Perhaps the most stressful period of working on the Olivebridge Cottage project was, paradoxically, the period in which the smallest amount of physical work was taking place. It was almost three months into the nightmarish beginnings of the physical demo and renovation work, our situation was dire, the building department was requiring that the project be evaluated by engineers, the homeowners were increasingly frustrated and anxious, and I was looking for a way to bail on the whole project so they could, in turn, choose to bring in someone better qualified to enact the engineering proposals and turn the situation around for everyone.
So that was fun.
The same day that the building inspector told us we needed engineers, I found engineers at a well-reviewed local firm. I went straight from working on site into their office, covered in dust and debris and looking like a complete mess, and got things set up for a consult later in the week. I was just a *tad* stressed and might have given the impression of being a complete lunatic.
It’s tempting to think that two adult men with decades of experience evaluating structures would be amused by this little project, but they were not. As it happens, they said it was the worst house they’d ever seen. Then they told me this cute little story about a house they provided plans for out on Cape Cod, where—if memory serves—essentially an ENTIRE HOUSE was sitting precariously atop a few 4×4 posts, the bottoms of which each rested on a small piece of flagstone sitting right on the ground. Worse than that. Awesome!
Luckily, they weren’t intimidated. Our problems were solvable. We spent time going through the house and all of the issues I’d already identified, and then they walked around and took a billion photos and thorough measurements and said they’d get to work.
Since I began blogging about this house, I’ve gotten a lot of questions about how I’d recommend homebuyers avoid falling into a similarly bad situation. That’s the subject of a much longer and much different blog post, but I guess the first part of my answer would be to try to “read” the structure. See that graphic, above? This house is only 1300 square feet, yet it’s comprised of FIVE different structures. #1 is the original cottage (built, evidently, as a little three-season hunting cabin, but in the manner of a garden shed), and 2, 3, 4, and 5 are all additions onto that original structure. 3 and 5 are both enclosed porches, which often aren’t built that well to begin with and then tend not to receive the most sound upgrades during the enclosure process. Of course, it’s also helpful to learn about the housing development history in the area (this kind of thing is actually common where this house is), ask neighbors what they know, and see if there are records for past building permits.
This addition-on-addition approach does not all NECESSARILY add up to structural problems, but I think it’s a good indication that there could be structural problems. It also makes renovation difficult, because each space is constructed differently and to a different standard, and maybe finished (including wired, plumbed, heated, etc.) at different times. #2 and #4, for example, had reasonably solid concrete foundations from what we could tell, but #1 had a few cinderblocks in some places and simple rubble in others. We didn’t know what was under #5, so we had to find out. The house was also on four slightly different levels with steps up and down everywhere, with seven different types of flooring and three different types of heating, which is kind of a recipe for general awkwardness and difficulty when trying to renovate a more flowing, simplified, open space.
This also meant that we had NO IDEA what this would mean from the perspective of our new engineers and how much work they would require us to do. If you have to redo ALL the foundations, at what point does saving any part of the structure at all become ridiculously impractical, particularly when the structure isn’t really worth saving? This isn’t some gorgeous old thing with great bones, mind you. The engineers were understandably hesitant about telling us anything until we got the full plans—I think they didn’t want to be too hasty or misspeak and inspire false hope about our prospects.
It was so stressful and made it incredibly hard to plan our next moves. From my perspective the only thing that made sense was waiting for the engineering report to come in. I was stuck in the middle of trying to keep my cool so the homeowners could keep their cool, while also prodding the engineers to move it along, while also trying to stay in their good graces so they’d be more inclined to really put their thinking caps on instead of throwing their hands up. Finding code-compliant, structurally sound, and as-budget-friendly-as-possible solutions to each issue big and small was a sizable task.
It was tricky.
This is the cottage when I started this job, but what we were really waiting on with the plans was an enhanced version of the cottage, not an exact carbon copy. We were tied to the original footprint due to zoning regulations, but we were all in agreement that the original house—even with our initially planned modifications—was very awkward in a number of ways, particularly the living room set-up. The enclosed front porch attached to the skinny living room space was particularly difficult to work with, since you had to step down to get into it and the living room also functioned as an entryway and the main artery to get anywhere else in the house. Add to this that almost half of it was given over to the wood stove and surrounding stonework, and the room was crazy hard to arrange in a way that didn’t look so stupid.
In our original renovation plan, above, the big changes are obviously to the kitchen and the elimination of the half-bath, but we’d also decided to remove the posts between the living room and the enclosed porch, insert a structural beam, and frame up the floor 6-7 inches to at least level things out. That plan was problematic (still choppy, too-low ceiling height, maybe not possible if the beam would have to be too large, which it probably would be for a 20 foot span…) and never really sat right anyway, so whatever. Adios, old plan.
So knowing that the porch area would need to be rebuilt completely, this became the new basic plan. It’s still kind of weird but I think in an OK way, and makes the living room a real ROOM instead of a big pass-through.
How exactly we should handle that bigger space was never particularly refined at this stage of things, but it felt like there were some good options to do something way cool.
We were going to accomplish this by keeping half of the existing living room roof up to the ridge (right side in the image above), and then running new rafters down from the ridge to the front wall of the house, matching the slope of the existing roof over the dining room. So outside, the house would go from this:
To more like this:
Which is not winning any architectural awards (and would have been further tweaked (especially the street-facing windows), but the basic strokes worked really nicely with keeping as much of the original house as we could while ALSO fixing what we knew at the time needed fixing and ALSO making big improvements to the layout in the process. It’s easy to change out window sizes and stuff before building, but I needed to give something to the engineers to base their plans off of and this is more or less what they got.
The whole process was pretty fast-paced. I think the hardest part for the homeowners to take were these lulls in the physical work, when the house was just sitting without any visible transformation, so they were very anxious to get things underway. This was coupled with the inconvenient truth that we’d worked through spring and most of summer and were headed into fall…in upstate New York. If we were going to start this project before the following spring—leaving the house vacant and in serious disrepair for another six months during the winter—we were getting to a point where we really had to get moving at least on whatever foundation work would be required.
ANYWAY, since we had to affordably re-side the entire house anyway, I proposed a simple board-and-batten treatment in black, potentially with cedar under the eaves because doesn’t that seem cool and fun? I love a little black house in the woods.
We also scaled back the kitchen quite a bit in an effort to keep costs down. BEFORE YOU FREAK, let’s remember that this is a second home for the clients and a vacation property they intended to rent…which makes a small and simple kitchen sort of preferable, I think. If you’re renting a home and don’t know your way around the kitchen, it’s not as hard to find things or remember where to put them away…anyway, it all made a lot of sense at the time.
Check out that sink location. Drink it in. ;)
SO. Lots of waiting. Lots of feeling sad. Then the engineering report came in. Gulp.
The engineers were great about addressing each issue and figuring out suitable and practical solutions. It was their judgment that areas of the house that were still intact could mostly remain that way, so just the fact that we didn’t have to completely tear down the house and start from scratch was a relief.
I’ve tried to make this as simple as possible to follow. Apologies if it’s all just nonsense! Let’s start at the boots:
The living room foundation needs to be rebuilt completely.
The kitchen and dining room foundation was actually permitted to stay in spite of some issues, but at a minimum we would have to trench all the way around it and add rigid foam insulation (I didn’t even know this was a thing people did, but apparently it is done) to protect it from frost heaves. The section in red between the dining and living rooms would have to be completely built (not even rebuilt!) because whoever put in this foundation relied on the living room “foundation” for that run, which was not smart because the living room foundation was literally a pile of rocks.
The front porch slab would have to be demolished, with the new foundation for the living room making up the footprint.
In the back of the house, the engineers said that the foundation under the master bedroom, bathroom, and hall closet (#4) was fine to remain. Hallelujah.
The sunroom—or the other enclosed porch, #5—would need some investigative work because it was impossible to see what was happening below the floor. Ideally there would be a concrete slab (and we thought there might be because the floor was tiled, and maybe they did it right over a slab?) but we didn’t know what to expect, and we were now required to find out. If there wasn’t a slab, we’d have to put one in.
Similar story with the floor framing. All new in the living room. Modifications to the dining/kitchen to support the new joists on that new section of foundation. Again, #5 is a mystery but we knew we were possibly looking at framing in a new floor in there depending on what we found below the existing floor.
Of course, walls! Again, living room and front-porch-turned-living-room are all new.
Dining and kitchen were OK-ish, not great. There was some substantial rot to some framing and a lot of the sheathing, meaning we’d be stripping down to the studs inside and out. We’d already rebuilt the front and back walls, but the engineers wanted us to add a second jack stud to support our headers for the window openings on those walls. It was frustrating because our original framing was actually permissible according to code, but this was one of those things where we were tied to having to do—at minimum—whatever the engineers said.
In the guest room, we’d already gutted those two highlighted walls while framing in different windows and the sliding doors. All that work was fine, but all the walls are 2×4 framing and—short of spray foam insulating the house, which was not remotely budgeted for—we’d have to fur out those walls two inches to accommodate fiberglass insulation that would meet the minimal R-Value requirements (R-21 for exterior walls).
Annnnd the roofs. Oy vey.
The plan to potentially retain the back half of the living room roof and re-frame the front half was nixed, so the living room is completely new. Foundation to roof, all new.
The problem with that is that we had to find a way to tie into the existing roofs over #4 (shingles) and #5 (EPDM rubber because of the low slope) which were both in fairly poor condition. We weren’t being required to rebuild them but we would likely have to re-roof those sections to get everything water-tight and functioning correctly. On the plus side, the roofing would all match? Oh joy.
In the living/dining area (#2), we had 2×6 rafters sistered into the original 2×4 rafters, but both were under-sized for the span of the rafters. So we’d have to sister in bigger rafters next to those, then cut out the space at the ridge where the rafters met to insert a structural beam across the width of the room, with a built-up post down to the foundation on the exterior wall and another down to the header for the opening between the living and dining room on the interior wall. Then we’d need to tear off the layers of shingles and underlayment, possibly/probably re-seath, re-roof, re-insulate on the interior…OH BOY HOW FUN. OH BOY HOW DUMB.
See where I’m going with this, maybe? The dining/kitchen needed major work to the foundation, floor system, walls, roof, insulation, plumbing, and electric. That’s the entire thing! And that’s when you have to think long and hard about what you’re saving, and whether it’s worth it. All that work would still be less expensive than completely rebuilding that part of the house, but is the cost savings worth it? To go through the exercise of redoing the whole thing and then still potentially have a lot of issues with it down the line, still have walls and rooflines that aren’t level, still have an improved but iffy foundation…it’s not great.
I voiced this to the clients who understood but weren’t entirely convinced, and it wasn’t my call to make, so we all went to our separate corners to think it out a little. Now it’s early September, the homeowners want to start construction in two weeks to beat the winter, and we’re deciding what to do about…oh, half the house. Totes normal.
TIME. IS. A-TICKIN’.
I’m not sure what I was expecting from the plans, but they were delivered in the form of a slim 6-page document containing exactly 10 small diagrams, each with a bunch of arrows and a spattering of text. They were minimal. Since we hadn’t yet locked down a contractor (ALL THE PANICS), it seemed very important for me to understand every single thing on those plans. So I set a meeting with the engineers, as one does.
I kept Adriana and Barry, the homeowners, informed of what was going on while this was unfolding. And when I told Adriana about the upcoming meeting with the engineers, she told me she wanted to come. I assured her that it was just a boring meeting about really technical stuff that they included in the report that I wasn’t entirely clear on, and it really wasn’t necessary for her to make the trip, but she insisted on her personal attendance.
“I mean, sure, if that’s what you want to do. It’s your house and your money—I’ll see ya there!”
So we sit down with the engineers and start talking. And we’re going over everything point by point, around which time Adriana interjects.
“Now, while we’re talking about that, Barry and I were thinking. About going up.”
“How hard would it be to add a second floor over the part of the house we’re rebuilding?”
OH. MY. GOD. WOMAN. WHAT. THE. FUCK. The engineer was the first to respond, because I was speechless.
“Not that hard; we’d just have to adjust the foundation specs a little to compensate for the additional load.”
“OK, I think we’ll do that.”
And I’m just sitting there. LIKE WAIT WHAT JUST HAPPENED. I came to my senses:
“OK, if you’re serious about this then we have to hire an architect who can turn this around quickly.”
“I was thinking you could do it.”
WHAT WOULD GIVE YOU THAT IDEA, YOU PSYCHO? Again, speechless. The engineer turns to me:
“I mean, everything you’ve given us so far is all we’d really need to modify these plans, so that works for us if you’re up for it.”
NO. EVERYONE STOP. WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU SAYING.
Here’s the thing. I write a blog that some people read and that’s all very nice. Heretofore, I’d worked essentially as a decorator which people like to call an “interior designer” but they’re actually different things and I am technically neither. I have little schooling when it comes to this stuff, no architecture or design-related degree, no experience with new construction, no experience managing a project of this scope, had never designed a house, and a week prior to this meeting I was trying to hand over my proverbial letter of resignation.
And now they want me to design a new fucking house.
In two weeks.
Top to bottom.
Soup to nuts.
Back to the drawing board, literally. Time to learn about stairs.
Psssst! Olivebridge Cottage is an ongoing series about a renovation that flew off the rails (and then found its way back on)! For lots of backstory and schadenfreude, check out these past posts!