Communion Of Dreams

It’s October! That must mean it’s time for …

… more House Horrors!

OK, this time it’s not nearly as bad as it was last year. But nonetheless, I don’t think this is exactly what most people mean when they talk about having a “green roof“:


Yeah, probably a safe bet.

So, this is the small roof of an unused porch on the front west of our house, which is a “Notable Historic Structure“ built by the first dean of the MU medical school in 1883. We’re fairly sure that this porch used to be a separate entrance for the dean’s private office/surgery, which is now our living room. At some point the door was closed off and turned into window, so now the porch is purely decorative and out of the way. As such, it tends to not get a lot of attention … including, unfortunately, maintenance.

But I was doing some other work up on the roof, and noticed that this small porch was to a point where it really needed some work. Eventually we’ll replace the steps and perhaps the floor of the porch, but first we needed to do some roof repairs.

Originally, this porch just had a sheet metal roof, over 1″ thick decking. But when the sheet metal started leaking, applications of roofing tar were applied in an effort seal the leaks. And for more than 100 years, that’s the only attention that it got. With the result that there was dried (and cracking/leaking) tar almost an inch thick in place over the whole small roof (it’s about 4’x8′).

To repair it was straight-forward: remove the old dried tar, repair the sheet metal as necessary, and then put down an appropriate proper flat roof.

To see that process, follow me below the fold:

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Mid-Missouri master of Mid-Century Modern.

This past weekend the organization Historic City of Jefferson hosted their 10th Annual Homes Tour, featuring the historic architectural designs of Hurst John. Prior to the tour of homes, a presentation about the work and aesthetics of Hurst John was made by his daughter, Martha K. John. Martha is herself a registered architect, a member (and former state board director) of the American Institute of Architects, and serves on the Missouri State Board For Architects, Professional Engineers, Professional Land Surveyors and Professional Landscape Architects. She is also my wife of nearly three decades.

Hurst John is widely considered to have been a master of what is now known as Mid-Century Modern design. His homes are highly sought and command a premium in the market. His designs have readily-recognized characteristics.  He was known for attention to detail and close supervision of construction. And his papers & architectural plans are collected at The State Historical Society of Missouri.

It was a fun event. Martha’s presentation about her father and his work was informal, relaxed, informative. The displays of Hurst John’s plans and sketches were a glimpse back in time, a chance to see how early consideration of natural lighting and use of recovered materials presaged modern passive solar and recycling efforts. And the tour of the homes was just a delight — it was the first time either Martha or I had ever seen the interior of any of these residences, and it was enjoyable to see how her father’s vision still remained after half a century of use and occasional renovations. I’m going to include a bunch of images from the event ‘below the fold’ under my name. Check it out if you would like to see some of what wasn’t covered in the links above.


Jim Downey

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A meditation on what isn’t there.

I finally got around to seeing this the other day, and I have been thinking about it ever since:


* * *

I first heard of Michael Heizer in a sculpture class in college, sometime in the late 1970s. Well, that I remember. It’s entirely possible that I had seen some coverage of his work in the press before then. But my professor got me thinking about how sculpture defined space both by physical presence and absence, and I know that it was then that I became aware of Heizer’s work. I didn’t realize it at the time, but his basic concepts would manifest in my life in many ways, showing up in my interests in martial arts, book design, even writing.

* * *

In the movie, John Bowsher (then the Project Manager for Levitated Mass at LACMA) says this:

His ideas are incredibly simple, when you pare it all down to just its physical nature, it’s really quite simple, and you see it again and again in his work. To achieve that degree of simplicity is like, almost the hardest thing in the world to do.


* * *

Not being there when your opponent strikes.

Drawing the eye to the empty space.

Allowing the reader to fill in the suggested, but missing, description.

Each of these engages and enlightens in ways that no amount of force, or color, or detail ever could.


* * *

Chrissie Iles, Curator at the Whitney Museum, talking about Heizer’s Double Negative in the movie:

Micheal Heizer makes you aware of space and your relationship to space and how you move through space,the role of the sky, the role of the land, beyond what you’re looking at. You have to rethink the nature of who you are physically in relation to what you are walking around inside and observing from a distance and up close.


* * *

We’re not always aware of what we do while we’re doing it, or why. Sometimes, the trajectory of a life is determined by little things, subtle things. Even things which are mssing.


* * *

I finally got around to seeing this the other day, and I have been thinking about it ever since:

Shortly after I had conceived of the idea behind Paint the Moon, I knew that it wasn’t actually feasible. But the idea delighted me. And after some thought, I realized why: it was taking the principles of Michael Heizer’s art — of paring down art to the very simplest, physical elements of experience — and going one step further. Remove the physical object altogether, and replace it with pure experience, pure concept. Hence my description of the project as a “collective lyric fantasy”.

You can’t see the artifact of that project at a museum. There is no massive boulder to walk under, or a negative space in the desert to encounter.

But there is the Moon overhead, and the memory of a moment in time.


Jim Downey

House horrors, part two: rebuilding the monster.

Three weeks ago we started a “small” home repair project.

Well, we thought it was going to be small. And then we discovered the horror within. As I said in my first blog post about this:

When you start a project like this, you don’t really know what you’re getting into until you actually start getting into it.

Boy, howdy.

Well, it became much more of a project than originally envisioned. If you want to know why I haven’t done a lot of blogging recently, this is almost entirely the reason: we wound up replacing everything about the original porch except the two upright posts, and those we altered. We even wound up having to clean up and put aright some of the work which had originally been done to tie in the porch roof to the house roof, which was a real horror.

And when I say that “we” did it, I mean that literally: my wife and I.  We actually did every single aspect of the work. My wife is an architect, and we’re both very used to working on smallish practical repairs — the sort of thing you always have pending on a house which is 130+ years old. Had we known that this job was going to turn out being so big, we might have opted to put it off until a contractor we trust was able to work it into his schedule. But once we got started, we were committed to doing the work all the way through, not according to someone else’s schedule. So, we did it.

What follows below is a step by step photo documentation of the work, just for grins. We finished the work this weekend (well, except for the painting, but that’s pretty minor and will get done in a week or so when we have a chance), and I’m really pleased with how well it all turned out. So, if you’re interested, take a look.

And with a little luck this week I’ll get back to a more normal posting schedule.

Jim Downey

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House horrors, part one: the uncovering.

We live  in a “Notable Historic Structure“: the house built by the first dean of the University of Missouri Medical School back in 1883. As with almost any structure this old, it’s seen a lot of alterations and additions over the years, complicating the history and the condition of the house. It’s quite literally the case that there are layers and layers of changes you uncover when you do any work on the place. About a decade ago we had the house professionally painted by someone who specializes in doing work on historic buildings, and the painter estimated that he removed about 35 layers of paint — it was about a half inch thick.

So whenever we have to do any work on the place, you expect to find … surprises. For major projects we’ll call in a crew of professional. But for smaller jobs, my wife and I will tackle it on our own. Since she’s an architect with a lot of practical construction experience, and I’m good working with tools, this usually works pretty well. Usually.

Earlier this year, a spring storm peeled back some of the roofing material off of a small porch on the west side of the house. This porch was probably put on sometime around WWII, and was just a roof over a small concrete pad, open on the sides. In the sixties it was chosen as the site to install an air conditioning unit which serves to cool about half of the first floor. Anyway, while we knew the porch roof was in need of work, we didn’t realize how bad it was until the storm revealed this:


Seeing that, we planned on doing some substantial roof repairs the next time we could set aside a couple of days for it. Which turned out to be this week (hence the fall leaves in the pic above).

When you start a project like this, you don’t really know what you’re getting into until you actually start getting into it. So we got up there and stripped off the rest of the flat roofing materials, and expected to have to replace some of the original sheathing board. But after close examination, we decided that it made more sense to just replace the entire deck surface — it looked like the deck boards had probably been scavenged from some older building when they were originally put up, and all of them were in pretty poor condition.

So we got them off, and were down to the rafters:


Then closer examination of the rafters, and the support beams on the front and side of the roof indicated that they were likewise in need of replacement. Here’s a pick with the rafters removed:

rafters gone

In removing the rafters, we saw how the porch roof had been tied onto the roof of the house (seen above in shingles). This is looking down at the fascia and house roof:


Good lord.

What had been done was that they just added the 1″ wide fascia on top of the original fascia, with notches cut into the new fascia to help support the rafters. Oh, and some of the rafter ends were cut at an angle and then just nailed RIGHT ON TOP of the old house roof. Yeah, they didn’t clear it off, or anything. In fact, if you look closely, you can see that someone had just put down plywood sheathing over the old roof of cedar shakes and asphalt shingles.

So first we removed the 1″ fascia, so we could examine the original:

2nd fascia

And finding that the original was in pretty poor condition, removed it. This is what we found behind that:


The horror, the horror …   That’s more of the original roof material just covered over by plywood. Sheesh.

Here’s a detail showing the end where the last porch rafter was mounted on top/through the piled mass of old shingles and shakes, along with globs of pitch to help seal the whole mess:


Getting to this point was two days of work. We had allotted three days to do the entire porch repair, including time to assess the true nature of the work and get the needed materials for completion. That was because the weather forecast was for heavy storms to start late on the third day.

There was no way we were going to be able to get the whole thing finished.

So yesterday, on the third day, we got the additional materials and prepped the area for later. We also prepped it to close in securely, not with a permanent repair, but with a sufficiently solid repair to get through the bad weather of a few days time:


That temporary close-in consisted of a layer of new tar-paper tucked under the clean edge of the extant tar-paper on the house roof, then stapled down. After that, a layer of roof roll goods tucked up under the second rank of shingles shown above, and secured with roofing nails just as you would put down a new line of shingles. To make sure that the paper and roll goods were secure and would extend out sufficiently to cover & protect the exposed house rafters, we tacked down three lengths of wood to hold everything in place until the weather got better. Here’s a shot of that:


And I’m *very* happy to report that the temporary work has handled the storms so far just as intended. When we get good (enough) weather again, we’ll take off the side beams and replace everything with new lumber, properly constructed. With all the old crap roof stuff out of the way we’ll be able to attach the porch roof much more securely and have a better seal/transition of the roofs as well.

Blimey, what a job.

Jim Downey

Take a look back.

I’ve mentioned Pentre Ifan, a wonderful neolithic site (which is  also the title of a chapter in St Cybi’s Well) before. It really is an amazing site, see for yourself:

And here’s the passage where Darnell sees it in SCW:

He continued on. Along a tumble-down wall separating fields, partially overgrown with hedge and briar.  Past cattle in the field, grazing and occasionally lowing to one another, who took little interest in him as he walked along. Through another kissing gate, and almost suddenly he was standing there before the structure, bare to the sky.  One great slab of stone several meters long and a couple wide, supported by three menhir, high enough that he would have to stretch a bit to touch the underside of the capstone. There were a couple of additional uprights at the south end, and several largish stones which had tumbled over. He just stood there for a moment, taking it all in.


Well, CADW has just released a new ‘digital restoration’ that’s very cool:

Neolithic Burial Chamber digitally restored

An ancient structure synonymous with the Pembrokeshire countryside has been recreated using the latest CGI technology.

Cadw, the Welsh Government’s historic environment service, has digitally restored the Pentre Ifan burial chamber in the latest of a series of videos available on its YouTube channel.


Fun to see that interpretation of it.


Jim Downey

A useful swarm.

Another interesting item about developing the technology to create a useful swarm of small robots:

Harvard Researchers Create a Nature-Inspired Robotic Swarm

Some scientists believe that the way to solve the flocking enigma is to replicate it. Researchers at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute and School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) recently developed a micro-scaled robotic technology that enables a controlled, flash mob–like assembly. In August, the team led by Harvard computer-science professors Radhika Nagpal and Fred Kavli demonstrated the ability of 1,000 robots to self-organize into user-selected shapes, such as a five-pointed starfish and the letter K.

* * *

“Increasingly, we’re going to see large numbers of robots working together, whether it’s hundreds of robots cooperating to achieve environmental cleanup or a quick disaster response, or millions of self-driving cars on our highways,” Nagpal said in the press release. “Understanding how to design ‘good’ systems at that scale will be critical.”

One provocative concept is the possibility of building and infrastructure construction that is carried out by thousands of self-organizing modules. Although many technical hurdles remain, this notion is especially intriguing in the case of hazardous and other challenging settings. In the near term, we will likely witness simple, one-story pavilions built from a collection of mobile robotic bricks to create emergency relief shelters following natural disasters.

Hmm … seems I’ve heard about that idea before someplace. Oh, yeah, from Communion of Dreams:

They were, in essence, enclosing the entire planet in a greenhouse of glass fabric and golden plasteel. It was going to take generations to finish, even using mass microbots and fabricating the construction materials from the Martian sands. Tens of thousands of the specially programmed microbots, a few centimeters long and a couple wide, would swarm an area, a carpet of shifting, building insects. As each cell was finished, it was sealed, joined to the adjacent cells, and then the microbots would move on.

But it is pretty cool to see the work being done to bring that about.


Jim Downey


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