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Friday, December 18, 2009

Spray Foam Insulation

I was in Buffalo last weekend and worked on the spray foam insulation (sealing the gaps between the rigid foam and the joists) in the crawlspace. It's very simple...after installing the rigid foam (see previous post) and securing it, you just need to run a line of spray foam from the can all the way along the seams. You can buy it for ~$3/can.

A word of caution: WEAR A RESPIRATOR! The chemicals from the spray foam are very bad for you to breathe. You will get sick without a mask. My uncle has a sprayfoam insulation company out in Long Island and he says that he's gotten terrible asthma-like breathing attacks...so please be careful. Spray foam is amazing stuff, but not worth sacrificing your lungs!

This month coming up...look out for DIY solar air collectors! For my thesis I am measuring the efficiency of air collectors I build out of trash. These collectors will be attached to southfacing windows to capture the sun's energy and heat up the air in the house. Keep checking on the calendar above for workshop days. Remember, it's an experiment...so the first solar air collector may not be perfect, but at least it has the potential to heat your home! If you'd like to get involved in general, please feel free to contact me...there will be lots of work going on January 2-16th. Learn a new skill and meet some awesome folks!

Happy Holidays...

Monday, December 7, 2009

Crawlspace Insulation

I was home again for Thanksgiving weekend.
No, I did not work on Thanksgiving...

Friday through Sunday was spent insulating the crawlspace underneath the first section of my house. I am unfortunate enough to not have a full basement like some of the other houses in the area, so I was inching around on my stomach using my feet to move me along! Though it is proven that the majority of your money spent on heating (something like 42%) is lost through an uninsulated attic, an uninsulated basement and crawlspace can also contribute to heat loss...especially if it is not sealed off from outside winds. So I decided to get that out of the way before the weather turned.

To insulate your basement/crawlspace you first need to measure the area. Figure out exactly how much space exists between joists (usually 16 on center...so you'll need insulation about 14 inches wide) and multiply that by the width of your house. This gives you the area of one open space...now you need to figure out how many joists span your house and multiply the area for one open section by the number of open spaces that exist in between your joists. This calculation is a bit confusing, but once you start doing it you should be able to figure it out...


I decided on ordering rigid foam from Thermal Foams, a local distributor on Kenmore Ave. They were very helpful and for a small fee they delivered directly to the doorstep. Once you have your insulation ordered and set to be installed, follow the step-by-step below:

1. If you ordered pre-cut 8ft strips (ex. 14" x 8ft), then skip to step 3. If you ordered large sheets and want to cut them yourself for greater precision (the differences in my widths varied from 13" to 15+"), measure the spaces between the joists and cut the strips to fit. I used a table saw to cut the strips, much faster than any other method, but it is doable with a handsaw. MAKE SURE YOU HAVE A NUMBERING SYSTEM so you know where the strips will go.

2. Rip long 1" strips from 2x4s or from any scrap wood lying around. You will be using this to hold up your insulation against the floorboards, so you need to make enough to keep the insulation up. An alternative to this would be to tack nails into the sides of the joists...although this may be a faster method, it also seems like a more flimsy method.

3. Go into the crawlspace (bring a headlamp and goggles or you'll inevitably get dust in your eyes) and start securing the insulation in place. If you have a nail gun, GREAT! If not, insulating will not be quick and easy. Shove one strip of insulation up into a space between the joists and secure it by nailing the 1"x2" strips just under the insulation. Do this for every exposed space.

4. You're almost done...now to the foaming. Because rigid foam does not conform to the shape of the space, it can leave unsealed air gaps. In order to decrease air infiltration, you need to foam the spaces where the wood and rigid foam meet. The easiest way is to buy spray foam in cans from any major hardware store (Dibbles, Home Depot, etc). You will need a lot of foam, but it'll be worth it in the end!

I have yet to completely seal the space by adding the spray foam, so if you're interested in seeing it in action, contact me! Unfortunately the foam is only useable in 40 degrees or higher...so I may have to wait until a warm winter day, or even springtime to finish this project. Meanwhile, I'm losing heat! Ah! I will be home this weekend and working on various projects around the house (namely insulation...finishing the insulation in the basement and in the attic). Definitely call me if you would like a demonstration...of insulation, of drywalling, anything!

Hope you're all staying warm this season.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Election weekend, windows and weatherization

Columbia/Barnard gives us the weekend off so we can go home and vote. I took advantage and went home to work on the house all weekend! I was working alone, then suddenly VOILA! I find myself working with 1 then 3 then 6 other people! Matt's mother taking a day to learn about bread baking with her son, Jason learning the precision of cutting drywall, Micki and Bryan helping out in the upstairs bathroom, Vince and my mother tearing out lathe, Dave offering expertise on insulation, Ken showing how to fix minor roof leaks, my father fiddling with the leaky toilet, people stopping by to pick up bread...A community atmosphere and a constant desire to learn has become a part of the house. It's wonderfully refreshing to be in such an atmosphere in comparison to living in the Big Apple.

Work continues on the house, slowly but surely. It's hard when I'm not there to coordinate. The first floor is looking really great--almost all of the drywall is complete! It's almost looking like a real home. The weather is getting much much colder, so we closed off all the entrances to the upstairs to increase the efficiency of the gas heater that heats the downstairs. Also because it is cold, we put the garden to bed for the winter...covering all the beds with dead leaves that will add nutrients to the garden beds for next spring. It looks odd considering a month ago we still had tomatoes and salad and beans and beets! All that's left is the lone kale...

To note: If you have a house with somewhat leaky windows, a temporary fix is using the plastic covers that seal tight your windows, not allowing air infiltration. Super helpful because you can lose a lot of heat this way! It's a quick an easy fix. Although, I should say...do not rely on this. Plastic is not a good material--it is harmful for the environment! Fix your windows and you won't need to do this temporary solution. Call/email me if you would like more information on fixing and weatherizing windows. Also, I'm home in a few weeks for thanksgiving...working on insulating the crawlspace and basement with rigid foam. So if you're interested in learning about insulation, would like a workshop or a five minute demo, contact me as well!

Last update: Research continues on DIY green technologies. I'm looking at a solar heat collector, building it out of aluminum cans painted black and channeling the hot air in through a window. Sort of like a forced air system, only it only works during the day and uses no fossil fuels. Also thinking of trying to capture some of the heat from the oven and channeling it into the house? If anyone ever has thoughts or suggestions...anything would be appreciated. The beauty of this house is that I'm willing to try anything and everything! So bring the craziest ideas to the table and I'll try it...given it's not outrageously expensive.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Hooray for Heat

Matt has been suffering in the October cold weather, but there has been a report that the heat is now on. Hooray!!!! A small victory in the grand scheme of things, but we're all glad our favorite neighborhood baker won't freeze to death.

In other news, research on green technologies for the house has been progressing. If you're interested in trying to supplement your own hot water by building a solar thermal panel, check out this website. It has a great set of instructions, and this is similar to the panel I will be constructing. The output (amount of water heated) will be measured over a long period of time to see how much heating you would save just by building this. The guy on the website said it cost him less than five dollars! An investment of five dollars seems well worth the time it will take to construct it.

Worst case scenario, it doesn't work. Okay scenario, I use it only for heating water for an outdoor shower in the spring and summer. Best scenario, it can be integrated into the hot water heating system in the house!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

"Greenery" in Winter

I met with my thesis adviser this week to finalize my thesis topic and...it's going to be studying low-cost green upgrades on houses, using recycled materials! How fantastic, right?!?

Research on the topic is being conducted now with the intent of installing things at 153 Eaton in December/January. So look out for updates on future green workshops! How to make your own insulation, heat your house more efficiently, maybe even how to construct a solar thermal panel to heat water for your shower! Why buy expensive technology when you can do it yourself??

Updates coming...

Monday, September 21, 2009

Creepy Crawlers!

There are few things I like less about home improvement than slithering around on my stomach in a dusty, spider ridden crawl space.


Truth be told, there is a bit of satisfaction to be had when you emerge from the darkness, headlamp covered in spider webs, a soot mark extending from your forehead to your chin and clothes so dirty you hesitate to sit on furniture for fear of ruining it! At least that's what I feel. It also gives you a sense of legitimacy...I'm dirty, so I must be getting work done, must know what I'm doing! The thought that spiders may be in my hair is a little unsettling, I will admit.

This weekend I had my fair share of fun in the dark spaces underneath my house. While doing some work, I also found some neat objects! Of course the typical animal bones and the discarded wood, but I also found a small wheel, an old (rotted) wine barrel, and some object that is made of wood, has two handles, and looks like a buoy, but weighs over 100 lbs (I will post a photo when I go back and take one in November)! Wonder where it's going...inside? Or in the sculpture garden in the backyard?

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Saving on Security

If your basement is anything like mine, installing glass block windows offers a bit of light for a dark and dreary basement...not to mention a bit of security as well! Last Friday I worked on installing the final glass block window in my basement. Two workshops have been taught on their construction and installation and a worksheet was distributed, so if you're interested in learning how you can do-it-yourself, please contact me to get a pdf version.

I was thinking of the savings, and considering a professional company might charge $100-$200 per window installation, I saved quite a bit! Look at the pricing below (estimation):

Silicon Caulk: $3
Use pre-constructed window: $48
DIY using individual blocks: $30
Mortar mix (80 lb): $7

Total: $40-$60

Of course you have to spend the time doing it, but if you're strapped for money, isn't doing it yourself the obvious choice?? A couple things I have discovered in doing this...
  • Measure, measure, measure so you get the right size blocks!
  • Always allot ample time to prep the sill the window is being placed on; sometimes the sill needs to be repoured.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Jacquie Walker Scholarship

Last night, I was at the AAUW potluck dinner and meeting. The American Association of University Women (Buffalo Branch) awarded me a tremendous honor, the Jacquie Walker Scholarship, thanking me for my commitment to community service. I was thinking about this, and while I by no means do what I do to get awards and instead I think everyday about how much I'm learning and how much fun it is, it's always nice to get such a recognition from such amazing women. I was blown away yesterday by the group's collective strength and intelligence. I can only hope to be like them some day!

After the awards ceremony I hopped back on the overnight bus, headed back to school in NYC. Got here at 7 this morning only to find an email from my mother with the link to the TV clip shown last night. As I type I'm blushing, knowing in typical motherly fashion, she has probably emailed everyone and anyone she possibly has ever met, telling them the good news--but that's what mothers are great at! If you get a chance, take a look at the clip...

What a weekend. To Buffalo and back again in 48 hours. And back again in a few days for a wedding! If you're around on Friday, come on over to the house because we plan on getting a lot done. As always, lots to do, lots to learn...lots of fun to be had!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Trash to Treasure Building

While I'm here in NYC, finishing up my last year of undergrad before I'm out in the real world (stirring up the pot!) I have a lot more time to read. To read, to discover new green ideas, to experiment with "left field" ideas! While reading up on natural building I discovered this article, published in yesterday's NY Times.

A man who does exactly what I want to do. Turn trash into treasure. Functional treasure. I don't like the idea of converting trash into art because after the gallery show and if no one wants it, it may once again end up in a dump. Making functional, user friendly objects (not to mention HOUSES) out of discarded scraps re-purposes objects and gives them longer lives away from the waste stream.

Meanwhile, at the house...Matt is on his second week of baking! Last week: multigrain boule. This week: a surprise! Wouldn't want to ruin it for any members who would be reading this!
My grandmother called me yesterday to say that she had eaten ALL of my mother's share of bread, it was
that good. Too bad the shares are sold out for this run...if anyone wants to sign up for the next round...stay tuned! Sign ups will be coming up in a few months (make sure you email fancyanddelicious@gmail.com and ask for a reminder email)

I hear the tomatoes are out of control and the eggplants are booming. There is too much food even for Matt, so if you're in the area PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE feel free to stop by and pick some up! Work continues on the bottom half of the house...it's a mad rush before winter sets in. Finishing the kitchen so it's up to baking status, re-tiling the shower, putting in light fixtures, installing the permanent cabinets (out of recycled windows and wood, or maybe some other odd material...). There's lots to do and to learn so if you want to help, email me or call me and we can set up a date!


Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Mmm...the smell of bread.

It's been a while in the making, but the big momma earthen oven is finally complete! Future site of delicious breads made by Matt and Maura. The oven, like the original one we constructed back in April (or was it March?), is made of a clay/sand mixture...only this time, it has straw added! The straw provides added strength to the structure and has resulted in little to no cracking. The oven is so big that a person can fit inside...kind of makes me think of the story of Hansel and Gretel where the witch tries to get them inside so she can bake them!

The other day I found Matt taking a nap inside...a six foot five? six foot six? guy in the oven?? With that size, it sure is going to make a lot of delicious bread. Anyway, if you're interested in getting your hands on some of his and Maura's delicious breads or would like them to teach a class on bread baking, please contact them via email (
fancyanddelicious@gmail.com). The opening party for Fancy and Delicious breads will be held in the backyard of 153 Eaton on Sunday August 30th at 4pm with free oven-baked pizza samples and demonstrations on how the oven works. Come and join us, it should be a really fun and filling time!!!

Saturday, August 1, 2009

ReUsing Water: Greywater Systems!

This past week, we taught a workshop on constructing a greywater wetland. I found a lot of resources online...the greywater guerillas website seemed to be the most helpful. The way our system is set up is that the water flows from the sink or shower out into first, a barrel full of sand which filters out any of the larger particles and soap scum, and then it drains into the clawfoot tub full of wetland plants, which interact with the water and provide a natural filter, so now it can be used on gardens! In addition to reusing water, this greywater system makes use of a 55 gallon drum (to hold the sand) and also a clawfoot tub that was destined for the garbage! Talk about material reuse. And it is such a cool addition to the garden!

Friday, July 31, 2009

YNIA Part 2

We had another AWESOME group of YNIA volunteers. This time, from Massachusetts! The first day, they went right to work painting and tiling! The downstairs tiling job looks incredible, all thanks to them. On the last two days, the boys got to do some pretty fun demolition work, taking out some old ceiling plaster and removing paneling...they sure got dusty and dirty. We got a lot done in one week and the groups enthusiasm was much appreciated. Thanks to all involved!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

YNIA Visitors!

This week, we have some visitors! They drove all the way from Wisconsin (a place actually colder than Buffalo!). These volunteers are part of Young Neighbors in Action, a weeklong Catholic service learning experience that engages young people in the act of community service. This amazing group has already reglazed the windows, painted the sills, painted the foyer, repointed part of the foundation, caulked, finished a floor...the list goes on. And on. And on and on and on and on and...

Anyway, if you're looking to learn a bit more about housing rehab, want to troubleshoot a problem in your home, or are looking for a relaxed/fun environment, come and volunteer! In addition to workshops, the house is open for you to practice your repair skills almost everyday...show up and you'll be put right to work!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Appearance in Dwell Magazine!

Hot off the press! Whitney and I are in this month's issue of Dwell, a nationally distributed architecture/design magazine. Our bright, shining faces appear on page 28 along with a brief article about what we're doing, why we're doing it, and how we're making an impact. If you have time, check it out!

Monday, July 6, 2009

Nat'l holiday does not mean vacation day...

I worked on the fourth. Both at the restaurant where I serve as well as at the house. Needless to say, I did not have a relaxing holiday, so I decided that no matter what I was going to enjoy my July 5th.

All day was spent working on the house. An amazing crew of volunteers helped with building the newer, bigger earth oven alongside Matt and Maura, creators of the new baking operation Fancy and Delicious (F+D)! A big thanks to all who helped.

Afterwards though, we celebrated the installation of the new patio and the progress made in the garden. We fired up the earth oven, made pizzas, and watched a movie, projected onto the back of the house with a projection screen generously provided by Courtney! The movie was Wall.E. Very appropriate considering it's a movie all about recycling. It was a relaxing/fun end to the weekend! Look for more movie nights to come...movie suggestions are being taken now :)

Friday, June 19, 2009

Bills Fan!

Ok, if you're from Buffalo it's a requirement: you're a Bills fan and you like to talk about the Bills. Unfortunately for you, this post has very little to do with the Bills, however, and EVERYTHING to do with a fan. My little trick to draw you in...

The fan I am talking about came from one of the walls at the ReSource (298 Northampton). I was walking through the other day, searching for inspiration, when I saw it; the fan was prominently displayed in the front of the store, calling to me. I asked Peter, the assistant store manager, what the plan was for the fan...was it for sale? was it for show?

Peter told me they had scrapped a similar one earlier in the day, thus this one was equally up for grabs. Who would want/need an old industrial fan? ME. I wanted it. How could something so cool be scrapped?? Using sheer strength and determination, I lugged the giant fan back to my newly laid patio and took a few moments to brainst

I came up with the idea of converting the fan into a table. Slapping four legs on it, placing some glass on top and calling it a day. Well, not so easy as that, but that's the general idea. It turned out SO cool! Now I am evermore inspired to create furniture, sculptures, bins, etc. out of recycled materials. I'm convinced it's the way of the future. So if you're driving around and find a cool object, DON'T throw it out! Think of how it could be used as a neat centerpiece in your living room, or a new addition to your house's artwork. OR...give it to me...I'll find a use for it!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Garden Creations, Reusing Concrete

Back in November, my heart sank a little when I discovered that the house I had just bought in the October foreclosure auction had a gigantic slab of concrete hidden underneath a thin layer of soil. Think of the soil as icing on the thick concrete cake and you get the idea. Yuck, right? I felt as though all my plans for an amazing garden had just wilted and withered away.

Well, come April I had the concrete removed thanks to Matt and the trusty skidsteer that ripped it up...making way for my ambitious garden plans! Only problem was, I had a sky high pile of concrete in my backyard that I had no intention of using. My initial thought was to get rid of it ASAP. It was an eyesore, a constant reminder of the garage that had once stood but had since rotted away, but the environmental policy major in me challenged that initial thought. Why couldn't I find a way to reuse it? Couldn't it function somehow in my plans?

After thinking of all the things I wanted to include in my garden and the materials needed, I thought of using the concrete pieces to build an herb spiral. If you're not familiar with an herb spiral, don't be ashamed; most people have no idea what I'm talking about when I mention it. Basically what it aims to do is to conserve space in a garden and also provide the perfect climate for each herb that is planted. With the way water reaches each portion of the spiral formation, dry loving herbs like rosemary go on top and herbs loving a more moist environment go on the bottom. It is a very effective and beautiful addition to any garden.

So I built the herb spiral out of concrete pieces, but I still had too much left over, so I lined paths and garden beds with it! In addition, it is going into the foundation for the new earth oven being built. By taking my time and brainstorming ways to reuse it, I have successfully avoided the need to rent a dumpster to cart away the concrete. All it takes is a little patience, creativity, and willingness to experiment and look at the result! Not only did I reuse materials, I created something beautiful. I hope this inspires folks to build an herb spiral in their garden...I can tell you it is well worth it. Use whatever materials you have lying around that you can stack on top of each other and then fill it with a mixture of topsoil and compost. Also, you don't necessarily have to fill it with herbs; it could just as easily be a flower or veggie spiral!

Composting with seatbelts

Compost bins are essential to any garden. I had long ago decided I was putting in a three bin compost system, but I had been hesitating for a while, wondering what I should make it out of. Wood was fine, but boring. Brick? Too time consuming. I wandered over to Buffalo ReUse and asked Peter, the assistant store manager, what ReUse had a lot of that they needed to use up. Peter jokingly suggested the enormous box of seatbelts that someone had donated. It was all in jest, but then I thought, "why not??"

After a few trial and error sessions, I figured out how I could use the seatbelts in my compost bin design. The majority of my compost bin is woven seatbelts...The outer sides, the back (seatbelts woven into a chainlink fence), and the front doors are all made out of seatbelts. The middle dividers are made out of tree trunks that we cut out of my backyard and sunk into the ground. Talk about material reuse! The best part was that it took less than a day to create, is functional, and looks super cool! If you'd like to learn how I made my compost bin, come and talk to me about it at the next workshop (Glass Block Windows, Tuesday June 9th at 6pm).

A lot of progress has been made in and around the house, so be sure to come and check it out! The garden is growing rapidly (I need to harvest the lettuce) and the inside rooms are being tranformed! All with the help of a group of awesome City Honors kids and some wonderful volunteers. An especially big thank you to Vince and to the kids who worked on the compost bin; it looks amazing.

Hope to see you all at a future workshop...


Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Earth Ovens, Glass Block Windows, Mortar, and a BBQ!

Last week was a busy week--there was the ReUse Open House on Saturday where Matt and I gave a demonstration on earth oven building and cooking, and then an impromptu workshop on planting/preparing a garden for the growing season. On Sunday was a demonstration on installing glass block windows which was a little rough throughout the process, but turned out beautifully!

Saturday's Open House was SO much fun. Folks were in and out all day, enjoying the nice weather and eating some of Matt's delicious pizzas and breads. Watch out folks, he's gonna become the bread master of Eaton St...get your orders in now! We had never fired up the earth oven before, so we were nervous about the outcome, but no need to worry. Everything worked out wonderfully, and we even were asked how much we would charge to build one in someone's back yard! Sorry, we aren't hiring out, but if you want to learn how to make your own, we will be building another oven May 26th through 28th, 8am-12pm daily.

Sunday came, and it was another gorgeous day! Unfortunately I had mis-measured the window space, so I had had to build up the frame before installing the glass block. No worries though, I just built it up a bit, let the frame dry, and then fit the pre-made window into place (Whitney and I had made it the previous week). Once the window was in place, I finished it off with a bit of mortar and voila--it looks so much better. Of course everyone was ragging on me, saying I should have measured better...geez! It was all in good fun though, and I think the workshop was definitely a success. Can't believe how much light that one window lets in...I barely need the basement lights on now! We will be offering another glass block window lesson for folks who missed it, coming up some time in June or July. So you don't miss another class, take a look at our May calendar.

As always, the workshops are 100% free and open to anyone, so just show up and be ready to participate! We love newcomers and of course we love our regulars...it's a great chance to meet people, learn something new, and have fun! There is a workshop
TODAY (5/5) on Mortar at 6pm. If you can't join us tonight, we're throwing a Cinco de Mayo BBQ tomorrow (5/6) from 6-8pm (free food, pinata, food from the clay oven, music, etc) . Hope to see you soon!


Tuesday, April 7, 2009

March Workshops

A month of workshops later, things are still running smoothly! Since the time of my last post, we've held workshops on painting, doors, drywall, gardening, fixing windows, planning a garden, insulation and plumbing. WOW. I'm inspired and enthused just listing them all!

It would take too much time to reflect on all the workshops that have taken place at 153 Eaton in the past weeks, but here's a reflection on a few of them:

Drywalling--hanging, finishing and patching--is something that we will definitely have to offer again. Whether your plaster is crumbling in your old home or your son was horsing around and put his foot through the wall, sooner or later most people need to deal with drywall. So it's an important skill to have, and after watching instructor Adam demonstrating taping and finishing with joint compound, I've learned that it takes A LOT of work. Step 1: cutting the right size piece Step 2: screwing into wall with drywall screws Step 3: taping for reinforcement Step 4: making a smooth finish with joint compound (3 times!) Workshop attendees were given the chance try all four steps, and some left the workshop saying they felt ready to try it in their own home!

At the next workshop many people expressed their disappointment at having missed the drywall workshop, so our plan is to hold a repeat workshop in June. If you are interested, let either Whitney or I know what dates and times work best for you!

Things don't run smoothly all the time, I'll admit. The door workshop in the beginning of March was the first time the program had taken a slight misstep--we were unprepared when attendees began showing up, so we could only offer a quick explanation of "how to" instead of actually demonstrating installing a door. That workshop was a lesson for me to provide adequate time for set up. My pledge for the future is to make sure we providethe quality education that both Whitney and I are deeply committed to...

Just this past week was a plumbing demonstration on sweating copper, and it was received very enthusiastically! Of course people were intimidated by the propane torch, but with the encouragement of both Bob and I, most of the attendees were willing to give sweating copper a shot! The workshop focused mainly on developing this skill, while also spending time on a basic explanation of plumbing and how to fix leaks. The most gratifying part of the workshop was not using a torch, however, it was in the interactions between people at the workshop. I am finding that the more workshops that are held, the more there is regular attendance and more repeat attendees. I am getting to know some people extremely well and through talking with them am learning their stories and the story of the neighborhood I'm in. I even met someone who used to live in the house! How crazy is that??

Anyway, the workshops are going well. Some more than others. Most weeks I am scrambling to prepare in time, and the weeks where I am teaching I am especially nervous. But it's worth it. I am learning, people who attend workshops are learning, and I hope most people are (I know I am) walking away from each workshop with a renewed sense of competence, of ability to do things ourselves. Special thanks to all past instructors--Patrick, Adam, Bob, Craig, Joe--and can't wait for more workshops coming up!

This weekend: Laying Carpet Tiles (Saturday April 11th at 3pm)

Sunday, March 8, 2009

It's a learning frenzy!

So it's been a while (actually forever) since we've reported on the actual progress of the workshops. I confess, posting on the blog is something I will have to train myself to do weekly because somehow it always comes up as the last thing to do on my list...

Here's a quick, no frills added update of the past month of workshops:

The first workshop we held at 153 Eaton was on floor sanding. And wow. It went SO well! Attendance was great, people were really enthusiastic about trying the two different types of sanders and we got some helpful feedback. Our floors are now sanded, but we need to clean them up a bit, stain them and then refinish them. I'm thinking future workshop, anyone?

The second weekend was not really a hands-on workshop, more of a learning experience. We had Joe Sie
vert come in and conduct a very basic energy audit, explaining the procedure to folks. Also what you can do to reduce your utility bills and which options are the most cost effective.

Trivia: Which energy saving technique gives you the quickest return on your investment?
a) insulating your walls
b)replacing all your old bulbs with CFLs
c)replacing windows

If you thought that replacing windows would give you the most return for your investment...WRONG. Actually, it takes more than a few decades for windows to pay for themselves. Of the three choices, b gives you the quickest bang for your buck! Although I would highly suggest insulation. Keeps your body warmer and your toes snuggly (and reduces heating bills)!

The third weekend of workshops tried a new approach: DIFFERENT subjects on different days! Subfloor replacement and window glazing. Saturday's subfloor replacement was very exciting--a woman tried using the circular saw for the first time! All were laughing while learning; it's fun to try new things and it's great to have people wanting to learn.

So far, conducting these workshops has been an amazing experience. The successes of the workshops every weekend are a constant reminder why I am doing this, why I took a semester off for it and why I am choosing to continue! The variety of workshops keeps things interesting...it's never a dull day at 153 Eaton. This weekend was workshops titled Painting Like a Pro, taught by Whitney and her father. Since I'm taking a vacation in sunny (warm!) California to visit my brother, I'll leave it up to Whitney to talk about how they went!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Workshops 2/28, 3/1

Are your floors buckling beneath you?
Replacing Subfloors

Saturday, February 28th

Trying to keep out the cold without the expense of new windows?
Window Glazing

Sunday, February 29th

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Workshop 2/21

Learn Ways to Reduce Your Utility Bills!

Energy Audit Demo


Saturday, February 21st


...Look for a update on March's schedule coming soon!

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Musings on (Our First) Meeting

a.k.a. Whitney's First Post!

Just about a week ago, Megan and I hosted our first public meeting about our project. Nine wonderful people weathered the blistering cold to come by and share their thoughts, and we cannot express our appreciation enough. For me, the meeting was one of the first times I really got to speak with and listen to, at length, some longtime residents of our neighborhood.

Reflecting on my eight years at City Honors, it's amazing to think how little I really knew beyond the sidewalk connecting Summer-Best station, the school, and Masten Park, where we had gym class on nice days. Eight years (21 living in Buffalo generally) and it wasn't until mid-January of 2009, after knocking on doors with fingers and cookies frozen solid, that I could tell you where Laurel Street begins and ends. Eight years and it wasn't until last weekend, after our meeting, that I could explain why pruned hedges and privacy fences are of particular importance to our neighbors.

In fairness to my high school self, it's only been since discovering Urban Studies in college that I have developed a keen interest in getting to know a neighborhood, since returning to Buffalo that I have realized I never want to leave, and since meeting Megan that I have been drawn back to the East Side.
So I feel pretty fortunate to be getting a second chance at really knowing this neighborhood, especially in the context of our project and the strengthening role I hope it will play.

What else?
We determined our first workshops, combining a specific need in the house with a specific request of one of our neighbors and with specific restrictions imposed on us by the weather...

Sanding Your Hardwood Floors
February 14th at 1pm or February 15th at 3pm
At our house, 153 Eaton.

We also incorporated feedback from the meeting to adopt a workshop model, which we can hopefully begin using next weekend. The model devotes at least two workshops to every subject: the first is taught by a volunteer professional and the second (and third and fourth, if there is demand) is taught by one of us.

Plus Meg has been hard at work designing the workshop and it looks freakin' awesome! I can't wait to learn how to sand a floor!

Musings on momentum coming soon...

Friday, February 6, 2009

Why not try them all?

Speaking of "demo," the last time my friend was over, the walls in the side entryway were still there. Poof! Now they're gone! It's amazing how quickly things can change. For instance, how I changed from being a full time student at a college in New York City to withdrawing for the semester and buying a house on the east side of Buffalo!

So even though I'm technically not enrolled this semester, I still consider myself an environmental policy major. Of course when I started this project I was really excited to make the materials choices as "green" as possible. Still, knowing what I know about environmental impacts, I am able to tell you virtually nothing about tried and true green materials. I did a little homework, searched through materials lists, and what I've come to realize in my researching is that there are so many options, so many brands! How can you possibly choose just one?

Well, why not try them all? My idea is to create a house that showcases all kinds of materials, all types of heating, insulation, etc. Included in that is a huge commitment to experimentation, creating non-conventional solutions to a greener lifestyle. How can we make a solar hot water system without paying 2000+ dollars? Can we try retrofitting a house and testing the efficiency of different types of insulation? In what ways can we recycle/conserve our water? Is it better to leave the systems you have and increase efficiency, or should you replace it?

All of these questions are the basis of very real experiments that will be conducted in the house over the next year. If you have an interest in this sort of thing or have an idea for a "back of the door" technique for greening a house, please contact me! Perhaps we can experiment with your inspiring ideas!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

You must DESTROY to rebuild.

It's hard to tell whether the people who are volunteering with me are having fun or not. They say they like the work, but am I just torturing them? Are they waiting until a convenient time when they can duck out? I will say, though, there is one activity that is fun for everyone. Regardless if a person is young or old, silly or serious, I have yet to hear of a person who does not enjoy demolishing walls. One volunteer describes it as her "daily zen." The handling of a crowbar, hitting it with as much force as possible against the plaster walls relieves stress levels and erases worry lines. Perhaps instead of botox injections, the stereotypical trophy wife should look to this activity to keep the life in her aging face!

Step one to rehabbing a house is getting over the fact that you have to do more damage before things can be improved. It seems counterintuitive; doesn't destroying walls bring you farther away from the finished product? Actually, "demo" is a very needed process...it's the only way to truly know what's going on in your renovation project. Does it need to be insulated? Rewired? Are there leaks? Is there mold? All of this can be determined when taking down a wall.

Steps to correct and
safe "demo":
Equipment needed: mask, safety goggles, hardhat (a must if you're doing ceilings), heavy boots to avoid stepping on nails, crowbar/sledgehammer

1. Remove trim by delicately prying it away from the wall. Remove nails with a nail puller--pull them out from behind and you will prevent the finish from being ruined.
2. Remove wall fixtures. TURN OFF POWER. Unscrew the screws that hold them and disconnect the attached wires. Once the wires are disconnected, put electrical tape or wire nuts over the bare ends of the wire before turning the power back on.
2. Remove plaster. If your wall is covered with plaster and lath, first knock the plaster off with a small sledgehammer or the butt end of the crowbar. If you're not totally ripping out the wall and you keep the lath on, you can go over it with 1/4-3/8" drywall. Works just fine and saves the time it would take to rip out the lath.
4. Remove lath. If you do decide to rip out the lath, by removing the plaster and lath separately, debris will be much easier to handle. You now have a wall that's completely down to the bare bones. If you want to totally get rid of it, you need to determine if it's load bearing or not and proceed from there...more on this later...
5. Clean up. Probably the most important part of a renovation other than safety is keeping your workspace clean. Shovel the plaster pieces into heavy-duty contractor bags and tie the lath together to make piles. You can either throw this in the garbage, or keep your feet toasty warm and use it as kindling for your fire!

It's electric! (boogie woogie woogie)

Called up the power authorities that be and got my electricity turned on today. It was surprisingly easy, but I figure that's probably because they're expecting returns on investment...if they come and turn on the juice then they've just put another paying customer in their system. If you need the electricity turned on at your house all you have to do is:

1 Call the power supplier in your area, schedule a starting date so they can switch on your electricity (You do not have to be present when the guys come and turn it on)
2 Register where your bills are being sent to. If you're smart, the mailing address is to Barbados. Just kidding--paying bills is an important if annoying part of home ownership, so make sure your address is correct so you can pay bills on time!
3 Before your system is put back online, MAKE SURE YOUR MAIN BREAKER IS SWITCHED OFF. This is the single most responsible, smart thing you can do in this situation, especially in older houses with shady wiring. You don't know where there are hidden cords and what connects to where, so better safe than having your house burn to the ground.
4 Test each and every outlet and light fixture. To do this, you must first locate which switches go to what portion of the house. Flip switches one at a time to on in the breaker panel, bring a partner to tell you what works and what doesn't. A good tool to use is a plug-in nightlight. You probably have one lying around, one of a seashell when you went on a trip to Cape Cod, or something perhaps a bit more embarassing. They're an easy, quick way to see if an outlet is working. Just plug in and you have your answer! Be sure to mark all fixtures and outlets that are not working so that you can return to them later to find out the problem...

Wednesday, January 7, 2009


1. Getting to know my house. We're going to be best friends for the next nine months that I am working full time on this project, so I'd better know it's likes/dislikes, wants/desires. The only way to understand a house is to walk in it and to be what my mother calls a "hungry noticer." Like that game Hungry Hungry Hippos, only not eating plastic white balls. Luckily I inherited the "hungry noticer" genes from her and so took it upon myself to document every part of the house. Problems, things I like, things I want to change, things that I want to like but most likely will change. I took a pencil, measuring tape, and a piece of paper.

First things to go...
Hideous 70s paneling
Ripped linoleum
Pumpkin orange wallpaper
Cracked Toilet

But these are minor changes. In the long run my vision is to open up the side entryway by ripping out a non load bearing wall and expanding the kitchen. This will make for a more communal space. Who doesn't want to gather in the kitchen?? It's where all the food is!

2. Finding Structural Problems. Ok, so this really should be first, but it's a scary subject so I
like to think that it can be second. Nothing should really be done with the interior before any structural adjustments are made. This includes reframing/restructuring/resupporting, jacking the house if it's sinking, reroofing...basically anything that could allow for water damage or for the house to ultimately collapse. Yeah, pretty important.

The structure of the house is remarkably sound. As my friend Kevin says, "these old houses are built with so many little pieces that it is very difficult to completely collapse the structure." Even if people cut support beams. My problem here lies in the back addition...the addition is attached to the front of the house with rafters. Unfortunately, the addition is sinking, pulling on the front of the house, making the house all out of whack. The first attempt to fix this will be to jack up the back of the house and see if I can realign the structure.

So I have a few leaks evident in my house, but it's difficult to tell whether they're new or if they've been patched up. My guess is that someone attempted to patch up holes but did a pretty shoddy job. Call me crazy, but duct tape isn't going to be useful in this. It solves almost everything, but it doesn't solve the fact that I can see to the outside in places. Unfortunately I can't really do much until spring because I need to get onto the roof and check out the flashing, especially around the chimney (looks like swiss cheese it has so many holes!). I don't really want to be walking on an ice-laden roof...

Major Updates: I'm getting the electricity on tomorrow, so we'll see what works. Some rewiring will be necessary for sure, but it'd be nice to have a space heater to take out the chill. It's 25 degrees here and I'm freezing my little piggies off!

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Yes, InDEED!

It's been a long time coming, but I finally have my deed! Silly, because I bought the house in October and am just getting license to enter...right in time for the coldest weather to hit. Imagine if I were moving into the house today--there is no way I could get the heat going on day one, even with a perfectly intact and up to date system! So I would have to suffer through a few nights of deathly cold! And that's assuming I didn't need to replace any radiators, boilers, etc. (which I probably will have to do). Perhaps the city needs to consider changing the time of the foreclosure auction to spring so that people have ample time to get their homes back online before the Buffalo winter hits?

Anyway, I took an initial look around and found...a MESS. The previous owners/renters left all their junk on the second floor, complete with year and a half old birthday cake! And the fridge? ...ew. I opened it to inspect and a round of gagging ensued. I spent an entire day just cleaning all the garbage out so now I can actually start the huge task of rehabbing.

BUT--luckily my house is in remarkably great shape! There isn't major major structural damage, I'm only missing about 6ft. of piping, and it looks as though I have nice wood floors that just need a little TLC. I even have a wonderful set of pocket doors and a newly refinished bathroom! All in all, the house has 6 small bedrooms, two floors, two bathrooms, an attic, a basement, two kitchens, a porch to sit on, and a big backyard for my garden! Can't wait to start getting my hands dirty, learning the basics of housing rehab...