some strong dudes dug in with their shovels, they found more cracks than expected. 

That’s how it is with foundations. You have to start the project, clear away some of the cover-up, before you realize how deep the problems go.  

Sometimes It Rains On Your Project

The last thing you want with coffin-deep holes under your house is rain. Thus, Murphy’s Law. As soon as my home’s foundation was at its weakest, the rain started. The workers had to pack up, cover the holes the best they could, and go home. The next day it rained again. And the next day. It must have set a record: five straight days of constant torrential downpour.

As my house hung precariously on the side of the hill, I started interpreting routine sounds as dismal signs. That tapping sound? Must be cracks splintering through support beams. That sliding sound? Must be the house falling off the hill... 

Luckily I was wrong. My house still stands. But it’s crazy how the mind can play tricks on us. So when we are in the middle of repairing any foundation, we have to overcome the nuisance of constant fear. If it rains on your project, try this as you press on through the messy work:

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” - Frank Herbert, Dune

Strengthen The Foundation To Build Higher

Have you ever noticed that, when a skyscraper is being built, it seems to take longer to dig the big hole in the ground than the tower above ground? When I wrote The Babel Tower about building the tallest tower in the modern world, I did a lot of research and thinking about the deep, deep foundations of skyscrapers. Here is an excerpt of how I described it:

The Babel Tower  - The tallest building requires the strongest foundation

The Babel Tower - The tallest building requires the strongest foundation

The foundation will be five hundred feet deep, and about three thousand feet on each side. ‘It’s like nine football fields put together. And it goes deep enough to hit water.’...Liz studied the muddy surface below. Shafts of metal rose out of the brown water, reaching for her like fingers. They went all the way around the pit, each one angled toward the center. Six thick shafts rose up in the center, coiling around each other like DNA...‘Those six shafts go down another five hundred feet, and a block of concrete the size of the White House anchors them down.’

The workers on my house didn’t add any blocks of concrete the size of the White House, but they did put down eight steel beams to the bedrock. During the rain my mind told me the house was falling any moment. Now my mind tells me this house could withstand Godzilla. Maybe I should add a few floors. With a foundation this strong, I could build up and up and up.

The same principle applies to any major project. As I’ve been reworking my manuscript, I have been going down to the girders, ensuring that the Story Engineering is sound, before adding the twists and the polish that will make the book soar. No one cares about a few lines of quality prose if the climax doesn’t rise, if the characters don’t fascinate, and the conclusion does’t satisfy.

Pro Tip: Avoid The Need For Repairs

Do you have any cracks in the foundation of your house, your projects, your relationships, or yourself? Waste no time. Spend what it takes. Shore up your foundation so you can get on with building higher.

But are you starting something new? Then devote whatever resources are necessary to get the foundation right. It is a lot easier to start strong, building on the rock, than to build on sand and discover cracks down the road. Remember what the wisest man once said: “And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.”