On a Clear Day (or Night) You Can See Catalina

We headed up to the site Sunday night with some friends for the first time since we’ve begun. The sun set on one of those exceptionally clear days we get here towards winter. The visibility so far exceeds what I grew up with on the east coast it seems to collapse distances and collage1 the landscape. We’re looking around and Miguel says he can see Catalina!2 I couldn’t believe it.
The next day I check out Google Earth, where a while ago I’d placed a sketchup model to see how it related to the rest of the surroundings, and lo and behold we’re on a 52.3 mile beeline to the Avalon Casino. Truth be told I don’t care so much for Avalon, a real salt water taffy t-shirt town you wouldn’t expect from its beautiful position on the map3, I prefer Twin Harbors, even moreso Little Harbor on the backside where we annually camp.
Having grown up on Nantucket, though, the notion of “oceanview” weighs heavily. My grandparents’ place, our family hub of sorts, was across the street from a great beach. And it seemed to me access was more important than seeing it. In fact being close by and not seeing it seemed preferable to the opposite. But pretty funny that you can see the water from here, and great fun engaging in Google Earth. I’m hopeful that at some point the database will become so robust that not only will municipalities provide GIS survey info but actual building models could be placed, the more info that’s ladled into conversations about cities, growth, and context the better.

Panoramic View from Behind Site (via Google Earth)
The ocean at right appears to be Venice.

Miguel’s iPhone Snapshot
The actual silhouetted view is largely obscured by trees unaccounted for in Google Earth. I’ve been told by a geologist I’m working with that the pro version of this program has astonishingly accurate topographical information.

52.3 Mile Beeline
Palos Verdes sits like an island in the basin, and to the right our relative drumlin of Mt. Washington at the tail end of the range that extends west through Griffith Park and the Hollywood Hills, and into the Santa Monica Mountains above Malibu.

1For collaging space, landscape and architecture these are my favorite.

Mies Van der Rohe collage (courtesy MoMa)
2Later in the week our neighbor Arline let me know they can see the bridges in San Pedro regularly on clear winter mornings.
3And most unfortunate site of lost architecture in Schindler’s now demolished Wolfe House.

Day 58 Subterranean Waterproofing

Yesterday I tried to track down some Miradrain. My wife and I had been talking to the technical rep at Carlisle, getting a recommendation on their product, and how-to on installing it. We decided to have the guys who did the concrete place it- they’ll do this separately from their work as employees of Orville, a side job. The rightful paranoia that surrounds leakage, seepage, damp basements, etc. notwithstanding, what I heard loudest is the tendency is for this below grade raincoat to fail by gravel puncture during backfill. It makes sense to me to close this loop, despite seldom if ever having to referee finger pointing among subs (thank goodness) in my work, I think it can be an unavoidable bit of human nature. Rather than inviting a separate party to the party I’m feeling better having Luis and Co. plug onward. When they do backfill I’m guessing they’ll be more conscientious of protecting their own work, though to be fair i would’t doubt their extending the same consideration to the work of others.

I ended up going to the concrete supply store down the road where I’d picked up sandbags and clear tarp when we were first starting to excavate (for rain protection/drain mitigation). They didn’t have Carlisle brand stuff, but the W.R. Meadow systems they carry looked pretty similar to me.

Mel-Rol Diagram by W.R. Meadows
Essentially you’re waterproofing the concrete wall and then placing a “drainboard”, a sort of mini egg-crate matrix with a fabric filter on top of that to create a sluiceway for the hydrostatically pressured ground moisture which would otherwise dampen the insides to run down this chase to the perimeter drain (aka “the burrito”). In a way it seems a bit belts and suspenders, with the mastic, the film, and the board but once you wrap your head around it it’s fairly easy to convince yourself it’s money well spent.

$1700 worth of supplies
Mel-Drain already leaning on Mel-Rol.

Bucket of Tar
The Mel-Rol is a 60 mill roll of bituthane with a sticky back. The rep, Gary from WRG, suggested based on the hybrid block on stem wall we “parge” the CMU’s above with a thinned out 1:2 mix of this and water (I guess if the surface was rough/granular they worry about that puncturing the membrane) before we lay up the roll. While Moses (heretofore mistakenly called Cesar by me without correction) was looking at it he remarked “this is what we used to use (instead of the Mel-Rol)”, and I said I’d remembered putting that on in a basement in Nantucket prior to gluing some insulation against it. In that island system the rigid insulation protected the tar coat. Likely because of the sandy soil there, and the flat topography, soil pressure isn’t an issue. The other thing the rep said that differed from field anecdotal knowledge was that applying this roll in vertical strips (as on the diagram) was critical to prevent seam failure due to sagging1.

East Wall with Forms Removed
Here’s the wall and footing exposed. They’ve removed the scaffolding, kickers, everything that existed to board form these impressions. We snapped the red chalkline to superimpose adjacent grade for a guide to limit this waterpoofing. Once installed, then backfilled, we’ll form concrete V-drains at the east and west sides of the house and an interceptor (what I’ve often referred to as a “trench”) drain against the back with a metal grate on it. This visible system for sheet flow off the hill, the invisible one we’re doing now for everything below ground. The soils engineers warn not to mix the two for fear of debris clogging the matrix.

Closeup of Junction Between Block and Poured Concrete
Now seen I can imagine painting this bright white if we don’t cover it all with storage. The nibbly bits can be sanded/chipped/ground off. Another good reason to keep it as bone dry as possible because the paint would surely fail otherwise.

Waterproofing/Parging at North Wall CMU’s
This will receive the bring of the hydrostatic water pressure, so they’ve put the thickest mix there first. Knowing this is the most vulnerable I’ve planned the stair against it, a natural circulation/ventilation/chase beyond the wall.

Ulysses2 and the West Wall Parged
This couldn’t help but remind me of Richard Serra’s wall drawings in its absolute blackness. There’s a show up at SFMoMa we should try and see before it goes.

Richard Serra3 Untitled 1972-1973, paintstick on paper. Museum Catalog (cropped).

NW Corner from Above
The light gray triangle will be above grade and covered in white corrugated steel. The stair from the street follows this slope but is skewed to make it less steep.

SW Corner from Street
The V-drain which comes down this side will end in a catch basin, hopefully tucked enough under the porch and obscured by planting it won’t be too visible. The catch basins at either side will eliminate a wash-out effect at the street, and I think it’s here (at the low points of the site drainage) where it would be great to install gray water capture in the future.

Our Garage with Luis’ Truck Parked Inside
It’s cool to get a sense of the scale of the container. I’m always reminding people that when we look at buildings in process we’re generally looking with an outdoor perception. I find that as finishes go in and the walls close this funnels down to feeling quite small.. only when furnishing and indoor scale are replaced does it breathe back and enlarge. We’ll park in here but I’m excited to polish the concrete floor, paint it all white and be able to use it as a rec space some days. The shadow in the back foretells the light spill we’ll have down the stairway from the skylight above:

Bedroom Hall Mid Afternoon looking towards NW corner
Note the shadow from the corner is similar to above. I like the variations in the color of the light the 3 angles (skylight opening, sunlight at wall, window to north) produce.

Mockup4Sketch of View From Street
Couldn’t resist some more photoshop to scale the coming framing onto the existing concrete. I love the idea of knowing the angle of these shadows over the years to tell time. Bored during a Nantucket winter framing a house, I’d often place a nail out of the way on the plywood deck and mark a line for lunch.

It looks like they’ll be installing the permitter drain in a couple of days for our next inspection Monday or Tuesday, and then to the long chore of backfilling the wall.

1I like thinking of this very slow cycle movement of materials-I won’t forget the well worn marble marble steps of my English building in high school. It’s a good corrective in general to try and picture it built at least 20 years out, be it a detail or design.
2What great names these guys have.
3Upon graduating RISD I encountered a collapsed marketplace for graduating interns, and decided I’d liked his vibe in The Trial of Tilted Arc so much I should just go and work for him. It was easy to find his number in the white pages. And my then girlfriend’s roommate’s then boyfriend, from a steel mill family in Louisville, was his assistant. When I called his house I soon heard his muffled reply through his wife’s hand “Tell him I’m not here”. Three years later I was overseeing the space-shuttle-ceramic-tile-modeler defining the silhouetted edges of Disney Hall on the computer and sharing his “operating time” with this pugnacious guy, in the FOG office to use the software to numerically instruct a submarine factory in Japan to craft his torqued ellipses.
4The balcony’s a bit janky here and the CMU’s at the side will be covered. It will all benefit in being softened by the corduroy effect of the corrugations, and I expect the underside of the balcony to appear lighter. I’m fine with the limitations of this kind of rendering as the last few percent that makes it really real takes time and technology I don’t have.

Shapes and Perspective

They’ve placed the 2×6’s around the perimeter to cast the final 3″ of height of the wall. The inspector’s given us the go-ahead to pour so they’ll have filled the cores and “topped out” the concrete by the end of the day. Good timing as it may rain again Monday. Next steps will be waterproofing and backfilling to the perimeter walls.

When I was a sophomore in architecture school at RISD we were reading October

a lot and the idea of anamorphic projection was central to an essay I can’t seem to track down. Suffice it say we were into simulations, mythologies, rethinking representation, and the gaze.1

The highlight of this essay was Holbein’s painting from 1533 The Ambassadors:

the smear at the bottom is a skull:

“Corrected” Skull (detail)
and you could take this any number of ways i suppose. There are general views and specific, and one specific angle produces this effect. The distortion is what interested me. At the time, in the mid to late eighties, rural Rhode Island seemed to be full of blank billboards and dead drive-ins. Starting out making buildings I saw these empty screens as big planes, and the way they were inevitably tilted to the road, at some bias or other, gave them a shape- the rectangle distorted in perspective. Maybe it was from building models in bristol board, where that white surface first cut looked like one of these:

Abandoned Rural Drive-Ins

We were also learning how to draw in perspective. Machado Silvetti where I worked for an internship was a sort of temple to drawing.

Ellsworth Kelly Lake 2 photo courtesy the artist (via fondation beyeler)
I think at the same time I was seeing Ellsworth Kelly doing the same thing but opposite: using the distortion to create an illusion of space.

So this simple idea of the way a shape changes depending on how you look at it seemed to be enough to me. Just housing the function of a building, then wrapping it in some effect that would acknowledge being looked at. Because no matter what, you can expect it to be looked at.

I guess all of that explains why I was excited to realize that making the facade parallel to the 21 degree angle of Frontenac Avenue2, cutting at a bias to the property lines, would not only add 103 square feet and allow everything to fit, but it would end up end up creating this sort of distorted floor plate.

Basement showing additional area with parallel to street facade

Here are three views of this in perspective- I’ve highlighted in white where the floor framing will go:

View SW towards self realization fellowship

View South
You start to see as it turns the shape becoming less pointy, more squared off- the angle at the right closes down and the angle at the left opens up.

View Southeast
Here the shape appears the most “square”.

1Perhaps you are what you read as much as you are what you eat.
2In writing this I realized my father’s parent’s place, which I’ve been told about but don’t truly remember, had an acute angle on its corner in the same sort of happenstance of street layout that’s more common in the east (here Nantucket) than it is in the west. The angle between Center and Hussey Streets is one degree off of our acuteness at twenty. I’m amused at these fragments of formal quotations I recognize in the everyday buildings near my office that I clearly have sublimated to some angle or gesture in a project.

Day 51 Almost Done with Concrete Blocks

Orville let us know yesterday he needed the hold-down locations. I was a little surprised as I thought they had to fill the first 12″ wide courses (before the 8″ ones) but I guess they do it all at once. So it turns out they are almost done with the block. I believe the small openings at the base of the wall are there to show the “cells” or hollowed cores of the block are indeed filled with concrete. I’m not sure how else one could tell [it turns out they do this when they want to exceed 4′ in height- they’ll put a 2×6 against it to contain the ooze when poured].

Diagonal View From Above
The top course in back here needs about 3″ more of height1, so they’ll cast that top bit with a board form fastened at each side of the 8″ block wall. A simple trick but I always enjoy the way perspective can “square off” the rhomboid.

View From Above
This level is 5 1/2″ beneath the floor joists,or just under 2′ from the finished doorstep (which will be in this right rear corner). I’m looking forward to this view of the changing colors of the canyon.

A little mockup to guesstimate the relative wire height, based on the blocks:

Telephone Wires Across Facade
My wife and I spoke about these over the weekend while realizing it may not be possible to bury the power lines. Based on where our neighbor’s feed comes in between our two houses, re-routing to their box from their west property line might be too much work. It looks like these telephone lines, though, don’t need to be here. They could be buried in the road. If they’re out of our eye-line from that first deck (as they appear to be within the upper balcony rail) we may not bother trying. It seems like a lot of this, stray lines that truly should go away, are focused on to an extraordinary degree while you’re putting something together. After, they fade into whatever visual static we habitually ignore.

Here’s what it looks like head on:

Street View

Diagonal View from Street

Another quick sketch showing this as base to the rest of the facade wall:

Sketch of Facade Wall
The dining table will be in this window, but the view will be blocked from here by the projecting balcony. The shaded triangle to the left is the 8′ cantilever for this “porch”. In reducing the plan to the minimum at the basement it became clear this cantilever and the one out back above would give the extra space we’d need. I tend to think porches and balconies seen from within amplify the scale of the space more than they would if the dimension space was incorporated within the same room. It’s probably a bit the added factor of the glass plane between, and not a simple a+b>(a+b). Of course. thanks algebra.

The hold-downs are fasteners to secure the ends of the shearwall from uplifting/delaminating from the foundation. Once I got what they were talking about I sent this on to the engineer to confirm their specs- these are stock items but their serial numbers change frequently enough that the callout on the detail sheet was obsolete.

Extract of Structural Framing Plan
I’ve called out the three on the plan whose attachment needs to be fixed. #4 is in midair over the garage opening and will attach to the Timberstrand LSL beam which spans it.

So I expect Luis and Co. will have the threaded rod for the hold downs installed and we’ll be able to get our structural inspection tomorrow. With bang-bang timing we’d be able to both get the city OK and then pour the cells of the block Friday. We can only hope.

1They’re very conscientious, Orville pointed out on the phone this AM it seemed to him to be 1″ off from where they planned and volunteered the forming idea vs. cutting block- I think that may have been at a different spot on the perimeter. This change from block to poured will look better at the back, where a trench drain will abut this now smooth stripe.

Day 45 Some Concrete Blocks

Rounding the corner post school drop-off to the site today I was disappointed to hear absolutely nothing. Dead quiet.
I’ve often had projects I’ve designed that while building there’s some concern one day when no one seems to be working, and this is the first time I’ve experienced it for myself. It certainly is disturbing. On other projects, what’s often the case is a sort of space between train cars of vendors in the schedule… there are often contingent elements and when one isn’t in for one reason or other the rest wait. I’m not really sure why we’re waiting today, but Orville assured me “the boys” will be back there tomorrow. They’d started these first courses of CMU’s (concrete masonry units) AKA block, the first finish surface we’ve seen (the forms will remain on the poured concrete for a while) Tuesday.

Up close, under the scaffolding
The lowest block is cut as they’ve stepped the footing with the slope of the garage.

Here’s what it looks like from above:

First few courses of the east wall

And from the street:

Stacked 12″ concrete blocks in the garage

Here’s the view from the scaffolding, erected to lay the block. We’ll be about six feet higher than here once the first floor deck is on, and closer to the street, so I expect the view of the canyon to open up.

There’s a forecast for a biggish storm on the way tomorrow, I hope they’re able to make some good progress before the rain comes. From up here it looks like those telephone lines may be above our dining room window and below our balcony.

Day 42 Pouring the Stem Walls

We went over this morning on our way to school to see that the pouring had started, and sure enough at the end of the street we saw the mixer:

Concrete Mixer at the end of the block
It sure looked like it was blocking the road, so we went down to see that it wasn’t. Fortunately, up close it looked better:

At the Bend
Up close there was a good 9′ to the side, we could easily drive by in our not-narrow car, so we went to the end and turned around up to go up to school, drop off my son then head back. Meanwhile, my wife made her own way there just in case anyone was having an issue with the clearance, etc. The pumper, Rob, assured me all was fine.

Clearance on the way out
The extant temp pole at our neighbors kicks the mixer out a bit, but nonetheless plenty of room to spare.

Once back I borrowed my wife’s phone and got this shot from above:

Formwork from above
The additional bracing, “the kickers”, makes it look like some viking ship stage set. It’s interesting how this large operation, once gone, will appear to have only left 12″ wide walls.

Here’s the view from above
Starting from the left, you can see there’s the mixer, then Rob’s towed pumper, and his truck, about a 40′ train of vehicles.

Orville looking on
The scaffolding stacked in the foreground will soon be erected in the U from where they’ll start laying concrete blocks in courses above the stem wall.

Cesar and Luis
They’re balancing on a pretty narrow strip, with concrete pump in hand.

Rob’s guy is on the pump, dragging the heavy snake as Luis works the pour around the perimeter.The 6′ wall took about three trucks worth to fill. As they’re feeding the cavity they’re alternating with a vibrating machine to tamp it down and eliminate any voids.

Hard Work
I think the pump is a bit heavier than they make it look.

Their posture reminded me of:

The Sower by Millet
This is a sketch of that painting – I like the sketch version better for the background slope similar to our own, and the lower level of the figure to the horizon, submerged beneath the cow. Interestingly he’s raised above in the final work, perhaps this was a little too heavy back then. Later in a Van Gogh sketch, he’s half-sunken in the texture of a level field.

Orville said they’ll leave the forms on while they go to the next step of the 12″ block, which I think will go most of the way to cover the rebar. The 8″ block then will add another 2′ or more on top. It turns out we’ll have the same pumper-mixer operation here a few more times: for pouring both lifts of concrete block (their cores are to be filled solid), and then for the footings for the pipe columns supporting the step down in the living room and the porch extension, as well as for the slab and the stairs up the hill. It was a relief to see it wasn’t so disruptive, that a clear passage was preserved, and they shouldn’t have any trouble with the rest of it. I’m looking forward to seeing these walls, but, as concrete takes 28 days to reach its ultimate strength, there’s probably not much point in “unwrapping” them in the meantime.

While shooting the clip from above I saw a woman with sunglasses who I didn’t immediately recognize in the sun and who I could only imagine had something to say about the trucks. Bounding over there I found she was with her husband and son and it was friends who’d moved back from a brief stay in Denver (and are renting a house around the corner). He’s come back to work for a large architecture firm here and it was great to share the sight with someone in the business. I think he was my first “pro” visitor. I’m looking forward to having more to see/show, at the moment we’re speaking in the air pretty much about what will be. Later, a friend from RISD architecture was able to stop by with his son. It’s especially great have them by with the tight ship and good ‘in control” vibe Orville puts forth.

Day 39 Bracing not Pouring

I went up to the site at 8 hoping to be helpful in case the pump truck1 was causing any difficulties for folks along the road- we are towards the end of a dead end street, with 5 houses on the uphill side and one on the downhill side beyond us. It turns out weather intervened:

Radar courtesy of Weather.com

Ominous Clouds Above

So they’d decided to hold off. I think it’s not the moisture per se (in fact concrete is strengthened by retaining the moisture for as long as possible in the curing process), but instead the prospect of making a muddy mess that comes along with the showers.

In the meantime Cesar and Luis were bracing the formwork with 2×8’s to withstand the outward pressure of the pour:

Left, Right and Center
I made fun of myself again that it’s hard to resist wanting everything to look like a museum on the finish… it does look very straight and true at this point. And I’m excited to see whatever sort of patchwork texture and flavor casting against these recycled forms will give.

1I’d met Rob, the pumper, there Wednesday (Day 37) to figure out what we could in terms of getting his operation consolidated as much as possible. There are limits to the flexibility of the pump, chute and trucks, but it seems like he’ll be able to park his truck (which tows the pump) hard up against our neighbor’s vacated temp power pole, and the concrete mixer can go deeper into the U of the garage. If we could remove that old pole we’d buy another foot or two, but this should allow a decent size lane for people to come and go one at a time, or in other words, the best we can feasibly do (until someone starts a concrete helicopter delivery service). Fortunately we don’t anticipate much more temporary blockage beyond deliveries until we eventually widen the road.