Tuesday, July 9, 2013

New kids on the block

The concrete footing cured, we can now begin building the CMU (concrete masonry unit) retaining and bearing wall on top of it. Friend and fellow scavenger Bob has been taking apart and salvaging an abandoned bowling alley in Lapeer (which we also took advantage of last fall). Going through Bob not only comes in at about half the price of buying new, but means energy and material doesn't need to be wasted in manufacturing new block - and supports his noble efforts as an unbuilder.

After a very long afternoon hauling them inside, the blocks still need some minor cleaning. Getting the old mortar off only takes a few seconds, and they're good as new afterward.

400 8x8x16 concrete blocks

Borrowed cement mixer for our mortar

As Tim and I begin laying the first blocks, the Onufry family - trowels in hand, sandals on feet - volunteer for the day. Daniel's experience in laying CMU's is a welcome addition, and we're able to get through a significant portion of the wall just in our first day.

Pieces of steel rebar run vertically every 4' throughout the wall to help tie it together and give it better tensile strength. Shorter pieces are drilled into the ends of the wall to anchor it to the existing foundation.

Once built, the rear addition of the house can be dismantled and removed, leaving a large void in the ground (the former addition's basement) adjacent to our new wall. This space will be taken advantage of as a place for our rainwater collection cisterns. After installed, they'll be covered with dirt and be below the frost line and out of danger of freezing during winter months.

Because large cisterns are expensive, we look for alternative options. Many companies use 275 gallon IBC's  (intermediate bulk container) to transport liquid goods, from soda, syrup, and olive oil to various chemicals. It's important we obtain food-grade containers if we plan to store water which will be used for growing edible plants, showering, or consuming - and even second-hand these are a costly $100 a piece.

With a few phonecalls and well-placed words to craigslist posters, I find Jeff - who happily agrees to deliver from Grand Rapids eight IBC's at the wholesale price of $40 each. This gives us a 2200 gallon storage system for $320, while a conventional cistern may cost $1000-2000. Approximate time to recupe this cost via water bill savings: 1-2 months.

Special thanks to Jennifer, Ben, and Daniel Onufry for their hard work today.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Lost and Foundation

Removing the northern addition will leave a large gap in the foundation. This gap will need to be infilled to support the new exterior wall above it, and retain the dirt that will backfill the other side. The partition walls in the basement are removed along with the stair (which will be shifted over to better fit the upstairs spaces).

The new concrete footing has to be poured on compacted soil. Using a gas-powered concrete saw, Tim cuts the existing concrete pad and flanking walls to make way for the new concrete footing.

A trench is dug large enough for our 12"x16" footing, plus some extra room for a perforated drain pipe and gravel to later be added along it. Formwork - to give the concrete the right size and shape - is made from scrap OSB from a nearby construction site. The drain pipe needs to enter the inside of the basement to connect to a sump crock, so it's run through the formwork prior to pouring. Finally, two long pieces of steel rebar are added to add some tensile strength.

The side walls are a little trickier. Most of this wall is only a very thin 1/4" layer of concrete meant to keep the dirt at bay, though the corner is poured solid. We break through the weak parts and dig out as best we can to be able to fill this with concrete and give us something fully solid to lay the block against. Because it's angled, we'll have to cut our blocks at an angle at that end.

Concrete trucks delivering to jobsites almost always finish with excess concrete. Sometimes this is taken back to their facilities and poured into forms to make concrete block. Often it is dumped, dried, crushed, and then used as aggregate in more concrete. After a few phone calls and well placed words with some local concrete companies, Modern Concrete agreed to divert some of that excess to us for free.

Not only does this save us a few hundred dollars, but also the painstaking labor of mixing about two tons of concrete bags by hand. The truck is able to pull up to the back door. The extended chute still falls a little short, so we improvise a secondary chute out of some corrugated plastic leftover from the Free City festival. From here, we pull the mixture to the other end with shovels, hoes, and anything else we can get our hands on.

The next 20 minutes are fervent, and what I think may be the best bonding experience between the Youth Build students and myself to date. Arms exhausted, shirts drenched in sweat, hands caked in grey goop - we struggle to keep up with the cement dumping out of the truck.

The surface is screeded and troweled, and vertical pieces of rebar are embedded at the ends and every 4'. These will bond the block wall to the footing. Next step: lay 400 concrete blocks.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Still no building permit. That the process is not only expensive and confusing, but atrociously slow, is beginning to wear on me. But we press on, focusing efforts on the exterior of the building.

Getting the boards off the windows will make a huge impact in the house's appearance. Because of historic requirements, wood-framed windows are required, which suits us well as we can simply fit new glass in the existing sashes. It won't be the most energy-effective solution, but it suits what we have available. And, like many things, this older style of window assembly is more fit to basic tools and knowledge - as opposed to factory assembled new products (from cars to toasters).

A number of the window sashes have suffered water damage. All but the very worst of them can be saved with a few well placed nails and the magical goop that is Bondo.

The filler adheres to the wood and hardens. Once sanded, painted, and re-glazed, the window looks good as new.

The putty that holds the glass needs to dry for two weeks before we can install the windows.

After over a week of diligent work, most of the sashes have been repaired, cleaned, and primed. We lack enough large glass for all of the windows for now. A pending salvaging agreement with the Land Bank may help us source more.

I prefer not to remove anything if it's not doing any harm. But the stone planter wrapped around the front of the house was something the neighbors had been pressuring me to remove for some time. After considering that the soil in it was just holding water against the foundation, the choice was made.

We really weren't sure what we would find behind the dirt - or how we would cover what was exposed. A corner of the house now cantilevers out past the foundation - a nice orginal feature. And luckily, the now-exposed brick foundation is in surprisingly good shape. After a few days of chiseling at the joint lines, it can be tuckpointed and coated with a clear sealant. Guess who's going to have the slickest looking foundation on the block.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Helping Hands

The Historic District Commission has, at last, issued a "Certificate of Appropriateness" for Spencer's, including the demolition of the northern addition, proposed (but not yet funded) rubber roof, living pallet fence, permeable paving system from reclaimed bricks, and overall renovation of the building. The City of Flint Planning department has also approved the plans from a zoning standpoint, so only one hurdle remains: building permits.

These submittals began in January, and since then, Spencer's has been granted awards from the Ruth Mott Foundation, Community Foundation of Greater Flint, and the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs - each to cover a number of repairs, programs, and installations. Each also includes a significant amount of organizing, coordination of schedules, preparation work, and deadlines which make it difficult to postpone work any longer.

Four students from the Metro Flint Youth Build program - an alternative school that teaches construction skills and gives a second chance to at-risk youth - have begun a paid apprenticeship at Spencer's (through Ruth Mott funding). Each will learn design fundamentals through a series of workshops that explore material, form, critical thinking, and resourcefulness - followed by design refinement, prototyping, and final production to be led by local professional builders. They'll begin with some straightforward deconstruction/construction tasks, and eventually work up to designing their own permanent installations. The work will largely be focused on reconditioning the exterior of the building while the last of the permits are squared away.

Anthony exposes a much more beautiful earlier porch roof structure.

Old, rotting pieces of lumber are trimmed to expose the still healthy cores...

....and Tim guides Chris is router-use to turn these strips into an ornamental drip cap to be installed around the outside of the house.

Katrina installs aluminum flashing around the perimeter of the building. Flashing is a method of waterproofing needed any time shingling is interrepted (to different patterns, above windows and doors).

Flashing and drip cap installed, ready to be painted.

La' Dundric finishes cutting and assembling the last remaining truss pieces.

Turquoise truss.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

New Life

As warmer weather approaches and administrative efforts begin to fruit, a new energy has begun at Spencer's. With the help of Flint Public Art Project, Spencer's holds a series of events as a part of the Free City public art festival.

The mirrored stair is opened to relieve congestion between the newly reunited halves of the house

University of Michigan: Ann Arbor design students install a responsive LED lighting system within the wall cavity

Musicians Frank Pahl and Tim Holmes play homemade instruments made from sewing machines, propane canisters,and bike parts


Der Vorfuhreffekt - a theater duo out of Baltimore - puts on a puppet show.

A crowd gathered within these unlikely walls, and - if only for an hour or two - the audience didn't see the place as one of abandonment or hopelessness, but of laughter and inspiration.

While these temporary events might seem insignificant or irrelevant to the larger structural and infrastructural tasks for the building, they're an essential part of the process. These gatherings are a gesture - that the building is still very much alive. They're also an integral part of the planning and design process that most architects skip (or do not know exists): a kind of testing of waters for unconventional activity, their spatial needs, and vice versa. And for a project which is seeking on-going funding, this goes a long way in painting a picture for investors and grantors.