“I went to work at 7 in the morning. Everything was normal. Then at 1 PM, I didn’t have a house,” said Leah Iraheta. Iraheta lives in the PRAG House on 16th Ave E and E Aloha which burned in June of 2014. “I don’t think you really can quite absorb it at the time,” Iraheta told CHS.
The fire was just part of the problem. While the flames did their damage, the water used to douse the fire caused problems of its own -– a typical situation in house fires. But there isn’t much typical about the PRAG house, one of a dozen or so remaining communal living houses from the movement’s heyday in the 1970s and 80s. The 2014 fired didn’t bring PRAG house’s community to an end. But it did plenty of damage.
“When you see the flames coming out of the roof, you think that’s going to be the worst damage,” said Robert Mech of Board and Vellum Architecture, the Capitol Hill firm that designed the home’s rehabilitation after the fire.
As fire burned at the top of the house, the water ran down, essentially melting the lathe and plaster walls, pooling in the basement, and creating conditions that could lead to mold and rot, so a large portion of the house needed to be rebuilt.
Complicating matters further, they had to deal with the payment schedule of two different insurance companies, Mech said. And they needed to do the work backwards – where most construction work begins with getting exterior walls in place, this one needed to first make the interior livable, so PRAG house residents, a group which has been promoting communal living since 1972, could live there.
The fire took a toll on the group as well, Iraheta noted. A number of members of the house had moved out in months before the fire, so some of the people living there were fairly new. Only about half of the group moved back in after the fire.
“Not everybody moved forward,” she said. “We all scattered to the winds, got different places, but we continued to have meetings.”
In particular, a committee met to discuss the rebuild and to make decisions about it. There were many.
The inside presented countless challenges. The 13-bedroom house was built in 1907, according to county records. Like many of the century-old houses in the neighborhood, this one was full of the style and craftsmanship of the time it was built which, owing to modern labor costs, can be difficult to replace.
Another factor is the environmental impact of the construction, which Iraheta said the group kept top of mind during the process. They try to model affordable, practical ways to use the land, and kept that as a big part of the design philosophy. They worked to re-use materials and build in ways to allow them to minimize their power use and garbage generation, something that was already a cornerstone of PRAG house. But they still wanted to keep some of the period touches.
“They knew what they had in terms of the craftsmanship,” Mech said. “We had to make decisions about what to replace.”
Some plaster cornices, for example, were horribly damage by the water, but there were enough bits of them to allow workers to make casts so the work could be restored. A parquet floor on the main floor was ruined, but there were enough small pieces left that they could be used on a landing on the stairway.
The third floor of the house had at one point been a ballroom, before it was carved up into bedrooms. The PRAG house needed bedrooms more than they needed a ballroom, so restoring it was out of the question. But, the design and construction team was able to incorporate what had been a stage for the bands that played there decades ago into one of the rooms to make another room.
Iraheta happens to be the person who lives in that room. She explained that there was a discussion about tearing out the bandstand. But, for reasons that probably made sense to someone in 1907, support pillars were tied directly into it, creating what is almost like a structural bandstand. Removing it became cost prohibitive, but Iraheta is happy with the results, she says. Since basement storage isn’t available yet, her room is stuffed with things like outdoor gear, so she hasn’t yet gotten the full effect of being moved back in.
Other challenges also required some creativity. The house wanted to continue to use steam radiators for heat in some rooms, which sent the design team on a scavenger hunt for functioning, vintage radiators at reclaimed home goods stores. Mech noted that when they re-installed the radiators, they would also reposition them, to try and get heat more evenly spread through the rooms, part of the attempt to keep the look of the old house but include more modern sensibilities.
Iraheta said when the first members moved in in the early 70s much of the house’s hardwood floors had been covered with linoleum – which members started ripping up as their time and interest dictated. The end result was that different rooms had different favors, as befit the resident. Now, most of the rooms are more standardized, which Iraheta said was not likely to stay that way for too long. She speculated that in 20 years, people will have personalized their rooms, bringing back that different character.
They replaced old electrical wiring, but still found vintage light fixtures, albeit vintage light fixtures that could work with LED bulbs. And right along with those vintage fixtures is Cat 5 cable to allow Internet access. Mech said that kind of work blending old and new was one of the more interesting aspects of the work for him. The residents wanted to respect and preserve the history, but remember that people actually live modern lives there.
“We don’t want to re-create it as a museum,” he said.
The age of the house sometimes worked to their advantage. The old wooden-framed windows were made to be able to be taken apart and serviced. As a result, they were able to save many of them.
“It’s actually easier and less expensive than replacing with what we would call energy-efficient windows,” Mech said.
With the house nearly done, the group has re-formed, as well. Iraheta has been living there for about 13 months, and she said they are back to full membership. Much of the first floor common space had been used for construction staging, but that has slowly been returned to the residents as more and more of the work finishes.
Now that it has been more than two years since the fire, the end of reconstruction is in sight. There is an adage in construction that the last 10% of the work takes 90 percent of the time, and that stage is where they are now. A large black water tank on the side of the house will be buried in the yard –- the tank will collect water runoff to be used for maintaining landscaping –- and that should be the last large part of the project. After that, Mech expects the project, which is down to punch-list items, to be complete within about a month.