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Tuesday, February 13, 2007


There I was, one week ago, applying shellac to the joists under the roof of the third floor of our house. The roof job was complete, so I was clear to get the interior rehab started. My first task was cleaning the mold growth on the joists under where the roof had its worst leaks, which were held in place by kraft-faced insulation batts, a vapor barrier and drywall. (I had already removed these three layers, much to the chagrin of my lungs and shoulders.)

I had called a remediation specialist who is an acquaintance of my father, and got his bid and detailed action plan. Then I set about saving myself nearly $4,000 by replicating his plan almost exactly to the letter. Obviously, the biggest step to take with a mold issue is tackling the moisture problem. With a new roof and the running of a dehumidifier for weeks, that step was done. The next step is getting rid of food for the mold that is disposable, like paper-faced drywall and kraft-faced insulation. Working alone, I HEPA-vacuumed every joist to remove spores and grow Then, using the advice of an old time Soulard rehabber, I sprayed a hydrogen peroxide solution in case there was an active growth in need of being murdered.

Finally, I applied a coat of one of my favorite historically-accurate sealers, shellac. The remediation expert uses the shellac to encapsulate any remaining loose spores, so that in case of high humidity or a roof leak there is a low chance of new growth.

Toward the end of the job, while standing on metal steps looking up at my brush strokes, a drop of shellac fell and somehow managed to land in the center of my left eye. The jolt of the direct contact was one of the most bizarre sensations of my life. Before this, my strongest rehab experience was clobbering my shin with a large wrecking bar while working alone in a house in Hyde Park with no water or electricity. That time, I fell over from the pain and laid on the floor. Then I got up and gathered my composure.

This time, I spent a split second before reacting. The shellac drop wasn't spreading across the eye as expected, but still I moved and called out to Claire downstairs. I ran down to the bathroom and washed my eye out. The whole time I imagined what the consequence would be if too much shellac had gotten into my eye, and I had experienced damage because of it. (I already suffer terrible near-sightedness and inherited degeneration issues, so I suppose problems lie in in store regardless.) I asked myself, would it be worth suffering eye damage in order to rehabilitate a house that William H. Niedringhaus built in 1885 and only occupied for two years? A house that is virtually unknown in the city, and hardly of large significance? A solid Italianate townhouse that is one of many such buildings in this city?

Did I have to answer? Of course not.

That I was in a position to have this and other accidents happen to me shows my answer is "yes." To have one's blood mingle with a building that has survived over 120 years and likely will last 120 more is a chance at half-immortality no one should turn down.


Anonymous said...

MEK, toluene, and isopropyl acetate-based printing ink are no fun in the eyes, either. You should probably invest in a good pair of safety glasses and a proper half-mask respirator for dealing with any future fiberglass remediation.

Michael R. Allen said...

Oh, I wore my glasses and respirator for phase one. I should have worn them for the shellac phase, of course...