My Lowe’s Spring Makeover: Alex and Apryl’s Backyard!

Remember a few months ago when I partnered up with Lowe’s to do a spring makeover for a reader? WELL! IT IS DONE! Wanna see?

before2

OK, this is clearly a before photo. I never make it that easy. C’mon.

This is the backyard of a rowhouse in Washington, D.C., and clearly it needed some love. This sweet young couple of first-time homeowners named Alex and Apryl bought this house roughly a year ago. They knew it needed major renovation, but thought that would take a few months and they’d be sitting pretty in their new digs by last fall, hosting Thanksgiving. That didn’t happen (sound familiar??), but after months of hard work, they’re finally reaching the finish line of overhauling the entire house! Except for one big piece of it—the backyard! Unless you count using it as a dumpster during renovation, in which case it had performed admirably. But they had bigger dreams for it. I can relate to those dreams because they are also my dreams.

Like many attached urban houses, this one has a really little backyard. I mean really little. The whole thing is only about 20 x 20 feet, but there’s a set of stairs right in the middle going to the first floor and another one down to the basement, eating up over 20% of that space! So we’re left with about 315 square feet to play with, which I think is roughly the size of most outdoor sectionals.

before1

before3

They included a few photos of the space on their application (can anyone say dreamyyyy?), as well a short list of what they wanted the space to achieve, which included:

  1. New fence.
  2. Patio pavers.
  3. An outdoor grilling/kitchen set-up with bar seating.
  4. Plenty of green space to plant.
  5. Entertaining space with comfy lounge seating, possibly set up to double as an outdoor movie theater.
  6. A fire pit hang-out zone.

All in 315 square feet. There was also mention of a soaking tub but I’m choosing to believe that was a joke. Then they showed me some inspiration images they had gathered of these GORGEOUS backyards and I got real intimidated, real fast.

Aside from the construction debris situation, I worried about the lack of barrier between the backyard and the stairs down to the basement. There ought to be some kind of railing or knee wall there to protect you from tumbling down. So I added that to the list of stuff to address.

It took me a week or two to sketch and think and hem and haw and figure out how to lay things out in these cramped quarters. With a space this size, there’s really no room to just wing it or figure it out when you get there, ya know? So here is what I came up with:

LOWE'S-DESIGN-PLAN-1

Once again, my Sketchup abilities pretty much cap out at “nearly sufficient,” but hey! There are shapes. Shapes help, I think.

Let’s go clockwise: A few evergreen trees in that skinny place next to the stairs to screen off the neighbor’s enclosed porch which is basically RIGHT there. Raised planting beds wrapping part of the side and part of the back of the yard. An outdoor sofa floated a little out from the raised beds, with a fire pit, maybe a side table, maybe a lounge chair to complete the hang-out zone. Then there’s a bar on the right side fence, with a shallow raised planting bed next to it for veggies and herbs, and right across from that there’s a grill with some prep space on both sides that sits in front of a knee wall to protect from the whole basement stair hazard situation.

Also there is a new fence and new pavers with spaces between them for either sod or a ground cover to fill in between, which I always think looks nice. Alex and Apryl knew they wanted pavers and it’s common in their area to just cover the whole outdoor space with them, but I think the gaps will make it feel so much warmer and nicer to hang out in.

Save for a couple small requests that I’ve already forgotten, Alex and Apryl were totally on board with the plan which automatically made them my favorite clients of all time. Then they claimed to be relatively handy and well-stocked in the tool department and I did some brief research on the polygamy laws in D.C., because break me off a piece of that. 

So anyway, Alex hauled the garbage to the dump and I packed up the car and drove to D.C. and it was MAKEOVER TIME.

AlexandApryl

First of all, nobody told me these people were also totally adorable. They wisely did not include a photo on their application because I would have passed immediately on the basis of not wanting to feel like a troll for an entire weekend. Clever move.

Gorgeousness aside, they could NOT have been more helpful! Day 1 was just me, the homeowners, and my friend John who generously volunteered to tag along, and Day 2 was just me and John! IT WAS ALL REALLY INTENSE.

aprylstaining

Alex and Apryl were TOTAL champs, from helping me wade through a longggg supply list at Lowe’s, to helping haul everything back to their house, to unloading and cutting and staining and assembling…it was non-stop action and there was NO WAY we would have gotten it all done without them.

Apryl, by the way? BEAST. You can kind of see a big pile of super heavy leftover concrete pavers behind her, which she moved out to the alley without so much as a water break, like it was nothing. Damn.

process1

The raised planting beds are simple 1×6 pressure-treated lumber that we stained with my old standby, Cabot’s Solid-Color Acrylic Siding Stain in black. I can’t say enough about how great this stuff is! Totally matte, solid, easy to work with, often fine with one coat, dries quickly, seems to work fine on pressure-treated lumber that hasn’t really had time to dry out…A+. It used to be kind of hard to find, but Lowe’s carries it now! We used 4×4 pressure-treated posts in the corners, with a few in between to keep them from bowing out and losing their shape once filled. The boards are attached to the posts with shanked siding and trim nails. I’m in the process of completing similar raised beds for my own backyard, so I’ll post a more detailed step-by-step then!

barbuilding

While I set the homeowners on staining wood, I worked on assembling the bar seating! I couldn’t find a stock option that worked for the space, so building it seemed like a good plan. I used 4×4 pressure-treated posts for the legs (it’s upside-down in this photo) and wrapped the whole thing in cedar planks, also using trim and siding nails.

By the way, to compensate for the lack of volunteers on the actual makeover weekend, Lowe’s very kindly helped coordinate having contractors come in prior to my arrival to install the fence and pavers. The pavers are set on a base of crushed stone and paver sand, which all has to be hauled in, leveled, and compacted, so just having it DONE was a HUGE help. The plan called for these 2’x2′ concrete patio stones, but those weren’t available in the D.C. store so we used 16″x16″ stones instead. Fine by me!

The fence is constructed of 4×4 pressure-treated posts with horizontal cedar boards attached, and I love how it came out! The cedar decreases in size as you move from the bottom to the top, and we left it untreated to allow it to fade to a silvery-grey in the next few years. If Alex and Apryl decide they don’t want that, they can always seal it to maintain its natural tone longer, but personally I like the faded look.

As the sun was setting on Day 1, we all went back to Lowe’s and bought plants! I was a little nervous about this part because we were just totally at the mercy of what the Lowe’s nursery would have in stock, but luckily we weren’t short on options. I’m glad the homeowners got to be involved in this part because I know they like what we planted. We did our best to choose plants that ranged in size and were appropriate for the different light conditions in the yard, and I can happily report that apparently everything is still alive and thriving! YAY!

BanisterProcess

We didn’t really do anything to the house itself aside from replace the light fixture next to the door, but I couldn’t just leave this sad iron railing alone, could I? It was covered in chipping paint, which John did an AMAZING job of removing with a wire-brush attachment to my drill. It’s best to use a corded drill for this kind of thing, since a battery-powered one will die pretty quickly. We masked everything off with plastic and hit it with a few coats of glossy black Rustoleum spray paint, and it looks sooooo goooood.

process2

Day 2 with just John and me was mildly insane! I think that poor guy made 3 different trips to Lowe’s to get enough bags of soil to fill those big raised beds, and mulch to top them off…I think 160 bags in all, which works out to about 6,400 POUNDS OF SOIL. WHICH WE MOVED. BAG BY BAG. From the shelves of Lowe’s, into the trunk of my car, from the trunk of my car across a sidewalk, up a set of stairs into the house, across the living room and dining room and kitchen, down a set of stairs and into the yard. FUN. TIMES. Anyway, we used a mix of topsoil and garden soil to fill the beds, so those plants should be mighty happy for years to come. We then used a nice thick layer of black mulch (of course we did!) to top everything off.

Then Alex and Apryl got home and they were all:

alexandaprylreveal

Because their backyard used to look like this:

before1

And now it looks like this:

aerialafter

Not bad for a couple days of super intense work, am I right??

after1

Let’s take a walk around, shall we?

before2

after2

The real star of the show here is that fire pit, which Alex and Apryl made a while ago from a washing machine drum they found at the dump! People after my own heart, let me tell you. I don’t think they’d ever actually gotten to USE the thing, so being able to light that inaugural fire was an honor.

Also, I love fire. Some people call it a problem. I don’t.

yellowchair

How cute is that sunny lemon yellow adirondack chair? SEE?! I LIKE COLOR. I kind of want a couple for myself, but don’t tell anyone or I’ll ruin my rep.

beds1

bed2

I’m so thrilled with how the raised beds came out! I tried to plant things so that there was a nice mix of textures, colors, and height, but leaving enough room for things to fill in over time. It’s oddly hard to lay out raised beds! These are only two feet deep, so you can do some layering but not a ton. I’m sorry to say that I don’t know the names of everything we planted, but if I’ve learned anything, it’s that my readers are kinda brilliant so if you have specific questions on plantings, shout them out in the comments and hopefully someone smarter than me can come to your rescue.

ajuga

We filled in between the pavers with the same topsoil/garden soil mix and planted ajuga all over the place between the stones. Ajuga should do well in their low light conditions, and it’s hearty enough to take kind of a beating with foot traffic. I want updated photos in a couple years when things really fill in!

pillows

The sectional and pillows are all from Lowe’s! Look at those trendy-ass pillows! So cute. Lowe’s carries such a nice selection of pillows that are super easy to mix and match, and the quality seems great. I used these and these and these. The sofa is this one!

bar2

The bar seating worked out! I don’t have a lot of experience building furniture, but it’s solid and pretty and I like it! The top is nominal 1×2 cedar with about 1/4″ space in between (I used my iPhone as a spacer because I’m a pro, haha), so rainwater should be able to easily drain through.

It was pretty dark by the time we were ready for the full reveal, so I came back the next day to take more after pictures. Because I am Blogger and I couldn’t help myself, they are staged somewhat like a fake party. Forgive me.

bar

The bar seating area got rounded out with these simple stools, which look like wood but are really plastic! The quality is great. The bar area comfortably seats three, and the stools can easily be stowed underneath if they ever have a bash where they just want to just use the table as a bar space. I love how many people you can comfortably fit in this yard now!

grillarea

One of the areas I’m MOST proud of is the grill area! I built a knee wall anchored to the brick masonry wall next to the stairs, which accomplishes the safety goal I discussed earlier. ALSO! One of the things I never really thought about is that grills generally aren’t that deep, but opening the top drastically increases the depth…making them difficult to place in small spaces, because you can’t place them against the wall without floating them out a foot or so. I built the knee wall so that it was low enough for the grill top to flip over the back of it, meaning the grill can sit right up against it and doesn’t take up any extra space when open. Hooray!

alex

We used this Weber grill but removed the side panel made for prep space to allow for more space for this custom prep space. How many times can I say “space” in a single sentence? That many times.

prepspace

Here’s a glamor shot of the prep area, because typically you are cutting up asparagus and watermelon at the same time. Right? I’ve never been to a barbecue.

watermelon

So the back of the knee wall matches the planters and the top of the prep space matches the bar and the fence and I’m so predictable, but…it took some self-restraint to not go CRAZY on this little space and do all sorts of different things. I feel like the result is nicely balanced with a good repetition of materials and finishes. Or something.

hosestorage

Underneath the prep space is the hose, so Alex and Apryl can keep all this stuff alive! I love these coiled hoses especially for small spaces—it does the job and fits easily into a cute perforated metal bucket. There’s plenty more space for extra propane tanks, and it would be easy for them to add a shelf if they wanted.

vegetablebed

The raised bed across from the grill area worked out so well! It’s about a foot and a half deep and 8 feet long, so there’s a nice amount of space to grow herbs and vegetables. Here they have rosemary, mint, basil, a couple different types of peppers, and thyme. I can see a tomato plant or two doing well here, too. Alex and Apryl were advised that the mint might need to be transferred to a pot to keep it from overtaking everything.

By the way…I know there’s a negative knee-jerk reaction to using pressure-treated lumber for beds made for edibles, but from everything I’ve read about it, it sounds like the risk of chemicals leaching into the soil is extremely minimal to non-existent. The process used to create pressure-treated lumber has changed dramatically in recent years, so the risks associated with it no longer seem to apply. Only the top course of the planters are stained, so the stain’s contact with the soil is also very minimal.

drinkdispensor

Ahhhhh, I can taste it now! Here’s my favorite cocktail, which is one part bourbon and one part…oh wait, never mind, it’s just watered down Brisk Iced Tea with some lemons and ice floating in it. #blogger

russiansage

Let’s take a look at the plants! I love Russian Sage. It has such a great color and texture.

hydrangea

In the corner, there’s a nice hydrangea that should fill out beautifully and provide some nice height up in that corner.

foxglove2

foxglove1

Foxgloves are peppered around the planters, which I LOVE. I LOVE THEM. Why don’t I have any foxgloves yet?? Working on it. They’ll have to be a front garden plant for me, as they’re toxic for dogs.

cypress

Next to the steps up to the house, we planted this sweet cypress tree. The Sketchup plan shows three trees here, but that was crazy, so we just did one to give it room to grow and spread out. Hopefully it’ll provide a little privacy screening from the neighbors as it continues to mature.

candle

Between the tree and the raised beds, we planted some ornamental grasses. So pretty! I think they’ll really fill in this area nicely as they mature.

throughgate

So there it is! I’m so happy with how this came out. Alex and Apryl, I hope you get to enjoy it for years and years to come! You couldn’t have been more gracious and wonderful hosts. Thank you for making this so much fun!

Psssst…want to see the other Lowe’s Spring Makeovers? Head on over to…

Yellow Brick Home’s living room transformation

Chris Loves Julia’s entryway/sitting room makeover

French Country Cottage’s outdoor living space 

Emily A. Clark’s patio overhaul

Design Post Interior’s patio makeover

Wit & Delight’s artist’s studio makeover

Simple Styling’s backyard makeover

 

This post has been in partnership with my wonderful sponsors, Lowe’s

Spring Garden, 2016!

gardenwide

Now that it’s super nice outside, I’ve been trying to spend a little bit of time every week in the front yard, tending to the set-up I call a garden. Last summer was much more about trying to get the backyard in order, so not much happened out here aside from maintenance and a couple new plantings. That means that this is Year 3 for most of this stuff, and I feel like I’m finally getting a better sense of what I want with this space! Which, of course, isn’t really what I have. These things take a long time! Getting to know your plants, your soil, your light conditions, how different plants look together…it’s a long process. But it’s fun to see things grow bigger and bigger as the years go by, and I think most of it will tolerate being moved when the timing is right for both me and the plants.

Anyway! I’m not winning any landscape design awards (YET) but I’m still kind of like a proud little kid walking around the garden. I know what everything is, I remember planting it, I cared for it (slightly, let’s be honest)…I love that feeling in early spring when things start to pop up out of the ground and I really love when stuff flowers. It’s all very satisfying.

hostahedge

I had this idea last year (inspired by a nearby house I love) to change up this border between my sidewalk and my fence, which I think I still want to do. The hostas are perfect here because they die off in the winter (an evergreen would probably die from getting buried in shoveled snow) and are hearty enough to deal with the pedestrian foot traffic on my street and my lazy watering schedule, wherein I don’t water anything, basically ever. Anyway, the idea is to split these plants and add some more (probably the ones remaining inside the fence), so it reads as more of a single hedge of hosta instead of having big spaces between them like they are now. I aimed to tackle it last fall, which didn’t happen, so now I’m aiming for this fall! My experience with hostas is that you can kind of move and split them anytime and they’ll be fine, but they’d look sad and wilty all summer if I did it now.

hosta

The creeping jenny planted intermittently between the hostas does OK! I think it’s finally starting to creep? I got a lot of comments about planting creeping jenny that it would totally take over and destroy my gardening dreams, but that’s definitely not been the case with any of mine! Definitely bigger than when I planted it originally, but nothing crazy. I’ll probably transport a lot of it elsewhere in the front and into the back when I do the whole hosta hedge project.

bleedinghearts

The bleeding hearts have come and gone, but the foliage is still nice for now! I’ll have to cut it down in a few weeks…it’s really just an early spring plant here, but quickly withers and dies when it gets too hot.

oakleafhydrangea

I snagged a couple of oak leaf hydrangeas last year (reader recommendation!) that are in the process of reemerging! Not sure if I can expect them to flower this year or not, but I like the weird foliage.

falseindigo

Ahhhh, my false indigo! I looooove these. The foliage is such a nice color, the plant has an unusual shape, and the flowers are so sweet while they last. After the flowers are done, it’ll grow these bean pods that’ll stay on until the fall.

peonies

PEONIES! THEY WILL FLOWER! I don’t think these have ever bloomed before, so I’m pretty stoked. There are three peony plants in the yard, but the other two are teensy and will probably take a couple more years to catch up.

irises

My irises had their best blooms to date this spring! There are a lot of them so this was all very pretty for a few weeks. These irises were planted near the garage when I bought the house and I transplanted them up here, and they’ve really taken off. Good going, irises!

weigalia

I don’t think I ever really blogged about it (whoops!) and it doesn’t look very good in a wide angle, but I did finally plant out the other side of the front yard last summer! Now I want to move everything around there, too, but at least it’s nearly all living (I seem to have lost one small hydrangea and another small creeping juniper) and doing well. This is some type of weigela that I bought last year after it was done blooming, so I never saw the flowers! They’re so cute! And there are so many of them! I have a different type of weigela on the other side of the yard that has more purple-y leaves and more hot pink flowers, but I think that one is a little more of a ground cover and this one stands more upright. Cute!

juniper

Creeping juniper is unchanged since last year, but I think these are slow-growers and will take a while to lose that fresh-outta-the-pot shape. That’s ok, though—I got time!

sandcherry

I also planted a purple sandcherry up near the front corner of the yard, which is doing great! I actually didn’t realize they flowered in very early spring so that was a nice surprise. Now it’s just foliage from here on out. They’re super hearty plants and I like mixing in this color foliage among all the various shades of green.

smokebushleaves

That smoke bush is in its third summer and I LOVE it! Some of my favorite foliage.

peartrees

You can see the smoke bush on the far left in this photo, by the bay window. It hasn’t EXPLODED with growth but it does steadily get bigger every year. It’s not planted as close to the house as it appears in photos, so I think the location is fine. But the real focus of this photo is TREES! Last summer I dug all the sod out of this “hellstrip” on the side and planted 3 flowering cleveland pear trees (no fruit). This was based on the one old photo I have of my house, where there were three mature trees here that looked so nice. Pear trees are fast growers, so they’re already much taller and fuller than they were last year. They didn’t flower this spring and I don’t think they will, but maybe in the next year or two or three they’ll get there. Even at this size, they make this stretch of the street SO much nicer, and even make the side of my house more bearable. I’m hoping, PRAYING, PLANNING, SCHEMING to redo this side of the house this summer, which will be SO EXCITING if it happens! Right now it’s a vinyl-clad mess of architectural weirdness that has taken some serious hits over the years, and my goal is to bring it back to how I think it looked when it was built. I can’t wait! It’s not stuff that can be totally DIY’d so I have dibs on Edwin and Edgar for a month or so after Olivebridge wraps up.

(related: anyone want to sell me a bunch of scaffolding?)

peartree

Grow big and tall and strong, tree! Go go go!

rhododendrons

And back on the other side of the yard…the ancient rhododendrons that cause me too much emotional distress. These are planted right in front of my porch and I’m not a huge fan, mainly because they’re too tall for the space, and too leggy to be particularly attractive most of the time. Every year I debate removing them, and then every year they flower and I’m charmed by them. They seem to have just finished blooming, which I guess is the time to prune them, so I lopped off some of the really tall branches in an effort to get them to grow lower and fuller. I think I’ll see how this strategic pruning works out over the next couple of years and if I’m not happy with the results, I’ll replace them. They’re probably too established to be successfully transplanted, but I’m sure I’ll try anyway if it comes to that. Who can say! It’s all a process.

Does this get you in the gardening mood? I hope so, because next on the docket is my Lowe’s Spring Makeover which—spoiler!—I love! Tune in to see a postage-stamp yard of a D.C. rowhouse go from garbage dump to a chill garden-growing, hang-out having, barbecue-cooking party zone of a space! Yay!

Blogger is Hired to Renovate, Mistakenly Destroys Ulster County Art Piece ‘House’

The following is a semi-fictional newspaper article that I wrote because it seemed more fun than whining about this project for another post:

exterior3

When first-time home-buyers Adriana and Barry stumbled upon the real estate listing for a quaint 1,100 square foot cottage in the small Catskills hamlet of Olivebridge, they knew they’d found something special. An unassuming home surrounded mainly by woods and monolithic rock formations, it was clear that the house itself was in need of a few minor tweaks. Like so many homeowners in today’s market, they were prepared to embark on a small renovation to bring the house into line with their personal tastes.

“We knew what we wanted, and this house checked almost all of the boxes,” Adriana, an entrepreneur based in Manhattan, recalled. “All it really needed was a new kitchen and a few cosmetic upgrades.” They hired then-25 year-old blogger of the home-improvement focused blog, Manhattan Nest (manhattan-nest.com) to design, execute, and document the renovation for them. They gave him 8 weeks to complete the project.

Two months later, the couple found themselves spiraling deeper and deeper into a renovation boasting a size and scope that they never imagined.

“It was shocking,” Barry explained. “Every professional who walked through the house literally stood there and said to us ‘this is the worst house we’ve ever seen—period.’ That was devastating. We had no idea what to do.”

It’s a story most of us have heard before, told and re-told on television shows like Holmes on Homes and the 1986 modern classic, The Money Pit. But this story varies from that narrative thanks to one subtle but essential detail: this home was actually the product of an installation art piece entitled House, a project that has been decades-long in the making.

“I thought they understood that they were part of the piece,” explained the artist and previous owner of the structure, who agreed to be interviewed on the condition of anonymity. “You work on a single piece for over 20 years, and you’re just happy that somebody is able to really see the value in it when all is said and done.”

The concept for House was inspired by the ugliness and instability that often lies beneath attractive and robust appearances, according to the artist. “There are monsters inside every one of us, whether we choose to see them or not. I wanted to explore that in a domestic setting. All around America we have these nice little houses masking unspeakable evil,” he noted. “A lot of it had to do with the Reagan economy, too. Twenty or twenty-five years ago, we were all sitting around asking ourselves how anything could survive after such a sustained attack on our values and beliefs. I thought—hey, if I can give form to these feelings and anxieties with my art, maybe it’ll all serve a purpose.”

And so he went about doing just that: first purchasing the modest cottage in Olivebridge, about 2 hours north of Manhattan.

“The idea with the renovation was to kind of make it up as I went along,” he explained. It wasn’t such an easy proposition. “You have to understand,” the artist recalled, “I know how to do things more or less the ‘right’ way, but that’s not what this piece was ever about. This was about knowingly doing the wrong thing, and trying to make it seem like the right thing. You essentially had to pretend that you’d never seen a house before, or at least anything below the surface. You had to pretend that you yourself were a person who was pretending to know how to do things. Pretend that you were pretending that you didn’t know what a mess you were making of it. There were a lot of layers.”

squirrelhouse1

“House,” undergoing renovation in the spring of 2015

And make a mess he did, at least by the standards of conventional building practices rather than art. “I started thinking, hey—what if I pretended like I didn’t know what nails were? What if I pretended like doors and windows could just go anywhere I wanted, regardless of the structural requirements of a building? What if I did the electrical and insulation and plumbing so that most of it would work for a while, but not for the long haul? It was important that the piece be an implicit reminder that anything can come crashing down around you at any moment. It really took off from there.”

It wasn’t always simple, or fast. “If it had just been modifying the building, the piece would have been completed in a year or two. But that wasn’t enough. We had to see how an idea like this would develop over time. We had to keep messing around with it,” the artist noted. “One year we released a colony of termites on House, and the next year we upped our ante and unleashed ten or twenty mice on the place and just let them do their thing.” It wasn’t long after that chipmunks and squirrels were also introduced to House, which was already experiencing a colonization of a different sort. “We didn’t even plan for the rot and mold,” the artist explained, “but we were overjoyed when it started appearing. We thought, hey, this is great. House is doing exactly what it should be doing. Sometimes as an artist, you don’t always get to control exactly the direction a piece will take, so it’s always terrific when it turns out even better than you imagined. It means you’re doing your job well.”

squirell-house4

The “Squirrel Hotel,” undergoing renovation.

Often this took the form of experimentation. The side elevation of the building, for instance, sported a wall constructed roughly one foot from the true exterior wall of the structure, allowing for something several neighbors termed a “squirrel hotel.”

“We just kept adding layers to it,” the artist explained. “We wanted to know what would happen.”

Lbrackets

The “Squirrel Hotel” under renovation.

“I built the whole thing with 2×4 pressure-treated lumber and steel L-brackets,” the artist revealed. “I like L-brackets because they aren’t really suited to the task, but they work. We knew they would rust. That was all part of it.”

Occasionally, keeping up with the organic development of House was a difficult task. “For the piece to succeed, it still had to look like a normal house,” the artist recalled. “So when things started to show outward signs of deterioration, we were quick to cover them up with whatever we had around. Bondo, a wood shim, a piece of masonite. Figuring out how to keep up appearances was half the project.”

squirrelhouse2

When squirrels gnawed through the wood encasing a live electrical box, the artist was unfazed. “All you need is a little creativity,” he explained. Here, a bit of steel wool from the supermarket and a few wood shims made everything look like new. 

“The squirrels honestly performed better than we expected. We thought they’d want to leave. Instead they stuck around and really took things to the next level,” the artist recalled.

rodentnestelectrical

The interior of the “Squirrel Hotel,” after several years of habitation. “It was a real gamble whether they’d just gnaw some wood,” the artist recalled. “but they had their way with insulation and electric, too. It was amazing hearing them go to work and wondering ‘what are they doing back there?'”

But all good things must come to an end. “It felt like we’d taken the piece as far as we could take it, and it was time to bring House to market,” the artist continued. “That’s always a gamble in this industry because you don’t know how the public will react. When Adriana and Barry walked through the door, though, you could tell that they really understood House in a way that some other buyers and critics just didn’t. They placed an offer shortly thereafter and we went through the whole charade. The offer, the contract, the mortgage, the inspection. It really felt like they were buying a house when they bought House. They were so convincing that I thought to myself ‘is this real?’ Most art buyers are snobs with too much money to blow, but Adriana and Barry aren’t like that. They really got it. They really loved it. I was overwhelmed by their reception of my work.”

It wasn’t until Kanter started his renovation of the property, however, that the attention to detail applied to House became clear. “I’d never seen anything like it, even on TV,” he recalled in a phone interview from Kingston Hospital, where he is currently being kept in isolation while battling Hantavirus, an illness spread mainly by the inhalation of mouse droppings that affects the respiratory system. “It’s truly remarkable to see so many things wrong within a single structure. It made me wonder ‘what the hell have I walked into?’ because it really seemed like a pretty normal house.”

Still, Kanter is a supporter of the arts. “People who work in creative industries are often misunderstood. Look at Andy Warhol. Look at Picasso. Just because I didn’t immediately ‘get it’ doesn’t make it bad art,” he noted. “In fact, maybe that makes it even more compelling.”

Not that the job hasn’t taken its toll. “We had no idea we were going to find something with this many problems,” Kanter explained. “It’s a terrible feeling having to communicate that to clients. It starts to feel like you’re doing something very wrong, like the disaster in front of you is all your fault even when you know it isn’t. It messes with your brain. You just want to fix something, and when you can’t, it’s incredibly frustrating. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt worse about anything in my life than I do about the course of this project, and I didn’t even build House.”

Adriana and Barry, Kanter’s now long-suffering clients, have a somewhat different set of concerns. “I wish we could go back in time,” Adriana explained. “I had to convince Barry to buy House but neither of us realized that it was essentially unlivable.”

“We love art,” Barry added, “but we just wish the habitability of House had been more clear. We get that’s what makes the piece work, but it would have been nice to get a backstage pass so someone could say, hey, here are all the ways that House could kill you, and are you sure you really want to do this? We might have thought twice if that happened. We want our money back. We’re thinking about knocking it down, because we aren’t sure what can be done to allow House to survive as an installation but also provide what we were hoping to get out of it in terms of being a place to live.”

Adriana’s view is a bit more nuanced. “Knocking it down isn’t an option. Daniel [Kanter] has suggested it, a few contractors too, but I love House. So we need to find some kind of solution that works for everyone.”

What exactly that looks like remains to be seen. After the renovation began, it quickly became obvious that the necessary repairs were well outside the scope of the original building permit that Kanter applied for with the local department of buildings. “I was calling them constantly,” Mr. Kanter recalled, “saying ‘hey, Judy, it’s me again—we have to rebuild another structural wall. Do you need me to stop so that the inspector can come take a look?’ And they always told me to just keep going and call back when we were ready for our framing inspection. So that’s what we were trying to do.”

When inspector John Armstrong did eventually show up, at the urging of both Kanter and the homeowners to inspect whether the house’s wood stove could be safely re-installed, he changed his tune. “It was like nothing I imagined. I was speechless. I’ve been doing this a lot of years, and I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Armstrong, who was previously unaware of the development of House over the years, did not issue a stop-work order. “These guys were doing their best, and they certainly weren’t making things worse,” Armstrong explained. “I told them they needed to have engineers draft some plans though, because even I had no idea how to fix such a disaster. I don’t care if it’s art. It’s not responsible to let people live with so many hazards around, because they might not end up living very long.”

“I found a local engineering firm the very same day,” Kanter recalled. “I walked in the front door covered in all sorts of demolition debris and asked if there was anyone I could talk to. They looked at me like I had three heads, but they had someone out to House later that week to do an initial consult and go over the problem areas with me. We figured out what parts of House clearly needed to be eliminated so that we could still use our time efficiently while the engineers work on the plans.”

Kanter and the owners hired the firm roughly two months ago to provide a roadmap of the necessary repairs that would allow House to exist as both an art piece an a legally-habitable dwelling, but the journey is a difficult one to charter.

“Typically we’d recommend just leveling the thing and starting over,” said Stephen Davis, one of the engineers working on the project. “But House is different and we get that. That’s why we’re trying to fix it while still being sensitive to the ethos of the piece. We’re thinking of it like when the Met brings in someone to repair a painting. Even the best art needs maintenance every now and then.”

“Still,” Mr. Davis noted, “we’ve evaluated houses out on Cape Cod that were literally resting on a few 4×4 posts sitting precariously on top of a small piece of flagstone. House still takes the cake. We have our work cut out for us.”

porchdemo1

There was still plenty of work to do, however. “The porch just had to go, obviously,” Davis noted, referring to a street-facing addition that was once a porch, then enclosed and given over to the small living room. “The structure was a disaster, and there was no sense in trying to salvage anything except the windows and some of the framing that could potentially be reused.”

porchdemo3

“At this point,” Kanter explained, “we’ve demolished as much as we really can without knowing exactly what the next steps are. I’m hopeful that the engineers can turn their plans around quickly, and we can hit the ground running as soon as we get them. But right now, all we can do is wait.”

“We’re hoping to have answers to them next week or the one after,” Davis said about the progression of the plans. “Trying to fix House is a complicated task requiring a lot of special attention and creative thinking. They’re just going to have to be patient while we do our work, and then they can decide how they’d like to proceed. We’re talking about serious problems here with trying to make this art piece livable…you’re trying to do just enough to fix bad roofs, bad walls, bad foundations, bad electrical work, lack of insulation, plumbing that’s far from code-compliant. It might end up being that it’s just not worth it, as interesting or cool as House is to the owners.”

Everyone involved in the project, including the owners, are looking for creative solutions. Adriana and Barry have considered everything from placing a converted shipping container elsewhere on the property, so that House could be appreciated from a reasonably safe distance, to purchasing a home adjacent to House and connecting the two with something like an enclosed bridge.

“We’re exploring our options,” Adriana explained. “Nothing is off the table right now. We want a house, but we also want House. It’s a fine line. But I’m confident we’ll figure it out.”

Concerning his continued involvement in the project, Kanter said that while it would have to depend on the recommendations provided by Davis and his team, his mind is mostly made up. “Listen, I’m basically a blogger with a small amount of renovation experience. I know when I’m in over my head, and I’m in over my head.” Kanter said, indicating that he would likely pass the next phase of the project off to a qualified builder, and perhaps return to decorate when House receives its certificate of occupancy, whenever that is. “I just don’t have the experience behind me to even build a house under normal circumstances,” he went on. “Now I’m basically supposed to build one in reverse.”

The owners have something else in mind, however. “We don’t want to start over with a whole new contractor who we don’t know and a whole crew we don’t trust,” Adriana explained. “The first part of this project has been rocky, but we feel strongly that Daniel stay with us while we see this through to completion. He can do it.”

As for the artist, he claimed to be “just fine” with whatever the owners of his work decide to do next. “I poured my heart and soul into this piece for over 20 years, and then I got paid handsomely for it,” he said. “What more could an artist ask for?”

Diary Time!

Day 31: Worked on demoing living room ceiling and exterior. Got all tongue and groove removed from front elevation and most of door side. Deconstructed squirrel hotel. Horrors. Window purchase for kitchen approved, will pick up Wednesday.

Day 32: Worked on exterior demo and loaded truck for dump. Demo complete on front, side with door (almost), and exterior of shared wall between kitchen and living room section. Must remove shiplap and dining room wall tomorrow and pick up kitchen window for installation on Monday. Set appointment with Central Hudson to remove meter pan in order to reframe wall.

Day 33: Dump run. Picked up window at Door Jamb. Continued exterior demo/de-nailing old siding, site clean up. Met previous owner, omg.

Day 34: Consulted with Edwin on plan for tomorrow and supplied shopping list. Researched wood stove clearance requirements.

Day 35: Loaded truck for dump. Met with building inspector re: wood stove. He wants engineer renderings and specs for new work. Went to dump, came back, and worked on clean-up from Edgar/Francisco demo in living room. More exterior demo.

Day 36: Edgar and I worked on reframing front door wall, exterior demo, interior demo. Went to engineers to discuss project.

Day 37: Demo and site clean up. Horrible day. Left early. Low point. Exhausted.

Day 38: Site clean up, exterior demo, met with Ed from excavating company and engineer. He will speak to building inspector and be in touch in a couple days with proposal to get the ball rolling.

Day 39: Site cleanup, constructing temporary wall in living room.

Day 40: Meeting with Adriana and Barry at job site.

Day 41:  Meeting with engineer. Relayed info back to Adriana and Barry.

Day 42: Major site clean-up to prep for engineer meeting at site.

Day 43: Edgar and Francisco demo’d front porch.

Day 44: Edgar framed in new kitchen window.  Francisco worked on tearing off remaining asphalt siding. I hauled stuff to dump. Scheduled engineers to meet tomorrow.

Day 45: Met with engineers to evaluate house. Yikes, yikes. Plan that they will submit brings things up to/close to code…underpinning foundations, new ceiling structures, foundations, collar ties, floor systems, everything. Long, long road ahead, goddamnit. Will likely have to gut more of house, almost all of it. Also went in crawlspace under hall/bed/bath and joists are dripping with condensation…not good.

I Did Another Thing!

TDBankDKBoard

Remember about a month ago when I did a Thing and that Thing was presenting on the topic of DIY at the New England Home Show? Well I did it again, this time down on Long Island, and this time outdoors, and this time they had me cut my presentation down a little and answer more questions about renovation stuff.

TDBankVan

Here’s what the Thing is: TD Bank has teamed up with HGTV Magazine to go around the country on what they call the TD Bank Rolling Renovation. This flashy car photographed above is driven by a couple of very nice men who evidently never sleep, because essentially everyday they have to set this whole thing up, work an event, pack it all up, and drive to some other faraway place to do it all over again. I’m very fascinated by these very nice men, because I have to imagine that they’re surviving on a diet of Red Bull and more Red Bull but they still manage to be so nice.

At a lot of the stops, HGTV and TD Bank have lined up people to give presentations and Q&A sessions. Sometimes it’s a blogger. Sometimes it’s that hunky blonde guy from DIY Network. Sometimes it’s a hunky blogger, who is me.

TDBankiPads

The point of the Thing is to help spread the good word about TD Bank’s Home Equity Lines of Credit. It’s all very civil and not-gross—there are people there to give information and answer questions, a sweepstakes you can enter, small prizes to win, and games to play on those iPads. They don’t take personal information so they can’t bombard you with junk mail later and the point is not to get anyone to sign up for anything right then and there, even if they want to—nary an application or anything like that in sight. It’s more like, “here’s this interesting way that you can finance stuff, and we offer a pretty sweet deal, and also here’s an iPad with games and a blogger to talk to!” Nothing wrong with getting some information and a free tape measure, am I right? I like information. The Thing is not a bad way to spend a little time on a sunny Sunday afternoon on Long Island. Especially when you arrive an hour early and have unexpected time to go to the adjacent mall to buy pants.

Not that I know anything about that, because I am a professional who brings my own pants.

Even though all I was hired to do was give a couple of presentations and answer questions about renovating—how to choose a contractor, what to tackle yourself, what to do first, how to avoid buying a money-draining nightmare of a property (thank you for teaching me so much, Olivebridge Cottage), that kind of thing—hanging around the TD Bank Rolling Renovation set-up was actually pretty informative for me in terms of thinking about how to finance all this stuff. If you need a wall covered in subway tile, I’m pretty good for that kind of thing, but I’m basically a toddler when it comes to understanding semi-complicated things with money. In general, it’s like this:

  1. I get paid.
  2. I pay for stuff.
  3. I put some money away for later to pay for other stuff.
  4. I charge stuff for which I don’t have enough money to pay but still need.

That is my financial planning. It is not the most advanced.

But what I do have is a house, and because the initial purchase price was very low and I took out a proportionately small loan to pay for it, I actually don’t owe that much money on my house. But I have poured a lot of cash money and time and hard work into my house, and it’s worth a lot more than I bought it for, which I guess means I have a lot of this thing they call equity, which I literally had to google a few years ago because I had no idea what it actually meant. Thing is, it’s been almost three years and I still have a lot of work to do on this sucker, and honestly? Some of it I just want to be DONE. You know I’m all about that crazy renovation lifestyle, but what I might be more about is having a renovated bathroom or a bedroom without crumbling walls or even something crazy like a guest bedroom I don’t have to apologize for. I’m not saying, like, finish the whole house in four weeks, but having someone hand me a big ole’ check that I get to repay over time, in exchange for some of this invisible equity thing I have, at a pretty low interest rate, to knock a few major things off the list that will drastically improve my quality of life? It kinda sounds good?

People ask me a lot of questions about renovating old houses, many of which I now feel equipped to answer, but I’m pretty much useless when it comes to ones pertaining to financing and I’m probably doing all sorts of things wrong. Maybe this is not the kind of thing to be discussing on my blog, but I’m genuinely curious: is a home equity line of credit something you’ve done? How’d that go? Any other financing tips you care to share, for those of us that are not so financially savvy? Since I’m worthless as a resource on this topic, I’d love if the comments section on this post could be a better one!

This post is in partnership with TD Bank and HGTV Magazine! All text, photos, opinions, and confusion about grown-up things are my own. 

 

A Mantel Makeover for Angie’s List

I love a good mantel. I love a good challenge. I love crazy old tiles. What do all of these things have in common? It’s this fireplace! Boom:

before_straightonview

Sometimes I get asked to do bloggy things that aren’t for my own site, which is typically not my jam because I’m usually stupid busy and not paying enough attention to my own site to worry about someone else’s, but I made an exception when Angie’s List came at me with a mantel makeover challenge. I didn’t have a mantel that was a good candidate for the project, but I knew somebody who did, and this seemed like the perfect excuse to get my grubby hands on it.

beforeangled

This mantel belongs to John, who just bought this incredible circa-1900 house in Kingston. I helped him find the house! I told him to buy it! He bought it! He moved from New Jersey! This poor house has undergone some serious wreck-ovation over the years, but it has amazing potential and John is totally committed to restoring it, so of course I am all over this. He doesn’t really need a full-on designer and he doesn’t really need a turnkey project manager, so I’m stepping into sort of a consultant role as he moves through this renovation…helping him design and plan and coordinate and execute and make this house the showpiece it’s supposed to be.

ANYWAY. This was exciting because there wasn’t anything technically wrong with this mantel or this room…ya know, it could have been fine but ugly for a few years and everyone would have lived. Often with old houses there’s a pretty big gap between the fun and pretty and the finance-draining and decidedly unsexy, and the latter is what has to take precedence. So it was nice to have a great excuse to bump this wayyyyy up the list (like, literally before “unpack your boxes”) because the “before” made me so sad. Somebody painted the original tiles with either a textured paint or some kind of plaster overlay stuff, and those 1973 built-ins—replete with fluorescent lighting, crappy wood, gold-crackled mirrored tiles, and an enormous soffit overhead connecting the two sides—had no business in this magnificent living room.

stripping-process

First order of business was demo-ing the built-in stuff and starting the longggg and arduous stripping process. Between John and I, it probably took about 30 hours of scraping and scrubbing and picking and cursing and beer-drinking to get down to the bare tile. We stripped the fireplace in two parts because I actually lacked confidence that the paint stripper would be able to penetrate whatever was causing the texture, so I didn’t want to waste and make a huge mess only to figure out that we had to come up with a plan B.

wall-stripping

We did not have to come up with a plan B, though, because the paint stripper worked SO well. When the room was almost done, I had John go back to the little nooks and crannies with one of those 15 minute jelly-like strippers and a bunch of tiny tools like dental picks to really get everything off.

Now, I love that tile. I’m guessing a lot of people won’t love that tile, but I don’t care! John had a mini freak-out when we first started really exposing it, but I didn’t care then either. I think it’s glazed terra cotta, with a burnt-orangey-red and green color combo that is admittedly extremely hard to work with. I kind of can’t blame whoever painted it because with the wrong wall color and stuff in the room, I can see it looking pretty awful. John even asked whether we’d be better off painting it again, but I veto’d that plan because I’m super bossy and unpleasant generally, and you just don’t paint old tile. You just don’t. Don’t do it. But really, this is a pretty awesome original detail in a house that is missing a fair amount of original detail, so in my mind it wasn’t even a choice.

By the way, that pile of wood in the foreground is all the lumber that comprised the old built-ins. I’m a crazy person, but hear me out. My basic rule with lumber is that if it’s over about 6″ long, it gets kept. This is why my garage looks like a disorderly lumber yard, but it’s also why I barely ever have to buy wood anymore! It’s environmentally responsible and economical—you don’t necessarily think of 1x6s or something being a large expense in a project, but wood is pricey! And it’s not as nice as it used to be, anyway! Even though these built-ins were only from the 1970s, it was pretty interesting to compare the totally standard 1-by lumber to what’s commonly available today—the not-even-that-old stuff we tore out is so much denser and heavier and contains fewer knots. Even the furring strips were pretty nice! All of it got de-nailed and set aside and treated like gold.

wall-stripping

After the major mantel-stripping was over, I applied the Peel Away to the surrounding wall, too. The texture was carried up this part of the wall, and it seemed potentially easier and better to try to get down to the bare plaster before repairing and skim-coating the wall than just covering it with a skim-coat. The Peel Away worked really well for this, too, and didn’t damage the plaster at all (it’s commonly used for this, but I’m not sure how other types of strippers would react). Then it was just a matter of doing a nice skim-coating job and light sanding and we were good to go!

salvage-wood

Dudes, I’m a woodworker now. Basically. Or something. If you want to become a crazy salvage wood person like myself, invest in a decent table saw—I have no idea what I’d do without mine! This way you can rip your recycled boards into your own dimensions precisely and easily, and for some reason I find that VERY fun. I have a Porter Cable table saw which has been going strong for a few years and works great.

during_cabinetboxes

I used a combination of salvaged and some new wood to make some new built-ins, the basis of which is basically a plywood box on a 2×6 base. Someday I’ll learn some fancy joining techniques, but on this day I went with what I read on some weird message board a long time ago about building cabinet boxes—that a combo of plywood, wood glue, drywall screws, and finish nails is actually pretty comparable to nice rabbeted joint, except significantly simpler and faster. Then it was just a matter of putting them in place, furring out the sides and top to make them appear super beefy, and throwing a lot of salvaged (and some new) trim and stuff to make it look all classy and finished.

after_logs

Not too shabby, right? I feel pretty proud of how these wood storage cubbies turned out, especially because of how little new material went into them. It was a lot of fun! We plan to add shallower bookshelves going up to the ceiling on top, but there wasn’t enough time to do that and get the post to Angie’s List in time, so I’ll post an update when that happens.

Let’s see that before photo again, just for funsies:

before_straightonview

Annnndddd:

afterstraightonview

I love that wall color for the tile! It’s kind of a charcoal-y navy with some green undertone, and I think it works super well. John originally wanted light grey walls in here, but I’m glad he let me talk him into going super dark after we both saw the fireplace tile and felt like our light grey samples weren’t doing it any favors.

after_smooth-wall

That egg-and-dart detail is just so amazing. I love that every one of these tiles is completely unique, a little irregular, and just so perfectly-imperfect. So worth the ridiculous time commitment and blisters.

after_angled2

SO! Turns out I was not the only blogger that signed up for this, and Angie’s List made it a CONTEST. WITH A CASH PRIZE. WHICH I WOULD VERY MUCH ENJOY HAVING.

I wrote a whole other blog post for Angie’s List with different pictures and text and more detail about the process and products, which you should go check out here! And then you should go vote for my project here! I guess you can vote once every 24 hours, and voting is open for a few more weeks, so go to town! BRING HOME THE BACON, FOLKS!

Back to Top