Construction Feed

Brick man makes brick men

Adam brick man maker - 1
This is the story of the brick men. Twenty-five years ago a brick side addition of the big old house in West Mount Airy that Adam Shuman, a retired Philadelphia firefighter lives in, had collapsed, One of his tenants, whom he suspects harbored unrealized architectural ambitions, decided to use some of the bricks to construct a simple human form from the bricks to see if he could get it to balance.

When Shuman needed access to his ladders through the basement cellar door, he moved the brick man to the front. That’s when, he says, it got out of hand. He just wanted to build brick men, more and more of them. So he began to actively collect bricks from burnt out brick-strewn lots in North Philadelphia on his drive to classes at Temple University.

For years now, dozens of brick men have lined the front of the property and also along a side property line with a neighbor. They provide kind of a visual frame for Shuman’s numerous rusted iron and wood sculptures that adorn the yard.

The brick men are very popular, he says, especially with twelve year-old boys who can’t resist toppling them. Every couple of years he finds two or three brick men knocked over.He purposely doesn’t cement them lest they get knocked over and seriously hurt someone. And he has a constant stream of people stopping to take photographs, chat and ask questions. Years ago, TV’s Captain Noah and his wife numbered among the regulars.

If Shuman sees bricks, a brick man may be likely to follow. He made one traveling with family in Namibia in 2007. Near land they have in Mexico, he made one out of adobe but rain washed it away.

Shuman demonstrated his technique for making a brick man; to start, 7 bricks are laid side by side and the middle three removed and then the bricks are layered upwards until the final 16th layer.

In his art studio he has fashioned a brick man out of wood cut into brick-size pieces. He entertains a plans to build a giant brick man made of 500 bricks and standing at 6 feet tall. Now that would seal Shuman’s reputation as the brick man.

Watch the video tour of the brick men with the brick man here.


We build a mudhif

Mudhif building sarah and mohannad
Your correspondent joined U.S. military veterans, Iraqi refugees and other volunteers from the community to break ground on Memorial Day and start work on a traditional Iraqi structure dating back thousands of years called a “mudhif“ on the grounds of the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Roxborough, Philadelphia. More photos here. Watch a video about the first day ceremony and building start of an Iraqi mudhif.

“Al-Mudhif” is the brainchild of Seattle-based artist Sarah Kavage and Mount Airy based designer Yaroub Al-Obaidi who, after attending a lecture Kavage delivered a year ago at Moore College of Art during which she displayed a photo of a mudhif, suggested they build one! It is, perhaps, the first in the United States. The project, sponsored by the Alliance for Watershed Education of the Delaware River, is one of fifteen site-specific installations, six already completed, extending as far north as the Delaware Water Gap and as far south as Wilmington, west to Reading and east to Trenton, all within the Lenapehoking watershed, the home of the native Lenape people.

Building a mudhif, which your correspondent can attest to firsthand, is overlaying and binding together reeds into long columns. These columns are then placed in 32-inch deep, 2-foot wide holes to provide the vertical supports. They are then bent toward one another to form an arched roof. In upcoming days, mats will be woven and set in place to form a thatched roof. Air and sunlight will come through lattice panels to be constructed and attached. Adjacent to the structure, Kavage’s husband, Rob has been busy installing the structure for a large bench for seating and a view from just outside the mudhif.

On day one, we divided into two large teams- the first tasked with digging 10 large holes, 5 opposite 5 to form the length of the rectangular structure. I opted to work with volunteers assembling the columns. We used phragmites, reed grasses, harvested previously. (A non-native form of phragmites is considered invasive and it is likely a plus-side of the project was some invasive control)

From the sidelines, an older man from Iraq who went by “Kam” vividly recalled his father’s large mudhif in Nasriyah near the Euphrates River. His family would welcome guests and travelers to rest, stay, eat and drink coffee or tea in the mudhif, set apart from the main home. At that time, Kam said, people traveled distances by horse and would go from mudhif to mudhif to rest along the way.

A younger man, Hadi al-Karfawi, who left Iraq at the age of nine spoke of his strong emotional connection with the mudhif his grandfather, a tribal leader, had built . As a boy, he was tasked with preparing and serving the strong coffee to guests. He absorbed that the mudhif was community place where people would come to resolve disputes. Everyone was given a chance to speak without interruption. The disputes might be inter-tribal or among families  of one's own tribe.

As your correspondent spoke with al-Karfawi, Mohaned Al-Obaidi, the lead builder and Yaroub’s brother, was having some trouble bending the first two columns of reeds to form the arch at the entrance. Traditionally, al-Karfawi said, the reeds, of a different variety in use here, might be more moisture-filled, perhaps more freshly cut, which would make the bending easier. (The arch is not going to be the traditional rounded one; Yaroub has designed it to be more angular  so winter snow will more easily slide off and not weigh down the roof.) al-Karfawi spoke of helpers being divided into groups, just like us, with specific tasks and he demonstrated how he and others would stomp on mud mixed with hay to form the “cement” to applied inside the roof. He had brought along two of his young children and, as the project was about to get underway, they stood by with child-sized shovels at the ready.

In his opening remarks, Al-Obaidi spoke of how emotional this undertaking has been- recreating a traditional community structure from his homeland. He suspected many of us have only associated Iraq until now with war and suffering. He hopes this welcoming mudhif will bring about a better understanding of Iraq’s ancient and rich culture.

The grand opening of the mudhif is planned for June 24th and according to a Schuylkill Center blog many activities are planned. “We will activate the installation Al-Mudhif with extended programming around exchange of war experience, healing and intercultural encounters from June to October 2021.”

Your correspondent asks, wouldn’t it be wonderful if the dispute resolution aspect of a mudhif could be "activated”? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if representative native Lenape could settle ongoing claims in this mudhif with representatives of the long dominant immigrant community? Descendants of former slaves with descendants of former slaveholders? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Israeli and Palestinian representatives could forge a just and lasting peace in this mudhif? And isn’t it fitting that this peace and justice-making take place on land taken from the Lenape, now in the safekeeping of environmental non-profit, in a traditional structure of a people who themselves experienced recent devastation to their own culture- the swamp Arabs of Iraq? A structure built for community, hospitality and peace-making. Inshallah.

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More videos here

Building Al Mudhif - short version

Mudhif groundbreaking ceremony

Docent tells about Iraqi mudhifs and ancient Sumer

Schuylkill Center Director acknowledges land belonging to Lenape people at mudhif groundbreaking


Wire train removes old catenary wire above train tracks

Septa catenary wire

This video depicts SEPTA’s flotilla-like “wire train” renewing the catenary wire above the tracks on the R7 Chestnut Hill East line as it works its way past the Mount Airy train station. The wires become worn after decades of use. The workers are taking down old catenary wire, dropping and sliding it into the gondola for scrap metal. The new catenary wire is already in place and running trains. Naturally, for the safety of the workers, the catenary is de-energised and grounded.

The following description is from a SEPTA blog post of July 13, 2017
“In our world, a catenary is a system of overhead wires used to supply electricity to a locomotive, streetcar, or light rail vehicle which is equipped with a pantograph. The pantagraph presses against the underside of the lowest overhead wire, the contact wire.
Current collectors are electrically conductive and allow current to flow through to the train and back to the feeder station through the steel wheels on one or both running rails. Unlike simple overhead wires, in which the uninsulated wire is attached by clamps to closely spaced crosswires supported by poles, catenary systems use at least two wires. The catenary or messenger wire is hung at a specific tension between line structures, and a second wire is held in tension by the messenger wire, attached to it at frequent intervals by clamps and connecting wires known as droppers. The second wire is straight and level, parallel to the rail track, suspended over it as the roadway of a suspension bridge is over water.
Simple wire installations are common in light rail, especially on city streets, while more expensive catenary systems are suited to high-speed operations.
The Northeast Corridor in the United States has catenary over the 600 miles (1000 km) between Boston, Massachusetts and Washington, D.C. for Amtrak's high-speed Acela Express and other trains. Commuter rail agencies including MARC, SEPTA, NJ Transit, and Metro-North Railroad utilize the catenary to provide local service.
Overhead line equipment can be adversely affected by strong winds causing swinging wires. Power storms can knock the power out with lightning strikes on systems with overhead wires, stopping trains if there is a power surge. During cold or frosty weather, there is a risk of ice build-up on overhead lines. This can result in poor electrical contact between the collector and the overhead line, resulting in electrical arcing and power surges.
On the Media/Elwyn Line, we're working on replacing 17 miles of 80+ year old overhead catenary wire. We're also building/installing new catenary support poles.”


Our water line gets switched to new water main

Pipe to attach exisitng connector water line to new water main
Thanks to the workers of Seravalli Contractors for putting in our new water main and for their patience in explaining the construction process

Nearly 9 AM this morning your correspondent went to the corner of Ardleigh Street and East Highland Avenue, the time the water was due to  cut off to all the houses on our block. They were making the switch from the new water main they had laid on Ardleigh Street to our existing water connector line beneath Highland Avenue. A foreman and the workers amiably indulged my questions and so I share what I learned.

The large crew was assembled working into tow teams on different sides of the intersection. First they took diameter measurements of the existing connector pipe now exposed lying 4 feet down. Excavation had preceded by a day or so. According to the foreman, connector pipes can range from 6 to 8 inches in diameter. I believe ours measured 8 inches. “Feeder” or distribution mains can measure 12 to 16 inches in diameter. ( Before excavation began, I saw large black pipes staged excavation along Ardleigh Street;  the ones farther south between Southampton Ave and Gravers Lane, appeared considerably larger than the ones, the next block up, between Gravers Lane and Highland Ave)

A worker then began abrading the existing connector pipe at the point it would be cut. Meanwhile another worker was sawing sections of new pipe to adjoin the existing connector pipe on or street with the main. Pipes are now made of ductile iron said the foreman because they are stronger and more durable than the existing cast iron pipes. He relayed that the stretch of Ardleigh Street north of Highland Avenue was more challenging to excavate because there were a lot of stones in the ground. This Wissahickon schist is commonly  seen in our 100 or so year- old homes. Your correspondent saw connector pipes being hoisted, removed then rehoisted into the trenches.  A pump was put into place to pump out any water that might accumulate during the process. I could not approach close enough to see the worker affix the collars to complete the pipe connections.

Farther down Ardleigh street, after the main had been laid, workers were replacing connections from individual houses along the street to the new main with three-quarter inch copper piping by snaking it through to the main. The workmen looked like prairie dogs popping up and down from the small pits outside each house by the curb. A worker said people may complain that their street gets dug up three separate times because they might not understand the the multi step process. Temporary, large stone asphalt is used at the preliminary stages before the final fill. When all pipe laying and connection work is done, a layer of sand will be poured on top of the pipe followed by a couple feet of soil. Then comes a layer of stones, then a layer of concrete and finally, the street is repaved with the a finer asphalt material and smoothed down with a roller.

I editorialize: for the customer, the only inconvenience is a few weeks of stepping around construction equipment and navigating some muddy streets. A City of Philadelphia Water Department postcard stuck in our door advised us that water would be shut off on December 22, 2020 from 9 am to 4 pm but in actuality, the water was shut off  well after 9  and restored much before 4. Considering the size of the project, interruption to our service was a mere few hours. The  true value of a consistent supply of clean water for our health, for our lives, is  far beyond the very modest water rates we pay. Rates are so low that some of us think nothing of watering our lawns water or filling our swimming pools with water that is good enough to drink!

Watch video here.

See photo slide show here.


Trenches dug, pipes laid, switching to new water mains

New water line ardleigh street
Workers put in new water mains along Ardleigh Street north of Gravers Lane in Northwest Philadelphia. An excavator scoops soil to form a 5 foot deep trench. A section of pipe is then strapped to the machine and lowered gently into place. One of the workers says that before the line becomes active it will be filled with chlorinated water to “shock” it and then flushed with clean water. Water running through the new line will then be tested to make sure it meets quality standards before the switch is made to the new line. The existing pipe runs just adjacent to where the new pipe is being laid. Some days before a new juncture was put in at the intersection of Ardleigh Street and Gravers Lane. The pipes that had been staged along the street south of Gravers Lane appeared to be of a wider gauge than those to the north of Gravers. These photos and video were taken on December 3. On December 21, a worker hand delivered postcard size notices from the Philadelphia Water Department advising residents along East Highland Avenue that the water would be shut off on December 22 from 9 to 4 due to construction. Your correspondent supposes that this will be the time when the switch is made from the old to the new line. Watch video of construction hereFor more information visit PWD at https://www.phila.gov/water/wu/drinkingwater/MainBreaks/Pages/default.aspx