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Lowe’s Spring Makeover: Dream Team in Baltimore Edition!

Here’s a crazy proposition for you: take five house-bloggers who’ve never worked together, plop them in a city far away from any of their homes, and give them a kitchen to renovate top to bottom in three days. Sit back, relax, and see if they all survive?

That’s pretty much what our friends at Lowe’s asked me, Kim and Scott, and Julia and Chris to do. HOW EXCITING AND ALSO TERRIFYING?! Sure, why not!

I’ll tell you why not.

Because renovations are hard, and usually take a while, and cost a lot of money, and it’s difficult enough to make decisions by yourself without adding four other opinions to the mix about every little thing that goes into creating a room—especially one with as many moving parts as a kitchen! Amplify that chorus of opinions and different approaches and methods when something unexpected comes up (newsflash—it always comes up) and you possibly have a recipe for five otherwise nice people who happily coexist on the internet to, I don’t know, murder each other. I might have said a resounding YASSSSSS to joining this Dream Team without fully appreciating the risks involved.

BUT! WE DID NOT KILL EACH OTHER! Quite the opposite, actually! All that stuff I said above, about the lack of time and slim budget and difficult decisions and unexpected surprises and multitude of opinions and methods? Actually made it a lot better. It was FUN, folks. Everybody brought many-somethings to the table, and it was truly a privilege to work alongside all these talented and kind and hardworking and awesome people. Here’s how it all went down!

Chris and Julia were our brave team leaders, and the ones who had the pleasure/pain of sifting through over 2,500 applications that were submitted. Insanity! They narrowed to a top ten, at which point me and Kim and Scott weighed in, and then Chris and Julia duked it out some more (in literally the kindest way possible, I’m sure, because they are aggressively nice always, but most especially to each other), and that landed us in this 1900 Baltimore rowhouse owned by Aura and Nate, renovating this kitchen! Can you smell the potential from there? That’s one pretty dreamy project, I’d say!

Then Julia and Chris spent a few weeks going between the homeowners, each other, and our pals at Lowe’s to figure out a reasonable scope of work and, of course, a whole design plan! Obviously we had to be able to do it in 3 days, which was the first major requirement, but we also had to get it done for under 5K (including all new appliances!!) and create a kitchen that would complement the age of the home while balancing the homeowners’ more modern sensibilities. Easy, right? HA. HA. HA.

So Chris and Julia sent Kim and Scott and me the design plan, and one of the first notes was something to the effect of “we’re not really sure what to do about the columns.”

WHAT TO DO ABOUT THE COLUMNS?! SAY WHAT?! Then it emerged that the homeowners disliked the columns and were convinced that they couldn’t be original to the house, like maybe they were a hokey post-modern 1980s addition or something? Which I can totally understand because people did do some horrible stuff sort of meant to look like this in the 80s, but NO! This is not that! They’re wood, they have a thousand layers of paint on them…they’re the best part of the whole space! I thought that’s why we picked it! Ionic goodness! I will tie myself to those columns and take a sledgehammer to the gut before watching them get demolished! That or they will come back to New York with me and live in my basement until I figure out what to do with them! So immediately, Daniel Kanter is causing drama over old house stuff. I’m zero fun to work with; ask anyone.

But in classic Chris and Julia fashion, they were generous about hearing me out, quickly course-corrected, and I think implored the homeowners to trust us and let us work with the columns instead of against them. Thankfully they agreed and we could all proceed in a non-violent fashion.

By the time we arrived Thursday evening, here’s where we were! Nate and Aura had been busy bees, ripping out the dingy tile floors and upper cabinets and formica backsplash. We knew, I think, that we were going to demo the old soffit, but…IMMEDIATE CURVEBALL, THAT CEILING IS FAKE! Nobody knew this. Haha!

It’s hard to appreciate in photos but was pretty dramatic in real life—that’s the actual ceiling height above the soffits…almost a foot and a half higher than the existing one! So we were working with, in order from top to bottom: ceiling joists at about 9.5 feet, lath, plaster, furring strips, acoustic tiles, and then a whole second ceiling shoddily framed at about 8 feet and sheetrocked. Those “beams” are completely decorative—just 1×6 pine boards stained brown and glued and nailed to the drywall. Of course the modern framing did not run beyond the soffits or over the pantry closet we removed, so Chris and Julia and I had an emergency team meeting (“Hi Chris, nice to meet you!”) before Kim and Scott’s plane even landed to discuss what to do!

The options were:

  1. Keep the existing ceiling, patch in where necessary, and somehow figure out how to remove the “beams” or extend them so it would all look continuous. This plan was problematic for several reasons (is it actually any easier or faster than just taking it out altogether? Because the “beams” were glued up, they’d take a lot of drywall with them on their way down. Also, lame! Who doesn’t want higher ceilings! Go big or go home!), so my solution was to get bossy and loud until that option was off the table. I DID IT FOR THE COMMON GOOD, OK?!
  2. Total demo, new sheetrock. OY VEY. Nobody wants to demo plaster, ever, and that’s a HUGE extra amount of mess and waste to squeeze into in an already extremely packed order of work. Then I innocently asked if anybody was particularly good at drywall work, because hanging is the easy part but mudding and taping typically takes three days alone and is very difficult to do well, especially on a ceiling! Nobody seemed all that confident so it seemed like maybe testing our underdeveloped drywall skills on a stranger’s ceiling that had to be done in a matter of hours was not the best place to take a gamble.
  3. Something else! So I suggested leaving the plaster and lath intact and furring strips in place, and affixing our new ceiling material to that. But what material? Beadboard, duhz! But actual tongue-and-groove beadboard would have also been a big time-suck and pretty expensive for the square footage we needed, so I suggested those inexpensive 4×8 MDF panels that look like beadboard, with some nice simple molding treatment to cover the seams. Easy and fast, I told everyone! I promise!*

*never listen to me if I claim anything will be easy and fast. it never is.

But after looking at a couple inspiration images, Chris and Julia were on board and so we walked into Day 1 with a reasonably solid plan and tried to project confidence about it to two increasingly wary homeowners who were probably beginning to regret signing onto this madness while watching us immediately dive in to just wrecking their house. It felt exactly like that scene from The Money Pit. You know the one.

Let. The. Games. Begin.

Can I just say that watching Kim and Scott work together in real life just warmed every cockle of my cold jaded heart? Scott has the enthusiasm of a camp counselor and Kim has the patience of a saint and they’re both so good at just doing it right. It’s a jealousy-inducing pleasure to witness. Jerks.

Here’s a classic when-one-thing-leads-to-another moment—we did not plan on demoing this whole wall, but it was sheetrock over 2×3 furring strips over plaster over lath, but the drywall and furring strips didn’t run all the way up to our new ceiling height! Added to that, we needed to get them some outlets and a sconce on this wall, and the wall to the right of the window was inexplicably bumped out a few inches, so once again I was like “HEY GUYS LET’S JUST RIP IT ALL OUT!” and for some reason they listened to me. Suckerrsssss.

Check it out though—you can see where there was once a window! We momentarily considered using the void, at Aura’s brilliant suggestion, to do little recessed shelves for spices and stuff, but then again we already had a more functional shelving plan and it probably was not the best plan to leave that big space uninsulated for the sake of cuteness. I love that idea though—slightly different circumstances and it would have been SO GOOD.

UGH, KIMMY MY LOVE! Obsessed with this one. POSSIBLY my favorite part of this whole experience was when Kim shocked and delighted me with a stiff slap on the ass while I was bending down to do something, and then we spent three days waiting for various opportunities to get back at each other. CAN YOU BLAME ME.

I’ll stop objectifying Kim now.

ALSO JULIA. SIT DOWN, LADY! She was the only one among us simultaneously growing another human being inside her body, and she’s still an beast! She was appropriately cautious and safe and all that, but good lord if anyone had an excuse to sit out of some physical work, it was her! Serious. Badass. If that baby isn’t tiling walls with the best of them by the time she’s in preschool, I will be shocked.

Just to give you a small sense of the pace of all this, it was insaneeeeee. My house would be done in a week if I had all these amazing people around! OFFER STANDS, YOU GUYS.

Literally before the dust from demo had settled, Chris and Scott and Chris’s brother Brandon were following behind with sheetrock! Scott ran mesh tape and Chris and Brandon tag-teamed the first coat of mud. Seriously, blink and everything changes.

While the joint compound dried, Chris and Brandon started cutting our faux-beadboard panels to size (we didn’t use full sheets so that we could arrange things in a more visually pleasing grid) and Scott and I worked together hanging them up! We ran construction adhesive across the furring strips and attached the panels with 16 gauge finish nails from a pneumatic nail gun. Pow, pow! It was a little tricky to get the hang of because the nail depth had to be set jusssstttt right to hold the panels instead of going right through them. The homeowners followed behind with a nail-set to sink any stubborn nails, and then covered each hole with a little dab of spackling compound to be sanded smooth later.

At this point the ceiling looked like total garbage and even I was privately a little nervous about it. Without anything covering the seams and a bunch of nail holes, it just looked really flimsy and not attractive at all. DON’T WORRY!

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again…I do not enjoy skim-coating. But you guys, practice pays off!! Since we hung sheetrock over a 120 year old brick wall with 120 year old furring strips and 120 year old lath, things were not exactly even—easily a recipe for seeing every seam and having a drywall job that would look terrrrrible. I mean, we could blow it out enough in photos to look nice for you guys, but that ain’t our game! So I took on the second and third finish coats of joint compound, and guys…crushed it. I wouldn’t normally gloat like this (maybe I would? maybe self-awareness is not my strong suit?) but I was using fast-setting 45-minute joint compound, so you have to work fast, and I couldn’t sand much because people were painting and tiling and stuff so I had to burnish the walls with a spray bottle and a trowel, plaster-style…anyway, I’m proud of that there drywall work! After paint it looked totally pro.

Also, window trim! I pushed to match the moldings to the ones around the columns, which were just simple 1-by lumber with rosettes in the corners, and Lowe’s carries a near-perfect match! I made a quick windowsill out of a standard pine stair tread, chamfered the apron on the table saw because we didn’t have a router…ya know, special little details. Fun times!

While cabinets were going up and getting painted, Scott and I worked away on finishing up the ceiling install! Originally we thought we’d maybe use little lattice strips to cover the seams and a more traditional crown molding around the room, but I LOVE what we landed on! We used 1×4 (pre-primed boards to save time) to cover the seams, and as a super minimal crown treatment around the whole room! I love how substantial it looks without feeling overdone.

The home stretch was an absolute flurry of activity. Everyone trying to get their projects checked off the list while also staying out of each other’s way…madness! When exactly nobody volunteered to do the crown molding around the tops of the cabinets (we’re wimpy about some stuff, I guess!), Chris jumped in and banged it out in like half an hour! Awesome. Kim, Aura, Nate, and Julia took on tiling the backsplash, which is just simple and budget friendly 3×6 white subway tile—just 22 cents a tile! Can’t beat that, and of course it’s a clean, classic choice that allows other features like the exposed brick wall to really shine instead of competing.

Scott had to get back to Chicago on Sunday afternoon (I do NOT envy that he then had to wake up Monday morning and go to his super serious grown-up job…this was EXHAUSTING!), Julia and Kim and I worked until about 2 in the morning before turning in, and Chris and Brandon stayed all night laying the flooring! Then on Monday morning there was a mad dash to the finish, adding extra coats of poly to the countertops and installing baseboards and shoe molding, and caulking and touch-up painting everything in sight. But we got her done. And she looks goooood!

From this…

To this!

THREE DAYS, PEOPLE! There wasn’t nearly the time to throw a full column restoration into the mix, but we did give them a fresh coat of paint in satin finish to match the rest of the moldings. Just knocking down the super high gloss paint that was there before made a huge difference in making them look like the beautiful and grand antiques that they are instead of a kind of misplaced vestige from another time. You go, columns!

AND GUESS WHAT? Aura said, without prompting or persuasion, that the columns fit in now! They work! And that, to me, was the best. Learning to love what makes their house unique and special is kind of the best possible outcome, right?

Let’s take a walk around!

Even though the window molding butts right up to the fridge surround, it just feels so…right, I think! The windowsill almost got nixed in favor of a more simple casing, but I really think it’s that kind of detail that makes it feel authentic to the age of the house. It’s really not a lot of extra work to just do it up right!

Also, check out those shelves! Such a good idea, Miss Julia! I guess the brackets are meant to be table legs, but Chris drilled pilot holes through the backs so they could be mounted to the walls and used as shelving brackets. Fun!

The ceiling! The ceiling! I really really do love the way it came out. I wouldn’t typically use those MDF panels because I like to make things as painful as possible and use the real deal (also available at Lowe’s, of course!), but they really look great after the requisite patching and caulking and painting. Everyone was pretty into it, and—joking aside—it really was very uncomplicated to do and looks way fancier than the price tag would indicate at just 63 cents per square foot!

Even the little existing pantry closet got a lot of attention, and actually fits in now! I wish it was just a few inches shallower and didn’t overlap the original moldings, but in terms of working with what you’ve got…it’s a huge improvement! The bifolds got painted and new hardware, and I added another simple casing to match the window and original moldings with a simple 1×6 baseboard with a stock base cap to finish it off. I had to play dirty to get those moldings…Dad (Chris) said no because he was worried about time so, ya know, I had to go ask Mom (Julia) who gave me the go-ahead. I’m the worst! Scotty built out the top with a few pieces of framing lumber, 3/4″ plywood, and cove molding to bring the height up to the ceiling.

Funnily enough, I had no idea that the plan for the countertops was exactly what I did for my countertops in my now-demolished kitchen a few years ago! They look kind of like butcherblock but are really just 3/4″ pine project panels (small pieces of finger-jointed pine, essentially), with a 1×2 pine board face-nailed to the front to give the impression of a normal countertop thickness. These got stained with Minwax “Provincial” and three coats of water-based poly.

To be totally honest, since I feel I bear some responsibility here—the countertops aren’t something I’d recommend for a long-term remodel. Mine held up OK for the couple of years that they were in use, but not amazing, and real butcherblock is a more expensive but still very affordable (and classic!) choice. Given the budget these were a good answer, though, and they’ll be really easy to swap out down the line should the homeowners choose. Conveniently, Lowe’s happens to sell really beautiful and good quality (not to mention affordable!) butcherblock in a few different sizes (which of course can be easily cut to size), which is something I’m considering for my own remodeled kitchen! So, ya know, proceed with caution—there’s a reason for that difference in price and I’d recommend spending the little extra money for the real deal if you’re renovating for the long haul.

Oh! That brick!!! Isn’t it great? It was just hiding under the plaster. I’m not always a fan of exposed brick, actually, but it works so well here. The homeowners had already exposed it by the time we got there (THANK YOU, GUYS!!) and it’s just so perfectly-imperfect in a way that a new brick veneered wall or something wouldn’t be. It’s sealed to keep any dust and stuff contained.

So there it is, I guess! A kitchen in three days, with five bloggers and a handy blogger-brother too! And want to hear something that even shocked me, even though I was literally there the whole time? The budget came in at right around $4,500—and that includes all materials, cabinets, a new fridge, stove, range hood fan, dishwasher, sink, faucet, lighting…I MEAN, COME ON.

I love that the final product isn’t something any one of us would have done independently—it really does have a piece of everybody represented, and it’s so much better for it!

Now come to Kingston, you guys! Mine next! I GUESS we could even give ourselves a whole week or something crazy. Plus a spa day at the end. Definitely a spa day.

If you want to read more about this renovation, don’t miss Kim and Scott’s recap over at Yellow Brick Home and, of course, our fearless leaders’ take over at Chris Loves Julia! I’m off to go do that myself, ha! Chris, Julia, Brandon, Kim, and Scott (and Nate and Aura, of course!)—thank you thank you thank you for being the best teammates ever and bringing me in on the fun. I had a blast and can’t wait to do it again. Hint, hint, Lowe’s PR. :)

This post is in partnership with my long-time sponsors and pals over at Lowe’s! Thank you for your support, friends!

Designing Olivebridge Cottage 2.0: Part 1!

Perhaps the most stressful period of working on the Olivebridge Cottage project was, paradoxically, the period in which the smallest amount of physical work was taking place. It was almost three months into the nightmarish beginnings of the physical demo and renovation work, our situation was dire, the building department was requiring that the project be evaluated by engineers, the homeowners were increasingly frustrated and anxious, and I was looking for a way to bail on the whole project so they could, in turn, choose to bring in someone better qualified to enact the engineering proposals and turn the situation around for everyone.

So that was fun.

The same day that the building inspector told us we needed engineers, I found engineers at a well-reviewed local firm. I went straight from working on site into their office, covered in dust and debris and looking like a complete mess, and got things set up for a consult later in the week. I was just a *tad* stressed and might have given the impression of being a complete lunatic.

It’s tempting to think that two adult men with decades of experience evaluating structures would be amused by this little project, but they were not.  As it happens, they said  it was the worst house they’d ever seen. Then they told me this cute little story about a house they provided plans for out on Cape Cod, where—if memory serves—essentially an ENTIRE HOUSE was sitting precariously atop a few 4×4 posts, the bottoms of which each rested on a small piece of flagstone sitting right on the ground.  Worse than that. Awesome!

Luckily, they weren’t intimidated. Our problems were solvable. We spent time going through the house and all of the issues I’d already identified, and then they walked around and took a billion photos and thorough measurements and said they’d get to work.

Since I began blogging about this house, I’ve gotten a lot of questions about how I’d recommend homebuyers avoid falling into a similarly bad situation. That’s the subject of a much longer and much different blog post, but I guess the first part of my answer would be to try to “read” the structure. See that graphic, above? This house is only 1300 square feet, yet it’s comprised of FIVE different structures. #1 is the original cottage (built, evidently, as a little three-season hunting cabin, but in the manner of a garden shed), and 2, 3, 4, and 5 are all additions onto that original structure. 3 and 5 are both enclosed porches, which often aren’t built that well to begin with and then tend not to receive the most sound upgrades during the enclosure process. Of course, it’s also helpful to learn about the housing development history in the area (this kind of thing is actually common where this house is), ask neighbors what they know, and see if there are records for past building permits.

This addition-on-addition approach does not all NECESSARILY add up to structural problems, but I think it’s a good indication that there could be structural problems. It also makes renovation difficult, because each space is constructed differently and to a different standard, and maybe finished (including wired, plumbed, heated, etc.) at different times. #2 and #4, for example, had reasonably solid concrete foundations from what we could tell, but #1 had a few cinderblocks in some places and simple rubble in others. We didn’t know what was under #5, so we had to find out. The house was also on four slightly different levels with steps up and down everywhere, with seven different types of flooring and three different types of heating, which is kind of a recipe for general awkwardness and difficulty when trying to renovate a more flowing, simplified, open space.

This also meant that we had NO IDEA what this would mean from the perspective of our new engineers and how much work they would require us to do. If you have to redo ALL the foundations, at what point does saving any part of the structure at all become ridiculously impractical, particularly when the structure isn’t really worth saving? This isn’t some gorgeous old thing with great bones, mind you. The engineers were understandably hesitant about telling us anything until we got the full plans—I think they didn’t want to be too hasty or misspeak and inspire false hope about our prospects.

It was so stressful and made it incredibly hard to plan our next moves. From my perspective the only thing that made sense was waiting for the engineering report to come in. I was stuck in the middle of trying to keep my cool so the homeowners could keep their cool, while also prodding the engineers to move it along, while also trying to stay in their good graces so they’d be more inclined to really put their thinking caps on instead of throwing their hands up. Finding code-compliant, structurally sound, and as-budget-friendly-as-possible solutions to each issue big and small was a sizable task.

It was tricky.

This is the cottage when I started this job, but what we were really waiting on with the plans was an enhanced version of the cottage, not an exact carbon copy. We were tied to the original footprint due to zoning regulations, but we were all in agreement that the original house—even with our initially planned modifications—was very awkward in a number of ways, particularly the living room set-up. The enclosed front porch attached to the skinny living room space was particularly difficult to work with, since you had to step down to get into it and the living room also functioned as an entryway and the main artery to get anywhere else in the house. Add to this that almost half of it was given over to the wood stove and surrounding stonework, and the room was crazy hard to arrange in a way that didn’t look so stupid.

In our original renovation plan, above, the big changes are obviously to the kitchen and the elimination of the half-bath, but we’d also decided to remove the posts between the living room and the enclosed porch, insert a structural beam, and frame up the floor 6-7 inches to at least level things out. That plan was problematic (still choppy, too-low ceiling height, maybe not possible if the beam would have to be too large, which it probably would be for a 20 foot span…) and never really sat right anyway, so whatever. Adios, old plan.

So knowing that the porch area would need to be rebuilt completely, this became the new basic plan. It’s still kind of weird but I think in an OK way, and makes the living room a real ROOM instead of a big pass-through.

How exactly we should handle that bigger space was never particularly refined at this stage of things, but it felt like there were some good options to do something way cool.

We were going to accomplish this by keeping half of the existing living room roof up to the ridge (right side in the image above), and then running new rafters down from the ridge to the front wall of the house, matching the slope of the existing roof over the dining room. So outside, the house would go from this:

To more like this:

Which is not winning any architectural awards (and would have been further tweaked (especially the street-facing windows), but the basic strokes worked really nicely with keeping as much of the original house as we could while ALSO fixing what we knew at the time needed fixing and ALSO making big improvements to the layout in the process. It’s easy to change out window sizes and stuff before building, but I needed to give something to the engineers to base their plans off of and this is more or less what they got.

The whole process was pretty fast-paced. I think the hardest part for the homeowners to take were these lulls in the physical work, when the house was just sitting without any visible transformation, so they were very anxious to get things underway. This was coupled with the inconvenient truth that we’d worked through spring and most of summer and were headed into fall…in upstate New York. If we were going to start this project before the following spring—leaving the house vacant and in serious disrepair for another six months during the winter—we were getting to a point where we really had to get moving at least on whatever foundation work would be required.

ANYWAY, since we had to affordably re-side the entire house anyway, I proposed a simple board-and-batten treatment in black, potentially with cedar under the eaves because doesn’t that seem cool and fun? I love a little black house in the woods.

We also scaled back the kitchen quite a bit in an effort to keep costs down. BEFORE YOU FREAK, let’s remember that this is a second home for the clients and a vacation property they intended to rent…which makes a small and simple kitchen sort of preferable, I think. If you’re renting a home and don’t know your way around the kitchen, it’s not as hard to find things or remember where to put them away…anyway, it all made a lot of sense at the time.

Check out that sink location. Drink it in. ;)

SO. Lots of waiting. Lots of feeling sad. Then the engineering report came in. Gulp.

The engineers were great about addressing each issue and figuring out suitable and practical solutions. It was their judgment that areas of the house that were still intact could mostly remain that way, so just the fact that we didn’t have to completely tear down the house and start from scratch was a relief.

I’ve tried to make this as simple as possible to follow. Apologies if it’s all just nonsense! Let’s start at the boots:

The living room foundation needs to be rebuilt completely.

The kitchen and dining room foundation was actually permitted to stay in spite of some issues, but at a minimum we would have to trench all the way around it and add rigid foam insulation (I didn’t even know this was a thing people did, but apparently it is done) to protect it from frost heaves. The section in red between the dining and living rooms would have to be completely built (not even rebuilt!) because whoever put in this foundation relied on the living room “foundation” for that run, which was not smart because the living room foundation was literally a pile of rocks.

The front porch slab would have to be demolished, with the new foundation for the living room making up the footprint.

In the back of the house, the engineers said that the foundation under the master bedroom, bathroom, and hall closet (#4) was fine to remain. Hallelujah.

The sunroom—or the other enclosed porch, #5—would need some investigative work because it was impossible to see what was happening below the floor. Ideally there would be a concrete slab (and we thought there might be because the floor was tiled, and maybe they did it right over a slab?) but we didn’t know what to expect, and we were now required to find out. If there wasn’t a slab, we’d have to put one in.

Similar story with the floor framing. All new in the living room. Modifications to the dining/kitchen to support the new joists on that new section of foundation. Again, #5 is a mystery but we knew we were possibly looking at framing in a new floor in there depending on what we found below the existing floor.

Of course, walls! Again, living room and front-porch-turned-living-room are all new.

Dining and kitchen were OK-ish, not great. There was some substantial rot to some framing and a lot of the sheathing, meaning we’d be stripping down to the studs inside and out. We’d already rebuilt the front and back walls, but the engineers wanted us to add a second jack stud to support our headers for the window openings on those walls. It was frustrating because our original framing was actually permissible according to code, but this was one of those things where we were tied to having to do—at minimum—whatever the engineers said.

In the guest room, we’d already gutted those two highlighted walls while framing in different windows and the sliding doors. All that work was fine, but all the walls are 2×4 framing and—short of spray foam insulating the house, which was not remotely budgeted for—we’d have to fur out those walls two inches to accommodate fiberglass insulation that would meet the minimal R-Value requirements (R-21 for exterior walls).

Annnnd the roofs. Oy vey.

The plan to potentially retain the back half of the living room roof and re-frame the front half was nixed, so the living room is completely new. Foundation to roof, all new.

The problem with that is that we had to find a way to tie into the existing roofs over #4 (shingles) and #5 (EPDM rubber because of the low slope) which were both in fairly poor condition. We weren’t being required to rebuild them but we would likely have to re-roof those sections to get everything water-tight and functioning correctly. On the plus side, the roofing would all match? Oh joy.

In the living/dining area (#2), we had 2×6 rafters sistered into the original 2×4 rafters, but both were under-sized for the span of the rafters. So we’d have to sister in bigger rafters next to those, then cut out the space at the ridge where the rafters met to insert a structural beam across the width of the room, with a built-up post down to the foundation on the exterior wall and another down to the header for the opening between the living and dining room on the interior wall. Then we’d need to tear off the layers of shingles and underlayment, possibly/probably re-seath, re-roof, re-insulate on the interior…OH BOY HOW FUN. OH BOY HOW DUMB.

See where I’m going with this, maybe? The dining/kitchen needed major work to the foundation, floor system, walls, roof, insulation, plumbing, and electric. That’s the entire thing! And that’s when you have to think long and hard about what you’re saving, and whether it’s worth it. All that work would still be less expensive than completely rebuilding that part of the house, but is the cost savings worth it? To go through the exercise of redoing the whole thing and then still potentially have a lot of issues with it down the line, still have walls and rooflines that aren’t level, still have an improved but iffy foundation…it’s not great.

I voiced this to the clients who understood but weren’t entirely convinced, and it wasn’t my call to make, so we all went to our separate corners to think it out a little. Now it’s early September, the homeowners want to start construction in two weeks to beat the winter, and we’re deciding what to do about…oh, half the house. Totes normal.

TIME. IS. A-TICKIN’.

I’m not sure what I was expecting from the plans, but they were delivered in the form of a slim 6-page document containing exactly 10 small diagrams, each with a bunch of arrows and a spattering of text. They were minimal. Since we hadn’t yet locked down a contractor (ALL THE PANICS), it seemed very important for me to understand every single thing on those plans. So I set a meeting with the engineers, as one does.

I kept Adriana and Barry, the homeowners, informed of what was going on while this was unfolding. And when I told Adriana about the upcoming meeting with the engineers, she told me she wanted to come. I assured her that it was just a boring meeting about really technical stuff that they included in the report that I wasn’t entirely clear on, and it really wasn’t necessary for her to make the trip, but she insisted on her personal attendance.

“I mean, sure, if that’s what you want to do. It’s your house and your money—I’ll see ya there!”

So we sit down with the engineers and start talking. And we’re going over everything point by point, around which time Adriana interjects.

“Now, while we’re talking about that, Barry and I were thinking. About going up.”

“Up?”

“How hard would it be to add a second floor over the part of the house we’re rebuilding?”

OH. MY. GOD. WOMAN. WHAT. THE. FUCK. The engineer was the first to respond, because I was speechless.

“Not that hard; we’d just have to adjust the foundation specs a little to compensate for the additional load.”

“OK, I think we’ll do that.”

“Sure.”

And I’m just sitting there. LIKE WAIT WHAT JUST HAPPENED. I came to my senses:

“OK, if you’re serious about this then we have to hire an architect who can turn this around quickly.”

“I was thinking you could do it.”

WHAT WOULD GIVE YOU THAT IDEA, YOU PSYCHO? Again, speechless. The engineer turns to me:

“I mean, everything you’ve given us so far is all we’d really need to modify these plans, so that works for us if you’re up for it.”

NO. EVERYONE STOP. WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU SAYING.

Here’s the thing. I write a blog that some people read and that’s all very nice. Heretofore, I’d worked essentially as a decorator which people like to call an “interior designer” but they’re actually different things and I am technically neither. I have little schooling when it comes to this stuff, no architecture or design-related degree, no experience with new construction, no experience managing a project of this scope, had never designed a house, and a week prior to this meeting I was trying to hand over my proverbial letter of resignation.

And now they want me to design a new fucking house.

In two weeks.

Top to bottom.

Soup to nuts.

Back to the drawing board, literally. Time to learn about stairs.

Psssst! Olivebridge Cottage is an ongoing series about a renovation that flew off the rails (and then found its way back on)! For lots of backstory and schadenfreude, check out these past posts!

  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”
  7. Olivebridge Cottage: 2.0!

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!

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