Matching my Historic Windows!

If you read my last post about restoring the side elevation of my house, you probably picked up on the fact that I’m in need of a few new windows to properly execute my plan of removing non-original additions and restoring the original architecture. The actual framing and installation of a new window is all pretty simple, even on an old house, but actually finding the right windows at a price point I could afford was a much bigger challenge.

“Why not just replace your original windows? Aren’t they drafty and outmoded and horrible anyway?” is what you might be thinking. This is not a conversation you want to start with me because you will never get out of it. Here is kind of my pitch for old windows, though, because I can’t not.

anatomy

Almost every single window on my house is original to the time it was built, and I could not be more grateful for that fact. They’re beautifully crafted out of old-growth lumber that—decently maintained—lasts literal hundreds of years. Old windows are normally fairly easily restored and repaired, and when combined with a storm window, comparably energy-efficient to a new window in good working order…the difference being that a new window’s life-expectancy is only about 15-20 years.

In climates with harsh winters especially (like where I live!), people very often replace their original windows with new, thinking that they’ll be increasing their energy efficiency. And while that’s moderately true (again, depending on the quality and condition of the replacement!), windows are EXPENSIVE motherfuckers and so the cost of buying new windows (not to mention having them installed) typically ends up costing far more money than you’re saving on utility bills throughout the life of those windows…a cost you then have to incur AGAIN in a couple decades when those new windows inevitably fail. New windows are difficult or often impossible to repair yourself, too. If a neighborhood kid hits a baseball through one of my window panes, all I have to do is spend about $10 on a new piece of glass and a couple hours removing the broken pane and installing the new one. When a new window breaks, you’re usually looking at a completely new sash, which has to be ordered, and then installed by a service tech, and if the company has stopped making that model, you might need a new window altogether. Just because of some broken glass! The window industry has been very effective with marketing new windows to consumers, but when compared to an original wood sash, I don’t think the replacement argument holds up to any kind of scrutiny. And EVEN if we accept that the energy-efficiency argument is true, think about the amount of waste generated by the production of the new windows, the disposal of the old windows, and then the continued disposal of the new windows every couple of decades in perpetuity. That’s a lot of shit in the landfill!

All of this is to say nothing of the actual preservation of a historic structure, which new windows have a funny way of destroying. The first way this happens is when consumers change the style: as a very general rule, the older the house, the more divided the lite pattern is on the window. I primarily have six-over-six windows, which means there are six window panes on the top sash and six on the bottom, divided by wood muntins. That pattern is typical of this style of architecture and is how the house was intended to look, but matching that lite pattern on a decent quality new window significantly drives up costs. So very often consumers switch to one-over-one windows with no lite pattern to keep costs down, and then the house looks totally different and almost always much worse. The second way this happens is because replacement windows generally come with their own jambs to fit within the existing window frame (not all—there are things called “sash kits” that allow your to reuse your existing jamb, assuming it’s very square), so even at a custom size, you’re losing an inch or two of the sash opening because you have to accommodate the new jamb. Which leads me to the third way windows get messed up—custom sizes. Almost all window retailers do offer the option for replacements to be fabricated at custom sizes, but it costs more than a standardized stock size…which often doesn’t jive with the dimensions of an old window. As a result, consumers decrease the size of their windows to accommodate a stock size, and then their house looks all wrong because chances are that the original size is scaled appropriately to the house.

The fourth issue is materials, which is both an issue from the inside and the outside. There are a lot of options out there, but in general you’re looking at:

  1. Cheapest: vinyl interior, vinyl exterior. Vinyl, as far as I’m concerned, is the work of the devil and will have the same place in history as plastic 70s paneling and asbestos siding. Vinyl expands and contracts with heat, dries out, becomes brittle, breaks, bends, warps…I really dislike vinyl, as you can probably deduce. It’s cheap and fast and bad.
  2. More expensive: Wood interior, vinyl-clad exterior. These can actually be pretty fine, especially if you’re trying to restore the original appearance of a structure where the original windows were already removed. Most companies offer a few color options, too, and somehow black vinyl looks LEAPS AND BOUNDS better than white vinyl and is very often appropriate for an old house (and handsome on a new house!). I wish more people considered black sashes.
  3. Most expensive, I think?: Wood interior, aluminum-clad exterior. These are spendy but far more durable than their vinyl/vinyl counterparts, and typically look the best.

The major thing in common with nearly all new windows is that the glass is insulated—meaning that there are actually two panes of glass separated by about a 1/4″, which essentially serves the same function as a storm window would on an old window. Windows, of course, will always allow for more heat loss and transfer than a solid insulated wall, but insulated windows do serve a benefit. Of course, they come with their own problems…if one of the panes is faulty or broken, you sometimes see condensation building up between the two panes, and again, the repair is much more difficult and costly than an old wood sash.

The means by which windows are insulated—and the divided lite pattern is executed—also has a big range of options and prices. These are things you’ve all probably seen out in the wild. I think I have this right:

Cheapest: No division at all, one-over-one sashes.

snap-ongrilles

More expensive: snap-on grilles, which is exactly what it sounds like. The grilles are either wood or vinyl, and snap on the interior, exterior, or sometimes both. The appearance is usually very flat and kinda sad, especially if the grilles are only on the interior (ugly from outside) or the exterior (ugly from inside).

btnglassgrilles

More expensive: integrated grilles. This is when there’s a (usually plastic) grille between the two panes of glass. I really don’t understand the appeal because they look bad and fake from both the interior and exterior. I guess the benefit is that they’re a little easier to clean.

SDL

Most expensive: Simulated Divided Light. There ARE some really nice options here, again, especially if you’re trying to restore windows that are already gone. One of my favorite makeovers of all time—Steve’s house at An Urban Cottage—used Marvin’s Ultimate Double-Hung windows which are wood interior, aluminum-clad exterior, with simulated divided light, and I think we can all agree that they look great. This is done by putting a grill on the interior and the exterior, with slim bars between the insulated glass, too, aligned with the grilles. They’re a nice way to approximate an original appearance. They’re still one big piece of glass separated slightly from another big piece of glass, and the divided lite pattern is purely aesthetic, but they can look very nice. Of course, they’re costly! The photo above is, I think, is cheaper Jeld-Wen window, but you get the idea. That’s the interior you’re looking at, and you’ll see below that the muntin profile is kind of a bummer compared to my original windows.

Before I shut up: if you’re considering replacing your original windows because the restoration seems daunting (since we’ve already debunked the financial and environmental benefit) or too time-consuming, quote out hiring out the reglazing! It may be less expensive than new windows, particularly if you’re paying to have them installed. And better for your house!

And! If you might want to give the restoration a try on your own, there are some great resources online! A small sampling:

Here and There
Old House Online
This Old House
Probably my favorite, Alex of Old Town Home’s Window Restoration Series

SO! With all these different products out there, you might think finding a suitable match for my old windows wouldn’t be too difficult! But it was! Of course it was. If I’m doing it, it’s a pain in the ass. That’s the rule.

First I thought to myself, “self, buy yourself some of those nice Marvin Ultimate Double-Hungs and call it a day!” but then two things happened: I saw one up close, and I got a quote. It IS a very nice window, but remember that I’m installing my new windows adjacent to original windows, and they look different enough that I thought it the new ones would stick out like sore thumbs. Then the price came in at around $1,500 for ONE window, and I need/want several, and that’s a lotta money. That led me to looking at similar simulated divided lite new windows that were also quite nice but cheaper brands. Windsor seemed to have the nicest product but all the aesthetic issue with the Marvin also applied to the Windsor windows. I think the price came in at about $650 per window, which was better but still a ton of money for something that isn’t even really what I want.

I looked into having windows custom-made, which would have been TOTALLY BALLER because I could have specified the muntin profile, the sill dimensions, the stops, the width of the stiles and rails…but that looked like about a $1,500/window endeavor, too, and again…just too much money for me. I also tried to just source old sashes, figuring I could probably figure out how to make the jambs and everything myself. If I’d needed one window that might have been possible, but I need several and the sizes have to be VERY specific, so that seemed like a total long shot and incredibly impractical.

THEN SOMETHING GREAT HAPPENED. There’s this store about half an hour from my house called The Door Jamb, and they are THE BEST. It’s a family-owned small business and they know everything about windows and doors. They have an enormous stock of windows and doors that are overstock and stuff (but all brand new), so if you can be a little flexible on sizes, they’re a great company to do business with. They can ALSO order new windows and doors (and shutters and storms!) from several retailers, which you’d think would price out more expensive than the big-box stores but I’ve always found them to be far less expensive which makes me love them even more.

So I’m in the store and I see what looks like an old window sash, but is clearly new. It’s single-glaze, with a muntin profile that looks mighty familiar, and even the glass is held in with glazing putty on the exterior…just like my old windows! So naturally I freaked out and got really excited and had to know what this thing was that I’ve been looking for all my life…or at least for the last year or so.

“They call it a barn sash.”

“Why?”

“It’s single-glaze, so nobody would put that on a house.”

“I would. All my windows are already single-glaze. Do they make it in a double-hung?”

“I think so.”

“Can they do custom sizes?”

“Yes.”

“GIMME.”

Brosco

The windows are by Brosco, which seems like a really great company from what I can deduce online, which admittedly is not a lot. But here is what I can report!

  1. One way they measure the windows is by the sash opening—that is, the size of the actual opening of the window rather than the size of the opening you need in your surrounding framing to fit the window into the wall. This made ordering VASTLY easier since trying to work backwards to a sash opening (which is really what I need to match—the rough opening will be new framing so it doesn’t matter so much) from a rough-opening dimension would have been tricky without the actual window in hand.
  2. After quoting out so many different options, I was DELIGHTED to find out that my windows would come in at about $350 per window…roughly half what the other options were going to cost! And VASTLY closer to what I was really looking for all along.
  3. All my sizes were stock with Brosco! This was somewhat unbelievable to me. I might be off by a fraction of an inch, but they’re pretty damn close and I can live with that! It seems like custom sizes roughly doubles the cost, so this was a hugely lucky break.

Let’s compare, shall we?!

stilesoldwindow

Here is the stile, rail, stops, and sash cord of one of my original windows. Old double-hung windows are typically weighted—there is a metal weight concealed behind the casing on either side of the sash, so when you open the window, the weights counterbalance the weight of the sash and allow the window to remain open. Those Marvin Ultimate Double-Hungs seem to be the only window on the market where you can actually get something very close to this, although they use metal chain rather than rope and I’m unclear on whether it does anything other than look good.

stilesinterioroldwindow

This is the same(ish) angle of one of the new Brosco windows! So the pullies and weights have been eliminated for a modern balance system, but otherwise? It’s SO super similar. I’m looking at the proportions of rails and stiles and the profile of the way the wood is routed around the glass and it’s almost identical. I think I can fairly easily tack on a couple of “stops” that will make it look almost identical. The modern balance system is kind of a bummer, but once everything is painted, you’d have to be looking REALLY close to deduce original from not.

glazingexteriororiginal

Outside, here’s an old gunked-up muntin for your viewing pleasure.

glazingexteriorbrosco

And on the Brosco! It looks different but it’s actually very much the same—this just doesn’t have 150 years of paint and old glazing putty on it. The glazing job is so clean on these!

muntinsoldwindow

This is the interior muntin profile of an original window, which I thought I’d never match without going completely custom.

muntinsnewwindow

Brosco, baby, you get me. I don’t even think it’s close, I think it’s…identical?? How gorgeous is THAT? This is the kind of stuff that is like make-you-weep-amazing when you’re trying to restore an old house. I’m sure 99% of everyone has stopped reading at this point, haha.

SO ANYWAY. I bought a few for all of the locations we talked about last week, and Edwin and I have been hard at work installing them! It’s, like, the most exciting.

framing

That’s where that closet door use to be in my dining room bay window! We’ve demolished a lot of the old solarium, but are leaving the main structure intact as long as we can to keep the house from being exposed longer than it needs to be. I can insulate and put up a lot of siding and stuff before we have to totally rip it off, so that’s the plan!

We framed the rough opening a little bigger than necessary to give me some wiggle room to make things as aligned as possible with the originals.

bayinstalled

LOOOOOOOOK! Isn’t that really really good?? I’m so thrilled, and I think with a couple minor tweaks I can make the new windows match even closer. Even right now, though, I’m just SO THRILLED I can’t even express! Replicating my millwork on the interior is sure to be another big challenge, but it’s not as though that needs to get finished with the same pressure that putting the exterior back together does. It’s going to be crazy how much light the dining room will have now!

Now I have to think about storm windows! Part of the thing with getting single-glaze windows that doesn’t bother me at all is that they’ll match the originals, so whether that means sticking an aluminum storm on the outside, or getting interior storms, or maybe trying to make my own wood storms (yikes!), at least everything will be uniform and the new windows won’t scream that they’re new work from either the inside or the outside.

Does anyone have interior storm windows? How do you like them? I love the idea but admittedly hesitate because I feel like my crappy aluminum triple-tracks, while unattractive, do protect the original windows from the elements. I’d remove and spray-paint the frames black which does DRASTICALLY improve their appearance, but they’re never going to be particularly attractive. I have a few months to think about it before it starts getting cold, so I’d love to hear thoughts on the topic!

Restoring the Side of My House!

Please excuse me if I’m a little overly excited in this post, but it’s only because I’m actually overly excited about some crazy stuff going on at my house. You might have noticed that it’s been a little while since I’ve posted about my own house, which is really just a reflection of nothing too exciting going on there. I finally primed the walls and ceiling in my hallway? I did some stuff in the backyard? I…got a dishwasher? My life has pretty much been Olivebridge Cottage 24/7 (slew of posts about that forthcoming), but after wrapping up restoring the back elevation of my house back in December, the renovation progress has more or less stalled.

WELL. I AM BACK IN ACTION AND IT FEELS SO RIGHT. Here’s what’s going down.

Side1

Here’s a picture of the side of my house in all its glory. My house is on a street corner, so arguably this is actually the most visible side, since the other side is more obscured by other houses and trees and stuff, and you don’t see the front unless you’re, well, in front of the house, give or take a hundred feet or so.

It’s pretty bad, right? Clearly I have what borders on an unhealthy affection for my house, but this side is a damn mess. What’s supposed to be all elegant neoclassical architecture is a vinyl-siding-clad imbalanced mishmash of weirdness that I have been scheming of a way to take care of for over three years. Things were improved quite a bit with the elimination of the “mudroom” addition on the back of the house, but that didn’t do anything to address the rest of what’s going on here.

house-then

Taking a trip back in time, here is the sole, prized photo I have of my house from 1950. As you can see, things were a little different back then. The house was about 85 years young, and looking a lot better than it does now. That part that sticks out on the side on the first floor is a long, narrow space that was almost entirely windows…I suppose sort of my house’s version of a solarium! I originally thought this was at one time an open-air porch and fleetingly thought I’d restore it as such, but I’m 99.9% positive that this is how it looked when it was originally built.

And that bump-out bay window on the second floor! It was pretty in its day, and I’m sure a fun feature to have inside the house. It had two big two-over-two double-hung windows on either side, and two smaller one-over-one windows facing the street.

side2

Even back then I can’t say I think it looks particularly right, but it sure is more attractive than it is today! The windows on the sides were lost at some point, with the openings covered over with plywood and the whole thing wrapped in vinyl siding and…now it looks like a tumor. I feel similarly about the long former-solarium—with all that glass replaced by those three crappy vinyl windows at some point, it’s just a sad sagging thing tacked onto the side of an otherwise pretty good-looking house…if I do say so myself.

bayinside

Inside, things are similarly awkward. This bay window is in my dining room, and I think it’s more or less without question that there was a third window where that door is when this thing was built. I actually think the bay window was itself an early addition, onto which the solarium was later added, and then the bump-out upstairs added at some point after that. The doorway appears to have been added in the 1930s, based on the framing and wall material (which is this wood composite garbage stuff called beaverboard).

The side-porch-solarium-thing has been a real concern of mine since buying the house. Unlike the robust bluestone foundation of the rest of the house, this thing sits on a few cinderblock piers that appear to have pushed themselves outwards over the years. If you return to the first photo in this post, you can see a pretty significant sag in the roofline of the solarium, which seems to be partially an effect of rot and partially an effect of the way those three shitty windows were framed and installed. The header that spans that length of this thing is very old, very rotted, and lacking almost any support…that’s not good! It seems to have sagged more since I bought the house, too, but that could just be my imagination.

The bump-out above, of course, is resting entirely on the top of this thing, which is also not good. Putting a really heavy part of a house on top of something with barely enough structural support already is probably not the safest thing. It’s all mildly horrifying.

You might see where I’m going with this. The dining room bay window is solid and old and beautiful, but the rest of it? Trying to fix this stuff would essentially mean rebuilding it, and then…what? That’s a lot of major expense to try to salvage some non-original features that I’m not hugely fond of to begin with, you know? Emphasis on the “non-original” part. That’s what I have to keep reminding myself, because the solarium-ish and the bump-out are old. Just not original to the house. I feel a lot of weird guilt about not being able to restore this stuff to how it looked when it was built, but then I remember that restoring the house is much more important to me and I feel a bit better.

Still, it’s a sticky subject! How do you decide how to handle stuff that’s really old but not original? I’m guessing a lot of owners of old homes have crossed this bridge a few times. For example, my house has beautiful fir hardwood flooring that was probably installed in the 1930s. Do I tear it all out to reveal the original wide-plank pine subfloor? I’d say no, but only because I prefer living with the smoother and tougher “upgraded” flooring. And sometimes I justify decisions like this with thinking that changes like that are also part of the history of the house in their own right, and perhaps that’s reason enough to maintain them. And, admittedly, these non-original additions do have their place in both the history of the house and the trajectory of local architecture. According to the Architectural History and Guide of Kingston:

August 7, 1874: The Daily Freeman describes “a new architectural fancy,” the “rage uptown” for bay windows. “No man of property can consider himself in style unless a bay window has been added to the house.” Upper-story bay windows were said to be especially fashionable as a sign of wealth, and looked well when “studded with flowers” or, even better, “an attractive lady.”

The only thing that makes sense to me is dealing with everything on a case-by-case basis. If this stuff were in better condition and more practical to salvage, or original to the house, I’d restore them. But that’s not the case, and the alternative of restoring this elevation of the house to a closer resemblance of its original architectural intent is hardly a bad thing, either.

Side1

So see if you can follow. This is the plan.

Look at those first two windows on the far left. That’s what things are supposed to look like. Slightly bigger window on the first floor, aligned center with a slightly smaller window on the second floor. The sizing is significant, since placing smaller windows on the second floor was meant to make the house look taller and bigger. Greek revival loves drama, and if my house looks enormous, that’s by design. It’s a little over 2,000 square feet, so nothing to shake a stick at, but it’s hardly the mansion it looks like!

Moving toward the back: in the 1950 photo, the house had two false windows next to these windows at the front corner, which I LOVE! It just tickles me! They look like regular windows that are shuttered closed, but they’re purely decorative and there is nothing behind those shutters. This is actually pretty common around here, but somewhat rare to see intact. I want to restore that, but I might actually make the second floor one into a real window and just do the shutter trick downstairs.

The bay window on the first floor stays, and has its third side restored with another window. Trying to match and replicate all of that woodwork is going to be a big task (inside and out!), but I’m kind of excited for the challenge!

Remember, to the right of the bay window on the first floor, there’s that other dining room window that faces out to the solarium thing. The solarium thing is demolished, and that window is an exterior window again. My dining room will get so much more light!

Aligned center above that window where the bump-out currently is goes a new 6-over-6 double hung, matched in size to the adjacent windows on the second floor. The cornice gets patched back in (hopefully just reusing everything I can from the parts that are coming down), the vinyl is removed, the siding (hopefully all salvaged) gets re-installed, this house gets painted…BOOM. If I have any money remaining, which is unlikely, I’d dieeeeeeeeeeee to outfit all my windows with shutters, but that part might have to wait. Doing shutters the right way is a pretty spendy endeavor.

On the far right, on the first floor under the dormer, I’d like to add two windows in my kitchen. Which means my kitchen is about to get kind of destroyed. Oops! But I kind of feel like…let’s just tear the bandaid off and get it done. My kitchen was never meant to last forever, and I really don’t feel all that precious about it.

I don’t like that second floor dormer above the kitchen, but I don’t really know what to do about it. I’d still like windows in that room, but potentially the dormer could be reconfigured. I just feel like the scale/location/shed roof on it is all wrong. Anyone have any ideas?

ANYWAY. Cool. Let’s do this thing!

When I bought the house, that door in the bay window led to a very small triangular closet, which was separated from the rest of the space with a slim wall (just some lengths of beadboard tacked to a couple horizontal supports on the floor and ceiling), which you see below. The beadboard was then covered in wood paneling—that cheap 70s kind, nothing nice.

interior1

The rest of the space was accessible from the kitchen and looked like this! I started tearing layers out of this space so long ago that I actually forgot what it looked like until I was editing photos for this post. There was a drop ceiling, wood paneling, linoleum floor, some very moldy drywall on the window wall due to the very leaky roof…blech!

BUT! Notice how there’s a window back there, on the right side? That’s the other window in my dining room, which was very clearly at one point a window that looked outside. The thing that was remarkable about this window, though, is that its trim was never covered with the vinyl/aluminum combo that’s on the rest of the house, so I have a well-preserved example of the original sill size and casings and stuff to model everything else after.

demo5

At some point I got pry-bar happy and took down the wood paneling, and was delighted to find the original clapboard below in excellent condition. If only the whole house was like that!

dogs

I had the realllllly long baseboard radiator removed during the great radiator shuffle. Shortly thereafter, I removed the layers of flooring. This linoleum was stuck to plywood, which was attached to a bunch of shims to level out the floor. Below that was the original tongue-and-groove, which rakes downward toward the street.

windowframe

Check it out! At the other end of the solarium, there was another window! I actually think it’s possible that this window was moved here from the side of the bay window and re-installed here. The sashes and parts of the frame are long gone, but you can see how it looked at one time.

Notice the brick-filled wall cavities, too—my whole house is basically like that! Broken, defective, and weak bricks and mortar were used as an early form of insulation and pest-proofing, called nogging. It has an R-value of less than 1 and is not structural, so I’m removing it piecemeal as I work my way around the house and replacing it with modern insulation that will hopefully help increase my energy efficiency. Removing nogging is an extremely dusty and heavy pain in the ass, but I think it’s the right thing to do.

interior2

I also removed the drywall on the street-facing window wall, which was moldy and yucky, and this is pretty much how things sat for a couple years! UNTIL NOW!

demo4

The other night, I started tackling more of the demo again! I always try to demo slowly and deliberately, saving anything I can—especially stuff like moldings that are much easier to reuse than try to replicate!

demo02

By the next morning, I had this!

demo01

I took up the old floor board-by-board (to reuse for what, I have no idea!), and underneath was surprised to discover…a 4″ thick or so layer of mortar! OOF. This is when my main squeeze Edwin started working with me, and we shoveled it out and hauled it out of the house bucket by bucket. Super fun, as you can imagine.

foundation

Underneath the layer of mortar were these really wide boards attached to the joists. It’s interesting that the joists run from side to side instead of back-to-front…those are some REALLY long joists! We had to cut them in half just to get them out, but the old wood is so pretty that I’m determined to do something with them.

Here you can kind of see the foundation below. Told ya, just a couple of cinderblocks! I wonder if they have footings or anything. We’ll soon find out!

demo1

Demo, demo, and more demo! It’s so crazy how much material went into these houses. This is part of why demolishing old houses is such a tragedy—the sheer volume of stuff that ends up in a landfill is almost unimaginable, which is another reason I try to salvage as much as possible. Renovations always generate enough waste as it is!

demo2

With the floor, the mortar, the subfloor, and the joists removed, we have….the original exterior wall of my house, looking pretty damn good! The rim joist is enormous and in excellent condition, and the foundation is in amazing shape from being protected all these years! And look at the basement window! Light comes in through it now!

Oh, and what’s that back there? A window? A NEW WINDOW? I have so much to share about window shopping that it’s gonna have to be another post, but I can happily report that I think I’ve found a very good solution for matching 150 year old original windows with new, if you’re in a similar predicament. I’m totally opposed to replacing my original windows for a number of reasons, but trying to find a decent match was no easy feat!

SO ANYWAY! This week, my house feels like it is getting torn to shreds, and the copious amounts of dust and disorder that I haven’t experienced since demo’ing a couple plaster ceilings a few years ago is back with a vengeance.

I couldn’t be happier about it. Progress once again. Feels good.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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