Saturday, January 28, 2012

First Steps - Demolition and Excavation

By early 1990, Virginia and I had been married for a little over a year and we were broke.  Our plan for getting out of trouble was to fix up a run down house and then quickly sell it for a small profit.  The term "flipping a house" wasn't yet in use, but that's what we thought we could do.

What actually happened is much more interesting.

I had an engineering degree that I didn't want, along with plenty of frustrated ambitions and three years of residential construction work behind me.  I knew a handful of people who lived in buildings they had reworked and the idea really appealed to me.  Virginia worked at an art supply store and had no construction experience.  My parents and grandparents agreed to finance our plan--with prommisory notes, names on titles, and interest payments--while Virginia and I would contribute a modest amount of cash and almost all of the labor.

For $74,000 we bought the shell of a building--with a working sewer line!--set on a double lot (45 ft by 100 ft).

(Click on any image for a larger view.)

The building had been partially "demoed" by the previous owner, a developer.  He put it back on the market, unwilling to go ahead with his plans because of the poor economy.

Viewed from the alley.

Our plan was to turn the building into two units, a common arrangement in Chicago.  A garden apartment on the first level would generate some income while we, or a future owner, would live in the upper two floors. 

I was working as a small time general contractor/unemployed when we took possession.  After we closed--fun fact, our real estate lawyer was Leon Despres--I started working full time deconstructing the old frame.  Virginia came over after her normal work hours. The two of us would end up filling 6 or 7 thirty cubic yard dumpsters with all the debris.

I tore off the back of the building--all that remains in the photo above is the first floor and part of the second--in preparation for putting a new foundation that would support a new addition.

Click to view larger size

Looking up through the joists in the old addition.

The entire ground floor of the building was ringed with these roughly hewn tree trunks.

We guessed that the addition was put on when indoor plumbing was added.  We were told the original building was a farm house, built in 1876.

Eventually we took the addition down.

The inside of the bldg wasn't much to look at either.

The old foundation.  It was crumbling and didn't go down below the frost line, so needed to be replaced.
I'm digging out the soil beneath the old foundation.

How I ended up excavating for the new foundation by hand is a perfect example of one of the main dilemmas we faced.  We didn't have much of a budget; even if we could borrow more, there was no certainty we could eventually earn enough to actually meet a higher mortgage cost.  We tried to navigate between two unpleasant options: either borrowing money, at 10% interest, to hire someone to do tasks for us or to do it ourselves, saving on labor but taking much longer, and thus running up our accumulated interest on the money we had already borrowed. 

The soil was almost all clay, meaning I had to use the pick axe to loosen the soil before I could dig it out with the shovel.

I ended up digging a trench 42 inches deep, 30 inches wide, and roughly 60 feet long. It took two weeks.

We left the old sewer stack standing.  None of it was usable, but it made for a nice photo.

The floor joists in the remaining structure were 2x8 lumber and sagging.  They were undersized for the span and would ultimately be replaced.

Looking out the back of the building.  The covered box was our temporary electrical service.  We ran extension cords out there for about 6 months.

2: Pouring Concrete

We spent about two months tearing down the old addition and excavating for the new foundation, and by the end of May, 1990, it was time to begin placing the concrete footings. We had a ready mix truck come to the alley, while we took wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of concrete over to be dumped into the previously dug trench.  We poured about 60 linear feet of 12" deep by 24" wide concrete footings.  Roughly 30 wheelbarrows worth of concrete.

(Click on any of the images for a larger view.)

I look exhausted.
Richard and Bruce.  My dad came down for the weekend to help out.

Bruce, Richard, and neighbor Matt.
You want to get close to the edge before you tip.  Problem is it's hard to know where the edge is.

I'm roughly the same age now as my Dad was then.

Richard slogs through the wet concrete.

Now that the footing was poured, next was working on the grade beam that would cap the existing foundation for the old building. This was necessary because the old concrete was crumbling. There were roughly 80 linear feet needed.

Click on image for larger view.

The architect insisted on hiring a Structural Engineer to provide us with a drawing for the grade beam.  I remember being pissed off that it cost something like $500 for this sheet of paper.

The process was as follows. Build braces that rested on either side of the new grade beam that would allow for the removal of all the first floor walls and timber supports. Once the old building was no longer relying on the old first floor walls for support, I took out all the old framing and built plywood forms--to hold the concrete beam--on top of the old foundation. Before building those forms I needed to break out a section of the old concrete foundation where the new apartment entry door would be located.

Plywood forms removed from one side of the grade beam.  With more favorable terrain, the concrete delivery truck could pull right next to the forms and drop the mix straight into the forms.  No wheelbarrows needed.  Much easier.  Though I do remember getting upset that one of my forms blew out because I didn't brace it properly.
Virginia "holding up" one of the temporary braces used to support the house while we built the grade beam.

The temporary posts holding up the bldg are still in place while we built the new 2x4 walls on top of the new concrete grade beam.
Because the existing foundation didn't go down below the frostline, there was also a fair amount of "underpinning" of the existing foundation that we had to do.  No pictures of that.  Just more digging, more concrete, more money.

While I was building the forms for the grade beam, our masonry contractor built a block foundation on top of the footings we poured earlier.  This allowed us to continue the grade beam concrete over the top of the block foundation, joining them both.

A detail showing the connection between the grade beam and the new block foundation.

Friday, January 27, 2012

3: Building the Walls and Floors of the Addition

As I did while working on it, it's best to think of the finished building as two separate "cee" shaped--viewed from above--wall pieces that are being covered by one common roof. They are: The old building, now missing it's back wall, and the new addition, being "open" to the old building, having only three sides.

(Click on any of the images for a larger view.)


We built the addition walls and installed the floor trusses in the summer of 1990.  For some of this work I needed another pair of hands.  Virginia was usually working at her paying job, so I hired an architecture student from Univ. of Illinois - Chicago.  Having someone to help hoist trusses and wall sections was invaluable.

The first floor walls are up and I'm crawling around on the floor trusses.

View from below of those same trusses.

Plywood sheathing covered the walls.

It was critical to get the old and new sheathing to align.

Once the first floor was sheathed, we repeated the process for the second floor.

I'm admiring the 2nd floor trusses while standing in what is now my kitchen.

The sheathing goes up on the second floor walls.

Time to start putting up the third floor walls.

Here I am standing on the third floor, in what is now my bedroom, just before the rafters go up.

Third floor addition with rafters in place.

We walked up those exterior stairs--no handrail, what a fool I was!--for at least two years. It took that long for me to get around to the building the front stairs.   Even then we continued to use those back stairs for another couple years until I built the back deck.

Looking back at these photos I see plenty of things that make me cringe. I can only say--if to no one other than myself--"Look at what I did with minimal experience and limited funds."  Despite reading everything I could get my hands on in those pre-internet days, I still have all my Fine Homebuilding magazine from those years, I was making a lot of it up as I went along.

Still, not putting a simple railing on those back stairs was really stupid.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

4: Rebuilding the Structure of the Existing Building

As I mentioned in the previous post on building the new addition, it's helpful to think of the finished building as two separate "cee" shaped--as viewed from above--wall pieces that are being covered by one common roof. They are: The old building, now missing it's back wall, and the new addition, being "open" to the old building, having only three sides.

(Click on any image for a larger view.)

The "original", or existing, building was structurally inadequate and needed changing for several reasons--
  1. We didn't want to keep a bearing wall in the middle of the space.  The existing 2x8 joists could not cross the entire 21 ft. span without sagging.
  2. The height of the existing floor joists only allowed for 8 ft. ceilings, we wanted more headroom.
  3. The rafters were made from 2x4, rather than the 2x8 called for by modern building codes.
  4. The existing walls were made from 2x4s. We wanted thicker exterior walls to allow space for more insulation.
  5. The exterior bearing walls were balloon* framed, and so had a ledger board notched in them to support the floor joists.  This substantially weakened the walls.

*Diagram of Balloon Frame.The wall studs run all the way from sill to rafter, typically two stories.  The more "modern" platform framing has wall studs that are only one story tall.

The building itself is located about 7" inside the property line.  Were we to completely tear it to the ground, in order to comply with modern zoning codes we would have to relocate any new structure 3 feet inside that same property line, a serious drawback on a small city lot.  By keeping the existing building's footprint, or it's position within our property lines, we would be grandfathered in, or exempt, from those regulations.  That meant keeping some of the old frame and foundation rather than building everything new.

It also meant a lot of extra work.

The old building wasn't plumb, nothing was level.  Getting a twisted, wracked frame to merge with the newly built, and plumb, addition was a challenge.

I decided that the way to solve this problem was to build a new structure inside of the old frame.  With the new concrete grade beam in place, we had a wide enough foundation to accommodate a double exterior wall: the outer wall being the existing 2x4 balloon frame and a new inner 2x4 wall that would carry the weight of new floor trusses and rafters.

Here's a view of the second floor looking at, from what is now my kitchen, the existing building. Behind all the new framing you'll see the darker wood of the old balloon frame.  The actual, weight bearing, floors and walls are all new material.

The view of the third floor, looking in the same direction as the photo above.  I'm standing in what will later become the hallway next to the staircase opening.  The new framing on the right edge of the picture is the wall of the addition.  I worked my way forward, dismantling the old roof and building the new walls at the same time.

To remove the old roof, you had to climb out on the planks we set out on the old ceiling joists and use a sawzall to cut away one rafter at a time.

Easier said than done.  There were about 3 inches of material on top of each rafter.  Every chunk you cut out had to be carefully tossed down into the dumpster.

Virginia did her share of the demolition.  It wasn't easy.

After we removed the old roof, I continued building the new bearing walls and setting the ceiling joists on top of those walls.

This picture was taken just after the one above.  It shows the new bearing wall nestled just inside the old balloon frame.

The existing building, almost fully rebuilt.  I just needed to make three new window openings on the end wall.  Look closely at the center bottom of the picture and you'll see a pile of rope.  By running the rope through a pulley attached to the rafters above the skylight opening (in the upper right hand corner of the photo) we hauled all our materials to the top floor and/or roof.  Sheets of plywood were the hardest to move this way.

The exterior view at the same stage as the above interior photo.