January 14, 2018

January Building News

by Alan Beatts

Hi Everyone and Happy New Year,

I hope that 2018 is treating you well thus far.  For me it started with a horrible cold and it's gotten steadily better from there (not a hard trick to accomplish).  Of course, it's been crazy busy and I'm still way behind on my email, but it would be unreasonable to think that it would be any other way given the events of the past few months.

The biggest one, our purchase of the building on Haight Street (Borderlands West, if you will), has been working out mostly quite well with only a few hiccups so far.  The process of getting the building in shape for us to move is mostly what I'm going to be writing about in this newsletter over the next few months.  Those posts are liable to be pretty long (like this one), which is why we've moved them to the end of the newsletter.

Before I get into all the news and plans about the building, I wanted to let you all know that I'll be having an open-house there this month.  This Saturday, January the 20th, I'll be around from noon until six in the evening.  Feel free to stop by any time in that window and I'll give you the nickel-tour of the place as well as answering any questions you have about our plans.  If you can make it, you really should -- the place is probably just about as torn up as it'll ever be and I think it will be fun in a few years to talk about how you remember back when it was a construction site.

But, if you can't make it to the open house, I've finally got some pictures up - http://borderlands-books.blogspot.com/p/haight-st-photos.html.  It's not the best forum for pictures but it was easy to do and easy is a feature much in demand for me, right now.  I should have more pictures up in a bit.

The Building, In General
Buying a new building has a whole list of things that come up after the sale is done.  All the utilities have to be changed over, you need to get insurance (fast), and there are always little surprises that come up.  When you add residential tenants into the mix, things get more interesting.

Overall that change-over process has worked out quite well.  The existing tenants in the two apartments upstairs are very nice folks and seem to be very happy with us as the new owners.  They've been paying the rent on time (such a big relief) and I think we're going to get along really well.

The apartments are in good repair, given the givens, but there are a few things to sort out.  One surprise was a leak in one of the kitchens the first time it rained.  After talking with the tenant it turns out that this has been a recurring problem over the years.  I went up to check the roof (which we know needs to be replaced) and I found the problem pretty quickly -- a low spot that looked like it had been patched about a million times.  I tore off the layers of old, bad patch and did it again on the clean, base surface.  That seems to have sorted out the problem.  And, since it only needs to last 'til spring when we'll replace the whole roof, I think it won't be a issue.

Other than the water department getting the wrong address for the bills (and, as a result, threatening to turn off the water for non-payment) there haven't been any other surprises.  Oh, except it seems that there are some mice getting into the water heater closet in the lower apartment.  That one that will be an easy fix with some sheet metal and steel wool.

The circuit breaker panels in both apartments need to be replaced (I'll say more about that in a moment) but that's not going to be too big or complicated a job since we're doing a bunch of electrical work downstairs.

The Bookstore Build Out
There are a bunch of pieces to the job of getting the place ready for us to move in.  Thankfully (and unlike the last big job I did -- building the cafe), most of the pieces are independent of each other and just require quite straightforward permits.  That means no long review process or plan checking.  We just go up, explain what were doing (with a few plans in some cases), pay our fee, and away we go.  And, some of the work doesn't require building permits at all.

The way that the process will work is first we'll focus on the "rough-in" work followed by the "final" work and then the "finish" work.  For example, building the new (accessible) bathroom will first consist of framing the walls, putting in the plumbing pipes and electrical wiring -- that's the "rough-in" work.  Then, after inspections, we put the drywall up, tape and finish it, plus connect the toilet, sink, as well as the outlets and ceiling light.  After another inspection, that completes the "final" work.  Once that's done, we paint the place, put on outlet covers, and so on.  That's the finish work.  There may be times when one part of the job is moving ahead of another part (for example, putting drywall on one wall while still doing the rough plumbing in the bathroom) but generally all the parts of the job will move forward in step.

Before all that happens though, we need to do the demolition work.  That's the process of taking out every thing that's broken, worn out, poor quality, or undesirable so that we can start putting in the stuff that we want. Thanks to a bunch of help from a great team of volunteers, most of the demolition work was finished just before New Years.  There still some cleaning to do (my goodness but the place is dusty) and there are some semi-delicate demolition jobs that I still want to do, but the broad strokes are finished.

Last Thursday I met with our architect, Kevin, and the structural engineer that we're going to be working with (Matthew Tropp of Ashley & Vance Engineering: https://ashleyvance.com).  It was a really great meeting and I feel very confident and happy with Matthew.  His job is, in essence, to tell Kevin and I the requirements, from a strength and safety standpoint, of the work that we want to do.  For example, I want to remove some of the posts in the basement that support the floor of the store.  Matthew will tell us which posts can be removed and which ones need to stay (short answer to that -- we don't need all of them but we do need more of them than I thought).  He's also giving us some excellent advice about simple things that we can do to improve the seismic stability of the whole building.  For some parts of the job he'll be doing extensive plans and drawings (like the work on the lightwell; more about that in a bit) while on some others he'll just be giving written guidance.

Overall where the job stands right now is that there are still big-picture questions that I need to get answers to before I can really start planning a specific schedule of work (and, perhaps, come up with a move-in date that isn't complete fantasy).  Most big projects start like that.  I start with a goal and a set of general ideas and then I get specifics about whether the ideas are possible and affordable (both in terms of time and money).  The remaining "big-picture" items are what we're doing about the electrical service and the front exterior / entry.

The Electrical Service -- Right now the electrical meters and main shut-off switches are located in a closet on the ground floor, pretty much right in front of the entry door.  The breaker panel for the store is in the same spot. It's a really awkward set up and I'd like to move all the electrical down into the basement.  Once we do that, the whole weird little wall can go away, which'll open up the entry area a bunch.

In addition, the whole building uses circuit breakers made by a company called Federal Pacific Electric.  That company (now long defunct) is legendary in the business for making really shoddy products.  So much so that people joke that "FPE" actually stands for "fire protection is extra".  Given that circuit breakers exist to prevent fires, that's not . . . good.  So, I want to replace all that crappy gear with good stuff.  While doing all that work, it would be the best time to upgrade the total amount of electrical service that comes into the building.  In the 1970s, when the work was done, the amount of service was fine but, by current standards, it's about half what it should be (currently 200 amps versus the 400 amps that is current standard).

But there's a catch.  Moving electrical meters and increasing service can only be done by our utility company, PG&E.  And they do it on their own time.  This week I heard back from them about my request for a site-survey to see how much work would be needed.  They said it would take 18 to 20 . . . weeks!  And that's just to get someone to take a look at what needs to be done.

So, we're going to find another solution.  It's possible that we might be able to find an expediter who can speed the process up.  But, if that doesn't work, I'm going to have the main switches and breaker panel moved to the basement and trim down the weird little wall so that it'll just hold the meters.  It'll be odd but I'm pretty sure we can put some plants on top of it, some display shelves on the sides, and make into a feature instead of a bug.  We can get the meters moved later, if that seems necessary.

The Front Entry -- The exterior of the building isn't very well designed.  I know why (it's part of the same reason that the electrical service is right in the middle of the floor - however that's another story) but it would be really nice to improve it.  The windows that used to run across the top of the whole ground floor have been covered up, the door is crappy (and the frame around it is so far out of square that it makes me dizzy to look at it), and the brick work below the display windows is prime 1970s (i.e. ugly).  Also, we could change it up a bit and get about 60 square feet of extra floor space.

But, the building is historic and that means changing the exterior opens up a whole can of worms (despite there being nothing left on the ground floor in front that is original).  The problem isn't the possible cost (which is not bad) or the design requirements (which would probably be pretty nice).  The problem is that it would have to be reviewed by the historical commission and that takes time.  Possibly more time that we want to spend waiting around.

Kevin is looking into what changing the exterior will entail and we hope to know something in a week or so.  Until then, I'm not sure what we're going to do about the front.  It's serviceable now and I'm sure we can sneak a new door in without anyone flipping out so, if we need to leave it as is, we can.  But, it'll be a big pain to do the work later so if we're going to change it, the time is now.

The remaining work is all pretty clear, in a general sense.  It includes the rear wall, the garden, the new bathroom/lightwell, the basement, and changes to the stairway into the basement along with some repair / reinforcement work due to old fire damage.  I'll give you a quick idea of what's involved with each of those.

The rear wall of the building currently has two six-foot-wide sliding glass doors along with a window above one of the doors.  Since we don't really need two doors into the garden, I'm going to close one of them up.  There'll be several advantages to that.  First off, it'll give us someplace to put the gas fireplace that will be both decorative (who doesn't love a fireplace?) and also provide heating for the place.  Second, we'll be able to turn that section of wall into what's called a "sheer wall".  In essence, we'll cover half the wall with plywood 3/4" thick and nail it like a sombitch.  The plywood stretching across the lumber that frames the wall will create a box that won't move in an earthquake.  The result will make the whole building much more resilient when we get a big shake.  When we're done it will be invisible because the plywood will then be covered with drywall.  We'll take the glass doors on the other side out, make the doorway a bit smaller, and put in french doors instead.  The window above will probably be relocated upwards to make room for bookshelves above the doorway.

The backyard will be turned into a garden area with seating as well as room for authors to do public events (when the weather allows).  We're planning to visually divide the space up so that it will feel cosy and intimate. We're also planning a fountain and space for a BBQ.  All the ivy and built up soil has been removed and, while doing that, we discovered to our surprise that the whole rear yard is covered with concrete.  Tearing that out is one of the jobs that's coming up soon so that the soil can breathe and start getting back to something that plants will grow in.  We are also going to be replacing the fence all the way around the perimeter.  Since the ground level is much lower than the adjacent properties, that fence is a matter of safety as well as privacy.  I've already talked it over with two out of the three neighbors, and they're very pleased with the idea.

Since the existing bathroom is tiny in addition to being pretty squalid, we'll be completely tearing it out and building a larger one that conforms to ADA standards.  The bathroom is right next to a lightwell that, honestly, isn't really necessary.  Since the new bathroom will be bigger, it will intrude into the lightwell and that will require some pretty major reframing to support the upper floors of the building.  Since we need to do that work anyway, we'll be taking the opportunity to completely eliminate the lightwell and convert that space into some extra indoor store area.  That will be one of the biggest jobs and was one of the biggest things we needed to consult with Matthew, the engineer, about.  To do the job, we'll be putting in two big beams -- one to replace the support that the lightwell wall used to provide, and one to support the end of that first beam so we don't need to put a post down right in the middle of the store.

That job is one of the only ones I don't plan to be working on.  When I say "big beams" I mean it -- think 20 feet long, 8 inches wide, and 14 inches thick.  I have a rule that I don't do things that require me plan how to lift things 13 feet in the air that will swat me like a bug if something goes wrong.  That's a job I'm going to leave to the full-time professionals, thank you very much!

While we're doing that, we'll extend the beam six or seven feet and use it to support the stairs that go up to the apartments.  That stairway was damaged in a fire, probably in the 70s, and though it's currently safe, it wouldn't hurt to give it some extra support.

Once the big beams are in place, then it's a relatively straightforward job of framing the new bathroom walls and building the new exterior wall.  That's all work I feel quite comfortable doing (with a bit of advice from my contractor friends).  There will also be some gas and water lines that will need to be relocated since the wall that they currently run in is going away.  Also easy work but it'll have to be done by a licensed plumber because that's what the city requires.  The plumber will be working on the job anyway since they'll need to do all the new plumbing for the bathroom.

As I've mentioned, we're going to move the office to the basement to conserve space for the actual bookstore.  Right now the basement is an absolute forest of posts, more than I've ever seen for a building like this (33 posts all together -- our current building, which is just as wide and 35% longer, has 10).  We'll be removing as many as we can, which may require reinforcing the beams they support as well as the joists that rest on those beams and support the actual floor.  It's all pretty straightforward work -- as long as you've got someone like Kevin and Matthew to make sure you don't take out the wrong post and drop something on your head.  (Something like part of the building.)  Once that work is done (along with whatever we're doing with the electrical), we'll cover the ceiling with drywall, put in some sort of floor treatment (wood or paint since the current concrete surface is in pretty good shape), and probably drywall on the walls to put a layer of "homey" over the current dungeon look.

The stairway down into the basement is a bit steep and a bit narrow.  It also doesn't have enough headroom where it passes through the floor to avoid me giving myself a concussion if I'm not paying attention.  So, we'll be making a few changes to the layout correcting those problems.  Specifically we'll take out a couple of joists and re-frame the opening which allows us to make the stairway longer and therefore less steep. 

The last bit of rough work is going to be putting some reinforcement at the very top, front of the place.  The big beam up there has some fire damage.  It was stabilized and braced pretty well but could use some help.  Also, as a result of time, the beam is also bowing so some overall support would be good too.  Gravity really is a killer, even for lovely old buildings.

Once all that's done, it's just a matter of putting in insulation and new drywall on the ceiling, repairing holes and damaged to the walls, painting and refinishing / repairing the floors.  And taking care of the thousands of things that will come up over the course of all this.

Whew, having written all that out I feel like a whisky and a nap.  Seriously, I'm reminded of something a friend told me a long time ago, "A clear path does not mean a short journey".  This is going to be a very big job and it's going to be really hard at times.  But I'm cheered by several things.  First, this is not the biggest or hardest construction job I've ever done.  That honor goes to Borderlands Cafe.  Second, unlike all the other big, hard jobs I've done in my life, this time I know that I have the support of hundreds of people all over the world who are cheering me on.  Third, I have the assistance of dozens of people here in San Francisco who have already showed up to tear out ivy, pull off old plaster, and haul literally tons of debris to the dump.

And, finally, this is my last big construction job for Borderlands.  After this, I won't need to do it again.  That makes me so happy I could do a little dance, right here and right now.

Warm Regards,

PS  In case you haven't gathered from the foregoing -- nope, I do not have a date for when we're going to move.  Ask me in a month or two and I'll have a much better idea.

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