Here Is How Engineers Move Buildings

Did you know you can actually have your house moved? Find out how.
Christopher McFadden

When it comes to finding the perfect home, one common mantra is "location, location, location". But, for some, this might not be the most critical factor.

If you have found the perfect building, but don't like the location, why not consider picking it up and moving it somewhere else? Problem solved. 

Here we explore what structure relocation is, and look at some interesting examples throughout history.  


How do you relocate a building?

Prior to any physical lifting and moving of a building, careful planning needs to take place. This will involve the work of specialist engineers and building inspectors, to check that the building is structurally sound in the first place. 

building relocation old photo
1970s photo of two buildings being relocated in San Francisco. Source: Dave Glass/Flickr

Blueprints of the building will then be put to the table to determine which parts of the building require the most support during the lifting and transportation process. Items that aren't fixed in place, like furniture and some non-structural walls, can also be removed to reduce the weight of the building prior to lifting — but this is not actually necessary.

In fact, there are plenty of anecdotes about how open soda cans remain unspilled during the entire process, or how sleeping pets arrive at the new destination completely unaware that anything has actually happened. 

Once all necessary planning steps have been taken, the actual lifting and relocation process can begin. 

The first main step is to disconnect any and all services to the building. This will usually require the involvement of plumbers and electricians. 

The ground around the building will also need to be prepared to give the building movers room to work and maneuver their equipment. For example, trees may need to be lifted or relocated if you don't want them bulldozed. 

Excavation work is then carried out to expose the building's foundations and cut openings into it. If the building has a basement or crawlspace foundation, it is separated from the foundation and lifted on steel I-beams that pass through the foundation walls directly below the floor framing. The steel I-beams will bear the weight of the house during relocation. 

building relocation lifting
1970s photo of a lifted house to be relocated in San Francisco. Source: Dave Glass/Flickr

Often, cribs made of interlocking wooden posts may be used to support the building's main structure during moving.

Once everything is prepared, the lifting process can begin. 

The lifting is done with hydraulic jacks placed directly under the I-beams. Buildings with slab-on-grade foundations are lifted with the concrete floor slab attached, so the I-beams are inserted below the slab.

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The jacks slowly and steadily lift the building off its foundations. 

A system called unified hydraulic jacking is normally used as this has central control for monitoring each jack's performance and ensure that all jacks rise and fall at the precise same rate to keep the building perfectly level. 

Once lifted, sliding beams are placed underneath the building to move onto specially designed dollies with rubber tires. These dollies are then attached to a truck, ready for the journey to its new location. 

Once at the new site, the building is positioned over the partially completed foundation and supported on cribbing while the foundation is completed below it. The building is then gently lowered onto the new foundation, and then, all the utilities are reconnected. 

building moving dolly
Lifting the building is only half the story. Careful planning is also needed when moving it — especially through narrow streets! Source: Dave Glass/Flickr

The building is now ready to host residents once more. 

Why would you move an entire building?

As we have seen, you most certainly can move an entire building, but it is far from cheap. So why would you want to so?

In fact, some homes, like prefabricated houses, and of course, mobile homes are actually designed to be moved with relative ease. 

The reasons behind why buildings are moved vary widely, and include wanting to repurpose the land it is built on, or relocating the building away from potential hazards, like flooding or falling off a cliff.

Historical buildings are also prime candidates for this procedure if the land they occupy is required for new developments. Of course, homeowners may simply want to move their perfect home to a better location. 

Buildings can also be lifted, using much the same technique, to allow for the development or reinforcement of existing foundations. A new story can be added in this fashion, which may be cheaper than building on top of the structure in some cases. 

building relocation church
Pretty much any building can be relocated so long as it is not too large. This is the historical First Baptist Church being moved in 2009 in Salem, Massachusetts. Source: Fletcher6/Wikimedia Commons

Before ever considering such a dramatic solution, the costs and benefits of such an endeavor must be taken into account. Often, it is cheaper to simply build a new building somewhere else, rather than lugging the old one to a new location.

Once a decision has been made to move a building, careful planning needs to be undertaken. Local planning authorities and transportation authorities need to be consulted, as well as structural engineers and building surveyors. 

Stakeholders, like the mortgage holder and insurer, will also need to be consulted prior to a move. Professional building moving companies will usually manage the entire process, but though not recommended, it is possible to do some of the work yourself.

Generally speaking, a masonry building is more expensive to move than a lighter wooden one. Larger buildings are also more expensive to move than smaller ones generally speaking. 

One of the most critical phases of the building moving process is planning the route. Buildings are pretty big, and so a path needs to be planned that limits the number of potential obstacles, like trees, powerlines, or other buildings.

building relocation house in street
Wolfe House & Building Movers uses the Buckingham Power Dolly System to move the Harriet Rees house in Chicago, Illinois. Source: Wolfe House & Building Movers/Wikimedia

Costs for such an endeavor range from between $12 and $16 a square foot (10.7 sq ft= 1 sq mt) up to between $150,000 to $200,000 for large, heavy buildings. 

Other cost considerations need to be a factor in too, such as: 

  • The cost of the new building might be cheaper
  • How much will the land on the proposed relocation site cost? 
  • Will you need new foundations at the new site?
  • What are the permitting and inspection costs?
  • What are the fees for plumbers and electricians to disconnect and reconnect major utilities in the building?
  • Are there any renovation costs? Especially if the town requires the building to be brought up to all current building codes.

What is the largest building ever moved?

According to historical records, the largest building to ever be moved appears to have been the Fairmount Hotel in San Antonio, Texas. It was built around 1906 as a boutique hotel but was later abandoned after a multi-million-dollar development project was built on the other side of town.

largest building ever moved
Photo of the relocation of the Fairmount Hotel in 1980. Source: My Santonio

However, the building's fate wasn't yet sealed as some developers realized its potential; they thought, "if only it could be relocated." And so, in March of 1985, the building made a six-day. half-mile (800 mt) trip to a new location.

In order to move the building, bridges had to be reinforced, as the movement team was not entirely sure if the 1,600-ton structure would cause them to collapse. A local bishop even blessed the building just prior to moving. 

The hotel has sat happily in its new location ever since. 

When it comes to the furthest distance a building has ever been moved, that record appears to be held by Warkentin Building Movers, Inc. in Canada. In 2006, they managed to move an entire building a whopping 1,205 miles (1,650 km)

building moving house downhill
Source: Dave Glass/Flickr

The building was a 1,400 foot-squared (130 sq mt) house. 

The trip took a lot of planning and patience, but it was executed with all due care and attention, using beams and dollies. The entire journey took around 40 hours to get the house from point A to point B. 

The company website reads that they also hold other building relocation records including: 

  • Widest Structure Move
  • Heaviest Building Move in North America

Moving an entire building is no small feat, and requires specialist skills and knowledge. But as we have seen, it is certainly not impossible.

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