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The Big Clean

November 27, 2009

Start your engines!

We talk a lot about how architects can see beyond the junk to the possibilities and promise. Truth is, the junk in our building is real and has to go somewhere. Cleaning out 13,000 square feet is not a small task, as we have discovered.

Taking out the trash

All throughout the place are piles of assorted materials.

A little pile here, a little pile there...

It appeared that the occupants would start a project in some open spot of the floor, finish the work but leave behind the flotsam. That starter-pile would become a magnet for more junk to be dropped on top. In some instances, it looked like someone started a project, left for lunch and never returned. Some things, like sheets of cardboard, scrapped signs and paint stir sticks make sense to be found in the piles. Other things were more perplexing, like the bowling ball that was painted white. I guess with this much space there was no need to be proactive about taking out the trash.

Divide and conquer

It was overwhelming to look out over the space and try to decide where to start. There was so much! We started with sorting the accumulation. The former inhabitants were litter bugs inside the building, but at least they didn’t send recyclables to the landfill. After several runs to the recycle center, we disposed of many garbage bags of aluminum cans, water bottles, glass and paper. That was the easy part. And it hardly made a dent.

We decided to do the only thing you really can do in this situation. We picked a corner and started cleaning. We picked up the mini-piles, moved stuff to a growing pile near the elevator. We used various implements, mostly homemade, to scrape peeling paint from the walls and ceilings and remnants of linoleum from the floor. When we could no longer lift our arms from floor scraping fatigue, we swapped to ceiling scraping. All the while, we contemplated writing an exercise book: “Scrape Your Way to Fitness: the Rehabber’s Workout”.

Stairwell Wall Scraping

The “bathroom” (really just another pile collector that happened to have a toilet in the corner) was definitely not the kind of facility my girlfriends would frequent. Once we removed the boxes of antique accounting documents, a stack of dead computers, and a fabric-covered cubicle partition used as a privacy screen near the toilet, it was time to try and remove the flooring.

Why would someone think “Let’s line this space around a toilet with absorbent materials, that will look nice!”? The floor, alone, could have been supporting the microscopic beginnings of the next plague. The strata was made up of paint flakes, plaster chunks, carpet of indeterminable color and texture and the ubiquitous linoleum and glue. All of these layers were basted with whatever juices didn’t make it into the bowl. We especially like the edgy decorating touch of the too small toilet seat – as Darcy said “Nice underbite!”.

Keep that respirator on!

Keep pluggin’ along…

For the first part of the clean-up, we relied on Stone Age level technology: sharp objects and physical force. After a few evenings and working all weekend, we got 2 bays cleared and we realized we weren’t making tremendous progress. But any square inch that we cleared felt like a victory.

One Small (Clean) Strip For Man...

Luckily, help was on the way!

Jim and Darcy arrived Sunday night. They drove up from OKC to spend the T-day week with us, see our crazy project and help. They seem to have a similar affliction – they think this kind of project is fun. We aren’t questioning it; we are thrilled to have their good-natured, strong-back help.

Before this project, mopping meant getting out one of those sponge mops with the lever and rollers. That scale of mop fit the scale of our house just fine. It was time to supersize the mop to match the task at hand. Adding an engine can only help. Tom’s spent some formative years working at a Safeway grocery store and was familiar with mopping vast floor areas. He investigated renting one of those “mopping machines”, but why rent when you can own? Thanks to Craig’s List, we are now the proud owners of a second hand self-powered mopping machine. The seller even threw in a 55-gallon drum of floor cleaner. (How many of you have your own a 55-gallon drum of floor cleaning fluid?) Good thing we have a B.A.T. to transport this new treasure! Not only does it mop much faster, it has the added feature of being a cool mechanical thing, and Tom loves to use it; I may never have to mop again! For that trade off, I may even be willing to share some of my closet space to house Tom’s zamboni. Maybe.

Our 'Mop'

Many hands, and some machines, make light the work.

When Jim & Darcy arrived on Sunday, after dropping their bags, we asked “Wanna go see the building?” — “Of course!”. So we did a requisite walk-through, and then said “Now what?”… Taskmaster Tom suggested that we could “get right to work”, and they both said “Okay!”.  The progress was tremendous. Within just a few hours, the four of us accomplished 10 times the amount of work that just Tom & I had on our own. It felt like there was some exponential power factor with Jim & Darcy helping.

We started bringing in the big guns. We rented a floor scraping machine- still requires physical force to some degree, but a different muscle group, at least. It had its own challenges and we took turns using it.

Jim at the helm... of the floor scraper.

I took my turn at scraping. This old linoleum would either come up in large sheets, or it was super-adhered. The machine did a great job pulverizing the stuck stuff but you had to really put your weight into it to jam the blade into the floor. There aren’t many times that I’ve valued my Polish hips, but this is not a job for a waif.

Sue: Put your gut into it!

For a day or so, we debated how we’d haul off all the debris. There were trips to U-Haul to consider renting a trailer, contact made to the landfill to check  prices, back when we thought we could make few B.A.T. runs. As our “big pile” got bigger, it became clear that we should get a real dumpster delivered and let someone else handle the hauling. The dumpster arrived Tuesday and they would pick it Friday, the day after Thanksgiving.

The pile keeps GROWING…


The plan for the week was broken into three waves: 1) Purge: Pick up all the crap, remove debris, and remove flooring and loose plaster; 2) Clean: Vacuum and mop & wipe down everything; and 3) Party Prep: get the place set up for the party at the end of the week. We used different muscle groups and different parts of the brain for each phase.

We were still in the first phase – just CLEAR everything out. Our neighbor Rikita was coming by almost everyday, and she would help to sort out a lot of stuff in the “office”, which was great because Rikita actually wanted to take some of it home. We were worried for a while that we would get in trouble with Rikita’s parents because they might see her treasures as TRASH, but they were happy to have her helping out!

So our routine for days was the same – wake up and put on work gear, eat breakfast, pickup Starbucks, then drive over to the building. Pile up crap, scrape floors, move junk. (Break for lunch.) Then repeat: Pile up crap, scrape floors, move junk. (Break for dinner.) Sunset was early (remember, it’s November), so we were always leaving the building in the dark. Some nights we just wanted to fall down.

quittin' time...

No, this isn’t a low res photo. All of the “floating specks” in that photo are due to the VAST amounts of dust always floating around in our building when we’ve been working.

Seems we can't even get ONE area clean for long.

Our “big pile” of crap was at its peak – and Tom & Jim took on the task of moving it from our second floor out to the street below. Darcy and I managed to schedule a yoga class at the best possible time!. Here’s what it looked like BEFORE we started hauling it away…

Big Ass Pile of Crap - Our Own "Iwo Jima"

By the end of Tuesday, Tom & Jim had the dumpster at 80% capacity – and all the stuff had been moved multiple times until it finally ended up in the bin.

Full Dump - mostly old linoleum

As the “heavy lifting” phase was ending, we still were doing the awful “scraping” phases. Since we were planning for a party at the end of the week, and there could be people anywhere standing around with food and drink, we wanted to make sure that no plaster nor paint would fall into anything that they might consume. Which meant pretty much that every square inch of surface needed to be touched and anything that COULD, needed to be broken loose.

Darcy using the home-made ceiling scraper

By T-day, the piles were gone, the walls and ceiling were scraped and the floors were all mopped. We even got a lot of the first floor cleared out. Rikita became our cleaning mascot, stopping by with her allotted safety glasses, dust mask and reflective vest. She was even willing to climb a ladder and paint some of the oozy spots!

Rikita helps with some painting...

So the real impact is to look at a before and after shot.

Photo before any cleaning...

Same area Wednesday...

Our favorite part of the day is at sunset when the light floods in. Whenever we are there and the sun is low, we just sit in a chair for 10 minutes and just be still as we enjoy the amazing golden light pouring through all of the windows.

It was on Thanksgiving day that we quit early – instead of the usual drive-thru dinner, we actually wore non-work clothes, sat at the dining room table and ate a real meal. We didn’t take the time to cook the traditional meal, but were didn’t miss out. Thanks to the talented cooks at Whole Foods, we enjoyed a really tasty “to go” turkey meal.

On this day, we have much to be thankful for: Amazing friends and family, finally getting this place that inspires us and the chance to see our ideas become a reality. Many thanks to everyone that has become part of our Big Ass Dreams!


Making the work ‘light’ is relative, though. The dumpster folks hauled away the container and sent us the ticket, telling us just how much we removed. 3.76 tons!

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