Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Spare (materials)

One of the hardest challenges of this project is to negotiate the proportions of time spent social networking vs material salvaging vs actually turning those materials into something useful at Spencer's. Add in the unpredictable nature that applies to all three, and we have a tough time answering someone when they ask what our "typical day" is like.

Wednesday morning we found a Craigslist post: free construction lumber.

"Probably from a small house renovation, shed, deck, or the like," we thought. The next thing we know, we're in the car, giddy, and on our way to a decrepit bowling alley.

While builders in Detroit were short on brick and other materials, Bob - the man in charge of deconstructing the bowling alley - was buying houses for $1 and deconstructing them for their valuable and well-crafted innards, and feeding them right back into other jobs.

Bob greets us at the site, where he and his two-man crew have already done substantial work. The valuable materials within are what they're paid with: concrete blocks, steel trusses, thick maple alleyways, the anonymous workings of bowling ball return.

Among these are a few things they can't sell: loads of 2x10's, pieces of rubber roofing, and even a few large chunks of maple bowling lane. We start with the raised dance floor in the rear of the building. Oak flooring covers the 3/4" tongue-and-groove OSB and 2x10's that structures it - perfect materials to reinforce our floors and resheath our roof.

There is more lumber than we can probably use, so efforts are shifted to the roof.

The roof and parapets are covered with a thick rubber membrane. The flat surface is in poorer condition - shrunken and cracked from years of exposure to the sun. But the vertical pieces covering the parapet have weathered well. From the large squares we cut out of this we can build a layered waterproof surface for the flat roof at Spencer's.

Bob graciously offers to crane our new roof to the ground

On our way out, the crew stumbles upon a massive bee hive in a boarded up window cavity. Bob Sr. hopes to transplant them and harvest the honey.

And we taste test.

Trip 1. Though we're only able to fit a fraction of the gathered materials in, the truck is full. We head back later this week.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Prototype!

The first of thirteen sloping Howe trusses that will grace our roof:

Matt pulls nails out of the many 2x4's we have that are too short for most other things.

A piece of graffiti-covered plywood once covering one of our broken windows is cut down to make gusset plates.

Gusset plates are what resist moment forces in the joints of a truss. Our wooden plates are attached with an adhesive and nailed.

Finished truss. Twelve to go.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Truss-t Me; I'm an Architect

The first section of framing for the rear wall rebuilt, work can start to move upward. Ladders require a lot of moving around, and resting them against paper-like walls is a bit foreboding. Luckily a 12' set of steel scaffolding sits in the front yard of a house just down the street. Even more luckily, we've established a good relationship with the guy who (kind of) owns it.

After building some wood platforms for it, we have good access to the rest of the wall and the roof edge where we'll be carrying the new roof structure to.

We plan to make the roof an accessible outdoor terrace, so we have to take into account accepted Michigan design loads for a deck, which equates to 60 psf. With more research we find that the design snow load is also 60 psf. Arguing that there will never be people on the roof at a time when it is snowing, we don't have to add these numbers together - and in fact - don't have to make the structure any more heavy duty than normal (the two loads being equal).

Still, the required 14' 2x10's are hard to come by. Even in the many old houses available, the walls and even many roofs are made only of 2x4's. An abundance of 2x4's leads us to the above sketch for a sloping Howe truss, which at 12"-14" deep can support substantially more than a typical joist, at a fraction of the cost. Kicking ourselves for not paying more attention in Structures II, we've wearily begun working through the calculations to prove its structural capacity.

Tomorrow, we begin the prototype.

They may not look like much, but friend of ours in Detroit was able to pull a building permit using a drawing on a napkin.

There is some flexibility in working without a permit under conditions of "emergency repair," but this can only go so far. As we develop more 'professional' drawings and go through the permit process, we work only removing completely rotted materials and by adding to the structure rather than removing and replacing it.

Thursday, October 18, 2012


As we being reframing the rear wall, we pause to consider the wide open opportunity for a new window scheme. This wall isn't a street facade (where the Historic District Council has reign over aesthetic), so we may have some creative freedom.

Brain-storming interior cuts in the stair; material composition in the lofted space

Monday, October 15, 2012

This is the Flint historic district's most recent victim, one of many in the two blocks of vacant homes on Mason St. A couple months ago the house stood with a single burnt out window, the modest building not particularly ornate but still in good shape. Walking back from Spencer's just weeks later, two gas canisters lie along the side of the road, empty. Where there was a house is now a smoldering void.

Virtually nothing remains of the building, save the stone and cement foundation. The fire ate up everything but a small corner. But beneath the cascade of singed wood flooring, a treasure:

One 6"x8"x14' beam, almost wholly unharmed from the arson. This will be useful in replacing one of the main beams in the basement which has started to rot from moisture.

Chutes and Ladders

Last week our new friend and steady volunteer, Alex, came over to lend a hand. We set out to rebuild the rear wall, which has suffered the worst of the water damage. A week of digging down and cutting away rotted material later, we finally begin.

The top two courses of bricks of the original foundation are in rough shape - cracked and pulling loose by hand. Grabbing a few bricks from the porch of a nearby to-be-demo'ed house, we clean the surfaces and get ready to re-set them.


Two bricks are drilled into to set the threaded rod that will fasten the new sill plate to the foundation. Our corded hammer drill would've done great with this, but was stolen in the last theft. In good news, this was an excuse to upgrade the cordless set to Makita, which has proved to be substantially better. The cordless drill takes a minute to get through the brick, but does the job.

From the new sill to the second story beam is over 9', and we have few pieces of lumber to run as studs for that length. We do have an abundance of ~7' 2x4's that fill the (once-finished) basement. These are staggered, fastened, and layered together to create three singular pieces (double wide). From these intermediary horizontal pieces can span, allowing us to frame the rest of the wall without longer lumber.

With the new beam finally supported by more than a few nails, it can be used to re-hang the joist over the now-cantilevering second floor.

Left-over nails are cut away to make way for a new joist

A stubborn pipe suggests being turned into the beginnings of a pipe hand railing.

Finally the floor is resupported with a salvaged joist from the original floor tear-out. The way the beam has been hung this time doesn't allow us to notch the joist into it, but a steel joist hanger is reasonably cheap and will ensure a solid connection.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Chromatic Renaissance

A collaboration between 'Be the Church' and the Flint Public Art Project to board up several hundred houses on the North side - and FPAP's initiative to beautify and call attention to them with an artistic series of fuscia stripes - took place last weekend. In turn, we've decided to break out of our shell at Spencer's and turn the many boards over the windows from blight to beacon.

Partial cans of paint are donated by friends and strangers. Like the colors or not - what we're creating is a positive image; a declaration of rebirth. And though drawing attention to our work risks complications with the local bureaucracies and naysayers, this project is too large to stand on its own. We need attention from potential volunteers, fiscal sponsors, and other stakeholders if this is going to succeed.

New Collaborations

Last week marked the beginning of a new collaboration. 'New Paths' is a jail alternative program that builds skills and gives helping hands to charity and nonprofit organizations that need them. I won't dwell on the waste of resources and people that is the typical jailing system now, but can attest to New Paths remarkable success.

Over three days we targeted three houses. With permissions from the Land Bank, salvageable materials are stripped: hard wood flooring, molding, solid wood doors, siding, windows, scraps of drywall, electrical supplies, sinks, fencing; A house comes down surprisingly quickly with eight large 220-pound men doing most of the work.

Garage Door

Basement-turned-personal 'ReStore'

Molding + trim

At Spencer's, work continues at its usual pace: one step-forward, six steps back. Deciding to spend the day reframing the rear wall leads instead to tearing out another large part of the floor, as the material below the is mush.

A part of the floor which sags especially heavily we find was a large trap door into the basement - likely where caskets were brought into the basement.

Meanwhile, failed or water damaged plaster and lath is removed throughout the house, and the mass materials that fill the rooms are reorganized to make way for an upcoming community meeting and workshop.