Monday, December 19, 2011


Some time ago, we came upon an old typewriter. We've been maintaining scattered diary-like entries: two parts documentary, three parts spontaneity, one part poetry. A select few:

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Pre-Thesis Review

A presentation of our work thus far: Monday December 12th @2:45pm in Crosby 305.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Would you like your eggs scrambled or mashed?

Learning to cook on the ever-rampant temperatures of our wood burning stove provides the bulk of our entertainment these days. The steel plate welded atop the bottom barrel of the stove is installed to allow stovetop cooking, but its wide surface area and limited thermal bridging to the actual barrel limit its temperature. We bypass this by instead of using pots and pans atop it, to use it as a griddle. Future developments might mean removing this completely, cutting into the top of the bottom barrel and replacing the round top with a sealed, flat one - allowing a more direct heat transfer.

In the meantime, we have much practice to do.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

A house is not a home (without turkey)

What makes our work unconventional isn't that it's a design-build, or that we're dealing with reclaimed materials and "waste." It's that we're living the project. There is a set of social and communal needs that can't be ignored, and so at the onset of the project we eagerly volunteered ourselves to host the annual pre-Thanksgiving potluck dinner that has become a tradition among our friends. The event challenges us to start thinking of the existing space in a very new, and immediate way. Suddenly, we need cooking implements, seating and eating space enough for at least a couple dozen people, a cool place to store food and drinks, lighting on a larger scale than ever before needed by just the two of us, a larger source of firewood, and a general standard of cleanliness.

The dinner becomes a pivotal point in the life of the house and of the community: a resuscitation of space that hadn't seen true life in over twelve years. Practically overnight, the property becomes an active part of the community. Several locals stop by to comment - the warm glow from inside alluring them: "It looks like some kind of Hollywood movie in there...everyone getting together for dinner even though times are tough." We're given invitations to pig roasts and other events within our new community, and what we have so far always referred to as "the house" can now be called home.

"Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

With temperatures dropping into the low 30's the past several weeks, establishing a heat source is vital. The two existing chimneys are far from safe standards of use, especially for our intended wood burning stove. Needing to remove the chimneys anyway for safety reasons (each 20' tower of brick rests just on two 2x4's, several feet off the ground), we deconstruct it from the top down, taking apart the adjacent walls with it, setting aside the materials gained for future use. The change in spatial quality is received instantly. With the brick mass that walled off our sleeping space gone, the space becomes lighter and more connected. Elements begin to be seen as continual rather than compartmentalized and start to suggest new programmatic possibilities.

We use the open space left in the central chimney's wake for the installation of our new steel chimney. As something that contains a series of strict safety regulations and inspection requirements, the UL certified material to construct the chimney is purchased from Lowes and IRR Supply. As a relatively expensive investment, we need to be especially sensitive to our installation decisions. We give ourselves two choices: use the UL certified double or triple wall insulated pipe to pass through the ceiling (which runs at about $100/2' section), or adhere to the NYS specified minimum clearance of 18" from single wall pipe from combustibles ($10/2' section). Capitalizing on the latter we save money, establish a longer length of single wall pipe which lets heat radiate into the space rather than straight upward, open up the space that becomes the new center of activity for the entire house, and ultimately challenge typical responses to building codes.

All the while, we continue to organize our constantly changing and growing stock of materials, and start to implement the basic systems we need to live: heat, water, cooking, and sanitation.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

A tour:

After some downtime preparing materials for last week's presentation we're back in full swing at the house. We've continued cleaning up and sorting out the house's contents - much of which is salvageable. Now that we're able to see the floors, we can start to speculate on how we're to going to develop them over the next six months and beyond.


The existing kitchen poses the more severe structural and water damage problems in the house. We cannot possibly hope to make this space habitable any time soon, so our immediate actions will be in other parts of the house. This space will slowly be developed over the next several months. Because of its condition though, it has a lot of possibility. The floor is almost entirely rotted out, and can easily be stepped through down to the basement if not careful. Needing to remove this anyway, a tall 2 1/2 story space will be created. And it's on the south facade facing our large backyard to boot. We have high hopes here, but are forced to be patient.

"Dining Room"

The dining room is mostly watertight and intact, but its adjacency to the water damaged kitchen has led to several inches of sloping on that side of the room. Its openness and relative solidity make it a prime candidate for our wood burning stove. An existing chimney is also embedded in the far wall, and we may be able to tap into it (pending heavy modifications to bring it up to code - more on this later).

"Living Room"

The northern-facing living is in similar shape but without the sloping. The windows have some small pellet holes and cracks in them but are largely intact. With some minor cleaning, sanding, and finishing, this space will be set.


If one can get up the steep, narrow stair without falling, there is a finished part of the attic. Peeling paint implies some minor water damage but nothing too bad. Aside from the missing window the space is in pretty good shape, though an average height person has trouble standing in most of the space - so it's not entirely ideal for an area of high traffic.


Our current sleeping quarters, fitted with two beds (one a box spring mattress, the other a folded up piece of carpet padding), sleeping bags, blankets, and a quadruple layered solar pool cover to keep us warm. A small brick mantle on the left houses the mini double barrel stove we've been experimenting with while we work at the larger scale. The sleeping space may or may not move soon, depending on our exact handling of the new stove in the coming weeks.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

House Warming

Because of the incredible time it takes to physically receive the deed to the house (even though it's been paid in full) our actions in it are forced to be incognito. Without the deed, we're not legally allowed to even be on the property. The neighbors all seem grateful for our presence, but bureaucrats will be less excited. Should an inspector roll through the neighborhood, we need to maintain a certain level of discretion. Boards have been left up on the front and sides where visible from the street. And for now, our intervention has been timid. With colder months approaching though, our hands are being forced. We need to establish a livable space and start working out the vital systems necessary for survival in Buffalo's harsh winter.

Having cleaned up and reorganized the bulk of the house's contents (10 boxes of clothes, 3 boxes of shoes, 3 box springs, 2 mattresses, 2 large area rugs, and at least 5 boxes worth of miscellaneous dishes, tools, and other useful items), we can start to more carefully consider the future of this space. Setting up a base camp within the house will allow us to concentrate the immediately needed systems while freeing up the rest of the house for development. For purposes of security and traffic, we choose to begin this in the attic.

Working by candlelight, we thoroughly wash the floor and walls which have been sitting in dust for over a decade. The only mold-free box spring we have and a piece of carpet padding make up the two beds. Without an established heat source, the house isn't much warmer than outside. We have to rely on our own body heat to keep us warm, so we opt to create a sort of "tent" using the solar pool cover we recovered several weeks ago. At the peak of the attic is a long steel pole formerly used to hang clothes off of. By moving this and the attached chain to a lower position, it creates half of the necessary structure for the tent. Half of an iron bed frame, found tucked in the corner of the attic can then be hung from string at the other side, and we're able to drape the tarp over the two. The thousands of air pockets in this material will act as an insulating barrier to help keep our sleeping shelter warm, and its large size is easily able to create an enclosed space.

"All good architecture leaks"

...which already makes ours something of a masterpiece. Having cleaned up and organized most of the debris (old clothes, mostly), and tending to various other needs during a rain storm, we get a better sense for its waterproofing and lack thereof.

On the west side of the attic and in the rooms below are molds, slugs, and waterlogged materials. Though a look at the roof doesn't seem too bad, the drips of water quickly build up to destructive volumes. It's hard to tell how long the leaks have been going on; The finish materials are entirely ruined, but the framing may still have its integrity. We don't have the materials to fix up the roof now, nor cooperative weather. But we can channel what is seeping through the roof from the attic out through the eave.

The rear end of the house that contains the bathroom and kitchen has obvious irreversible water damage. Though we can't hope to salvage much, we do our best to stop this decay too. By simply laying out our scavenged inflatable pool (a piece of which we used for our previous camp), we can keep out additional debris, mold, and toxins while we find time to more permanently address it.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Going once, going twice...

Each year, the city of Buffalo holds a Foreclosure auction of city-owned properties acquired through owed back-taxes, extended abandonment, death of the owner with no inheritor, arson, or other dealings. Although usually held in the end of October, the event was pushed up to October 3-5 this year, giving us a jump of the gun to advance our work. Quickly finding a list of foreclosed properties on the city's website, we began the long process of narrowing down the 2,380 properties up for grabs. Criteria considered included:

Size - small enough for two people to manage
Proximity to Main Street - public transportation is a must
Sense of community - as both a catalyst and receptor to our ideas
Condition of the property - problematic enough where creative intervention is needed, but within reason
Cost - within a budget reminiscent to most lower-class Buffalonians

We reorganize the list according to assessed values, and narrow the list to the best of our ability with Google maps + street view and the information available on, but ultimately we need to visit each property so get a true sense of its condition. The heavy rain we endure is unexpectedly fortunate, allowing us to quickly identify leakage issues in the houses.

Among the thousands that showed up Monday morning were families looking for a new home, small businesses looking for new storefronts, landlords looking to expand their revenue, and at least two student-activists hoping to resuscitate one of the many homes that would otherwise not sell. And to potential squatters, this is a live cataloging of vacant homes. From the hundreds of lower end properties in a state of limbo, even the homeless and penniless may find refuge.

Continuing our effort to only use those materials deemed unwanted, we hone in on the properties "suggested for demolition." Having toured a number of these properties in particular, some have thorough and irreversible water damage, torn up walls, floors, and roofs from erosion or even heavy fire damage. Others have much more manageable issues: cosmetics, light plumbing, or broken windows. As the auctioneer reads off several of the better properties we've had our eyes on, the room is silent...despite starting bids of $500-1000. In a starving city, we're surprised at the lack of initiative. Great opportunity continues to be met with neglect and abandonment.

The catch to these auctions is that the property you truly want is after all of your backup options. And after winning a property, the bidder has roughly one hour to come up with a deposit. Failing to pay the deposit will result in the removal of your number for future bids. So do you hold out for your dream house or play it safe and commit to something you know you can get your hands on? One of us bids on a property on Woltz Avenue. Uncontested, it's ours for $800. As two separately registered bidders though, the other of us is free to go for something better without the risk of having nothing. Ultimately this allows us to back out of that first purchase with something better and no consequences.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Material Dissections

Several years ago the city of Buffalo began a biannual bulk trash pickup day, where citizens can put out piles of trash up to 12'x3'x3' in total volume without being charged any pickup fees. To a couple of scavengers of odd items (and a horde of metal scrappers), this is practically Christmas. Going first around the Masten district and then Fillmore, the wastestream was endless. Not having our final site to work on yet, we can only speculate which of these things are useful.

Having amassed a bank of objects, we start to dissect them. Psychologically: what are the cultural associations and histories of each object? Architecturally: what material qualities do they possess and how might they be implemented into "building"? Anatomically: what are the inner workings of each object, and how can they be broken down (and reformed)?

Unpacking the empty suitcase

Water container turned water barrier

The luggage parts will likely go toward creating a small bike trailer, for greater loading capacity on our regular dives. The piece cut out of the pool was traced from the torn and permeable fabric top to the sun umbrella found several weeks ago. This will provide a dry shelter at our first squatting camp.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Squatting, Part II

Exercise in material acquisition and recombinance

Along Buffalo's west coast we find a strip of industrial development. Having acquired a few things we found along the way (the night before Niagara district's garbage day), we happen upon a number of discarded objects from the factories and warehouses. Most of these things appear to have been there for quite some time - out of sight and out of mind in the dead space between the warehouses, railroad tracks, and highway. This thick buffer zone, ironically composed of public elements, gives us the privacy we need for a new base camp.

There is little vegetation or terrain to help create enclosure, but at one point there is a tall section of fence. Still grounded, it's bent; taco'ed. 

Taking advantage of this 'natural' enclosure, we first span the curve with a straight 10' pipe recovered just 50 yards down the tracks. Getting into the space though, we find the plants to be dry, rough, and many have thorns. Luckily, several plastic and wood palettes lay just a bit further down and serve to get us away from the harsh vegetation and off the cold ground. Finally, a roof enclosure is made of roll-up window shades layered with tar paper for water resistance and a wind barrier out of a long piece of corrugated plastic.

Waking up to the cold wind from the lake, we realize the shelter although much more advanced than the previous, is not suited for the harsher cold and noise presented by the new context. After distributing the shelter's materials to avoid its detection, we now ponder whether to further develop the camp or salvage the materials for alternative use.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Poverty = Ingenuity

The humblest of times cultivate the greatest innovations. Here, Filipinos not only acquire essentially free lighting, but are able to do it by digesting the ubiquity that is trash.

Monday, September 12, 2011


At 92 Bird Avenue exists a three-story pseudo-mansion which has gained notice through a squatter initiative several years ago. Taking claim of the abandoned property, a small group of youthful "freeganists" began fixing it up and quickly won over their community members. When finally discovered and prosecuted, Judge Henry Nowak received a flurry of complaints and pleadings to let them stay. What had replaced an empty nest of crime and visual blight was renewed energy and hope. The squatters had essentially stabilized the neighborhood. While we continue the search for our home, we begin a series of experiments involving squatting; We are, after all, homeless.

Arriving to the Bird house via bicycle, we find lights on and music blaring from the second floor. On the front porch are four of the house's residents and at least as many dogs. Briefly explaining our situation to them, we're met with hesitation; "Who do you know here? Where did you hear about this place?" And we're left to play with the dogs while we await a decision from a higher authority within the house. Ultimately, it's explained to us that 92 Bird Avenue is no longer a squatter house but an owned home. While it presents an admirable example of demolition-doomed property turned beautiful affordable housing, we do not find the warmth and wisdom we seek. So we take our mission to the street.

The night is warm, so we opt to spend it outdoors. Retreating to an abandoned mini-golf course on the Upper West side, we find plenty of privacy and a few good patches of grass to call bed. But soon the evening dew starts to set in and mosquitoes buzz. Surely we can at least scavenge some material to sleep on top of, and luckily enough, it's the night before garbage day in the surrounding neighborhood. Within the first minute we find a rolled up runner rug, perfectly scaled for human use. Among other things found are: a large (12'+) inflatable swimming pool, a mop, blocks of syrofoam, three mattresses and bed frames, two very vocal dogs, one suspicious police officer, and more cardboard than we can possibly find use for. The real prize, however, is an outdoor umbrella about 8' in diameter, all of which is in tact except the vertical shaft which has snapped to produce a sharp point.

Taking the few things we're able to carry back to our camp on foot, we drive the umbrella into the ground with a small log, place our bedding materials beneath, and enjoy a peaceful rest.

Camp #1
We now foresee ourselves setting up a number of these small experimental squatter camps, as research into survival priorities and practice in material resourcefulness. The exact locations will be hard to pinpoint until we happen upon them, but will likely be guided by the schedule of neighborhood garbage collection in the future.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Man + Nature

Nature was here something savage and awful, though beautiful. I looked with awe at the ground I trod on, to see what the Powers had made there, the form and fashion and material of their work. This was that Earth of which we have heard, made out of Chaos and Old Night. Here was no man’s garden, but the unhandselled globe. It was not lawn, nor pasture, nor mead, nor woodland, nor lea, nor arable, nor waste land. It was the fresh and natural surface of the planet Earth, as it was made forever and ever, -to be the dwelling of man, we say, -so Nature made it, and man may use it if he can. Man was not to be associated with it. It was Matter, vast, terrific, -not his Mother Earth that we have heard of, not for him to tread on, or to be buried in, -no, it were being too familiar even to let his bones lie there, -the home, this, of Necessity and Fate. There was clearly felt the presence of a force not bound to be kind to man. It was a place of heathenism and superstitious rites, -to be inhabited by men nearer of kin to the rocks and to wild animals than we… . What is it to be admitted to a museum, to see a myriad of particular things, compared with being shown some star’s surface, some hard matter in its home! I stand in awe of my body, this matter to which I am bound has become so strange to me. I fear not spirits, ghosts, of which I am one, -that my body might, -but I fear bodies, I tremble to meet them. What is this Titan that has possession of me? Talk of mysteries! Think of our life in nature, -daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it, -rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? where are we?
— Thoreau. Ktaadn

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Dwelling on Waste

This project revolves around scarcity within a culture of excess. We are living in the post-production era. In Buffalo and other Rust Belt cities there is a problematic condition; because of the decreasingly viable economic system and resultant large scale depopulation, much of the housing stock is unoccupied, unwanted, and left in various states of decay. Accompanying this is an alarming dependence on consumption, with little regard to the inevitable products of waste. We, the inhabitants of this postindustrial city, must respond to these degraded, yet abundant material conditions scattered throughout the city.
To bring ourselves from detached designer to deprived occupant, we will occupy such a neglected, leftover property. In situ research then provides the basis for the project, and we immediately begin to adapt the house and our lifestyles according to immediate conditions as well as foreseeable futures (ie: a concentrated place of warmth for winter). The housing stock in Buffalo that has become abandoned, neglected, or demolished will be used as an abundant source of building materials, and through rationing and prioritization, necessary conditions for living will be met and, eventually, exceeded. The process of retrofitting the house while living in it explores new forms of domesticity, and limiting our material palette to those things that we can salvage will explore issues of material recombinance. Need and resourcefulness become a means of inspiring new forms, assemblies, and organizations.
By cannibalizing the material and spatial remains of the post-industrial city, a new idea of domesticity is born. The survivalist architecture must address utilities (water, heat), security, varying climatic conditions, food storage, and mental comfort, always adapting itself according to what it has on hand. This method of design and the restriction of material palette remove the extraneous from the work. It addresses economy and sustainability through adaptive reuse of material and space. It confuses social order through a new mode of living, looking to squatting and alternative lifestyles as inspiration. It challenges political bodies by acting as a form of protest to current housing policies: demolition as a remedy to urban decay.
Ultimately, the result will be a reconstituted house – not necessarily a final product to be put back on the market, but a loose prototype for a new type of adaptive reuse that catalogs a series of experimental interventions: a series of spaces that addresses the basic needs for survival. Through constant documentation of the struggles in the house and the material and architectural solutions we use to resolve them we will create a document describing how this process could be practiced by other individuals and become a prominent mode of urban renewal in post-industrial cities.