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Archive for September, 2012

Newly restored and fully occupied, the 108-year-old Poehler Building enters its second life as the Poehler Loft Apartments. ~ John Young, PROSOCO


There’s a waiting list to live there now, but the four-story 108-year-old Poehler (pronounced “polar”) Loft Apartments, Lawrence, Kan., entered 2012 as an empty, decrepit brick warehouse.

Winter winds whistled through the walls.

It took MCM Restoration, Fort Scott, Kan., less than year to help transform the aged building from dirty abandoned hulk to coveted, affordable living space.

The Poehler Building bears the marks of years of neglect in this February 2012 photo, even while restoration work continued inside. ~ Stephen Falls, PROSOCO

“Paint stripping the inside was one of the hardest parts of the job,” said project manager and company president Craig McKenney.

White paint, applied decades before, covered the interior of the former grocery distribution center. The design for the loft apartments called for exposing the century-old bricks, so the paint had to go.

The years had cured the dirty coating to rocklike hardness on most of the walls, and vandals had added graffiti. Abrasive blast media with crushed walnut shells, then sand were both auditioned, but neither did the complete trick, since much of the paint had penetrated into the masonry pores and irregularities where it continued to harden for years.

This photo shows a paint stripping test panel done with crushed walnut shells as abrasive media. It didn’t meet the project’s requirements. ~ Stephen Falls, PROSOCO

Sand blasting also got a try-out as an interior paint removal method, but chemical stripping offered better results and got the nod. ~ Stephen Falls, PROSOCO

A two-step strike with PROSOCO’s Sure Klean® Heavy Duty Paint Stripper, followed by Sure Klean® Limestone & Masonry Afterwash effectively dissolved most of the stubborn old coating. Brushed on and pressure-rinsed off, the alkaline paint stripper pursued the paint into the substrate, breaking its time-hardened bonds.

Restoration techs use pressure washing and Sure Klean® Heavy Duty Paint Stripper to remove the decades-old paint from the building’s interior walls. Note the dam set up to catch the spent cleaner and dissolved paint. ~ Stephen Falls, PROSOCO

Pressure-washing with the mildly acidic afterwash neutralized the surface pH and added an additional cleaning and brightening effect.

Cleaning was only half the battle, McKenney said. Managing the rinse-water to meet local regulations took its own share of planning and attention.

Before cleaning could begin, McKenney had about 100 samples of the paint tested for heavy metals such as lead. The tests returned negative.

The company then had to devise a plan for capturing the rinse-water, monitoring the pH, and filtering out the solids before it could be released to the Lawrence water treatment plant.

The plan included a timetable forecasting gallons per hour produced, and when they’d be released.

“You have to prove to the officials you’re not going to hurt their facility,” McKenney said. “They want to know exactly what you’re sending, how much, and when you’re sending it.”

MCM Restoration met the city’s requirements. They captured the rinse-water in dams of sheet plastic and roofing roll. Pumped into three successive vats, the solids settled to the bottom. The spent cleaner and rinse-water, cleared of solids, got neutralized and pre-treated until it met the specs for release to the water treatment plant.

In addition to paint stripping, McKenney’s crews spent the cold winter months cleaning the interior, repairing the interior sides of the neglected masonry, and cutting 60 new rough openings for windows and doors in the thick masonry walls.

An MCM Restoration technican cuts a rough opening for a window on the fourth floor of the Poehler Building as another tech vacuums up the brick dust. ~ Stephen Falls, PROSOCO

With Spring and warmer weather, the MCM Restoration crewmembers turned their attention to cleaning and repairing the exterior, while interior construction and renovation continued.

“The outside of the building was in some disrepair, especially the parapets,” McKenney said. The bricks had been laid with a soft lime mortar. Over the decades they’d washed out.

“You could pick out the bricks by hand,” he said. “We took one parapet wall down about 12 inches by hand before we completely rebuilt it.”

Some of the building’s problems resulted from the nearby railroad tracks. Harmonic vibrations from thousands of passing trains rattled the building and over time, combined with building movement and freeze-thaw cycling to weaken the mortar joints and crack the masonry.

The trains also contributed a thin film of atmospheric staining to the masonry from diesel emissions.

“Some of that film may have even dated back to smoke from coal-powered trains,” McKenney said.

More modern and noticeable was the bright, fierce graffiti splashed along the building’s lower levels. Though MCM Restoration had the grit, grime and graffiti in their sights for removal, masonry repair took first priority.

The building had enough gaps and cracks for wind to create drafts inside the building, despite walls seven wythes thick at the first story, tapering to a still relatively thick three wythes at the top.

“Wind can get in anywhere there’s an opening,” McKenney said, “even by the most indirect routes.”

Most of the replacement of spalled, cracked and missing brick took place on the building’s south elevation, where gutters had failed and water ran rampant down and in the wall. The masons replaced about 25 percent of the building’s brick on the South side.

MCM Restoration technicians salvage hundred-year-old brick from a newly cut rough opening on the fourth floor of the Poehler Building. MCM used some of the salvaged brick on repairs to the building exterior. Note the three wythes of load bearing brick exposed by the cut. ~ Stephen Falls, PROSOCO

The other elevations, in better shape, had less damaged brick.

MCM Restoration tuckpointed about 45 percent of the century-old masonry, shoring up the old building’s air- and water-tight integrity.

Poehler Building’s original builders did a good job, McKenney said. The masonry held together well despite time and neglect.

Following repairs, the exterior masonry got a double scrubbing.

First, the crew removed excess mortar and clarified joints from the tuckpointing and brick replacements with PROSOCO’s Sure Klean® 600 new construction cleaner. Then they washed the masonry free of its thin film of grit, grime and atmospheric staining with Sure Klean® Light Duty Restoration Cleaner.

Natural light bathes the restored brick wall of a Poehler Loft apartment on the building’s first floor. ~ John Young, PROSOCO

They spot-cleaned thicker deposits with Sure Klean® Heavy Duty Restoration Cleaner. Exterior graffiti was no match for the same Heavy Duty Paint Stripper and Limestone & Masonry Afterwash combination that removed the petrified white coating and graffiti from the interior.

Goedecke, Kansas City, Mo., supplied the project’s cleaning materials.

By the end of July, the restored Poehler Building was ready for its second life as the Poehler Loft Apartments.

“After more than a hundred years, it may not look as good as when they built it,” McKenney said, “but it’s going to come close.”

Evidently some people liked the looks of the Poehler Loft Apartments. According to a July 25 article in the local newspaper, the Lawrence Journal-World, all 49 of the building’s units leased within 12 hours of opening – with 70 more on a waiting list.

MCM Restoration President Craig McKenney made this prediction in February about the Poehler Building: “After more than a hundred years, it may not look as good as when they built it, but it’s going to come close.”

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Seattle’s Bullitt Center, now in construction, features a phthalate-free PROSOCO R-GUARD FastFlash air & waterproof barrier. Rendering courtesy of Miller-Hull Partnership.

I just found out we’ve reformulated our PROSOCO R-GUARD FastFlash air and waterproof barrier products to be phthalate-free. It’s pronounced “Thal – Eight.” The first syllable rhymes with “pal.”

What got us started was that the builders of Seattle’s Bullitt Center wanted to use FastFlash products. The Bullitt Center is aiming for certification as one of the world’s few “Living Buildings” — possibly the greenest of the green standards — beyond LEED Platinum, even. They wanted a FastFlash air and waterproof barrier because of FastFlash’s unprecedented ability to limit air, water and energy leaks through the building envelope.

The International Living Building Institute’s “Living Building Challenge” requires that the Bullitt Center, among other check points, use products that don’t contain phthalates.

So we looked into it and decided to reformulate to be phthalate-free. FastFlash products now meet Living Building Challenge requirements.

I had some questions, though.

What the heck’s a phthalate? And why couldn’t phthalates be part of a “living building?”

I did some homework, including talking to Tom Schneider, the lead scientist involved in the reformulation, and here’s what I found out about phthalates.

Phthalates are everywhere. They’re used as “plasticizers.” Plasticizers — and not all plasticizers are phthalates — are what allow plastics to be flexible enough to bend, yet strong enough not to break. They make products like FastFlash more “workable.” Without plasticizers, you couldn’t gun and spread Joint & Seam Filler, or apply Cat 5 by roller.

You couldn’t get shampoo to soak into your hair. You couldn’t make vinyl flooring, because it would be too thick to go through the extruder. Plasticizers are useful and necessary. It’s just the phthalate plasticizers that have come under scrutiny, and that only recently.

Center for Disease Control
Here’s a partial list of things, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), Atlanta, that have phthalates for plasticizing in them:

vinyl flooring
adhesives
detergents
lubricating oils
automotive plastics
raincoats
soaps
inks
shampoos
hair sprays
nail polishes
plastic bags
garden hoses
inflatable toys
blood-storage containers
medical tubing
toys
us

Phthalates are so omnipresent in our environment, they’ve found their way into our bodies, though in very small amounts. Here’s what the CDC says about how phthalates affect our health: Human health effects from exposure to low levels of phthalates are unknown. Some types of phthalates have affected the reproductive system of laboratory animals. More research is needed to assess the human health effects of exposure to phthalates.

Environmental Working Group
You’ll find more pessimistic assessments of how phthaltes affect us in other websites, like that of the Environmental Working Group. This website states that phthalates “have been found to disrupt the endocrine system.” The site also notes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulates phthalates as air and water pollutants.

Our take
The way we look at it is — if there’s a chance phthalates could be harmful to people who live in buildings made with PROSOCO products, then we’re not going to use them.

That stance presents its own challenge — making sure the reformulated non-phthalate FastFlash products perform as well as the original. We’ve spent the last two years ensuring there’s absolutely no difference. We spent the first year identifying alternative non-phthalate plasticizers. We took the second year evaluating how the various alternatives actually work in laboratory and field testing.

The result — our phthalate-free FastFlash air and waterproof barrier products are identical in appearance and performance to the phthalate versions — which we no longer make. FastFlash products still go on fast and easy, whether surfaces are damp or dry. They’re still instantly waterproof. They’re still vapor-permeable. And they still stop air leaks through wall assemblies at levels that let buildings like the Bullitt Center achieve Net Zero energy efficiency.

An installer applies phthalate-free Cat 5 primary air and waterproof barrier to GlasRoc sheathing on Seattle’s Bullitt Center. Cat 5 meets the environmental requirements for the Living Building Challenge. It also meets the performance requirements to stop air and water leaks in conditions from mild to category 5 hurricanes. photo John Stamets, courtesy Bullitt Center Foundation.

The only way to tell the difference between the new non-phthalate FastFlash products and the old is via a full-bore chemical analysis.

I suspect most manufacturers who use phthalates for plasticizers will eventually change over, carried by a growing tide of public opinion. I hope they don’t mind, but we’re not waiting.

This is one of the things that gets specifiers and contractors excited about FastFlash products. After joints and seams have been sealed with phthalate-free Joint & Seam Filler (pink material), this demo-mock-up gets an unexpected simulated rain shower with a pump-up sprayer. Water does not harm or delay the installation.


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