How they moved the Schifter house, step by astonishing step

How they moved the Schifter house, step by astonishing step

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The massive project involved moving the Schifter's main house, guesthouse, and garage, shown in the left of the photo, back from the ocean bluff to the property once occupied by the Leland house, shown in the right of the photo, which will be placed on a new foundation where it now sits. Poucha Pond is in the foreground. — Photo courtesy of Bill Brine

When Rick and Jennifer Schifter realized it was only a matter of time before the ocean that had drawn them to the remote southeast corner of Chappaquiddick would claim their treasured 8,300-square-foot summer house, they had a tough decision to make.

Built as a vacation retreat for them and their four daughters, changing currents and battered bluffs had left the Schifters with two choices. Demolish it, or move it.

“When we realized the harsh reality we faced and potentially seeing our house either fall into the ocean or being demolished, we felt the extreme measure of moving it should be explored,” Mr. Schifter told The Times in a phone conversation last week. A retired lawyer, Mr. Schifter is a private equity investment partner based in Washington, D.C.

Click here to view a slideshow of the Schifter House.

Earlier this month, a team of skilled engineers, house movers, and Island builders successfully moved not one, but three buildings 275 feet back from their original locations and the eroding bluffs at Wasque Point. The logistical challenges — from getting 650 tons of heavy equipment to Chappaquiddick using a series of small barges and a three-car ferry, to the move itself, has been nothing short of an engineering marvel.

The Times spoke with project engineer George Sourati of Vineyard Haven, Jerry Matyiko and Larry Cline of Maryland-based Expert House Movers (EHM), and Joseph Jakubik of New York-based International Chimney Corporation (ICC), to understand what went into a move of this magnitude.

No ‘I’ in team

“Once the decision was made to move the house, we had to come up with a plan to be able to do it,” said Mr. Sourati, a Lebanese born engineer who has been living on the Vineyard for the last 25 years. “We had to come up with the right contractors who could do it. And then we went through the process to determine if it was feasible.”

The resumés of Expert House Movers, a third-generation company based in Virginia, and International Chimney Corporation (ICC) included combined successful efforts to move the 4,830-ton Cape Hatteras lighthouse on the Outer Banks of North Carolina and the 7,400 ton ‘Building 51′ at Newark International Airport in New Jersey.

Mr. Cline treats each project individually. “I think you have to approach them with an open mind and be willing to look at it critically and allow the project to dictate how you perceive it,” he said.

Teamwork is critical when moving a large structure. “What we bring to the table is engineering and the glue that connects the owner with the finished product,” Joe Jakubik of ICC told the Times. “Every part of this project has been engineered from start to finish. We know how we’re going to unload it and the methods by which it’s going to stay there.”

Development

For these pros, the first stage of any project falls under design development. In this phase, they gather all applicable information and make preliminary decisions, mainly what portion of the structure will be relocated and to what location.

“It’s integral to have that information for us to be able to design a support system for the building,” Mr. Cline said. “For a project to go forward, there’s a lot of background work that has to be done before the ground is ever touched. That’s where George [Sourati] comes in.”

The Main House, as the movers called it, weighed in at approximately 1,600 tons and required 40 dollies, 19 of them self-propelled. Each dolly supported one 60-ton jack. The guesthouse weighed 150 tons and required four dollies. The Leland house on an abutting property, purchased and moved to make way for the Schifter house, weighed roughly 90 tons and also required four dollies. All of the dollies, with the buildings on them — known as the transport system — traveled along a pathway carved out of the sand.

Design

The design phase involved calculating the structure’s weight and center of gravity. The design for the support frame of steel beams and a hydraulic jacking system follows these calculations.

“We used a machine called a unified jacking machine,” Mr. Cline said. “This machine is one of the largest that’s ever been made, and it has 60 unified outlets. In other words, when we’re lifting the structure, every point comes up at exactly the same rate.”

“Because the house wasn’t moving straight back they had to use a dolly system instead of a track system,” Mr. Sourati explained. “With the track system there’s not much tolerance for turning. And usually the track system is a safer system, but here the house had to rotate 15 degrees, so the dolly system was the chosen method.”

Preparation

That was not the case with the Schifter house, which was moved with the foundation and basement, including a movie theatre and bowling alley, completely intact. In something akin to a mining operation, the earth was removed from the underside of the foundation six feet deeper than the lowest point. Shoring replaced the terrain and from there, a network of steel beams was inserted between the shoring to form a support frame.

“We didn’t want to abandon the concrete and have a disposal issue,” Mr. Jakubik said about moving the foundation, basement and all. “This is a very pristine environment and we’re doing our best to keep it that way.”

“Homes are moved around the country, but because of the size of the equipment that we needed, this was probably a little deeper excavation,” Mr. Matyiko said. “It is a very involved process just excavating the building. So the problem we had to look at was how to carry the basement.”

Pre-tensioning

Once the support frame was in place, the unified jacking machine did the heavy, precise lifting. The jacks all lift at the same rate, even though the loads they are lifting vary.

The lifts are accomplished in approximately 12-inch increments. Jacks individually retract after cribbing — stacks of oak timber arranged like Lincoln logs in piles about four feet square — is placed under the frame in preparation for the next lift.

Hydraulic pressure was gently increased to gradually take the “load” or distributed weight of the structure.

Because the Schifter house was already on shoring, the weight of the eccentric loads — specific house components which included the fireplace and chimney, were estimated first and supported by individual jacks prior to lifting the entire structure.

Once the entire load was totally supported on the unified jacking machine, the eccentric loads and center of gravity were accurately measured, which provided engineers with the information for the final positioning of the transportation system.

“Point loads, are very important,” said Jerry Matyiko. “Just imagine from a lady’s point of view walking in soft grass with high-heeled shoes. We had to get under that heel and support it and then pick it up, without moving it [the shoe]. And you got weight pushing down, so if we push up, if we’re not calculating right you’re gonna come up. Well that part of the house is gonna push up, not the rest of the house, just where that post is.”

“That’s the toughest part of what they had to do,” Mr. Sourati added. “All these point loads are totally different. You have to be able to figure out the right balance so everything is moving together.”

“That is what George’s firm did,” said Mr. Matyiko. “You’ve got two engineering firms. We’ve got George, who supplied us these point loads and loads that we could work with, and International Chimney, the engineering firm that could help design where beams had to go to carry these and that’s where Larry comes in. He does the math on the balancing, because this building is not a square box or a rectangle, it’s all over the place like most contemporary houses, and you have lots of point loads in contemporary houses.”

Transport

“To be honest people are excited about building moves, but when they’re actually watching it, it’s like watching grass grow,” Mr. Cline said.

When the support frame was tensioned against the underside of the foundation, the house was raised approximately six feet in order to install the transportation system.

“It is our normal procedure to move the buildings intact,” Mr. Matyiko said. “We don’t dismantle them or anything. We just take the entire building, that’s the normal procedure.”

While the hydraulic jacks and the main beams supported the house, another set of beams, called rockers, were installed underneath the support frame and rubber tired dollies, similar to large, heavy-duty truck tire assemblies, were placed underneath them. The dollies have their own jacks, which were activated to take the load of the structure.

At this point it is important to hydraulically provide three zones of common pressure across the support frame on the theory that three points determine a plane. “If you remember from your high school days, three-points define a plane and the reason is because three points cannot be distorted,” Mr. Cline explained.

“With a three-point system we’re able to do that very easily,” Mr. Matyiko said.

Each jack within an individual zone is allowed to “float,” or seek its own level. If a depression is encountered, the jack leading into the depression will extend, while all other jacks in the zone retract, maintaining equal pressure against the support frame.

The house is moved by hydraulically activating “drive” dollies underneath it. It is steered by manually turning each individual dolly in the proper direction. The steering is locked in place by chaining the dolly tongues together and using chain falls to adjust the tension.

Final destination

The house moved slowly along to a newly prepared footing and slab. Once at its final destination, the movers followed the reverse order of the lift. Cribbing was reinstalled under the main beams and jacks were then activated to support the frame so the rocker beams and dollies could be removed.

The house was then lowered to the desired elevation where new foundation walls or “in-fill” is currently being constructed around the support steel, which will later be removed. Separate footings were also constructed under key structural points, for example the chimneys.

“There will always be an additional crawl space under this building,” Mr. Matyiko said.

Weight is gold

Several factors affect the cost of any given project.

Mr. Sourati would not discuss the total cost or break down the component costs for the Schifter project. “We can tell you this,” Mr. Cline said. “The largest investment you have is your time, and that’s it. Now there are certain other factors like the different steps, excavating, jacking it up, sometimes we have to turn it around, so each process has an effect on cost. But a big factor is the weight. The sheer weight of the building influences the amount of equipment you need. Heavy weight creates its own problems, all of those factors go into determining what it will cost.”

Mr. Matyiko said he’s been on Island since April and plans on staying until mid-October. “You have to be focused into the job,” he said. “The rest of your life is on hold while you’re on these projects.”

“The team exuded confidence and made it seem like it wasn’t a big deal,” Mr. Schifter said about the project and the movers. “I was pleasantly surprised; it went off virtually without a hitch.”

The actual moving of the house has been the least anxiety provoking part of the whole thing, Mr. Schifter said. “I’ve been inside the house subsequent to the move and the pictures on the walls weren’t disturbed,” he said. “It’s really an impressive feat.”