Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Counting our blessings

I took today off work and went over to my Mom's to play sous chef to my Mom, who is a fantastic cook in my book. She uses simply the best ingredients, fresh, organic and locally sourced produce with an emphasis on vegetables and she also cooks an amazing turkey.

We are not a family that serves the same dishes every year. We always have turkey, stuffing, home made cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes, but the specific recipes and preparation style changes yearly. This year, Mom is making a salted turkey recipe from Gourmet magazine and a beet cranberry salad that we have never had before.

She also had the idea that before we start dinner, we go around the table and have everyone share something they are grateful for.

In the midst of this horrific economy that frightens me, a stressful week at work, and the fresh news that our tenants may need to break their lease as one of them was laid off and cannot sustain the expenses of the apartment, I accepted this with some degree of battle fatigue.

I spent the next few hours chopping vegetables and talking with my Mom. We listened to NPR and heard that "layaway" is back. I tuned out news on the economy and asked my Mom, "Why is Obama still asking for money?" (I am still getting frequent emails from the campaign asking to donate.) I continued, "I mean, they think THEY need money. I need money." Mom agreed it was kind of annoying. I discussed my job and some of what has been bothering me. Mom understood and that made me feel better, validated.

And as I was leaving at around 4pm, I thought that I am grateful and fortunate to have such a wonderful cook for a Mother. Food just tastes better and feels more nourishing in her home.

But beyond that I am truly blessed having the parents I have. I could not love them more. Both are living examples of living life with grace. I think if can be as graceful as they are, I will be doing just fine. So maybe I can accept this economy and this job and this uncertain situation with our tenants with grace. And I can count my many blessings.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

I was there

I don't want to dwell on politics because this is after all, my house blog, but I just wanted to follow up on my earlier post and let you all know that my Mom and me did go to the rally in Grant Park on November 4th! It seems like ages ago already doesn't it?

The crowd was very calm going in and there was almost no pushing. I observed not one person smoking, which seemed odd to me since we were outside and waiting for hours.

We arrived at about 6pm and left at close too midnight. We stood almost the whole time and I was pretty tired, but it was also pretty amazing to just be there and see everyone so happy.

My Mom had actually been downtown for the demonstrations at the infamous 1968 Democratic Convention years ago. I couldn't help but think how far we've come since then. It was pretty cool.
And thanks to everyone who commented on my "no-spend-zone" post. It's comforting to know I am not the only one feeling the pinch, although I have to say I don't like it too much. I, as do many, like my creature comforts. But maybe I'll blog more now. That doesn't cost anything right?

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Rebuilding a chimney crown....Chim-chiminy Chim chiminy...our Chimney Cap Project

This post is a perfect example of how projects can drag on for years, and yes I do mean years!

We had our flat roof torn off the summer of 2006 and some faithful readers may recall that at that time we discovered that our parapet wall was very deteriorated. We had to determine how to address that issue. Back story here.

We planned to undertake the chimney project ourselves to save money, but ultimately, we ran out of time and we ended up paying our contractor to rebuild the chimneys before winter. The project was not completed though because we still needed chimney crowns and caps. Due to other projects, this didn't happen until 2 years later..just this fall.

Although my blog posts have been sparse lately, we have actually been still working. Steve completed the cast-in-place chimney crown and installed the chimney caps last weekend just before winter's arrival. Hooray!

The first photo illustrates the starting point this fall- one of the two double flue chimneys exposed to the Chicago elements.

Before undertaking this project, Steve did internet research. He found various plans for pouring cast-in-place chimney crowns made of concrete. He called up the Masonry Advisory Council and the Portland Cement Association. Below is what he learned.

The chimney crown must be made of concrete and not mason mix because concrete is used for foundations etc... while mason mix is suitable for laying brick.

Secondly, the crown should be at least 3" thick and it needs to overhang the chimney by a few inches with a drip edge to prevent rainwater from traveling down the chimney causing rapid deterioration. He also found out that the concrete crown must have a bond break from the chimney, that is there needs to be a separation between the chimney(made of brick) and the crown (made of concrete)because both materials expand and contract at different rates and would compromise the chimney with the different movements during freezing, thawing etc...

The concrete crown must to be sloped so that water will drain off of it. The recommendation was that there should be a 2" slope to shed rainwater. Rebar was suggested to reinforce the crown also.

Steve built wooden forms for both chimneys. The concrete would then be poured into them. The form was screwed into the mortar of the chimney using masonry screws. And alternative method would be to use shims underneath the bottom of the frame, which would hold the form in place. With this approach, there is no masonry repairs to do from the screw holes afterwards.

In these photos you can see the completed form ready for pouring the concrete. Here are the steps he took to create this form:

First, he bolted 2x4s around the perimeter of the chimney flush with the top course of bricks.

Because Steve wanted more than a 1 1/2" overhang (width of a 2x4), he screwed a second layer of 2x4 over the first. This created a 3" overhang.

Then, he took 1x8 lumber and attached it around the 2x4s, which created the box you see here. The 1x8s were also flush with the bottom of the 2x4s. This "box" would contain the poured concrete, which would then become the cast-in-place chimney crown.

This close up photo shows more detail on the form he built. Steve nailed in place about 1"from the form edge 1/4" strips of wood. This creates the drip edge (indentation in the concrete). It was removed with a screw driver after the concrete was dry leaving a channel. This drip edge  channel prevents water from running down the side of the chimney bricks.

To create the "bond break" between the chimney and the concrete crown, Steve covered the entire chimney top with 10 ounce sheets of copper, which extended beyond the chimney base by 1/2". He used 10 ounce copper because that is what was available, but 7 or 8 ounce would be fine.

He tightly wrapped the flues in 2 sheets of corrugated cardboard. (Cardboard was removed after concrete dried and gap was then caulked.

Rebar was put along the length and width and between the two flues and was tied together with wire and then raised up to the mid-point of the crown using rocks.

Steve wasn't sure if the weight of the concrete might cause the form to blow out and break apart, so he took some wire and wrapped the box to be safe. Since the form was screwed together (for strength and easy disassembly), Steve thinks this reinforcement is not needed.

In this photo, he was ready to pour the concrete.

He mixed up the concrete, poured it and created the recommended slope. He took a hammer and pounded all sides of the form to eliminate air bubbles. According to Steve, it was about 75 blows. He is nothing if not detailed and is helping me write this if you can't tell!

He then tarped the form with plastic sheeting to slow the drying process, which makes for stronger concrete. He kept it tarped for a week.

**It's important not to tarp the flues for safety reasons. Chimneys need to operate at all times...CO2 etc...! We do not have fireplaces, but our boiler and water heaters are connected to the chimneys and need to be vented outside for safety.

After the concrete cured for a week, Steve unscrewed the form, removed the drip edge strip of wood underneath, removed the cardboard and installed foam backer rod into the cavity and then applied a generous amount of caulking around the flue.

In keeping with our new thriftiness, we purchased inexpensive galvanized painted steel chimney cap kits.

Of course, there are chimney crowns made of aluminum or copper, which will last forever but are much more costly. We opted to be budget conscious and these should last 10 years. Assembly is very easy. They get mounted to the cap as seen.
One thing Steve did to extend the life of the structure was to raise the cap using 1" chrome spacers, which will hopefully prevent moisture from corroding the bottom of the frame.

So, we have now stopped the rapid deterioration of our chimneys and hopefully we will be solid for some time to come.

Many people never go up on their roof until there is a problem. It's very important to inspect your roof once a year. We usually do this in the fall.

Steve is really becoming quite the amateur mason around here. I think I'll keep him for a while longer. :o)

Sunday, November 02, 2008

We have entered the "No-Spend Zone"

I have to admit I've been pretty preoccupied with what has been going on in the world recently. I'm also very excited because I am one of the lucky 65,000 that have a ticket to the Obama rally this Tuesday. I am going to witness history firsthand (I hope).

I listen to NPR on my way to work in the morning and hear all the speculation about the future of the economy. I read The Huffington Post every day. And I pray. And I am not a religious person, but I still pray. What else can we do?

Well, there is one thing, although to express it here makes me feel like a heretic because it goes against what our economy is generally based on. But I'll just say it. Stop spending money. Better yet, stop spending money that one doesn't have.

Actually, I wouldn't dream of telling anyone else what to do. That would make me like Suze Orman and she kind of annoys me with her dogma. When I see her on TV saying people shouldn't spend any money, I want to respond "Suze, people can't stop living! They have to celebrate their child's birthdays. They have to have some fun. They can't just work and pay debts. They may as well be in a debtor's prison then, even if it is one of their own making." Honestly, I don't think she has a clue of what life is like for most people. She's out of touch. Some of her ideas are good, but she is too extreme for me.

Here at the 2-flat, we are evaluating our plans. We have debt and we have savings. We have been planning a few projects for this winter like adding some kitchen cabinets. We need a new sofa. Things like that. Because of what has been going on in the world, we have decided to wait on any big expenditures.

Rather, we will work on projects where we already have the materials and I am going to get some pillows recovered to spruce up our living room rather than buy a new sofa. There are things we can do that will not cost much and those things will move to the top of the list.

We have cut way back on eating out and are buy things on sale at the grocery store whenever possible. We have entered what I am calling, "the no-spend zone." It's a mind set and I think it will be good for us. We will pay off our debts and save money. This feels like the right thing to do at this time.

We are fortunate in that my job is pretty secure. I work for a high-end company and sales are still up- i.e. the rich are still rich. Steve has his own marketing and communications business and steady customers, but advertising is vulnerable in a bad economy and so we have reason to be cautious.

I just wanted to post about this because it is really a part of what is going on right now and years from now, I want to remember this. And I would also like to hear from other people as to what they are doing and how this whole mess is affecting them. My heart goes out to anyone who has lost their job. I know people in this situation.

With all this going on, I am still hopeful. Studs Turkel just died and I think of him and his book "Hope Dies Last: Keeping the Faith in Difficult Times". I think now is the time to check that book out of the library.

Fall is falling

We took a trip to the Chicago Botanical Gardens last weekend. The wind was brisk but it was a beautiful day.

I've been pretty busy with shutting down the garden for the season (digging up cannas, mulching, transplanting and tweaking, bulb planting etc...). Steve has been finishing up the chimney cap project which I will be doing a post on very soon.
For now, I'll share some more photos from our field trip. With all the rain we had this year, the fall foliage has been so pretty.
How about these mums for some color therapy?

This is from the prairie section of the garden. What you can't get from this picture is the sound of the grass in the wind. There's a reason why "The Wind in the Willows" makes a great book title.

Of course, we often get ideas when we visit places like this. Steve saw this evergreen container garden and said this would be his garden project for next year.

Speaking of evergreens, I realy liked these in the Conifer section of the garden.

Not sure what this is, but it reminds me of some kind of thistle and we both thought it was very cool.

One last look at the fall foliage...

I guess I kind of hope that life follows the cycles of nature. If so, the autumn of life should be pretty great.