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OUCH! MY HOUSE HURTS! Part 2

August 13, 2009

My last entry in this space was more than a month ago. It ended with bricks still being removed from the outside of the extension as the workers sought sound mortar to begin rebuilding. Problem: they didn’t find any. Not only were the walls on the sides and back of the extension free of sound mortar, but also the fireplaces inside the back walls. Everything had to be taken down to the ground.

The amount of work this involved has been astounding. Every few days the workers had to pause to haul bricks and debris away. The bricks went out in plastic buckets, from the courtyard down a hatch into the basement, through the basement and out a front hatch to the street. At some point Lenny's crew built a wooden frame over the front hatch to employ a pulley rather than hoist the buckets of bricks by hand. Debris went out in heavy black plastic contractor bags. This regular removal allowed some semblance of cleanliness and order in the courtyard, although the scaffolding and various machines including saws to cut brick and steel rebar, bags of sand, and mortar tubs take up most of the available space not already taken up by the largest of the plants we had to take down from the departed deck.

Then new bricks had to be brought in. The engineer, William Eng of Murray Engineering, was not comfortable using the existing bricks. They were, of course, as old as the mortar and might also be deteriorated.

Our ground floor tenants are not happy. When they gave notice that they were moving, they intended to stay through the end of July. Apparently the work on their new space – Spuyten Duyvil in the Bronx – is going more slowly than intended, because they later said they wanted to stay until mid-August. Late in July, at the advice of Lenny (the contractor) and the engineer, I asked them to vacate their bedroom at the back of the extension since it was a work zone. After some protests they agreed. Earlier this week they told us they wanted to stay until mid-September, but have now decided to move at the end of next week.

Once all the bricks were removed exposing the original lathe on some of the walls, wood and sheetrock on others, and insulation in some places, the rebuilding process could begin. This involved, first, locating or creating a sound foundation. One step would have been to excavating to the footing of the house, three feet below the level of the courtyard and, in back, below the level of the garden at Greenwich House Pottery that adjoins our property in back. The engineer suggested instead the construction of a bearing beam.

The bearing beam goes around the perimeter of the extension. It began with a lacing of steel rebar, six horizontal pieces threaded through a series of roughly square confining rings, inserted in a form around which concrete would be poured. The whole apparatus links to the footing below by way of long pieces of rebar inserted and fixed with epoxy. Once the bearing beam was poured and the concrete set, the bricks would go up from there.

They went up very quickly, starting about ten days ago. The curved wall that widens the extension from a narrow hallway took more time than anything because the bricks had to be shaped to the curve. Hernan, the mason who is doing this work, either knocks the bricks into shape with a hammer or saws them on a brick saw set up in the lower level of the courtyard. They're nice-looking bricks, too. It's not often you get a chance to choose the bricks you're going to be living inside. The ones we picked are called 53 DD Special. I don't speak brick, but these most resembled old bricks in that they're not uniform in color.

By yesterday the bricks -- two courses of them, as prescribed, whereas in the original wall there was sometimes only one -- had risen above the lintels over the ground floor windows. Indeed, they had reached the joists that they would have to support.

The joists – these are the crossmembers running from wall to wall that support the floor above – had also in some cases suffered water damage at the ends. This meant they would have to be “sistered.” This means finding an area of sound wood in the old joist, bolting new beams on either side of it, and running the ends out to the wall where they would pocket in the brick. Three of the existing joists were sistered, and three additional joists went in at the back of the extension to replace the support that was lost when the fireplaces were removed. This all happened yesterday while the masonry work continued.

Removing the fireplaces will enlarge the rooms in the extension. They’ll gain about 18 inches in length from front to back. These rooms in the first two floors are used as tenant bedrooms. Maybe they’ll even now have room for closets. Of course the floors and ceilings will have to be extended, but work to restore them as habitable areas will be required anyway since sections of the floors and ceiling were removed to accommodate the 4 x 4-inch shoring posts that Lenny installed as a precaution.

Today the joists are all supported in the brick. This means that the shoring posts in the back room of the ground floor can be removed in about five days after the mortar has a chance to set hard. An exciting development, a milestone of sorts, and a satisfying sign of progress. The work will now move up beyond the first floor, and while that back room still cannot be occupied and scaffolding, machinery and mortar-mixing supplies and tubs still occupy the courtyard, the focus of construction will leave the first floor in relative peace.

Meanwhile, it was logical to install new windows in the extension rooms, two on each of the first two floors, and three on our level where Barbara has her office and dressing room. Those are on order as the walls continue to go up and the upper floor joists are prepared to take their loads.

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