All posts tagged: Demo

See ya, Second Floor Bay Window Thing!

If you read my post last week, you already know that I’m in the process of slowly destroying my house. Fun times! In some ways, it would have been very nice to have had the money to do all of this when I bought the house three years ago, but of course three years ago I wouldn’t have had the same plan I have now and would probably have screwed everything up and regretted it forever, so it’s all good. I probably would have also been TOTALLY overwhelmed and intimidated by a project like this and spent the whole time freaking out and panicking and feeling miserable, but now it’s all pretty familiar. It’s fun. It’s exciting. There’s something to be said for taking your time, I guess!

baywindowframed

As mentioned, this big old side-of-house-restoration involves 4 major spaces: my kitchen, my dining room, the second floor bedroom above the dining room (where the bump-out/bay window/”tumor” lives), and my bedroom at the front of the house. That’s inside, of course, which is to say nothing of the enormous exterior overhaul that really has to take precedence! It’s almost mid-August and I’ve gotten myself into enough pickles to know that winter’s a-comin’ and I gotta get this shit done!

ANYWAY. Aside from basically totally dismantling the dining room of all my furniture and pretty things so everything doesn’t get totally destroyed, the work is fairly minor in there, and we already kind of saw it on the window post a few weeks ago. Here’s the window installed from what will soon be the exterior, though! There seems to be a lot of confusion about which parts of the house are staying and which parts are going…I’m trying my best to explain, but you might just have to wait and see if you’re still confused! The wall to the LEFT in the photo above is the old exterior wall of the solarium, which will be eliminated. The wall to the RIGHT is the wall of the house which obviously stays. The ladder is sitting in what will be part of my side yard. More space to plant! Kinda make sense?

middlebedroombefore

Meanwhile…it was time to start taking care of this room on the second floor! This is the decent-sized bedroom where the bump-out is, which I think I’ve only showed once right after I bought the house because I’ve done almost nothing to it except tear off about 1/3rd of the ceiling tiles which revealed a bunch of furring strips nailed to an extremely damaged plaster ceiling. Not terribly surprising. I know that bump-out seems like a fabulous design opportunity but it was in such poor condition, not original to the house, and resting entirely on top of the very structurally unsound former-solarium, so it’s gotta go. Bye!

bumpoutdemo

Demo always starts somewhat slowly, with the careful removal of moldings and anything salvageable. The drywall is down here, so you can see where there used to be windows on either side of this thing, now covered over by OSB sheathing. Those one-over-one windows will not be getting reused, but the old wavy glass in them is valuable for me as I have to repair broken panes in the original windows around the house! Cutting glass isn’t nearly as hard as it sounds (score and snap kind of deal) so they’ll definitely get used.

wallpaperboarder

Underneath the casing around the bump-out was what I’m assuming is the original wallpaper for this room, nicely preserved! In person, those yellow parts are metallic gold, and actually still very shiny! Such a cool pattern, right?

floorcutting

After that, we cut the floor flush with the rest of the house! That was just a matter of snapping a chalk line and running a circular saw down the line, with the blade set at 3/4″ which is the thickness of this floor. The flooring from the bump-out, of course, was then carefully removed for reuse later (little patches I have to do where radiator pipes used to be, maybe the downstairs bathroom…no reason to toss it!).

cornicevestige

One very exciting moment in all of this was removing the ceiling of the bump-out, under which you can see…the original cornice! Some parts like the crown molding, the corbels, and the frieze were removed when this was built, but the main structure (which is also my box gutter!) is intact, which is just fab news. Hopefully this means that patching in and reconstructing this section of the original cornice are also significantly easier than I’d anticipated. Yay!!

framedbumpoutwindow2

Then it was time to frame the new window, which…look! I hope this is all starting to make sense. See how nicely it lines up with the adjacent window in my little office?

preceilingdemo

Once that was more or less done, Edwin offered the suggestion that we just go ahead and demo the ceiling in this room. The plaster is really beyond repair (those furring strips are held up by about a million nails, and removing them takes the plaster along with them), and it has to happen anyway, and…fuck it, let’s just get it done. Plaster demo sucks so while I have help and muscle on my side, I’ll pay for a few extra hours to just get it over with.

middlebedroomceilingdemo

Hot holy damn. In preparation for doing this, we carefully removed the attic floor boards and shoveled out as much of the old blown-in cellulose insulation as we could, because having ALL of it raining down on us while the ceiling got demolished sounded like the worst idea ever.

ISN’T IT GORGEOUS?! Yikes.

framedbumpoutwindow

But after adding sheathing on the exterior and cleaning up, the room is starting to take its new shape. It seems counter-intuitive but returning the room to its rightful proportion makes it feel so much less awkward and honestly more spacious. Of course that could also be an effect of my new (temporary) 16-ish foot ceiling height since you can now see all the way up to my roof sheathing in the attic. Everything is crazy.

demo1

On the exterior…here’s how things stood earlier that day, I believe. All of the clapboard on the back section has been removed and 1/4″ sheathing put up. Adding and removing windows and additions and stuff means there would be a LOT of clapboard patching, so I think it really is easier and ultimately better to just remove it all, give it the spa treatment, and put it back up. That way there won’t be any obvious patchwork. You can kind of see the original boards going back up in the lower right corner!

demo2

Not going to lie, demo on this thing was pretty stressful! The structure was iffy at best so there was a lot of head-scratching about the safest way to go about it.

demo3

Oh Edwin. Always giving me bedroom eyes. We removed the sills that came with the windows and replaced them with cedar that we milled from 4×4 posts to match the dimensions of the originals.

demo4

Much like interior demo, everything that can be saved gets saved! Don’t forget I now have to patch in the cornice, so having those corbels and various pieces of trim work intact should make it much easier.

demo5

I climbed onto the roof and ran a circular saw through the rubber lining on the box gutters and the roof sheathing. Then I got my ass down because NO THANK YOU.

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Roof, gone! Holy moly.

Side1

Here’s where we started off again, for comparison’s sake…

demo7

And here’s where we’re at! Oh my! I’m hoping to patch the cornice this weekend and probably remove some more siding, so hopefully weather cooperates and I can get it done. I know at this stage this hardly looks like an improvement, but there’s still a ways to go here, so bear with me! It’s gonna look great. Remember that there will be another window between the first two on the top, which I think it going to be really transformative. I’m so excited to get that one in! And there will be a false window below that (directly to the left of the bay window in this picture), which I’m weirdly EXTREMELY excited about. I’m picking up the (purely ornamental) shutters for it today!! Adding a real window there is not an option because there’s a pesky wall in the way, but that’s fine. I like my walls.

Also, check it out! I sorta last-minute decided to drop a corner board between the larger original section of the house and the smaller kitchen addition on the back. I was worried that this would look totally weird, but it felt like the right way to subtly articulate the two structures and let the original section of the house maintain its correct proportions. I really like how it’s looking, though! The top where it meets the frieze will get trimmed out with some fancy molding, and I think once the solarium addition comes down and everything else gets done, it’s going to look just right.

After looking at a lot of local examples and lots of debate, I think adding wider corner boards to this house is the right move. The original corner boards are only 4″ and these are a whopping 12″ (which looks tiny now that it’s up, but it’s huge!). It’s been posed that the original house might have been built closer to 1830 or so as a late federal-style, which got a Greek Revival/Italianate kind of overhaul in the 1860s, so I’m guessing when they added the cornice and the portico and the columns (and probably the first floor bay window, which I’m keeping), they didn’t want to re-side the house so they left the original corner boards…which I think makes the house look a little top-heavy with that huge elaborate cornice! Kinda cool, right? So even though they aren’t original, I think wider corner boards will go a long way toward really manifesting the intention of that (possible) 1860s renovation.

Fun? Not fun? I’m having fun.

 

The Wreckage: Part 1

Remember that time a few weeks ago when I decided to restore that side of my house? Well. Having figured out the first huge hurdle of finding the right windows to complement the adjacent original windows that I’m keeping, and then ordering said windows, and then bringing them home…it was time to actually start doing stuff. I enlisted the help of my contractor/neighbor/best buddy, Edwin, and we Got. To. Werk.

I think I spent so much time thinking about how to tackle the exterior that I didn’t totally consider the havoc all of this would wreak on the interior of my house. And hollllyyyyy shit. I’m used to tackling most things myself and have never paid for help with demolition on my own house, so the pace with which things have proceeded is a little alarming! It feels good and bad at the same time, and very weird to have this level of destruction three years into living in what I’d come to regard as a fairly comfortable home. It’s a lot to go down within the space of a week or so.

This whole project involves a lot of spaces that I was fairly successfully using as functional rooms. Moving from the back to the front of the house:

  1. The kitchen: remove doorway to solarium-thing, add two windows on that wall.
  2. “Middle bedroom”: remove the bumped-out bay window and replace it with a single window flush with the original exterior wall of the house.
  3. Dining room: restore the missing third side of the bay window and remove the old awkward addition currently extending from it.
  4. My bedroom: add a window where there was once a “false” window.

Want to see how stuff is looking? Let’s start in my kitchen. Well. Used-to-be-my-kitchen.

originalkitchen

This was my kitchen when I bought the house. Yikes! Apparently I never took a photo from this angle again because that doorway out to the solarium-turned-weird-enclosed-skinny-long-leaky-space-thing soon got covered with a ugly curtain and then a big sheet of unfinished drywall in an attempt to insulate the kitchen a little from the frigid solarium-turned-weird-enclosed-skinny-long-leaky-space-thing in the winter. You’ll have to imagine how pretty that was.

fridgewallafter

Then I did kind of a slapdash renovation of the kitchen that you may or may not recall, which was really just a way to make this kitchen cute and functional for a few years. I tried to do everything SUPER cheap and low-impact until a bigger overhaul down the line, since neither the layout nor the finishes in this kitchen were anything worth keeping in the long haul.

It was a pretty good kitchen. It did the job. Whatever. I ain’t crying over it.

kitchendemo1

Then this whole side-of-house restoration plan started getting really real really fast, and part of that involves removing this doorway and placing two new windows on this wall. Remember, the windows will be on the exterior wall of the house because that addition beyond the doorway is going away! So out came the casing and old door jamb with that cute transom window, and down to the basement it all went because I don’t throw shit like that away.

That aspirational box of Swiffer pads. Sigh.

kitchendemo2

One window is going sort of in the region above that radiator, but the other one falls on the wall that divides the kitchen and the pantry, which is what the cabinets in this picture and the fridge are sitting on. The pantry space was at one time a secondary stairwell, converted in the 1930s to two closets (one in the kitchen, one in the dining room), then converted to a single long skinny space for a pantry off the kitchen by me…but the plan has always been to just lose the wall entirely and use the space to create a bigger, better, totally rearranged kitchen that I will never touch again. Until I do.

kitchendemo3

Bye-bye, cabinets. Scoot over, fridge.

pantrybefore

Speaking of the pantry, hello pantry! Good bye, pantry! You’re dead to me.

pantrydemo

That was a pretty great pantry. Don’t worry guys, I’ll make another better pantry. We had a nice 18 months, that pantry and I.

kitchendemo4

Bye bye, wall. Bye bye, sloped part of the ceiling where the stairs used to be. Bye bye, kitchen ceiling (two layers of drywall over furring strips over a very damaged original plaster ceiling).

kitchendemo7

CAN YOU SEE IT NOW? Good lord. What have I done to my life.

kitchendemo8

I know it’s not so easy to tell from photos, but losing that wall and getting a bigger kitchen is going to make a HUGE difference. I think I’m gaining less than three feet, but they’re an important three feet. Trust.

kitchendemo5

Like all of the other walls, this one is filled with brick and mortar insulation that I’ve been removing as I work my way around the house to replace with new insulation. It’s a big heavy dusty hassle but it really does seem like the best thing for the house long term.

kitchendemo6

Annnndddd, window! Hello, window! Welcome to my mess.

kitchenwindows

Anddddddd, second window! Hello, second window! Looking good, guys. I’m having a hard time even imagining how much light the kitchen is going to get once the addition comes down, but I think it’s going to be mildly heavenly even amongst the destruction.

So the NEW kitchen will have a stove situated between these windows with counterspace on either side, maybe a sink somewhere in there…I have a plan, I swear. In the short-term, I’ll just put the old cabinets back and live with some kind of janky-ass mess wherein I can still prepare a semi-decent meal. It’ll be great. Don’t worry. I got this.

By the way, the reason the windows aren’t centered on the wall is that I’m trying to make the existing dormer in the room above this look right, so this is where these landed. If you take the space between these new windows and draw a line up the center, you’ll find yourself at the center of that dormer. I think (hope! pray!) that it all looks natural and not weird, but it’s very hard to judge with the addition still hanging off the side of the house and throwing everything off! Here’s hoping, because now it’s done and I’d like to not redo it.

Also! YES, those are original studs now serving as king and jack studs for the new windows—the only new stuff are the headers (they didn’t believe in headers in the mid-1800s…if you wanted a window, you cut a hole!). I know the old wood looks all messed up and rotty but I swear…run it through a planer once and it looks better than brand new. I consider my framing lumber both beautiful and time-tested, so I like to put it right back where it belongs! Even if it’d probably make a sick coffee table or bench.

mekko

From the exterior, we’ve now gone from this, above…

windowframe

To this…

demo1

To this…

kitchenwindowsexteriorview

To this!

Don’t fear, all of that original clapboard was carefully removed, de-nailed, run through a planer, ripped on a table saw, sanded, bad ends cut off, primed on both sides, and I’m in the process of putting it all back up! It’s sort of a process but it’s always so worth it to me when I’m able to reuse as much original material as possible—you really can’t buy this stuff new, it saves a ton of money, and it’s what belongs on the house. Can’t beat that!

I’ve adjusted the process a bit from when I did this to the back of my house last year, including priming the clapboard before putting it up and adding sheathing and weatherwrap between the studs and the siding. The sheathing is a little deceptive—typically you’d use 1/2″ plywood or OSB but I didn’t want to mess with trying to extend the original window casings/sills (which are nailed right to the studs, along with the original clapboard) to compensate for the thickness of sheathing, so I’m using thin 1/4″ ply instead. We also added blocking between the studs which is required by modern code for spans over 8 feet, which should help keep things nice and rigid for years and years to come.

Onward!

Restoring the Side of My House!

Please excuse me if I’m a little overly excited in this post, but it’s only because I’m actually overly excited about some crazy stuff going on at my house. You might have noticed that it’s been a little while since I’ve posted about my own house, which is really just a reflection of nothing too exciting going on there. I finally primed the walls and ceiling in my hallway? I did some stuff in the backyard? I…got a dishwasher? My life has pretty much been Olivebridge Cottage 24/7 (slew of posts about that forthcoming), but after wrapping up restoring the back elevation of my house back in December, the renovation progress has more or less stalled.

WELL. I AM BACK IN ACTION AND IT FEELS SO RIGHT. Here’s what’s going down.

Side1

Here’s a picture of the side of my house in all its glory. My house is on a street corner, so arguably this is actually the most visible side, since the other side is more obscured by other houses and trees and stuff, and you don’t see the front unless you’re, well, in front of the house, give or take a hundred feet or so.

It’s pretty bad, right? Clearly I have what borders on an unhealthy affection for my house, but this side is a damn mess. What’s supposed to be all elegant neoclassical architecture is a vinyl-siding-clad imbalanced mishmash of weirdness that I have been scheming of a way to take care of for over three years. Things were improved quite a bit with the elimination of the “mudroom” addition on the back of the house, but that didn’t do anything to address the rest of what’s going on here.

house-then

Taking a trip back in time, here is the sole, prized photo I have of my house from 1950. As you can see, things were a little different back then. The house was about 85 years young, and looking a lot better than it does now. That part that sticks out on the side on the first floor is a long, narrow space that was almost entirely windows…I suppose sort of my house’s version of a solarium! I originally thought this was at one time an open-air porch and fleetingly thought I’d restore it as such, but I’m 99.9% positive that this is how it looked when it was originally built.

And that bump-out bay window on the second floor! It was pretty in its day, and I’m sure a fun feature to have inside the house. It had two big two-over-two double-hung windows on either side, and two smaller one-over-one windows facing the street.

side2

Even back then I can’t say I think it looks particularly right, but it sure is more attractive than it is today! The windows on the sides were lost at some point, with the openings covered over with plywood and the whole thing wrapped in vinyl siding and…now it looks like a tumor. I feel similarly about the long former-solarium—with all that glass replaced by those three crappy vinyl windows at some point, it’s just a sad sagging thing tacked onto the side of an otherwise pretty good-looking house…if I do say so myself.

bayinside

Inside, things are similarly awkward. This bay window is in my dining room, and I think it’s more or less without question that there was a third window where that door is when this thing was built. I actually think the bay window was itself an early addition, onto which the solarium was later added, and then the bump-out upstairs added at some point after that. The doorway appears to have been added in the 1930s, based on the framing and wall material (which is this wood composite garbage stuff called beaverboard).

The side-porch-solarium-thing has been a real concern of mine since buying the house. Unlike the robust bluestone foundation of the rest of the house, this thing sits on a few cinderblock piers that appear to have pushed themselves outwards over the years. If you return to the first photo in this post, you can see a pretty significant sag in the roofline of the solarium, which seems to be partially an effect of rot and partially an effect of the way those three shitty windows were framed and installed. The header that spans that length of this thing is very old, very rotted, and lacking almost any support…that’s not good! It seems to have sagged more since I bought the house, too, but that could just be my imagination.

The bump-out above, of course, is resting entirely on the top of this thing, which is also not good. Putting a really heavy part of a house on top of something with barely enough structural support already is probably not the safest thing. It’s all mildly horrifying.

You might see where I’m going with this. The dining room bay window is solid and old and beautiful, but the rest of it? Trying to fix this stuff would essentially mean rebuilding it, and then…what? That’s a lot of major expense to try to salvage some non-original features that I’m not hugely fond of to begin with, you know? Emphasis on the “non-original” part. That’s what I have to keep reminding myself, because the solarium-ish and the bump-out are old. Just not original to the house. I feel a lot of weird guilt about not being able to restore this stuff to how it looked when it was built, but then I remember that restoring the house is much more important to me and I feel a bit better.

Still, it’s a sticky subject! How do you decide how to handle stuff that’s really old but not original? I’m guessing a lot of owners of old homes have crossed this bridge a few times. For example, my house has beautiful fir hardwood flooring that was probably installed in the 1930s. Do I tear it all out to reveal the original wide-plank pine subfloor? I’d say no, but only because I prefer living with the smoother and tougher “upgraded” flooring. And sometimes I justify decisions like this with thinking that changes like that are also part of the history of the house in their own right, and perhaps that’s reason enough to maintain them. And, admittedly, these non-original additions do have their place in both the history of the house and the trajectory of local architecture. According to the Architectural History and Guide of Kingston:

August 7, 1874: The Daily Freeman describes “a new architectural fancy,” the “rage uptown” for bay windows. “No man of property can consider himself in style unless a bay window has been added to the house.” Upper-story bay windows were said to be especially fashionable as a sign of wealth, and looked well when “studded with flowers” or, even better, “an attractive lady.”

The only thing that makes sense to me is dealing with everything on a case-by-case basis. If this stuff were in better condition and more practical to salvage, or original to the house, I’d restore them. But that’s not the case, and the alternative of restoring this elevation of the house to a closer resemblance of its original architectural intent is hardly a bad thing, either.

Side1

So see if you can follow. This is the plan.

Look at those first two windows on the far left. That’s what things are supposed to look like. Slightly bigger window on the first floor, aligned center with a slightly smaller window on the second floor. The sizing is significant, since placing smaller windows on the second floor was meant to make the house look taller and bigger. Greek revival loves drama, and if my house looks enormous, that’s by design. It’s a little over 2,000 square feet, so nothing to shake a stick at, but it’s hardly the mansion it looks like!

Moving toward the back: in the 1950 photo, the house had two false windows next to these windows at the front corner, which I LOVE! It just tickles me! They look like regular windows that are shuttered closed, but they’re purely decorative and there is nothing behind those shutters. This is actually pretty common around here, but somewhat rare to see intact. I want to restore that, but I might actually make the second floor one into a real window and just do the shutter trick downstairs.

The bay window on the first floor stays, and has its third side restored with another window. Trying to match and replicate all of that woodwork is going to be a big task (inside and out!), but I’m kind of excited for the challenge!

Remember, to the right of the bay window on the first floor, there’s that other dining room window that faces out to the solarium thing. The solarium thing is demolished, and that window is an exterior window again. My dining room will get so much more light!

Aligned center above that window where the bump-out currently is goes a new 6-over-6 double hung, matched in size to the adjacent windows on the second floor. The cornice gets patched back in (hopefully just reusing everything I can from the parts that are coming down), the vinyl is removed, the siding (hopefully all salvaged) gets re-installed, this house gets painted…BOOM. If I have any money remaining, which is unlikely, I’d dieeeeeeeeeeee to outfit all my windows with shutters, but that part might have to wait. Doing shutters the right way is a pretty spendy endeavor.

On the far right, on the first floor under the dormer, I’d like to add two windows in my kitchen. Which means my kitchen is about to get kind of destroyed. Oops! But I kind of feel like…let’s just tear the bandaid off and get it done. My kitchen was never meant to last forever, and I really don’t feel all that precious about it.

I don’t like that second floor dormer above the kitchen, but I don’t really know what to do about it. I’d still like windows in that room, but potentially the dormer could be reconfigured. I just feel like the scale/location/shed roof on it is all wrong. Anyone have any ideas?

ANYWAY. Cool. Let’s do this thing!

When I bought the house, that door in the bay window led to a very small triangular closet, which was separated from the rest of the space with a slim wall (just some lengths of beadboard tacked to a couple horizontal supports on the floor and ceiling), which you see below. The beadboard was then covered in wood paneling—that cheap 70s kind, nothing nice.

interior1

The rest of the space was accessible from the kitchen and looked like this! I started tearing layers out of this space so long ago that I actually forgot what it looked like until I was editing photos for this post. There was a drop ceiling, wood paneling, linoleum floor, some very moldy drywall on the window wall due to the very leaky roof…blech!

BUT! Notice how there’s a window back there, on the right side? That’s the other window in my dining room, which was very clearly at one point a window that looked outside. The thing that was remarkable about this window, though, is that its trim was never covered with the vinyl/aluminum combo that’s on the rest of the house, so I have a well-preserved example of the original sill size and casings and stuff to model everything else after.

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At some point I got pry-bar happy and took down the wood paneling, and was delighted to find the original clapboard below in excellent condition. If only the whole house was like that!

dogs

I had the realllllly long baseboard radiator removed during the great radiator shuffle. Shortly thereafter, I removed the layers of flooring. This linoleum was stuck to plywood, which was attached to a bunch of shims to level out the floor. Below that was the original tongue-and-groove, which rakes downward toward the street.

windowframe

Check it out! At the other end of the solarium, there was another window! I actually think it’s possible that this window was moved here from the side of the bay window and re-installed here. The sashes and parts of the frame are long gone, but you can see how it looked at one time.

Notice the brick-filled wall cavities, too—my whole house is basically like that! Broken, defective, and weak bricks and mortar were used as an early form of insulation and pest-proofing, called nogging. It has an R-value of less than 1 and is not structural, so I’m removing it piecemeal as I work my way around the house and replacing it with modern insulation that will hopefully help increase my energy efficiency. Removing nogging is an extremely dusty and heavy pain in the ass, but I think it’s the right thing to do.

interior2

I also removed the drywall on the street-facing window wall, which was moldy and yucky, and this is pretty much how things sat for a couple years! UNTIL NOW!

demo4

The other night, I started tackling more of the demo again! I always try to demo slowly and deliberately, saving anything I can—especially stuff like moldings that are much easier to reuse than try to replicate!

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By the next morning, I had this!

demo01

I took up the old floor board-by-board (to reuse for what, I have no idea!), and underneath was surprised to discover…a 4″ thick or so layer of mortar! OOF. This is when my main squeeze Edwin started working with me, and we shoveled it out and hauled it out of the house bucket by bucket. Super fun, as you can imagine.

foundation

Underneath the layer of mortar were these really wide boards attached to the joists. It’s interesting that the joists run from side to side instead of back-to-front…those are some REALLY long joists! We had to cut them in half just to get them out, but the old wood is so pretty that I’m determined to do something with them.

Here you can kind of see the foundation below. Told ya, just a couple of cinderblocks! I wonder if they have footings or anything. We’ll soon find out!

demo1

Demo, demo, and more demo! It’s so crazy how much material went into these houses. This is part of why demolishing old houses is such a tragedy—the sheer volume of stuff that ends up in a landfill is almost unimaginable, which is another reason I try to salvage as much as possible. Renovations always generate enough waste as it is!

demo2

With the floor, the mortar, the subfloor, and the joists removed, we have….the original exterior wall of my house, looking pretty damn good! The rim joist is enormous and in excellent condition, and the foundation is in amazing shape from being protected all these years! And look at the basement window! Light comes in through it now!

Oh, and what’s that back there? A window? A NEW WINDOW? I have so much to share about window shopping that it’s gonna have to be another post, but I can happily report that I think I’ve found a very good solution for matching 150 year old original windows with new, if you’re in a similar predicament. I’m totally opposed to replacing my original windows for a number of reasons, but trying to find a decent match was no easy feat!

SO ANYWAY! This week, my house feels like it is getting torn to shreds, and the copious amounts of dust and disorder that I haven’t experienced since demo’ing a couple plaster ceilings a few years ago is back with a vengeance.

I couldn’t be happier about it. Progress once again. Feels good.

Blogger is Hired to Renovate, Mistakenly Destroys Ulster County Art Piece ‘House’

The following is a semi-fictional newspaper article that I wrote because it seemed more fun than whining about this project for another post:

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When first-time home-buyers Adriana and Barry stumbled upon the real estate listing for a quaint 1,100 square foot cottage in the small Catskills hamlet of Olivebridge, they knew they’d found something special. An unassuming home surrounded mainly by woods and monolithic rock formations, it was clear that the house itself was in need of a few minor tweaks. Like so many homeowners in today’s market, they were prepared to embark on a small renovation to bring the house into line with their personal tastes.

“We knew what we wanted, and this house checked almost all of the boxes,” Adriana, an entrepreneur based in Manhattan, recalled. “All it really needed was a new kitchen and a few cosmetic upgrades.” They hired then-25 year-old blogger of the home-improvement focused blog, Manhattan Nest (manhattan-nest.com) to design, execute, and document the renovation for them. They gave him 8 weeks to complete the project.

Two months later, the couple found themselves spiraling deeper and deeper into a renovation boasting a size and scope that they never imagined.

“It was shocking,” Barry explained. “Every professional who walked through the house literally stood there and said to us ‘this is the worst house we’ve ever seen—period.’ That was devastating. We had no idea what to do.”

It’s a story most of us have heard before, told and re-told on television shows like Holmes on Homes and the 1986 modern classic, The Money Pit. But this story varies from that narrative thanks to one subtle but essential detail: this home was actually the product of an installation art piece entitled House, a project that has been decades-long in the making.

“I thought they understood that they were part of the piece,” explained the artist and previous owner of the structure, who agreed to be interviewed on the condition of anonymity. “You work on a single piece for over 20 years, and you’re just happy that somebody is able to really see the value in it when all is said and done.”

The concept for House was inspired by the ugliness and instability that often lies beneath attractive and robust appearances, according to the artist. “There are monsters inside every one of us, whether we choose to see them or not. I wanted to explore that in a domestic setting. All around America we have these nice little houses masking unspeakable evil,” he noted. “A lot of it had to do with the Reagan economy, too. Twenty or twenty-five years ago, we were all sitting around asking ourselves how anything could survive after such a sustained attack on our values and beliefs. I thought—hey, if I can give form to these feelings and anxieties with my art, maybe it’ll all serve a purpose.”

And so he went about doing just that: first purchasing the modest cottage in Olivebridge, about 2 hours north of Manhattan.

“The idea with the renovation was to kind of make it up as I went along,” he explained. It wasn’t such an easy proposition. “You have to understand,” the artist recalled, “I know how to do things more or less the ‘right’ way, but that’s not what this piece was ever about. This was about knowingly doing the wrong thing, and trying to make it seem like the right thing. You essentially had to pretend that you’d never seen a house before, or at least anything below the surface. You had to pretend that you yourself were a person who was pretending to know how to do things. Pretend that you were pretending that you didn’t know what a mess you were making of it. There were a lot of layers.”

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“House,” undergoing renovation in the spring of 2015

And make a mess he did, at least by the standards of conventional building practices rather than art. “I started thinking, hey—what if I pretended like I didn’t know what nails were? What if I pretended like doors and windows could just go anywhere I wanted, regardless of the structural requirements of a building? What if I did the electrical and insulation and plumbing so that most of it would work for a while, but not for the long haul? It was important that the piece be an implicit reminder that anything can come crashing down around you at any moment. It really took off from there.”

It wasn’t always simple, or fast. “If it had just been modifying the building, the piece would have been completed in a year or two. But that wasn’t enough. We had to see how an idea like this would develop over time. We had to keep messing around with it,” the artist noted. “One year we released a colony of termites on House, and the next year we upped our ante and unleashed ten or twenty mice on the place and just let them do their thing.” It wasn’t long after that chipmunks and squirrels were also introduced to House, which was already experiencing a colonization of a different sort. “We didn’t even plan for the rot and mold,” the artist explained, “but we were overjoyed when it started appearing. We thought, hey, this is great. House is doing exactly what it should be doing. Sometimes as an artist, you don’t always get to control exactly the direction a piece will take, so it’s always terrific when it turns out even better than you imagined. It means you’re doing your job well.”

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The “Squirrel Hotel,” undergoing renovation.

Often this took the form of experimentation. The side elevation of the building, for instance, sported a wall constructed roughly one foot from the true exterior wall of the structure, allowing for something several neighbors termed a “squirrel hotel.”

“We just kept adding layers to it,” the artist explained. “We wanted to know what would happen.”

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The “Squirrel Hotel” under renovation.

“I built the whole thing with 2×4 pressure-treated lumber and steel L-brackets,” the artist revealed. “I like L-brackets because they aren’t really suited to the task, but they work. We knew they would rust. That was all part of it.”

Occasionally, keeping up with the organic development of House was a difficult task. “For the piece to succeed, it still had to look like a normal house,” the artist recalled. “So when things started to show outward signs of deterioration, we were quick to cover them up with whatever we had around. Bondo, a wood shim, a piece of masonite. Figuring out how to keep up appearances was half the project.”

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When squirrels gnawed through the wood encasing a live electrical box, the artist was unfazed. “All you need is a little creativity,” he explained. Here, a bit of steel wool from the supermarket and a few wood shims made everything look like new. 

“The squirrels honestly performed better than we expected. We thought they’d want to leave. Instead they stuck around and really took things to the next level,” the artist recalled.

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The interior of the “Squirrel Hotel,” after several years of habitation. “It was a real gamble whether they’d just gnaw some wood,” the artist recalled. “but they had their way with insulation and electric, too. It was amazing hearing them go to work and wondering ‘what are they doing back there?'”

But all good things must come to an end. “It felt like we’d taken the piece as far as we could take it, and it was time to bring House to market,” the artist continued. “That’s always a gamble in this industry because you don’t know how the public will react. When Adriana and Barry walked through the door, though, you could tell that they really understood House in a way that some other buyers and critics just didn’t. They placed an offer shortly thereafter and we went through the whole charade. The offer, the contract, the mortgage, the inspection. It really felt like they were buying a house when they bought House. They were so convincing that I thought to myself ‘is this real?’ Most art buyers are snobs with too much money to blow, but Adriana and Barry aren’t like that. They really got it. They really loved it. I was overwhelmed by their reception of my work.”

It wasn’t until Kanter started his renovation of the property, however, that the attention to detail applied to House became clear. “I’d never seen anything like it, even on TV,” he recalled in a phone interview from Kingston Hospital, where he is currently being kept in isolation while battling Hantavirus, an illness spread mainly by the inhalation of mouse droppings that affects the respiratory system. “It’s truly remarkable to see so many things wrong within a single structure. It made me wonder ‘what the hell have I walked into?’ because it really seemed like a pretty normal house.”

Still, Kanter is a supporter of the arts. “People who work in creative industries are often misunderstood. Look at Andy Warhol. Look at Picasso. Just because I didn’t immediately ‘get it’ doesn’t make it bad art,” he noted. “In fact, maybe that makes it even more compelling.”

Not that the job hasn’t taken its toll. “We had no idea we were going to find something with this many problems,” Kanter explained. “It’s a terrible feeling having to communicate that to clients. It starts to feel like you’re doing something very wrong, like the disaster in front of you is all your fault even when you know it isn’t. It messes with your brain. You just want to fix something, and when you can’t, it’s incredibly frustrating. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt worse about anything in my life than I do about the course of this project, and I didn’t even build House.”

Adriana and Barry, Kanter’s now long-suffering clients, have a somewhat different set of concerns. “I wish we could go back in time,” Adriana explained. “I had to convince Barry to buy House but neither of us realized that it was essentially unlivable.”

“We love art,” Barry added, “but we just wish the habitability of House had been more clear. We get that’s what makes the piece work, but it would have been nice to get a backstage pass so someone could say, hey, here are all the ways that House could kill you, and are you sure you really want to do this? We might have thought twice if that happened. We want our money back. We’re thinking about knocking it down, because we aren’t sure what can be done to allow House to survive as an installation but also provide what we were hoping to get out of it in terms of being a place to live.”

Adriana’s view is a bit more nuanced. “Knocking it down isn’t an option. Daniel [Kanter] has suggested it, a few contractors too, but I love House. So we need to find some kind of solution that works for everyone.”

What exactly that looks like remains to be seen. After the renovation began, it quickly became obvious that the necessary repairs were well outside the scope of the original building permit that Kanter applied for with the local department of buildings. “I was calling them constantly,” Mr. Kanter recalled, “saying ‘hey, Judy, it’s me again—we have to rebuild another structural wall. Do you need me to stop so that the inspector can come take a look?’ And they always told me to just keep going and call back when we were ready for our framing inspection. So that’s what we were trying to do.”

When inspector John Armstrong did eventually show up, at the urging of both Kanter and the homeowners to inspect whether the house’s wood stove could be safely re-installed, he changed his tune. “It was like nothing I imagined. I was speechless. I’ve been doing this a lot of years, and I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Armstrong, who was previously unaware of the development of House over the years, did not issue a stop-work order. “These guys were doing their best, and they certainly weren’t making things worse,” Armstrong explained. “I told them they needed to have engineers draft some plans though, because even I had no idea how to fix such a disaster. I don’t care if it’s art. It’s not responsible to let people live with so many hazards around, because they might not end up living very long.”

“I found a local engineering firm the very same day,” Kanter recalled. “I walked in the front door covered in all sorts of demolition debris and asked if there was anyone I could talk to. They looked at me like I had three heads, but they had someone out to House later that week to do an initial consult and go over the problem areas with me. We figured out what parts of House clearly needed to be eliminated so that we could still use our time efficiently while the engineers work on the plans.”

Kanter and the owners hired the firm roughly two months ago to provide a roadmap of the necessary repairs that would allow House to exist as both an art piece an a legally-habitable dwelling, but the journey is a difficult one to charter.

“Typically we’d recommend just leveling the thing and starting over,” said Stephen Davis, one of the engineers working on the project. “But House is different and we get that. That’s why we’re trying to fix it while still being sensitive to the ethos of the piece. We’re thinking of it like when the Met brings in someone to repair a painting. Even the best art needs maintenance every now and then.”

“Still,” Mr. Davis noted, “we’ve evaluated houses out on Cape Cod that were literally resting on a few 4×4 posts sitting precariously on top of a small piece of flagstone. House still takes the cake. We have our work cut out for us.”

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There was still plenty of work to do, however. “The porch just had to go, obviously,” Davis noted, referring to a street-facing addition that was once a porch, then enclosed and given over to the small living room. “The structure was a disaster, and there was no sense in trying to salvage anything except the windows and some of the framing that could potentially be reused.”

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“At this point,” Kanter explained, “we’ve demolished as much as we really can without knowing exactly what the next steps are. I’m hopeful that the engineers can turn their plans around quickly, and we can hit the ground running as soon as we get them. But right now, all we can do is wait.”

“We’re hoping to have answers to them next week or the one after,” Davis said about the progression of the plans. “Trying to fix House is a complicated task requiring a lot of special attention and creative thinking. They’re just going to have to be patient while we do our work, and then they can decide how they’d like to proceed. We’re talking about serious problems here with trying to make this art piece livable…you’re trying to do just enough to fix bad roofs, bad walls, bad foundations, bad electrical work, lack of insulation, plumbing that’s far from code-compliant. It might end up being that it’s just not worth it, as interesting or cool as House is to the owners.”

Everyone involved in the project, including the owners, are looking for creative solutions. Adriana and Barry have considered everything from placing a converted shipping container elsewhere on the property, so that House could be appreciated from a reasonably safe distance, to purchasing a home adjacent to House and connecting the two with something like an enclosed bridge.

“We’re exploring our options,” Adriana explained. “Nothing is off the table right now. We want a house, but we also want House. It’s a fine line. But I’m confident we’ll figure it out.”

Concerning his continued involvement in the project, Kanter said that while it would have to depend on the recommendations provided by Davis and his team, his mind is mostly made up. “Listen, I’m basically a blogger with a small amount of renovation experience. I know when I’m in over my head, and I’m in over my head.” Kanter said, indicating that he would likely pass the next phase of the project off to a qualified builder, and perhaps return to decorate when House receives its certificate of occupancy, whenever that is. “I just don’t have the experience behind me to even build a house under normal circumstances,” he went on. “Now I’m basically supposed to build one in reverse.”

The owners have something else in mind, however. “We don’t want to start over with a whole new contractor who we don’t know and a whole crew we don’t trust,” Adriana explained. “The first part of this project has been rocky, but we feel strongly that Daniel stay with us while we see this through to completion. He can do it.”

As for the artist, he claimed to be “just fine” with whatever the owners of his work decide to do next. “I poured my heart and soul into this piece for over 20 years, and then I got paid handsomely for it,” he said. “What more could an artist ask for?”

Diary Time!

Day 31: Worked on demoing living room ceiling and exterior. Got all tongue and groove removed from front elevation and most of door side. Deconstructed squirrel hotel. Horrors. Window purchase for kitchen approved, will pick up Wednesday.

Day 32: Worked on exterior demo and loaded truck for dump. Demo complete on front, side with door (almost), and exterior of shared wall between kitchen and living room section. Must remove shiplap and dining room wall tomorrow and pick up kitchen window for installation on Monday. Set appointment with Central Hudson to remove meter pan in order to reframe wall.

Day 33: Dump run. Picked up window at Door Jamb. Continued exterior demo/de-nailing old siding, site clean up. Met previous owner, omg.

Day 34: Consulted with Edwin on plan for tomorrow and supplied shopping list. Researched wood stove clearance requirements.

Day 35: Loaded truck for dump. Met with building inspector re: wood stove. He wants engineer renderings and specs for new work. Went to dump, came back, and worked on clean-up from Edgar/Francisco demo in living room. More exterior demo.

Day 36: Edgar and I worked on reframing front door wall, exterior demo, interior demo. Went to engineers to discuss project.

Day 37: Demo and site clean up. Horrible day. Left early. Low point. Exhausted.

Day 38: Site clean up, exterior demo, met with Ed from excavating company and engineer. He will speak to building inspector and be in touch in a couple days with proposal to get the ball rolling.

Day 39: Site cleanup, constructing temporary wall in living room.

Day 40: Meeting with Adriana and Barry at job site.

Day 41:  Meeting with engineer. Relayed info back to Adriana and Barry.

Day 42: Major site clean-up to prep for engineer meeting at site.

Day 43: Edgar and Francisco demo’d front porch.

Day 44: Edgar framed in new kitchen window.  Francisco worked on tearing off remaining asphalt siding. I hauled stuff to dump. Scheduled engineers to meet tomorrow.

Day 45: Met with engineers to evaluate house. Yikes, yikes. Plan that they will submit brings things up to/close to code…underpinning foundations, new ceiling structures, foundations, collar ties, floor systems, everything. Long, long road ahead, goddamnit. Will likely have to gut more of house, almost all of it. Also went in crawlspace under hall/bed/bath and joists are dripping with condensation…not good.

Olivebridge Cottage: From Bad to Worse (and Worse and Worse and Worse)

Have you mentally recovered from the last post about Olivebridge Cottage yet? If you thought things could only go up from there, I hate to tell you that you are so sorely mistaken because this house is the worst. Happy Wednesday!

So far, we have a host of structural issues ranging from somewhat serious to super duper serious (try not to get lost in my jargon), evidence of multiple infestations that wreaked havoc not only on structure but also electrical and insulation, code violations for days, severe mold problems, one very ugly and increasingly torn apart house, two blindsided homeowners, and one grumpy and dejected blogger guy who was me.

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Where we left off, we knew we were looking at reframing this entire wall, the bottom of which was completely rotted after sitting under an improperly installed deck thing for years. Those two tall narrow windows are in the bedroom, and over to the left (mostly out of frame) there’s a third one that’s part of the full bath.

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We also knew we had to reframe this adjacent wall, which had similar rot issues due to the deck. I guess it looks almost OK from the outside, but the sill plate was completely rotted and most of the studs were compromised as well, to say nothing of the under-sized header creating the rough opening for the sliders and the foundation being entirely below the ground and everything just being a total fucking mess.

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Lemons, meet lemonade? Since this bedroom wall also had its own host of issues, I proposed that while we were doing all this framing work, maybe we should steal the sliders and put them in the bedroom, and then steal these windows and put them in the dining room, and then steal some other windows to take the place of those two tall skinny ones in the first picture, because they were dumb and nobody liked them anyway. Musical windows. The homeowners did not want to try to recreate the little deck thing outside of the dining area and we all agreed that the space remaining there was a gross mosquito-ridden cesspool anyway, so waking up and being able to open your nice big sliders and walk out onto a nice big platform deck outside the bedroom seemed more appealing.

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So that is what we did. It was kind of exciting even in the midst of all these other things that were really not exciting.

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

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Ahhh, nothing like a brand new pressure-treated sill plate, properly anchored to a CMU foundation, amiright? Just say yes. In bleak times like this you take what you can get in terms of excitement and reason to carry on.

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The new-old window from the bedroom actually worked VERY well in the dining room. Centering it on the wall looked a billion times better than the off-center sliders, and it framed the view of that postmodern toilet sculpture really beautifully.

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Framed, almost sheathed, almost back in business. See how the bottom plate of the wall is just peeking up over the dirt, though? That’s not good. By code you should have at least 8″ of foundation above grade, so this area will need some excavation and some way to redirect water away from it, because otherwise it all flows down here and causes the house to rot to pieces. Ask me how I know.

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Love when a whole wall is torn off a house. It looks like a dollhouse? Like a dollhouse from hell? So we sistered in a new pressure-treated sill plate, took out the old framing, and framed it in for the huge sliders. Fun fun fun fun fun.

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

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Then we moved on to the really bad wall. Shudder. Same story, different day, some creative framing work I don’t even want to remember.

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We stole the old kitchen window and two smaller windows from the front enclosed porch, which are different styles but the same height and look fine together. Between the new sliders and these new windows, the little bedroom got a nice big upgrade in terms of views, light, and how furniture can be arranged…so that was good? The roof was so crazy sloped in here—look at that piece of wood between the header and the top plate! Oy. To distract from it, I thought maybe we’d use vertical beadboard in this room, up until about 8″ from the ceiling and drywall the rest of the wall up. That way the molding that finished off the top of the beadboard would be a straight line and the rest would read as “character.” Not ideal, but there’s only so much you can do when working with parts of an existing structure.

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Better? I like it a lot better.

OK, I’m out of good news. Hope you rejoiced in that bright moment of kind-of-almost-progress.

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Back in the living room, remember this mess? We’d already figured out that we had to redo the roof over the enclosed porch, and we also knew that the posts supporting what was originally an exterior wall of the house weren’t sufficient—basically everything you see here was a big structural mess. Demo continued to go along swimmingly:

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Look at how these stairs are built. Drywall screws, 2x4s, and a prayer. WHY. It’s not like this is even such a problem so much as it’s just incredibly weird and annoying and very evident that whoever did this work was even dumber than me.

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Naturally, underneath the stairs things looked like this. I’m not even going to list all the things that are wrong because everything is wrong.

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Here’s what’s on the other side of the shower wall in the bathroom! Is it even worth explaining? Or trying to understand? There are some original 2×4 studs supplemented with some 2×3 studs, some of which are attached to some other wood but some of which are kind of just floating and then used as nailers to screw very heavy cement board to which is holding up hundreds of pounds of tile and thinset and grout. All manner of creature had been hiding out around the tub, evidently, because they left the nests to prove it.

OH YEAH AND A CARCASS. What is it with me and houses that have dead bodies near bathtubs? On the bright side, this corpse was a squirrel but on the not-bright side, I had to find it this time. I’ll spare you the photographic evidence.

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

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Or catch on fire.

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

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Then it got worse, because it wasn’t super apparent until I pulled up the carpeting that the living room floor was sagging really severely in the middle. Like, a few inches over only a 12′ span! Not only did it look horrible, but it would also make laying new flooring (which at the time was supposed to be an engineered hardwood) sort of impossible. Something told me (can’t imagine what!) that this was probably due to some other awful underlying cause that nobody had noticed, because in this house where there’s smoke, there’s fire. It’s always worst case scenario at Olivebridge Cottage.

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At first glance, the condition of these joists seemed kind of alright! The sill plate looked to be fairly new pressure-treated lumber and the joists were too.

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Then I looked closer. Yikes! That’s the end of an original joist, totally destroyed by what I assume were termites. But that’s not that big of a deal, because look!! Somebody already sistered in new joists. IS SOMETHING HERE ACTUALLY…KIND OF OK?!?!

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Don’t get crazy, of course it isn’t. Whoever made this repair evidently decided only sistering in a few of the joists was worth the effort, leaving most of them still super rotted and failing. If the major sag in the floor had been from normal settling and just a funny quirk of this house, it would have been OK, but this is really the result of this floor system no longer being up to the task of, ya know, supporting weight and stuff. Kind of important.

Oh, and upon closer investigation? Those joists that were “sistered in”? ONLY SPANNED HALF THE ROOM. To do it properly and actually reinforce the old joists, the new joists would have had to span the length of the entire joist—from sill to sill. I guess conceivably it might be OK to terminate the sistered joist halfway, but then I think you’d need some kind of beam running perpendicularly underneath to support everything…I’m no engineer but any idiot can tell that this is SO JACKED UP OMG GET ME OUT OF HERE

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Because the crawlspace has only a few inches of clearance between the ground and the joists, the only way to get at the joists was to pull up the subfloor. You can kind of make out in this picture how the sistered-in joists aren’t really doing what they’re supposed to do…maybe because they’re roughly 5 feet long on a 13 foot span.

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Because we were now looking at a new roof for the enclosed porch part of the living room, new wiring, new insulation, new joists—basically new everything—at some point in there it seemed to make much more sense to take the opportunity to change the house in more visible, valuable ways than just trying to rebuild a heartier version of what was there. The living room itself was really small, with a huge hearth, doors, stairs, and openings on every wall, which made it a huge design challenge from the get-go. Like, where am I supposed to put a couch in this room where it won’t either block something or look horrible? I never really found the answer, because the new plan became to rip down the enclosed porch roof and half of the living room roof, pocket a new structural beam up to the ridge, and run new rafters down the front elevation to match the pitch of the kitchen/dining section of the house. Like so:

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At this point we are also re-siding the house due to all of the layers of exterior wood rot, so obviously I was also advocating that we paint this sucker black. Our original inspiration for this project was modern Scandinavian cottages, of which we were mainly looking at interiors because we weren’t planning to really touch the exterior of this house, but then every plan we made fell to pieces because this house was a piece of garbage.

I love a black house. Leave me alone.

Anyway. It’s not like the house in that rendering is about to win any architectural awards, but I still think it’s sort of cute in its own way and gave the house an actual living room without changing the footprint. Everyone was pretty much on board with this and it felt kind of exciting.

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Until it didn’t. Here’s a fun little glimpse of the foundation under the living room. Notice anything? How about the fact that the sill plate and rim joist have actually migrated a couple inches beyond the outer limits of the foundation, leaving them…floating? How about the enormous hole made by rodents right through both of these essential pieces of structural framing?

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How about the fact that the ENTIRE FOUNDATION is what you see here? That’s a single row of cinderblocks resting on some bluestone rubble, right on the earth. No mortar. Not footings. No anchor bolts, or…anything. HOW this house was even standing was kind of a miracle.

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

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Hot holy damn.

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

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I think this is the image that I see when I imagine how hell looks. Then we figured out that that 8-foot span of window had a single 2×4 for a header and that entire wall was a combo of bad foundation, rot, no sheathing, no insulation, eaten electrical, and hell started to look more like this:

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Which got cleaned up to look like this:

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Annnnnnnnnd, everything is terrible.

At this point, it’s probably plainly obvious to you (and me, and the contractors, and my dogs, and…well, anyone) that this house is more or less the definition of a “tear-down.” It should be noted that I do NOT say that lightly, because I’m the sort of person who thinks everything can be saved. So why were we still doing all this stuff?

It’s a complicated answer, which I’ll try to uncomplicated a little. Firstly, because at this point we actually hadn’t spent that much money, and the building department had continued to give us the go-ahead every time I called them to explain how the renovation had expanded beyond the work detailed in my original permit application. Secondly, tearing down a house is a big deal, particularly when the homeowners didn’t buy a tear-down—or, more accurately, didn’t know they were buying a tear-down. They bought a house, and paid for it accordingly. TV shows would have you believe that basically any money you put into a house becomes equity that you’ll then see a great big return on if/when you sell, but there are limits to that.

Out of respect for the homeowners’ privacy, it should be noted that the figures in the example below are fictitious—they do NOT represent the actual costs associated with this renovation. I’m only listing numbers to illustrate a hypothetical—because costs on all of this stuff vary dramatically depending on where you are, the costs of this particular renovation aren’t as relevant as the bigger picture. Here goes…

Say houses in your area generally sell for between $300,000-$500,000. Say you buy a house for $350,000, and hire contractors to do a $75,000 renovation, bringing your investment to $425,000—which is OK, you figure, because you’ll have a really nice property that you’ll be able to sell in a few years for probably close to that $500,000 upper limit.  But then you start to renovate—paying people to do so, as many (most?) people do—and the problems pile on and pile on and pile on. When the issues start rolling in, you do what pretty much anyone would do and have them fixed so you can move onto the rest of your plans. Then the problems don’t stop, and before you know it you’ve spent $35,000 of your $75,000 renovation budget just finding issues, fixing them, and finding more issues, bringing your total investment to $385,000, and all you have to show for it is a complete disaster, and a house with a TON of problems that may or may not be fixable. So what do you do?

Tearing down the house and rebuilding it is, of course, the most simple solution…but now you are $385,000 in the hole and will probably be at least $400,000 deep after you demolish and dispose of the thing. Then you have to hire an architect to design you a new house (call that $20,000), pull a permit for that house that may or may not be approved by the town’s building and zoning department—whose zoning rules have changed in the 60+ years since your house was built—and find a builder to build the thing from the ground up for about a year (the year during which you thought you’d be living in your house and must find other accommodations). Of course, now you need new everything, because you no longer have a house at all, just a piece of land. New design, new well, new septic, new foundation, new rat slab, new framing, new sheathing, new roof, new walls, new ceilings, new electrical, new plumbing, new HVAC, new insulation, new finishes…new everything.

The house you now have to tear down is 1,800 square feet, and the town is allowing you to expand the footprint 200 square feet—bringing you to a 2,000 square foot house. Even at a modest $130/square foot of new construction cost, your new house is going to cost $260,000 to construct, meaning that after the initial purchase, the initial kind-of-renovation, the architect’s work, and now the new construction cost, you’ve spend $665,000 on a property that’s worth maybe $475,000—perhaps less because that cost per square foot doesn’t exactly buy you high-end finishes. You think that maybe pre-fab is the way to go, but after quite a bit of research you realize that those suckers are actually quite expensive and typically pretty little, so that idea gets more or less shelved.

It’s not like you can make this decision unilaterally, either, because your mortgage, assuming you have one, is tied to the house you bought—it’s extremely important to review the terms of your mortgage documents carefully and consult qualified legal guideance to ensure that you aren’t violating the terms of your mortgage. At worst, a complete tear-down could result in the bank needing back all that money that you borrowed because the house that they essentially own no longer exists! So now you’re out of pocket on your 20% down payment ($70,000) the initial renovation ($35,000), the new design ($20,000) the demolition ($15,000) the new construction ($260,000) and the remainder of your mortgage ($280,000), which means you’re $680,000 deep on a house that’s not going to appraise for over $475,000 anytime soon. OUCH.

On top of that, you bought this house. You love this house. The idea of tearing down this house is almost unfathomable because you would be legitimately very sad to see this house that you love and bought end up in a landfill. And even if the process of renovating is slated to cost $125,000 on top of what you’ve already spent, that means you’re $230,000 out of pocket with 30 years to pay off the other $280,000, which isn’t great but also isn’t so bad considering the severity of how shitty your situation is.

exterior3

So we kept trucking. Kind of. Sort of. Until everything came to a halt.

Diary time!

Day 15: Continued all clean-up and organization on interior, pulled up flooring in sunken living room. Adriana visited and we talked plans.

Day 16: Dump run, continued demo on exterior and deck space and moved indoors to work on sunken living room.

Day 17: Finished demo in sunken living room, de-nailed beadboard, and took up half of living room carpeting.

Day 18: Dump run. Pulled up all carpeting in living room and organized wood. Cleaned up front yard and got wood ready for reuse. Demo’d existing stairs. Loaded truck for dump.

Day 19: Dump run.

Day 20: Got dump truck serviced. Continued demo in living room and diagnosed issues with living room floor sagging—shit. Discovered more major mice/squirrel damage including damage to framing and electrical. Pulled affected electrical—lucky house hasn’t burned down.

Day 21: Worked on exterior demo and moved all things out of bedroom for framing. Edwin came and we installed sill plate on dining room wall. Discussed what to do about kitchen floor and construction of “addition.” Demo’d interior bedroom wall and removed all siding and exterior sheathing in prep for framing in sliding doors tomorrow.

Day 22: Demo’d siding from dining room wall and removed eaves overhang and shiplap sheathing. Edwin and Edgar came and we all worked on framing in new dining room window. Installed window and moved on to sliding doors in bedroom. Sheathed bedroom door and will sheath dining room wall tomorrow. Both changes look AMAZING.

Day 23: Lowe’s run for sheathing and Tyvek supplies. Demo’d cinderblocks on dining room wall and assisted with sheathing. Worked on cleaning up site.

Day 24: Met with Carl to plan excavation job. Some site cleanup.

Day 25: Demo’d concrete block from front of dining room wall to prepare for new sheathing. Demo’d interior of bedroom wall and insulation. Removed old siding and sheathing from wall to be reframed tomorrow.

Day 26: Helped reframe bedroom/bathroom wall and figure out new windows. Dump run in Edwin’s truck. Came back and finished framing dining room wall and did site clean up for a while. Went to Lowe’s to source window option for kitchen. Loaded car for stuff to take to Habitat for Humanity Restore tomorrow morning.

Day 27: Habitat for Humanity run to drop stuff and scout windows.

Day 28: Contract amendments.

Day 29: Met with chimney guy. Did some interior clean-up.

Day 30: Picked up windows from ReStore, door from Door Jamb, and delivered to site. Consulted with Edwin and Edgar on plan of attack for living room floor and foundation issues.

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