Friday, April 17, 2009

A man, a vision, and the swimming pool he built in his garage

A few years ago, I heard about my neighbor’s scheme to put a pool in his garage. At the time, I blew it off: It seemed more rumor than real.

Then Paul, the neighbor, started working. (Leery of unwanted official attention, Paul prefers not to use his last name for this story.)

In the early summer of 2006, in a fit resembling madness, Paul tore off three-quarters off his garage roof, stripping it down to the joists.

Right away, I called a contractor friend named David Foley, the owner of Foley Construction and Residential Services. I invited him over to provide insight and possible instruction. “What could I say?” he says now. “I looked at the job and hoped he considered important things, like load issues, electrical, and even plumbing.”

As the summer grew late, Paul began building a Plexiglas-paneled, A-framed roof on wheels directly atop a series of narrow tracks he’d installed on the crusty bricks of his garage walls. When he was done, he gently rolled it back and forth. Voilá: a retractable roof.

That fall, Paul pointed at the cement floor. “The pool’s going there,” he said. “It’ll help me survive Baltimore. When I hate it, I’ll do laps.”

I asked, “You’re building this to survive Baltimore?”

“It was either going to be a pool or a secret grotto. I’m maximizing my backyard space.”

Paul was a man of moderate means who aspired to own a tiny gilded spot of earth amidst a city of perceived insanity. And he planned to do it by creating for himself and his family a lap pool under blue skies, hidden by a fortress of brick walls and a recently replaced garage door.

The following spring, he took a hammer and a chisel and let loose on the rear wall of his garage, on the area above the back window. If a violent, inexpert demolition job can be described as meticulous, this one was. Two coursings of bricks were turned to rubble as he enlarged the back window all the way to the top of the wall. Because of the hill the structure was built into, the bottom of the windowsill was just above the ground. Therefore, he’d cleverly created a door for himself.

David asked, “How about plumbing and electrical?”

“Got it,” Paul assured us, just before he built a wooden platform inside the garage and below the new doorway. It resembled a pier without water. When the convertible roof was pushed back, Houston Rockets center Yao Ming would have been able to stand up on the deck without ducking.

“Found a pool supplier online,” Paul told David one day. “DIY—Do It Yourself—Pools.”

“Know anything about them?” David asked.

“No. But they got a pool that’ll fit.”

“Great. Hope it’s going to be placed with concrete?”

Paul gave him a quizzical look. “If I poured concrete, I’d ruin the garage.”

Paul apparently considered everything he’d done up to this point reversible.

What concerned David was whether the building’s walls could bear the load. Three thousand gallons of water, the size of Paul’s pool, weighs 25,020 pounds, or seven and three-quarter Honda Accords, pressing down and outwards on elderly concrete and brick with questionable horizontal strength. No matter; Paul remained unfazed. He didn’t calculate the weight.
In the summer of 2007, DIY Pools dispatched a flatbed truck to the end of the alley. Using a hydraulic lift, the delivery guys pushed a huge pallet up the hill to the garage and deposited stacks of thermoplastic panels, a vinyl liner, and boxes of mechanical parts in the garage. There were hardly any directions. Paul’s wife and kids came out to watch.

Through the summer and fall, he bolted 48-inch-high panels (they varied in width) together at the edges. When he’d completed a rectangle, he called an electrician and a plumber. The plumber, somewhat amused, put in a pipe for the gas. The electrician ran wiring. Neither hesitated to warn Paul against what he was doing, which only drove him harder.

Over the winter, Paul put his journey on hold, but, come spring, he attacked it with the passion of an artist manic on creation. One day, he cut a dozen two-by-fours into various lengths and carried them behind the pool’s newly constructed walls to brace them against the garage and floor in seemingly random places. The pool, see, was designed to be built underground, which would bear the pressures created by the vast quantity of water. But Paul was going to leave it above ground, backfilling behind it with a thicket of planks.

David explained to me that two-by-fours used this way would face multiple load problems, such as sheer pressures (breaking) and bending issues, especially with a continually shifting load such as water rocking in a pool. Further, who could tell whether the polystyrene itself could handle so much outward stress?

Despite these concerns, Paul persevered, closing in the gap between the garage and the edge of the pool with more wood decking.

In April, on opening day of baseball season, he, his wife, and two friends put the liner in place. It wasn’t easy. Nothing seemed to fit properly. Finally, he got the liner situated and turned on the hose. It took hours. After half a day with the hose blasting, Paul gingerly climbed into his pool with the kids. A polystyrene panel collapsed outward. He drained the pool and discovered that he’d forgotten to fasten a panel to its neighbor. He got a wrench and bolts and fixed it, then began refilling the pool.

Shortly, water began to trickle into the alley. Paul found the problem at the steps. He said, “It leaked where the hard plastic met the slightly stretchy liner.”

Again, the pool was drained. People say that Paul, an emotional man, appeared totally at peace. “I expected issues,” he told David.

He reattached the vinyl liner, and, a day later, began the task of refilling the pool once more. This time, the pool held.

Almost a year has now passed. The pool hasn’t leaked since, and it has even begun to look natural in Paul’s garage. Let something stay long enough, and the mind adjusts.

At this point, no one can say, not even Paul, if the pool has provided its creator with the personal renewal he sought. Quests, once complete, hardly ever do. But his kids love it. And the garage walls haven’t blown apart yet, despite the bone-crushing weight they bear. Of course, Paul always suspected as much.


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