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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?


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.



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:


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.


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.


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.


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!


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!


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.


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:


Because their backyard used to look like this:


And now it looks like this:


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


Let’s take a walk around, shall we?



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.


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.



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.


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!


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!


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.


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!


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!


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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


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



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.


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.


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.


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:


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 ( 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.”


“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.”


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.”


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.”


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.


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.”


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.”


“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.

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:


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!


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.


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.


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:




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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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:


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.


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.


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.


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


Or catch on fire.

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


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.


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.


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?!?!


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


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.


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:


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.


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?


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.


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


Hot holy damn.


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


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:


Which got cleaned up to look like this:


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.


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.

Olivebridge Cottage: Little House of Horrors

It’s been quite a while since we talked about the renovation of Olivebridge Cottage—that little vacation house I was hired to renovate back in the spring for a couple of NYC-based clients. I’ve hinted at stuff here and there, but to be honest I’ve had a very hard time figuring out exactly how to tell this story.

I was hired to basically do a kitchen renovation and some cosmetic upgrades to bring this little 1,100 square foot house up to snuff. How hard could that be?! It was supposed to take about 6-8 weeks, at which point I’d hand over the keys to the happy homeowners, collect a nice little paycheck to keep other projects/myself afloat, serve up a cute and satisfying before-and-after on the blog, and move on with my life.

Instead, I’m 10 months into this project—longer if you count the weeks I spent on the design work before the physical demo work began. Even though this hasn’t been reflected in my blog content, this project has occupied more of my time than anything else I’ve been doing over that same period. So what the hell happened? And how do I account for it all here? That was a particularly difficult question to answer during the periods of this project where wasn’t even sure where things were headed!

So…I kind of sat on it all until I knew. Sometimes I forget as a blogger that the story doesn’t go away or lose utility just because it isn’t rehashed immediately—and in this case, I think it’ll be better because the teller finally has a reasonably good sense of the ending. So I hope it’s cool if we pretty much pick up where we left off on this, because skipping gory details for the sake of concision has never really been my style, anyway.


So where did we leave off? This looks about right! I spent the first week on site demo-ing out the old kitchen and enormous half-bathroom and utility space to make room for the new open kitchen/dining space. The homeowners and I had settled on a design we were all happy with, and a budget that was optimistic but doable for the scope of work we were intending to do.

There were quite a few surprises that week, and none of them good. The house had clearly been altered over the years by somebody who evidently never thought to crack a book on the subject, leaving a variety of structural concerns in his wake. There was a lot of mold, everywhere, despite a very pricey remediation that had allegedly occurred only a few months prior (but very obviously had not). There was evidence of an extensive rodent infestation that had caused serious damage to at least the insulation if not even more serious things. And then, the rot. This structural, exterior wall that hadn’t been framed correctly in the first place, supporting half the load of the roof above it, had also rotted away to a point that would not pass code even if we’d wanted to leave it as-is, but moreover was a mold-ridden health and structural hazard that didn’t leave us any options that I can deduce beyond rebuilding it.

That was the first 6 days. Did I mention it’s been 10 months? Yeah.


First, we had to pull out the old plumbing. I don’t mess with that. Everything was bad, basically—the galvanized pipe in the photo above was the drain line for the kitchen sink and laundry machine, which drained into…I don’t even know. There’s a main drain that goes to the septic system, but this one basically came out the side wall of the house and directly into the ground, presumably into some kind of dry well. It’s best not to think too hard about it. At least there wasn’t a garbage disposal.


Since we decided to ditch the half-bathroom, all that plumbing needed to go, too! This was kind of exciting…the old plumbing had clearly just been added onto, cut out, added onto some more—creating a lot of half-corroded joints and areas primed for a burst. It’s nice to simplify systems like this! New plumbing will be run with PEX and PVC.


Getting the plumbing out of the way allowed me to start removing the old subfloor. It was rotted, it was super uneven, it varied in thickness from space to space…it had to go.


See that beam running perpendicular to the joists, to support them? Yeah, that thing had been cut in half with the installation of the half-bath and never fixed, rendering it more or less useless. The entire floor in this area of the house was pretty severely slanted, the under-sized joists showed significant signs of rot, there was no central support, leading it to bow…disaster! We’d hoped we could just shim up a new subfloor, but the damage was too extensive for that solution to be a lasting one—in other words, the floor might look OK for a while but would continue to shift and sink and move, which is not really what you want a year after a major renovation.


The subfloor and all the framing under the half-bath (about 1/3rd of the space) was…a total mess. Essentially the whole floor system under the half-bath was build on some super shoddy and actively rotting 2×4 framing, resting on the dirt in the crawlspace, all built with drywall screws. It’s actually kind of amazing that parts of the adjacent floor hadn’t collapsed given how sloppily they’d been “supported” by the newer floor system of under the half-bath. Jeez.



In preparation for reframing, I removed the aluminum siding on exterior of the rotted kitchen wall. This wasn’t a huge loss, since the rest of the house is sided with vertical wood tongue-in-groove boards and this section was not. That kind of tongue-and-groove is only about $1.50 per square foot, so the bright side of this was that we’d be able to have the exterior match without spending too much money.


Underneath the siding was…more siding! This stuff is horrible. It’s a fiberboard kind of material that was used a lot in the 60s and 70s, often with a fake brick or stone pattern on the outside, which has the same kind of texture as asphalt roofing shingles. It is NOT a good thing to have between siding and sheathing, since any water that gets in essentially gets sucked up like a sponge and then sits and rots the structural components of a house. Yuck! I love how at some point they painted it white but didn’t bother to remove the shutters. Ha!


The whole wall was so disintegrated. This enormous hole was the result of Edwin half-heartedly putting his fist through it.


The underside of the eaves (which were covered in aluminum that had just been installed on top of 1/2″ plywood) had to be removed to get access to the top parts of the wall framing, and luckily things looked great. Kidding! It was horrible! So much rot! So much water damage! The ends of the original 2×4 rafters were all rotted! DAMNIT.


Oh, by the way! These were nailed to the concrete foundation and supporting the siding. That’s called termite damage, right there! Instead of just letting part of the concrete foundation show and keeping wood off the ground, someone decided to run untreated wood down the foundation and into the ground. In case you’re short on common sense, this is just a big old invitation for pests and water damage.


So, we set about reframing the whole kitchen wall. Fun times! The left corner had sunk so much that we had to jack it up about 2″ to get something resembling level.


That’s not horrifying at all, right? Totally normal? Great.

At some point in there, the clients and I decided that while we were at it, we might as well put in a bigger kitchen window. The old kitchen window was only 3×3 feet and looked sort of dinky both inside and out. These unexpected repairs at least had bright spots because they also presented an opportunity to change things that we’d taken as givens at the beginning of the project.


We framed as much of the wall as we could without knowing the dimensions of the new window, and then moved on to the floor. The old 2×6 joists all got removed to be replaced by 2x12s—SO much stronger! The space is only about 12 feet wide, so this also allowed us to get away without having a beam run under the joists to support them.

Oh yeah, that blue thing is the pump for the well! The well is literally right under the kitchen. I guess this is what happens when a house keeps getting added on to? So bizarre.


For reasons unknown, the old floor was framed a good 8 inches higher than it needed to be, so we decided to lower it. Silver linings! This meant higher ceilings and fewer steps up to the kitchen/dining space, both good things.


Edwin and Edgar rocked it out. The foundation (oh, we’ll get there…) was SEVERELY out of whack, so every joist had to be carefully notched to make things level. Here you can get a better sense of how needlessly high the old floor was—so odd.


Looky there! It felt good to see this floor looking so fresh and level. I’m not scared off by old lumber (I’m used to it!) but I really hate rot and poor workmanship.


The excitement was short-lived. Very short-lived. This is the condition of the wall opposite of the one that we’d just rebuilt. This shit is bad, folks! Also, see how there’s water-stained plywood above the concrete block of the foundation? That was sitting completely below grade. Helllllo, rot and water infiltration! See that bit of blue stuff on the far left of the photo above? That’s insulation in the wall of the adjacent bathroom, peaking through because everything that should have been covering it was completely rotted. See how it also has gnaw marks all over it? Thanks, chipmunks.


Here’s the sill plate! That’s the piece of wood that sits on top of the foundation that supports…everything else. Terrific.

So…I guess we’re reframing another wall. That makes 2 major exterior walls, and an entire floor! THIS WAS NOT THE PLAN.

The homeowners were aware of what was going on throughout all of this, by the way. Our original budget was dependent on things going really smoothly and using materials that were really inexpensive, so all of this stuff hurt. Nothing thusfar was hideously expensive or difficult or time-consuming (it seems like it would be, but it wasn’t), but still—it was a lot more than we’d prepared ourselves for.


This second major wall that I’m now talking about re-framing (the one with the sliders) was a little more complicated than the first, mainly because of this super weird deck outside of it. The deck was being held up by some posts but mainly by ledger boards screwed into the sides of the house—so to get access to this wall to replace it, the deck had to go. This was just fine with everyone because it was kind of stupid and pointless and tiny.


Could NOT have seen that one coming! Or maybe I could have. Jeez. What you’re looking at is new decking boards toward the top of the photo that were laid directly on top of rotting decking boards below. There literally aren’t enough eye-rolls in the world.


Naturally, the baseboard around the perimeter of this deck thing was also covering major rot to the bottom of the siding.


Like, major major. This is the kind of thing that can really only get worse over time.


Under the steps was this cute fire hazard! That’s a duct tape electrical junction and NM cable that’s not rated for exterior use. Peachy.


Plywood half underground, all below a very wet deck, ledger board screwed into the studs and without any flashing, rot for days…do I need to keep going? This is bad.


Oh, look! You can reach your whole hand through the exterior of the house and into the crawlspace below the bedroom! The bottoms of the studs are all totally rotted! The sill plate is all rotted! Everything is terrible!


Cute, Olivebridge Cottage.


Super duper cute.


This is what it looks like when a house is basically mulch. At least it’s composting itself?

So…clearly THAT needs to be redone, too. This one extra sucked because part of this wall is the bathroom, and we really did not want to be renovating that bathroom, which cosmetically and functionally was OK. After some head-scratching, we figured we could remove the siding and sheathing and repair it all from the exterior.


One of the things the homeowners really wanted to do was make this part of the living room function better. This kind of addition is clearly the result of an old porch being enclosed. The ceiling height at the front is really low (really too low to reframe the floor to be the same level as the rest of the living room), but we figured it would be drastically improved by removing the supporting posts and putting a structural beam in its place. That shouldn’t be that big of a deal! Just take the posts out, temporarily support the roof, insert the beam and a couple of built-up posts on each end—it should have been a one day project where the major cost was the price of the LVL beams.


“Should have been.” HA. One thing nobody really noticed is that the “beam” here (which is really just the original top plate of that wall, without any other support aside from the posts) was made to look like a solid beam because it was sheathed in 1-by lumber. The same was true of the posts! 4x4s masquerading as 6x6s! This isn’t great. In a different climate, maybe, sure, but here we have to worry about crazy heavy snow loads that can lead to something like this collapsing!

Oh yeah, all that dust appears to be some kind of pest (carpenter ants? termites?) eating their way through the foam insulation in the living room ceiling. Delicious. I’m sure that’s contributing greatly to this house’s energy efficiency.


The ceiling in here was, unsurprisingly, a piece of shit. The entire flimsy roof was being supported by those white rafters (too small, too spaced apart) toe-nailed into the original fascia. The roof itself was a layer of corrugated fiberglass with a bunch of tar thrown on top and a layer of EPDM rubber on top of that, held down with drywall screws (!!!!!!!). On the interior, there was an area of drywall that had been patched in with a piece of masonite, and underneath of that was a huge squirrel nest! As in, squirrels had literally eaten their way through the ceiling and a previous owner had fixed the issue by slapping up a 1/4″ piece of masonite to cover it.


See that little sliver of daylight? See all that crap between the studs and stuff? See the acorn clinging to the original fascia board that’s supporting an entire low-slope roof? Lord DELIVER me from this madness.


From what I can tell, the squirrels/chipmunks/whatever had gnawed their way into the house through some bad siding and framing, and been living it up in this ceiling.


Aside from the yuck factor…this is—you guessed it!—NOT GOOD. Just some live electrical cable missing all of its rubber insulation. That stuff is there for a reason! Fire is the reason!


Even where the electrical wasn’t totally eaten, there were illegal junctions hiding up in that ceiling, too. Just a little tape, right? Just because it works doesn’t mean it’s safe! SOBS.


Not cool, Olivebridge Cottage. Not at all cool.

I know this might all read as kind of funny or so-awful-it’s-funny but at the time it wasn’t funny! I’m pretty good at taking things in stride, but it SUCKED having to call the homeowners everyday (sometimes more than once!) to report that we’d found some other awful thing wrong with their house. Not that the alternative of not knowing and potentially having the house burn down or collapse or consume its occupants in black mold was a great option, either, but sometimes you just wish you didn’t know about this kind of stuff. Ugh! Timeline, blown. Budget, blown. Expectations, dashed. Life, horrible.

At this point, we had to change approaches a little. We were trying so hard to stick to the original goals and timeline, so the basic strategy was to find a problem, quickly come up with a solution, and then quickly fix it. It’s not as though that totally wasn’t working, but given how many problems there clearly were, it seemed as though a more efficient long-term approach would be…an investigatory period. No more fixing before figuring out all the things that need it. At this point my priority became more about the long-term health and safety of the house than installing a cute kitchen and slapping up some paint. Gulp. What’s that thing they say? Seek and you will find?

Diary time!

Day 7: Dump run in AM. Met the plumber at house to disconnect old plumbing work. Returned to the dump, continued demo of kitchen/dining area and loaded truck for dump run tomorrow morning.
Day 8: Dump run. Removed trim in master bedroom and hallway, de-nailed, piled up. Demo’d ceiling in sunken living room. Met with Edwin about floors in dining/kitchen and plans for sunken living room. Removed aluminum siding on kitchen wall in prep for re-framing tomorrow morning.
Day 9: Edwin and Edgar went to Home Depot in morning for supplies. Met at site. Demo’d rest of kitchen wall and began new framing. Had to lift right side 1.5″ to level out roofline. Will try to find larger window tomorrow. Framed as much as possible before new window is found and sheathed in OSB. Will Tyvek tomorrow.
Day 10: Dump run in morning. Met Edwin and Edgar at site where they had removed all framing and subfloor from dining/kitchen. Discovered that other exterior wall must also be re-framed and window header replaced on other wall. Also discovered that we can drop floor roughly 8 inches! Edwin and Edgar had to leave early. I finished cleaning the crawlspace, organized, cleaned yard of debris, and loaded truck for dump run in AM. Went to the Door Jamb to look at kitchen window options.
Day 11: Edwin and Edgar completed work on framing kitchen/dining floor. Talked plans for reframing sunken living room roof. I worked on removing siding on bedroom/bathroom walls and demo-ing small deck to prep for reframing dining room wall with sliders.
Day 12: Continued demo on back wall and exposed framing below second bedroom. Sitting below grade—I think we will need to excavate area behind house to bring grade down several inches and create pitch away from structure. Demo’d deck and loaded truck for dump. Assessed condition of sill under bedroom and bathroom. Rot is very extensive…will likely need to reframe entire wall.
Day 13: Dump run.
Day 14: Cleaned up and organized kitchen/dining area, second bedroom, bathroom, and worked on cleaning up main living room and sunken part. Loaded truck for dump.
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