The Great Box Gutter Repair Update!

When I was in high school, I became possessed of the notion that I wanted—nay, needed—to join the crew team. I was about 5’2″ at the time and around 100 pounds, yet still my main condition for joining the team was that I didn’t want to be a coxswain. Thinking back, I probably did it solely out of a misguided desire to develop more shapely arms (I did not), but at the time nobody asked any questions. The coach was also my math teacher, and in my school—where activities like theater and debate reigned supreme—it wasn’t so easy to get five kids to willingly spend hours rowing a boat together, especially if it was also part of competitive sport. As long as all of my limbs technically functioned, I was not only automatically accepted to the junior varsity team but also allowed to be a diva about it. And I demanded to row. Soon thereafter, I became the most absurd bowman the sport has ever seen, a position that evidently traditionally requires both strength and a certain amount of skill for things like steering and stuff.

The season started out alright. Practices took place often in the third floor hallway and the stairwell of our school, where we worked on getting in good shape or something. I’m not an especially strong person, physically, but I’ve always been good at things that require endurance and stamina, so practice time suited me. I could run up and down stairs until my legs fell off, or row thousands of fake meters on the rowing machine, and I remember thinking thoughts like “hey, look at me, I am a total athlete. I’m going to be awesome at this whole sports thing.” Many days we’d also go out onto the river to practice in the actual boats. I was less good at this part, but I chalked it up to being distracted by the scenery. We practiced on the Potomac River from a rock formation upstream of Key Bridge down to the Kennedy Center, and floating around in the middle of the Potomac on a beautiful fall day surrounded by, like, gorgeous trees and D.C.’s monumental landmarks was really very pleasant. The part where we got yelled at from a megaphone to work harder and row faster was less fun, but it seemed like a decent trade-off for getting to enjoy the outdoors.

We never did terribly well in the competitions, but that wasn’t all that surprising. Lots of schools seemed to have high school students who looked a lot like high school students on TV look—what with their adult-like bodies and actual muscles lurking between their bones and their skin—but our team was just a rag-tag bunch of kids who weren’t suited for any of the other sports. We never really expected to win, so we were OK with just spending a few hours out on the water playing along. The thing that we hadn’t really anticipated, though, was that fall would eventually give way to the early months of winter. This unrelenting march of time, combined with our ridiculous costumes of sleeveless spandex unitards, began to make everything progressively more miserable. That’s when things really began to fall apart.

One Saturday, we had to go to a competition on the Anacostia River. The thing that nobody tells you about with crew is all of the waiting involved in the meets. You put your boat in the water and row out to somewhere nearby where the race starts, and then you sit. You sit for a really long time in this holding zone until it’s time for your race, which only takes a couple of minutes. All of the sitting and the waiting wasn’t so bad in the warmer months on the Potomac, but it was essentially unbearable on this morning on the Anacostia. First of all, the Anacostia is a horrifically filthy waterway without much in the way of scenery, and on a grey rainy day, the whole thing is a total bummer. Second of all, what might feel like a slightly cold and drizzly November morning onshore felt something like being directed to stand outside naked during a blizzard whilst sitting stationary on a boat in the middle of the river. My shivering approached something not unlike a seizure, my teeth chattering so hard that, if I’d had fillings, I’m positive they would have come loose. I was so cold, and so wet, and so much of my body was exposed, and I was surrounded by so much garbage, and there was no way to make any of it better.

I have no real concept of how long we sat there, but it felt like days. It was long enough that I recall weighing the relative benefits of throwing myself into the trash-strewn water and drowning myself, or at least drinking the river water and waiting a minute or two for the toxic sludge to work its way through my system. I remember hoping that the rain might pick up and I’d be dealt the mercy of getting fatally struck by lightning—something, anything, to end it all in the sweet release of death. What I remember most was the feeling of certainty that this—right there, in that moment—was the most amount of misery I had the capacity to possibly feel. Nothing would ever be worse, and if I survived it, the rest of my life would be, essentially, easy. Until recently, that’s more or less held true.

gutterbefore

I think probably trying to fix this gutter was worse than that. It was worse than anything.

Here is the sequence of events that led to this moment:

1. We have a terrible time finding a contractor who would take the job of replacing our ancient roof who isn’t also trying to take every last penny of our entire renovation budget.

2. We finally find a contractor we can afford. We are able to finance the job and pay it off over several years, but still—it’s a roof. It’s like the most amount of money we’ve ever spent on anything (aside from the house itself), so we really, really want it to just go well. This seems like a reasonable hope to have when you are paying professionals to do the thing that they professionally do.

3. Workers begin job by tearing off majority of old roof. It quickly becomes clear that our poorly-maintained box gutters (which are gutters that are essentially built into the structure of the house rather than attached like a regular modern aluminum gutter) had undergone a lot of damage and deterioration and rot over the years, all of which I detailed in all its gory detail at the time. It is devastating.

4. Roofing contractor tells us that there isn’t anything he can do, and I need to find someone qualified to make the repair of re-framing, sheathing, and lining the gutters. No, he has no recommendations. Other than to get it done within the month, since winter’s a-coming. We are in deep shit, officially.

5. I go into panic-mode and delude myself into thinking I can probably rebuild a 34 foot long gutter, two stories in the air, by myself in a weekend. Not my finest moment.

6. I try really hard for like 4 days. It is very cold on the roof, but I spend essentially all daytime hours up there regardless. I have a bad cold. I realize I have very little clue what I’m doing, but I keep trying anyway. I panic more. I descend into madness and admit defeat. I am broken.

processporch

This is where things start to get lots better:

1. I talk to somewhere around 6 contractors. Some of them are very expensive. Some of them are only regular-expensive. I choose a regular-expensive contractor, who is vague about when he can start the job. It is getting more winter-y, and various structural components of my house are basically exposed to the elements. Finally, the contractor hands off the job to another contractor. I no longer really even know what’s going on, but I’ve stopped caring. As long as it gets done.

2. Other contractor, whose name is Shane, turns out to be terrific. He seems to fix things very well. He costs a little less than expected. Things are OK.

I didn’t want to get in Shane’s way, so I don’t really have many process photos, but the one above is the reconstructed structure of the box gutter over the front porch. Look at that! Because the gutters that he had to repair were various sizes and in various states of disrepair, each required different things. The sheathing on these gutters over the porches had completely rotted, but for the most part, the framing members were in decent and usable shape (though he did reinforce them where necessary). Then he sheathed the gutters in a mix of exterior-grade OSB and pressure-treated plywood.

So we went from this:

porchbefore

To this: (!)

porchafter

Check it out! Doing what it’s supposed to do!

OK, I know it’s not the most beautiful thing in the world, and old house purists might be screaming at their computer monitors in horror. There are a couple of different ways to address repairing box gutters, and there’s a lot of disagreement in the old-house-world on the best way. Traditionally, these gutters were lined with metal (either tin or copper), which was painted to help preserve their longevity. Lots of roofers or gutter people who work with box gutters will still line them this way—either with aluminum or copper. Obviously copper gets obscenely expensive, and was just completely out of the question for us, but both metal options have to deal with the issue of expansion and contraction. Properly lined gutters are done in sections with soldered joints to allow for expansion and contraction of the metal under different temperature conditions, but very often these joints fail over time, allowing for water to seep into the structure below. Which isn’t cool at all.

The other option is using a very thick rubber called EPDM (basically pool-liner), which is obviously not historically accurate, but seems to work. Lots of people seem to not like this solution because it’s so historically inaccurate and because using it goes against the manufacturer’s installation recommendations, BUT the general consensus seems to be that in terms of functionality and longevity, it works great. With all that in mind, we chose to go with EPDM, both because it was much less expensive and because it seemed like potentially a better material in terms of avoiding problems down the line. I really hope this was a good choice because I never want to deal with this bullshit again.

dooroverhangbefore

Here’s the overhang over the front door, after all the rotted bits had been removed.

after2

And here it is now! Cool, right? At some point, I’d REALLY like to get better-looking downspouts for this area, since those cheap modern aluminum ones aren’t really doing the house any favors visually, but that can wait. The water is draining like it’s supposed to, and also not rotting away the house from the inside. Success!

biggutterbefore

As for the HUGGGEEE gutter that I spent so long working on, it needed a much more comprehensive reconstruction, including all new framing, sheathing, and lining. Unfortunately this entire side of the house—including the soffit—has bowed out over time (probably an effect of our rafters not having collar-ties, which help keep the pressure of the roof structure from bearing down on the exterior walls), which really threw the pitch of the gutter off. We thought we might have to completely reconstruct the soffit, but luckily Shane was able to just fix the pitch of the gutter with the new framing and avoid a much more extensive re-build. Point is, now the water drains toward the downspout at the end instead of pooling toward the middle.

gutterafter

There she is! The beast. Again, not the most glamorous looking thing in the world, but it really does fine from the street, which is what’s important. Even though it might have been easier to just sheath right over the box gutters and attach regular modern gutters (which is what most people do in this situation), I’m still glad we decided to restore this original feature. Even though we didn’t go all-out and line them with fancy metal, we were still able to preserve the original shape and structure of the roof and cornice (sheathing over it would have meant a sudden change in the pitch of the roof because the angle of the edge of the roof to the edge of the gutter is different than the overall angle of the roof, if that makes sense…if it doesn’t, just trust that it would have looked totally awful). And instead of tacking on new gutters, we were able to maintain the original crown molding that tops off the cornice. Because I think the cornice is definitely one of the best architectural features of the house, I’m super happy it wasn’t compromised because of all this.

GutterBeforeafter

Speaking of the crown molding, you might notice that it’s missing! Unfortunately the original material was badly rotted and unsalvageable, so it’s being replicated now (so cool!), since it’s not exactly something you can find stock. In the spring, we’ll attach the new crown, finish fixing up a couple of damaged corbels (hello, generous slathering of Bondo in the after picture…), caulk, and paint everything.

postandbeam

Even though I really wish all of this hadn’t happened the way it did, there were a couple of silver linings. The first is that I really like the contractor who did the work, and it feels good to have a trusted professional in the arsenal when we need more stuff done that I can’t do myself. The second is that after trying to deal with the gutters myself, all the interior stuff feels like small potatoes. Maybe it’s not so fun to rip out a plaster ceiling, for instance, but it feels comparatively super easy and fun compared to crying on the roof. Third, it gave me a chance to really see and understand more about this house! I used to love old houses pretty much for completely superficial reasons (doors! moldings! pretty things!), but it’s fun learning more and more about how and why things were build the way they were. It’s sort of weirdly empowering to be able to explain and diagram exactly how our box gutters are built, and it’s kind of exciting to see the “guts” of the house that are usually covered up, even when the circumstances might suck. Take for instance this peek at the pegs joining together our timber framing! It’s cool because it further supports that our house is definitely older than we originally thought—the listing said 1895, but this style of post-and-beam construction went out of fashion in the mid-19th century, when sawmills brought about during the industrial revolution allowed for smaller, more precise dimensional lumber and homes became cheaper and faster to build as a result. The amount of craftsmanship that went into just the structure of this house is so remarkable.

We still have a ways to go with the roof (a couple more roof surfaces and a few more gutters haven’t yet been addressed…ugh), but I’m glad this stuff got taken care of in time for winter. Even though looking at these gutters might be way less satisfying than, say, the bathroom renovation that we might have spent the money on otherwise, this was an essential repair that needed to happen now, so I’m glad it did. Sorry, bathroom! I’ll aim to get to you by at least 2030.

House
Tagged:

The Dining Room Ceiling. Oops!

plasterdisaster

It seems to me that there are only a couple of general strategies to choose from when undertaking a major renovation. The first is to just bite the bullet and do it all at once, often before even moving in, usually with lots of assistance from trained professionals. Any walls that need to come down have the chance to come down, systems get upgraded in one comprehensive effort, and then everything gets put back together, painted, decorated, and BOOM…that’s it.

Then there’s the other strategy, whereby one chips away at things piecemeal for a matter of years, never with enough time or money, living endlessly in a state of chaos and destruction that hints only vaguely of progress. In an effort to avoid going completely insane, one might try to keep things contained to, say, a single room, only moving onto the next thing when that space feels more or less completed.

This isn’t an altogether bad plan, so long as one does, in fact, stay focused on one or two relatively contained projects. Where the strategy fails is when, on Saturday morning, one might decide that despite everything else going on (the entryway/stairwell/hallway, the upstairs office…), now’s as good a time as any to see just what’s going on under the dining room ceiling. Because why not?

ceilingbefore

Backing up just a little bit, our dining room ceiling was clad in nail-up acoustic ceiling tiles probably in the 1960s or 70s. Aside from being completely at odds with the architectural style of the house, they had sagged and become discolored over the years, and the crown molding that was added around the edges looked cheap and out of place. Check out that area above the arched bay window  molding——the ceiling covers the top of the molding, and the added crown further cuts it off and just makes everything look generally awful.

There was never a question in my mind that the tiles had to go, and after having them tested for asbestos (negative!), the seemingly pain-free process of getting rid of them was just soooooo tempting. It haunted me daily. We’ve been using the dining room almost constantly since we move in, and during every meal I’d just sit there, plotting.

I knew from when I took the asbestos sample that the original plaster ceiling was lurking up there, but its condition was a huge mystery. Because this renovation is fueled by 1 part coffee and 1 part delusion, I had this adorable idea in my head that the tiled ceiling was probably installed for sound insulation (since the second floor used to be its own apartment), and that the original plaster ceiling above would need a little repair work, but be completely salvageable.

tileremoval

This idea was relatively supported when we started to take down the tiles. The ceiling above, though full of many, many cracks, didn’t appear to be sagging or very damaged. Taking down the tiles themselves was going really fast, and then we’d just have to take down the furring strips and restore the plaster. “I’ll be painting by the end of the weekend!” I thought.

Oh, Daniel. You sweet handsome thing.

furringstrips

Moving across the room, though, things started looking…not so good. I’m kind of pissed that this picture is so bad because it REALLY does not portray the amount of damage that this ceiling had. There were HUGE areas of plaster completely missing, lots and lots of other areas where the plaster had separated from the lath and was crumbling and sagging, and other areas of pre-existing drywall patches that had seen MUCH better days. About 1/3rd of the ceiling was in somewhat decent shape, but the rest was a total disaster.

missingplaster

Oof. This is not exactly what we were hoping for.

missingplaster2

A lot of the plaster was being completely supported by the furring strips, so when those came down, things really started to fall apart. I still held out hope that things would be OK, but by the time the furring strips had all been removed, it became pretty clear that this ceiling was just past the point of repair.

I know that at this point plenty of people would just cover the entire thing with thin drywall and call it a day, but something about adding more and more layers to things just feels viscerally wrong to me, probably because it’s been the renovation method of choice for this house for the last hundred years. Not only does it make future renovations and upgrades much more challenging, it would also slightly lower the ceiling height (which wouldn’t be a huge deal, except that it would cover the very top of that arched molding since it’s so close to the ceiling already) and add even MORE weight for the structure of the house to hold up, which just seems like an all-around bad idea.

Even though I’m not a restoration purist by any means, it’s definitely disappointing that this ceiling wasn’t salvageable. I know plaster can be brought back from pretty dire-looking conditions (Alex from Old Town Home has a terrific series of posts about this very thing), so I was prepared to have to do a lot of work, but I really didn’t think the whole thing would have to go. I tend to think plaster is superior as a material to modern-day drywall, particularly as a sound insulator, and from an aesthetic standpoint, it just feels sort of lousy to be removing original features and materials from the house (that’s why we bought it, after all!). It also sucks to be responsible for a bunch of waste that now has to get carted off to a landfill, but removing the ceiling and starting fresh kind of seemed like the only decent option.

We learned a couple of interesting things about the house in the process of removing the ceiling, though, including that at some point the dining room was divided into two rooms! To illustrate, I made this crappy Sketch-Up model. I’ve been working on teaching myself Google Sketch-Up for a few weeks now, and I’m maybe finding it a little addictive and a fun way to plan out future renovation projects. I’ll probably bombard you with more Sketch-Up renderings every now and then, since I really can’t stop myself from making them…

diningroomwitholdwalls

Anyway, look at that funny little room carved into the dining room! My theory is that the house has gone through a couple of periods of being a single family home versus being split into two apartments. Obviously we know how the house was divided up the last time it became a two-family in the mid-70s or so, but I think it was also converted to a two-family in the 1930s (we’ve found an apartment listing in the local paper at our address from 1938!), then possibly converted back to a single family in the mid-1960s. In any case, I’m guessing that this little room inside the dining room functioned as a bedroom after the 1930s renovation, and maybe the door outside the archway was an entryway? I have no idea if this makes sense or is interesting to anyone else, but I thought it was kind of cool.

demoprocess

ANYWAY, back to plaster removal. If you’ve heard anything about how intense removing plaster is, BELIEVE EVERY WORD. It took us about 3 intense days to get the whole thing down, first of all. The dust was INSANE—despite closing all the doors and masking everything off, dust still got EVERYWHERE throughout the entire house. It doesn’t seem like it’s physically possible, but it is very possible. The biggest challenge, though, was probably the weight of it all. We might be relatively scrawny dudes, but I’ll still say that moving around bags and bags and bags of downed plaster was bonkers. It’s so very, very heavy, and so dusty, and there’s so much of it, and the whole thing just feels insane.

gaslines

We didn’t find anything terribly notable in the ceiling, but it is sort of fun and cool to see the original gas lines that lit the original light fixtures before the house was electrified. The lines are disconnected and don’t do anything now, but of course we’ll leave them in place anyway. It’s fun having that kind of history lurking behind the walls!

We saved all of the lath, just in case I end up wanting to reuse it somehow (or just give it to the very talented Ariele to do something pretty with).

bagster

To deal with all the waste, we gave Bagster a try! Have you seen this? It’s basically a massive IKEA bag, which you buy at Home Depot for about $30 and fill with all your crap (in our case, hundreds and hundreds of pounds of plaster). We filled the entire thing with the plaster ceiling and the furring strips alone (the acoustic tiles were light enough that they could go out with the regular trash, and we saved the lath!), which is just sort of an astounding amount of material to think about, particularly when I picture the relatively small and neat stack of drywall that will replace all this. The pick-up/dumping fee was $162 (it varies by region), so while it wasn’t exactly cheap, I’m not sure we could have saved any significant amount of money by using any other disposal method, and I really did not want to shuffle around 40 contractor bags of plaster any more than I had to. Overall, it was a great experience.

postdemo

Even though the whole ordeal kind of sucked, it actually feels really good to have everything opened up, cleaned out, and ready for the next step. We’re planning to run new electrical lines while it’s so easy and we have the chance (our house is mainly wired with fabric-seathed NM wire inside of armored BX cable…there isn’t anything inherently dangerous about it, but we might as well upgrade it when the opportunity presents), and having the entire ceiling open should also make it pretty easy to get some new electrical to a couple of spaces upstairs, too, which would be really exciting. The house in general is under-electrified (not enough lights or outlets!), so even though I wasn’t really expecting to do this now, it feels exciting that we can check some of this off the list sooner rather than later and be able to see at night and plug stuff in.

As for finishing the ceiling, I can’t really decide whether or not to attempt it myself. I definitely want drywall (as opposed to tongue-and-groove wood or tin tiles, both of which just aren’t right for the house aesthetically), but I’ve never drywalled before and I really don’t want to screw it up! It doesn’t seem like the hardest thing in the world, but the taping and mudding definitely takes some technique, which seems about 10 times harder to master on a ceiling. I’m in the process of getting a few quotes to hire it out, so I’ll probably go that route if it isn’t wildly expensive. I’m sort of wimpy and defeatist when it comes to drywall, I admit!

I’m super excited to get the dining room a little more together. I really love the architecture of the space, so it’s one of the rooms I’m most excited about in the house. I’ve been doing lots of planning and scheming and thinking about how I want the room to look (and a little more work since these photos were taken last week…), and I’ll share it all soon! It’s going to be great.

Also, Happy New Year, everyone! I don’t generally do the resolutions thing in a very formal way, but I do want 2014 to be full of lots of fun, lots of projects, and lots of blog posts. I hope you’ll hang around. Thanks for helping to make 2013 so much fun!

Dining Room Furniture!

Throughout basically my entire childhood and adolescence, I can’t recall my parents buying furniture. Our house had furniture, so I never really thought too hard about it. That I’d never seen my mom hem and haw over a fabric sample or my dad try and fail to assemble something from IKEA never really struck me as weird, even when we moved to a larger house when I was 7. Instead of going to stores and finding the right pieces to fill the space, selected as part of  a pre-planned decor scheme, the house just sort of became furnished. It wasn’t until a little later that I started to understand that most of the furniture we owned had at one time belonged to another family member, and even later when I realized that all of my relatives are lunatics.

It wasn’t that my parents couldn’t have bought their own furniture (that would be different), but that they just never really had a reason to. Instead, it seems like anything that my grandparents bought between the years of about 1960 to 1980 but no longer used——including office furniture——was systematically kept, stored, and shipped great distances on an as-needed basis years later. Even now, if the second or third caretaker of one such piece then decides they don’t want it, its donation or sale must be agreed upon by all members of my parents’ generation (and, increasingly, my generation), lest someone else might want it or someday decide that they might someday want it. Then it goes back into storage and waits for the house that so-and-so won’t own for a decade. It’s psychotic.

The actual economics of this are often completely backward, since all of the storing and the moving and the shipping ends up costing more than the value of the furniture to begin with, but that isn’t the point. The point is, if you need a sectional sofa in my family, you can take your pick between the maroon one and the black one, and maybe they’re both missing parts, but on the plus side they’re already broken in a little and have a modicum of sentimental value for somebody, somewhere.

As this stems from my father’s side of the family, I’m not sure my mother knew what sort of life she was signing up for: the kind where actually buying anything new amounted to an act of rebellion, liberation, desperation, or all three. The poor woman has literally hated her bedroom furniture for 20 years——not casually, in the way that you might want a new set of dishes but never seem to find the time, but aggressively and persistently, day in and day out, for two decades. And it wasn’t like there was a honeymoon period at the beginning when it was new and she actually did like it, because in the context of her life it was never new. It just arrived at some point, and that was that.

Of the many things in my childhood home that my mother openly despised, very few received as much disdain as our dining room set. She has been plotting to get rid of it the entire time I’ve known her. I’m not even really sure what her major gripe with it was——something about the chairs being uncomfortable and not liking the shape of the table——but I’m not sure it really matters. It was more of a fixation, an imaginary problem into which many of her broader frustrations were slowly channeled. At various times she would find a new table option here or chair option there, but the effort always fell just short of actually placing the order. I think eventually the pressure of finding something that would make her happy became too overwhelming to outweigh just living with the anger, so she resigned herself to just waiting until they moved.

Once my parents actually did make the commitment to move, it was more or less assumed that the ridiculous cycle of storing and shipping old many-times-used furniture would just continue as it always had. To their credit, my parents did get rid of a lot of stuff, but the option was put to us kids to claim whatever we wanted first. Seeing as I’m the only one with the space or the need, I got the only thing I was truly interested in.

chairclose-up

BOOM DINING ROOM SET. It is mine. Finally it is loved.

This set was purchased by my grandparents for the house my dad grew up in around 1965. It doesn’t have any manufacturer marks or labels, so I have no idea who the designer or brand is, but I love it. The chair frames are all brassy or bronze-y or some kind of warm metal-y with lots of patina, and the seats and backs are black leather slings with white stitching. I personally think they’re comfortable, but I also personally don’t give a shit either way because look at that fine chair.

I love chairs.

My father reports that as a teenager, he used to sit at this dining set and listen to Jefferson Airplane and watch the wallpaper.

Stoner.

tableandchairs

Now for the potentially controversial part of the post. I don’t think I actually like the table. My evolution toward becoming my mother is officially complete.

Objectively, it’s a nice table. It’s solid wood. It has leaves. It’s in really good condition. However, the original finish was a much lighter wood tone, and in an effort to make themselves like it, my parents had the whole thing ebonized in the 80s. Consequently, even though the set is from the 60s and the chairs alone are delicious, the set together reads very 80s to me. Black leather is one of those tough things that really only works in certain contexts, I think, without looking like Wall Street. 

Luckily, my dream dining table is actually pretty attainable. I know people will roll their eyes, but the IKEA NORDEN table is SO nice. It’s solid birch, has great simple lines, and is HUGE (a bit bigger than this table, which I think will fit the room better). I think it would look reallllly good with the chairs, too, and complement them way better than this table does. Since this is our only dining space and we use it constantly (as opposed to the last 20 years, when this table only got used a few times a year because we had an eat-in kitchen), it would also be nice to have something I wouldn’t have to worry so much about damaging. Even though I don’t particularly like this table, I also do want to keep it in good shape.

You know, in case my siblings want it in 20 years.

 

Light it Up!

So, due to having zero time and zero energy and no exterior electrical outlet and the house feeling like a construction zone and 3/4 of our family being Jewish (in fact, I am counting the dogs), we did not do anything in the way of Christmas decorations this year, outside or inside. Instead, we did the early-stages-of-renovation alternate version where we change up our seasonal lighting scheme by having some electrical work done.

How’s THAT for holiday cheer?  So festive, even if the neighborhood may not realize/notice it. It’s subtle.

houseinsnow

That photo was taken on Saturday night, when we were getting a ludicrous amount of snow in Kingston! Snowy Kingston is so super pretty, and even though we’ve done almost no exterior work (well, half a roof counts I guess, but you can’t see it from this angle…), the house looks beautiful. The house was covered in snow the first time we ever saw it last December (almost a year ago!), and it feels really good to see it this time around looking more and more like a place where people live and a place that people love.

ANYWAY, the point of this photo is the new exterior lights! Look how bright it is!

oldlightporch

Obviously this is a picture of the hole left behind by the old light fixture and not the fixture itself, but I guess at some point in the 70s or 80s, the previous owner had one of these beauties installed here. It was the only exterior light, meaning that the house was pretty under-lit, generally. Aside from being a crappy size and style for the house, the placement of the fixture sort of didn’t make sense and marred an otherwise (potentially) very beautiful entryway.

newporchlight

Yay, new light! Obviously I have to patch up and paint that old hole (ASAP, before creatures colonize it…), and obviously this “fixture” is only temporary until fickle me can find one I really want, but having it centered over the overhang makes everything a million times better. The impetus for doing this right now was that I had to coordinate the electricians to come on the same day as the roofers so that they could run the new electrical from above, while the roof was torn off. Otherwise, they might have had to cut holes in the original tongue-and-groove ceiling, which was not going to fly. Both the roofer and the electrician were skeptical of this Extreme-Contractor-Coordination Plan, but it totally worked because I’m a bossy genius.

This fixture was slightly more presentable when it had a shade, but unfortunately it fell off roughly 5 seconds after I secured it and climbed down from the ladder. Dumb cheap lighting.

BUT THAT’S NOT ALL.

newporchlights

There’s lighting over the porch now! For the first time ever! So exciting!

When it’s dark out, this new lighting goes a loooonggg, long way toward making the house look taken care of, which is really exciting and really important in a neighborhood where that often isn’t the case. I’m also excited for when it gets warmer again and we can chill on the porch under our new lights. These lights are on a dimmer switch, so they’re perfect for lighting up the house or just providing a little ambiance when we’re hanging out on the porch. And who doesn’t love ambiance? Can’t get enough of that ambiance.

The fixtures that are there are just these guys from Lowes (which actually aren’t so bad, especially for the price, if you need something generic that looks historic and whatnot) but I think they’re a bit under-scaled, which bothers me. The original plan was to put a hanging pendant in front of the door and two flush-mount or semi-flushmount fixtures over the porch, but after living with the temporary lighting for a while, I actually think I want to nix the pendant and just have three matching flush/semi-flush-mount fixtures. Greek Revival houses were built to resemble Greek temples, and I think adding a hanging fixture would kind of disrupt the architecture. All the columns and the cornice and the trim details (of which there should only be more when we remove the vinyl siding…) are dramatic enough, so I think all the exterior lighting really has to do is highlight all that stuff.

By the way, given the amount of protection the cornice/fascia provide, the electrician assured me that it wasn’t really necessary to get exterior-grade lighting for here (as long as it’s flush-mount), which is exciting. I still might, just in case, but exterior lighting in general is tough. Like super hard to find anything that isn’t so ugly. Looking at interior options that would look good outside really opens up the options in a huge way.

BUT THAT’S NOT ALL. Stuff happened inside, too!

lightinentry

Remember this, in the entryway? Well. It was the only light source in the entire downstairs hallway. The hallway is over 30 feet long and kind of narrow, and having one teensy sconce trying to light up the whole thing was just not going to cut it.

I went back and forth a lot on whether or not to keep the sconce, and in the end decided to get rid of it. I know! First of all, it was connected to some pretty old wiring (lots of our wiring is pretty old and there isn’t really anything wrong with it, but it still feels good to replace it whenever it makes sense…), but I also felt like the space wouldn’t really be lacking anything without it. It isn’t original to the house (though it may be original to the house having electricity), its placement was sort of arbitrary, it wasn’t effective…blah blah blah. I still have it in case we want to use it elsewhere!

wallafter

Part of the reason I haven’t really made any headway in the hallway is because I wanted to wait for this electrical work to be done, and I’m glad I did! Look at all those holes! Now I can finally start to patch up and repair the walls, which will be so exciting. It’s going to be a longgg process, but getting this entryway/hallway situation checked off the list is going to be a huge accomplishment. 

ceilingfixtureafter

Yes, this light fixture is also completely terrible, but the fact that it’s THERE and that it WORKS is all I really care about at this moment. It’s centered in the entryway between the front door and the base of the steps. The ceilings are almost 10 feet here, so it definitely needs a big amazing chandelier. It’s going to be soooo good.

backofhalllight

In the back of the hallway (man, these pictures just get scarier and scarier…), we added another light that’s on the same circuit as the one in the front of the hallway. The shade for this one also fell off and shattered into a million pieces (I promise I’m not an idiot; these light fixtures are just really poorly made…), but for now it’s not like it’s even the worst-looking thing in this photo. So.

I think for here, I’ll probably do something pretty small and flush-mount, so as not to compete with the big guy down at the other end of the hallway. Just something that does the job…

upstairslightoldandnew

Then UPSTAIRS, I asked the electricians to move the existing light. It was basically centered over the area at the top of the stairs (in front of the bathroom door), which was annoying for two reasons:

1. The ceilings upstairs are only 8 feet, so putting a chandelier or pendant there would have been tough/impossible.

2. This is the only light source in the upstairs hallway, which meant that the other end of the hallway was super dark.

newupstairslight

Moving the fixture over the stairs solves both of these problems! Now that it’s more central, it lights up the entire space a bit better, and since it’s over the stairs, we have plenty of head-room to hang something way more exciting than that little crappy thing with grapevines etched into it.  I just kind of eye-balled the placement, and if I could do it all over again I might move it 6″-1′ back toward the bathroom, but it’s done now so I’m choosing to think it’s perfect!

cree

Before I end this long, rambling post about things that probably only I could get excited about, I wanted to mention my new(ish)found favorite lightbulb: the Cree bulb. This is a big deal in my life.

FINALLY, FINALLY, FINALLY, there is an energy-efficient bulb that is:

1. Very energy-efficient. It doesn’t even get warm when it’s left on for hours and hours, which is my scientific way of knowing it’s good for the world.

2. Not terrible to look at, like acceptable to put in a regular lamp or anything where it’s still mostly covered. But SO much better looking than a CFL.

3. Dimmable. For real dimmable. Actually dims really nicely.

4. Lasts forever. Package says it will last 20 years. That just seems ridiculous, but I guess we’ll find out.

5. MOST IMPORTANTLY: it gives off nice light! Like actually! OK, it’s still a teensy, tiny bit different than a good ol’ incandescent, but I’m the pickiest person alive and I have zero problem with the kind of light this bulb gives off. I basically can’t stand ANY kind of CLF, halogen, or other types of LED’s, so this is huge. Just make sure you get the SOFT WHITE, not the daylight.

We’ve been using these bulbs wherever we can and they’re really great. At about $12 a pop at Home Depot they aren’t exactly inexpensive, but the idea is that the energy savings over time (and, in theory, not having to buy any new bulbs for a couple decades…) helps them pay for themselves. That math is too complicated for me, but I WILL say that it feels good to FINALLY have found something that’s better for the environment and doesn’t make me want to gouge my eyes out with an icepick.

Hooray, Heat!

There was a pretty dark period this fall during which nothing was working out and everything on the home renovation front was, generally, totally shitty. We tried to get our roof replaced and ended up with some new roof, some old roof, and a whole mess of rot and messed up box gutters. We tried to get some electrical work done (details forthcoming!), and ended up with a super disorganized electrician who took weeks to finish a few fairly simple jobs and was very non-committal and vague about when he might decide to come back. Then, there was the heat situation.

In case I haven’t established this enough: old houses are complicated. I think they’re completely worth the headaches, but the point is that there are headaches. We knew when we bought the house that we needed to address the heat system, but I had no idea that trying to get hot water running through our radiators would take the better part of two and a half months and make me want to be dead.

radiator1

A little background:

Our house was probably originally heated with wood-burning or coal-burning stoves, which were later replaced by hot water radiators (most of them are made by the American Radiator Company and are the very ornate “Rococo” design, and were probably installed around the turn of the century). Basically, a machine called a boiler has to heat all that hot water to distribute to the radiators. The hot water runs from the boiler through an elaborate system of pipes to the radiators, then through the radiators and back to the boiler to get re-heated. Hot water radiators provide really nice heat—they’re silent, extremely effective at heating up a space, and just all around very pleasant. I was told that our century-old radiators are actually more efficient than more modern baseboard radiator-style heating. I’d never consider replacing the radiators with a forced air system or anything else——I consider them a huge asset to the house, even if they aren’t 100% original.

ANYWAY. There was an existing boiler in the basement, but unfortunately it was probably from the 1930s or 40s and was super scary. It ran on oil as its fuel source, which was supplied by two enormous oil tanks that were buried in the yard. When the house went up for sale, however, the oil tanks were removed and abated (old buried oil tanks are NOT something you want to deal with as a new homeowner, so I’m glad they were gone!), leaving a lifeless ancient old boiler in the basement. While I suppose it’s possible we could have gotten a new oil tank and gotten the existing boiler up and running, there wasn’t really any point in that: oil is very expensive, and the old boiler (if it even still worked) would have been incredibly inefficient and potentially unsafe. The house was seriously overdue for an upgrade.

We’d planned all along to switch to natural gas to power the heat system, meaning some new gas lines would have to be run in the basement to a new modern boiler, all of which a plumber would have to install. Pretty straightforward, yes?

We had a gas line running into the house from the main on the street, but we’ve never actually had gas running into it. That’s partly why we switched to an electric stove when we renovated the kitchen—partially because we already had the stove, but mostly because we weren’t sure how long it would take to get gas service up and running. Additionally, because our house was split into two separate living units that we’re restoring to a single-family, the upstairs and downstairs were on two separate hot water heaters (which supply the hot water to sinks and tubs and the (broken) washing machine). There wasn’t anything particularly wrong with this setup, except that the hot water heater that supplied the second floor ran on electric and the main floor heater ran on gas…meaning no hot water in the kitchen for the first six months in the house. And of course it wasn’t like we could just turn the gas on. Because our house had been vacant, the gas meter had been removed by the utility company, meaning we’d have to request new service. And if we requested new service, they’d want to see what we were running, and our hot water heater was installed with a whole mess of code violations, so they wouldn’t have turned the gas on anyway. See how fun this stuff is?

Luckily, the utility company, Central Hudson, has been running a terrific Gas Conversion Program, which basically incentivizes homeowners to switch to natural gas for their home heating systems. Basically, they subcontract to a company who comes to the house for a free consultation, evaluates your needs, and puts together a couple of different potential packages depending on the necessary equipment. They also offer a number of financing options, which made the whole thing very appealing. We knew the approximate cost of all this stuff before we even bought the house, so we were prepared financially, but I liked the idea of financing the whole thing separately and saving our cash for other projects, so I set up an appointment.

This was at the beginning of September. The guy from the utility company came out, took one look at our existing gas line, and immediately said that Central Hudson wouldn’t give us gas for two reasons:

1. The existing gas line was too old, and no longer to code. Awesome.

2. Because the house was vacant for a while, it was more than likely that the line running into our basement had been cut at the street anyway, rendering it completely dead. Therefore, they’d need to dig up part of the street, the sidewalk, and part of our yard to run a completely new line from the gas main.

The great thing about the Gas Conversion Program is that getting this new line run is basically free——you pay a $500 deposit up front, which gets returned to you once your equipment is installed and activated. Without this program, that type of job would easily run about $5,000, so that was the good news. The bad news was that getting the new line run would take 3-4 weeks, meaning we wouldn’t even be able to install a new boiler until probably early October. The other semi-bad news was that in the caveat of taking advantage of the financing options was that we’d need to use a plumber supplied by Central Hudson, not our own plumber. Having worked with our plumber a couple of times for other stuff, I felt a little bit badly about taking the business away from him, but to pay off the new boiler over 7 years? Seemed worth it.

So I wrote my $500 check and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

4 weeks turned into more like 8 weeks, at which point the gas company engineer finally came out to the house and decided that there actually wasn’t anything wrong with our existing service—meaning the last 8 weeks (which brought us to early November, when things were getting very cold) had been a total waste of time. In that time, we also weren’t approved for the financing, so we were back to square one. At that point, I decided to just forge ahead with the gas company’s plumber, since that seemed like the easier route than backtracking and dealing with our own plumber, who’d still have to deal with the gas company to get the service turned on once everything was installed. The gas company said they could schedule me for the big install within the next week or so, so things seemed to be looking up.

And then they didn’t schedule me. And one week turned into two. And I was so frustrated and so sad. And the roof stuff was going on. And we were freezing. And everything was terrible.

On the eve of the weather going below freezing for the first time, I was very nervous. We had a couple of space-heaters running and had left the taps on a very slow drip, but I was starting to descend into a fit of paranoia about our pipes freezing and bursting and all being lost. Why was this so hard? Why couldn’t I seem to give these people thousands of dollars to fulfill my simple request of not freezing to death in my home?

Then, out of nowhere, my plumber texted me. Not the one who we’d hired through the gas company, but our plumber. It was maybe the best text message I’ve ever received. Turned out, he was worried about us. I guess I hadn’t effectively communicated that he wasn’t doing the job, so he’d already ordered the equipment and was ready to pick it up at the suppliers. He could come at 9 a.m. the next morning. My heart swelled with hope. It was beautiful.

Early the next morning I called to cancel the other plumber (dick move, I guess, but they still hadn’t managed to schedule me and sometimes you have to do what you have to do!), and called my guy to report that we were a-go.

You guys. He WERKED. IT. OUT. I love my plumber.

plumbers

What I had been told by the gas company was a simple one-day ordeal was actually a four-day, four-person exhausting saga of crazy plumbing insanity. Even just getting the old system disconnected from the ancient boiler was an enormous undertaking. The image above is three large men with a 4-foot pipe wrench (and a large section of cast-iron pipe slipped over the end for extra leverage) yanking on century-old cast iron pipe joints. Each joint had to be blow-torched for 5 minutes before it could be forcibly loosened by these hulking gentlemen and prepared to be tied into new plumbing. I can’t even describe how crazy it was to watch all of this unfolding, but trust…it was intense. Particularly since it was taking place in my very scary basement.

boiler

BUT OMG, LOOK AT ALL THAT GORGEOUSNESS. I mean, can you even? I can’t.

That right there is a very incredible high-efficiency gas boiler. We had a choice between a regular-efficiency boiler and high-efficiency, and we chose high-efficiency for a number of reasons. Even though high-efficiency equipment is more expensive up front, it’s obviously more environmentally friendly and is less expensive to operate over time. Additionally, high-efficiency boilers can vent directly through the side of the house, whereas regular-efficiency boilers have to vent through the roof. Since our only available means of venting was an old unlined chimney, the added cost of lining the chimney wasn’t worth it anyway.

This thing is incredible. First of all, it’s tiny (replacing something roughly the size of a Buick). Second of all, it’s suuuuuper quiet——you can really only hear it running if you’re in the basement. Third of all, it turned out that we couldn’t get the old gas hot water heater up to code, but this thing is so cool that not only does it run our entire heat system, it can also act as a tankless hot water heater. And because of the crazy ordeal of getting this all up and running, combined with our customer loyalty, our terrific plumber tied all of the water lines to the boiler, allowing us to do away with both of our inefficient/inoperable hot water heaters. For free. So all at once we had a working heat system and hot water on both floors of our house.

hotwaterheaters

So yeah, that itty-bitty thing replaced both of these massive hot water tanks AND a huge ancient boiler. Technology, man. So cool.

I know I might be the only person who’s at all excited about this, but looking at that fancy new system all set up makes me really happy. The first time I felt our radiators all toasty and doing their jobs, I cried. Nay, I sobbed. Literally. For nearly an hour. It was pathetic.

After so many months of things going really slowly or really badly and feeling generally like garbage, this finally felt like we’d done something really, truly good for this house. This is a huge, huge improvement and step toward bringing this place into the 21st century——preserving the original character but with a modern, safe, and effective infrastructure behind it. It might sound cheesy, but feeling those radiators come to life (and, miraculously, all in perfect working order) and the house heating to a comfortable temperature really felt like feeling the house come to life for the first time. Magic.

nest

We splurged a little and went for the Nest thermostat, which has also been amazing. Since we aren’t at the house all the time, it’s great to be able to set the temperature much lower when we’re not there, and even tell it to heat up when we’re en route to Kingston. I feel like it’ll pay for itself over time with energy savings, and it’s also just really fucking cool. Zero complaints.

Here’s some potentially helpful hints if you’re looking at old houses or are looking at replacing a heat system:

1. Always find out what the existing heat system is. If it runs on oil, find out when the boiler or furnace and oil tanks were last replaced. Insist on having the oil tanks inspected. If they are leaking, the seller should have them removed and abated and have documentation to prove it. EPA regulations around this stuff are intense, and you don’t want to mess around.

2. If you do need a new system, get written estimates for the job before you close. This is a costly upgrade, so you’ll need to have an accurate picture of the projected cost to plan your financing accordingly.

3. If you want to switch to natural gas for your home heating system, it’s worthwhile to see if your utility company offers a similar program to Central Hudson’s Gas Conversion Program. I really don’t know enough about whether other utility companies are doing stuff like this, but I’m guessing they are.

4. Some banks and credit unions are offering home heating loans specifically for this at low interest rates. If you’re interested in upgrading your system but don’t have the cash up front, this might be a great option, even if your utility company doesn’t have a program in place.

5. If you’re in the Hudson Valley and need a great plumber, feel free to email me.

Back to Top