Renovating St. Luke’s Methodist Church (Part 2)

The roof at St. Luke’s that we’re replacing presents a bit of a challenge because it’s a steep, 45-degree slope. So we have to remove and replace the shingles in sections, setting up our roof jack and platform scaffolding once to remove the old shingles and then again to install the new ones. We tackle about 20 feet across at a time, leaving the end shingles loose so we can weave the beginning of the next section before nailing them. It’s a bit of a painstaking process — the shingles and nail gun are now the easy part though it wasn’t always that way — it’s the preparation, ladders and scaffolding that require the most work.

I’ve mentioned that I started working with Jon at Cumming Construction in the fall of 2003. I had recently returned to Philadelphia after 10 years in New York City, dragging boxes of suits and client files behind me. I decided I didn’t want to open those boxes for a while.

So about a week in on this new job, Jon asked me to join him on the roof of an addition he was finishing in Wayne. There was a small section that still needed to be shingled. I climbed the 40-foot ladder and found him scooting around the roof like a squirrel. He tossed me the nail gun, which I trapped between my elbow and the roof, refusing to let go of the ladder. He held a shingle in place and told me to nail it, but upon pulling the trigger, the kickback blew the gun right out of my hand. Luckily he was also holding the air hose, saving the gun from shattering three stories below on a concrete patio.

“Is everything ok?” he asked (or some expletive-soaked version thereof).

I quickly reminded him of my sheltered upbringing and decade in Manhattan rental apartments. “I’ve never used a power tool before.”

Jon looked at me as if I had just told him I was a 31-year-old virgin. And (cue the melodrama) in a moment that changed both our lives forever, he thought a moment, took a deep breath, and said: “OK. This is how you hold the nail gun. You hold the shingle in this hand like this…”

Seven years later, those boxes remain closed. And I happily scoot around roofs without a care in the world (much to my wife’s chagrin).

I like to think it’s a testament to my progress (with a dash of obsession) that Jon will sometimes forget my prior inexperience with all things technical. We’ll have our heads buried deep in the engine of our 1986 Ford 350 dump truck, which sometimes has trouble starting. “Well of course it’s the starter solenoid,” he’ll say. “Haven’t you ever rebuilt an engine before?”

Renovating St. Luke’s Methodist Church in Bryn Mawr (Part 1)

Historically our frenetic pace slows a bit in the late fall, as people settle down from the summer and start preparing for the holidays. This lightening of the load is actually a blessing, so to speak; Jon and his family are very involved with St. Luke’s Methodist Church in Bryn Mawr, which is well over 100 years old and usually in need of some cosmetic updating.

The church was founded in 1876 and its structure completed in 1879; of course the sanctuary and surrounding buildings were added onto as the area’s population increased (though the original sanctuary remains, safely ensconced in a section of the much larger one built in the 1960s).

When I first came back to Philadelphia in 2003 and began working with Jon, after nearly 15 years away, I spent a decent amount of time at the church, helping them set up for their annual Children’s Festival and other large events. I met a lot of good people, which was nice since I didn’t have a large circle of friends or my own family yet. They’re a group that focuses on spiritual growth and positive living, rather than a strict or harsh interpretation of the Bible — not the kind of crowd to get upset when they see a Jewish boy like me wandering the halls.

So during the months of November and December we’ll often set up shop on the corner of Montgomery Avenue and Pennswood Road (next to Harcum College) and give the church’s buildings their required and earned attention.

In past years we installed all new windows in the large Lurwick Hall educational building, re-drywalled and painted the interior of the building, excavated and re-poured the cement sidewalk and walkway along Montgomery Avenue, and installed new siding on the church’s parsonage (which isn’t the candlelit cabin I associate with the word, but a beautiful 6-bedroom house with a detached garage. This is the Main Line, after all).

This year we’re removing the original, cement shingle roof of the Lurwick educational building (built in 1950) and replacing it with dimensional asphalt shingles. The entire process should take about two weeks. Although not roofers by trade, we do roofing pretty regularly in the course of our projects. Almost always when we build additions (a few times a year), we’ll re-roof and then usually re-side or re-surface the entire house so it looks uniform.

Check back to see the work in action and find out if we’ve fallen off any ladders.

It’s Not Easy Being Green (Part 1)

Cumming Construction Booth at GreenfestYou may have heard of the LEED Certification system, which is a national standard for green building. LEED is still rare in residential remodeling, due to the high costs involved in retrofitting the existing home and the rigorous third-party certification process.

That being said, one of my favorite aspects of LEED is that it requires builders and designers to research every building material source, its manufacturing process, and travel distance to the job site — whether salvaged and reclaimed, extracted from an FSC-certified forest, recycled from waste products, or a renewable resource.

Because the answers, especially in remodeling, can be more grey than green. The truth is, everyone from contractors to product salespeople wants to be green these days, so there is an awful lot of “greenwashing” (“clean coal,” anyone?) By the way, only a building can be LEED Certified, not a person or product.

Consider bamboo, for instance. It’s one of the most popular green products available -– bamboo fights global warming by releasing 35% more oxygen than an equivalent stand of trees, it doesn’t destroy the topsoil when harvested, and it’s renewable every three to five years. Unfortunately, much of the bamboo now available is harvested overseas by countries exploiting its sudden popularity –- resulting in over-harvesting, additional shipping expense, and questionable labor practices.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of bamboo, its durability and warmth in addition to its environmental benefits (I recently installed bamboo flooring in my own home). I’m simply suggesting that “environmentally friendly” doesn’t mean perfect, and compromises — whether financial, stylistic, or pragmatic — are inevitable in any major home improvement project.

We recently installed CFL bulbs in the new recessed lighting kits of a kitchen remodel in Fairmount. Although the bulbs were marketed as dimmable, after going a shade less bright they simply went dark. The result: out came the CFL bulbs in favor of the inefficient and energy-wasting incandescents (though the dimmers still save lamp life and reduce electrical output, both green positives). Again, good intentions tempered by practical application.

This fall we exhibited our work at two “green” events around Philadelphia — the Manayunk Eco-Fest and the GreenFest on South Street. Not only did we meet many people who appreciated our knowledge of green materials and products, but it was great to network and see what other exhibitors — from energy auditors to green roof designers — were introducing to the marketplace.

One part of the GreenFest I found particularly noteworthy was that, due to a scheduling conflict, our event shared space with a benefit walk for cancer (which we were happy to do, even swapping our company’s maroon tablecloth for a purple one). The cancer event director confided to me, as the festivals were winding down, that the GreenFest organizers gave her a very hard time because she was distributing collateral material in plastic bags. I empathized so deeply with her dilemma that all I could do was respond, “It ain’t easy.”

Toolbelts and Textbooks: Our Ongoing Education

Jon has been building custom homes and remodeling for over half of his life (which, I jokingly remind him, is a very long time). And simply by practicing thoughtful and responsible habits — considering long-term and life-cycle sustainability, and maximizing nature’s resources in an efficient and conserving manner — he was a green builder, I believe, long before the term came into vogue.

He’s taught me construction and remodeling along those lines, so although it’s fun to read about trendy materials and more efficient systems, the philosophy and mindset are already second nature. Each time I eagerly bring an article to work about a new insulation or roofing shingle, he unfailingly responds, “Doesn’t that make sense?”

Deliver better indoor air quality, make the home cost less to operate, and minimize the negative impact the home has on the environment — these aren’t revolutionary concepts. The products themselves may improve on earlier versions, but the practical goals have been around even longer than, well, Jon.

That being said, we find it extremely important not to rest on our (green) laurels. Jon and I both are avid readers and self-educators on emerging green techniques and materials through trade magazines, web sites, seminars, manufacturer and distributor newsletters, and trade shows.

Jon is currently pursuing continuing education through the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI), where he is studying to become a Certified Remodeler (nothing like going back to school after 25 years in the business). Although his course load doesn’t specifically focus on green building, the information seems to take a pragmatic approach to environmentally responsible and cost-effective solutions for long-term goals (again, a basic definition of green building).

Last year I became a LEED Accredited Professional, which was a very intense six months of classes, studying and a pass-fail exam. The US Green Building Council defines a LEED AP as someone who has demonstrated a thorough understanding of green building practices and resources. He or she is also trained in the process of attaining LEED Certification for their projects. I belong to the US Green Building Council’s local Delaware Valley Chapter, as well, where I sit on the Emerging Professionals and Residential Circle Committees.

Check out next week’s blog to see how we’ve incorporated some green principles into our everyday work.

What Green Remodeling Means to Us

Jon Cumming and I have put a lot of thought into what “building green” means to us, as builders, contractors, architects and designers are at the forefront of the surging eco-friendly movement. We decided that — although there are a handful of exclusively “green” remodelers in the area enjoying great demand, and believe me it’s tempting to ride the wave — we’re only going to incorporate the green elements into our projects that work smarter and look better than conventional products (AND do this after considering the product’s environmental impact over its entire life cycle).

Our job as remodelers is to deliver an energy-efficient project, contribute to healthy indoor air quality, and practice thoughtful and well-researched buying habits — not to religiously aspire to a mysterious principle because it’s trendy and looks good on our marketing materials. So we’re “practically” green, if you will.

The first, and by far most important, component of green remodeling, we concluded, is education. It is incumbent upon us — both for our clients and the greater good — to be highly knowledgeable about and aware of as many green products, materials, and techniques as possible. We then must give clients the options and explain:

  • what a product’s green benefits are,
  • the upfront price difference and possible cost-savings,
  • the product’s components and durability,
  • how it returns to its natural state in the environment at the end of its life (check out the broad green remodeling cost-benefit analysis by our friends at GreenandSave.com, for example).

We should work closely with our clients to interpret the (often hazy and conflicting) product or material information and best apply it to their projects — if it makes sense.

As we pursue this ongoing education (watch for later posts), our responsibility at Cumming Construction is two-fold. First, construct smart, well-insulated and energy efficient homes. Not just on larger projects like complete renovations or additions, but also on a smaller (and more frequent) scale, like bathroom or kitchen remodels. Secondly, but just as importantly, we must have the knowledge and experience to propose and explore whatever sustainable and green elements might benefit our clients’ homes in the long run. We must educate our clients and then let THEM decide; we’re here to consult and guide the process, not to insist on a principle or tell the clients what they want. We want our client to champion the process and recognize the benefit of every decision made and each piece in the puzzle. In the end, it’s the client’s home, not our’s. Despite how nicely it may read on our web site.