More Than Just a Trade: Master Craftsmen of the Building Arts


Shoring, Plant and Maintenance Engineering

On Shoring, Plant and Maintenance Engineering:

We use a scientific approach, number one, to measure the house to see how straight it is. Number two, we excavate and look at the foundations to see, "Does that foundation have all of the same qualities that are required to continue to hold up a house?" If those foundations are inadequate, they should be changed. And to me, that's more than just a personal judgment, that part is a scientific approach. And the repairs, we use a scientific approach to repair them. You use engineering principles and practices to modify and change foundations. You don't just, off the top of your head, say "I think I'll just put this, or I think I'll put something else." You use engineering formulas to design, and modify, and repair foundations.

--Herman Abry, House Shorer

I've found, from speaking to people just generally, as you're passing by, a lot of tourists find it so fascinating how there's just so much preserved in this city as far as the richness of the history and heritage and its architecture. So many backgrounds. The French dominance and the Spanish dominance in the beginning and, you name it, it's there. It's live and active. The people in most of these neighborhoods I see, they're taking on a revival, a renaissance if you will, of the old. Not old as in a negative way, but as reclaiming history and making it a part of their life. It's something to pass down to children and grandchildren.

--Tom Hewitt, Classified Maintenance Engineer for the City of New Orleans

Every house is constructed differently, whether it's a frame house on piers or a slab house that's built in two different systems or ways. Each house has pretty much its own corrective methods. One method doesn't correct all. You have to take each job as an individual, analyze how it was constructed, also analyze what went wrong with it, where it's sinking and why. And you pick, from a whole basket of solutions, the one that's best suited to stabilize and re-align.

--Herman Abry, House Shorer

A frame house is up on piers, where you could crawl underneath and look at the wooden floor joists; you can look at the sills. Before the 1920s, foundations didn't even consist of concrete. They didn't even start pouring concrete foundations until the teens. Prior to that, any foundation of a house was just brick, down into the clay. Needless to say, in the New Orleans area, these clays are somewhat unstable. When these brick foundations settle, the house get out of alignment, get out of level, the floors would have a slant to them. So the process is to go in between every pier, and put down some temporary wooden blocks, and set a jack on top those wooden blocks. And you can't just set one or two jacks—you have to set jacks underneath the entire house, a jack in between each pier. You measure the highest and lowest elevations of that floor. From there you have a guideline as to where to raise it, and how much you have to raise it, to make the house level. So you systematically keep adjusting the jacks, working on the jacks. Years ago we didn't even use hydraulic jacks, we used what we called a screw jack; it was nothing but a big old jack with threads in it. You put a bar in it and just turn it. And you had to systematically keep going from one jack to the other, and turning until you have the base of the house as level as you're gonna get it. From there, the process is, if you have brick piers, to add more brick to those piers to fill up the space where it was raised. And after that was done, you could pull the jacks out and load them on your truck and go to another job. That's frame houses.

--Herman Abry, House Shorer

Shorers were interviewed as part of the New Orleans Building Arts Project. Laura Westbrook edited More than Just A Trade: Master Craftsmen of the Building Arts in 2004 for publication online.