Will the coronavirus pandemic impact construction prices? Learn more about this complicated question.
Surprises That Come Up During Construction: Crumbling Walls with Rotten Wood

Ask an Architect

Surprises That Come Up During Construction

As much as you may want a surprise-free construction experience, there’s no way around it: there will be surprises. In fact, the surprises that come up during construction can be on the crazy or amazing side, so we thought it would be fun to highlight some real examples our team has experienced.

May 8, 2020

Remodeling a house is an amazing thrill: you get to transform something that is no longer functioning well for the modern world into something that is full of new life. Helping clients discover the potential in their older home is still my favorite part of my job. It isn’t always easy, however. Opening up old walls, digging down into the dirt, or pulling up floors leads to all sorts of surprises. Being involved during construction ensures that when a surprise pops up, an architect can help craft a solution that doesn’t take the design off-course. We feel so strongly about the necessity of our involvement during construction that we waive our liability when we aren’t involved, as there’s just no way of knowing how the project gets to the finish line. Construction is exciting — most certainly never boring — and we’re here to help a project not only get to the finish line, but in the way it was intended to.

There’s no way around it: as much as you may want them not to, there will be surprises. In fact, the surprises that come up during construction can be crazy, and I thought it would be fun to highlight some real examples that various of us have experienced, so we polled the team. Enjoy!

For real: actual stories about surprises that come up during construction.

Missing Foundation Footings

Thinking of dropping your basement slab and getting some more ceiling height? It can make a lot of sense but be aware that dropping a basement slab is always a shot in the dark. You hope everything will be great, and you hope there is a continuous footing beneath the concrete walls. On a recent project, a fast-moving contractor missed seeing that there was no footing and poured a slab before we could catch it. The slab had hydronic tubes in it. Consequently, when we came into water issues and flooding, we had to retrofit a solution. But since the hydronic tubes were in it, to ensure that they didn't get messed up, we had to have a slab x-ray.

Archeological Relics

Even large projects can be hit by surprises. This one was on a large apartment project that some of our team worked on at a previous firm. Sometimes, you start digging and find yourself a Columbian mammoth tusk. No, you don't get to just keep going when that happens. All work needs to stop so that tusk can eventually go into a museum.

A House Held Up by Siding and Drywall

A friend of mine was going to replace the electrical in his house. As part of a larger remodel, he removed the drywall along the entire south wall of his house, which was over 40' long. Only when doing this did he realize that not a single wall stud was continuous from the bottom to the top, as they had all been cut for plumbing or electrical reasons over the years. The siding (and the previous drywall) was literally holding up the house!

Insect Troubles

Carpenter ants can leave some nasty damage. We’ve seen wall studs completely eaten away and rim joists that look fine from the inside, but you can poke your finger through.

Board-Formed Concrete

On a project in Spokane, a concrete wall had been poured against a wood wall with lap siding. When we removed the wood wall there was a cool reverse lap pattern in the (now exterior) concrete wall. So, not all surprises are bad! And, as a bonus, there was a license plate from 1915.

Settled Floors & Hidden Secrets

For one project we worked on (an old Craftsman-style house), during construction, the contractor found out just how much the floor had settled, creating a weird condition between a piece of trim and the ceiling. The first proposed solution for how the two would meet was not great, so we consulted to find a creative solution to save the day. Also, during that same project, as the contractor was demolishing a wall, they found a beautiful old wood pocket door that was sealed away!

Rock Formations as Foundations

There was a substantial rehabilitation project for a historic landmark lodge in Eastern Washington. The scope of work included a modern foundation, as well as lots of great amenities like heat, a gallery, a first-aid office, public bathrooms, a library, and more. During the beginning of the construction process, the contractor found a huge rock formation in the crawl space that was basically supporting the building. The rock had to be carefully removed to make way for the new foundation.

Live Light Fixtures

We can't tell you how many times we've touched an old brass light fixture in a pre-WWII house and the thing electrocuted me because it wasn't grounded and the wiring wasn't insulated, thus making the entire fixture “live” and dangerous.

Vestigial Utilities

In my own house, I found all of the old gas lighting plumbing hidden in the walls.

Human Remains

One of our employees worked in Washington D.C. on large residential projects. They were excavating an underground garage and in-ground pool in Georgetown and the crew found human remains from the 18th century! Construction had to be halted and the Smithsonian came and extracted them for study. Apparently, before Georgetown was a wealthy area, there were a lot of graveyards for the poor and minority communities.

Disintegrating Wall Structure

On a project currently under construction, the wall was opened up and the sill plate (the bottom of a wall) was basically dust. The picture at the top of this post is of the contractor crumbling the wood with his bare hand!

Grab Bag

On almost every project, we have found letters, newspapers, random objects, and toys!

The Secret Stash

On my own home, I found a stash of early 20th-century porn in the walls!


Construction may lead to an amazing project in the end but it sure doesn’t mean that fun (or crazy) surprises won’t happen along the way. And, we’re here for you as they come up.

Would you like to read more from the team?

If you enjoy reading our blog as much as we enjoy writing it, that just makes our day! You might also enjoy a few of the related posts below. And, if there is a topic that you wish we would cover, let us know!

What Different Line Types in Architecture & Design Drawings Mean

Thick lines, thin lines, lines with short or long dashes (or both!) — if you don’t speak the language of all these line types, an architecture or design drawing can be pretty mystifying. This primer on design drawing linework will give you a starter toolkit so you can tell what you’re looking at.

Remodeling Your Brick House

What should you consider when remodeling a brick house? Sure, brick is just another conventional building material, but remodeling a brick home presents some unique design challenges. Here’s what to look out for and think about when you’re considering a remodeling a house made of brick.

Ten Things to Consider When Buying a Home You Want to Remodel

What if the new home you’re considering most definitely isn’t your dream home? There’s a lot an architect can do to help you achieve your dreams but not every dream is achievable in every home. Before jumping into a huge investment, check out our top ten things to know before purchasing a home you want to remodel.

Considering a project? Or, just curious about something?

Send us your questions about design, architecture, interiors, landscape, third places, LEGO rooms… Anything, really. We’re always eager to meet new people, and we’d love to get to know you, your project, and your goals.

Get in touch.