Working With Alward Construction? [PART 4 of 13]

A story of a Frank Lloyd Wright Residence in the 21st Century


Demolition began around Thanksgiving 1995.  The fire happened in, 1994.  We were at last underway. The Buehlers were anxious to have their house back.  Demolition went well and though there was some rain, we were working on a concrete slab and were able to erect some temporary tent off the remaining structures of the house.  However, when the slab was gone and we were down to bare dirt, the rain started to have a significant effect on progress.

During the planning we had discussed creating a tent over the building area so that we could proceed unimpeded through the winter.  We looked into renting a tent.  The $15K or so was more than Maynard wanted to spend.  Possibilities of building or buying one on our own had been kicked around but not in such a way as to lead to any action.

The rain seemed never to lift and the mud got deeper and more impossible.  Plans called for deep piers and extensive excavations.  The equipment operators were unable to proceed.  Maynard was becoming increasingly impatient with my constant refrain to his query about progress.  “Maynard, I’m sorry.  We’re held up by the rain.  We need a week of dry time before we can drill the piers and excavate the deep forms”.

One day I came to work and Tiger showed up with a few hundred feet of wire cable that he started to string above a portion of the job site.  Tiger, whose real name was Larry, was a former son-in-law who Maynard kept on as a general maintenance person for his garden, house, and shop.  He was a resourceful guy and generally good to have around.  I asked what he was up to.  “Maynard wants me to put up a tent.”  I asked the details.  I didn’t think much of them or the likelihood of them resulting in a successful outcome.  It could create problems for me.  I told him to hold off.

I let Maynard know that I stopped Larry and that I was looking into erecting a tent.  Maynard was not pleased.  I later learned he was interviewing other contractors and was ready to fire me.  Betty Olds called and said that Maynard was frustrated by the lack of progress.  I repeated my refrain about the impossibility of the weather.  The combination of Larry showing up with a hank of cable, Betty’s phone call and my reflection on the two life-size figures in the garden, one of China’s first general and the other of its first emperor, helped me realize that Maynard wanted action, not excuses. It had taken a bit, but I finally got the message.  Action there would be.

I returned from the job site to my office.  Tom Lawrence, a recent architecture graduate and a friend of my eldest son Matthew, since before kindergarten, was in the office.  He was working with my company fulfilling some of his practicum requirements for his license.  I showed Tom a site plan and told him we needed to erect a tent over the entire site, a tent that would last until the exterior dry redwood and roof were complete.  It would need to last through the coming winter.  I was a good rigger and said there were enough trees and structure for me to get a cable down the middle of the site, high enough to easily clear the yet to be built house.

Tom suggested a design with 30 foot steel studs, crossing as rafters on the cable serving as a ridgeline.  The rafters could be used to support a plastic canapé.  If the rafters could extend beyond the ridgeline, the plastic could also extend beyond the ridgeline on one side.  This would work as a large open vent all along the ridgeline, which would allow the wind to escape out the roof without blowing the tent to pieces.  The plan was simple and elegant.

I took Tom’s sketches by Walter and he thought the idea had merit.  That’s as much endorsement as he would give.  I asked Cregg and another of my most senior and resourceful employees, Neil Burmester, to meet me at the shop that evening.  One of my principle problem solving strategies is to immerse myself in a physical place rich in possible solutions: a refrigerator if the problem is a snack or a shop if the problem is rigging a tent.  I shared with my men the problem of the tent.  I had already figured we’d have to erect a tall large post in the area that would eventually have a new concrete slab.  We could not have the temporary post penetrate a finished slab.  A couple of Simpson Strong Tie hold-downs and some all-thread suggested a solution.  Drive the all-thread into the ground and use the hold-downs to attach the post to the all-thread without the post having to touch the ground.  Pour the finished concrete slab around the all-thread and after the post is no longer needed, drive the all-thread into the ground and patch the remaining holes in the slab.  (In the end, it was not possible to drive the all thread through the concrete slab.  Today you can see the two pieces of all-tread cut flush with the concrete floor of the master bedroom up against the original concrete block wall of the carport.  This was the location of the main tent post. )

Another problem was how to have the cable run over the top of the posts and anchor to another site, like a tree.  If the cable attached to the post itself, it would pull the post over.  An upside down Simpson Strong Tie post base bolted to the top of the post would work.  A hole in the bottom (now top) of the post base could be used to clip on a block (pulley) though which the cable could run.  While my employees gathered up materials in the shop for next day’s erection of the tent, I went to shop at REI for rigging slings, snaps, blocks and the like.

There were many other problems such as where to anchor the cable, how to keep the sides of the tent high enough to build the house under it, how to attach the plastic to the rafters in a way that could last the winter and how to actually erect the tent.  A bit of patience and brainstorming and the problems were solved.  The tent was erected through days of endless and sometimes fierce rain. I was up in the trees, and on the ground setting rigging.  Within a few days we had erected a grand tent of clear plastic over the entire building site.  Construction could proceed without worrying about the weather.  Maynard was from that point on a true partner in our endeavor to put him and Katie back in their FLW house.

Keith R. Alward
August, 2011