Introducing: The Den!

I’ve been working on another room! In my house! Capturing some of the momentum from finishing the renovation work on my bedroom (well, mostly), I started working on one of the other most torn-apart rooms in the house a couple months ago, and have just been chipping away at it when I have time.

(No, I haven’t really started the kitchen renovation. No, I haven’t finished Bluestone Cottage. It’s a long story. We’ll get to it. But I can only do so many things at once, and after a long time of barely doing anything to the interior of my house except further destroy it while I was just a tad busy with some other projects like building an entire house in under a year, I needed to get a few things back in order with my own space to maintain a semblance of sanity. These things happen.)

This is the room, which we’ve rarely discussed here because it’s never really been a space I used! I think maybe the last time we talked about it was when I bought the house? At the time I called it the “middle bedroom” which is how I’ve continued to refer to it until now.

One sort of funny thing (maybe that’s not quite the right word) about renovating this house has been that even though it’s a pretty big house, it’s never felt all that much bigger than, say, my Brooklyn apartment. Much of the house is still unrenovated and not in use at all, aside from maybe storing stuff: the big living room, the downstairs bathroom, now the kitchen, the room above the kitchen, and this space. Some spaces haven’t been renovated but are chugging along in spite of that, performing their very basic and necessary functions. Until very recently that included the bedroom but also the only bathroom (it’s so bad, omg), the nursery, all closets, the hallways and stairs. And then there are the spaces that I have renovated, which can be difficult to maintain while other areas get renovated, such as the smaller living room, the dining room (which also currently houses the kitchen, haha), the laundry room, the little upstairs office, and now (thank goodness!) my bedroom!

A lot of the more recent and money-draining work on the house has been dedicated to exterior projects, which makes a huge difference in the appearance of the house from the outside and affects the interior—especially when we’re talking about adding windows or demolishing additions—but doesn’t tend to immediately improve the inside of the house. In fact, in the case of this room, it turned it from unrenovated-but-serviceable to…ruins.

So anyway. I guess what I’m really saying is three things.

The first is that my life is a mess.

The second is that while recovering from the fun and exciting financial strain of big exterior projects (and trying to save for upcoming things like the kitchen!), getting some simple rooms completed that can be finished on a “paint and joint compound” budget has been a good strategy for me. Even if that means renovating out of order in terms of need—in case you were wondering why this is coming before the kitchen. Kitchens cost a lot of money but rooms like this don’t.

And the third thing is that I’m almost at the four year mark of owning this house, and just starting to feel like I can…spread out a bit. Treating the house more or less like a much smaller apartment has led to things feeling kind of compacted and condensed—like using the bedroom as a place to sleep but also often as a place to watch TV, work, and eat. Increasingly there are separate spaces for doing different stuff, which just feels CRAZY. I used to have this recurring dream when I lived in New York, where I’d open a previously-unnoticed door in my apartment and find a whole other space behind it that I had no idea existed. It’s kind of like that, but in reality!

To orient ourselves a bit, the room we’re discussing is #4 on the floor plan above, highlighted in pink. It’s a decently sized room (about 10’x14′), but it’s kind of tricky—you have to walk through it to get to both the little office (#3) and the room above the kitchen (#5). I thought for a long time that I’d make this room into a guest bedroom, but that’s also the plan for the room above the kitchen, and it’s pretty awkward to have to walk through a bedroom to get to another bedroom. A bed does fit in this room, but doesn’t leave much space to maneuver around it (which you have to do to get to the other two rooms off of it, of course), so I realized that a guest bedroom in here might be a poor use of space.

Then it occurred to me: cozy den, please. One of my friends and fellow old-house-dwellers has a room on the second floor of his house that I like to refer to as the opium den. While the living room on the first floor is well-used but more formal, this secondary den space is where the TV lives, a big comfy sofa, a big upholstered ottoman, walls painted almost-black and covered in art and curiosities…it’s inevitably where the party ends up at the end of the night (not coincidentally, it’s also the room in the house where you’re allowed to smoke pot), and just a super cozy space to curl up, watch a movie, and eat chinese food.

Gimme dat.

SO. Like every other space, this one has marched through some changes as the rest of the house has gotten some updating around it. The room-by-room strategy to renovating is a myth because of this kind of thing. First off was addressing this radiator, which had this situation going on when I bought the house. That vertical pipe was a remnant of an older heating system and could be removed, and the radiator supply and return pipes that once ran up the corner of the dining room were removed and buried in the wall. I like to re-route radiator lines through walls and ceilings where possible—this house was built before radiator heating (or indoor plumbing, for that matter), so even though the radiators themselves aren’t going anywhere, it’s nice not to not see the pipes all over the place.

While the plumbers worked on re-running the lines, I patched in the floor! This is the only radiator in the house installed this way—over a painted panel instead of the flooring running below it, and I kind of wanted to center it on the wall (now I kind of wish I hadn’t), so anyway. The plumbers were sort of amazed to find that the whole subfloor had been cut out, too! And that the whole thing hadn’t ever come crashing through the dining room ceiling, since—newsflash—radiators are reallllllly heavy.

Anyway—I installed ledger boards on the joists below, patched in a new piece of subfloor, and then feathered in floorboards over that. I used boards from the downstairs bathroom, which look totally different but are the same size and species of wood (douglas fir), and should look the same once the floors are eventually refinished. Someday. I didn’t worry about the two boards closest to the wall being feathered because the radiator sits completely over the seam, and I was rushing to get done before the plumbers had to put the radiator back!

The room also got some electrical upgrades as parts of other projects, and then it sat for a couple of years. More or less untouched. Sad times.

Then toward the end of last summer, some big things happened. Like this bay window going away.

I know. I know. At first glance, you’re like—holy smokes, that’s awesome! What a fun feature of this room!

I also had that thought. Slowly, over time, that thought was replaced by other thoughts—not the least of which being that the whole thing was constructed on top of the collapsing solarium, and that was probably bad should the solarium ever decide to give way. Also it wasn’t original to the house. Also it was in very poor condition—missing the windows on each side, a terrible drywall job to cover up water damage from the leaking roof above it, some creative use of 1x lumber, noticeable settling…this was all done before I bought the house, and none of it was good. It also just felt…strange. I think because it wasn’t original to the house, this room isn’t really big enough to handle it. It felt proportionally totally off. And looked like a tumor on the exterior.

BYE.

So we cut it off. Kind of. It was slightly more complex than that. You can read about it here.

Then we framed in the new window. I tried to do as much of the exterior work from inside the house as possible so that I could minimize the amount of time that anything would be exposed to the elements or looking a damn mess for the neighborhood.

But look! I like this view because—really—it’s how the house is supposed to be. The way this new window lines up perfectly with the adjacent one in the little office feels emblematic of the organized way that a neoclassical house is designed and constructed. It looks right from the outside and feels right on the inside.

Once that wall was taken care of (structurally at least—clearly there is still work to be done!), we got a little demo-happy and ripped down the ceiling. I hate demo’ing plaster because it’s a horrendous mess but also because plaster and lath walls are better than new material options in a number of ways, and once it’s gone it’s gone. Unfortunately this ceiling had furring strips nailed into it and acoustic tiles installed onto those (likely installed in the 60s, when the original ceiling was probably showing signs of failure), and pulling down the furring strips tends to take a ton of plaster with them, at least in my experience. Of course, there’s blown-in cellulose insulation between the second floor ceilings and the attic floors, which is only really a bad thing when you have to rip out a ceiling and you don’t want all of it to come down with the ceiling. So the solution Edwin and I came up with was to take up the attic floorboards over this room, shovel out as much of the cellulose as we could into big contractor bags (BOY WAS THAT FUN), spray it all down with a garden sprayer to contain some of the dust, and then demo the ceiling as normal from below.

The worst.

Also, it was kind of nuts to be able to see the underside of my roof at this phase.

After some major clean-up, we put down new 3/4″ plywood subfloor in this section of the attic. The original boards are all varying widths and some cracked or splintered during removal, so re-laying the original floor is a project for another time. Also because I’m crazy I can’t guarantee this will be the last time I have to remove sections of the attic floor, and I’d rather be messing up new plywood than precious 150 year old pine planks.

This was all happening during the side-of-house restoration project, so the name of the game was doing just enough in here to make things OK, but all real energy and funds went toward getting the exterior buttoned up before winter hit. And that left…

This! Which I know looks like a sad, sad state of affairs but really represents a huge amount of progress! Framing is done, new attic subfloor is in, new electrical is run, and the reconstructed exterior wall is insulated (ceiling insulation comes next!)—so now the fun work begins! This room has a little bit of everything: carpentry around the new window and patching in the baseboard, new drywall work, plaster repair and skim-coating on the remaining three walls, and of course painting and furnishing and all that child’s play.

So here’s an idea of what I’m thinking! That’s the wall color in the upper left hand corner, followed by the trim and door color. I think I’m even going to try to paint the ceiling the wall color too and see how that goes! I’ve tried a couple times in the past—unsuccessfully—to paint a ceiling super dark and it’s never looked good, but I think this room will turn that streak around. Then we have another new medallion and another black radiator. The light is just something I dragged off the internet and then turned pink in Photoshop, but I do have a vintage light fixture with pink glass shades that I’m so excited to use! The sofa is also a Photoshopped version of this sofa from Roger and Chris, which is just sort of similar to the sofa I’m getting from…the Brinson’s! I’ve recently become friends with fellow bloggers and upstate NY dwellers Susan and Will, and they’re getting rid of their big boxy super-stuffed leather gigantic mass of a sofa, and something tells me that Mekko is never going to leave it. Then my little bright blue Eames rocker (which hasn’t been used since I moved from Brooklyn! I missed it!) and a side table I’ve hoarded for a few years from JC Penney, which was part of the Terence Conran collection and I bought when it went on sale, even though I didn’t know what I’d do with it! Sometimes you just gotta! Then there’s the Rise Floor Lamp and Balla Sheepskin from Article (this post isn’t sponsored, but they did provide those two products for an upcoming post that will be), and another old oriental rug because that’s how I do.

Yay, opium den! Let’s do it!

The Bedroom is…a Bedroom!

For the past couple of months, my bedroom has been in that “almost done” state, which is where that last 5-10% of finishing work often goes to die. Once the walls were painted and a bed was assembled, I was honestly kind of sick of working on it…and so…I didn’t. I got distracted with something else. Sometimes you gotta move on to something that feels exciting, and then circle back when the spirit moves you.

I’ve also been traveling a bit so time at my house has been stretched thin, but last week I finally circled back around to the bedroom! Over the course of a few hours, I used Rejuvenate on the beat-up and heavily scratched floors (I don’t know what to expect in terms of longevity, but at least for now it’s made a HUGE difference! It’s also extremely easy to use and dries quickly! I’ll refinish the floors for real someday, but not today), sanded a couple little patch jobs, touched up paint, hung stuff on the walls, and…now it actually feels like a room! There’s still work to do on a few important things, and lots I’d like to change, but that’s how I roll. When it comes to my own spaces, it usually takes me a year or two after the renovation part is done to feel good about the decorating part. I’ll keep ya posted.

For some reason I seem to have neglected to take much in the way of real “before” photos of this room, which makes me want to go back in time and kick myself! Obviously this is poor blogger form, but I think at the time it felt like the room wasn’t likely to look very different after renovation than it did before renovation.

Then shit got real.

We’ve been through this, but all the walls got stripped down to bare plaster, then that wall to the right in the photo above got demo’d out entirely, then a new window got installed as part of restoring the side of the house (a project that I can finally finish now that the weather is getting nice!), plumbing and electric and insulation got upgraded, and then it was a matter of drywalling, skim-coating the plaster, and trying to replicate the original moldings for the new window!

Of course then there was a ton of scraping and prepping and patching and caulking and priming and finally painting and cleaning (what a concept!) and then I was pooped.

SEE?! It’s a room! A real room!

I love this picture because if you had shown me this four years ago when I was in the process of buying this house…I don’t even know. I would have cried? I would have run? This room seemed like such a straightforward renovation, but the decision to add a fourth window made it a significantly larger undertaking.

But a few months later and it’s hard to even remember that crazy day when you could walk through my wall and plummet to the ground outside. YAY!

The new window sashes still need the interiors painted (and the exteriors cleaned up—I painted them but didn’t scrape the paint off the top sash before it got too cold to remove the sashes and deal with it!), but this fourth window! It changes the room SO MUCH and I’m so glad I did it. It might be hard to appreciate in photos, but it just adds so much balance to a room that felt nice before, but awkward to arrange furniture in. When I’ve had the bed on this wall before, it looked so strange because you wouldn’t really want it overlapping the window on one side to get it more centered in the room, but shoving it over looked weird too and left this space on the side of the bed really narrow. And that was a full bed, which as a grown-ass man I’m happy to leave behind for a larger queen size. Since this is the nicest bedroom in the house, the fact that it can now even gracefully accept a king-sized bed feels like a huge deal. Now, it’s a master.

Speaking of beds, I got the alchemy bronze queen bed from CB2! I loved this glamfabulous thing as soon as it was introduced, and now it’s mine. My thinking was that it would work well with this situation, where the best placement for a bed overlaps the windows a bit—it’s there, but light and transparent enough that it doesn’t feel like it’s dominating or covering up all my hard work. I…think? It’s tricky and I’m not sure I made the right call, but I do really love the bed and I’ll figure it out! I will say that the quality of the bed is really great—I was worried that it might be a little flimsy, but the metal is thick and weighty and the construction is super sturdy. Assembly was really easy—two people are suggested but I got by on my own no problem.

I’m NOT showing off the bed very well because…I don’t have a mattress yet! This is my old full-size mattress which I plopped on there in the meantime. LIKE I SAID, GLAMFABULOUS. I’ll very likely go with one of those newfangled mattress-in-a-box-Internet-miracle companies. I know I love a Leesa, but I’ve never tried any of the others and now there are so many options that it almost defeats the purpose of making mattress shopping simple! Traditional mattress shopping is the actual worst thing in the world, though, so…not complaining.

As for what I don’t love…

  1. I’ve tried to love this rug for years after I bought it off Craigslist back when I lived in Brooklyn, and I just…don’t. I love old oriental rugs, but this particular style has never been my favorite. So I’ll be keeping my eye out for a good 8×10-ish perfectly old rug for the foreseeable future!
  2. I love Bubble lamps but the right light fixture could easy persuade me to swap this out and move it elsewhere. That’s always a fun game.
  3. I like that IKEA floor lamp (discontinued now, sorry!) but not here. Also once I figure out my bedside lighting situation, I won’t need a lamp there. But I will need a plant. I killed mine.
  4. Speaking of bedside lighting, I’d like some.
  5. And they need something to sit on top of, so I need bedside tables. I bought these little Scandinavian numbers a few years ago from a lady on Craigslist and threw them in here for now, but I’m a person who likes to have a drawer or two next to the bed. And also a person who’s never felt good about a mismatched set of end tables—I like a pair. Incidentally good nightstands, at the right size, with storage, and within my price range is potentially impossible? We shall see.
  6. Shades! This one I actually already figured out—I hope! I ended up ordering simple solar shades (I’m predictable!) from Blindsmax.com in a color called “bone,” which is sort of a warm off-white, a bit darker than the trim. Blindsmax seems to be the least expensive option around for simple, customizable solar shades (along with a ton of other window treatment options!). At about $120 per window (for my sizes + custom options—it varies a lot depending!) they certainly add up, but considering most everywhere else seems to be about double that, it’s OK. I currently have some very busted IKEA shades (the predecessors to these, I believe, but mine appear to be discontinued to which I say GOOD RIDDANCE) on two of the four windows, so I’m excited for those leave the premises. I love IKEA but those shades are such garbage.

Back to what I do love…my dresser with its new set of matching repro glass knobs! Also the little concrete and brass table lamp by Menu, which I also loved at first sight and then received from my mommy for my birthday. Thank you, Mommy! The brass knob dims the light up and down, and it lets off such a nice warm glow. I live in terror of breaking it.  It might end up living somewhere else in the house, but ya know. Having something there is nice.

I still have to paint all three of the doors in this room, which I’ll get around to…at some point. It’s not like it’s a huge deal to paint a door, but I like to take them down and strip down the hinges and knobs and stuff, and these all hang a little funny so getting them to open all the way and actually close ends up making it kind of an ordeal.

Also, my mirror! You might recognize this mirror from my old kitchen—I bought it at a junk shop shortly after buying the house, and it’s still one of my favorite things. I have such a problem with old mirrors. It goes without saying, but AS IF this room needed more natural light (it can get VERY bright in here!), it bounces light around nicely. And now it’s hung at a normal height, so it also reflects my face back to me when I look at it! Isn’t that something.

Over the newly-painted radiator (which is holding up perfectly!), I hung a print from my friend Anna‘s Society 6 shop, K is for Black! This is the “Watermelon” print which I just love, in a simple RIBBA frame from IKEA. The print itself has that white border, so you don’t even need to mat it. The paper/print quality of Society 6 stuff is really excellent and I’m so pleased to FINALLY have one of Anna’s pieces hanging up in my house!

That’s kinda it! Even though this room underwent a big renovation, doing the vast majority of the work myself and using stuff I already had kept costs really low. If you discount the cost of the new window ($350) and the installation (maybe another $300, since Edwin helped me with that part—but I’d factor those costs into the exterior renovation), there’s basically no money in here! The insulation and drywall was leftover from other projects, all of the wood used for the window casing was salvage, I bought exactly one gallon of paint for the walls (Benjamin Moore Oil Cloth—matte!) but already had ceiling and trim paint…there’s maybe $100 dollars or so of materials here, purchased specifically of this room? Something like that! Like I always say, hoard with purpose and it pays off. I find that I need to break up bigger and more expensive projects (like the exterior restoration, or the upcoming kitchen) with getting rooms like this out of the way…and I’m so glad the bedroom is finally out of the way!

Lowe’s Spring Makeover: Dream Team in Baltimore Edition!

Here’s a crazy proposition for you: take five house-bloggers who’ve never worked together, plop them in a city far away from any of their homes, and give them a kitchen to renovate top to bottom in three days. Sit back, relax, and see if they all survive?

That’s pretty much what our friends at Lowe’s asked me, Kim and Scott, and Julia and Chris to do. HOW EXCITING AND ALSO TERRIFYING?! Sure, why not!

I’ll tell you why not.

Because renovations are hard, and usually take a while, and cost a lot of money, and it’s difficult enough to make decisions by yourself without adding four other opinions to the mix about every little thing that goes into creating a room—especially one with as many moving parts as a kitchen! Amplify that chorus of opinions and different approaches and methods when something unexpected comes up (newsflash—it always comes up) and you possibly have a recipe for five otherwise nice people who happily coexist on the internet to, I don’t know, murder each other. I might have said a resounding YASSSSSS to joining this Dream Team without fully appreciating the risks involved.

BUT! WE DID NOT KILL EACH OTHER! Quite the opposite, actually! All that stuff I said above, about the lack of time and slim budget and difficult decisions and unexpected surprises and multitude of opinions and methods? Actually made it a lot better. It was FUN, folks. Everybody brought many-somethings to the table, and it was truly a privilege to work alongside all these talented and kind and hardworking and awesome people. Here’s how it all went down!

Chris and Julia were our brave team leaders, and the ones who had the pleasure/pain of sifting through over 2,500 applications that were submitted. Insanity! They narrowed to a top ten, at which point me and Kim and Scott weighed in, and then Chris and Julia duked it out some more (in literally the kindest way possible, I’m sure, because they are aggressively nice always, but most especially to each other), and that landed us in this 1900 Baltimore rowhouse owned by Aura and Nate, renovating this kitchen! Can you smell the potential from there? That’s one pretty dreamy project, I’d say!

Then Julia and Chris spent a few weeks going between the homeowners, each other, and our pals at Lowe’s to figure out a reasonable scope of work and, of course, a whole design plan! Obviously we had to be able to do it in 3 days, which was the first major requirement, but we also had to get it done for under 5K (including all new appliances!!) and create a kitchen that would complement the age of the home while balancing the homeowners’ more modern sensibilities. Easy, right? HA. HA. HA.

So Chris and Julia sent Kim and Scott and me the design plan, and one of the first notes was something to the effect of “we’re not really sure what to do about the columns.”

WHAT TO DO ABOUT THE COLUMNS?! SAY WHAT?! Then it emerged that the homeowners disliked the columns and were convinced that they couldn’t be original to the house, like maybe they were a hokey post-modern 1980s addition or something? Which I can totally understand because people did do some horrible stuff sort of meant to look like this in the 80s, but NO! This is not that! They’re wood, they have a thousand layers of paint on them…they’re the best part of the whole space! I thought that’s why we picked it! Ionic goodness! I will tie myself to those columns and take a sledgehammer to the gut before watching them get demolished! That or they will come back to New York with me and live in my basement until I figure out what to do with them! So immediately, Daniel Kanter is causing drama over old house stuff. I’m zero fun to work with; ask anyone.

But in classic Chris and Julia fashion, they were generous about hearing me out, quickly course-corrected, and I think implored the homeowners to trust us and let us work with the columns instead of against them. Thankfully they agreed and we could all proceed in a non-violent fashion.

By the time we arrived Thursday evening, here’s where we were! Nate and Aura had been busy bees, ripping out the dingy tile floors and upper cabinets and formica backsplash. We knew, I think, that we were going to demo the old soffit, but…IMMEDIATE CURVEBALL, THAT CEILING IS FAKE! Nobody knew this. Haha!

It’s hard to appreciate in photos but was pretty dramatic in real life—that’s the actual ceiling height above the soffits…almost a foot and a half higher than the existing one! So we were working with, in order from top to bottom: ceiling joists at about 9.5 feet, lath, plaster, furring strips, acoustic tiles, and then a whole second ceiling shoddily framed at about 8 feet and sheetrocked. Those “beams” are completely decorative—just 1×6 pine boards stained brown and glued and nailed to the drywall. Of course the modern framing did not run beyond the soffits or over the pantry closet we removed, so Chris and Julia and I had an emergency team meeting (“Hi Chris, nice to meet you!”) before Kim and Scott’s plane even landed to discuss what to do!

The options were:

  1. Keep the existing ceiling, patch in where necessary, and somehow figure out how to remove the “beams” or extend them so it would all look continuous. This plan was problematic for several reasons (is it actually any easier or faster than just taking it out altogether? Because the “beams” were glued up, they’d take a lot of drywall with them on their way down. Also, lame! Who doesn’t want higher ceilings! Go big or go home!), so my solution was to get bossy and loud until that option was off the table. I DID IT FOR THE COMMON GOOD, OK?!
  2. Total demo, new sheetrock. OY VEY. Nobody wants to demo plaster, ever, and that’s a HUGE extra amount of mess and waste to squeeze into in an already extremely packed order of work. Then I innocently asked if anybody was particularly good at drywall work, because hanging is the easy part but mudding and taping typically takes three days alone and is very difficult to do well, especially on a ceiling! Nobody seemed all that confident so it seemed like maybe testing our underdeveloped drywall skills on a stranger’s ceiling that had to be done in a matter of hours was not the best place to take a gamble.
  3. Something else! So I suggested leaving the plaster and lath intact and furring strips in place, and affixing our new ceiling material to that. But what material? Beadboard, duhz! But actual tongue-and-groove beadboard would have also been a big time-suck and pretty expensive for the square footage we needed, so I suggested those inexpensive 4×8 MDF panels that look like beadboard, with some nice simple molding treatment to cover the seams. Easy and fast, I told everyone! I promise!*

*never listen to me if I claim anything will be easy and fast. it never is.

But after looking at a couple inspiration images, Chris and Julia were on board and so we walked into Day 1 with a reasonably solid plan and tried to project confidence about it to two increasingly wary homeowners who were probably beginning to regret signing onto this madness while watching us immediately dive in to just wrecking their house. It felt exactly like that scene from The Money Pit. You know the one.

Let. The. Games. Begin.

Can I just say that watching Kim and Scott work together in real life just warmed every cockle of my cold jaded heart? Scott has the enthusiasm of a camp counselor and Kim has the patience of a saint and they’re both so good at just doing it right. It’s a jealousy-inducing pleasure to witness. Jerks.

Here’s a classic when-one-thing-leads-to-another moment—we did not plan on demoing this whole wall, but it was sheetrock over 2×3 furring strips over plaster over lath, but the drywall and furring strips didn’t run all the way up to our new ceiling height! Added to that, we needed to get them some outlets and a sconce on this wall, and the wall to the right of the window was inexplicably bumped out a few inches, so once again I was like “HEY GUYS LET’S JUST RIP IT ALL OUT!” and for some reason they listened to me. Suckerrsssss.

Check it out though—you can see where there was once a window! We momentarily considered using the void, at Aura’s brilliant suggestion, to do little recessed shelves for spices and stuff, but then again we already had a more functional shelving plan and it probably was not the best plan to leave that big space uninsulated for the sake of cuteness. I love that idea though—slightly different circumstances and it would have been SO GOOD.

UGH, KIMMY MY LOVE! Obsessed with this one. POSSIBLY my favorite part of this whole experience was when Kim shocked and delighted me with a stiff slap on the ass while I was bending down to do something, and then we spent three days waiting for various opportunities to get back at each other. CAN YOU BLAME ME.

I’ll stop objectifying Kim now.

ALSO JULIA. SIT DOWN, LADY! She was the only one among us simultaneously growing another human being inside her body, and she’s still an beast! She was appropriately cautious and safe and all that, but good lord if anyone had an excuse to sit out of some physical work, it was her! Serious. Badass. If that baby isn’t tiling walls with the best of them by the time she’s in preschool, I will be shocked.

Just to give you a small sense of the pace of all this, it was insaneeeeee. My house would be done in a week if I had all these amazing people around! OFFER STANDS, YOU GUYS.

Literally before the dust from demo had settled, Chris and Scott and Chris’s brother Brandon were following behind with sheetrock! Scott ran mesh tape and Chris and Brandon tag-teamed the first coat of mud. Seriously, blink and everything changes.

While the joint compound dried, Chris and Brandon started cutting our faux-beadboard panels to size (we didn’t use full sheets so that we could arrange things in a more visually pleasing grid) and Scott and I worked together hanging them up! We ran construction adhesive across the furring strips and attached the panels with 16 gauge finish nails from a pneumatic nail gun. Pow, pow! It was a little tricky to get the hang of because the nail depth had to be set jusssstttt right to hold the panels instead of going right through them. The homeowners followed behind with a nail-set to sink any stubborn nails, and then covered each hole with a little dab of spackling compound to be sanded smooth later.

At this point the ceiling looked like total garbage and even I was privately a little nervous about it. Without anything covering the seams and a bunch of nail holes, it just looked really flimsy and not attractive at all. DON’T WORRY!

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again…I do not enjoy skim-coating. But you guys, practice pays off!! Since we hung sheetrock over a 120 year old brick wall with 120 year old furring strips and 120 year old lath, things were not exactly even—easily a recipe for seeing every seam and having a drywall job that would look terrrrrible. I mean, we could blow it out enough in photos to look nice for you guys, but that ain’t our game! So I took on the second and third finish coats of joint compound, and guys…crushed it. I wouldn’t normally gloat like this (maybe I would? maybe self-awareness is not my strong suit?) but I was using fast-setting 45-minute joint compound, so you have to work fast, and I couldn’t sand much because people were painting and tiling and stuff so I had to burnish the walls with a spray bottle and a trowel, plaster-style…anyway, I’m proud of that there drywall work! After paint it looked totally pro.

Also, window trim! I pushed to match the moldings to the ones around the columns, which were just simple 1-by lumber with rosettes in the corners, and Lowe’s carries a near-perfect match! I made a quick windowsill out of a standard pine stair tread, chamfered the apron on the table saw because we didn’t have a router…ya know, special little details. Fun times!

While cabinets were going up and getting painted, Scott and I worked away on finishing up the ceiling install! Originally we thought we’d maybe use little lattice strips to cover the seams and a more traditional crown molding around the room, but I LOVE what we landed on! We used 1×4 (pre-primed boards to save time) to cover the seams, and as a super minimal crown treatment around the whole room! I love how substantial it looks without feeling overdone.

The home stretch was an absolute flurry of activity. Everyone trying to get their projects checked off the list while also staying out of each other’s way…madness! When exactly nobody volunteered to do the crown molding around the tops of the cabinets (we’re wimpy about some stuff, I guess!), Chris jumped in and banged it out in like half an hour! Awesome. Kim, Aura, Nate, and Julia took on tiling the backsplash, which is just simple and budget friendly 3×6 white subway tile—just 22 cents a tile! Can’t beat that, and of course it’s a clean, classic choice that allows other features like the exposed brick wall to really shine instead of competing.

Scott had to get back to Chicago on Sunday afternoon (I do NOT envy that he then had to wake up Monday morning and go to his super serious grown-up job…this was EXHAUSTING!), Julia and Kim and I worked until about 2 in the morning before turning in, and Chris and Brandon stayed all night laying the flooring! Then on Monday morning there was a mad dash to the finish, adding extra coats of poly to the countertops and installing baseboards and shoe molding, and caulking and touch-up painting everything in sight. But we got her done. And she looks goooood!

From this…

To this!

THREE DAYS, PEOPLE! There wasn’t nearly the time to throw a full column restoration into the mix, but we did give them a fresh coat of paint in satin finish to match the rest of the moldings. Just knocking down the super high gloss paint that was there before made a huge difference in making them look like the beautiful and grand antiques that they are instead of a kind of misplaced vestige from another time. You go, columns!

AND GUESS WHAT? Aura said, without prompting or persuasion, that the columns fit in now! They work! And that, to me, was the best. Learning to love what makes their house unique and special is kind of the best possible outcome, right?

Let’s take a walk around!

Even though the window molding butts right up to the fridge surround, it just feels so…right, I think! The windowsill almost got nixed in favor of a more simple casing, but I really think it’s that kind of detail that makes it feel authentic to the age of the house. It’s really not a lot of extra work to just do it up right!

Also, check out those shelves! Such a good idea, Miss Julia! I guess the brackets are meant to be table legs, but Chris drilled pilot holes through the backs so they could be mounted to the walls and used as shelving brackets. Fun!

The ceiling! The ceiling! I really really do love the way it came out. I wouldn’t typically use those MDF panels because I like to make things as painful as possible and use the real deal (also available at Lowe’s, of course!), but they really look great after the requisite patching and caulking and painting. Everyone was pretty into it, and—joking aside—it really was very uncomplicated to do and looks way fancier than the price tag would indicate at just 63 cents per square foot!

Even the little existing pantry closet got a lot of attention, and actually fits in now! I wish it was just a few inches shallower and didn’t overlap the original moldings, but in terms of working with what you’ve got…it’s a huge improvement! The bifolds got painted and new hardware, and I added another simple casing to match the window and original moldings with a simple 1×6 baseboard with a stock base cap to finish it off. I had to play dirty to get those moldings…Dad (Chris) said no because he was worried about time so, ya know, I had to go ask Mom (Julia) who gave me the go-ahead. I’m the worst! Scotty built out the top with a few pieces of framing lumber, 3/4″ plywood, and cove molding to bring the height up to the ceiling.

Funnily enough, I had no idea that the plan for the countertops was exactly what I did for my countertops in my now-demolished kitchen a few years ago! They look kind of like butcherblock but are really just 3/4″ pine project panels (small pieces of finger-jointed pine, essentially), with a 1×2 pine board face-nailed to the front to give the impression of a normal countertop thickness. These got stained with Minwax “Provincial” and three coats of water-based poly.

To be totally honest, since I feel I bear some responsibility here—the countertops aren’t something I’d recommend for a long-term remodel. Mine held up OK for the couple of years that they were in use, but not amazing, and real butcherblock is a more expensive but still very affordable (and classic!) choice. Given the budget these were a good answer, though, and they’ll be really easy to swap out down the line should the homeowners choose. Conveniently, Lowe’s happens to sell really beautiful and good quality (not to mention affordable!) butcherblock in a few different sizes (which of course can be easily cut to size), which is something I’m considering for my own remodeled kitchen! So, ya know, proceed with caution—there’s a reason for that difference in price and I’d recommend spending the little extra money for the real deal if you’re renovating for the long haul.

Oh! That brick!!! Isn’t it great? It was just hiding under the plaster. I’m not always a fan of exposed brick, actually, but it works so well here. The homeowners had already exposed it by the time we got there (THANK YOU, GUYS!!) and it’s just so perfectly-imperfect in a way that a new brick veneered wall or something wouldn’t be. It’s sealed to keep any dust and stuff contained.

So there it is, I guess! A kitchen in three days, with five bloggers and a handy blogger-brother too! And want to hear something that even shocked me, even though I was literally there the whole time? The budget came in at right around $4,500—and that includes all materials, cabinets, a new fridge, stove, range hood fan, dishwasher, sink, faucet, lighting…I MEAN, COME ON.

I love that the final product isn’t something any one of us would have done independently—it really does have a piece of everybody represented, and it’s so much better for it!

Now come to Kingston, you guys! Mine next! I GUESS we could even give ourselves a whole week or something crazy. Plus a spa day at the end. Definitely a spa day.

If you want to read more about this renovation, don’t miss Kim and Scott’s recap over at Yellow Brick Home and, of course, our fearless leaders’ take over at Chris Loves Julia! I’m off to go do that myself, ha! Chris, Julia, Brandon, Kim, and Scott (and Nate and Aura, of course!)—thank you thank you thank you for being the best teammates ever and bringing me in on the fun. I had a blast and can’t wait to do it again. Hint, hint, Lowe’s PR. :)

This post is in partnership with my long-time sponsors and pals over at Lowe’s! Thank you for your support, friends!

Designing Olivebridge Cottage 2.0: Part 1!

Perhaps the most stressful period of working on the Olivebridge Cottage project was, paradoxically, the period in which the smallest amount of physical work was taking place. It was almost three months into the nightmarish beginnings of the physical demo and renovation work, our situation was dire, the building department was requiring that the project be evaluated by engineers, the homeowners were increasingly frustrated and anxious, and I was looking for a way to bail on the whole project so they could, in turn, choose to bring in someone better qualified to enact the engineering proposals and turn the situation around for everyone.

So that was fun.

The same day that the building inspector told us we needed engineers, I found engineers at a well-reviewed local firm. I went straight from working on site into their office, covered in dust and debris and looking like a complete mess, and got things set up for a consult later in the week. I was just a *tad* stressed and might have given the impression of being a complete lunatic.

It’s tempting to think that two adult men with decades of experience evaluating structures would be amused by this little project, but they were not.  As it happens, they said  it was the worst house they’d ever seen. Then they told me this cute little story about a house they provided plans for out on Cape Cod, where—if memory serves—essentially an ENTIRE HOUSE was sitting precariously atop a few 4×4 posts, the bottoms of which each rested on a small piece of flagstone sitting right on the ground.  Worse than that. Awesome!

Luckily, they weren’t intimidated. Our problems were solvable. We spent time going through the house and all of the issues I’d already identified, and then they walked around and took a billion photos and thorough measurements and said they’d get to work.

Since I began blogging about this house, I’ve gotten a lot of questions about how I’d recommend homebuyers avoid falling into a similarly bad situation. That’s the subject of a much longer and much different blog post, but I guess the first part of my answer would be to try to “read” the structure. See that graphic, above? This house is only 1300 square feet, yet it’s comprised of FIVE different structures. #1 is the original cottage (built, evidently, as a little three-season hunting cabin, but in the manner of a garden shed), and 2, 3, 4, and 5 are all additions onto that original structure. 3 and 5 are both enclosed porches, which often aren’t built that well to begin with and then tend not to receive the most sound upgrades during the enclosure process. Of course, it’s also helpful to learn about the housing development history in the area (this kind of thing is actually common where this house is), ask neighbors what they know, and see if there are records for past building permits.

This addition-on-addition approach does not all NECESSARILY add up to structural problems, but I think it’s a good indication that there could be structural problems. It also makes renovation difficult, because each space is constructed differently and to a different standard, and maybe finished (including wired, plumbed, heated, etc.) at different times. #2 and #4, for example, had reasonably solid concrete foundations from what we could tell, but #1 had a few cinderblocks in some places and simple rubble in others. We didn’t know what was under #5, so we had to find out. The house was also on four slightly different levels with steps up and down everywhere, with seven different types of flooring and three different types of heating, which is kind of a recipe for general awkwardness and difficulty when trying to renovate a more flowing, simplified, open space.

This also meant that we had NO IDEA what this would mean from the perspective of our new engineers and how much work they would require us to do. If you have to redo ALL the foundations, at what point does saving any part of the structure at all become ridiculously impractical, particularly when the structure isn’t really worth saving? This isn’t some gorgeous old thing with great bones, mind you. The engineers were understandably hesitant about telling us anything until we got the full plans—I think they didn’t want to be too hasty or misspeak and inspire false hope about our prospects.

It was so stressful and made it incredibly hard to plan our next moves. From my perspective the only thing that made sense was waiting for the engineering report to come in. I was stuck in the middle of trying to keep my cool so the homeowners could keep their cool, while also prodding the engineers to move it along, while also trying to stay in their good graces so they’d be more inclined to really put their thinking caps on instead of throwing their hands up. Finding code-compliant, structurally sound, and as-budget-friendly-as-possible solutions to each issue big and small was a sizable task.

It was tricky.

This is the cottage when I started this job, but what we were really waiting on with the plans was an enhanced version of the cottage, not an exact carbon copy. We were tied to the original footprint due to zoning regulations, but we were all in agreement that the original house—even with our initially planned modifications—was very awkward in a number of ways, particularly the living room set-up. The enclosed front porch attached to the skinny living room space was particularly difficult to work with, since you had to step down to get into it and the living room also functioned as an entryway and the main artery to get anywhere else in the house. Add to this that almost half of it was given over to the wood stove and surrounding stonework, and the room was crazy hard to arrange in a way that didn’t look so stupid.

In our original renovation plan, above, the big changes are obviously to the kitchen and the elimination of the half-bath, but we’d also decided to remove the posts between the living room and the enclosed porch, insert a structural beam, and frame up the floor 6-7 inches to at least level things out. That plan was problematic (still choppy, too-low ceiling height, maybe not possible if the beam would have to be too large, which it probably would be for a 20 foot span…) and never really sat right anyway, so whatever. Adios, old plan.

So knowing that the porch area would need to be rebuilt completely, this became the new basic plan. It’s still kind of weird but I think in an OK way, and makes the living room a real ROOM instead of a big pass-through.

How exactly we should handle that bigger space was never particularly refined at this stage of things, but it felt like there were some good options to do something way cool.

We were going to accomplish this by keeping half of the existing living room roof up to the ridge (right side in the image above), and then running new rafters down from the ridge to the front wall of the house, matching the slope of the existing roof over the dining room. So outside, the house would go from this:

To more like this:

Which is not winning any architectural awards (and would have been further tweaked (especially the street-facing windows), but the basic strokes worked really nicely with keeping as much of the original house as we could while ALSO fixing what we knew at the time needed fixing and ALSO making big improvements to the layout in the process. It’s easy to change out window sizes and stuff before building, but I needed to give something to the engineers to base their plans off of and this is more or less what they got.

The whole process was pretty fast-paced. I think the hardest part for the homeowners to take were these lulls in the physical work, when the house was just sitting without any visible transformation, so they were very anxious to get things underway. This was coupled with the inconvenient truth that we’d worked through spring and most of summer and were headed into fall…in upstate New York. If we were going to start this project before the following spring—leaving the house vacant and in serious disrepair for another six months during the winter—we were getting to a point where we really had to get moving at least on whatever foundation work would be required.

ANYWAY, since we had to affordably re-side the entire house anyway, I proposed a simple board-and-batten treatment in black, potentially with cedar under the eaves because doesn’t that seem cool and fun? I love a little black house in the woods.

We also scaled back the kitchen quite a bit in an effort to keep costs down. BEFORE YOU FREAK, let’s remember that this is a second home for the clients and a vacation property they intended to rent…which makes a small and simple kitchen sort of preferable, I think. If you’re renting a home and don’t know your way around the kitchen, it’s not as hard to find things or remember where to put them away…anyway, it all made a lot of sense at the time.

Check out that sink location. Drink it in. ;)

SO. Lots of waiting. Lots of feeling sad. Then the engineering report came in. Gulp.

The engineers were great about addressing each issue and figuring out suitable and practical solutions. It was their judgment that areas of the house that were still intact could mostly remain that way, so just the fact that we didn’t have to completely tear down the house and start from scratch was a relief.

I’ve tried to make this as simple as possible to follow. Apologies if it’s all just nonsense! Let’s start at the boots:

The living room foundation needs to be rebuilt completely.

The kitchen and dining room foundation was actually permitted to stay in spite of some issues, but at a minimum we would have to trench all the way around it and add rigid foam insulation (I didn’t even know this was a thing people did, but apparently it is done) to protect it from frost heaves. The section in red between the dining and living rooms would have to be completely built (not even rebuilt!) because whoever put in this foundation relied on the living room “foundation” for that run, which was not smart because the living room foundation was literally a pile of rocks.

The front porch slab would have to be demolished, with the new foundation for the living room making up the footprint.

In the back of the house, the engineers said that the foundation under the master bedroom, bathroom, and hall closet (#4) was fine to remain. Hallelujah.

The sunroom—or the other enclosed porch, #5—would need some investigative work because it was impossible to see what was happening below the floor. Ideally there would be a concrete slab (and we thought there might be because the floor was tiled, and maybe they did it right over a slab?) but we didn’t know what to expect, and we were now required to find out. If there wasn’t a slab, we’d have to put one in.

Similar story with the floor framing. All new in the living room. Modifications to the dining/kitchen to support the new joists on that new section of foundation. Again, #5 is a mystery but we knew we were possibly looking at framing in a new floor in there depending on what we found below the existing floor.

Of course, walls! Again, living room and front-porch-turned-living-room are all new.

Dining and kitchen were OK-ish, not great. There was some substantial rot to some framing and a lot of the sheathing, meaning we’d be stripping down to the studs inside and out. We’d already rebuilt the front and back walls, but the engineers wanted us to add a second jack stud to support our headers for the window openings on those walls. It was frustrating because our original framing was actually permissible according to code, but this was one of those things where we were tied to having to do—at minimum—whatever the engineers said.

In the guest room, we’d already gutted those two highlighted walls while framing in different windows and the sliding doors. All that work was fine, but all the walls are 2×4 framing and—short of spray foam insulating the house, which was not remotely budgeted for—we’d have to fur out those walls two inches to accommodate fiberglass insulation that would meet the minimal R-Value requirements (R-21 for exterior walls).

Annnnd the roofs. Oy vey.

The plan to potentially retain the back half of the living room roof and re-frame the front half was nixed, so the living room is completely new. Foundation to roof, all new.

The problem with that is that we had to find a way to tie into the existing roofs over #4 (shingles) and #5 (EPDM rubber because of the low slope) which were both in fairly poor condition. We weren’t being required to rebuild them but we would likely have to re-roof those sections to get everything water-tight and functioning correctly. On the plus side, the roofing would all match? Oh joy.

In the living/dining area (#2), we had 2×6 rafters sistered into the original 2×4 rafters, but both were under-sized for the span of the rafters. So we’d have to sister in bigger rafters next to those, then cut out the space at the ridge where the rafters met to insert a structural beam across the width of the room, with a built-up post down to the foundation on the exterior wall and another down to the header for the opening between the living and dining room on the interior wall. Then we’d need to tear off the layers of shingles and underlayment, possibly/probably re-seath, re-roof, re-insulate on the interior…OH BOY HOW FUN. OH BOY HOW DUMB.

See where I’m going with this, maybe? The dining/kitchen needed major work to the foundation, floor system, walls, roof, insulation, plumbing, and electric. That’s the entire thing! And that’s when you have to think long and hard about what you’re saving, and whether it’s worth it. All that work would still be less expensive than completely rebuilding that part of the house, but is the cost savings worth it? To go through the exercise of redoing the whole thing and then still potentially have a lot of issues with it down the line, still have walls and rooflines that aren’t level, still have an improved but iffy foundation…it’s not great.

I voiced this to the clients who understood but weren’t entirely convinced, and it wasn’t my call to make, so we all went to our separate corners to think it out a little. Now it’s early September, the homeowners want to start construction in two weeks to beat the winter, and we’re deciding what to do about…oh, half the house. Totes normal.

TIME. IS. A-TICKIN’.

I’m not sure what I was expecting from the plans, but they were delivered in the form of a slim 6-page document containing exactly 10 small diagrams, each with a bunch of arrows and a spattering of text. They were minimal. Since we hadn’t yet locked down a contractor (ALL THE PANICS), it seemed very important for me to understand every single thing on those plans. So I set a meeting with the engineers, as one does.

I kept Adriana and Barry, the homeowners, informed of what was going on while this was unfolding. And when I told Adriana about the upcoming meeting with the engineers, she told me she wanted to come. I assured her that it was just a boring meeting about really technical stuff that they included in the report that I wasn’t entirely clear on, and it really wasn’t necessary for her to make the trip, but she insisted on her personal attendance.

“I mean, sure, if that’s what you want to do. It’s your house and your money—I’ll see ya there!”

So we sit down with the engineers and start talking. And we’re going over everything point by point, around which time Adriana interjects.

“Now, while we’re talking about that, Barry and I were thinking. About going up.”

“Up?”

“How hard would it be to add a second floor over the part of the house we’re rebuilding?”

OH. MY. GOD. WOMAN. WHAT. THE. FUCK. The engineer was the first to respond, because I was speechless.

“Not that hard; we’d just have to adjust the foundation specs a little to compensate for the additional load.”

“OK, I think we’ll do that.”

“Sure.”

And I’m just sitting there. LIKE WAIT WHAT JUST HAPPENED. I came to my senses:

“OK, if you’re serious about this then we have to hire an architect who can turn this around quickly.”

“I was thinking you could do it.”

WHAT WOULD GIVE YOU THAT IDEA, YOU PSYCHO? Again, speechless. The engineer turns to me:

“I mean, everything you’ve given us so far is all we’d really need to modify these plans, so that works for us if you’re up for it.”

NO. EVERYONE STOP. WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU SAYING.

Here’s the thing. I write a blog that some people read and that’s all very nice. Heretofore, I’d worked essentially as a decorator which people like to call an “interior designer” but they’re actually different things and I am technically neither. I have little schooling when it comes to this stuff, no architecture or design-related degree, no experience with new construction, no experience managing a project of this scope, had never designed a house, and a week prior to this meeting I was trying to hand over my proverbial letter of resignation.

And now they want me to design a new fucking house.

In two weeks.

Top to bottom.

Soup to nuts.

Back to the drawing board, literally. Time to learn about stairs.

Psssst! Olivebridge Cottage is an ongoing series about a renovation that flew off the rails (and then found its way back on)! For lots of backstory and schadenfreude, check out these past posts!

  1.  New Season, New Project!
  2. Plans for Olivebridge Cottage!
  3. Oh Dear, Here We Go…
  4. Little House of Horrors
  5. From Bad to Worse (And Worse and Worse and Worse)
  6. Blogger is Hired to Renovate, Mistakenly Destroys Ulster County Art Piece “House”
  7. Olivebridge Cottage: 2.0!

My Favorite Hardware Store is…My Basement.

On Saturday, this blog turned 7 years old. SEVEN! That’s so old! I celebrated by thrifting most of the day and buying a few things that I did not need but wanted and didn’t have the self-restraint to leave behind. Some things never change!

But other things do change. A lot has changed, actually. In particular, everything?

When I started this blog, I was a freshman in college who tried—mostly in vain—to make my dorm room cute and nice until I could get the hell out and move to an apartment. In service of this goal, one of the most important things I brought with me to college was a clear plastic “men’s shoebox” from the Container Store, onto which I had adhered a label reading, simply, “tools.” In my possession, I think I had a hammer, a selection of nails and picture hooks, a small spackle knife, a pair of vice-grips, a tape measure, and a manual screwdriver with a bunch of interchangeable bits.

I was the only person on the floor to bring anything like this to college (this was New York City, after all), so my little teeny tool kit ended up being a valuable piece of social currency. I wasn’t just that guy in room 218, I was that guy with a hammer. Try not to be too jealous. It was a long time ago and I’m not nearly that cool anymore.

When I did rent that first apartment, my supplies got upgraded to an entire drawer, which I remember thinking was SO legit. I mean, I didn’t have any friends with a set of clamps and multiple sheets of sandpaper. I could pretty much do anything!

As time passed and the projects got more numerous and more involved, I started to accumulate more. More and more and more. I started having to buy actual power tools on an as-needed basis, fill out the selection of manual tools, and figure out when keeping the last dregs of a can of wood stain just wasn’t worth the storage space. After a year I moved to Brooklyn to an apartment that needed more work than I’d done on the first one, and I was also designing and building stuff for clients, and so the collection continued to grow.

And then I bought the house. And it’s been almost four years since then, so maybe you can imagine. If you’ve ever renovated, you know how many tools and supplies are involved, and how many trips to the hardware store you end up making over the course of a single project. You acquire a TON of stuff, especially if you’re anything like me and end up keeping and storing anything that might still be remotely useful to some future task. You stop returning small extra purchases to the hardware store because you’ll use them at some point anyway, and start to think you could practically build an additional house with all the supplies you have to renovate the first one. It seems crazy, but also not crazy?

Of course, just HAVING all that stuff doesn’t necessarily equate to using all that stuff, because you have to be able to find it all! This is harder than it sounds, because when you’re mid-project and you need to something, you want to be able to grab it quickly. If you can’t, you might think you actually don’t have the thing you thought you had, so you end up buying it again. So you gotta keep it organized. Organized-ish. Organized enough. Because THEN, this magical thing happens. You’re doing a project and you actually have everything you need and it feels so badass you can’t even stand yourself. And since you’re not buying much stuff anymore because you’ve already effectively transported a small hardware store into your own home, you can delude yourself into thinking that renovating is cheap! It’s all very satisfying. Hoarding, but with purpose.

This is why I’m SO GLAD that I put some real effort into my basement a while ago, even though I haven’t really discussed it here! The basement was TERRIFYING when I bought the house, primarily because it was so dark. I think there were three lights in the entire space, all activated either by pull-chains or tightening the lightbulb until it turned on. Picture lots of groping in the dark for lights and running into cobwebs and tripping on the uneven floor and just being generally spooked.

Now, this basement is what it is. It’s never going to be a finished living space or anything like that, but I’ve tried to make it nicer and, someday, might make a few more improvements just to polish it up a little. By the way, the beams and steel supports were here before I was, which I always think is kind of remarkable. Somebody did some major work on this house back in the day! There was a family who owned the house between 1962-1973, and I think they’re responsible for this among other improvements. I’d love to find them and thank them for taking care of her! Unfortunately google hasn’t turned up anything helpful for me regarding their whereabouts. I’d guess at least the kids are still out there but I don’t know where.

ANYWAY. The first and most important thing I did? LIGHTING. IT CHANGED EVERYTHING. Now there are 16(!) lights, all on a single switch at the top of the basement stairs. Wiring a simple circuit like this is somewhat time-consuming (what isn’t, really?) but not technically difficult. I think it took me a couple of days. It’s the kind of project that’s good practice if you want to get comfortable with simple home wiring tasks. A lot of electrical work is very straightforward and approachable for homeowners, even though it seems kind of scary. If you’re thinking about it, read up! There are a lot of good books out there like this one, and big box home improvement stores always have similar books for purchase. Also check to make sure it’s legal for you to undertake your own wiring work—it is for homeowners here as long as it meets code and passes inspection.

With the basement all lit up and gorgeous, I turned my attention to storage! The house came with these old and VERY cobbled-together shelves, which I sort of loved in a way because they were just so scrappy. But they were not functional so rather than try to modify them, I just ripped them out.

Look how crazy! These must have been here for a long time because the concrete floor was poured around them.

Bam! Shelves! Fancy! I bought these simple utility shelves (similar to these), which are cheap and very sturdy. The shelves themselves are a fairly thin particleboard that does bend and bow over time (particularly on the shelves with heavier items), so maybe someday I’ll swap them for some thicker plywood or something. For now they’re fine. It’s hard to care about stuff like that when you don’t have a kitchen.

When it comes to how things are organized, I’m not convinced there’s anything that makes this easy. I’m certainly not dutifully putting each thing away right after I use it, but I try to spend a little time every couple of weeks (more or less, depending on how much I’m working on) resetting and putting everything back where it belongs. Otherwise I end up with 7 packed IKEA bags full of tools and supplies on the floor.

I won’t claim it’s a flawless system, but it works for me! I don’t have a pegboard or a nice big rolling tool chest with a bunch of shallow drawers (have you ever looked at the prices on those bad boys??). Instead, it’s basically just a huge version of what I’ve been doing since I brought that little plastic container with me to college! I like keeping things in clear plastic bins, I guess.

Here’s what we have going on with these shelves, from left to right:

  1. Wood stains and poly. A Dremel. A jigsaw. Antique plumbing escutcheons. A crock pot for stripping hardware. All the screws, washers, nails, that kind of stuff. Manual sanding tools, the finish nailer and nails, clamps, rags, the staple gun and staples, velcro, weatherstripping, leftover subway tile, tiling supplies, and window repair supplies.
  2. Safety equipment like respirators and gloves, batteries, soldering supplies, anchors, door and cabinet hardware, assorted old house bits and bobs, wrenches and pliers, sandpaper, the mouse sander, the oscillating saw and blades, manual screwdrivers, rubber mallets, hammers, pry bars, sawzall blades, levels, manual saws, tin snips, pain scrapers, framing squares, pens and pencils, plug-in drills, drill bits, empty plastic containers, chisels, box cutters, pens, pencils, and the requisite container of random IKEA hardware.
  3. Paint sprayer, router, pneumatic siding nailer, hand planer, various cleaners and sealants, orbital sander, aluminum flashing, construction adhesive, wood glues, various solvents and chemicals, spray paint, leftover VCT flooring and mastic, wallpaper removal supplies, shelving brackets, L-brackets and mending strips, concrete binding adhesive, and what I think might be an original plaster ceiling medallion which was down here when I bought the house.

And on the other side, more shelves! These nicer metro-style shelves were secondhand and are great. From left to right we’ve got…

  1. Assorted crap that I’m saving for an upcoming project!
  2. All paints, spackle compounds (I have a few varieties, but always go back to Ready Patch), my Kreg Jig and Kreg Crown Pro, siding nails, and framing nails for the pneumatic guns. All that paint is leftovers from past projects (I KNOW) but will get used up shortly and save a lot of money in the process. Full gallons can be re-tinted, too, as long as the formulas are compatible!
  3. More paint! Cans of spray foam, different types of primer, Bondo (my one true love!), caulks, paint brushes, adhesives, hole saws, supplies for drywall and plaster repair, painting supplies, and Shop Vac accessories.

Then over here, there’s…

  1. Grout, leftover tile from Anna’s bathroom floor, a pneumatic flooring nailer, a garden sprayer.
  2. 6 mil plastic, lightbulbs, an old pot also for stripping hardware, cork contact paper.
  3. Assortment of NM electrical cable, power strips, light switches, outlets, switch plate covers.
  4. Electrical boxes, utility light fixtures, supplies for small re-wiring and lamp-making projects, drop cloths, and other electrical supplies like clamp connectors, electrical tape, breakers, wire nuts, staples, and conduit straps.
  5. Pex fittings, other assorted plumbing supplies, and a belt sander.

Here’s my nice stockpile of light fixtures. There are more but they didn’t fit on the shelves.

I feel shame.

The furniture/old sink hoard has been worse in the past but this is just the basement. There’s more. There’s lots more. It’s just elsewhere.

We also have in attendance a pile of old framing lumber and a pile of moldings that have been removed during demo in various parts of the house. And some old wide-plank pine tongue-and-groove subfloor. And a bigger pile of narrower old pine tongue-and-groove subfloor which you can’t really see. I got 99 problems but having enough old lumber ain’t one.

Oh yeah and then there’s this area, which is where I keep…this stuff? Old doors, old window sashes, a tabletop, a billion chair bases, and some other random things.

My favorite part of the basement, though, is the room right under the kitchen. I actually think this room could be fixed up a little and turn into more of a workshop space one day. Until then, it’s where the lumber goes.*

*BECAUSE THE GARAGE IS ALREADY COMPLETELY FULL OF LUMBER. I don’t know if you’re ready for the garage. Let’s see how this goes first.

We’ve got some leftover Pex pipes, various trim pieces, beadboard from the solarium, beadboard from the mudroom, beadboard from the downstairs bathroom…I love beadboard and am so excited to repurpose this material for some upcoming stuff! There’s also more framing lumber, yellow pine flooring, fir flooring, and a totally absurd amount of lath.

I struggle with the lath. I recognize this is ridiculous. I feel like I have to do something cool with it, but I haven’t figured out what! I think it comes down to the fact that I’m not sure I actually like stuff that’s made out of lath (unless Ariele Alasko makes it, but I think she’s mostly moved on from that). I mean, now that I can buy a big fake lath piece of “wall art” at Target, it just seems sort of played out. And I don’t want to toss it because it’s part of my house, but maybe I just have to accept that it really isn’t anymore? And be OK with that? And use it for something practical, like firewood? Or give it to someone who is more inclined to do something crafty with it than I am?

LOL. That all makes way too much sense. It can’t be right. I’ll just store it indefinitely. Forget I said anything.

OH, and by the way, isn’t it fun how you can see the outline of where the stairs used to come down from the kitchen? Those stairs were removed nearly 100 years ago, but I love that there’s no mystery about where they were.

SO ANYWAY. There it is. My basement.

And since I started this post with blog-i-versary talk, I’ll end it by just saying a big, sincere thank you. This blog has been such a strange and fun and unexpected experience, and has fundamentally affected my life in so many ways. It’s a big part of who I am that I owe to you—the people who read, comment, share, and make this still fun after 7 years. I’ll try to make year 8 the best one yet!

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