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.”

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“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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

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“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!

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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!

Olivebridge Cottage: From Bad to Worse (and Worse and Worse and Worse)

Have you mentally recovered from the last post about Olivebridge Cottage yet? If you thought things could only go up from there, I hate to tell you that you are so sorely mistaken because this house is the worst. Happy Wednesday!

So far, we have a host of structural issues ranging from somewhat serious to super duper serious (try not to get lost in my jargon), evidence of multiple infestations that wreaked havoc not only on structure but also electrical and insulation, code violations for days, severe mold problems, one very ugly and increasingly torn apart house, two blindsided homeowners, and one grumpy and dejected blogger guy who was me.

bedroomwall

Where we left off, we knew we were looking at reframing this entire wall, the bottom of which was completely rotted after sitting under an improperly installed deck thing for years. Those two tall narrow windows are in the bedroom, and over to the left (mostly out of frame) there’s a third one that’s part of the full bath.

diningsliders

We also knew we had to reframe this adjacent wall, which had similar rot issues due to the deck. I guess it looks almost OK from the outside, but the sill plate was completely rotted and most of the studs were compromised as well, to say nothing of the under-sized header creating the rough opening for the sliders and the foundation being entirely below the ground and everything just being a total fucking mess.

bedroomwindow2

Lemons, meet lemonade? Since this bedroom wall also had its own host of issues, I proposed that while we were doing all this framing work, maybe we should steal the sliders and put them in the bedroom, and then steal these windows and put them in the dining room, and then steal some other windows to take the place of those two tall skinny ones in the first picture, because they were dumb and nobody liked them anyway. Musical windows. The homeowners did not want to try to recreate the little deck thing outside of the dining area and we all agreed that the space remaining there was a gross mosquito-ridden cesspool anyway, so waking up and being able to open your nice big sliders and walk out onto a nice big platform deck outside the bedroom seemed more appealing.

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So that is what we did. It was kind of exciting even in the midst of all these other things that were really not exciting.

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Out came the sliders. Up went some temporary support for the roof. Out came the old rotted framing.

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Ahhh, nothing like a brand new pressure-treated sill plate, properly anchored to a CMU foundation, amiright? Just say yes. In bleak times like this you take what you can get in terms of excitement and reason to carry on.

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The new-old window from the bedroom actually worked VERY well in the dining room. Centering it on the wall looked a billion times better than the off-center sliders, and it framed the view of that postmodern toilet sculpture really beautifully.

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Framed, almost sheathed, almost back in business. See how the bottom plate of the wall is just peeking up over the dirt, though? That’s not good. By code you should have at least 8″ of foundation above grade, so this area will need some excavation and some way to redirect water away from it, because otherwise it all flows down here and causes the house to rot to pieces. Ask me how I know.

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Love when a whole wall is torn off a house. It looks like a dollhouse? Like a dollhouse from hell? So we sistered in a new pressure-treated sill plate, took out the old framing, and framed it in for the huge sliders. Fun fun fun fun fun.

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Also a nice change! This area also needed some excavation and grading to get the bottom of the framing out from essentially being underground.

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Then we moved on to the really bad wall. Shudder. Same story, different day, some creative framing work I don’t even want to remember.

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We stole the old kitchen window and two smaller windows from the front enclosed porch, which are different styles but the same height and look fine together. Between the new sliders and these new windows, the little bedroom got a nice big upgrade in terms of views, light, and how furniture can be arranged…so that was good? The roof was so crazy sloped in here—look at that piece of wood between the header and the top plate! Oy. To distract from it, I thought maybe we’d use vertical beadboard in this room, up until about 8″ from the ceiling and drywall the rest of the wall up. That way the molding that finished off the top of the beadboard would be a straight line and the rest would read as “character.” Not ideal, but there’s only so much you can do when working with parts of an existing structure.

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Better? I like it a lot better.

OK, I’m out of good news. Hope you rejoiced in that bright moment of kind-of-almost-progress.

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Back in the living room, remember this mess? We’d already figured out that we had to redo the roof over the enclosed porch, and we also knew that the posts supporting what was originally an exterior wall of the house weren’t sufficient—basically everything you see here was a big structural mess. Demo continued to go along swimmingly:

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Look at how these stairs are built. Drywall screws, 2x4s, and a prayer. WHY. It’s not like this is even such a problem so much as it’s just incredibly weird and annoying and very evident that whoever did this work was even dumber than me.

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Naturally, underneath the stairs things looked like this. I’m not even going to list all the things that are wrong because everything is wrong.

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Here’s what’s on the other side of the shower wall in the bathroom! Is it even worth explaining? Or trying to understand? There are some original 2×4 studs supplemented with some 2×3 studs, some of which are attached to some other wood but some of which are kind of just floating and then used as nailers to screw very heavy cement board to which is holding up hundreds of pounds of tile and thinset and grout. All manner of creature had been hiding out around the tub, evidently, because they left the nests to prove it.

OH YEAH AND A CARCASS. What is it with me and houses that have dead bodies near bathtubs? On the bright side, this corpse was a squirrel but on the not-bright side, I had to find it this time. I’ll spare you the photographic evidence.

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As a final “fuck you” before dying in the wall, this badass squirrel tried to make the house collapse.

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Or catch on fire.

Honestly, at this point? TOTALLY understand where that squirrel was coming from. Big up, my brother. You did your best.

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Then it got worse, because it wasn’t super apparent until I pulled up the carpeting that the living room floor was sagging really severely in the middle. Like, a few inches over only a 12′ span! Not only did it look horrible, but it would also make laying new flooring (which at the time was supposed to be an engineered hardwood) sort of impossible. Something told me (can’t imagine what!) that this was probably due to some other awful underlying cause that nobody had noticed, because in this house where there’s smoke, there’s fire. It’s always worst case scenario at Olivebridge Cottage.

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At first glance, the condition of these joists seemed kind of alright! The sill plate looked to be fairly new pressure-treated lumber and the joists were too.

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Then I looked closer. Yikes! That’s the end of an original joist, totally destroyed by what I assume were termites. But that’s not that big of a deal, because look!! Somebody already sistered in new joists. IS SOMETHING HERE ACTUALLY…KIND OF OK?!?!

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Don’t get crazy, of course it isn’t. Whoever made this repair evidently decided only sistering in a few of the joists was worth the effort, leaving most of them still super rotted and failing. If the major sag in the floor had been from normal settling and just a funny quirk of this house, it would have been OK, but this is really the result of this floor system no longer being up to the task of, ya know, supporting weight and stuff. Kind of important.

Oh, and upon closer investigation? Those joists that were “sistered in”? ONLY SPANNED HALF THE ROOM. To do it properly and actually reinforce the old joists, the new joists would have had to span the length of the entire joist—from sill to sill. I guess conceivably it might be OK to terminate the sistered joist halfway, but then I think you’d need some kind of beam running perpendicularly underneath to support everything…I’m no engineer but any idiot can tell that this is SO JACKED UP OMG GET ME OUT OF HERE

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Because the crawlspace has only a few inches of clearance between the ground and the joists, the only way to get at the joists was to pull up the subfloor. You can kind of make out in this picture how the sistered-in joists aren’t really doing what they’re supposed to do…maybe because they’re roughly 5 feet long on a 13 foot span.

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Because we were now looking at a new roof for the enclosed porch part of the living room, new wiring, new insulation, new joists—basically new everything—at some point in there it seemed to make much more sense to take the opportunity to change the house in more visible, valuable ways than just trying to rebuild a heartier version of what was there. The living room itself was really small, with a huge hearth, doors, stairs, and openings on every wall, which made it a huge design challenge from the get-go. Like, where am I supposed to put a couch in this room where it won’t either block something or look horrible? I never really found the answer, because the new plan became to rip down the enclosed porch roof and half of the living room roof, pocket a new structural beam up to the ridge, and run new rafters down the front elevation to match the pitch of the kitchen/dining section of the house. Like so:

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At this point we are also re-siding the house due to all of the layers of exterior wood rot, so obviously I was also advocating that we paint this sucker black. Our original inspiration for this project was modern Scandinavian cottages, of which we were mainly looking at interiors because we weren’t planning to really touch the exterior of this house, but then every plan we made fell to pieces because this house was a piece of garbage.

I love a black house. Leave me alone.

Anyway. It’s not like the house in that rendering is about to win any architectural awards, but I still think it’s sort of cute in its own way and gave the house an actual living room without changing the footprint. Everyone was pretty much on board with this and it felt kind of exciting.

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Until it didn’t. Here’s a fun little glimpse of the foundation under the living room. Notice anything? How about the fact that the sill plate and rim joist have actually migrated a couple inches beyond the outer limits of the foundation, leaving them…floating? How about the enormous hole made by rodents right through both of these essential pieces of structural framing?

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How about the fact that the ENTIRE FOUNDATION is what you see here? That’s a single row of cinderblocks resting on some bluestone rubble, right on the earth. No mortar. Not footings. No anchor bolts, or…anything. HOW this house was even standing was kind of a miracle.

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Moving down the wall, things just got worse. Note that you’re also seeing black tar paper over the studs—zero insulation, zero sheathing.

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Hot holy damn.

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I give up. I have no more words to say, no more feels to feel.

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I think this is the image that I see when I imagine how hell looks. Then we figured out that that 8-foot span of window had a single 2×4 for a header and that entire wall was a combo of bad foundation, rot, no sheathing, no insulation, eaten electrical, and hell started to look more like this:

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Which got cleaned up to look like this:

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Annnnnnnnnd, everything is terrible.

At this point, it’s probably plainly obvious to you (and me, and the contractors, and my dogs, and…well, anyone) that this house is more or less the definition of a “tear-down.” It should be noted that I do NOT say that lightly, because I’m the sort of person who thinks everything can be saved. So why were we still doing all this stuff?

It’s a complicated answer, which I’ll try to uncomplicated a little. Firstly, because at this point we actually hadn’t spent that much money, and the building department had continued to give us the go-ahead every time I called them to explain how the renovation had expanded beyond the work detailed in my original permit application. Secondly, tearing down a house is a big deal, particularly when the homeowners didn’t buy a tear-down—or, more accurately, didn’t know they were buying a tear-down. They bought a house, and paid for it accordingly. TV shows would have you believe that basically any money you put into a house becomes equity that you’ll then see a great big return on if/when you sell, but there are limits to that.

Out of respect for the homeowners’ privacy, it should be noted that the figures in the example below are fictitious—they do NOT represent the actual costs associated with this renovation. I’m only listing numbers to illustrate a hypothetical—because costs on all of this stuff vary dramatically depending on where you are, the costs of this particular renovation aren’t as relevant as the bigger picture. Here goes…

Say houses in your area generally sell for between $300,000-$500,000. Say you buy a house for $350,000, and hire contractors to do a $75,000 renovation, bringing your investment to $425,000—which is OK, you figure, because you’ll have a really nice property that you’ll be able to sell in a few years for probably close to that $500,000 upper limit.  But then you start to renovate—paying people to do so, as many (most?) people do—and the problems pile on and pile on and pile on. When the issues start rolling in, you do what pretty much anyone would do and have them fixed so you can move onto the rest of your plans. Then the problems don’t stop, and before you know it you’ve spent $35,000 of your $75,000 renovation budget just finding issues, fixing them, and finding more issues, bringing your total investment to $385,000, and all you have to show for it is a complete disaster, and a house with a TON of problems that may or may not be fixable. So what do you do?

Tearing down the house and rebuilding it is, of course, the most simple solution…but now you are $385,000 in the hole and will probably be at least $400,000 deep after you demolish and dispose of the thing. Then you have to hire an architect to design you a new house (call that $20,000), pull a permit for that house that may or may not be approved by the town’s building and zoning department—whose zoning rules have changed in the 60+ years since your house was built—and find a builder to build the thing from the ground up for about a year (the year during which you thought you’d be living in your house and must find other accommodations). Of course, now you need new everything, because you no longer have a house at all, just a piece of land. New design, new well, new septic, new foundation, new rat slab, new framing, new sheathing, new roof, new walls, new ceilings, new electrical, new plumbing, new HVAC, new insulation, new finishes…new everything.

The house you now have to tear down is 1,800 square feet, and the town is allowing you to expand the footprint 200 square feet—bringing you to a 2,000 square foot house. Even at a modest $130/square foot of new construction cost, your new house is going to cost $260,000 to construct, meaning that after the initial purchase, the initial kind-of-renovation, the architect’s work, and now the new construction cost, you’ve spend $665,000 on a property that’s worth maybe $475,000—perhaps less because that cost per square foot doesn’t exactly buy you high-end finishes. You think that maybe pre-fab is the way to go, but after quite a bit of research you realize that those suckers are actually quite expensive and typically pretty little, so that idea gets more or less shelved.

It’s not like you can make this decision unilaterally, either, because your mortgage, assuming you have one, is tied to the house you bought—it’s extremely important to review the terms of your mortgage documents carefully and consult qualified legal guideance to ensure that you aren’t violating the terms of your mortgage. At worst, a complete tear-down could result in the bank needing back all that money that you borrowed because the house that they essentially own no longer exists! So now you’re out of pocket on your 20% down payment ($70,000) the initial renovation ($35,000), the new design ($20,000) the demolition ($15,000) the new construction ($260,000) and the remainder of your mortgage ($280,000), which means you’re $680,000 deep on a house that’s not going to appraise for over $475,000 anytime soon. OUCH.

On top of that, you bought this house. You love this house. The idea of tearing down this house is almost unfathomable because you would be legitimately very sad to see this house that you love and bought end up in a landfill. And even if the process of renovating is slated to cost $125,000 on top of what you’ve already spent, that means you’re $230,000 out of pocket with 30 years to pay off the other $280,000, which isn’t great but also isn’t so bad considering the severity of how shitty your situation is.

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So we kept trucking. Kind of. Sort of. Until everything came to a halt.

Diary time!

Day 15: Continued all clean-up and organization on interior, pulled up flooring in sunken living room. Adriana visited and we talked plans.

Day 16: Dump run, continued demo on exterior and deck space and moved indoors to work on sunken living room.

Day 17: Finished demo in sunken living room, de-nailed beadboard, and took up half of living room carpeting.

Day 18: Dump run. Pulled up all carpeting in living room and organized wood. Cleaned up front yard and got wood ready for reuse. Demo’d existing stairs. Loaded truck for dump.

Day 19: Dump run.

Day 20: Got dump truck serviced. Continued demo in living room and diagnosed issues with living room floor sagging—shit. Discovered more major mice/squirrel damage including damage to framing and electrical. Pulled affected electrical—lucky house hasn’t burned down.

Day 21: Worked on exterior demo and moved all things out of bedroom for framing. Edwin came and we installed sill plate on dining room wall. Discussed what to do about kitchen floor and construction of “addition.” Demo’d interior bedroom wall and removed all siding and exterior sheathing in prep for framing in sliding doors tomorrow.

Day 22: Demo’d siding from dining room wall and removed eaves overhang and shiplap sheathing. Edwin and Edgar came and we all worked on framing in new dining room window. Installed window and moved on to sliding doors in bedroom. Sheathed bedroom door and will sheath dining room wall tomorrow. Both changes look AMAZING.

Day 23: Lowe’s run for sheathing and Tyvek supplies. Demo’d cinderblocks on dining room wall and assisted with sheathing. Worked on cleaning up site.

Day 24: Met with Carl to plan excavation job. Some site cleanup.

Day 25: Demo’d concrete block from front of dining room wall to prepare for new sheathing. Demo’d interior of bedroom wall and insulation. Removed old siding and sheathing from wall to be reframed tomorrow.

Day 26: Helped reframe bedroom/bathroom wall and figure out new windows. Dump run in Edwin’s truck. Came back and finished framing dining room wall and did site clean up for a while. Went to Lowe’s to source window option for kitchen. Loaded car for stuff to take to Habitat for Humanity Restore tomorrow morning.

Day 27: Habitat for Humanity run to drop stuff and scout windows.

Day 28: Contract amendments.

Day 29: Met with chimney guy. Did some interior clean-up.

Day 30: Picked up windows from ReStore, door from Door Jamb, and delivered to site. Consulted with Edwin and Edgar on plan of attack for living room floor and foundation issues.

I Did a Thing! Talking about DIY at the New England Home Show.

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You know what feels fancy and scary at the same time? At least for me? When someone from HGTV Magazine gets in touch to ask if you’d be interested in speaking…at a home show…to actual people…on the broad subject of DIY. Like, who the hell am I? Going places? Making presentations? Talking into a microphone? Wearing clothes that aren’t covered in paint and sawdust? Excuse me, nice PR lady. I think you have me confused with someone else.

But apparently she did not, and evidently neither did the folks from HGTV Magazine, nor the folks from TD Bank who also sponsored this shindig which they have termed the TD Bank Rolling Renovation. Basically what they do is set up a cute booth out of this groovy converted shipping container thing that they’ve been driving all over the country and having different people (like me!) speak out of. When such people (like me!) aren’t gabbing about stuff, the very friendly folks at TD Bank are on deck to explain how they can help finance big and small renovation projects with a home equity line of credit, which is a good thing to know about if you’re into this renovation stuff (like me!).

It wasn’t until after I’d agreed to do it that they mentioned that other speakers had included actual TV folk from HGTV and these bloggers named John and Sherry and then I excused myself to go have diarrhea in my pants.

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ANYWAY! In case you have never been to a home show which I had not prior to this, they’re actually fun! There are lots and lots of people and lots and lots of companies representing lots and lots of things. After my presentations and meet-and-greets, I walked the show and ended up getting quite the education about some composite siding products, innovative advancements in cedar shake technology, and I may have been convinced to purchase this miracle doormat that promises to keep my floors less filthy. Home shows are good opportunities to find out about local companies that provide services you might be in need of, as well as talk to representatives who really know their stuff about the products they’re there to promote. Everyone working the event is super thrilled to talk to anybody who will listen, so they are literally beyond happy to answer questions and tell you all the things you want to know.

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The TD Bank Rolling Renovation booth was OBVIOUSLY the most fun place to be for various reasons:

  1. I was there, so duh.
  2. You could win money just by spinning a wheel. Just spinning the wheel was fun even if you didn’t win, which I did not, but they did let me have a free pen and a teeny tiny tape measure which was almost as good.
  3. Inside the booth, you could get tips on renovating, financing options, AND enter to win MORE money by playing a jaunty game on those iPads. I like games. I like money. I like renovating. I like learning how to be less house-poor. Win-win-win-win.

So YEAH! I did the whole dress-like-a-human-and-talk-into-a-microphone-in-a-strange-place-about-a-thing-I-kind-of-know-about and it actually went well! They even asked me to take my dog and pony show on the road with them and do it again in April, so I guess I didn’t totally screw it up. Here’s a handy list of where the Rolling Renovation is headed next, in case you want to check it out! Good times!

This post is in partnership with TD Bank and HGTV Magazine!

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