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.
The north side of the 2300-2400 blocks of Eager Street may feature 35 houses with unique addresses, but it is basically a block long building. The very essence of rowhouses is that they are attached to neighboring houses- this can make for tightly knit neighbors bound by a shared sense of space and responsibility (“mi casa es su casa”- literally), or it can make for frustrating sleepless nights while you listen to your neighbor watch reruns of Golden Girls through a paper-thin party wall (no hard feelings, Don, it’s fine, really).
From an engineer’s perspective, the essential interconnectedness of rowhouses means that the structural integrity of one home can affect the integrity of its neighbors. This created some tough decisions for us as we faced the next steps in our deconstruction of Eager Street.
During our initial inspections, we had discovered that out of the first seven houses we’d be deconstructing, three had collapsed completely. The roofs had failed in all three, allowing rain to penetrate the structure- water seeped through floorboards, which then saturated joists, which ultimately turned to mush and collapsed, leaving a pile of the material formerly known as wood in the basement.
We’d toyed around with different techniques for manual removal of the bricks, but none of them were practical considering that certain houses were no more than teetering piles of masonry. With nearly half of our first batch of houses collapsed, and considering that the condition of one house affects its neighbors, we decided that removing the walls mechanically was the only safe option. Before we brought in the machines, we did manage to pop some bricks off the back walls manually.
Once we’d harvested all the bricks we could, we brought in the excavator. Our operator, Reds, works like a surgeon, only his scalpel weighs over 17 tons. The first step was to claw back a block buttress wall that had been laid when several neighboring houses were torn down years ago.
Below you can see just how precise Reds is: once he clawed away the block, the old party wall was revealed with faux wood paneling still intact.
Once Reds had cleared the block wall, he went around back and began to claw away at the rear wall. Towards the right of the frame below, you can just make out the stream from a fire hose that’s used to control dust. We were lucky to have a rainy day while Reds did his thing, but a hose for dust control is always a must.
If you’re anything like us, you could look at photos of excavators smashing buildings all day, but let’s fast forward a bit (don’t worry- there are 34 more buildings that will be coming down!). Once Reds had finished for the day, here’s the scene we were left with:
To the right of the photo is a pile of joists that Reds was able to grab (we’d left them in place to give the first house some structural integrity). To the left of the photo is an assorted pile of scrap metal and smaller pieces of lumber. And that big red pile in the center is what we’ll be working on for the next week: a beautiful mountain of bricks to process! Stay tuned to see how they clean up.
Now that the joists have been cut from the first few houses on Eager Street, the structures consist of little more than brick, mortar and roofing material (rafters, inch-thick decking, several generations of various tar-based substances). The bricks from these century-old structures will soon relinquish their roles as structural rowhouse particles and will assume new lives as reclaimed antique bricks in historic preservation projects, patios, pathways, commercial and residential interior accents, pizza ovens, art projects and even new construction.
But before they can attain these reincarnated states, the bricks must be brought down from the houses, cleaned, stacked, and packaged. In Phase One of the project, we’re aiming to salvage around 21,000 bricks from the first seven houses on Eager Street. Managing that sort of quantity can be overwhelming, so before the first brick is removed, we’re setting up a staging area and organizing all of the tools and materials we’ll need for efficient processing. The photo above shows the crew unloading the first of dozens of pallets we’ll be filling over the next few weeks.
The title and subtitles of this post are meant to be puns (albeit bad ones), but if you’ve never heard of a “joist”, they may have struck you as particularly bad spelling errors. So. What is a joist?
First, the etymology: present day “joist” derives from the Old French “giste” which meant “beam supporting a bridge” which derived from the Latin “jacere” which meant “to lie down”.
Still unclear? A joist is a horizontal supporting member that runs between a foundation or walls to support a ceiling and/or floor. Reaching back to our Latin lesson, joists provide support upon which other members may “lie down.” A simple illustration courtesy of the Wikimedia Foundation:
In a typical rowhouse, joists are set into pockets within the brick walls. Not only do they provide support for the floor and ceiling, but they act to stabilize the walls, bringing rigidity to what would otherwise be merely two or three-story towers of brick and mortar. The photo below looks like a super sweet abstract painting, but it also shows the pockets where the joists once sat.
In the photo below, you can see that the joists constitute the main horizontal element of the house- at this point in the deconstruction process, we’re really down to the most basic bones of the building.
Joists represent the largest source of salvageable lumber in a rowhouse. We wanted to harvest all of the rough sawn lumber, but we had to do it in a way that was safe for our workers and ensured that the buildings would retain structural integrity. For the first two houses, we decided to err on the side of caution; we ended up cutting every other joist, leaving around half of the structure to support the century old brick walls. If you look closely in the photo above, you can see that every only every other joist has been removed.
Our process for joist removal was pretty straightforward: we used a Sawzall to cut as close to the pocket as possible, leaving us as much salvageable lumber as could be reasonably harvested. One member of the crew operated the saw, while another firmly held the opposite end of the joist, waiting for it to become free. We then sent the joists through the back of the house where they were sent to…you guessed it…the denailing station.
Cutting the joists gave us a clean view of the end grain- in this case, it looks like most of the joists are loblolly pine and hemlock, two species commonly used for framing lumber during the early 20th century. Once the lumber was denailed, we measured the length, width and thickness to come up with our number of board feet. A board foot is a measure of volume that corresponds to one foot of length x one foot of width x one inch of thickness. Once the wood was measured, we wrote the length of each joist on the end grain, packaged it into bundles, and strapped it together.
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!
A century-old house is a bit like a palimpsest; over the years, the surface changes through periods of addition and subtraction, but the essential form remains recognizable. After several days spent unscrewing drywall, ripping down plaster and lath, tearing out carpet and removing wall framing, the original bones of the first two houses on Eager Street started to emerge.