Bridge

From everything that man erects and builds in his urge for living nothing is in my eyes better and more valuable than bridges. They are more important than houses, more sacred than shrines. Belonging to everyone and being equal to everyone, useful, always built with a sense, on the spot where most human needs are crossing, they are more durable than other buildings and they do not serve for anything secret or bad.

Ivo Andrić, Nobel prize winner for literature
John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge – Wikipedia

The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge – Roebling’s more famous suspension bridge. I found it a gripping read, much like another work by David McCullough, The Wright Brothers.

What Trump Can Teach Us About Constitutional Law

For any #MAGA out there. You know who you are.

Trumpconlaw is another podcast hosted by Roman Mars of 99% Invisible fame. When the show first started, I started tweeting out my own version of promos for each episode. The series of them can be found under the tag TrumpConLaw on this blog. This post should appear as the header for that series of tweets. Here is the introduction episode of the series.

StitcherIntro to What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law – 06.07.17

Twitter

So we’re going to learn the constitution together. Because of Trump. Because I need something to hold onto, and the constitution is the liferaft that our forefathers gave us. And dammit, I’m going to learn how it works.

Roman Mars

On a tangential track (or set of tracks) I am slowly working my way through the 99% Invisible archive. Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever make it all the way through, but hope springs eternal. 99% Invisible is undoubtedly one of the best designed websites in existence. All Roman Mars podcasts and the podcasts that are presented through his distribution group, Radiotopia, are among the few podcasts out there that are easily shareable; easily shareable because the link to the hosting website is actually referenced in the feed address for the podcast you are listening to. I remain baffled as to why more podcasts do not design their feeds to be easily accessible in this way. In any case, give some of these podcasts a listen. It will take your mind off of the impending doom looming over the US today.


TED2015 Roman Mars Why city flags may be the worst-designed thing you’ve never noticed

Moved forward in time in anticipation of the episode 33 tweet and transcript being posted on the blog 09/22/19. I added the link to the introduction episode, the inspirational tweet, and Roman’s quote from that episode.

Accessible?

Support groups for the disabled are frequently a lifesaver for people who have limited access to humans with sympathy/empathy for what they are going through. I participate in several online support groups for Meniere’s, the invisible disability that I am cursed with. The image above/right was posted in one of the private groups I’m part of; and when I went looking for the image I discovered it was all over the web in various forms, many of them heartlessly defaced by trolls who think that all the disabled people should get out and get a job, you lazy bums!

In the Meniere’s group where the image was posted one of the commenters asked why the third guy from the right is leaning on an upside down dildo. He made me laugh with his question, and we riffed on that back and forth for awhile. But the question got me thinking, which is why I went online looking for the origin of the image and stumbled across all the troll variations of it and the casual cruelty of the unafflicted that comes with that territory.

International symbology is one of those things that, having once been an architect, I have an inside track on understanding. Here’s what the symbology means, officially:

  • Arm missing
  • Blind (universal symbol for services for the blind)
  • Crutches (injured get preferential access. Hospital signage)
  • Wheelchair (universal symbol of accessibility)
  • Walker (Accessibility, limited walking capability)
  • Elderly (Not a disability, dammit!)
  • Leg missing
  • Invisible Disability (You’re disabled? You look normal)

I had a hand in documenting signage for Austin-Bergstrom International Airport back in the day. I know the symbology; or rather, I know where to go looking for the official definitions for the symbols. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has over 6k images in their online database now. Here is a link to the symbol for priority access for elderly people. The American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) has a list of fifty symbols commonly used in transit hubs, the kinds of places where symbolic communication is essential since communication in a common language may not be possible.

Most of the symbols in the invisible disability image are not standard, but crafted in the helvetica style adopted by international symbology. There is no ISO symbol for missing limbs because that disability is too specific to a particular person not a generalizable disability requiring recognizable symbols that give directions. Well, maybe at the Veterans Administration where they have amputees waiting for years to get care. They probably have queue signage and queues that go on for blocks.

However, the illustrator that created the invisible disability image left off one of the most common disability symbols, the symbol for services for the deaf. It doesn’t fit the theme, but deafness is a pretty common disability and just leaving them out of the image sells their disability short. This is something I’m sensitive to since I’ll probably be deaf one day myself.

While looking for the origins of the illustration, I stumbled across the dildo dude, who can be seen in this Shutterstock image, as well as a couple of the other symbols. I also discovered a movement afoot to update the accessibility symbol with something that looks like it was designed this century, instead of last century, Accessibleicon.org. I can’t say I’m promoting their defacement of standard signage because I have an uncontrollable twitch when it comes to graffiti, an urge to reach out and snap off the arm of the person defacing public property. But I do like the updated symbology. I was never very fond of the old symbol in the first place.

Moneyland

Ordinary people wouldn’t want to live there. Because if you went there, there is no social life, there’s no… there’s no nothing. These… it’s almost dead environments. So what this is, it has turned parts of our major cities, places like London and New York, it’s turned them now into essentially bank accounts. Bank accounts in the form of bricks and mortar.

Oliver Bullough, author of Moneyland
Fresh Air – How Oligarchs, Kleptocrats & Crooks Stash Fortunes – May 1, 2019

Trump properties have over 700 units that are held by untraceable shell companies. Tell me again how he isn’t a crook. Caveat Emptor.

SGU and Moon colonization

The brothers Novella had the missing brother George on the podcast today. George’s question of HVAC (Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning) vs. internet is a no brainer and I can’t believe no one mentioned the reason why HVAC is easily sacrificed. You don’t know why either, dear reader? Maybe it’s because none of you are architects.

You don’t need HVAC in an Earth shelter home or a cave. Why? Because the earth just under the sun-warmed crust is 68°F all year long. This is true everywhere except in the frozen North, where it freezes to a depth of several feet. Much further North than the brothers Novella reside. Just dig into your nearest hillside and you will have access to cool air or warm air (if warmth is what a constant temperature of 68 degrees is to you) all year ’round.

It’s the internet I’m keeping. I need my information. Good information is the difference between life and death. I’ll deal with the vagaries of having to bundle up against the cold on the rare days we get it in central Texas.

Going on about this specific episode of The Skeptic’s Guide; the newb, Cara Santa Maria sounds so selfish talking about space colonization. She definitely lost my respect there. Human space colonization is inevitable. It’s why people still live all over the face of the Earth. We expand to fill whatever space we have available to live in. If we can make it habitable, we’ll live there. Otherwise the archeologists will stumble across our bones when they show up to find out why people died there.

The thing that holds us back from colonizing space is building a functioning arcology which includes not just self sufficiency, but sustainability. People have to want to live in the arcology, given other choices. Until we can solve that puzzle we won’t be colonizing anywhere, successfully.

Antarctica not currently populated is a correct statement. Antarctica is by design not populated. It would be populated along the coasts by this point had there not been agreement that the continent was off-limits (which was a mistake in my opinion) consigning the continent to third-world status where no country or individual can ever be sure to be able to make a property claim.

I’m beyond my tolerance for stupid these days. With stormtrumpers on the one hand pretending not to see the lies, and anti-vaxxers and GMO fear-mongers on the other pretending that no evidence is evidence, someone throwing the “there’s no reason to be in space” bullshit at me puts me just this side of airlocking that person on principles.

It is human nature to explore. It is human nature to want to be the explorer, not the vicarious observer. Do you disagree with me? Are you then saying that Everest is not seeing an ever-increasing number of people who want to summit? That we aren’t seeing trips to the antarctic and the arctic by people just wanting to go there? You’re saying there aren’t remote outposts in all these places I’ve mentioned, set up specifically for purposes of exploration? Are you saying that exploration has no value just for exploration’s sake? How interesting.

Sustainable arcology. Several steps above the biosphere project. As a former architect, speaking about architecture, I know of what I speak when it comes to this subject. When we have a sustainable arcology we will have a transplantable model for human colonization. Until that time we are just sightseers and explorers on temporary missions. This has value, and boots on the ground has the ability to fix unforeseen problems like the Apollo 13 rescue effort or the problems presented on the first moon landing. There is value in exploration of that nature, as these microcomputers that are now embedded in everything and are irreplaceable in modern communications can attest.

To enable human expansion across the solar system, NASA is working with private companies and international partners to develop the Gateway, an outpost for crewed missions to the Moon that also supports scientific discovery and opportunities for a lunar economy.  The agency is involving college students and faculty with the adventure of human space exploration through the 2019 Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts – Academic Linkage (RASC-AL) competition. RASC-AL is seeking proposals from the university community in four categories related to the Gateway and supporting capabilities that will establish a long-term human presence in deep space near the Moon and on the lunar surface.

NASA

Lunch & Learn

The take away from BBC Business Daily, Being Watched at Work is that studying work habits and office design yields a much better outcome for workers; so long as the watching is unobtrusive and that your employees do not feel that they are being treated as suspects in a crime. Several of the new technologies are being used in very questionable ways, and yet paying attention to how ideas are generated is important if you want your business to succeed.

We called it “Lunch and Learn” at Graeber, Simmons & Cowan. The two stints I did as a line draftsman and architect at that architecture firm were some of the best years I spent in the field. Sitting around the conference room table hashing out how to use the tools we were given, and what the future of technology offered to the field. A twelve seat table beats a four seat table, every time.

Improper Takings

One of the segments on the Texas Standard today caught my ear,

TEXAS STANDARD – FORT BEND COUNTY SUES US ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS OVER HARVEY-RELATED FLOODING

[Fort Bend County Judge Robert Hebert] says the reservoir was built in such a way that overspill and flooding of private property was inevitable. “It should be quite obvious when the federal property ends at an elevation of 95 feet and the emergency spillway for the reservoir is at 107 feet, something’s wrong.”

Texas Standard

I’m not sure how the host of the show was confused by the math in that statement, but doing the math you come to the answer of twelve feet of water being stored on private property when the reservoir is at 100% capacity. This fact should have been evident in the original designs of the reservoir, as I’m sure the County Judge knows. The original construction documents would have these measurements on them.

Anyone buying property behind the dam would have been advised that their property was located in a flood plain, could be subject to flooding if the reservoir was filled to capacity. There are many homes located in floodplains like this everywhere across Texas at least. Probably across the US if not the entire world. If this fact wasn’t disclosed to prospective buyers before they signed contracts, then there is quite a bit of liability there to go around. Not just the corps of engineers, but the county, the developers, the mortgage lenders, the realtors who sold the property, etc. I suspect that there are going to be a lot of lawsuits filed over this in the coming months. At least 3100 of them, possibly a multiple of that number depending on how wealthy the landowners are, and how many governmental bodies had jurisdiction over the property being sold.

I think the county is trying to avoid being sued themselves, that’s how I read this. It’s hard to get a lawsuit to stick against a county when that county is already engaged in a lawsuit against the governmental body, the Army Corps of Engineers, that is responsible for constructing a reservoir that was designed to store twelve feet of water on private land in the first place. Proving the county knew this fact beforehand should be a simple matter of discovery. So I’m not sure how well this defensive action will work, but I wish the county luck.

This entire mess is proof positive that you should take the time to read your contracts before signing them. Have an attorney read them over for you, at the very least. It blows my mind the number of people who just sign contracts without understanding the liability they are assuming in putting their signature on a document that they haven’t read. 

A Tale of Two Cities

I remember exactly when I first noticed it: my first year in town, wandering around the heart of the city, unwittingly crossing through Red River and Sixth Street. It was an immediate shift. Property value sank, and the sidewalks were now populated entirely with black and brown faces. Casting my gaze back west and seeing all that pallid skin bumbling around in merry debauchery, participating in all those Austin promises, made me feel a little guilty. At that moment it was clear that Austin had some unfortunate secrets, because no matter how liberal or progressive your reputation might be, a history of segregation will always rear its ugly head.

Luke Winkie writing for Vice.com

A house fire destroyed a boarding house just before New Years here in Austin, leaving six people homeless in some of the harshest weather this area has seen in several years. If you look at the images of the house in this news article, it is clear that hoarding was more than a problem in the house before the fire. The structure itself violates several current building codes, or would have violated them if it had not been grandfathered in under the rules that were being enforced at the time of its construction and/or annexation into the city of Austin. A filled construction dumpster in the driveway is a clear sign of unresolved problems within the structure that a devastating fire probably only makes worse for the people involved.

Not satisfied with the fact that there will soon be new construction at this once poverty-stricken address in a nearby neighborhood, one of the recent purchasers of Austin real estate took exception to the state of the house as it currently sits smoldering. This is understandable to me. It is understandable because house prices in Austin are ridiculously inflated, and I’m sure this purchaser paid far too much for his property. There was no price correction in Austin after the real estate bubble burst in the rest of the U.S. There was the briefest of pauses in price inflation, and then the prices just continued to go up, rising to levels that frankly have me thinking seriously of renovating and flipping my home so that I can retire somewhere a little quieter. Somewhere with horses, so that the Wife will have something to do with her time since no one will pay her a wage to do work in Austin anymore.

The homeowner’s objections are also understandable because I have an issue with the rental house across the street from me. I’ve told a running joke about it over the decades that I’ve lived here, and the joke has only gotten darker over the years. Considering the downward spiral it has been in since starting as an owner-occupied dwelling in the early nineties, I suspect there will be cannibals living there soon. Cannibals, because there isn’t much lower for it to go on the occupant quality ladder. Cannibalism is bound to occur there at some point in the near future.

However, several of my neighbors on Nextdoor insist on calling the boarding house that burned to the ground a crack house. Repeatedly. I have to say, that’s just uncalled for. After all, it’s not the nineteen-eighties anymore. We’re well past Reagan and his cloaked racial references like crack houses. Perhaps these new property owners don’t know the history of East Austin, the history of Austin in general? As a long-time resident of the neighborhood, I’d like to offer a few pointers to these new Austin residents, in the spirit of the New Year.

Let’s start with a big picture, historically. Austin was officially racially segregated until 1963. There were specific redlined neighborhoods where people of color were allowed to buy property. Those neighborhoods are well South of the area of Austin that we live in, but if you add in the Great Wall that separates East Austin from West Austin, the distance South that the redlining occurs becomes almost inconsequential. East of Interstate 35 was long considered the dumping zone for housing projects and industrial uses, and any in-depth analysis of land use in Austin will reveal that East Austin carries the brunt of the load of poverty for the entire city to this day.

While you’re calculating, don’t forget to add in the depression on living standards that the Mueller airport noise levels inflicted on the surrounding areas until very recently. That is crucial to understanding the change that is occurring on the East side of Austin today. With the removal of the airport out to Bergstrom, and the removal all the airport’s associated industrial businesses, there was suddenly a wealth of under-utilized property right in central Austin. The re-purposing of this property continues even eighteen years later. The old boundaries of the airport are all but erased, but you can still see the blighting effects of landing and take-off zones near the airport if you look hard enough.

The historical racism that stifled central East Austin’s growth, now lifted, the industrial uses and noise pollution of a central airport, now lifted, the big picture of why the gentrification and the pushing out of old minority owners in East Austin should become obvious. The two cities that were Austin are being forced to become one city, and the new city of Austin doesn’t have room for people who don’t have more than a quarter million dollars to sink on a home. Especially not in central Austin neighborhoods that used to be beacons for the average American middle class lifestyle.

Just to the North of the old Mueller airport site sits some of what was the most overlooked, undervalued property in central Austin. It was overlooked and undervalued when I first started living in the area about thirty years ago but it has now been discovered and is probably overvalued. I look to see a market correction in the near future. Friends of mine in the construction industry bought into real estate at the peak of the last boom in the eighties. They lost half their investment in the subsequent S&L collapse. I expect there is another one of those nasty surprises just waiting around the corner for most of Texas somewhere in the future. We dodged that bullet in 2008, but the growth that Texas is experiencing can’t be maintained forever. Something has to give, eventually.

The house fire that started this article is in one of those quiet little neighborhoods that used to be havens from the bustling inner-city of Austin, protected by the vast bulk of Mueller from central East Austin’s old redlined districts. The closest of these neighborhoods to the Eastern edge of Mueller is Pecan Springs-Springdale. This is the neighborhood where the boarding house stood.

Pecan Springs-Springdale was two neighborhoods originally, ergo the name. There are pockets of very nice houses in this neighborhood, surrounded by marginal commercial ventures and apartment houses, especially along the main arterial boulevard of Manor Road that carries the bulk of the traffic North/South through the area, between the two neighborhoods of Windsor Park and Pecan Springs-Springdale. The intersection at Rogge and Manor, near where the fire occurred, has always been problematic. That intersection marks the boundaries between three distinct areas and uses, one corner of which is a vacant lot. That property is an investment opportunity, for anyone taking notes that still wants to live here.

We rented a house in Windsor Park for about seven years before buying our current home. We rented it for less than $500 a month if you can believe that. The houses in that neighborhood are generally smaller and sit on smaller lots than surrounding neighborhoods. They were built for and bought by people with even less money than the college professors that my current neighborhood catered to. Backed up to the original Austin shopping center, Capitol Plaza, and bordered originally on the South by the main runway of Mueller and Fifty-first Street, Windsor Park was a working-man’s neighborhood. It’s hard to see that now since most of the property there was snatched up and renovated first, before Mueller moved.

The wife and I realized that the time to buy a home was now or never as we watched the neighborhood change around us, so we gave up renting and purchased a home in University Hills, a smaller neighborhood further East, but not so close that you could see or smell the landfill still operated by the city further out highway 290. University Hills was built to appeal to the growing number of educational professionals that needed to live near the University of Texas and the price of its real estate has ballooned significantly since we moved here.

People looking for a real estate investment should be well acquainted with this fact, that housing prices are at an all-time high in Austin, since it would be part of proper due diligence to have looked at historical prices for the area before investing. Some of the original residents still live in our neighborhood, and I bought my house from one them twenty years ago. There aren’t too many left these days, but their investment of $40-60k when they bought their places back in the nineteen-sixties would not compare favorably with the investments people are laying down now to get in this neighborhood. Some of us still don’t have that kind of money and we are being forced out of our neighborhoods by a growing number of people who do.

not very neighborly

Which brings us full circle back to the transplant complaining about a boarding house he has to drive by on his way to work that burned down having once been purportedly used for drug sales. The question I want to ask people like him is, how do you live with yourself? How do you ignore the underpasses in Austin littered with homeless people, even in freezing weather? Let me put it this way; I apologize to you for your neighbors, neighbors who were clearly having a hard time paying to remain in a neighborhood that has left them behind. Now that they are homeless, I’m sure the weather will get on with killing them faster so that their property can be better utilized by the next owner and not be a drag on your property in the future. That way you can flip that property you sank every penny you had into and make a profit. How does that sound?

Don’t mind us long-term residents, the people who just lived and worked here over the course of a lifetime. We certainly won’t notice when you are gone, any more than we noticed the last five people who owned that property before you. If you think I’m being too harsh, then I suggest you get out and help the homeless in your area, right now. Now is the time when homelessness hurts the most, when we lose the most people to exposure. If you have the quarter-million dollars to blow on an investment, then you certainly have enough scratch to make the difference in a homeless person’s life. Maybe you should re-prioritize your to-do list and see if you can make the world a better place for someone else. They’ll probably thank you for it and it might even be more rewarding than that profit you are lamenting you won’t make.


This recent (04/11/2018) episode of Code Switch deals with the subject that I was talking about in this article, namely redlining, what redlining was, and what redlining did. The after effects of redlining are still felt here in Austin.

NPR, Let’s Talk, Why are cities still so segregated?

It’s hard for people who have never been poor to understand what poverty does to you. It’s even harder to understand what not being able to pass for white does to you. The barriers that are placed in your way. The things that keep you from being able to succeed, the things they blame you for? Those things are external, barriers to entry that allow those who have what you want to point at you and say “see you don’t deserve what I have.”

NPR – Code Switch – Housing Segregation In Everything

I wanted to post a link to this episode because this was the first episode of Code Switch that I could link directly. The first episode that had a specific page that I could find and link to with the content that I heard on the air present on the page. It was a nice change that I hope they keep up with. It’s hard to share insights like you get from podcasts like this if there isn’t a location on the internet to send people to so that they can hear that specific thing you are talking about. In this case, redlining. Forcing people into poverty for the sake of having poor people to look down on, to take advantage of. This structural racism and economic stratification? This bullshit has to stop, and it should have stopped a hundred years ago.

Is the Sharing Economy Sharing More Than We Bargained For?

The New York Hoteliers released an attack ad against AirBnB.

Share BetterAirbnb: Who’s In Your Building? – Jul 31, 2017

“Airbnb allows illegal listings on its site, and refuses to hand over the addresses to law enforcement,” the ad reads. “Are you at risk?”

The answer to this question, HANYC suggests, is yes.

Mic.com

This was AirBnB’s response,

Your ad is misleading, plays to xenophobic fears, and is beneath the dignity of the hospitality industry. It is an affront to the victims of terrorism, and its shock and abhorrent xenophobia is only equaled by the irony of it being paid for by hotels, where, as the New York Post recently noted while covering your ad, “lots of terrorists have stayed.” Given that you are supporting an ad about terrorism in lodging, do your hotels have a perfect record on this?

Mic.com

Generally, I couldn’t give two shits what corporate conglomerates and their advocacy organizations have to say about pretty much anything. But reporting on this ad campaign and the full-throated rejection that AirBnB levels at the ad misses a few points which are worth enumerating so that everyone understands what is actually going on here.

Any rental property stands the chance of being rented for nefarious reasons. It is the nature of property ownership and leasing that this can happen to anyone who owns and rents property. Pointing at any one facet of an industry like hospitality and claiming “you promote terrorism” is wrong on its face. All use of property by anyone other than the owner incurs this risk to the property owner, which most of them are quite aware of if they are in the the hospitality business.

Therein lies the heart of the problem. Airbnb, like Uber does for car ownership, profits from the risk of property owners without being exposed to any risk themselves. AirBnB (or any other property renting app) breaks rules imposed on hospitality organizations for valid reasons of safety, security and sanitation, and they get away with these violations by claiming that they aren’t renting property, the owner of the property is. This legal sleight of hand may keep them from losing court battles, but it doesn’t excuse them from the fact that they are taking advantage of a need to pay bills by people who own property but can’t afford to keep it without leasing rooms via a handshake agreement.

If anything happens on the owners property while someone else is renting it, that owner pays for the damages to the renter as well as for the damages to the property. Slip and fall. Cuts and lacerations from broken glass. Illness from improperly maintained bathrooms and bedrooms. Heaven forbid there is a pool on the premises and alcohol to go with it. Most people don’t think about these potential liabilities. They just want to keep their property and they have to occasionally rent it out in order to do that. They are, most of them, one accident away from financial ruin and they don’t even realize it.

I’m not crying for hotel chain owners or tenement landlords who blatantly profit off the backs of the unsuspecting and the poor any more than I’m going to shed tears for taxi services that get rules put in place to limit their competition so that they can charge more for their service. What I am saying though is that the “sharing economy” doesn’t seem to be doing much in the way of sharing the profits from these new-found ways of getting around onerous rules, and they aren’t sharing much of the risk, either. Seems like the property owners should probably ask for more than just the rental cost from AirBnB. They should have some kind of financial assurance that they won’t be driven out of their homes if the unthinkable happens.

This was reblogged on my now-deleted TUMBLR account and shared to Facebook. the-future-now: “ Airbnb responds to “fear-mongering” ad suggesting short-term rentals aid terrorism that account still exists but has no content on it any longer. Tumblr has definitely fallen on hard times. The article on Mic.com was the basis for the post.

Status Update. A Lot of Hot Air.

The only time you’ll ever see
my #bedhead

So I’m finally feeling almost normal after our trip to Chicago. The day after we returned home, the sore throat that had been bugging me in Illinois turned into a full-blown sinus infection complete with glaring red pink-eye. This prompted a hasty trip to my immunologist and a series of antibiotics. I finished the ten day course of antibiotics on Wednesday, and had my first physical therapy session in three weeks on Thursday. I was bushed after the PT, but that was only part of the problems that surfaced this week.

Monday morning was the follow-up for the 90 day Betahistine (Serc) test that my ENT and I had been running. The results looked promising, and so I’m going to try upping the dose for a year and see what that gets me in the way of relief from Meniere’s symptoms. I’ve noticed that I seem to start exhibiting symptoms again before the next dose of Betahistine is due, so I’m going to take the same dosage three times a day. If you are a Meniere’s sufferer and you have triggers similar to mine, you probably should get your ENT to trial you on Betahistine and see if it helps you or not. I am curious to know if there is a sub-group of Menierians who benefit more from Betahistine than others. This data would clarify whether there is a benefit to Betahistine treatment or not. Comments on this subject are not only welcome but I’ll beg for them if I have to.

I’m feeling better, I thought. I should have known this was a prequel to the hell life had in store for me later in the week. On Wednesday the air conditioning dropped dead on us. It had been acting a little squirrely for awhile now and the system is nineteen years old. Several times over the last few years I had noticed that the thermostat didn’t seem to control the system like it should. It would sporadically fail to come on when it got too hot in the house, and would fail to turn off when it got cold. Sometimes the interior spaces got chilly enough that I thought seriously about wearing more clothing. On Monday, the system’s lackluster cooling performance lead me to do some basic troubleshooting and I noticed that it was well past time for a filter change. Changing the filter did seem to improve cooling and airflow, but Tuesday evening the fan wouldn’t start if we set the thermostat to cool, and Wednesday the fan said fuck it, I’m outta here and refused to start in any position. On or auto. Heat, cool or off. No dice and no air conditioning.

Ah, Texas in the summertime with no air conditioning! Back in the days before that invention every building in the region had ten or twelve foot ceilings and floor to ceiling windows that allowed cool air to enter the building from the lower sash, while simultaneously allowing the heat to escape the building from the upper sash (this is the origin of the term double-hung for the architecturally curious. Windows which can be opened from both top and bottom) and even then you slept outside on what was referred to as a sleeping porch because it was too hot to sleep indoors at all. Air conditioning changed architecture radically and not necessarily for the better. With the ability to alter indoor temperatures builders could ignore long-held rules of thumb that governed Southern construction, putting large glass facades on South-facing walls and lowering ceilings to the now-common eight foot height. Which is all just fine, as long as the air conditioning works.

So we called our handyman, but he was out of town for a week. Deeming it time to bite the bullet, we called a contractor we have dealt with successfully before, and they sent a guy out on Friday. Based on his estimation we had to replace parts just to see if the system could be revived or not. I’ve been down this road a few times. Replacing one part leads to replacing another part, which leads to replacing a third part until at some point you’ve rebuilt the entire system. As I mentioned previously, it’s a nineteen year old system. I can’t even get refrigerant for it anymore, legally. Spending money on this dinosaur is throwing good money after bad.

The heat and the humidity were threatening to send me spiraling back down into vertigo hell, but the salesman (comfort adviser) who showed up to pitch us on a new system came bearing gifts of window units. Consequently we were open to the idea of looking into replacing the ancient HVAC system. This was a theoretical possibility on Friday, a possibility that is rapidly gelling into a reality for Monday. So I’m taking this opportunity to start some renovations of my own that I’ve been wanting to get done since the first day we toured the place before buying it.

I won’t be raising the floor in the former garage yet, that project is a bit too ambitious even if it is desperately needed. The attic fan that has hulked above my head every time I climb the stairs is going away though. I’ve wanted that thing gone from the time we moved in. I can’t use it. It draws outside air into the house unfiltered. Everything outside wants to kill me with allergies. The last thing I need is something that pulls even more allergens into my breathing space. The window units alone are making my symptoms worse, I can feel vertigo perched above my head like an unwelcome avian visitor. Removing the attic fan means the upstairs HVAC will finally be properly balanced without the thing taking up attic real estate and letting attic heat into the living space.

Who knows, maybe other repairs and modification are following fast on the heels of the new HVAC system? Hope springs eternal, even for those cursed with chronic illness.

Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
“Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee—by these angels he hath sent thee
Respite—respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore;
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

Edgar Allan Poe

I got what I wanted out of the project, but it took a herculean effort to get it done. A lot more work than it should have been just to get satisfaction out of the project. I wanted the Wife to try her hand at managing a construction renovation with outside contractors, she’s been dabbling in renovations with some of her starving artists and actors as hired hands. Not making money, not enough to talk about anyway, but being productive and getting things done for friends. So I let her supervise. We picked the contractor, made sure what we wanted was in writing before work began, and waited for the work to start.

As the saying goes no plan survives first contact with the enemy, the enemy in this case being the existing broken HVAC system, and that pretty much sums up how this project went. The HVAC crew showed up, punched holes in every surface available, or so it seemed, and I did my best to calm the Wife down. Holes in sheetrock make dollar signs roll across her eyelids in a frightening hurry. They did seem to be punching a lot of holes. A lot more holes than I probably would have, but then that’s me. I knew they’d have to patch the holes they made, eventually.

The upstairs system was replaced first. The Daughter and Son were planning on staying in the house through the entire construction process, so their A/C had to be in place as soon as possible. The contractor refused, however, to remove the attic fan. While we had discussed it, he said he would not actually do the work of removing it. So we got some of the hands that the Wife has worked with before to get the giant thing out of the ceiling over the stairs and then put a sheetrock patch up to cover the gaping hole sixteen feet in the air. Twenty year goal finally achieved! With that out of the way, the rest of the upstairs was finished in a day or so (or so we thought) and the contractor moved on to the bigger project, getting the downstairs system updated.

The downstairs system had to be completely removed. This was the agreement before the contractor was signed on. Little did I know just how involved removing the system was going to be. I had wondered to myself for the better part of twenty years just where all the ductwork was hidden in this house. That was a question that was quickly answered for me. It was hidden in the kitchen ceiling. Hidden in the bedroom ceiling. It was clear from the planning stages onward that I was not going to be able to stay in the house with the ongoing construction, this was the second reason the Wife was supervising. I was dizzy within minutes of this phase of the work starting. So we left to find the first of several long-stay hotels that have popped up in the last decade around Austin, while the crew continued to gut the interior of our house.

The HVAC system itself went in pretty quickly. The vertical unit and it’s closet would be removed, the closet abandoned and used for storage, with a new horizontal unit located over the master bedroom, closer to where air conditioning should be in the first place. After the HVAC crew worked out how to get A/C to the now remote rooms in the structure, back where the old unit was, it became relatively short work to get the new ducts in place. That was when the real fun started. The plumbing crew arrived.

surveying the wreckage

We have gas heat, gas water heater, gas stove. I like gas heat. I like cooking with gas. I like not paying for electric heat. I like not burning food with electric burners. We rarely need heat around here, but when you do need it, it’s a requirement. Gas heat requires plumbers and black iron piping, and even more holes in the ceiling. The two plumbers that we ended up with from the four or five who showed up before they were needed could have just as well been the one apprentice. He did most of the work, and he was the more agreeable of the two to start with. The plumber he was helping refused to go up in attic spaces and so consequently required the additional large holes in the ceiling everywhere he needed to work, and they didn’t bother to cover anything before dropping attic insulation, sheetrock dust and plumbing pooky all over everything underneath them. They even made holes that they really didn’t need, in hindsight, after it became clear where they were going to have to run the gas line from and managed to leave the gas turned off to the other appliances for several days in the process.

The upstairs furnace was the last piece of the puzzle to be solved, even though we planned for it to be done first. The gas line spirals it’s way through this house like water in an Escher print. It shouldn’t go where it goes, and it doesn’t make any sense for it to go there, but it does. Why it is where it is doesn’t matter as much as how to attach to it does, and cutting the line where I wanted it cut would have been several thousand more dollars, probably.

Just getting them to tell me where the gas line came from outside the house to where the A/C system had been before we moved it took several days of hounding. When I finally got an explanation, it was from the master plumber for the contractor. And it only took about ten minutes of talking to him to figure out why the plumber who was assigned to our job was uncommunicative. The master plumber? I’m pretty sure he thought he was god himself. Once we got the misunderstanding about the gas line straightened out and agreed on the plan to get gas to the new systems, he demanded that he be compensated on the spot. He had to come out here, we needed to pay him. He had people he paid to do this kind of work. His appearance on the job meant we owed him money.

He left muttering threats under his breath, without his demanded payment, and no payment would be forthcoming unless it came from his bosses in the company. You want to be paid on a separate contract? Work from a separate contract. This isn’t rocket science. But we did get the gas hooked up, finally.

From July 31st to August 14th we lived out of a slowly rotating group of hotel rooms. I was able to stay at the hotel I wanted for my birthday, at least. I even got to swim in the pool, watch a pay-per-view and get drunk in my own hotel room. The cost of this disaster set us back several thousand dollars, but there are many things that you discover a way to pay for if you really need it to survive. I survived, otherwise I wouldn’t be here to write this all down. But two weeks was twice as long as the project was slated to take, and the cost could have been much higher if the contractor had felt like billing me for all the extra work they made for themselves to do. After the confrontation with the plumbers and the damage to property created by their ham-handed attempts to get the gas line to the new system, the contractor decided that they would just stick with the agreed upon price and call it even.

The destruction of the interior of our house was corrected, just like I knew it would be. The new finishes are better than the ones they replaced. The new paint a better color than what was there originally. Best of all? The stairs are no longer a trip through the bowels of hell. The heat in that area is no longer fed through a grill that lead straight to unconditioned attic space. The bedrooms are (as they should be) the coldest rooms in the house for the first time in twenty years. I can still hear the TV when the A/C fan is running, and that is a major improvement.

I just wish that the confrontation with the plumbers had not been fated to happen. I really like everything about this contractor and would unhesitatingly recommend them to anyone; IF. If. If they don’t need any plumbing work. HVAC work? They do a great job. The comfort adviser who set everything up was an asset that kept the work going in spite of the trouble the plumbing crew caused. But the plumbers? I wouldn’t use them again if you paid me. I have a plumber already, thanks. He’s gruff and speaks plainly and I get straight talk out of him without having to drag it kicking and screaming into the light. That’s the way I want it. Tell me what the problem is. Tell me what the solution is. Tell me what the cost is. I don’t shoot messengers that bring me bad news. That is what twenty years in architecture taught me. You want the bad news as soon as it is known, because that is how you fix the problem faster and more cheaply. Punishing the messenger is how you end up spending more money. The contractor should have listened to the plumbing apprentice on my project. Should have trusted the HVAC crew when they related the problem. Any of their hands could have told them what the problem was four days earlier in the process. Instead I had to get the information third-hand from the plumber’s boss, who quite literally only made things that much worse. So I can’t sing praises for the company which will remain nameless. Because they don’t deserve blame, either. We were made whole and the systems work better than they ever have.

Now to get on with the other projects in the house. Fixing the Master Bathroom which hasn’t functioned for ten years. Raising the floor in the Master Bedroom. You know, the little things.