Possible structural failure due to a hoarder's heap?
April 30, 2007 6:56 PM   Subscribe

I am concerned about the possibility of structural failure due to a hoarder's heap.

My 80+ year old mother has a woman friend in her 60's who lives with her much of the time, occupying a spare bedroom. The friend is a "compulsive hoarder"; i.e., a person who is constitutionally unable to discard anything - newspapers, boxes, magazines, old clothes etc. Her room looks like a dumpster (fortunately there is no organic matter and no odor). The debris "mass" occupies about 75% of the 15' x 13' room and on average is about 4 feet deep but in places approaches 6 feet. There is not even a goat path to get from the door to the bed; she crawls over the pile to get there.

There is a vague "plan" to get her stuff out of the room. But in the meantime I have numerous safety concerns (fire hazard, dust, mites, emergency egress), some of which are likely code violations.

I am wondering specifically about floor loading and the possibility of structural damage/failure. The heap is an undifferentiated mass, so I really don't know what the average density is (e.g., if it is 10% paper or 75% paper). So assuming (in the extreme case) that it is mostly newspaper/magazines, is there a possibility of structural failure? It is a 1950's frame house. The room is supported by wooden joists that run the 15 feet between the foundation wall and the beam running down the center of the house. Each joist is about 1" x 8 " with 45 deg X's cris-crossed between the joists. Sitting on the joists is the plywood subfloor, with hardwood above. Looking up from the basement, there is no obvious sign of damage.

Any advice or suggested analytical approach would be appreciated.
posted by Kevin S to Human Relations (12 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
The squalor survivor website has a lot of great information and links to help deal with the problems of hoarding.

I think that you do not have to worry too much about your specific structural concerns. Your other safety concerns (fire etc.) are much more of a "clear and present" danger.
posted by extrabox at 7:17 PM on April 30, 2007

Just to give you feeling of what kind of density is bad for a floor, 55 gallon aquariums can be placed in almost all houses without a problem.

However, a floor joist can be really badly cracked and you won't really notice it unless you inspect it very closely with a flashlight or have someone walking on the floor while you're looking at it. The changes in pressure will cause any cracks in the floor joists to open and close and actually let you see their presence.

The other thing that lets you know that there is a problem with the joists is, for lack of a better description, a "bonking" noise. It isn't the normal creaking or popping sound that happens in houses a few decades old every time you walk on a specific area, it's a very distinct sound that only occurs occasionally when you walk on a specific spot.

The simplest solution to alleviate your worries is to get some floor jacks, they're usually about $30 each, and place them under the floor joists that are under the room in question. They will easily hold several tons.
posted by 517 at 7:17 PM on April 30, 2007

Here's a previous question about how to help a hoarder clean up. Some of those strategies might be relevant to your situation.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:22 PM on April 30, 2007

I'm not sure it's feasible to gather all the information you'd need to figure this out defiitively; there are just too many variables, the most important being the average density of the debris. Think of the difference in weight between a "full" wastepaper basket and an equal volume of stacked books. If you (or someone) wanted to try, there are a couple other numbers you'd definitely need:

1) What is the spacing between joists?

2) What are the dimensions and composition of the center beam? Is there anything supporting it along its length, and what is the spacing between those supports?

If you're really concerned about this, it'd be pretty cheap insurance to buy some 4x4 posts (or on preview, 517's floor jacks) and wedge them in under the joists. You can probably be most helpful by getting the stuff hauled away, since you're absolutely right about the fire/emergency egress hazards.
posted by contraption at 7:25 PM on April 30, 2007

A store in my neighborhood had to close for a couple months due to a hoarder above them. His floor eventually collapsed into the store below due to the weight of his crap.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 7:28 PM on April 30, 2007

well, this might be an opportunity to get this woman some help. tell her that the floor is buckling and it has to be repaired. offer to help her clean out the room and put it into a storage space. and then tell her she can't stay there until she seeks treatment for her problem. (gently, nicely, compassionately--this woman is ill and needs an intervention.)
posted by thinkingwoman at 7:36 PM on April 30, 2007

Don't be a Collyer.
posted by caddis at 8:04 PM on April 30, 2007

When engineers size floor joists they figure for both live and dead loads. From what you say, the dead load in that room has gone way past what any reasonable person would anticipate. A fifteen foot span for 2x8 joists is marginal at best with today’s lumber, but they had better stuff to work with 60 years ago.

Those angled cross purlins are better than code nowadays. Also “dimensional” lumber has changed dimensions since your house was built. Back then a 2x8 actually measured 2"x8", or a little more... now its 1 5/8"x7 5/8", or a little less. And the wood was stronger, harder and more dense, at least in the East with old Southern Yellow Pine. I’ve done a lot of remodeling, and I always turn up the nailgun for old wood.

Even so, that structure is living on borrowed time.
posted by Huplescat at 8:13 PM on April 30, 2007

Heh, Pigpen of Squalor Survivors here. I'm speaking from personal experience as a someone who had a mild case of hoarding and recovered without professional assistance. I wouldn't know if this particular house is in jeopardy, but structural damage has been caused by hoards, for sure. I'd be more worried about her personal safety in the case of a fire or medical emergency though.

I would second thinkingwoman's advice about approaching the issue "gently, nicely, compassionately". However, I don't think it's a good idea to lie to her, e.g. telling her the floor is buckled if it isn't. You need her to be able to trust you if you're going to offer to help her clean out the room. Storage space may or may not be an option, depending on her financial situation. Hoarders often don't like other people interfering and touching "their" possessions, so if you offer to help, be prepared for a long and painful process. There are professional organisers who specialise in helping hoarders. The National Study Group on Chronic Disorganization may be able to help with a referral. Each and every item will have to be picked up to consider all the implications of throwing it out. If you antagonise her by trying to take over the decision-making process, or she decides you can't be trusted, she may just shut you out completely.

Legally, you're the son of her friend, you're not in a position to tell her she can't stay there unless she seeks treatment, and she'll know that. Of course if there actually are code violations, you can dob her in, but do you really want to do that? I think you'll get better results if you can show compassion and love, rather than disapproval and judgement. Also, you can set a goal of reducing the hoard by half, rather than eliminating it. Anything will be an improvement. When you're in the middle of the process, focus on what has been accomplished, not how much is left to do.

And..... GOOD LUCK! :-)
posted by Pigpen at 8:33 PM on April 30, 2007

Pigpen and others: It's my mother's house, so (at least if my mother agrees) I can be the designated bad guy and remove her friend's hoard myself or hire someone to do it. My mother very much wants it removed, but hesitates to force the situation upon her friend who also serves as a care-taker/helper.

Agreed that fire/egress are a clear and present danger but that structural failure is an unknown (not be exagerated or dismissed), as reflected by the varying responses above.

The dilemma is that 1. the friend is a truely pathological hoarder; 2. my mother wants the friend to stay but realizes the room is a danger and contrary to her own sense of order; 3. the son (that's me) would also like the friend to stay but has a heightened sense of the danger and potential structural problem.

So even though it's not recommended, I'm tempted to clear the hoard rapidly (after due warning, offering to work with her etc.). Otherwise I fear this will go on forever with my mother, in her ninth decade, in the middle of it.

Thinkingwoman's and Pigpens, I understand and appreciate your advice to approach the problem gently. I have come to realize that Friend values every scrap of paper as much as the average person values their wedding picture (i'm not being sarcastic here).

Structural people - I will have to get more precise measurements (I'm working from memory since i'm a few hours away). Hadn't thought of the floor jacks.

Thanks everyone.
posted by Kevin S at 9:47 PM on April 30, 2007

One thing to keep in mind is code requirements are for excessive springiness (even the US L/480 requirement), the structural limits are much higher.
posted by Mitheral at 10:35 PM on April 30, 2007

Mitheral - good point; I hadn't appreciated the distinction between springiness and stuctural limit. So I've done a little more web self-education, and see that springyness = deflection. So I've convinced myself that there is a good chance that there is a code violation though not an imminent danger of failure. It seems that the u.s. code generally provides for 30lb/ft^2 average loading for a bedroom, easily violated with stacks of magazines (1 ft high stack >35 lb). A good % floor covering with mags would do the trick deflection wise, but prob not structurually.
posted by Kevin S at 9:17 AM on May 1, 2007

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