Monday, December 27, 2010

From our small perch what can we see ahead for the future?

As a New Year approaches and despite that we are unable to see very clearly into the future we are able to appreciate the future’s potential to be of interest and entertainment.
We were asked to list projects that we see on our horizon but there is a superstition that we abide that to talk about future work, or even to talk about ongoing work, has a tendency to skunk the odds.

We have been involved with a number of projects that we will likely have nothing to do with in the future but that we will continue to be interested in their progress.

Though it is proper to mention the lead of the design teams in each case we worked with a number of friends and associates who we will not mention here as the lists would get long winded and complicated.

The Edison Memorial Tower in Menlo Park, NJ, where Edison invented the light bulb, is currently working through a prequalification phase prior to going to bid. The project involves restoration of John Earley pre-cast concrete panels -- this is artisan work. The lead architect is Farewell Mills Gatsch Architects. We very much enjoyed working with them to provide in-field support during their design phase investigations. The most memorable statement of the project, "Where is the water?"

The McCarren Park Pool restoration in Brooklyn, NY (in hip Williamsburg) is a Robert Moses structure that we lived across the street from for a number of years when it was an empty and abandoned mound of brick and concrete. It is currently an ongoing project. I had an opportunity to meet the contractor at a holiday party and enjoyed hearing tidbits. The lead architect was Rogers Marvel Architects. We worked on their design team to provide field mock-ups and probes. One memorable adventure was the entire day that it took to do a 1 sf of repointing mock-up in a blizzard... the drive to NJ to get 2 bags of the specified sand took up most of the day. We also regret that our friends at Brooklyn Brewery will probably not be able to continue to host concerts at the pool once it is completed. I also managed to get a flash fiction published about a dead man found at the pool as reported in a small news clipping. He was missing one arm. We did not get to meet him.

The Brick House at Philip Johnson's Glass House. We were advised to be discrete when talking about this National Trust site. I enjoy informing non-architect friends about the glass house by talking about the brick house first. Though a relatively small structure thie project should prove to be an interesting one. The lead architect here was Li-Saltzman Architects.

High Bridge Aqueduct is a curious project for us in that rather than being a vertical logistic problem, as occurs quite often in the NYC environment, it is a horizontal one. We did a series of probes there and with the 1,600 ft length we had to bring in our tools and equipment and materials each day and remove them at the end of the day and fully transport them out of the area (we bought a small yellow wagon that we are very happy with)... nothing could be left behind for fear it would be thrown over and off the bridge. We also had a really good time exploring the innards of the aqueduct pipe, and I mean that literally as our last steel coupon we extracted by cutting from the inside out. The lead on the project is TranSystems.
The Fulton-Nassau Crossroads Program is down near Ground Zero in Manhattan and we had an opportunity to do a few facade storefront probes. Lower Manhattan has to rate as one of the most congested and street populated areas of the planet other than maybe urban population centers in Japan and Asia. Managing to go down there and grind and cut through stucco on the street in broad daylight, safely, with tourists and such walking past, and then to come back again and patch it all up to look good was a tiny but interesting accomplishment. The first day it took us an hour to figure out how to get our small truck, when we were only a few blocks from the site, through the maze of narrow one-way and blocked streets to actually end up at the site and parked. We cheated. Lead on this project, for us, was Li-Saltzman Architects.

It was a year ago the day before Thanks Giving that we did a probe in a plaster ceiling at NY City Hall for Beyer Blinder Belle Architects  and it is this year, a year past our initial brief escapade in making another hole in the built environment that we have got ourselves involved in wondering what will happen to the restoration of the wood windows. We remain wondering.

Our friend Leland Torrence up in Connecticut involved us in an exterior condition survey of two public schools in Providence, RI and other than the usual fun filled field days for the survey the major task was sorting through 1,000+ photographs then assembling them in a Blogger based online visual report, with a few drama laden videos and to do so in such a manner that a report would be produced that would convey the magnitude of the exterior conditions of the masonry of both schools, with a conceptual budget that we also worked up for a 5-year remediation plan. We had thought that it would be really neat to produce a visual report on an iPad and then to send the pre-loaded device to the architect... but the budget for the project did not include for expensive toys and thus we went with wrestling the nearly for-free Blogger format to produce an intelligible online report experience. It helps that once something is developed in a Blogger format that it can be easily cut and pasted into a for-print hard copy report. Now that we know how to do it we hope to have more of this type of communications work in the future.
Warning: turn down your computer volume.
We await what will awake in the New Year. May we all be blessed with work, health and good business!

Friday, December 24, 2010

For Drill Bit Geeks Only!

As a probe contractor for investigations of existing historic building fabric, which can include anything from silk wall covering to pine floors to concrete cores to marble and steel... we enjoy drilling holes and the technology of the tools.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Seasoned Greetings

Should unit prices be required in the bid process?

I could not sleep last night and it had nothing do with the moon eclipse. But I did run across a discussion on unit prices in bids and it is a topic that I find interesting. I got into a bit of rant on it. Rather than do one throw away into the I-way ozone cloud I figured I might dress up my thoughts on unit prices and share them here and elsewhere as well.

I enjoy estimating and bidding as a sport.

I consider estimating for historic preservation work to be the most challenging, complicated and rewarding form of estimating in the entire world of construction.

I have been doing it for a long time. Over the last few years I have been working on writing a book about misadventures in estimating in historic preservation with a mind to reveal enough secrets, foibles and weaknesses that I will never be able to return to doing it again.

I am not quite there yet.

I am interested in sharing, ranting on all sides our thoughts and impressions on the estimation and bid process as it applies to historic preservation work.

The initiating question is: Should unit prices be required in the bid process?

Unit prices do complicate the bid process but what I find most difficult with them is that it is not always clear what their intended use is.

I agree that if they exist that they should be for the purpose of pricing additional work or reasonably unanticipated conditions but in my experience that use is rarely the primary reason that they exist, or that they seem to increasingly proliferate in number. My first leaning toward a recommended practice would be toward a clarification in the bid documents as to what the intent and fair use of the unit prices would be applied to in the management of the project.

Compared to other areas of the construction industry in historic preservation (and I do not mean our bread n’ butter maintenance projects) there is not a great deal of standardization of work activities but there is a great deal of need for and reliance on specific labor skills of unique individuals. When I encounter unit prices they range from work activities that may on the surface look to be relatively simple but in fact be quite complicated to activities that are so unique that nobody, including me, has a clue what they should cost.

A price in economic parlance is information and what I find is that the first use of unit prices is as information used in evaluation of the honesty of a bid.

People – friends of mine -- who evaluate and compare bids quite often have no idea what a work activity should cost and so they line up all of the bids, and all of the unit prices in a matrix, and if the unit prices appear to be deviant from the comparative trend then they place a focus on the areas of greatest deviancy.

An honest evaluation would look at where unit prices run low as well as high, but a less than honest evaluation will only focus on higher unit costs in an effort to negotiate them lower. That lower cost being an objective where the goal of the evaluator is low cost and not necessarily the eventual economic and qualitative success of the project.

I run across clauses such as, “Unit prices that are deemed excessive in cost will be cause for rejection of the bid.” A problem with this approach is that though the unit prices provide information what they reveal can be false and misleading, and generally the people making the interpretation have no clue as to an objective truth or falsity of the information as they are usually the ones who wrote the specification that may very ambiguously describe the scope of the presumed unit price. And in a majority of cases they will never have been in a situation of themselves having to actually provide the specific item of work out of their own resources.

On a bid sheet a unit price may be described in two to three words and a problem in bidding is figuring out what those few words will mean later in the management of the project.

For example “Repointing of brickwork”. I am quite often asked by contractor associates what this unit price should be. Without knowledge of the potential complications one tends to assume that there is a standard market price. There is a perceived standard market price, a price that those who evaluate expect to see listed as the unit price, and in general it is too low of a price for the reality of the resources needed to do the work. Beyond the issues of quantity in a small or a large amount, which is generally a question of logistic and mobilization overhead wrapped into the unit price item, there is also a question, at least in historic work, of skill technique that can vary quite widely as well as a range in cost of specialty materials.

Are the joints to be cut out with a diamond grinder or by hand with a hammer and chisel? Do we actually expect that the joints will be cut by hand with a hammer and chisel as is often specified but as is nearly impossible to actually do in practice? Does the sand for this repointing cost $2.98 per bag or is it a specialty sand to replicate historic mortar at $25.37 per bag? Are the additional units to be done in the same general area or on another portion of the planet? Will our competition on the bid know the difference?

This gets very complicated when the unit prices are reflected back into the number of units in the base bid and the use of the unit prices is an expectation that the lump sum in the base bid reflect the unit price times the number of units but not accommodate other needed resources to complete the work.

This becomes a real problem when one is dealing with public works bids where, depending upon the practice of the public agency, everything is based on unit prices applied to quantities of units, and worse where the logic of the separation out of the units is inadequate and poorly thought out. Made all the worse when there is no room for discussion as in bid sheets that clearly indicate that prices are not to be annotated. [In my old age I refuse not to annotate bid sheets in the determination that it is better to shoot me now. I have been known to scribble all over bid sheets in my irritation that they were so poorly constructed that I want to scream and do other unseemly unsocial acts of vengeance.]

I have always been of the contention that when the quantity of additional units exceeds the base bid by 10% that there should be a change order negotiation. This is not always well received or accepted in argument as a 10% deviancy tends to reflect that the bid documents were not very well put together to begin with.

I recognize that one driving motivation behind the honest making factor of the use of unit prices is that we all operate in a world where we often either cannot tell who is cheating or honest, or that we have no choice but to contend with cheating as a standard way of contractors managing projects and therefore need protections. We also need protections from the protections. Whatever I may think of unit prices it can all be folded into strategic game theory and like sinking into a cosmic worm hole we may find ourselves coming out of the argument before it even started.

I have also been of the contention that deduct of units should not include deduct of profit and overhead. This is the general argument in favor of having unit prices listed as Adds and as Deducts. This can work well in practice as long as it is clearly understood what resources are applied to the unit cost to begin with.

The spread between the Add and Deduct is also information and the estimator needs to accommodate how that information will be interpreted and used. If it is used to interpret that overhead and profit is 500% and that the entire bid is overpriced because of that then it provides one more problem to deal with.

Most specifications that I encounter stipulate that the unit costs will include all overhead costs including taxes, fees, mobilization, logistics and profit. I am in favor of unit prices being bare bones and clearly defined and that overhead and profit is included in the base bid as separate line items, excepting for the problem when unit prices exceed a reasonable threshold, referring back to the 10% margin I mention above.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

NYC: monthly Bagels & Coffee and conversation between peers... Preservation Industry Network = PinHeads

Some of you may remember so far back in time. An invitation to get together and do nothing much in particular.

We want to host a monthly get together for people working in historic preservation for a morning bagel & coffee (or donuts or whatever, even green tea) pretty much for no better reason than to get together in Manhattan.

More than a decade ago we did this on a monthly basis (as I was recently reminded by one of our past gracious hosts) and a whole lot of good came of our seeing each other for reasons that had nothing much to do with the day-to-day pressures of business.

Unfortunately just plain getting together always seemed to need a purpose and out of that sense of purpose a number of things occurred (Preservation Trades Network, a revitalization of APTNE, and the IPTW at Floyd Bennet Field in October 2001... right after 9/11) and in the complications that developed we all stopped just getting together to say hello and gossip and chatter and grouse.

We want to get together again with the express purpose of NOT doing anything more than getting together.

Think of it as a pre-bid walk about only there is no project to not get... just friends.

No organization, no charter, no pledges, no conferences, no mission. We intend to do this near 2nd Ave. & 12th Street on Wednesday, January 12, 2011 or wherever manifests at that celestial time as most convenient and hospitable. If you are interested in a visit and congregation then please give a shout.

For those who can't make it to Manhattan we can provide advice on how to have coffee and bagels in your neck of the wilderness!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

John Stahl Growth Coach

I have been friends with John Stahl for a few decades through his previous business incarnations and having attended his recent presentation session at the IPTW 2010 in Frankfort, KY I was quite impressed with the manner in which he interfaced directly with the needs of his audience.I believe that everyone who attended the session left with really good ideas as to how to improve their business situations.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Theory of the Conservation of Bright Ideas

I have been working on a Theory of the Conservation of Bright Ideas for several years now.

I know of people who have too many bright ideas, they have bright ideas like a horse pie has mushrooms. What I have learned, having had my own bright ideas, is that the idea in and of itself is not of value, but the sweat and commitment to realize the idea is the most important element. This said, what I find is that if bright ideas are too freely traded around and have no bone to them that they tend to lose their luster. At issue with a bright idea is that simply having it, or having the most remarkable bright idea is not a guarantee that other people will pick it up and move forward with it. In other words, if a bright idea does not have LEGS then it won't walk.

One bright idea I had was the Traditional Trades Education Resource Directory and I was really into it and had structured a 'team' of partners and advisers and written a nice grant proposal until it was pointed out to me that the acronym is T-TERD.

But as to the Theory of the Conservation of Bright Ideas what I find is that folks who have a bright idea and then commit to doing the hard grunt work of realizing the one idea into the world, that they stick to it tenaciously through thick and thin, that they never take defeat for an answer, that they are not dissuaded or drawn off track by other competing bright ideas, that they tend to have fewer bright ideas than the person who freely willy nilly invents bright ideas in the gross -- the bright idea fountain that spews forth without ever having any hope or intention of realizing the ideas (they are already very bright and shiny), for the most part expecting other folks to catch on to the magnificence of the bright idea and be inspired to do the work.

There is only so much energy and attention that an individual, or a group of people, can put into the world in the realization of bright ideas.

One aspect of the Theory of the Conservation of Bright Ideas is that in a culture and economy where it is not possible to do anything to realize a bright idea that there seems to be a direct correlation to the production of bright ideas. It is as if when one cannot work to realize bright ideas then it is just as well to have an abundance of them. But in an environment where people can actually work to realize bright ideas they tend to get caught up in following them to the exclusion of coming up with all freshly minted new ones.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Where Do Stonemasons Come From?

Bull manure. Forty plus years ago, at the age of 20, I was self-employed, selling bull manure. It was all 100% grade-A prime bull, from a cryosperm facility at Cornell University, not far from where I grew up. Mostly the lab was known as the place that had the cow with the glass stomach that school children would visit and giggle and watch as it ruminated. While dropping a load, one day I met a 62-year-old stonemason named Marshal Pruitt, and he offered me a job. It was a step up. I had a respect for and wanted to learn traditional stonework. He needed a donkey.

When I started, Marshal said that if I lasted three months I would be a stonemason forever. It would be in my blood. A few weeks later, I suppose he figured I was not wholly wore out, he offered me a choice of his educational curriculum, either to be the best cocksman in the county, a different sort of stonework... or the best stonemason. Though I might have had an interest in the former, I told him I was not sure I would survive, and chose the latter.

Marshal had a reputation as a bitter, overbearing, cantankerous, irascible white racist, the most opinionated, drunken and unfriendly craftsperson in all of upper New York State. I loved the guy.

He had a ten-year waiting list for new fireplaces. It was years when streakin' was popular and set up one night at the Rogue's Harbor Inn in Lansing, NY we got somewhere after the sixth round when he challenged me to go streak with him in the parking lot. I countered him that he was an old man and should show me how to lay stone before he dropped dead and the old art was forgotten (I think there is a missed “f” in this sentence). We never did streak, leastways not that way, but he wanted his glory. For the first year Marshal would only let me cut and carry stone. It was hard for him to give up his secrets. This was not from some honorable plan of apprenticeship, whereby I had to learn the simple skills before the true craft. Instead, it was his worry that I would steal work from him. In the end, I did. I did not exactly want to, but I did. When he gave in to teach me he vowed that even in death he would sit in Heaven and tell me to get to work. We did not streak that night, or any other. He taught me to lay stone.

His fireplaces were traditional brick, not metal boxes with electric fans. In the good summer months the two of us averaged one fireplace per week, included with the chimney. It worked for me. I lasted three years at twelve-hour days, six days a week. There were a lot of days when we said nothing to each other; each of us communed solely with the stone, sand, brick, and block. It was a meditation in motion.

Occasionally the mortar mixer did the talk, it spoke in a muddled language that resembled chicken-speak. It could have been hawg speak or creole voodoo or simply the yap of a mechanical beagle, but we thought it sounded like chickens. However, if our customers heard us cluck, it was us talkin' to each other. It was our shorthand work code; we would be taken too long to say longer words. We had little idea then that we were politicians. Water was “aga.”

Damned stubborn glacial till is what we mostly worked, boulders many of them harder than granite. Split them with a 20 lb. sledge, a sledge blast. It is like with an axe you let the hammer do the work. Smack! Just as the head reaches out to the stone you turn it so the corner strikes. There is perfection to be achieved in the accuracy and the motion of the swing. The boulder is split like a Faberge egg. All of a day spent clambered around on a farmer's pile in a hedgerow; stepped from boulder to boulder, grazing they call it now. We called it nothing. No words for this work. Hot sun. Old age and mud hid the secret interiors of the boulders that would be full of color and crystals and odd shapes to keep us in wonder what would be found next with the sledge. Hammered.

One day it was hot and we must have been succumbed to heat stroke. I looked at this one flat rock; it was gray with white stuff on it. I asked Marshal what he thought it was and he said it had to be pheasant shit. From then on whenever we got to advertise ourselves with a new customer while we set up in the yard I'd tell them how Marshal had such a good eye he could tell the difference between pheasant and chicken shit at fifty yards. A stonemason needs a good eye.

One day I was cutting a corner out of a stone and a chip hit my stainless steel thermos and put a dent in it. He told me then about the time he put out the eye of a kid at the school where he had been employed. The union had kicked him out because he taught boys in a reform school how to work with stone. Marshal was pissed at the union. Pissed at the school too because they had fired him after a girl accused him of rape. Marshal never had too much luck with schools.

Our long days often ended in arguments, and then in a drunken stupor. Jobs were paid for in cash and booze. Whenever we finished a fireplace, we would call the family around and start the tiny, sacramental first fire. The first flame always the sweetest, most memorable. This flicker was usually doused with a generous libation of Canadian Mist or Rheingold beer. A fireplace built in a bedroom, with its implications of fertility, would be an occasion for an extra-rowdy bash. Sometimes we did not make it out of the yard until the next day.

I'll not forget the evening I came home and sat on the floor inside the door to take my boot off then woke up next day in the same spot to put it on again. Or walked two miles in the night in an ice storm where I slid in and out of the blind ditch, just so's I'd be on site on time. The time we were snowed in overnight in hills near Enfield and the fat girl of the house that was takin' after her grannie with three chins, made me cookies while Marshal coached her that I was quiet and shy but sweet on her. I wanted so much to stay outside that the mortar froze on my trowel. When I asked Marshal said it was settin' up real fast is all and to hurry it up. I got a cold in my back that year that ached me fiercely for another decade. This one job the owner had recently moved up from Brooklyn to the country and had cut down the dead elm tree right next to the house. He did not like the majestic looks of a dead tree. The roots rotted out, a year later Marshal and I was there in good weather to wonder at how the chimney leaned out about a half foot from the top of the house. We built fireplaces in rainstorms, ice storms, and blizzards. I slid off a roof in the middle of a snowstorm when I had gone up to cap out a chimney. I never did get frostbite.

Marshal became a stonemason at the age of 12. He said it was because a homely, one-eyed girl out back of a school playground seduced him on a Saturday night. He felt sorry for her. This would have been in the early1920s. The matronly principal of the school was only too happy to expel a boy who was overly energetic, and overly empathic towards the needs of one-eyed girls, and who was also Jewish. He always told me he was a Hebrew. He had to have been lost somwheres. Marshal began work as a bull. He carried double bags of Portland cement in the Sierra Nevada, the Devil’s Backbone, for two stonemasons who built wilderness cabins. He survived and began to learn this trade. I don't think he ever learned to read.

During World War II Marshal worked in the San Francisco shipyards where he chipped welds. He stood on a suspended two-by-twelve off the side of a ship, without safety harness, and held an 80-lb. air hammer. One day, hung 75 feet in the air, Marshal hit a particularly solid weld. If his partner hadn’t of grabbed him, Marshal would have gone down. When I worked with him, thirty years later, he still could not climb up a chimney scaffold more than four feet off the ground without he would shake the bolts out of it. I served as his upwardly mobile squirrel. It was me did the climbing for the two of us.

If he saw a jogger, Marshal would say that anyone with a real job did not have to run around to no place. He constantly complained, with creative curse words, that the youth of America were lazy, pea-brained, and indolent. I wanted to prove him wrong, and worked harder. One time this one house there was a black man with his son with a tractor. They worked all that day to plow the field across the road. It was their business and not his. Marshal was a bundle of perplexed agitation all day going from his bancum set up before the breast to the window to look out. There was no rest for this man with the worry of what terror a black farmer could possibly be conspired after. He would go on about how the blacks had taken over basketball and what next the world was going to fall to. Hell was a toughened lump of bile on his narrow racial horizon.

My girlfriend at the time wanted to work with us but he would have none of it. I tried to explain to her that if she was around on the job that he would never go to the bathroom. She did not understand, besides, he said that she walked like a cowboy. He was always ready to give me advice on love. When I was fagged out from days and hours of pointing mortar and bored senseless from work on a stone house he told me the best way to get on with the hardship of work is to think about woo woo. We worked all winter on that house with the kerosene heaters burning to make us nauseous with headaches. In the spring I looked out past the canvas and saw the sun bright. I got up and walked out. It took him three days to find me.

Even though Marshal preached to me that universities only function as hotbeds of sex, drink, drugs and depravity, I spent what few free days I had in the Cornell architectural library where I read old books on stonemasonry. I convinced him to build Count Rumford style fireboxes. This was not accomplished by rational argument, or from me to show him the book with pictures, but by incremental misunderstandings and deliberate errors in my layout. Slowly making the masonry boxes shallower. Then showing him an improved draft. Marshal was always intrigued by the mystique of a strong draft in a well-built chimney.

Eventually we built what we imagined were close approximations of a Rumford design. The chimneys worked better. It sounded exotic when Marshal got into his sales pitch to the farmers in the rural counties. We built their decorative-masonry heat-machines based on colonial American thermodynamic science -- what he actually told them was an old American design he had learned in Ethiopia. Everywhere for Marshal seemed to be America, even when he spent a year in Saudi Arabia where he was dry. He told me about how they lay one concrete block per day like some people would speak of streets with gold pavers. It was his eye witness account.

We worked for this one farmer, a prosperous guy with a pallet mill, out north of Moravia. We had built a 6' wide firebox, a split cobble breast, and a raised hearth of bluestone. Marshal had spent a lot of time fussed up over this one fireplace. It had to be his best monument. We worked through all of the stones to pick the best and most interested of them. I spent an entire day to put a hole through the keystone so that we could fit the handle to the damper opener-spiral. Then we did a random flag floor, and then built a dry sink all in the same room. This was above their dairy room and had a hand-crank wood elevator to it. The farmer made real good apple cider that he kept cool in the dairy room below. Each day at the end of day he would give us each a cold tall glass. Pretty heady stuff it was. So when we got finished there we had to have a party and all the farm hands and neighbors around were invited. I met a guy that hunted rabbits. There were pitchers of the hard cider filled from the barrel brought up on the elevator.

It was not long before Marshal was fully animated, what with the first fire and the good draw on a tall chimney. He danced. Times like this I had learned it was smart to stand directly behind him because he had a tendency to fall over backwards like an ironing board let go all of a sudden. He jumped up on the hearth and danced like it was a jig, even without music, everyone watched. With their attention in hand he lit to tell the story of the stones that he had put into their fireplace. He pointed at the mother stone, it was yellow sandstone. Then he pointed out the father, a hell of a fat red igneous stone. Then onto the children in a row all the way down to the littlest baby. A family to ring the hearth of the breast. I was behind him; he kept going and did not fall. Then there was the moon stone, a heavy mother, a large chunk of natural iron that he had cursed because it would not cut. I had a crush on the farmer's daughter but would not tell her so.

One time we met a kid who had gone to a school in Holland to learn to be a stonemason. From the way this guy talked, I became convinced that to go to school would not produce a stonemason, only a talking imitation. I never saw him lift a stone (he probably would have herniated himself), but he sure could talk a good line. In my career I've met plenty of people with a desire to play with stones for a livelihood that would be better applied their meager talents to retail sales or as hair cutters.

It was not often we worked projects where there were other trades and for the most part we avoided a whole lot of people. When you work like forever there is little left over for social life. This one project the block mason's brother was a carpenter who had cut off all the fingers to his hammer hand with a dado saw. It was a Saturday and his 10-year old son was there to watch. The lesson was don't drink beer and saw wood at the same time, leastways, not before noon. He had all his fingers wired back on but he had no insurance so he had to work with one arm hauling blocks for his brother. That should have been the interesting part of this story. Marshal was convinced that one of the family members on the crew had stolen his wristwatch. In the morning he cursed the block mason under his breath and I heard all of it. Towards noon he cursed the block mason's son who was mixing the mortar. Then after lunch it was their wives who brought their meals and had left an hour before. Then the almost fingerless carpenter with the real sore arm was blamed. They were by all estimations a shifty and devious clan of thieves. I was agitated to hear of such despicable actions on the part of tradesmen to do such an underhanded thing as steal a working man's watch. It was a terrible thing. I vowed to Marshal that I would observe them and that if there was any opportunity to make amends and retrieve his watch I would not hesitate to beat them all silly with the 4' level. I worried the entire night.

Next morning Marshal revealed that his wife had found his watch tucked down between his mattress and the headboard. There is always a thing to be said for a bit of patience.

Some twenty years later, moved on out of the area and no longer any threat of competition for my mentor, I had an opportunity to do a small amount of work on the facade at Carnegie Hall. I contacted the local hometown newspaper and talked them into doing a short article with a picture. I later learned that Marshal happened to be lain in hospital when the article appeared. A tree that he had been cutting down for firewood had hit him. His wife showed him the article. Marshal had been through a lot and could not remember which of his many helpers I was, but his wife reminded him that I was the one who wore funny hats. He remembered. I was told that he cried. I was glad the article mentioned him, because Marshal died in that bed. And sure enough, not many days go by that I do not hear him tell me to get to work.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Boom Lift Safety

Buster should have been wearing a harness!

Friday, October 1, 2010

007 Metabolic Rates, Speed and Consumption

“Take any part of this book and go to the end of it. You will find yourself thinking of the next step to be taken in that direction. Perhaps you will need new materials, new technologies.” John Cage, "An Autobiographical Statement"

Do we live in the fast lane, or do we live slow and savor every second of our time on the planet?

In either case, fast or slow for a restoration project an histo presto estimator needs to be able to apply an appropriate cost value.

Fast or slow there is a disparity between high and low metabolic rates in the manner of learning that a workforce experiences when they work in differing geographic environments. This disparity of rate of skill learning, and differences in understandings of traditional materials and building processes from one geographic area to another can have a subtle and easily ignored impact on an estimate for historic work.

The rate of metabolism is the amount of energy used within a period of time. In our case here we are talking human energy expended as individuals, as tradespeople, as design professionals, as communities of teams working together on historic structures.

It is easily noticeable that the metabolic rate of human activity and social interaction of all types in a dense urban area tends to be higher than in a rural one. People who work together learn together. People who work close together in groups inevitably talk and educate each other in working groups, and where there is a concentration of specific types of work there are specific sets of skills retained, learned or expanded in their development.

When I first became aware of this notion of metabolic rate connected with geographic location was on a visit from Brooklyn to a meeting in Washington DC at the National Trust offices where I was asked, as an aside and not directly relevant to the topic of the meeting, “What do you think of aluminum siding?”

At that time we lived in Greenpoint-Williamsburg, Brooklyn in an Italian neighborhood where the aluminum siding salesmen had in the 60s and 70s gone bonkers and covered over all of the gingerbread and Victorian 19th c board-work of the three and four story building stock. What I saw around me was an aging aluminum siding that presented not only aluminum, but color selected by property owners with an expression of their own cultural aesthetic, and a community that had obviously bought into the expressed merits of aluminum siding. As a built environment in itself I found the exploration and detailing of what can be done with aluminum siding to be quite interesting and inventive. So, my initial reaction to the question was that I like aluminum siding.

Though I knew that there was something wrong with my answer I had not put the aluminum siding there on the facades, so I did not feel culpable for the existence of it, and I was curious and remain curious what will be decided in future to maintain or restore it. When the aluminum siding falls off there is often an asphalt faux brick/stone sheeting, and when that falls off there is wood clapboard siding, where it has not rotted, a case in point of preservation by neglect. Occasionally a house can be found where aluminum siding was never applied and the original fabric of the wood clad structure is intact (most often unpainted), and quite often the original carpentry work is elegant in simple details. To make repairs to aluminum siding when it fails can present as many conundrums as needed to restore historic brickwork, just that nobody on the larger histo presto radar particularly cares about aluminum siding. And I agree that there are a whole lot of envelope and moisture related problems with aluminum siding, as well as with vinyl and that neither material is the zero-maintenance solution that many homeowners may have bought into.

The person who asked me was the executive director of an historic trades training program for the National Park Service, an architect by profession, and it was quickly apparent to me that they did not like aluminum siding.

I note that, and based on my subsequent years of experience,  that the National Park Service is not likely to initiate a program for restoration of aluminum siding, any more than they are going to be interested in restoration of historic house trailers, even if they have a few in their remote desert portfolio, but that if there is going to be a revival or development of the trade skills needed to restore and conserve aluminum siding it is likely to be driven by the local fix-it-upper folks in the urban communities of the likes of Brooklyn where aluminum siding is prevalent and concentrated.

Skill sets develop and are maintained based on an employed need. We have only to look to the development of the Brownstone revival industry, where stone facades are often scraped back and replaced with a faux brownstone stucco, and colored-stucco is the trade practice that is learned, to wonder what the future preservation movement will look like around aluminum siding.

But, moving on, in the New York City environment there is a concentration of tall masonry buildings and likewise a concentration on a workforce that becomes accustomed to the methods and skills employed to maintain and restore a masonry building stock, and to work on tall buildings. When one moves away from the urban concentration, say north into Westchester and Connecticut the historic building stock tends more toward wood construction and the buildings are lower in height and thus craftspeople who work in more rural environments learn to practice a different set of skills with a focus on differing materials than their citified peers. In this respect metabolic rate is associated with a geographic determinism rooted in the characteristics of the local building stock.

When one is looking at estimating labor costs when moving traditional trades between zones of rural or urban, even when from urban to urban (Boston to Philadelphia) then a consideration has to be made for a whole set of factors that may not be so readily apparent when estimating new-build work.  In new-build work materials tend to be highly standardized and building methodologies applied to standardized materials tend to be similar where labor is perceived in an estimate as a commodity that may only require a cost-of-living factor of adjustment between one place and another. The process of labor and time involved in installation of sheetrock in Chicago is not going to differ in any significant manner from that in Houston, though what will differ is the local labor arrangements, wages and cost-of-living. Though a traditional plaster wall will require a similar amount of time and skill and methodology in New Orleans as in Scotland, there are trade skills and qualities of understanding and practice that are quite specific to local areas of concentration.

Regardless, not all differences of quality of level of needed traditional skills can be attributed to an urban or rural difference. Often differences are rooted in the natural environment where the traditional materials were derived, and in a context of historic transportation technologies as to how at the times of the original construction the materials were moved around. If a particular clay pit on the North Fork of Long Island was used to produce Salmon brick and the brick, which appear unique to the local area, were then moved to the local building sites by mule cart it does not provide quite the same dispersion pattern of building material as if they were moved by barge or rail.

Thus one can trace out the dispersion of Rosendale natural cement around the globe as it went by barge and boat and, as there is a slightly different method of working with the material when repointing stonework than if one is using a contemporary Portland cement based mortar it would make sense to employ tradespeople in restoration that are familiar with working with the historic material. But the number of tradespeople familiar with working with natural cement is going to be directly proportional to the application of the material in restoration work. If natural cement is not used, and other materials are substituted for it, then there will be a differing set of trade skills employed, even though differences of methodology may appear very small and subtle they can exist and they can have an impact on the end result and likewise on the overall cost of the restoration process.

A case in point, as to rural to urban, is the task to import a blacksmith, let us say from the Berkshires, with an idea for them to do in-field forge welding of wrought iron on an historic cast iron fire tower in the middle of a city park, on top of a tall rock, surrounded by a local network of drug dealers in Harlem, armed with golf clubs, cell phones and plenty of lookouts. First one has the cost to take the time to find a blacksmith willing to work in the city (there is not much call for blacksmiths to have established shops in Manhattan), hopefully a blacksmith set up to do portable work, and then one has to deal with logistics to get them situated to the top of the rock, and one needs to make sure they are happy (quite often rural folks are just plain not happy to work in the city), and then one needs to make sure they get out of the project, and the city whole of body, in a single piece with all arms and legs intact, healthy and alive. [I am reminded of the young fellow from Buffalo who worked for us in Manhattan and shortly after 9/11 had some sort of mental breakdown... as was evident from the patchwork mess he directed his crew to make of a flat roof project, and how he fled town to spend several months to ride around on a bicycle in what was for him a more sane Cambodian countryside and where he seemed happy to write us on the occasional e-mail to inform us that he was eating fried maggots for dinner. Who knows!]

Another variation is that outside of urban concentrations there is invariably the lonely and isolated stone or masonry building in the small town, often a bank, or a town hall, or courthouse that has been muddled and messed up with well meaning masonry fudges by the local masons who rightly know new brick or new block work, it is the new masonry that they are most often hired to perform, but that they have no practical training, experience or understanding of masonry restoration. In this case a restoration contractor can bring in experienced masonry restoration trades from the city, but as the city tends to have a higher cost of living, and higher wages, it becomes a competitive cost problem for the estimator to juggle against the lower wages and lower experience of the local rural trades.

It never helps if property owners do not know or do not care about appropriate methods of restoration repair and themselves have no clue as to what exactly is about to happen to their building – often irreversible damage through gross ignorance -- when the local mason, or the well meaning volunteer group patches over all the missing brick with a slurry of Portland cement, to make it harder, stronger and last longer. What they get is very durable with a longer lasting decay.

There is also pride of place or a natural desire to protect livelihood close to home. If Joe the Mason is your brother-in-law then why would you listen to Fred from Chicago? This conundrum of dislocation and ignorance of good restoration practice becomes more interesting if the masonry structure to be worked on is difficult to access, such as a lighthouse on a restricted access island. And not to forget out-of-town costs for accommodations, per diem, transportation and meal allowances. Think in terms of working on the moon or restoration of the face on Mars. Life support can be a problem.

Everyone does everything different than everyone else wherever you go to look. Just as there is a metabolic rate that occurs in the organic process of building up of traditional trades resources, and the differences between one geographic locality and another, there is also a disparity in the amount of hands-on ‘business knowledge’ one acquires in contracting histo presto work.

Most historic restoration work is undertaken by relatively small business concerns that can be as small as one sole trade’s practitioner up to larger organizations of several hundred employees, but even with the larger outfits they are many degrees smaller in scale and in business activity and accumulated business experience as say giants such as Bechtel or Halliburton. You will not find very many Harvard MBA graduates doing hands on work in historic restoration, leastways not if their drive is to earn money. In part this is conditioned by the manner in which small boutique construction businesses develop from bright idea with pick-up truck and shovel to larger entity but almost always remain connected to the leadership, sweat and inspiration of one or two key people.

The needs of the historic preservation industry itself, which can be very localized as we have expressed here, and the necessary fragmented knowledge of the trades skill sets for traditional work limits the degree to which projects can be reasonably managed in complexity, and limits the degree to which a company can develop an internal business structure able to interface within the environment of a market niche. The internal structure of a restoration business begins with a response to the needs of a local market, for the most part, rarely for a global market. If it does not respond to the needs of the local market, of any viable market then it will not continue to exist as a business.

There is a phenomenon in masonry construction that I know of as butter joints (I once heard them referred to as Coney Island joints, but I’m not sure what the speaker may have been smoking). These are extremely thin joints, often less than 1/8th of an inch in the horizontal or vertical. The industrial process of brick fabrication with metal molds and steam power in the 19th c resulted in compact brick with very clean dimensional tolerances and the practice of brickwork for a time took on the challenge of these close tolerances and the result was butter joints. Also a result was some very intricate corbelled work, molded work and complicated arches.

In general less exacting, less ornate brickwork tends to have joint widths of ¼” to 3/8” inch. In the business of repointing brickwork an industry has developed to cut and repoint these thicker joints that first began with cutting loose or deteriorated mortar out with chisel and hammer (sometimes pneumatic powered but not so early on before portable pneumatic power was widely available), a labor intensive process to use a hammer and chisel to be avoided if possible as it is costly in labor and can easily cause damage to the brick. For the most part due to the cost and the difficulty the cutting and repointing of mortar joints, as it is practiced today, was avoided. Then carborundum grinder blades came along and as long as the blades were thinner than the joint thickness they worked reasonably well, though the blades wore down in their diameter and needed to be replaced several times in a day. They required a good deal of fuss with labor expenditure to use them. Then 4” diameter diamond grinder blades came along that did not reduce in their diameter as they were used. Though they cost more than carborundum they worked longer and a laborer could go a few days without a need to stop to change them out. The drawback with diamond grinder blades is that they work too well, they cut through mortar as some used to say ‘like butter’ but they also cut through brick and stone and hands and fingers like it was butter. Thus, in unskilled and inexperienced hands, or with mechanics that don’t know or do not care, diamond grinder blades can be dangerous to historic fabric and to people.

We were doing a project on an old theater on 2nd Ave on precast concrete panels that consisted of white marble aggregate and a nice salmon colored mortar. With a bit of care it was not too difficult to match up patching materials and blend them in to make repairs. The task was to do a minimal amount of intervention, and to seal a few cracks here and there. Unfortunate for us the foreman (the one who was caught out on a penthouse terrace on his previous project at 1:00 am naked) was drunk in the shower one night at his hotel room in Jersey City, fell, broke his leg and was unable to work. Short a foreman on the project he suggested his buddy take over for him, with assurance that he would make sure his buddy understood the job at hand. I was not able to get over to the project to oversee the transition as quickly as would have been best, as when I arrived at the project the new foreman had instructed the crew to cut out all of the cracks they could find in the precast. There were a lot of them. It reminded me of snakes -- all over the wall. It was certainly a case of doing too much too quickly and it bore in on me the hard lesson that diamond grinder blades can work really really too well. There were already problems on the project, the shop steward was a meth head who told us that he had just finished up a prison gig for manslaughter, and after we made all those irreversible worms and destroyed the historic fabric the project went from unpleasant to total nightmare in very short order. After we were terminated and another subcontractor brought in a determination was made by the architect to put a coating over everything, a monolithic color. The character of the otherwise quite fine precast was lost.

For a while diamond grinder blades seemed to be universally taboo on historic work, but then in more enlightened circles it was discerned that not all restoration trades mechanics are created equal, not all of them are stupid idiots and that it was not the tool and the technology that caused the destruction, but the operator. In light of this knowledge some projects require that the mechanics prove out their understanding and competence to use diamond grinders.

A student in an academic program, a young well meaning person who had negligible trade experience but still an interest in hands-on devises a methodology for raking out and repointing of butter joints using a kitchen knife and wax paper. Their peer-reviewed article is published in a respected journal and then eventually filters along to be disseminated to mechanics in the field who are used to work with masonry, and have met up with some butter joints, and who find the proposed methodology and tools to not only be impractical in execution, but apt to cause an increase in significant damage to the brick masonry as well as laughter. In this example, and as it would be in most actual instances, damage to historic fabric is a result contrary to all desired standards and expectations.

But, going back to the need of a restoration contractor to have a business to satisfy a market need, and metabolic rates of learning -- there have never been chisels, carborundum blades, and not to date diamond blades, thin enough to handle cutting out of butter joints. Decades ago, before diamond grinder blades, I spent a day with a young graduate of an historic preservation program newly employed by the Landmarks Preservation Commission driving them around to look at early historic restoration work that we had done with our business. What they wanted to know was what experience we had with repointing butter joints. The answer at the time was an uncomfortable, “None.” With the qualification that if given the opportunity we were willing to invest in learning and training of a workforce to do the work, but only if there were a need for it and that we would be paid for the work and not do it as a charity for a non-profit or a demonstration for academic purposes. At that time if they could have found anyone with experience in repointing of butter joints it would have been remarkable and it was my impression that they should be happy that they had at least found someone interested to do it in a good way.

But it also leads to how theoretical expectations can be disconnected from what it is possible to accomplish when working with materials, technology and trades. Nowadays there are new tools and technologies, and understanding of historic building materials, that make cutting of butter joints less of a headache and there are people and contractors with experience, if you can find them.

There are a number of ways to structure a contract for work, lump sum, design build, time and materials and as many variations as people seem to be capable to imagine and agree upon. In my experience in the New York environment the majority of work is contracted on a lump sum basis and one would never think to do it otherwise. It is the expectation of the market that the contractor will provide a fixed cost for the work and to do this regardless of how complicated or tenuously experimental and open-ended the work is (remember the butter joints never before dealt with).  In historic work there is often a venture into unknown but deceptively familiar territory.

There is the straightforward unknown that one can try to anticipate in an estimate. In the composite patch and repair of delaminated brownstone a difficulty is that one can never tell by looking at a façade, particularly when only able to look from the sidewalk, just how far back the stone will need to be removed before sound stone is encountered. A greater depth increases not only the labor to remove, and replace, but the composite patch materials are relatively expensive and over a large area an extra one inch of removal over the area of a townhouse façade can be quite costly in labor and materials. A sensible approach to reduce risk on the part of the contractor would be to go at this on a time and material basis, but in the city it rarely is agreed to by the property owner as they worry that they will be cheated, as they often are. People in the city may also learn to distrust each other faster than for people who live and do business in the country. To do work on a time and material basis requires a level of trust. A similar problem to the brownstone is in terra cotta repairs where visual inspection from the ground simply is not adequate to assess quantities of work needed until one is fully engaged in the work. The tendency is in these open-ended cases when an estimate or negotiation is short on adequate cost, to either cheat, pray for the best, or to over compensate in costing the work.

Another factor is that in histo presto work there is invariably an amalgamation of a whole grouping of needs that require different approaches, different sub-trades, and quite often these projects are wrapped in an RFP without the originating designer having any clue how complicated they have packaged the work. I would say in 80% of projects there is always one small task that the estimator has never encountered or experienced and subsequently has absolutely no rational clue how to cost out.

An associate based in Providence, RI, as well as a painter in Philly (now since retired to WV), does all of their work on a time and material basis and when you ask them for a lump sum, fixed cost, they are flustered and not prepared to think of their estimates in a manner to accommodate higher levels of risk in that they could be wrong. This difference of approach is not a bad thing in any manner, but it is a problem when one is not prepared in assembling a bid to realize just how differently everyone approaches costing of their work. The bid process generally runs to a deadline, a due-by date, and when time is short one does not want to have to backtrack and try to understand if the costs provided actually cover all of the described work, or leave a loophole that could later be costly, and more so costly in a crisis because not anticipated anyone at all.

A useful model by which to visualize these differences of metabolic rate is in the concept of pace layering.

I credit Stewart Brand in a keynote presentation at a conference in Chicago for the Association for Preservation Technology International for introducing pace layering to an audience of the historic preservation industry. Pace layering can be visualized as a set of concentric rings, like layers of an onion or planets revolving around the sun.

The concept is that there are slow moving communicators on the interior layer, and fast moving communicators on the outer layers – everyone co-existing in real time in the same world and on the same planet. Just some folks are slower moving and some are faster. Again we get back to that metabolic rate. Again we get back to, Do you live fast or do you lives slow?

In the center circle we may have equivalents of social communication through stone tablets and banging on drums. The stone tablets are difficult to carry around, they keep breaking, the pagans had been using clay tablets before this but the records kept melting in the rain. They went to stone, for the really valuable information, but it took much longer to record. By necessity the difficulty of the media itself confined one to recording only the most essential information, like the Mayan recording of the end of human civilization in the year 2012, and not a lot of vague and ephemeral twitter. The banging of drums reach as far as the sound will carry, similar to the messages sent out at noon or in an emergency call by our volunteer fire houses where the message is local. It is neighbor talking across the fence at the edge of the yard to neighbor about the efficacy of woodstoves vs. pellet stoves or the ambient nature of fireplaces. It is information that moves across the landscape slowly.

Then we have the printing press, people that read, books, newspapers, telephones and television, the internet.

In the outer circles we have a rapidity of distribution and process of information that is fast and moving information around between widely disparate groups of people, all of whom get to digest, or block off the stream. But this speed of information occurs in a world where the participant can be moving real slow or real fast at other times and on other layers, a day on the computer and a day in a rowboat without cell phone a day on the cell phone in a row boat on the internet. Or fast moving people can stop, get out of their high gear and talk to a slow moving person, go visit someone dying in the hospital. Or we can have the wheelbarrow operator talking on his bluetooth earbud to his portfolio broker while he moves we t concrete.

Information comes at us like sound to the ear, though we can shut our eyes, rarely are we able to shut our ears, and it is like this with information, once it hits us we have no recourse but to process it into our thinking. We may attempt to shut it off, but truly once something is known to us, as we can ask Eve and Adam who knowingly ate apples off the Tree of Knowledge; it is really really hard to put what we come to know back into a box of ignorance. We need in some ways to know what we know and let it be at that, we need to be able to go with the flow of our not knowing and our knowing in an indeterminate world.

One manner by which to deal with an influx of too much information, to the supernormal stimulation of FAST media is to play dumb, be dumb, and embrace the dumbness in ourselves. Or, as one business acquaintance says, “Put it in another room and shut the door, turn the key, voila!” Or we can step off the grid, step back from the flow, get out of the stream of information, stop watching television, don’t read newspapers and stay off the computer. But to play dumb in an estimate is to ignore the risk of losing against reality.

Though these days we can hook a text up to a computer that will cut letters into a slab of stone as if we were to push PRINT on our word processor the stone remains heavy to move around, as a stone is a stone. As to the drums we can do a video and embed it into our website, now suddenly the local alarm is made global, if there is anyone inclined to listen. But the post-Luddite population, off the grid, will remain as much as they can possibly manage to remain out of range of the barrage of communication. If the stone gets to them it will be by mule, if the drum sounds for them it will be by Jessie who makes a call to them for dinner. And for whom the bell tolls, though I had intentionally left bells out of this up to now.

The metaphoric construct of concentric circles has a few other interesting potentials besides slow and fast moving communicators tied or not tied to information streams. Stewart intimates that the circles turn in one world, like a prayer wheel or the tire on a car, or the device of the story here is as the black arm of a large clock. That there is a relative point of the present, the here and now, at which all existing, living communicators are on this planet earth in one time, today, now and that though the communicators on the most outer circles are covering more territory in any one day than those slower moving on the interior, everyone is in the same world, be here now, and most of everyone is hearing something, if it even only be a bird outside at the feeder that cheerily sings in the morning sun. There is no science fiction to this, while you are here doing this, reading this, someone is somewhere else, a whole lot of someone else’s, doing something entirely different than what you are doing now reading this sentence. I sip from a cold cup of coffee as we speak.

That blacksmith that we were looking for earlier to do the forge welding in Harlem is on the planet today. The masonry mechanic that we need to cut and repoint mortar joints on the sandstone of lighthouse this week is hanging off of the side of a building on West 43rd Street. The timber framer, having heard all of this stuff several times before is waiting patiently to read to the end of this paragraph.

Another aspect of this metaphor of concentric circles is the communication relationship between the rings of circles. One might presume that on the inner circles, where information is moving slowly, that those on the outer circle look like speedy ghosts whizzing past. They do, actually, look highly irrelevant if your sole interest and immediate focus in life is rearranging stones in a dry wall. Some would say, “Oh, that really fast whizzing past us person has poor timing.” From the outer rims of the wheel those on the interior look like they are frozen in space, statues of stone, as well they are in a relative manner stuck there not moving very quickly, like lizards with cold blood not able to get their scales up until the sun comes warm onto the rocks.

Often there are discussions on the economic disparity between those who can afford a computer and broadband and those who live off the grid, have no computer, and have no connection. An even larger issue in this disparity is not the economics but the exponential contrast in metabolic rate in the accumulation, processing and distribution of information, in short, how quickly and efficiently that we learn.

So one day we have this slow communicating person who bravely puts their arm out into the fast stream and suddenly gets it ripped off. Bloody unfortunate mess that is. Or, let us say, to jump onto a fast moving train you need to run along side of it a bit and jump. If you miss, well, good luck.

Or a person on the outermost ring finds a stone, writes on it with a magic marker, then throws it in to the inside core, I mean, we are all on the same field so why not throw things back and forth? It is like the e-mails that we get with the signature that advises us to think about what we are doing to the environment before we print out the e-mail. In other words, keep moving fast, don’t stop, don’t take what I tell you and carve a stone out of it. Besides, give me fifteen minutes and I will probably say something else to contradict myself.

My current business signature advises everyone to think about the environment before reading the e-mail that I have sent them. I strategically place my signature, as with every signature, at the end of the e-mail where most readers will not become aware of the environmental impact of the message until after they have read the body of the e-mail. Too bad.

You will never know the value of information that you receive until you have received it and had an opportunity to process it. Good to go to sleep. Sometimes you will know immediately the potential value of information, other times it can take a long time for a small piece of information to reveal value. In the majority of cases information may not be of any value to you ever. But in essence, all raw information for an histo pesto estimator is good information.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Ken's Mystery Mortar

Four part video series... mortar aggregates extraordinaire...

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Of Hearth & Home

Newburyport Preservation Trust, September 16, 2008, Newburyport, MA

A lecture and slide presentation by a traditional trades brick mason "Dick the Bricky" with a lot of New England early fireplace and architecture information.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Stanford White Library Fireplace

This fireplace resides within a Stanford White designed library interior at the former Lamb's Club on West 44th Street in New York City, currently The Chatwal, a boutique hotel. It is the larger of two fireplaces that we worked on at this project location.

As a subcontractor to Traditional Line Architectural Restoration, we documented and deconstructed the fireplace in 2007. At that time the bricks were crated and put in storage. In 2010 we reconstructed the masonry of the fireplace. All woodwork reconstruction is by Traditional Line. The historic reconstruction of the library, including the masonry, was subject to approval of the NY Landmarks Preservation Commission staff as well as the review of Li/Saltzman Architects.

For a detailed day-by-day photo portfolio go here.

After and Before

Monday, February 1, 2010

De-Construction of a Gold Paint Film

Tony Shafrazi is known for a number of items the most famous of which being his attack on Picasso’s Guernica in 1974. A lesser known incident was his commission of the artist Zadik Zadikian to cover 1,000 bricks with gold leaf at a museum in Teheran, Iran.

In an odd twist these two incidents, one of symbolic desecration and the other of faux bullion, came together when an artist (or wannabe artist) who claimed a relationship with Zadikian threw a few gallons of gold paint onto the cast iron and glass façade of Shafrazi’s then Noho (Manhattan, North of Houston) gallery. Note 1: Shafrazi has since moved his gallery to new digs in Chelsea. Note 2: Shafrazi is also known for his connection with Andy Warhol, Dennis Hopper and Keith Haring.

Through connection w/ an artist friend who moves in those circles we got the call to come and remove the gold paint from the façade. It was a hurry up job, we had to get in there before either the paint dried fully or the television news crews actually caught on to the affair. The task was not quite as simple or straight forward as most graffiti removal gigs as the “artiste” who seemed to want as much happening as possible for his protest was present for the full duration of the deconstruction of his vandalism... I mean, excuse me, his work of ART.

We can only surmise how much he had practiced the dance-arc of throw of paint prior to the execution in a sort of Jackson Pollack enthusiasm. The canvas in this case being vertical and a somewhat permanent attachment to the street environment within a soon-to-be Historic District.

When I say the artiste was present for the de-construction I mean in the sense that across the quaint cobble street he parked his 1970s era convertible Cadillac that was painted in leopard colors (the hand-applied paint technique on the car was sophomoric and of little intrinsic expression) with all sorts of zoo-like fluffery on the interior and he proceeded each day to dance around in leopard skin tights, his hair cut like a razorback and bleached gold-blond, with a clunky camcorder on his lithe shoulder while he video-taped the process of the work. This was before YouTube and before cell phones with video cameras and I can only rely on the vision of my faltered memory.

The small crew, there are only so many mechanics that can be fit to work across the width of the usual cast iron façade of 20-25 feet, very little aware of their role in an ‘art happening’ -- or even aware of what an art happening is -- went diligently to work with paint stripper, water blast machines (noisy) and decked in full rain gear, boldly-yellow -- pants, coats and hoods. The artiste made his noise on the street, danced around and recorded the deconstruction event. He was lucky he did not get dragged into a back alley and clobbered a few times.

I am reminded of the incident this morning because tenants in the building on the upper floors participated by throwing small flower pots off of their fire escapes. Nobody was hurt in the process, as I remember, but the crew certainly did complain. They did not complain about the crazy man dancing around on the street, whom they mostly found mildly amusing, but they were concerned that they not get hit in the head. I shared their concern for personal safety.

I am reminded of the flower pots as I contemplate a possible future gig where we worry that monkeys may throw bananas at us as we work below them. If monkeys can type out Shakespeare then I am certain that they can mimic post-modern art.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Sidewalk Lady

The sidewalk lady started out as a potential business lead from an associate in our industry. The result was 1. that we got a pretty good story, 2. we now question any references from associates who do not investigate the leads that they pass on (we try to ask more questions before we say yes), and 3. we managed to extricate ourselves from further involvement with the sidewalk lady.

Our associate told us that the sidewalk lady had a problem with the platform of brick at the entry door on her house, her stoop as she called it. We spoke with her briefly on the phone. She asked us to visit her house and look at her problem. Though her house is on Long Island where we are located it is at a village quite a bit out of the way for any of our usual travels. We were not particularly inclined to spend several hours, let alone the cost of gas, to go look at a problem that we had no clue what it would amount to in a paying gig. So after much effort on her part to act the ‘desperate grandmother' in need of assistance, which took several phone calls with her calling us every day, at times several times a day to beg us to visit her house – we convinced her to send us a photograph. We had to promise to return the photograph. We promised.

A few weeks later a Polaroid photo showed up. It was a really bad photo and I could not make out from it very much of anything. It showed brick. For all the fuss we had gone through I imagined this had to be the side view to a large brick structure. The address was at a relatively well-to-do area of the island best as we could tell and we imagined this must be one hell of a nice house. We were trying to visualize what the problem was that we were being presented. She had told us there were white lines. We were clueless. What white lines? We sent the photo back. With it we sent a work proposal for what it would cost for us to visit and investigate the problems. We figured that it would take at least a day between going there, talking with her, doing some probes, knocking around a few bricks or whatever and then to write up a recommendation report and a repair proposal.

Here is an excerpt from our letter: “I have looked over the photo that you have sent to us. The photo is being returned to you enclosed. You are correct that there is not much that can be seen form the photo but it does provide us with a more accurate idea of the problem that you have. Though we are not certain that we can make much of a difference it looks like what we can do is use a pneumatic carving chisel to remove the harder portion of the efflorescence and then to use an acidic cleaner and see if there is an improvement. The appearance may be less than acceptable, but it will be better than it is now, and it will avoid the need to remove and replace the brickwork.”

She did not want to pay for our time to do that investigative work. We understood. No problem. We were perfectly willing to leave it alone. She kept calling us every few days. “Please please please come visit at my house.”

Eventually we got a paying gig in New Jersey and on the way back to Long Island, even though it was at least an hour out of our way in travel time, we made arrangements to visit at her house. Over the course of the previous weeks everything seemed to have gotten worse with her masonry and it had now spread to her concrete sidewalk. She had been talking with all sorts of people about her dire situation including the Portland Cement Association, including a contractor who was writ up in the NY Times for doing shot blast on concrete parking decks.

Shot blast uses a machine that shoots steel bee-bees at the concrete and at the same time sucks them and the pulverized concrete back up again. It is used to remove the top surface of concrete in order to roughen up in preparation for a surface bonded coating... it is a fairly standard process with large parking garages. The equipment is expensive, the crews need to be experienced, and the money is made in getting in, doing large areas quickly, and then moving out. It is paid for by the square foot of area blasted. Quite often it is done in an operating garage with the need to deal with the hassles of vehicles... but not always the need to deal with grandmother types.

It was getting toward evening and we were tired from a day of work. What we really wanted was to get home after a few days away. We also wanted to get her to stop calling us. We found ourselves slightly lost in a suburban neighborhood. Not as upscale as we had imagined, but not terribly shabby either. We finally found the address and our first impression was that the house, with wood siding, looked as if it was last painted in the early 1950s. Our other impression was that there must not be anyone home, even though we had called, and been called, several times to confirm the appointment. We parked. We went up to a door where there was a light on outside, not exactly sure we had the correct information. No, this was it, she answered the door. Through the screen we asked her where the stoop was at that she had the problem with. Mind you, we consciously did not want to be invited inside.

She said, “You are standing on it.”

I looked down at my feet and instead of a magnificent, even a modestly apportioned stoop what I found was about twenty brick laid flat for about nine square feet of area, I mean it was flat 3’ x 3’ in size., smaller than a kitchen table. The brick was trim around the outside of the square with concrete in the middle. It was not the side view of anything that I had been looking at in her precious photograph.

Well, if we were not raised to try to be polite, and if it was not that we wanted to get her to stop calling every few days, we may have been smart enough to turn around and run back to the street, get in the truck and keep driving.

We could not see anything at all wrong with her brick stoop. She insisted that there was. Not only was there something wrong with her stoop but her neighbor during the winter had thrown lime and rock salt onto her sidewalk and therefore she swore that her concrete was rapidly deteriorating.

Other than normal weathering, where the stone aggregate is lightly exposed, we saw nothing to complain about with her sidewalk. Mind you, this was not a 10’ wide sidewalk in 5’ squares like in the city; it was not even 4’ wide. It was a 3’ wide sidewalk, about as small as one can get with a sidewalk other than not having one at all.

She wanted to know if we could shot blast it for her. We expressed hesitation. She went on about how that was what she read about in the NY Times and it must be the only proper way to take care of her sidewalk. She was perturbed that the shot blast guy no longer returned her phone calls.

We told her that she had some very interesting problems.

“I need to show you what my neighbor did,” she said as she pulled us out further along toward the street. “You see that?”


“He did that?”

He did?

“It was not there before.”

There was a slight indentation in the surface of the concrete. I got down on my hands and knees and put my head down close and looked across the surface. It took me a few minutes, with her asking questions the whole time and my trying to be polite, before I realized that it had to a child’s bare footprint from when the concrete was first poured.

She asked me what it was. I told her a footprint. She asked, “How did my neighbor do that?”

I said, "We have no clue. We don’t know your neighbor." Though we were worried at this point that she would go over and drag out her neighbor to engage in the debate. Instead she asked what could be done for it. I looked at it and told her she may want to consider telling her friends that it is the sign of a mysterious visitor.

I told her that a story may be the best option as to put a patch on it would only make it look worse, and the patch would not last, and the half cup of mortar needed was hardly going to pay for our coffee, let alone a lunch ticket.

We eventually got her backed up to her stoop. We told her we knew a mason in the area who was looking for work (we made him real happy when we passed on the referral, and I fully intend that note of happiness in a sarcastic manner).

And as she was standing on her stoop I had this impression that nobody would ever believe this story, so I asked her if I could take her picture on her stoop in front of her door.

She perked up, stood up in a proud pose in her house coat and said, “Are you going to make me famous?”