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I'm planning to build a 14ft x 16ft A-Frame on grade in Vermont this summer. The frost line here is 4ft. My site is at the top of a small, wooded knoll. I know from some exploratory digging that The first 10 - 12in or so of soil is somewhat gravelly forest loam. Below that is layer of fine sand. I dug 18 - 24in into this sand, but presumably it continues deeper.

Because the structure I want to build is relatively small, I am considering digging deep enough to rest the foundation on the layer of sand described above. The idea would be to pour nine footings on the sand layer that would serve as the base for short concrete piers to support three carrier beams that would be the base for the structure.

My hope is that the sand will provide adequate enough drainage to prevent freezing and heaving, even though the foundation would be resting above frost line. I'm also hoping that, given the small footprint of my cabin, the entire structure would float up and down if the ground heaves.

Have others built small structures without getting the foundation below frost line? How has this worked out for you?

Does the foundation I've described sound reasonable given what I am planning to do, or are there modifications I should make?

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Sand (as opposed to larger material with larger pore spaces - e.g. rubble trench foundation, train track ballast rock) will hold enough water to freeze and move.

If your cabin has no plumbing or electrical going into the ground, I have several 8x12 sheds supported by pressure treated lumber piers that are simply set on the surface of the ground (removing the leaves/humus, but not otherwise "digging") which have been fine for 20 years now in a cold climate.

If you do have plumbing or electrical going into the ground, movement can be a problem. Cheap foundation option is basically to go "pole building" style and set treated posts into the ground below frost depth in postholes - they don't need to be concrete piers, but they do need to be below frostline.

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    I agree, sand is the wrong material to carry moisture away from the building site. We’ve used a 16” layer of large drainrock with 4” perf pipe at 10’ on center to drain wet areas under buildings. (I’m anxious to hear from 4restg if there is plumbing and electrical service.) – Lee Sam Feb 22 at 15:59
  • Thanks to you both. I'm getting a real education about sand! No, there will not be plumbing or electric. – 4restg Feb 22 at 16:46
  • I think what I'm taking away from this so far is that I should be ok not going below frost line of I don't have plumbing / electric. Also, if I'm going that route digging to the sand layer wouldn't be of benefit, given that sand can still hold water and freeze. Ecnerwal and Lee Sam, would you agree? – 4restg Feb 22 at 17:45
  • @4restg Not removing the topsoil layer is a mistake. The weight of your cabin will cause the topsoil to compress and often it will compress at different amounts due to 1) different thicknesses of topsoil, and 2) different loading from furniture, snow loads, etc. All buildings settle. You want it to be uniform. Differential settlement will cause cracking, etc. Plus soup will spill out of your soup bowl when you sit at the dining room table and you could fall out of bed in the middle of the night. – Lee Sam Feb 23 at 1:04
  • @Ecnerwal, thanks again for your advice. I meant to ask you something about your sheds. What (if anything) do you do to anchor them against high wind? – 4restg Mar 3 at 14:15
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I recently did a deck as follows:

  • Auger out 2 foot deep holes.
  • Put in 6" of washed gravel.
  • Put in a 5 gallon pail with the bottom removed.
  • Adusted pails until open tops were all even.
  • Filled pails with gravel.
  • Filled sides of hole with gravel.
  • Topped gravel with the waste from digging the hole sloped in a cone away from the hole.
  • Placed a pyramidal deck support block on top of each pail
  • Built the deck

This was a quick and dirty deck to see if we'd actually use it. The decking itself were salvaged 6.5 foot pallets used for shipping tires. (made with 2x8s top and bottom. Heavy)

The deck was done 7 years ago, and has shown no sign of movement despite our living in a very cold climate (8 foot frost depth) and having a roof without eaves troughs.

Subsoil is a mix of very fine sand (100 micron) and silt.


In passing: AFter having lived in a 16 x 24 A frame one summer, I hate them. The space near the sloped wall/roof is difficult to use. A shed roof cabin the same size is easier, quicker, and cheaper to build and has more useful space.

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    Thanks Sherwood. I wouldn't be living in it - just a weekend retreat. All the same, though, I appreciate the perspective. I have not lived in an A-Frame. One reason I am considering this route is that I won't be going out to shovel snow off the roof and figured this would be my best bet for a snow load. – 4restg Feb 22 at 18:54
  • A 30 degree pitch slope surfaced with painted metal roofing will self unload everytime the metal gets up to melting point of water. South facing windows, and attic access ports allow solar heat to keep the roof clear when you aren't there. My house self clears with a 3:12 slope -- 14 degrees, and with 18" of insulation in the roof. – Sherwood Botsford Feb 24 at 23:54
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    Even far north in Vermont it's not at all difficult to build a roof to take the snow loads; especially if you provide a center bearing wall or use I-joists. IMHO the only reason to build an A-frame is that (for some reason) you really want an A-frame. They are otherwise impractical in many ways. – Ecnerwal Mar 3 at 19:48

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