A history of B&B Construction

Photos and text by Michael Broschat

Thirty-five years ago, my brother Lyle convinced my then-wife S and me to buy a fixer-upper house in Seattle. S and I lived in a modest house just north of the city. Our address was already ‘Seattle’ (a recent visit showed me that it is now called ‘Shoreline’), and what did we want with another house? What had happened was that Lyle was taking an architecture course (part of his landscape architecture program at U of Washington), and he had gotten fascinated with the building process. Also, he was living in a rented room or apartment (I can’t recall even having seen this) in rental-starved Seattle, and was itching to get into something more human. He would take walks around his neighborhood, and one day saw a “For Sale by Owner” sign on a very modest house on East Aloha Street.

I don’t recall why S and I agreed to do this, but I do remember some of the process by which we contributed our share of the start-up funding, and it is not without a bit of pain and even embarassment. Whatever, the project got started, late in 1979. Here is the house as we first saw and owned it.

Incredible as it seems, we had apparently already started working on it (see the vinyl in the front window). As I write that, I think I recall Lyle (who was living in the house from that time) saying that someone had thrown a rock through the window, which warrants a comment on the neighborhood.

East Aloha is at the bottom of Capital Hill. The top of that hill is where, traditionally, the more privileged folks have lived during Seattle’s history. So from at least the 1950s, our neighborhood had been largely poor black, and by the time we moved in, it was more or less about half like that. We had bought the house (for $40,000) from a young black man who had in turn bought it from an old black woman for about $15,000 the year before. He had similar ideas to ours, and had slightly enlarged the root cellar you can see in the second picture at the far left. You see, the house had no foundation. I can still recall seeing those chimney-like brick structures that had held up the house, more or less, for the years since it was built in 1906. Most were now simply piles of brick, any mortar having long since dissolved. So, the first task was to create a foundation.

Now, it happened that S and I had first lived with a wonderful older couple in an apartment made from their basement when their four kids had grown up and started their own adult lives. The man—Art—was a building contractor, and the story I like to tell about him is that when Seattle was going through a post-Vietnam depression (~1974), he was buying abandoned houses "…but only if the price was below $8,000, and that for a duplex." Ten years later he might have been one of the wealthier men in Seattle. We asked Art to come over and advise us on how to deal with the foundation. “Well,” he observed, “just start here in the middle, and dig out a rectangle about so big. Then lay the foundation to a footer around the house perimeter.” Sounded do-able to us, so we took up our two shovels and set to work. There are two memories from that period. In one, every time we put a shovel into our rectangle, the side caved in (it was nearly pure sand, due to glacial action millenia before). Our rectangle kept getting bigger and bigger. The second was when I was digging near the front of the house, and all of a sudden the face of an Asian woman appeared between the bottom of the house and the level of the ground. “You have permit?” she asked, it being her job. Nope. But another good memory was the advice we got from the inspector who came out to see what we were up to, as we filed our belated permit application. We adopted his advice, and eventually had a footer around the house ready to support a concrete block wall of our new basement.

But one other fact needs recording. The house needed both supporting and, to a slight degree, elevation during this process of digging out from under it. We realized that we wanted a daylight basement, and although it wouldn’t be possible on the hill side, it certainly would on the lee side. Our method of supporting the house was simply to pile up wood between the ground and the bottom of the house. Our method of elevation was simplicity itself: we used a car jack—one, and jacking up the house one inch, put in one more inch of wood and then went a couple feet away to jack up that part. And so on. The first picture below shows the first half of the basement floor poured (I had enlisted the help of several fellow grad students), while the next photo shows the cement block walls going up. The last shot shows the house at this point, seemingly on stilts. I can still remember how the whole house shook as someone walked the plank up to the front door and then stood on the porch.

At some point, we thought we’d best turn the basement into an apartment. This, almost certainly because of the mounting costs of what we were doing. The first picture below shows the B&B Construction crew at work. We’re not wearing our t-shirts, for some reason, but therein lies a story. Lyle had two t-shirts printed, the statement on which being “B&B Construction.” However, when actually worn the first and last letters of this statement disappeared under the wearer’s armpits. We thought it an appropriate phenomenon for this initial planning and construction effort. Sort of a “whoops” standing for our project.

We finally finished the basement project. I think it was about year from project beginning to the first tenant moving in (a student friend of S). As these pictures show, the basement apartment turned into a comfortable, liveable space for two folks, and it would serve that way for about five years.

In 1986, S and I having moved into the house the year before, the upstairs portion of the house received some long-needed attention. S wanted a white-oak floor, so we bought a big pile of that hardwood. Notice that I’m not claiming we also installed same. Lyle was brought back from California, initially to re-roof the house, a requirement of a refinancing S and I were attempting. As we sat on the roof torn completely off (except for the joists), Lyle looked up to the cloudless sky (this was Seattle, after all), and said, You know, we might as well put in some skylights. After that, the still rainless summer (it would prove the longest dry spell in modern Seattle history) prompted, You know, we should extend the back of the house to meet the actual foundation. And so that was done. And to join the upper part with the basement portion, a lovely pine (from New Zealand) spiral staircase was built, and the house became more or less what I finally sold in 1997. A year or two later, Jodie, the new owner, finished the basement by erecting a wall Lyle and I had discussed over the years, and I consider the house “done” at that point.

I’m reminded of all this, because just recently B&B Construction struck again. On a recent visit to my “new” place in Longview, WA, Lyle noted that I needed to replace the closet-sized bathroom on the ground floor with a larger one created from an empty space between two sections of the building that is this 1937 house. Eventually, I found what I thought would be adequate funding and we spent the month of April (and then some) engaged on that project.

By the time Lyle arrived from California, I had exposed the existing bathroom. This is what it looked like from the backyard.

And soon, here were its innards.

That mess of galvanized pipe was, I suppose, our first setback. We found evidence of repairs to about three pipes, and four actual leaks in progress or about to happen. There was no choice then but to replace all the galvanized pipe in the house before concentrating on the bathroom. Here, Michael is dressed for attic exploration (a hot water pipe crossed the house in the attic to the “new” kitchen (done in 1993), which already had copper pipe. From here, we also replaced pipe in the upstairs bathroom. And Lyle is shown siphoning water out of the new pipe to fix a soldering problem.

Eventually, the structure was framed and ready for interior work.

And the interior work began with the usual drywall, over which Lyle placed the tile he so likes to work with.

And yours truly worked outside to put siding over the new structure. In general, it’s now hard to tell it wasn’t there all along.

I don’t yet have pictures of the completed bathroom, because it isn’t yet. I hooked up the toilet after Lyle returned to California, and got the sink plumbed after that, but several trim aspects and the ever important shower haven’t been installed yet. After what we just went through, they’re trivial. Which doesn’t mean to say they don’t take time.

I doubt that B&B Construction will see any future work. They’re old now, and just want to be left in peace. If only the house understands this. But they’ve left their mark on an unknowing world. Two houses in Washington State have had years of additional life bestowed upon them by the tireless/tired efforts of Chief Lyle and his sometimes able assistant.