Monthly Archives: April 2009

Mulberry tree not to be

I have to start with a disclaimer: I never have been a big fan of mulberry trees and profoundly agree with those who put this species into the “junk tree” category.

We have a 30 year old mulberry tree in our little front yard, a little too close to the foundation walls and reaching as tall as the house, as wide as the property, and all the way into the street.

It rests on two electrical lines, one in the parkway and the other over the street curb – not good! I also discovered a split in a fork of two major branches, one of them leaning over the sidewalk, into the electrical lines and the street – not good at all.


Do you see where this is going? The decision to remove the mulberry was not a very difficult one. The process of removal on the other hand was a real challenge. Cathy and I had to very carefully cut the branches out of the electrical lines to avoid any damage. Furthermore, a lot of branches and trunks were right in fall line of our nice, decorative fence, or our neighbor’s fence.


In short, we had to carefully take the tree down, bit by bit, branch by branch, roping a lot of the material carefully to the ground. But we did well. We got the job done with no damage to us, our neighbor’s property or our fence. And, while on the job, we had the attention of our neighbors and got to know them better, and even received some enthusiastic help during the clean up from the kids next door (a very welcome but unexpected side benefit)!

And now … now we need to think about a replacement. We don’t just want to leave a big open gap behind, but would like to replace it with a nice, quality, native tree. We probably will plant it in the parkway to fill the space better. The longevity of a parkway tree is always a big question because of potential upcoming utility work. With that in mind we would prefer a moderately fast-growing tree. I had Quercus bicolor (Swamp White Oak) on my mind, but think I will solicit a few more suggestions before I make up my mind.


Metal lath and plaster

Deconstruction is fun! I love peeling back the various layers, knocking the plaster off the walls, prying off the old wooden lath all the way down to the original brick walls and limestone footing walls.

Now it’s time for the ceiling. Thank God I am tall (6’-7”). I always liked being tall, but it was a real blessing when I got to the ceiling. My height made the overhead work a lot easier.

That said, something else completely spoiled the fun. I discovered that the entire ceiling had metal lath in the plaster. A couple of months back I was showing the building to my friend Ted Krasnesky  (Manager of Sustainable Construction at Pepper Construction; I worked with him on a couple of sustainable projects and very much respect his green building expertise). I distinctly remember his reaction when he spotted the metal lath but I didn’t know how to read it at the time, nor did I follow up with questions.

Well, I now know what must have been on his mind. If you’ve ever removed plaster with metal lath, you probably know what pain in the behind it is. It took me about 2 hours to remove around 10 square feet. There must be a better way of doing this! Cathy did a quick online search for me and mainly found references that talked about how to put drywall over plaster with metal lath – again – that sweeping under the carpet thing…


I finally figured how to find the seams of the metal lath and chiseled my way along those seams, which allowed me to take out whole sections (almost like drywall sheets). I had a very slow start, but got much faster and more effective as time went by. I only hope this was the only room in the basement that had metal lath in the ceiling plaster!


Sweeping it under the carpet…

We need to strip the interior of our house down to the studs, joists and masonry walls to take an inventory of what is where in terms of electricity, plumbing and heating. This assessment is critical for the design of the super-efficient building envelope and other sustainable and energy-efficient technologies.

I started in the back of the basement, and could not get this saying out of my mind: Sweeping it under the carpet…

The deconstruction process resembles experimental archeology. I began working my way through several layers of drywall, wall board, plaster and lath. Every layer carried evidence of a problem, usually rot, moisture and mold related. The farther I worked through the layers, the worse it got, to the point where the original studs (old growth) are completely rotted out at the bottom.

What I don’t get is how one could make the decision that covering up a problem with a new, fresh layer of wall plaster or drywall would resolve it. And yet, that is exactly what has happened here, and as far as I understand still happens in many of our homes – even these days. We just keep sweeping problems under the carpet…

May be it is ignorance. Not everybody is able to identify a mold or moisture problem. The wall just looks old and dirty – so maybe another layer of dry wall will resolve that problem, at least to the eye. Or may be denial of the problem is the more convenient (short term) solution.

We experienced something similar before, at our previous pilot project at 168 Elm Ave. Here, we focused on the issue of stormwater runoff and its impact on the environment. It took quite some effort to get people to understand that, for instance, a storm sewer or detention basin is not the solution to a stormwater runoff problem, but just relocates it little further downstream – onto our neighbors.

Our building at 3141 W. 15th Street was clearly built to last for generations. We are happy to step in, roll back the carpet to see what has accumulated over the decades. We look forward to fixing problems at their source, which is an investment in our equity (the house). This way we treat and reuse this resource effectively and ensure that it will offer shelter, comfort and a healthy and pleasant living environment for us … and a few more generations.


Securing the House

Like we have not secured the house before… (see also 04/08, 04/10 and 04/14/2009 posts). But this time it’s a little different, as the house is now ours for real. We removed the Realtor’s lock box and replaced the dead bolt lock on the front screen door and front door. The screen door is a nice, very sturdy, decorative wrought iron piece, which we like a lot.  I ordered a dumpster and we are now ready to start the big clean-up in the basement.

After a couple of days, I find the screen door and front door unlocked upon my arrival! I questioned my sanity for a minute: Did I really forget to look both doors last time? I could not figure out how someone could have gotten in, until I noticed that the narrow bay window facing the front porch was forced open, but then carefully closed again.

Nothing else in the house was missing, damaged or altered. My guess is that whoever went in must have been looking for tools, which I always take back with me at the end of the day. There is really nothing in the house right now that is worth taking away. Even the remaining copper piping in the walls is not worth much since the prices for scrap metals collapsed late last year.

I barricaded and boarded up the narrow bay window, which, in hindsight, was clearly the easiest entry point into the house. I wonder what other easy entry points there are? Because there is nothing in the house to steal, another forced entry could be a plus – it will point us to the next best easy entry point and allow us to improve security.

Of course we’ll need to figure out something different once we have building materials stored inside. We’ve started a little security to-do list:

  • Install solid back doors on every floor with proper dead bolt locks
  • Get temporary electricity set up
  • Install sensor-triggered security lighting on all four corners of the house.

Will that be deterrent enough? We don’t know but we surely will find out.


Buying a foreclosure – Part 8

The closing, which we could not finalize (see also 04/14/2009 post), was on Thursday. We were hopeful to complete the deal on Friday. All we needed was the adjusted and signed HUD-1 from the seller (the bank that has ownership over the property). The closing agent called at 5:00 pm to let us know that she had contacted the seller by phone, fax, and e-mail, but they had not yet signed and sent the HUD-1. There was no escape. We had to go into the weekend not knowing if—and when—we would own our little two-flat.

Why is this such a big deal for us? Well, we have been researching, planning and house-hunting for over a year. We have been after this particular two-flat since August 2008 (for 7 months now!). We just want to be done with it, own it and start the cool part—the green rehab.

The weekend passed quickly. We both kept very busy, which distracted us from waiting for Monday. Cathy called the closing agent midday Monday to inquire about any news. The agent answered the phone quietly; she said she’d seen on her Blackberry that an e-mail from the seller had arrived with an attachment! She had not yet been able to look at it because she was in the middle of another closing.

Cathy got a call back a couple of hours later: “The seller signed and returned the wrong (the old) HUD-1!” Yep, this was sort of expected. Why should they have gotten it right this time ‘round? The closing agent was very helpful and got right back on the phone. Believe it or not, the correct and signed HUD-1 form arrived only one hour later!

The closing lasted 98 hours! But finally— this is it. We are owners.

We cracked open a nice bottle of champagne (that Cathy had kept hidden in the fridge since last Wednesday) and celebrated. That said, it still has not quite sunk in. I am still thinking and waiting for the next shoe to drop, for the next road block to be tackled.