Low-Rise Construction

Main Street Marvel

By Jim Williams

Construction people probably feel they have “seen it all” in scenarios of building construction. But even experienced workers have probably never experienced a situation like this one.

We started out working in a 100-year-old building on Main Street, in downtown Memphis, Tennessee. We were clearing out old walls, ceilings, even floors, in some places. We had a trash chute mounted, feeding a 30-yard dumpster on the street. On our dumpster, we had some plastic spread out to limit the dust from flying every time we loaded a wheelbarrow into the chute.

Next to our building was a 40-foot-wide empty lot, followed by three buildings. The first two were demolished, gradually, to save the usable materials in them, which usually included a fair amount of wood.

The third building, was five stories high, and had three Victorian arches on the front wall, which prompted a local heritage group to get a court action to preserve the historic local architecture, although there had been no funding to maintain it. In the rear part of that building was a water leak so bad it looked like a hanging garden of sorts, whenever it rained, with roof pieces hanging down inside. One day it rained so hard, the whole back of the building collapsed down to the second floor! This made it easy to get a demo permit for the whole thing. What the rain did to the back, a crane with a wrecking ball did to the rest. Goodbye, arches!
So now, we had a hole, with a lot of building pieces in it. Took a few weeks, but that finally went away, leaving us with a 95×100-foot lot on which to place double-stacked rebar, supporting a 24-inch thick slab of concrete.

The ground in the hole was 10 feet lower than the street, and 5 feet lower than the parking lot it backed up to. To keep the dirt from drying out under the lot, we were asked to cover the wall to keep moisture in, which we did, up until we started pouring.
Main Street has trolleys (primarily used by tourists) with wires to power them. On every pour, the concrete pump operator required an engineer’s certification that the wires were dead, no electricity. Since the pump boom was less than 8 feet from them, this seemed reasonable. On pour nights, he’d come in about 10:30 and set up, putting down his outriggers, and lift his boom for the pour. As the concrete mixers came in, we had a constant supply of concrete for a 6-hour pour each time.

The mixer trucks came in on a parallel street, up an alley, and over to the pump, where each one backed up to empty into it. We had plywood sheets underneath it all to catch any spills, particularly the splash when the divider inside the pump well went from one side to the other. Having no place else to go, whatever cement was in the tub rose up like a wall and doused what or whoever was behind the pump when it did!
We used to make a big deal of getting rid of concrete each night, but one time we did not, and found that if we let it set up a little, it and the wood underneath could be forked up and hauled off!

Building a building on a main street with trolley tracks down the middle made for interesting situations. We needed a way to get rebar and, later, bricks, into the area, so we cleared out a space alongside the tracks for flatbeds to back up off the nearest cross street, so we could unload. Problem was, there were some 6-foot diameter planters in the way of this. I stuck the forks into a pallet and nudged the planters back toward the building adjacent to the one we were building. A wide surface area was less likely to crack the planter surface than the fork tips, I thought, and it worked!

In the old days of construction, sometimes you could find a structure whose outside walls were perfectly plumb, all the way from top to bottom! This fact came in handy when we measured the centerlines of a door we had cut into the side of the 100-year-old building to match up with rear hallways we were going to build in the new one. We had measured the centers a certain distance from the rear wall of the parking lot behind us, and every centerline was within a ½-foot variance, basement to fifth floor!

Usually the rebar truck came in about 11 a.m. Waiting for the driver to get parked and his load unstrapped, had me pulling off a 20-foot-long pack, bringing it back to the lift for travel, turning sideways- and facing the lunchtime crowd on the mall. The forks were 6-foot long, making it an intricate maneuver getting it on the truck bed just far enough grab what I needed, and no more. I kept a spotter busy.
The construction idea was to pour a floor with rebar sticking up about a yard to anchor the walls. The building had 5 units, about 20 feet wide, 70 feet deep on three of them, and 85 feet for the two northernmost units. At each floor level, a pouring form was placed, made of polystyrene. There were connectors, on which re-bar was placed, and tied to the connectors, so it wouldn’t move when concrete was poured in.

We had to pre-build the wall forms with connectors and then place them in the line around the re-bar for each section of wall. This went on up until it was a 10-foot-high wall. Most of the time, the form held, sometimes it didn’t. When a form broke, it poured the concrete out on who and whatever was in its path! There were blow out teams assembled on the spot to capture as much concrete as possible in buckets, go up on a ladder and pour it back in, once the hole had been patched. On the first three floors, the walls were 8 inches thick, and 6 inches above that.

The precision that was there proved to make the whole idea possible, as we connected at each floor level with the parking lot behind us, and that took knowing elevations of our building, and where the elevation of the angled floor of a parking lot was going to be, so we could place a door for tenants to access their units. The rear hallway behind the units was dog-legged at a point, both to accommodate the access door, and give the two units northward a longer space. Electrical, HVAC and plumbing conduits near that point had to be supported with steel beams when it took a turn and was not on a wall. You sometimes see this idea carried out on urban expressways, where 60- and 100-foot long beams support a flyover across a roadway below. It gets fancy that way!

The building front was designed with a space for a stairway to the basement for the street-level businesses. The basement space was a 20×20-foot area for an extra office. Behind that was an area for tenant or building material storage, accessed from the rear hallway. Each unit had this cutout, with the slab extending to the street front for a front door entrance. On upper floors, the very front was a porch running across the unit, bricked in front. The front of the unit was the main front, and the patio and vestibule was another. A beam was poured across the front on every floor to support the patio.

When we cut into the walls of the older building, we placed over each entrance 2 steel I-beams to keep the wall above in place. Later on, the HVAC contractor went right through each set of beams, connecting the HVAC piping in the new and old buildings! In the older building, on the upper floors, we had a condo on each floor, and their only access to ground level was a stairway and elevator in the back of the new building.

Yours truly was tasked eventually with operating a 10k Skytrak forklift, which lifted up out to 50’ in front! Reach out, get under the load, tilt it back, pick it up and bring it back to the truck, then turn and face the lunch crowd with your 20’ wide load! Boy it was fun watching those people scatter out of the way!

It made for very precise positioning of equipment in the lower floors, and hair-raising positioning of mud and brick packs on scaffolding for the brick layer crews. SkyTrak was a good strong machine! Mud and bricks were no problem lifting. Took 2 packs of sheetrock at a time to upper floors. But that Hardy Board! He groaned when I put just one pack on the forks to hand up to the workers! They groaned when they pulled each sheet off! Nasty, heavy stuff, that hardy board!

Going up with bricks was simple on the lower floors. We even let one of the workers operate then. But later, that guy got another job, and it was left to me to keep the brick layers supplied, both with mortar and bricks. Every next floor was never a problem going up and delivering. But getting the forks out of the load without pulling it out with you, was some kind of nervy trick! You had to inch it back, and lift, pull more, lift more, just an inch or two each move. Pulling back lowered the mast, so lifting was an absolute necessity to keep the fork tips from angling up and grabbing the bottom side of the load, and bringing it down with the forks. Never did! Concentration and pressure work on you! The super said I looked dead after just half a day of that!

On the top floor, over the back hallway, we had some arched aluminum going the length, to carry off water. The roof proper sloped down toward the front. We had just parked the aluminum in place, not anchoring it. One morning, about 5 am, some straight-line winds blew through, picking up that metal and depositing it back on the street and high speed! There were no street people or joggers in the area at the time, or we would have been looking at some wrongful death lawsuits when that happened! Needless to say, when the replacements went in, they got nailed!

Such was my one and only exposure to construction. It was fun and interesting at times, boring and cold at others. In the early days the workspace was wide open to the elements at whatever temperature. I got cozy with the coffee shops on those days!

Photos by Jim Williams

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