a solid foundation, in deed

By Roger Bowman

As a new member of the Emergent Structure board, my first “real” project came together with my love of ice cream…although it took Director Scott’s post for me to find out how the two were connected.

I was one of the several volunteers who answered the ES call to de-mortar 500 bricks for the lobby of Mercy Housing’s welcome center at the Savannah Gardens redevelopment. It was my first time visiting Savannah Gardens, and it was a quiet Saturday morning—I could almost hear the many voices of the former SG residents echoing across the site.

We quickly set up some work stations and went to work collecting bricks and knocking the mortar off and carefully counting and stacking the bricks ready for reuse.

By work station, I mean a beach chair with a block of cement from a former porch to use as an anvil, and by collecting bricks I mean walking around the site and picking up bricks; and by knocking the mortar off, I mean sitting in the beach chair using the porch/anvil block and a hammer and chisel to separate the 1940’s brick (a beautiful thing) from the 1940’s mortar (a crumbly thing), and repeat. 500 times.

Here’s the thing about a brick; it used to be a clay deposit somewhere until it got dug up, formed into shape, fired in a kiln at a bazillion degrees, trucked into place and carefully assembled into a house capable of withstanding a hurricane. To paraphrase Kevin Costner on the mound with Tim Robbins and the rest of the team in Bull Durham, it’s got a lot of stuff going on. It’s durable, and it’s very, very reusable. The below image is from a color test for the reclaimed bricks, before they were cut in half and laid.

Left behind at the Savannah Gardens demolition, these bricks were on the verge of falling into a take-make-waste model of consumption; take the clay, make the brick, waste the leftovers or discards or at end-of-life. Enter ES and a band of volunteers, and diversion is the result, which is a vast improvement over the old school, consumptive model of production. And these storied old bricks move on to their new life as a story floor in the new welcome center across the street.

In addition to the ice cream connection, I’ll add my playful—or at least confessional—perspective to the morning’s hard work; after my wrist stated to pain me from the de-mortaring part of the work, I shifted over to the count-and-stack part of the operation; I collected the newly cleaned bricks from the de-mortar sites and painstakingly stacked and counted, carefully aiming to achieve 500 bricks—no more, no less!

And here it comes, fellow volunteers; I lost count.

I know we did at least 500 bricks—our board member formerly with Levi’s insisted on doing 501 bricks (and then, for good measure 505…)—but I lost count just when the bricks really started coming off the cleaning stations thick and fast; the layers started getting wonky with all the helping hands, and I had to start estimating. And about the same time we started counting down from 450 (50! 49! 48!…) I started undercounting to be sure we got to at least 501…but as far as a specific number of bricks we cleaned…no one knows. Confession over!

The old bricks have been cut in half and placed in the lobby (pardon the quality of the images in this post, we’ll get better ones soon enough), and they will eventually be joined by a wall installation recounting the story of the original bricks, and how they ended up as a “new” floor; telling a story of reuse, of old bricks rescued from “waste”. It’s the story of Emergent Structures, by the way—and one step more toward creating a national model for materials recovery and reuse. Those bricks have a lot goin’ on; they are not a significant waste stream, they are a source of economic and cultural wealth for our community, and you can do the same in your community. These old bricks are structures, emerging. Check it out.

And this last image is after the wood floor in the same building was sanded and finished:

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