Hit the Deck

Jas’s dining room ceiling remains a work in progress. To make my latest visit worth my time, Jas also asked me to disassemble a couple of decks he salvaged from another house.

The decks had pretty simple construction, treads on top of stringers fastened with a variety of nails and screws. A drill was not sufficient to dislodge the screws – the pressure-treated lumber had strangled the threads. Jas wanted to keep the treads and repurpose them, so cutting them was not an option. I resorted to an extremely high-tech strategy known as “brute force” – whacking the stringers with a sledgehammer until they came loose.


A deck, before destruction.

Jas suggested I cut the stringers into pieces to make the job easier, so I used a circular saw to slice one piece per tread. That way, when I hit the deck, I only had to dislodge one or two fasteners at a time. The work was physically demanding but satisfying.


Sawcut closeup.

To catch my breath, I switched gears periodically to clean up the mess I was making. We spread tarps under the decks to catch sawdust, keeping the pressure treatment chemicals away from the soil. I used a hammer and a prybar (and sometimes the good old sledge) to remove as many screws and nails from the treads as I could reach. Finally, I stacked the treads and collected the scrap stringer pieces in a pile for disposal.

Tiny Tuesday: Kowloon

Laws that govern land use and minimum square footage often run contrary to the goals of microhousing proponents. So what happens when you let a neighborhood develop without enforcing any building or zoning codes? You get Kowloon Walled City.

Now a neighborhood in crowded Hong Kong, Kowloon’s history begins nearly 1000 years ago as a walled fort built during the Song dynasty. The fort remained a Chinese outpost when the surrounding land was ceded to Britain in the late 19th century, and it became a haven for refugees after Japanese occupation during World War II. The walls were removed, but both Britain and China left the jurisdiction to its own devices.

Builders went wild. Apartments were stacked on top of one another and cantilevered out to meet the adjacent towers, turning streets below into tunnels. The aesthetic from outside was a 14-story windowed block of concrete. (A nearby airport restricted overall height, the one zoning law the city dared to enforce.) In the 1980s, a census documented 33,000 people living in a space of 6.5 acres. That’s over 3 million people per square mile, or 50 times the population density of Manhattan.


An alley within Kowloon Walled City. (flickr – creative commons)

If you’re a student of architecture, or if you’ve ever played SimCity, you know about the visionary self-contained communities known as arcologies. Kowloon was a real-life, unintentional arcology… and it was far from the utopia of most architects’ dreams. As this Basement Geographer article shows, living conditions were squalid. Air and water quality lagged far behind the rest of industrialized Hong Kong. Free of regulation, the hundreds of businesses within Kowloon included unlicensed doctors, drug dealers, and brothels. Sunless alleys were lit 24 hours a day by fluorescent lights. Garbage piled on rooftops because it had nowhere else to go.

In the early 1990s, shortly before Hong Kong returned to China, the city condemned Kowloon Walled City and evicted its residents. The neighborhood was demolished and is now a public park. Kowloon’s history serves as a warning to tiny-house enthusiasts that the codes exist for a reason.

Prime Number

I have several tasks in progress at my parents’ Massachusetts home. Replacing the damaged siding last week was a nice accomplishment in itself, but it also served as filler work for the much more drawn-out project to prime and paint their laundry room.

Priming and associated activities take awhile mainly because of the dry time between steps. Step one was to make the walls as smooth as I could. Wallpaper removal had left some scars, and several wall repairs (one over the sink, one behind the washer/dryer) had created areas of bumpiness. Armed with two trowels and a bucket of joint compound, I covered all the offending spots with a generous helping of mud. The next day, once the mud dried (it takes 24 hours to dry at room temperature), I burnished it with 150-grit sandpaper making the spots flush with the rest of the wall. Then I repeated the process.

Joint compound applied (and lots of paint samples) in the laundry room.

Joint compound applied (and lots of paint samples) in the laundry room.

The door and the window trim required a different treatment. They began as unpainted, varnished wood. Since paint doesn’t stick to varnish, a primer coat is extra important, and to help my primer bond I used 60-grit sandpaper to take off as much of the varnish as I could. I also applied wood putty to fill in some of the door’s more flagrant holes and chips.

Wood putty dries solid to fill gashes in the door.

Wood putty dries solid to fill gashes in the door.

When I was satisfied with the smoothness of my surfaces, I opened up a can of primer. It dries faster than joint compound but it takes longer to apply. Using a paintbrush for borders and tight spots, and a roller everywhere else (the roller covers walls faster by a factor of 10), I completed two coats of primer letting the first coat dry overnight. I kept moving tarps around to catch drips, first over the washer and dryer and toilet and sink, then behind them. The result, at least until I return to paint, is a chillingly white-on-white room.

Fortunately, another of my projects had a brilliant outcome. I cleaned the tile kitchen floor with a solution of baking soda and water. All I had to do was scrub the floor one small area at a time using a nylon brush and a toothbrush (for the grout lines), rinse the baking soda off, and dry with a towel. Pretty easy, and what a difference. Should definitely improve the value of this prime real estate.

Comparing ten years of grime (back) with freshly cleaned tiles.

Comparing ten years of grime (back) with freshly cleaned tiles.