Things are winding down on Eager Street (stay tuned for more info on the latest block we’re deconstructing!) so we thought it’d be a nice time to go through some numbers. Fear not, arithmophobes, though the following numbers are staggering, no math is involved.
Number of houses deconstructed:
Number of bricks salvaged:
Number of square feet of flooring salvaged:
Number of board feet of lumber salvaged:
Number of nails pulled:
Landfill diversion rate:
Number of tons of salvaged material:
Number of jobs created for BALTIMORE residents:
All good numbers and all good news. The better news is that all of these numbers are going to increase with every project we take on: more houses, more bricks, more jobs, more of an impact in our beautiful, charming, working city.
The careful observer may have noticed that the wood we salvage from Eager Street is usually marked with numbers. What gives?
Deconstruction forces you to slow down; rather than sending a 6 ton ball of steel through the houses on Eager Street, we’ve been taking apart the buildings surgically. One of the advantages of our methodical approach is the ability to track every ounce of salvageable material that leaves each house.
We’re not the only ones interested in our yields. The City of Baltimore, our steadfast partner through this entire endeavor, set goals for us: for every house in salvageable condition (i.e. houses unaffected by fire, water damage, or collapse) we’ve been aiming to salvage 800 board feet of lumber, 400 square feet of flooring, and 3000 bricks.
Every day, intrepid City Building Inspector Bill (above, right) comes by to check on our progress. We bundle our items by house number, creating stacks of salvaged flooring and lumber that correspond to each address. Bill eyeballs our harvests, checks our math, and signs off on our daily reclamation totals.
For flooring, we generally measure in lineal feet and then convert to square feet for the final tally.
For lumber, we measure each joist individually, write the length on the cut side, and bundle them in stacks with their housemates.
As for the bricks: we’ll need 105,000 to hit our goal and our pallets are stacked with 520 of ’em. That’s 201pallets if you’re counting, and if you’re not counting, rest assured that Bill is.
In an earlier post, we employed a barrage of cringe-worthy puns to explain the role of the humble joist: along with its brethren, a joist offers support for ceilings, floors, and walls. It’s a pretty important piece of wood.
Now we’re going to walk through the process of salvaging them from Eager Street.
1. Remove all material resting atop and/or below the joist itself. This involves removing the flooring that is nailed into the top of the joist, and removing the plaster and lath that was originally fastened to the bottom of the joist to act as a ceiling. In the houses on Eager Street, the joists supporting the first floor had no plaster beneath them because the basements were originally made without ceilings. The basement “ceiling” was actually just the underside of the first floor flooring.
NOTE: When removing material from atop joists, make sure that you’re not removing anything that might be structural. For instance, it would be a mistake to remove a bearing wall on the first floor while weight was still resting on it. The rowhouses on Eager Street feature very simple framing, with joists running across the width of the house into pockets within the brick walls. The joists do not bear on anything within the interior of the house, so we’re free to expose them without fear.
2. Cut wires, pipes, ducts, and any other materials that might obstruct joists during removal. Joists do more than just hold up floors, ceilings, and walls- they often serve as perfect places to route utilities. You’d be surprised how much resistance a century old electrical wire can give; snip ’em before attempting to remove the joist.
3. Give yourself a clear view of the exposed joists and come up with a plan. The old saying goes, “measure twice, cut once.” With joist removal, we can tweak that to “if you cut joists from the wrong side of the building you’re going to get stuck in the basement with no way out, cut once.” We always make sure we have a game plan for cutting the wood, sending it out of the house to be processed, and sending ourselves out of the house once we’re done. In our houses, we start from the rear of the house and work our way towards the front door. Because the joists do offer some measure of support to walls, we generally leave a couple joists in place.
4. With spotters in place, make your cut at one end of the joist. We use a Sawzall to make a quick, clean cut. There are a few ways you can make your cut: cutting straight down won’t free the joist completely because it will rest on the chunk left in the wall. Starting close to the wall and cutting back towards the joist will allow the joist to rest right in place. Starting a few inches back towards the joist and cutting towards the wall will cause the cut side of the joist to fall straight down. No matter which way you cut, have spotters on hand to catch the joist as it becomes free.
5. Rock the joist out of the pocket opposite the cut side. By lifting up on the cut side, the joist should break free from its pocket, leaving you with as much salvageable material as possible. Once it’s totally free, make sure you have a few sets of hands to handle the joist and send it on its way to be processed.
The first seven rowhouses on Eager Street have now been reduced to piles of bricks and mortar. Our job for the past week or so has been to take these piles and organize them into neatly stacked pallets of beautiful Baltimore brick. Before we began pulling bricks from the piles, we separated any wood matter so that it could be recycled.
With our operator Reds’ help, we then transformed our massive pile of bricks into several slightly less massive piles of bricks. Reds scooped up shovelfuls of brick and deposited them in three processing areas.
We then began the laborious (but very Zen) process of sorting through tens of thousands of bricks and identifying the ones we can salvage. On our site, brick processing follows a three part rhythm: pick, clean, stack.
During the first step, picking, there are a couple basic things we’re looking for:
1. Complete bricks: no partial bricks allowed.
2. There must be a clean face with minimal to no chipping.
Once these very basic standards have been met, we begin the process of cleaning the bricks. The idea here is to remove any mortar left clinging to the brick. The bricks from Eager Street were laid with lime-based mortar, which makes our job infinitely easier than if we had to remove Portland cement-based mortar. Portland cement became popular during the late 19th century, and by the 1930s it had supplanted lime as the primary binding agent in mortar. Portland cement mortar sets quicker and harder than lime mortar, which has made it a preferred construction material. For folks involved in deconstruction, it’s something of an arch nemesis; it’s just not practical to chip it away, tiny piece by tiny piece. Lime-based mortar, on the other hand, flakes away relatively easily and can be removed without too much trouble.
The photo below shows some of the tools we use. From the left, they are: a) a wire brush for removing bits of weakly adhered mortar, b) a brick hammer (sometimes called a mason’s hammer) that can be used to knock off chunks of mortar,with either the traditional hammer end used against a separately held chisel, or the chisel end used directly against the mortar, c) a mason’s chisel that can be used to break away chunks of mortar or as a beefy scraper, d) a 5-in-1 scraper tool to remove any stubborn bits of mortar from the brick’s surface, e) a smaller “beater” chisel that’s good for removing large chunks of mortar when placed just so, and f) a wire welding brush with slightly tougher bristles.
Once the bricks are cleaned, they’re tossed to a stacker who arranges them on pallets in a basket-weave pattern. We stack our pallets 13 courses high with 40 bricks per course for a total of 520 bricks per pallet. We then shrink wrap them and, voila!, a pile of century-old rubble turns into a gorgeous arrangement of reclaimed bricks, ranging in color from pomegranate (thanks to crew-member Reggie for the naming suggestion) to cherry red to a dark salmon hue.
With the first several buildings down, we started to clear out a sizable chunk of our site for the brick processing area. One thing that helped further this effort was our first sale of material off the lot. Andy Evans, from BTN Salvage, came by with his trailer and hauled off a couple bundles of joists.
The joists we’re pulling are a mix of softwoods, most of which are filed under the commercial name “Southern Yellow Pine” or SYP as its commonly abbreviated. SYP generally refers to:
Loblolly Pine (Pinus taeda), grows from New Jersey down to Florida and west all the way to Texas. The word loblolly is a mix of English words from the 16th century, “lob” meaning a bubbling boil and “lolly” meaning broth. This tree is generally found in lowlands and swampy areas, hence the name which refers to the tree’s muddy habitat. Some old-timers call it Rosemary Pine because it has a pretty unique fragrance when cut. Stop by the site some time and maybe you’ll catch a whiff, as most of what we’re seeing is loblolly.
Shortleaf Pine (Pinus echinata) has a similar range as the Loblolly, though it grows a bit further north and more extensively in the Carolinas. It’s leaves are not short per se, but they’re shorter than the leaves of a Longleaf Pine, so that’s that. Shortleaf Pines can thrive in a variety of soils and habitats. During the tree’s early years, it grows slower than most other pines, so the experienced wood expert might be able to distinguish a Shortleaf by looking at the end grain.
Slash Pine (Pinus elliottii) grows in Florida and the southern tips of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina. Like the Loblolly, it grows in swampy areas which were (and maybe still are?) called “the slashes.”
Longleaf Pine is also considered to be part of the SYP group, but it’s a whole different beast that we’ll cover in a dedicated post. Longleaf is special enough for such an honor.
Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) is not a member of SYP: though it creeps a bit into some southern states, it’s range is essentially the entire northeast part of the US into, you guessed it, Canada. And it’s not a pine. Hemlock lumber was, and still is, commonly used in construction, and we’ve come across some joists that seem less piney and more hemlock-y.
The joists we’re salvaging were milled over a century ago and come from trees that were much older. Under the rough sawn exterior, the wood is as bright and fragrant as when the trees were first cut.
Here’s a broad overview of how we remove and process flooring. A detailed nuts and bolts how-to guide for flooring removal is in the works, but we wanted to share our basic steps before we bombarded you with tool recommendations, nuanced techniques for different species of wood, and, most exciting of all, best practices for shrink wrapping!
We started digging in to the floors of the first house we’re deconstructing, #2328. The floor that Shawn is standing on may not look too purty just yet, but it’s just the kind of thing we love to see. Here’s why: under the linoleum tile, under the splintery plywood that was seemingly nailed AND screwed at random, we found 3 1/4″ wide, tongue and groove butt-end flooring. If you recall, we knew this stuff was down there when we spied it as we were gutting, but uncovering it is a different story, made all the more rewarding by the layers of renovations we had to uncover to find the original floor. Stay tuned to see how it cleans up!