Working With Alward Construction? [PART 8 of 13]

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

THE TROWEL

Preparations for the 3-inch Cherokee red topping slab were extensive.  The radiant heating tubes were in place and needed to be protected from the concrete pouring which could damage the plastic pipes.  The location of all the score lines for the 4 x 4 module needed to be laid out on all the wall surfaces abutting the floor slab.  Where no walls existed, batter boards needed to be set up so that the concrete finishes had clear points from which they could snap their lines on the wet concrete.  Plastic had to be draped over all the finished surfaces, such as new and existing concrete block walls so that they were not discolored by the Cherokee color being broadcast on top of the wet concrete.  The powder colorant that would be troweled into the concrete had to be strategically stockpiled around the site so that there was enough mix at each location.  It also had to be placed so that it would not hinder dragging the heavy concrete hose that was going to deliver the wet mix.  There would need to be a means to move materials around the site with expanses of wet concrete on which workers could not walk.  Lastly, there had to be the tools including the trowels.  The trowels had been selected to match the groves of the score lines in the original remaining slab of the living room. The excitement of the pour day was proportionate to the preparation.  It was intense.

On the morning of the pour, with the arrival of the concrete trucks, concrete started to be pumped to the furthest locations.  Workmen used shovels and screed boards to screed the mix to a rough level surface.  This was followed by large aluminum bull floats that brought the level to within even tighter tolerances.  As soon as the mix was ready for steel troweling, the finishers started to hand trowel the mix to create the final surface.  At the same time, they started broadcasting and then troweling the Cherokee red powder into the surface.  The color had to be uniform in thickness and consistency.  Timing was critical.  With the surface perfectly troweled and the color uniform and satisfactory, caulk lines were snapped onto the surface to locate the 4 x 4 grid.  Each phase needed to occur when the mix was ready.  Not sooner or later. 

The work with its multiple phases and different specialized crews was proceeding from the furthest locations towards the front of the house.  At some point it was realized that more people were needed to trowel in the score lines.  The concrete was setting and the scoring was falling behind.  Extra men were needed immediately and yet all the approved trowels were being used.  The extra finishers tried another trowel but the result was an unacceptable concrete score.

Maynard was always at work by 10:00 AM.  Today he was home.  He was in his shop out of the way.  He may have been busy with his own work or possibly watching.  In any case, I was aware he was there.  There were planks over the area of wet concrete to the door of his shop.  I brought over the extra trowel and asked him if he could change its shape.  “What do you want it to be?”  he asked.  I asked one of the finishers with an acceptable trowel to throw it to me.  I showed it to Maynard who took the trowel, opened a drawer, checked some milling heads until he found one that fitted the profile of the trowel.  I took the sample trowel to the door and tossed it to the worker who went back to scoring the slab.

Maynard chucked the milling head into his large Milwaukee milling machine, clamping in a stock of steel bar about 3 x 5 x 5/8 inches thick.  He proceeded to cut the new profile into the bar stock.  He instructed me to squirt cutting oil on the working end of the milling head, sending up a small vapor cloud of oil.  Shortly, the bar was milled.  He took it to his bench and clamped both the bar and trowel into his bench vice, took a ball-peen hammer and started to bend the existing curve in the trowel to fit the curve of the bar in the clamp.  Within a few minutes he gave me the hammer and said he couldn’t strike anymore.  I continued and shortly we determined that the trowel was now essentially the same profile as the acceptable trowels.  I opened the shop door and threw it to a finisher who put it to work and announced that the results were a perfect match to the other scores.

I’ve had clients participate in many ways, but this was indeed a first.

With the exception of sections of block between the kitchen and dining room and along the entry breezeway, both of which had been challenging, the new slab was the fist real architectural detail.  This had been a very worrisome detail and the preliminary results seemed satisfactory to everyone.  It was important to protect the surface.  A vapor barrier was place on its curing surface and that, in turn, was covered with a layer of ¼ inch masonite that would stay in place until the end of the job.  How the concrete cured, what cracks might develop, how the color would look, would not be known for the better part of a year.  When it was uncovered, it was nearly perfect.

THE REDWOOD

From the beginning there had been a question of where we would secure the needed redwood.  The old house had been built of clear (no knots) old growth redwood with a mix of flat and vertical grains.  The forests that supplied the original house were virtually gone and, in their place, was new growth redwood that lacked the quality of the original wood.  Old growth was available but not to be taken for granted and not in the quantities we needed.  There were mills in northern California and further north that were still processing old trees and there were even some reclamation operations that were retrieving logs from the northwest river bottoms, logs that sunk years ago on their way to the mills.  Not only did the material need to be secured, we also needed it milled to specifications.  Walter’s drawings of the wall board and bat system and the ceiling boards were very specific with 2-time actual size drawings.  He even went so far as to specify the speed of the planer blades assuming we would plane rough stock.

Every lumber broker we could find was approached and for one reason or another, nothing was turning out the way we wanted.  Walter and Maynard were as involved as I was. Maynard had a brother who lived up north in the redwood country and he was engaged to find the materials.  All of the exterior and interior walls and the entire ceiling were made of redwood.  Even the shower in one of the bathrooms was redwood.  In all, we needed about 1600 board feet of clear dry old growth redwood in the form of the right size boards that could be planed and milled to our desired finished product.  We were looking for a single source that could not only supply the materials but also mill it. 

Surprisingly, we found the material and the milling both at El Cerrito Lumber and Mill, a local vendor that unfortunately no longer exists.  Walter wanted assurances on the grain count (the number of rings per inch) on all of the material.  He wanted assurances on the planer speeds and on the angles of each cut.  He wanted submittals.  The order was sizable but not large enough to persuade the mill to meet his every demand.  They were particularly reluctant to discuss planer blade speeds.  They hadn’t a clue what their RPM was and found this somewhat quaint older gentleman to be a bother.  They were a good old-fashioned lumber yard and mill, like the one I worked in as a youth, but they were not good and old fashioned enough for Walter.

Although neither ECLM nor I could give Walter all the assurance he waned, I eventually placed the order.  When the material arrived it was stacked up in the living room.  It nearly filled the living room to 4 feet in depth.  Walter and Maynard seemed to approve and there was never again a discussion about the redwood.  For any reader who might question using this lovely natural resource to build a house, I can only add that we were very mindful of the value of the materials we were using and we considered it a privilege to do so.  We did not treat the matter lightly.  However, our mission was to recreate and store one of America’s architectural treasures and it happens to be a redwood treasure.

Keith R. Alward
August, 2011