I knew nothing about architectural drawing or building construction when I arrived in Muskegon Heights to take over the high school mechanical drawing department tho I had had courses in strength of materials and steel structures. To increase my knowledge in the field I was always on the lookout for houses under construction where I could observe building techniques. Yvette too like to visit construction sites and she had a hobby of sketching floor plans for houses. One day we were out for a drive south of town and discovered two new houses under construction. They attracted our attention because the walls were being built with a new type of concrete block more attractive than the ugly gray blocks used for basements. The workmen told us it was a new light-weight block that a cement company in town was experimenting with, in which the aggregate, instead of being gravel, was blast furnace slag. The slag was light because it was porous and that made it a good insulator. The idea of a house that would be fireproof but also not subject to rot was intriguing and we went to the company making the blocks to get more information. Not only were the walls of concrete but also the floors and roof, which was flat, were supported by precast concrete joists.
Altho I was interested in the new type of construction I don’t believe I would have thought of building a house if Yvette had not come up with a series of floor plans for a two family house and also located a lot it could be built on a block south of where we lived. It was on the east side of Maffett a block north of Sherman Blvd. and was covered with oak trees. I drew up a full set of plans and we got the same contractors to build it who had constructed the two houses we had watched being built in the country. He was to do only the concrete work and the excavating, however, while we were to do everything else. We arranged for a loan from the Muskegon Building and Loan Company and started in. Bert Ketchem, president of the building and loan company, was a Heights man we were well acquainted with and we had no trouble getting a loan.
The house I designed as probably the most modern in design in the Muskegon area. The front was a concrete block wall and the living room windows on both floors were in the corner. I used precast concrete joists to frame the first floor which was also concrete. The second floor, however, had wooden joists set into holes in the blocks which I knocked out with a special hammer. 4x8 sheets of waterproof plywood were laid over the joists and two inches of concrete poured over them. Interior partitions on the first floor were of 4-inch lightweight blocks but of 2x4 studs on them with sheetrock and plaster. All ceilings and walls were plastered and we hired a crew to do that. Yvette put on overalls and spent all day nailing on sheetrock while I worked after school and on Saturdays and Sundays. Sometimes we worked ‘til midnight which I doubt the neighbors enjoyed even tho the hammering was inside. I remember working ‘til nearly midnight building the form to support the slab over the front porch so the men could pour the concrete the next morning. I did all of the wiring myself using light-walled conduit which had to be placed before the concrete was poured. Yvette was at home alone when she put up the last piece of sheetrock. She was so thrilled at having it all done at last that she gave the last nail an extra swat. Unfortunately she had her finger next to the nail and she broke the bone in the tip of her index finger. It slowed her down to have her finger in a splint but she kept right on working. She did all of the painting, inside and out, except where she had to climb and work on a high ladder. She has a fear of heights.
As soon as the first floor was habitable we moved in, then sold the old house for $4,500 giving us cash to finish the second floor and start paying back our debt to the loan company. We had hardly moved, however, when Yvette lamented that we hadn’t had the foresight to make part of the basement into a third apartment instead of a recreation room. We could pay off the mortgage that much sooner and have a good income from the two apartments afterwards. I got the plans out and found that it still was not too late to do it and it should not cost much either as I could do it all myself. We went ahead and finished the second floor apartment first, however, as we could rent it and be receiving income from it while we did the basement. Our first renters were a young couple with no children.
I had designed the house with an attached garage entered from the street, the garage roof acting as an open balcony for the second floor apartment. It was the first time we had an attached garage and it wasn’t long before Yvette began to complain of the odor of the exhaust and gasoline in the house. She talked me into turning the space into another living room and building a garage and storage for the apartments at the rear of the lot, next to the alley. I designed a concrete block building containing one enclosed stall and two open stalls for cars to be parked under a cantilevered roof and there were also two small rooms that could be used to store anything our tenants didn’t want to keep in the house. We had another contractor, a man by the name of Lyle White, to do the concrete work but I did everything else except tar the roof. Yvette painted the blocks white to match the house.
Due to ignorance and the newness of lightweight concrete block construction I made two bad errors in the design of that house. I didn’t realize that a concrete block wall will crack if it is not tied together in some way, especially where the temperature differences are as great as they are in Michigan between winter and summer, and a flat roof with a parapet wall above it is not suitable for a region that can get up to twelve feet of snow in the winter time. The snow would pile up on the roof, melt or thaw into a mush on a warm day then freeze into solid ice at night. I was afraid the roof would collapse and several times each winter I would get a ladder, go up on the roof and throw big slabs of ice over the parapet into the back yard. The long stretch of block wall in the front of the house cracked in the middle and had to be patched. There were also small cracks at the edges of windows. Later concrete block houses that we built had steel ties laid in the mortar every fourth course and across all openings. Another mistake I made was in not taking Yvette’s advice to remove more of the oak trees before we started construction. I hated to cut down trees. We were never able to have a good lawn because of too much shade and the acid soil caused by oak lives in the fall.