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.

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