All posts in: Freelance Projects

Olivebridge Cottage: 2.0!

Ladies and gents, do I have a story for you. I think it’s a good one. I built a house. Yeah. I build houses now. It’s just a little thing I picked up.

As some of you may or may not recall, I got hired by this nice couple a little while ago to basically renovate a kitchen and spruce up this little shitbox of a house they bought, which sounded to everyone at the time like a basically fun and quick and relatively inexpensive little project. We called it Olivebridge Cottage. It looked like this:

El diablo. Shudder.

I have never been more wrong about anything in my life. Possibly neither has the nice couple, and hopefully neither has the home inspector who seemed to be under the impression that this house was normal and habitable and not a steaming pile of doo-doo. Not to put too fine a point on it.

It started off with so much light-hearted optimism and excitement. Then I began the work, and it quickly descended into…the opposite of that. Fear, terror, anxiety, serious sads, total dejection. We tried to hang onto some semblance of my original renovation plans, but the issues kept piling up, one on top of the other. We tried chasing our tails, rebuilding one thing only to discover that the adjacent thing also needed to be rebuilt. After a few months, it really felt like living in some kind of practical joke that wasn’t even remotely funny. It made me wonder if I was working on somebody’s art project gone awry instead of an actual house at all, which is sort of funny in retrospect but was just BRUTAL at the time.

Before long, there wasn’t a ton of house left. And what was left was a total nightmare. And everything was terrible.

Here’s the abbreviated list of what we found and then had to figure out a way to address, from the ground up:

  1. Faulty or completely missing foundations. This house was the product of a small original structure and about 5 different additions, and none of them had anything approaching a structurally sound foundation.
  2. Rotted or improperly built framing. Entire walls and floor framing were rotted through and no longer structurally sound. The bulk of the newer framing work had been done with drywall screws(!) rather than nails. Sheathing and siding around the house was rotted. Windows improperly installed without headers or any other means of support. Improper use of pressure-treated lumber. Seriously under-sized framing. So bad.
  3. Faulty roof systems. Basically the house was a heavy snowfall away from collapsing due to a fun combo of rot and improper roof framing. All rafters were undersized for their spans. Ridge beams unsupported. Shingles failing. EPDM on flat roofs improperly installed and leaking. Sheathing rotted.
  4. Old or inoperable utilities. Everything pretty much broken or on its last legs.
  5. Serious pest infestations, including extensive rodent and termite damage.
  6. Significant plumbing issues, including the kitchen sink which drained directly into a hole in the ground right outside, and an overflowing septic system overrun by roots.
  7. Significant electrical issues, including blatant code violations and damage to wiring wrought by aforementioned infestations, necessitating all new electrical throughout the structure.
  8. Lack of insulation, excessively pest-damaged insulation, or insulation that did not meet minimal R-value requirements.
  9. Unsafely installed wood stove.
  10. Serious black mold problem throughout house.
  11. I don’t know, there must be more. It was never-ending.

Truly, I’ve never felt worse about anything—ever—than I did about the first few months of this project. Going there to work every day filled me with so much anxiety and dread. And this wasn’t my house, mind you (THANK GOD), so at the same moment I was having to constantly contact the clients and explain the situation, what it meant budget-wise, why something was necessary…it was Very Bad Times. The number of unexpected issues easily made this the biggest renovation job of my life—much bigger than my house, even though this is half the age and half the size! It didn’t help that I was concurrently trying to run for city council, renovate two other houses, mentor a teenager (long story), get over a long term relationship, not destroy a new relationship (spoiler, it didn’t last!), deal with some health problems, keep this blog even minimally afloat…OY VEY. Do you ever reflect on periods of your life and say confidently that someone couldn’t pay you 5 million dollars to time-hop back there and relive it? Yes. That.

At a certain point, we had to completely change our approach. We’d started with an already slim but workable budget of $25,000, and it was almost spent—just tearing stuff out and trying to rebuild things piece by piece. It got to a point, though, where the issues were just too extensive and I was running out of solutions. I was definitely also starting to feel in over my head, which is usually the time to cut your losses and walk away. Which is more or less what I intended to do.

The turning point eventually came when the building inspector showed up and was somewhat less than pleased about the conditions of the house—not because of anything we were doing to try to improve it, but just being confronted with the sheer magnitude of all these issues within a single structure. The thing about inspectors is that they’re generally not architects or engineers—ours wasn’t—so he couldn’t really tell us what to do, either, except to bring in a team of engineers to provide a roadmap for us. He essentially said that he would enforce the engineers’ plans, but that the scope of our work was beyond what he could individually judge as OK or not OK. Totally fair.

This was both good news and bad news. On the good news front, he did not issue a stop work order and seemed to have some real sympathy for the situation. The engineers’ plans would hopefully provide us what we needed in terms of a very clear set of directives to get it done. On the bad news front…we had NO IDEA what an engineer might say when put in front of this property, and it was their task to not only make things OK and safe, but make things code compliant. This house isn’t that old, but old enough that building codes have steadily changed since its construction or subsequent renovations–which were not permitted and most likely never met code. Once the renovation exceeds 50% the value of the house (which this one certainly would, particularly because that percentage is based on the assessed value of the structure not including the assessed value of the land), you lose the right to have stuff grandfathered in that might otherwise be permissible even if it doesn’t meet modern codes. This is kind of frightening, particularly from a budget perspective. It kind of felt like immediately entering another realm of cost and time and potential heartache that nobody was particularly prepared for.

For example, one of our foundations was essentially a concrete slab, about 4 feet thick, filled mostly with big rocks and chunks of concrete beneath the smooth outer surfaces. But it was sitting right on the ground—no footings at all to keep it stable and in place with frost heaves, that kind of thing. It’s wrong. It is not how you build a foundation. But…the thing was solid. And obviously extremely heavy. Could we have built on it and had everything be fine? Probably, yeah. But it didn’t meet minimal modern code requirements, so it would have to go and be redone properly. Now spread that example across every part of an entire house—even a small one—and suddenly your situation is…sobering.

So I had a few meetings with the engineers, and then we all waited several weeks for them to generate their report. At this point I knew the house and its issues like the back of my hand, so I felt valuable from the standpoint of being able to provide information about the existing conditions and brainstorm possible solutions, but that was about it. You might not think there would be a lot of room for creativity when you’re talking about foundations and 2x8s, but some issues required some unorthodox thinking to find a fix that was structurally sound, code-compliant, and allowed us to maintain as much of the existing structure as we could.

That said, at this point it felt likely that we were looking toward demolishing and rebuilding at least most of the remaining house, and…that’s not what I was hired to do. Need a new sofa? Sure, I can help with that. Want to pick out tile? Funsies. Need to underpin a foundation? Hire a builder and leave me the hell alone.

Then the engineering report came in. We’ll talk more about the contents, but basically it was about what I was expecting—some areas of the house being completely rebuilt, others needing major work in order to salvage.

So. I was prepared to flee. Not literally flee, but at this point we’re like 5 months into a 2 month job, and looking at a really long road ahead. I had my own projects to get back to. And this was totally outside my wheelhouse. It wasn’t just that the going got tough—that I can basically handle—but overseeing all this work I’d never done seemed rife with potential to do more harm than good. I just wanted to be done.

And I felt like the clients, if they knew what was best for them, would also want me to be done. The job had so clearly outgrown the little dog-and-pony show we’d been putting on—wherein a blogger with some interior design experience was tasked with making over a house with the help of a couple contractors (Edwin and Edgar, my dudes) for a few hours here and there. That would have been challenging but OK had things gone according to plan, but this? This felt distinctly like a job for an actual builder, with an actual crew and an actual team of subs, who had actual experience, who could actually get this done without actually losing their fucking mind. That, or inadvertently steering their clients into even more treacherous financial straits.

So I tried to explain this to the clients, Adriana and Barry. And they did not exactly agree.

To the enormous credit of Adriana and Barry, they were always very good about separating the work I was doing from the issues I was finding. In other words, they weren’t blaming me. They understood that the issues with the house pre-dated my involvement, and that so many of them presented major safety concerns that they were relieved to know about them, even when the truth hurt. That was HUGE for me, because uncovering all of this while I basically dismantled this house day in and day out for months had not been kind to my psyche. I knew it wasn’t my fault. I did. I also felt like it was. It was an awful way to feel. And I know I’m talking a lot about my ~feelings~ during this period, but you know what? I think it matters. It’s easy to look at this kind of thing as a set of financial and structural and aesthetic and practical decisions, but it’s all really emotional, too. I felt awful about the house and I felt awful for the clients, and it’s not like that feeling went away when I was off site. It was 24/7. The clients felt awful about the amount of money they were spending, the fact that they still couldn’t enjoy the house they’d bought 9 months prior, and that they pretty much never would because we were going to tear most of it down. That they also had the energy to feel awful for me is pretty remarkable.

The point is, they wanted me to see it through. They felt more confident in me than I did that I could pull it off. Plus, they didn’t want to start over with a new plan and a new contractor they’d never worked with, particularly living two hours away, and they really wanted to move swiftly and get it done so they could actually enjoy their house! I’d been there since Day 1. I knew the house better than anybody. I knew what they wanted out of it. And as many times as I told them I just wasn’t the man for the job, they weren’t having it. And if that was really what they wanted, then walking away began to feel worse than staying around and giving it the old college try. Even though it all seemed…risky.

So I stuck around. And now I’m really glad I did, because what followed was definitely one of the most challenging, educational, and ultimately exciting things I’ve ever done. I built a whole house. Not single-handedly, and not entirely without the usual hiccups, but I did it. And I’m pretty damn proud of that, thankyouverymuch.

Building a house is hard work, and building this house specifically tested everything I’ve got in so many ways! So forgive me for holding out on writing about it. It was one of those things where I was so drained from living it that writing about it as it was happening just felt impossible. And I didn’t want to jinx things, which never felt like such a real and potent risk until I experienced the first go-round of renovating this house.

But now? I have so. much. to. tell. you. This…this is gonna be fun. Let’s build a house!

Psssst! There’s obviously much more to come, but maybe you need a little refresher on Olivebridge Cottage, 1.0? A condensed record of my descent into insanity? Here ya go!

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

Two Things

THING 1:

Here’s some high-level Blog Trivia for you: what do the following three pictures have in common?

They’re all the products of last year’s rounds of Lowe’s Spring Makeovers! The first one is Chris Loves Julia’s project, the second is Yellow Brick Home’s, and the third is mine. To jog your memory, the three of us plus a few other bloggers teamed up with Lowe’s and each took on a big makeover project in the home (or outside it, as the case may be) of a reader in a fast-paced whirlwind of DIY madness. It was one of those things where we were all independently freaking out during our respective makeovers, and then after it was over couldn’t stop talking about how much fun we had and how we’d totally do it again.

WELL WE’RE DOING IT AGAIN! BUT THIS TIME WITH A MAJOR TWIST! LIFE IS SO CRAZY I CAN’T HANDLE IT OMG.

This year, we’re a TEAM. Julia. Chris. Kim. Scott. Me. Joining forces for one epic super fast makeover. AND to make things extra high-stakes and insane, we’re looking for a specific kind of makeover: a kitchen or a bathroom! We all got a fair number of kitchen/bath applications last year that were a little beyond the scope of what we could do given the time constraints, but this year? We’re coming for ya. Chris and Julia are taking the lead on this one, but we’ll all be working together on one project which of course includes all five of us showing up on YOUR doorstep. Afterwards we’ll be launching our very own cult! Stay tuned for deets on that.

Applications are still being accepted through midnight tonight, so hop on it! We’re gonna have so much fun.

THING 2:

There’s still time to vote for this little laundry makeover that I told you about earlier this week! The part of me with some shame wouldn’t be bugging you about it again, but the part of me that would be so hella super stoked to win $2,000 will totally bug you about it again.

This is the last day to vote, and it’s dramatic! Yesterday I pulled into first place (whaaatttttttt you guys are amazing and I love it so much) but today I’m back in second and it’s SO SUPER CLOSE! A real blog nail-biter if I’ve ever seen one. So if you appreciate this project and this blog gives you some pleasure and, I don’t know, you want me to get so rich, feel free to VOTE! You can vote once a day on each device (so if you’ve already voted, you can vote again! don’t hate the player hate the game), so whip out those phones and iPads and that first generation iMac in your attic and do it!

Or don’t do it. You do you. You’re your own person and we love you just the way you are.

Unless you’re a jerk.

Have the BEST weekend, everyone.

Quick and Easy(ish) Laundry Room Makeover!

Here’s a thing about me, because the real problem with this blog is that there just isn’t enough about me: I sometimes have a difficult time differentiating between all the things that should, in a perfect world, be done to a given space and what’s practical and reasonable to do to a given space. If I can’t do it all, I often don’t want to do anything at all. This is why my bathroom still looks exactly as horrible—nay, worse—than the day I moved in. I could scrape the peeling walls and throw up a coat of paint. I could patch the big hole I made when trying to install an electrical outlet but kept finding studs and then the cast iron vent pipe. I could do something—anything—to the vinyl tile floor, much of which has lifted from the subfloor and some of which has broken away. Hey, I could even get really crazy and spend an hour or two re-caulking the bathtub. But I’d rather live in squalor than do any of these things, because I’m disgusting and I know the majority of it will all get ripped out eventually. Someday.

I think part of it is that I don’t want to get complacent with an improved-but-still-kinda-bad space, which is stupid because I’m not like that. I WISH I was like that. It’d free up a ton of time. Another part of it is that sometimes half-assed renovation efforts can actually make the restoration effort down the line more challenging, and I don’t want that. More than anything, though? I LIKE THE DRAMA. I like going from “yuck!” to “beautiful!” not “yuck!” to “acceptable!” and I will put up with all sorts of bullshit in the interim as a result.

I think because of this personal shortcoming, sometimes the makeovers that I’m most attracted to are the ones that effectively make use of simple, low-impact solutions. The ones that actually favor the coat of paint over the huge demolition and replacement. When I was confronted with a non-original, unwanted doorway, I removed the whole thing, framed in the opening, patched it with drywall, skim-coated the whole wall, and still have to get my molding replicated to finish the baseboard. My friend, in a similar situation, put a large armoire in front of the offending doorway and called it a day. Is my solution actually better? Maybe, maybe not, but I do know his was much faster and easier and had the same effect.

I think I was slightly better at executing stuff like this as a renter—although I was still kinda nuts, let’s be honest—but being a homeowner has made me feel like every project has to address all the problems at once or it’s not even worth undertaking. I’m working on it.

All of this to say, I’m actually proud of this laundry room makeover I did recently. I started it on a Saturday night (hell yeah, my life is wild AF) and was completely finished with it by Sunday night, with a good night’s sleep in between!

This was the laundry space at my boo thang’s house, and you can see there’s not a lot of pretty (or function) going on here. I hesitate to call it a laundry room, because it’s also a guest bedroom, storage space, and general pit of despair. The whole house is a huge renovation project, which will hopefully one day see this room almost completely demo’d, the laundry relocated to a dedicated space on the second floor with the bedrooms, and this room and the adjacent bathroom turning into a big kitchen. All of that is a long ways away and a huge undertaking, though, and this situation was so sad. Enter Angie’s List, who offered 500 bucks to refresh and reorganize the space. I couldn’t really make it worse, so I figured I’d gladly take their money and give it my best shot.

What you can’t see in these pictures is that there’s actually a small built-in closet to the right of the dryer, but at some point somebody decided to build a whole additional closet in front of the original closet, meaning there’s a an opening (though, strangely, not a doorway) into the new closet, at the back of which is a doorway for the original closet. It’s so stupid. And THEN, they extended the wall that separates the original/new closet from the laundry space out into the room another foot or so, and then built another wall in front of the machines with those faux-wood accordion doors. Talk about chopped up!

There’s some electrical cable running through those dumb newer walls, though, and having it re-routed would have been too large of an expense and taken too much time. I was able to easily just tear out the wall with the dumb accordion doors, though, and that made a bigger difference than I expected!

But back to being chill and smart instead of crazy and over-ambitious! The wall-to-wall carpeting in this room is lousy but not in bad condition, and the hardwood underneath is pretty severely damaged. In a perfect world the hardwood would have been treated better and the room never would have been carpeted, and in a less-perfect-but-still-preferable world I would have been able to rip up the carpeting and found easily rejuvenated hardwood underneath. Absent those options, though, I made the courageous and somewhat out-of-character decision to just leave it alone.

Same goes for the ceiling. It’s a drop ceiling with acoustic tiles, like you might find in a corporate office, which obviously would not be my preference. Sometimes drop ceilings can be removed with relative ease, but in this case it’s masking a profusion of electrical wiring and plumbing for the bathroom upstairs. Instead of burying this stuff in the actual ceiling, it was much easier for the previous owners to do it all below the ceiling and then install the drop ceiling two feet to conceal it. BOO. Don’t do that. Luckily the real ceilings are 10′, so even with the ceilings dropped to 8′ the room feels OK.

Oh yeah, and the wood paneling! The plaster wall behind it appears to be in pretty solid condition, but the paneling is held up with both panel nails and adhesive so any way I cut it, removing the paneling would necessitate some potentially serious plaster repair. Even the little pieces of trim used to cover corners and seams were so bad that I wanted to pry it all off and try again, but I totally held myself back, made liberal use of caulk, and you know what? It looks fine. 

And look! Not half bad for some minimal demo, a little paint, a good storage cabinet above the machines, a few accessories and little functional things (like that cheap little drying rack from Target, which I love!), and a semi-relaxing weekend of DIY, amiright? I can tell you it’s made both of our lives immediately better, and has me giving my own horrendous bathroom some serious side-eye.

You can read more detail and see more pictures over at Angie’s List! 9 other blog people took on this laundry room challenge too, and there’s a contest with a $2,000(!) prize if you want to vote. The contest ends on Friday! Currently it looks like I’m in 4th place. I’d appreciate a vote for me, but, ya know, vote your conscience.

Also vote for me.

Byeeeee!

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

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

before2

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

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

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

before1

before3

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

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

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

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

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

LOWE'S-DESIGN-PLAN-1

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

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

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

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

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

AlexandApryl

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

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

aprylstaining

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

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

process1

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

barbuilding

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

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

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

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

BanisterProcess

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

process2

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

Then Alex and Apryl got home and they were all:

alexandaprylreveal

Because their backyard used to look like this:

before1

And now it looks like this:

aerialafter

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

after1

Let’s take a walk around, shall we?

before2

after2

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

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

yellowchair

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

beds1

bed2

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

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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

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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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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.

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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

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.”

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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.

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