Today is a huge day at Formstone Castle. We’ve paid off the mortgage! We set an ambitious goal to pay the house off in 5 years, but still set the terms of the mortgage to 10. 8 years in, and during a pandemic, we’ve managed to scrape together enough money to make those final payments.
We were hoping to have a huge 4th of July block party and bash to celebrate, but Covid-19 has postponed that plan. For now we’ll enjoy the view from the deck and have a little champagne with Siri’s family over Zoom.
This year started with the idea to clear out some Mind Freight(TM) from the warehouse of my brain. Biggest among these mental heavy lifts was finishing up the deck. The physical manifestation of this is the steel stored on my basement floor for the last few years waiting for me to get motivated enough to finish the stairs for the deck.
Before the pandemic ground things to a halt this winter I managed to finish some tricky posts going up the wood stairway. Each one was unique so there was no good way to make a jig. I had to figure out a way to keep the visual language consistent even on these unique posts. One has the only outside angle on the deck and the other has an inch and a half offset. Another consideration is that they reinforce the important connection between the stringers and the deck. Lots of measuring, strings, and running up & down from the roof to the back yard.
Next were the mesh panels. Two rectangle panels were made to finish off the top deck: one big and one little. I’ve made 15 already so the final two came out quick. The hard ones were next though. 6 odd shaped ones coming down from the stairs and transitioning into the spiral landing. Again, lots of running up & down. Saved some time making cardboard templates, but even then things needed to be tacked and checked.
In here I was also working on the fill mesh for the spiral. With 16 to make, I was not going to be able to fit each one exactly so I decided to build a wooden jig to weld them up in. A day of cutting pieces to shape – some with the dry cut saw, some with the plasma cutter if it seemed to dangerous of an angle for the saw and LOTS AND LOTS of angle grinding. Another day of welding… lots and lots of ends of mesh… and of course angle grinding to clean up the faces. A day of drilling holes. And two days of painting.
It took some flexing and some creativity to hold things into place, mark them and drill holes, but I worked my way up and luckily everything ended up decently aligned.
Still need to figure out a cap and the graspable handrail, but at least the terror of falling over the edge is gone. It’s starting to feel like a deck!
The deck was something we first drew up right after we bought the house. We’ve pretty much stuck with the original idea since then: A deck on the roof, a deck off the 2nd floor and a sunken in hot tub. It was the icing on the cake once we finished everything else. Finally we were ready to make it happen.
I clear my schedule starting in July 2016 by quitting my job of 4 years. That really helped free up some time! We pulled a demolition permit and I got to take out some end-of-career rage with a sledge hammer and prybar. The first squares went well prying up as one piece and then breaking to pieces by dropping them. Then we found the 2nd layer. Just like the rest of the house, when things started to fall apart, they just covered them up with another layer. This took weeks and I managed to lose a finger nail in the process, but it was good work and enjoyed being outside getting a workout.
Drawings and Permits (Aug 2016)
While this was happening we started the next step of getting an official architect to put his name on some drawings so we could pull the permits. We were dreading this step as it was the first time we really had to get the city and a third party involved. In the end it cost us $900 for the drawings and another hundred or so dollars for the permits. Including a demolition permit to take out the old patio.
The next few months can only be described as “prep work”. Unfortunately, prep work gets a little complicated when I’m involved. I don’t like things to build onto things that are wrong. Still enjoying the weather, I dug a trench to the shack and buried two conduit pipes just in case I needed them one day. Then came fixing the drainage at the back of the house. From early on the concrete sloped towards the back door and during heavy rains would actually back up into the house, rotting away the boards under the rear entryway. Also, below grade the mortar wasn’t looking too good so I repointed that. While I was added, I fixed up some problem spots near the kitchen window / sink drain.
At this point things are starting to get a little crazy. We’ve got to jack up the corner up the house so that we can dig a proper footer and build it back up in order to put the house back down on it. We also take off the back corner of the house and have to button it up in a day.
Redoing the Back Entry (Sept 2016)
There also was a really awkward stair setup with a terribly built set of 3 steps that came halfway out into the 6′ wide room. To fix this we decided to raise the floor 12 inches, adding one step down to the basement, one to the outside and reduce the 3 up into the house down to one stair.
We couldn’t just lay down a new floor though. For this we had to dig down 30 inches and pour a new footer and build up a short 5′ cinderblock foundation back up to where we could put down a treated sill board and then lay down some joists. It was all quite an undertaking. The walls had to come off the back of the corner of the 1st floor. A little at a time so we wouldn’t be wide open for too long. I jacked up the 6×6 post in the corner that held up Siri’s office above and cut off it’s completely rotted away nub so that I could rest it on a treated 6×6 carrying that load back down to the new footer.
The Roof (Oct 2016)
Now the next part of “prep work” was what most people consider a major project by itself: a new roof. We knew the old roof needed to be replaced soon and it was better done before rather than after the deck and we didn’t want to be throwing all the old roof material debris down onto the new deck below. The new deck was an EPDM rubber roof. These systems are all made by car tire companies and its essentially a giant sheet of inner tube rubber and a big bucket of rubber cement. Out of the other roofing options this one lasts a pretty long time (50ish years) and is generally the most expensive option around Baltimore. Strangely it seems to also be one of the easiest for a DIY job. No major tool investments as it’s not something you need to torch down or heat weld together. It’s just like a bike tire: glue down on both surfaces, wait until it gets tacky, carefully make contact (one chance to get it right!) and go over it with a broom or a roller to apply pressure. All the factory training videos on on youtube. It does need a fresh surface to be glued to so tearing off all the old and adding a fresh layer of OSB was needed. It was easy work. We cut the old roof with an end-of-life circular saw blade into manageable 3’x3′ squares.
Cedar Shakes (Nov 2016)
Now that we had the new walls and that damn yellow siding was gone I could cover it all up again. This is another thing that was in my plans from that first Sketchup drawing; I wanted ceder shakes. We ordered a few squares of shakes.
Figuring the next steps would go ahead smoothly we went ahead and ordered our lumber. We jumped the gun though. I think the order was delivered in October and we didn’t get beyond posts until the following June.
The first deck to go up was on the roof. I had already added in posts back in October when we did the roofing. Framing of the deck took about 2 days and I can’t for the life of me find a photo of that process.
Footers (July 2017)
Finally we can start a deck… or can we? Footers! Our architect drew in some pretty serious footers for our tub supporting deck. 18″ x 24″.. oval. I got some 18″ forms and for the oval ones, cut them in half, added 6″ of plywood and made my own ovals. It was a challenge because things got really busy with Light City starting in 2017.
After freezing, filling with water, collapsing, being dug out again, I finally got around to footers done in July 2017, nearly a year after demolition started. In addition to being 18″ x 24″ ovals, the party wall footers had go go behind the 36″ deep (code is 30″ here) holes down to 48″. Turns out that is a LOT of dirt. We had to move out so much dirt and then move back in all the sand, gravel, and cement. All in buckets from the street.
The drawing also called for rebar reinforcements, so I fabbed some up with the welder. There were several different sized for all the different shapes and depths.
Finally it was time for concrete. Our amazing and magical friend Becca ran the cement mixer the first day. It was 100+ degrees under a tarp that mostly just made it more still, humid and converted the sun that hit the top if it to heat underneath. It took a 2nd day with Siri running the cement mixer to get the last ones done.
Going up! After a little break to let the concrete cure… I think a few weeks? We erected the posts. Lots of posts. Our drawings called for twelve 6×6 posts. Four of those form a small, lower structure that exists only to hold the hot tub. Again with the Becca’s help, Siri and I flew through this step.
Because of the hot tub, and wanting to keep the party going underneath on the patio, we chose to add our rubber roofing material to direct water to gutters.
Hot Tub Lift (Aug 2017)
Since the start of this plan, we’ve been asked pretty much the same question over and over: how are you getting the hot tub up there? Our architect recommended getting a crane, but at $5000, it went well beyond our budget, plus I don’t think a crane could put outriggers far enough out on Castle Street to clear the 35′ house. Luckily I had lots of time to day dream about this solution. Here is how I did it.
Prefabricate the tub deck platform on the ground. Using the main deck, I could lift the platform up and stage it off to the side on top of the scaffolding. Lift the tub straight up and slide the deck under it.
The lift! With the help of dad and our friend Logan, we used (against the manufacturer’s recommendation) four comealongs with straps slung around boards run underneath the tub. It was a slow process, but eventually we got the tub about 3″ above where it needed to end up. Careful to not get underneath too much, we installed the doubled 2×12 beams onto the posts, put down two pieces of rigid conduit as rails, and slid the platform into place. Once it was settled into place and a few missing pieces added, we lowered the tub onto the platform.
It was pretty quick after that to add the rubber and decking boards. Then it was off to Burning Man, but that’s a whole other story.
The Patio (Nov 2017)
With all the messy stuff done above, and not wanting to walk on gravel forever, next step was the brick pavers. Just like taking out the old concrete, we brought in the new materials 2 buckets at a time. A layer of stones to help drain away any water, a layer of semi-perm membrane, sand and finally 800 or so reclaimed bricks from The Loading Dock.
Railings Part 1 (Feb 2018)
I’ve wanted to do steel posts with metal mesh from the get go as I wanted to see as clearly as possible the trees while in the hot tub. It took a little while to get to them. We even had a few hot tub parties on a deck 15′ off the ground with no railings at all. Safety 3rd!
Winter outdoor metal fabrication is not my favorite thing, but we a week or two with warmish weather so I started on my posts and squares. I painted them just before we left on a trip to Puerto Rico and let them dry inside while we were away. I put up what I had done for our Chinese New Year party after we returned with early arriving guests helping to drill the last holes. With no mesh, we just zig-zagged paracord to hopefully catch anyone from going through until we could track down mesh.
Railings Part 2 (Oct 2018)
Due to Light City 2018’s crazy schedule and having to build some lasers again to pay the bills, things sat pretty still for 8 months. Over that time we tracked down a galvanized 3″ mesh. For some reason, there wasn’t any locally that couldn’t be called chicken fencing. What we ended up ordering from Boston, was 11 gauge. So back to posts and rectangles I went. It took until around Solstice to get everything cut, welded, painted, and installed.
In March we teased of our massive light art project entitled What Lies Beneath. It was all consuming in both time and space. Now that we’re on the other side looking back at it, it seemed to go smoothly, but it took everything we had to pull it off. Here is a look back on What Lies Beneath.
Motivated by the values of Formstone Castle, we brought together a group of artists and pushed them out of their comfort zone to try new things with the skills we knew they could develop. Justin Duvall brought his strengths as an an animator of strange creatures, Kate Haberer brought in her skills as an illustrator and Andrew Dixon brought in his skills as a graphic designer. Each of them created a short clip, not fulling knowing what it would look like on a first of it’s kind display. For backup, I filmed some clips at the aquarium to flesh it all out. Last but not least, Adam T. Rush returned to a Formstone Castle project creating a score tying it all together. Here is the result:
Now what’s behind this magic? I’ll try to break down the 6 months of work and try to explain it for those that want to see what lies beneath.
From the ground up this was designed to be modular. Each section is 10 feet wide and 37 feet long. Each module has it’s own power supply, controller and ethernet switch. Plug it into 120v-240v power and into it’s neighbor for signal. We built 14 modules, but for safety reasons, we only installed 12 for Light City.
To keep it all dry, all the LED strips are run through 1″ vinyl tubing.
Because we could only supply power from one end and had to send that power from shore, the power wires were up to 20′ long + 37′ if you count the LED strips. For this reason our LED strips are custom 24v with a thicker PCB foil. For WS2811 LEDs, our 24v requirement meant each pixel contained 6 LEDs. This worked out in our favor. Each 10 ft module contained 16 LED strips making the length of our pixels and the spacing between our strips the same. 1:1 made mapping much easier for our animators. Here are some spicy facts:
This year is going to be HUGE here at Formstone Castle. Art has taken over the whole yard and the whole house. This project is titled What Lies Beneath. It is a massive water based LED display. 208 LED strips wide… 37 feet x 130 feet. 73000 LED Lights.
And yes we know we’re about 3 years behind on house updates. A WHOLE LOT IS GOING ON THESE DAYS! I’ll fill in the blanks once I wrap up some of these projects and need a day to hide inside.
It has been a busy winter at Formstone Castle (Actually it’s been super busy since July, but those posts will come later).
Last spring we visited the very first Light City Baltimore festival. Saturday night in particular was a wild conversion of friends, neighbors, art, music, and weather. We began thinking of ways to get involved in 2017, but couldn’t quite figure out what we should do. It wasn’t until May when we resurrected the Kinetic Couch that we focused on an idea. Our 2016 KSR was a great success. We won our second (2/2!) major award: “The Next To Last Award”.
We’re still not exactly sure where the convergence of ideas came from, but we decided to apply the look of Japanese Dekotora trucks with our 3 person couch and coffee table. In about 3 weeks we put together a killer proposal for Light City 2017. In the process of writing the proposal the project evolved, took on collaborators, fed back their input into the piece over and over until we came up with this:
In the process we also roped in artist friends to collaborate. Katlyn Wyllie would make the mural on the back, Charlotte Hager would make the costume for the creature, Adam Rush would make a 6 hour music mix and Siri and I would build the couch and coordinate all of the other details.
As winter settled in, we wanted to have lights and controllers in hand to being building prototypes and playing with code. Our first orders were placed within hours of hearing we were selected so that we could have them by Christmas to play with. We wanted to order as much as we could locally, but some parts did come from over seas such as the controllers and WS2811 LED light strips. The battery was sourced from Best Battery in Baltimore. It is a giant 12v 150lb 255Ah deep cycle battery. This was all set up in the basement with our fuses and wires run up through our floor vent into the living room where we used the lights as our Christmas tree, but also to test our ability to power them from the battery, charge the batter and program the controllers. If you got our Christmas card, this was in the background.
We also started the the process of strengthening the rear wheels and brake as they’d need to hold several hundred additional pounds with the new design. I wanted cast aluminum wheels to be able to handle serious side loads. A quick trip to Baltimore Cycle Salvage led to some dope 1981 Suzuki GS400 Enkei wheels with mesh disc brakes, calipers and brake/clutch levers. I can’t overstate how generous Dean at Baltimore Cycle Salvage was. He practically gave us the parts and was fully supportive of our way outside of the box project.
Around this time we moved into Spirits Tavern’s garage on Bank Street in Upper Fells Point. We didn’t want to work outside in the winter so we made sure to add this into the budget. Here is a good spot for a pause. The following day we left to Puerto Rico for a quick winter vacation to prepare us for the wildest 2 months finishing this up. Details in following post.
I don’t remember when, but Mike and my mom did some stuff to the bathroom. I don’t know why they didn’t mention it, but now we have a cabinet under the sink. Now there’s actually space for stuff in the bathroom!!!!!!!
Taking off in October hasn’t gone so well. Things just keep getting done. One was finally getting around to installing video cameras that we bought last year. It’s a Swann HDR-8200 DVR with 4 1080p cameras.
The cameras ended up being way bigger than I thought (3″ x 8″ or so) so mounting options were reduced. I didn’t want to ruin the look of the house, but also needed specific views to cover all the entryways + detail. In the end we have 2 cameras in the back and 2 in the front. One of each is a wide view and the other is a detail view. Being full HD we can still read license plates from way up there and its wide enough to get our front door, alley gate and the neighbor’s doors on either side.
You can barely see it up there.
For the front detail camera, I decided to do some camera surgery. Inside that huge can was a 1.5″ x 1.5″ x 1.5″ camera. I drilled a hole in the front door and installed the whole circuit board and camera inside the door. To finish it off, I caulked on the 3″ glass lens from t he camera for a seemless and sealed look. The end result is pretty good. I get a good detailed view across the street and of every person that walks by and especially those that come up to the door with only a little cutoff on the corners that I may be able to adjust away.
Peep Hole Camera!
I can view all of this on the HDTV. So far we’ve sat and watched the cat go out back and have yelled at the TV a few times as cars sped down the street. When not at home we can stream the video to our phones or computers. It does seem to lock up one or two camera channels on the DVR every now and then. That was discovered last year and was one of the main reasons we took so long installing it. Guess we’ll just deal with it?
I’ve vowed to take off for the month of October since it seems every October since we bought the house we’ve had some massive time critical project to do seriously impacting our Halloween costuming abilities. With a few days left in September, there are still projects to do before it gets cold.
First off is the bathroom window. This wasn’t a huge priority, but it is one of the few things that would really suck unless its already open window weather. The main problem is that the wood frame is rotting away and letting water in which has ruined the bricks under it. To fix it I decided to take it all out down to the bricks, relay the bricks that are loose, point the joints around the ones that I can reach and then re-frame the window.
Refamed. You can see the width of empty space beside the new frame where the old counter weights would have been.
Needs some paint.
First round of bricks went well until I realized that the old mortar wasn’t going to harden. It all had to come out and be redone. That set me back a few days, but I powered through and got the bricks (re)done and framed it up.
I added 4 studs as well on the sides of the windows. These are to be used to hang a window box. We may or may not close it in. It’s main purpose is to hold plants to give us a little more privacy from our neighbors who have a window just oppose ours.
While the weather held out I also knocked off some loose mortar from the alley bricks and Siri painted it up.
Also refurbished our non-venting stove vent to actually vent outside. This involved disassembled the whole thing, washing it inside and out, blocked off the front vent, opened up the rear vent and adding some ducting. I’m no longer shy about making holes in my walls so out came the impact drill. I circle of 1/2″ holes later and I was through the brick wall to the alley. Finished it up by spray foaming the inside and rebricking the outside.
We bought our base boards for doing trim in the fall the same day we had the truck for getting the steel and joists used on the stairs. They’ve sat in the shack since them until I could catch up on some things. Finally that day has come. Having painted boards little by little over the last few weeks, and making some little corner pieces, I was all ready to go. My brother came over and brought his trim nailer, chop saw and air compressor. Six hours later we finished the trim in the bedroom.
With the trim done I could finally move the bed across the room. This was a bed we built out of IKEA shelves and leftover strips of wood we tore out of the 1st floor ceiling. Previously it was against the end unit wall and got really cold in the winter.
Also, it was opposite was the chimney which meant that I had all of 12 inches to squeeze past every night leading to many bruised knees. Moving it across the room lets use wrap it around the chimney a few inches giving me 24″ at the end of the bed to maneuver.
Over the next few days I added trim in the kitchen, hallway and living room. Eventually I had to return the air tools and could take a break from the madness for a few months. It was until September that I got a chance to finish up the front of the living room.
This seems like a short, maybe insignificant post, but this is HUGE for us. We’ve stared at the gaps between the walls and the ceilings for nearly 3 years. It was obviously something we could live with, but it was obvious and sloppy to anyone who visited.