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.