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.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Vote now!

Spencer's Art House and Carriage Town Historic Neighborhood Association are in the running for $5 million in grants. Awards are determined by public vote, so take 30 seconds to cast your votes and share with friends:

Chase Bank users can cast an additional vote here:

The pitch:

What was known in the late 1800’s as the carriage capitol of the country and in the 1950’s as a bustling automotive city, Flint is now transformed again. The collapse of the automotive industry has led to a severe economic decline, with sprawl, depopulation, and abandonment quickly following. The number one most desirable city to live in has become one of the most violent in the country in a matter of just 50 years.

Decentralization of city centers is becoming a more pervasive issue throughout the world. Abandonment. Depreciated property values. Arson. Drug trade. Loss of morale and of community. With economic decline almost across the board, people are finding themselves ill-equipped to upkeep their homes and their communities.

The Carriage Town Historic Neighborhood Association is collaborating with the Flint Public Art Project to renovate an abandoned home in the city’s oldest neighborhood as a community space – using an imaginative rebuilding process. Led by architect Andrew Perkins, we are working with prominent artists, local businesses and non-profits, and city officials to reimagine the historic Spencer’s Mortuary as a community center and art space. Steps from a Native American burial ground, blocks from the birthplace of the American auto industry, and halfway between two universities, Spencer’s Art House will become a beacon of this re-emerging city.

We want this process to be as environmentally friendly as it is socially responsible, so every effort is being made to use as many recycled and reclaimed materials as possible. Working together with local demolition companies we can keep material costs low and more debris out of the landfills. Funds from Chase Community Giving will go toward some of these major renovation tasks, as well as installing renewable energy systems and sponsoring some of the many public workshops expected in the coming months.

With your help, Spencer’s will become a model for revitalization which is accessible to cities globally. The goal is not just to rebuild the community, but to progressively reinvent it as one which is socially, environmentally, and financially sustainable while hanging on to all of its historic significance, charm and beauty.


There are a few basic types of materials that any renovation project like this needs: structural members to reframe walls and floors, and sheathing material to cover and tie them together.

Thin floor boards salvaged from another house can be used for structural framing. Only 1/2" in thickness, they're far too flimsy to use singularly. I get to the task of making my own laminated beam, or glulam, by attaching several of these to each other to form a larger, more robust member.

Very smooth surfaces are needed for the pieces to adhere well enough to each other. The flimsy boards don't do well through the planer, so each is sanded with hand tools - not ideal, but does the job.

After the boards are laid out a weatherproof wood glue is applied in a thin and even layer to each face, and the boards are clamped with every clamp available to make sure there is 100% contact between surfaces. Wood glue ends up being much more workable and thin than construction adhesive, so will likely be a better choice here for the raw pores in the wood.

By using several layers and offsetting them, a much longer beam can be made out of shorter pieces (though these boards were already 16'-18' long), so very substantial spans can be achieved here - namely reframing the portion of roof which has rotted.

The majority of the first floor and basement walls are covered with a thin faux wood paneling - a cheap material meant to simulate the look of a natural wood finish. It doesn't provide any real benefit other than aesthetic, and its lack of authenticity is easily noticed. In water damaged areas, moisture and mold are likely to lay behind them, too. All that considered, and a personal vendetta against fakeness in materials, I've started removing these panels and considering other uses for them.

Several portions of floor and wall will need to be resheathed - the leaking water over the years having rotted them away.The sheets are very thin, and aren't very useful as is.

Having a number of full size sheets, I've begun another laminating experience, taking cues from the composition of plywood. Three to four layers of the faux wood paneling, sanded smooth and glued under pressure, will make for a strong 3/4" thick sheet which can be used for subflooring in place of the existing planks. Type of adhesive and methods of applying pressure are still being worked out.

These experiments are vastly more labor intensive than going to Home Depot and buying a relatively inexpensive readily available product for the same use. But for the needy and for the sake of reinstating value in what we have, they can suffice.