All posts tagged: Demolition

The Downstairs Bathroom.

After a couple months of stalking the listing online, the price on our house finally dropped and a few days later I worked up the nerve to call the listing agent to inquire about it. “It’s a great house,” she told me, “it needs some work, and the one big thing is that it does need a new furnace, but otherwise it’s a great, solid old house!” It was a nice chat. I set up an appointment to view it a few days later, and we were about to hang up when I asked. There isn’t really a delicate way to initiate these kinds of conversations, but I had a hunch that had been building for a while. “So,” I said, “did somebody die there or something?”

She paused, and then sighed. “Well, yes, the previous owner did die in the house, but it was of natural causes. He was old—it wasn’t anything violent or anything like that, I can assure you. It’s a really great house—I think you’ll like it.”

I suppose it’s possible that the death might have scared off a particularly superstitious potential buyer or two, but it seems rather unlikely. By today’s standards it might be a little alarming, but before the 1950s or so it was very common for people to both start and end their lives in their own homes. More than likely, he wasn’t the first person to die here—just the most recent. Sad? Sure. A little eery? I guess. But hardly cause for alarm. It was one of those details that stayed in the back of my mind, but I didn’t really fixate on it.

It was clear from our first walk-through that the house needed just a tad more work than the listing agent had let on during that first conversation. Little things like the roof and the unusable kitchen had apparently not been worth mentioning, not to mention the downstairs bathroom, which appeared to have had some kind of plumbing issue that left it literally crumbling, the tiles shedding from the walls like concrete from the Tappan Zee Bridge. For some reason it looked like the door, which was lying its side in the living room, had been ripped from the frame and forcibly removed.

before

“You’d want to redo this bathroom anyway,” she told us. “That back wall is shared with the laundry room, so you could knock it out and double the size. You’d have room for a walk-in shower or whatever you wanted!”

Obvious plumbing issues and cosmetic details notwithstanding, I loved this bathroom just as it was. It’s teeny-tiny—which I think is perfect especially for a downstairs bathroom—and the 1930s tub, sink, and toilet were all in relatively good shape, especially given their age and the condition of the rest of the room. It’s one of the spaces that I couldn’t wait to renovate and make usable again. It’s going to be so beautiful someday. Really. I promise.

One day the real estate agent called me with some good news. “I found out that the plumbing in that downstairs bathroom is fine, as far as we know. I spoke to someone from the clean-up crew and it turns out that the missing tiles were removed by them because they were unsightly.” Unsightly. I’ll never forget that choice of words.

“Is unsightly a euphemism for, like, covered in blood and human remains?”

She only laughed.

“OK, that bathtub has got to go,” Max announced when I told him about the conversation.

“Well, we don’t know that he died in the tub,” I explained. “He could have just, I don’t know, fallen in the tub, but managed to make his way back out again, or, well…we weren’t there. Anything could have happened. It’s a nice tub. I like that tub. They don’t make tubs like that anymore.”

“Yeah, but he probably died in the tub. We can buy a different old tub that someone didn’t die in.”

“But you’d never really know that nobody died in that tub, either. Somebody could have died in pretty much any used tub. How about we get it re-glazed and call it a day? It’s really the perfect size for that bathroom. We can’t just stick any tub in there.”

“I swear, I will never use that bathroom.”

“Fine. It’ll be my bathroom.”

“We’re not keeping that tub in the house.”

“We’ll see.”

This, by the way, is a fight that we haven’t stopped having for a year.

Knowing about the tub bothered me only slightly more than knowing about the death in the first place—which is to say, not very much. As far as causes of death go, dying in a bathtub is relatively unremarkable. The bathtub came up again once or twice more with our plumber during inspections, but otherwise nobody really mentioned it again until after we’d bought and moved into the house.

That’s when our neighbors began to introduce themselves. Apparently lots of people knew about the bathtub, or at least about the death, and Max was quick to forge fast alliances with whomever would listen about my plans to keep the tub. With the exception of maybe 2 people that I can think of, this news has been met unanimously with shock and disgust. “Well, it’s too small to really take a nice bath in, so it’ll really just be for showers,” is my general refrain. Historically, this has helped a total of nobody feel more comfortable with the idea.

“I’ve been an EMT for coming on thirty years, and I’ll tell you—when they opened up all the windows to your house, well, I’ve never smelled anything like that in my life. I’ll never forget it.” This was our neighbor Karen, who came by shortly after we moved in. According to her, the body had been there for a while. Maybe a month, by her professional estimation.

Once, as a teenager, at the height of the popularity of the CSI franchise, my twin sister and I attended a two-week summer class on forensic science. It was there that we learned about the Body Farm, a 2.5 acre plot of land in Tennessee dedicated to the study of the decomposition of human remains. Depending on the conditions and circumstances, lots of different things can happen to corpses over time: in hot and arid climates, for instance, a body left outside will essentially dry up and mummify, but in general they tend to decompose pretty much the same way. In essence, they liquify. In the case of our particular corpse, some percentage probably evacuated itself through the plumbing while the rest stuck around and marinated, waiting to be discovered—by who, we still don’t know.

When we first got to the house, my idea of a significant and readily available improvement to the downstairs bathroom was re-hanging the door, so that we could more effectively ignore it over the ensuing months and possibly years. We have a functioning bathroom upstairs, so there wasn’t any major rush to get it up and running.

Remember what I said about this bathroom sharing a wall with the laundry room, though? Well, that’s thrown kind of a kink in the plans. While we don’t particularly need a second bathroom, we really want a laundry room. The extent of our renovations elsewhere means a whole lot of dust and debris and general filth, and not being able to do laundry in our own house has quickly become incredibly annoying. We generally show up to the laundromat once every couple of weeks with four IKEA bags stuffed to the gills with dirty laundry, and the whole affair is just a big, moderately expensive hassle (those machines aren’t cheap!). The house came with a busted-up washing machine attached to some leaky exposed copper supply lines, but it wasn’t terribly useful since we didn’t have a hot water supply on the main floor until the installation of our boiler in November. Then, of course, the machine promptly died. There was never a dryer, and lacking the necessary electrical circuit and receptacle to install one (not to mention a dryer vent), we’re pretty much starting from scratch. Including having to run new electrical and plumbing through this bathroom wall. “Easy,” I told the plumbers. “I’ll just demo out this bathroom wall and we can get on with things.”

salvageable

This got me more excited about renovating the bathroom someday, because there’s already so much great stuff in it! Check out that hook! Check out that toilet paper dispenser! The sink is also really cute (it’s a little rusty in spots, so we’ll probably have it re-glazed). Normally I wouldn’t really think twice about replacing an old toilet with a new, modern, efficient one, but this one is so pretty that I even want to clean it up and keep it. There’s a painted-over transom window over the door, which I can’t wait to strip. I even love the medicine cabinet! I don’t know if I’ll keep it as a whole cabinet or just harvest the mirror, but I do quite like it. I think the radiator will probably go just because the room is so extremely small and I’d rather do something wall-mounted that could double as a towel warmer and free up the floor space just a little. The window is small but works in the room and has really beautiful textured glass that I didn’t take a picture of. And, of course, the corpse tub. Having all of this beautiful old stuff already here, combined with the tiny size (small room = fewer materials!), makes me feel like we could probably renovate this room fairly inexpensively, even with new plumbing and electric.

ANYWAY.

Picking up where the Crime and Trauma Scene Contamination crew left off, I donned some work gloves and a respirator and started to peel back and dispose of the old tiles surrounding the bathtub and the drywall underneath.

clapboard3

Whats that now? Clapboard? Peekaboo!

So, apparently this used to be an exterior wall. Which made very little sense to me, considering where this room is located. Here I will refer to my floor plan:

FIRST-FLOOR-BEFORE

The bathroom to which I am referring is #10 and highlighted in pink for ease of identification. The laundry room is #9. The wall I am talking about is what divides the two.

At first I thought the laundry room was just a later addition, but then I realized that didn’t make any sense because the clapboard I was uncovering was the exterior, not the interior. Huh.

clapboard4

Further excavation revealed that the wall was definitely clapboard. The walls—which were partially drywall but mostly the same lightweight “beaverboard” used elsewhere in the 20th century “improvements”—were hanging on old 1×2 furring strips which were nailed to the clapboard. Well. Isn’t that special.

Something tells me that this will not be a great strategy when we renovate this bathroom for real. Old furring strips nailed to really old clapboard is probably not going to be so great or so safe for holding up hundreds of pounds of cement backerboard and tile. I kept moving…

demo2

Turns out, the whole room is clapboard, except for the actual exterior wall that the window and sink are on. Underneath the beaverboard ceiling is a tongue-and-groove beadboard ceiling!

I have deduced, therefore, that this bathroom used to be a small porch. Nifty! It occurs to me that this is probably why the upstairs bathroom actually has older fixtures (like that amazing sink, and the toilet that we unfortunately had to tear out on our 3rd day in the house)  than the downstairs one—because it’s older! The top of the toilet tank has a date stamp from 1935, which makes a lot of sense. We know that the house was originally split up into two units in the mid-30s (the Great Depression did that to a lot of houses, and we’ve found newspaper listings for the second floor apartment from 1938), so it was then that they enclosed the porch, then basically built a whole room inside the porch, and BOOM—bathroom.

You can’t really tell from these pictures, but all of this was also covering up an old doorway opening from the kitchen onto the porch. Crazy! Obviously, I think all of this is super cool. Like uncovering a time capsule.

clapboard

bricks

Unfortunately, because these are originally exterior walls and this is my house, it also means that underneath the clapboard, the walls are stuffed full of bricks and mortar. Yep. This is called “nogging” and is how our whole house is “insulated”—I put it in quotations because it has an R-value of less than 1. It was done in a lot of houses especially in the northeast in the 19th century, both as a primitive form of insulation and as a way to keep mice and rats from getting into houses. Normally nogging is composed of “garbage bricks”—like ones that were broken or misshapen or not fired at the correct temperatures. It fell out of practice toward the end of the 19th century. It’s not structural, so it can be removed, but obviously access is pretty much impossible without ripping down all the plaster on interior walls or all of the clapboard off the exterior walls. This is why I just laugh when people try to talk to me about doing blown-in insulation, like I’ve never heard of the concept. I KNOW IT’S A THING. IT IS NOT A THING FOR US. 

nogging

Obviously, this also makes it impossible to run new electrical or plumbing through the walls, which is sort of important in modern bathrooms. So basically this means that all of the stuff nailed to the clapboard has to come out, then the clapboard has to come down, and then the wall cavities have to be emptied out. Yikes! I’m not sure I can totally wrap my mind around carrying and transporting this literal ton of bricks, but at least I am young and strapping and willing to pretend that my home renovation doubles as an acceptable exercise routine, since I can’t seem to make it to the gym.

Before anyone tries to get in my face about preserving the clapboard, ask yourself this: do you want a clapboard-covered bathroom? Like, really, in real life? No you do not. We will, however, save the salvageable clapboard, which may come in handy when we get to work on the exterior and rip off the vinyl siding. We’ll also save salvageable bricks, which I have lofty ideas about repurposing when we get to work on landscaping. It’ll be great.

floor

Oh! And I pulled up the hideous faux-terrazo linoleum and the plywood underneath it, and look! The same hardwood flooring (which we think is fir! not oak, as I had originally thought…) runs into the bathroom, too! I wasn’t really expecting that, but it’s kind of cool. I have no idea if this floor will end up being worth salvaging (there are some areas of rot and holes from old plumbing and a million nail holes from the plywood, and the total floor area is super small anyway…), but it does make me think about putting a wood floor in the bathroom instead of tile when we eventually renovate. Stained black? I like the idea of that. It feels a little less sterile than tile, which I think is nice for the main floor.

demoafter

This has to be the most grueling bathroom demo in the history of mankind. It’s gutted, and now it essentially has to be gutted AGAIN. And then the BRICKS. MADNESS.

It’ll be worth it if we get laundry, though. Eyes on the prize.

Dining Room Closet Demo + Pantry!

before

One of the things that caught my eye the first time we saw the house was this closet door in the dining room. Because so many of the original features of our house are intact—all the interior doors except one, all the moldings, the windows—this door really sticks out. It took me a minute to figure out what went on here, but essentially the current pantry in the kitchen and this closet in the dining room used to house a service stairwell. The stairs ran up from the basement and out a doorway in the kitchen (which looks to have been closed of during the 50s kitchen renovation). The pantry door in the kitchen served as the entrance to the stairwell that led from the kitchen to the room above the kitchen on the second floor, which I’m guessing was the maid’s quarters. I don’t think our house is really big or grand enough to have had a whole big Downton Abbey-style staff, but we do know that there was a live-in maid in the early part of the 20th century and I’m guessing there would have been a couple of employees prior to that, too.

ANYWAY, at some point (maybe 1930s? 40s? 50s?) the stairwell was ripped out, the openings in the floors were patched in, and two closets were put in its place: the small pantry in the kitchen and this closet in the dining room. As we figured out when we took out the dining room ceiling, the dining room was at some point divided into two spaces, so I’m guessing this closet was used for clothing storage and the room inside the dining room was a bedroom.

Now it’s just an extraneous closet (there’s a shallow linen closet on the opposite side of the dining room—there are more images and a floor plan in this post if you really want to follow all of this action). It doesn’t match the room and it isn’t original and it isn’t necessary. Since there are so many doors and windows in this room, this is kind of the only wall to put a credenza on, which I like having in a dining room for storage and serving purposes. And since we ripped out the ceiling anyway and now have to do a bunch of drywall work in this room, we might as well just do it all at once, right?

So there. That is all of the logic that led to me deciding to destroy another thing.

closetbefore

This closet was real scary. Also really hard to photograph. The walls are basically a patched in mix of drywall, plaster, wood paneling, and beaverboard (which is a lightweight fibrous sheathing type of material that’s used in several places in our house, all of which we’ll be replacing…it’s the worst). Clearly there’s been some water damage (from what, I do not know!). Clearly nobody has ever cared even a little bit what this closet looked like.

oldpantry

This is the only remaining photographic evidence of the old pantry. Lest you were confused, in fact that is not fake wood paneling on the wall, but instead wallpaper made to look like fake wood paneling, which evidently pre-dated the stairs being removed, since below it is joint compound used to patch in the damage left behind from removing the stairs. It’s all so fancy!

I think the shelves in the pantry were actually the old treads from the stairs, though. The cleats are scraps of molding. Pretty crafty.

demo

The whole demo process was fairly straightforward and easy since the existing materials were so crappy. I started by taking out the shelves and the extraneous pieces of paneling and breaking the beaverboard off of the walls. The dividing wall between the closet and the pantry was impressively framed out with 2×4 lumber, which was pretty easy to knock out of place after cutting the vertical pieces of framing with my Sawzall.

Taking out the old doorway was pretty self-explanatory, too. I took off the door, then carefully removed the casing (it isn’t anything fancy, but who knows…maybe we’ll find a use for it somewhere!), then used my Sawzall to cut between the studs and the jamb, severing the nails keeping it in place. After that it was pretty easy to just knock out with a hammer intact. I saved it all, just in case.

pantry

OK, clearly this space is impossible to photograph well right now, but here’s how it stands now. Long, super skinny pantry, here we come! The space is very narrow (about 33 inches), so my plan is to run very shallow shelves along the wall on the right and deeper shelves in the back. I actually MUCH prefer very shallow shelves for pantry-type spaces (easy to keep canned goods and jars and stuff organized), so I’m excited about it. The deeper shelves will hold larger items and the microwave. While we’re doing the other electrical work, we’re going to run a new outlet or two to this pantry and an overhead light, which will really help with the dark-and-scary-torture-chamber situation we currently have going on.

As for when this is all going to happen…I’m not sure! While having a pantry would be nice, and I don’t think the project will be very expensive, it just feels sooooo low on the list of priorities right now, what with all the other half-done projects around the house right now. I don’t know. I know we’re still in the pretty early stages of all of this, and I really don’t mind having so many things in flux (the snowball effect of renovating made it a little unavoidable, so I’m not really blaming myself here), but I really want to get something done that will make an appreciable difference in our living situation. I think I need a little morale boost…just something that proves that I can create some good-looking order out of all this chaos and remind myself what the hell I’m doing here.

All I’m really saying is that the pantry isn’t important enough and I really just need/want to finish that office. That would feel amazing.

newframing

To frame in the old doorway opening, I ended up reusing the studs from the little wall that divided the pantry from the old closet. There wasn’t anything wrong with them, so I just spent about 10 minutes taking all the old nails out and then maybe half an hour cutting everything to size and screwing it all together (I used big heavy-duty 3″ wood screws for decking because I had them around and I didn’t want to mess with nailing). Then I just lifted the completed frame into the opening and screwed it into the surrounding studs and header and floor joist. It felt pretty construction-y and exciting.

Next up will be cleaning up the scraggly edges of the plaster and patching in a new piece of drywall. I think I’m going to do that stuff myself since it’s going to take lots of shimming and skim-coating and anal-retentiveness to make this enormous patch appear invisible once the room is all painted. As for patching in the baseboard, there isn’t a huge rush (particularly since a large piece of furniture will be on this wall anyway), but I do plan to have the millwork replicated to patch in here and on another wall where we’re missing some in a different room.

Hopefully by the time the office is wrapped up, we’ll have a new ceiling in the dining room and it’ll be time to really tackle it. Aside from patching in this big gaping hole in the wall, this room should be fairly straightforward. I’m so excited! I put together a realllllly bare bones plan with what I’m thinking about right now. Obviously it’s missing a rug and plants and art and stuff, but…whatever.

diningroom

1. Trim will be crisp white. Walls will be grey-ish white. Doors may or may not be black. I go back and forth about black doors for this house, but I think I like the idea.

2. I think I chose ceiling medallions, after tons and tons of anxiety and debate. It’s HARD. This one is 29″ wide and from Machen Supply, and I think it will really complement our moldings without feeling like a huge statement. Even though I love a super ornate ceiling medallion, it just doesn’t feel altogether right for this house. And since it’s repro and made of plastic and all that, I don’t necessarily feel like I want it to be a big feature in the house, you know? I’d much rather have the real, original stuff take the spotlight. I think we’ll use something different on the second floor, but I like these ones for the first floor.

3. I’ve been hoarding this light fixture for a long time—so long that it’s unfortunately discontinued! It was from West Elm and it was called the Long Arm Chandelier and it’s really very nice. I don’t think they made it for very long…I’m surprised it wasn’t more popular! The shades swivel up or down, so I think we’ll probably aim ours upwards so you won’t be able to see the bulbs (meaning we can use more Cree bulbs).

4. Big rosewood credenza that we already own. This’ll be great to use sometimes as a serving surface, to hold our booze, etc. etc.

5. Chairs we already own.

6. The much-debated NORDEN table from IKEA! I’m still looking for a used one (there was one on Craigslist but the seller never responded to my emails…jerks), and I know plenty of people weren’t sold on the idea, but I still like it.

Demo. Demo Forever.

header

One of the side effects of renovating an old house, I’ve found, is the way my brain has come to toggle between the absurd optimism I feel before a project begins and the extreme despair I experience when my ideas about how things will be collide with the reality of how things actually are. Everything is more or less microcosmic of this entire renovation endeavor: “These 150 year-old rotted box gutters—I bet I can just fix them myself in a weekend!” and “This kitchen…it just needs a couple coats of paint!” are just miniature versions of “this house…there’s not that much wrong with it! We’re terrific!”

False. Everything is hard and it takes forever and there are no such things as happy surprises we’re not that terrific. The end.

I had this big idea when we tore down the acoustic tiles on the dining room ceiling that the original plaster ceiling above it would be in pretty great, totally fixable condition. Why did I think this? Probably TV. Mostly delusion. It’s easy for me to blame things on TV on account of how many years I’ve been watching it, but mostly I’m just really pretty dumb.

The ceiling was not OK. It had to come down. It took us like 3 days and and tons of labor and clogged pores and 50 contractor bags and 3 tons of garbage and a truly awe-inspiring amount of dust to get rid of it. Romantic times with my fiancé I’ll cherish always.

Then, because I despise and actively ward off emotions such as happiness or peace or joy, I had this fun idea: now that one of the acoustic tile ceilings is down and has to be drywalled, why not see what’s lurking under the other acoustic tile ceiling, in the room right next door?

I know that the responsible part of my brain did this for good reason: if I’m having a ceiling professionally drywalled, it’s going to be less money and less chaos in the long run if I just have them both done at the same time. But the delusional side of my brain, the kicky one that informs between 99-100% of my daily actions, did it because I really thought the other ceiling would be in pretty great, totally fixable condition, which would be a huge morale boost and exciting pick-me-up.

Why? Because. Because contrary to all evidence like maybe just having done this a week earlier, I convinced myself that the house was totally going to cut us a break on this one. It couldn’t possibly be like the other one, because science and pipes and karma and things. Right?

demo1

These ceiling tiles were made of a different material than the other ceiling tiles (don’t worry, I knew this beforehand and they were each tested separately for asbestos). The dining room had individual tiles, but these were actually more like large, embossed panels made to look like individual tiles. Let that sink in. Somebody actually WANTED it to look like they put up an acoustic tile ceiling, but they didn’t. That was the actual aspiration with this.

So that was the first thing I noticed. The second thing I noticed was how removing the panels also brought a shower of dried mouse poop raining down on my head like glitter at a Mariah Carey concert. So much mouse poop. We don’t have mice, and I’ve never seen or heard a mouse, but apparently that was not always the case. There used to be a mouse, and it used to poop all the time, and now that poop was in my hair.

The third thing I noticed was that this ceiling was obviously erected by some kind of evil genius lunatic. LOOK AT THAT FRAMING. Could they have just nailed furring strips to the joists like in the dining room? Absolutely not. Instead, they definitely needed an intricate series of interlocking, multi-layer framing using a combination of furring strips and old lath and probably at least 400,000 nails. Why. Why was it like this. Why would someone do this.

The fourth thing I noticed was that the plaster ceiling? Actually looked pretty great! My earlier wager that it would be pretty great was right on the money. I felt really smart for arbitrarily deciding this earlier on, and very validated that I really listened to my gut on that one. Thanks, gut!

demo2

Moving down the room toward the front of the house, though, I noticed that the plaster seemed like it was getting a little iffy. The cracks were bigger and there were parts where the multi-layer furring catastrophe was nailed directly through sagging plaster and up into a joist, causing even larger holes and voids. By the time I got to the corner, I was frantically putting up plaster buttons to keep huge sections from falling. I decided this was probably/definitely the worst of it, so I was going to continue being careful and cautious and trying to save what was there.

Removing acoustic tiles from a plaster ceiling is basically like opening a present. You never know what you’ll find, but usually it ends up being death and plague and hardship.

demo3

Aaaaaaaaand, yeah. By the time we made it three quarters of the way around the room, it was patently clear that this ceiling was even worse than the other one, which is really saying something. There’s just really no way that I know of to fix something this far gone and have it look even a little bit good.

At this point, the ceiling just sat like this for a week or so, festering. We had a couple of houseguests, and Max made the grown-up decision that it wasn’t OK to put them through living in a house where plaster ceilings were being actively removed. Ever the hostess.

Then the houseguests left. Then Max had to go back to Brooklyn. Then I was alone in the house. Ohhhhhhh shit.

crucifix

I don’t really have any process photos of removing the crazy intricate wood framing, partially because I was alone and it was the middle of the night and I chose to just pretty much forego tools and do the whole thing with brute strength and my bare hands. It was all very primal and barbaric. The only picture I do have is of this crucifix-shaped piece of framing that fell from the ceiling right next to me just like that. I don’t know a lot about Jesus but I’m going to guess he also would not like this ceiling.

Or I’m cursed forever now. WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?

demo7

Here’s the majority of the wood that came down from the ceiling BEFORE the plaster removal even began. Unbelievable, right? Such a ridiculous amount of material to hold up some fairly lightweight fiberboard. Bizarre.

demo4

A lot of the plaster came down by itself while all the framing was coming down, leaving about 2/3rd of the ceiling missing before the real demo even began. In the picture on the right, above, you can see where the original ceiling medallion used to be! Unfortunately we don’t have the medallion or any way to really know what it looked like, but it was helpful to be able to measure the imprint to at least get an idea of the size I’ll need for reproduction medallions. I’m still deciding, but I actually think I might go a little bit bigger than the original—like 30 inches across instead of the original 24″? #rebel

demo5

And, just three-ish back-breaking days later…no more ceiling! As with the dining room, we’re taking the opportunity to run new electrical to replace the old fabric-sheath cable inside BX (not because it’s necessarily unsafe, but because it’ll never be easier to do than it is right now). This room is also right below our bedroom, so it should be pretty easy to add some much-needed outlets and perhaps even a light fixture (!) up there. Even though I would have much preferred to have been able to salvage the original plaster ceilings, I am sort of happy about the prospect of doing this electrical work now and being able to do it much more quickly than if the ceilings weren’t open.

demo6

To preempt some questions and comments…

1. I’m definitely not leaving the ceilings open with the joists exposed like this (painted or unpainted). I’ve seen that look great in certain places, but that’s the thing: certain places. I think it can work beautifully with architecture that’s more rustic, but this house is a Greek Revival—it’s kind of the opposite of rustic. It would just look like we were missing ceilings. I promise.

2. We haven’t hired out the job yet, but I’m anticipating that having both of the ceilings done will cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $1,200. I’m working on gathering more quotes (I’ve only gotten two, but one was wayyyyyy crazy expensive and I’m not considering it), which reminds me: if anyone in the Kingston-ish area has a good drywall guy, I’d appreciate the info!

3. A few people commented on my post about the other ceiling asking if I’d use blueboard and plaster veneer instead of drywall. For those who don’t know, this is a process similar to drywalling, but the entire surface is coated with lime-based plaster (basically the top layer of a plaster wall, without the other two layers and the lathe underneath it). Done well, it’s more or less indistinguishable from the real thing, and a great option for historic restorations. I’m trying to get a quote for this, but I’m guessing it will cost more than we really have available to spend on this, and I just don’t think that I can justify or afford the added expense for this project. For a wall, I’d definitely consider it (and feel more comfortable attempting it myself, maybe), but for a ceiling…I think a good drywall job will be totally fine.

4. When I say that we’re running new electrical, I don’t mean that we’re adding a bunch of stuff! In each room, there will still just be a single central light fixture. As a general rule, I don’t really like recessed lighting (or track lighting) in old houses, and I have a feeling that all fancy speaker systems (which I have no plans to install, but still) will be wireless within a few years anyway. All I’m really talking about is swapping out existing wires with new wires and adding more outlets where necessary.

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!

My Roof Might Kill Me.

When we closed on our house, I bought this book called Renovating Old Houses because I figured it would be chock-full of interesting and valid information that would come in handy as a new renovator of an old house. Reading through the book later on, I was quickly filled with an all-consuming sense of dread: what the hell have I done. While informative, the book basically chronicles everything that can go wrong in an old house——which is to say, everything. Everything can go wrong in an old house. If it isn’t the foundation, it’s the roof, and if it isn’t the roof, then it’s the framing. The electrical will probably start a fire, the plaster will fall apart, and——of course——the asbestos will kill you eventually. I read through about half of it before I felt that it would be better for my mental health if I gave the book a little break for a while to recover from my house-hypochondria. All of a sudden, I couldn’t just see all the beautiful old things——instead, only a collection of problems, or potential problems, and a future full of regret and failure.

Old houses are difficult beasts by definition. They were built at a time before standardization, and before modern construction methods. Sometimes, that’s a good thing. Other times, it’s a massive pain in the ass.

roofold roofold3 roofold2

We knew the roof was a problem before we bought the house, and intended to have it replaced in the near future. It wasn’t until we started living there that the “near future” became somewhat pressing. I came to be one of those people who dreaded sudden shifts in weather——each new rainstorm bringing slow (and…not slow) leaks of water into various areas of my home. We did our best to do some temporary patching, but we knew the roof needed to be replaced ASAP. Because of the way our home was built——a main section with various additions over time——we have a few different types of roofing. The main pitched roof was clad metal shingles (probably installed in the 1920s?), and all of the low-slope or flat sections were covered in sheet metal, covered up over the years by rolled asphalt roofing or gallons of tar. Metal roofing is really beautiful and extremely long-lasting, but unfortunately when it isn’t properly maintained (painted every few years, that kind of thing), it tends to corrode. It corrodes further when the repair method is covering leaking sections (or the whole thing!) with loads of tar——it works well for a while, but is a very temporary solution until the tar cracks and buckles and separates from the substrate (and further corrodes the metal). This “temporary” repair method has probably been used on our house for…oh, 50 years. Not awesome.

Eventually we found a roofing contractor (long story, not worth it) who came in at a reasonable price (and offered financing options), and we scheduled the work. Things were going super well, like so:

Roofattic

Oh yeah, did I ever mention that our whole house is insulated with brick and mortar? Well. It is.

roofing

roofbeforeafter

And then they weren’t.

The problem is our house.

Remember that thing I said about old houses being difficult and complicated? Well. Unlike modern homes, our house is outfitted with a built-in gutter system called box gutters, which is part of the whole structure of the roof. I made a simplified technical drawing to illustrate. Excuse my chicken-scratch.

diagram1

Basically this means that the gutter itself is built into the cornice of our house, as opposed to the  regular aluminum gutters that contemporary homes have. The gutter structure is built out of wood and then lined with metal (or sometimes rubber, if it’s been redone recently). The problem with this elegant solution to water drainage is that a lot can go wrong over time——the house settles, a leak develops in the metal lining, or if you’re like us, both! Both awful things have happened, meaning that water leaked into the gutter system for a really long time and caused a whole mess of rot.

I was aware that this could be a problem, but every roofing contractor who looked at our house (not just the ones we hired) proclaimed our box gutters A-OK and good candidates for a quick re-lining job.

HA. HA. HAHAHAHAHAHA. *bursts into tears*

I’m the sort of annoying homeowner who lingers around whenever work is being done on my house, so when I climbed up onto the roof to check on the progress, I immediately saw some problems. The original tar-covered metal lining had been partially torn off, and underneath was a horror show——nothing but remnants of the original gutter structure remained, mostly comprised of completely rotted little splinters of wood.

rot

And it wasn’t just this gutter (although——hopefully——this is the worst). It was all the gutters that they’d exposed. Luckily at this point they’d only torn off half the areas of roofing (and gutter lining), so I immediately told everyone to stop what they were doing so we could assess the situation before opening up more cans of worms. Good move, Kanter.

Basically what happened to this gutter can be explained by this second (exaggerated for dramatic effect) technical drawing I composed for your viewing pleasure.

diagram2

The box gutter SHOULD  slope within the cornice down to a terminal at the end, where water is then released onto the ground via a downspout. But on our house, over the course of 150 years, not only did the gutter lining develop leaks, but the entire wall of the house (and the cornice) bowed out, causing the cornice to settle with a slope at both ends toward the center. Water began to leak through the gutter lining, and then settle in the middle, rotting some of the wood of the cornice and continuing to eat away at the gutter structure. Just terrific.

To make things even more fun and exciting, this kind of repair is beyond what our roofing contractor could address——it’s really carpentry, at this point, and a fairly specialized type of repair. So basically they covered all the exposed gutters with ice & water barrier and told us we needed to fix it ourselves or hire someone who could, and it needs to happen within the next month or so, before there’s massive amounts of cold and rain and SNOW to ruin our house/life.

The whole thing was absolutely devastating, honestly, and I don’t say that about a lot of things. I panicked. I went to the hardware store and bought some tools and supplies and wood. Then I got on the roof and basically didn’t get off for three days. It was cold. I might have been sick, both physically and in the head. It was awful. I wanted to be dead, but I thought maybe I could fix it myself and really, really didn’t want to deal with contractors or pay contractors lots of money to do something that my pea-brain thought I could maybe conceivably handle myself.

meonroof

I really tried.

EFFORT

At various points I thought I was doing super well and maybe I was an amazing carpenter/roofing prodigy, but Sunday night basically ended with me shivering on my roof, head in my hands, trying to figure out what to do next. I needed to come to terms with the fact that this is just beyond what I’m capable of dealing with by myself, for the following compelling reasons:

  1. I don’t really, actually know what I’m doing. I don’t think this repair is exactly rocket science, but it’s dumb for me to think I can do it correctly without any real knowledge of how to do it correctly. I’m not sure I can possibly make things worse, but I also don’t want to do it all wrong, cause further damage, or need to have it all redone in the next few years because I was too stubborn to hire somebody the first time around.
  2. I have no time for this. There are a lot of exposed gutters right now, and I’m under no illusions that upcoming rain/snow aren’t going to make all of this SO much worse. I need this to be fixed quickly, and doing it myself is not going to make it go quickly.
  3. There’s a problem of scale at work here. I’m one person, and even if I knew how and had the time, I can’t fix this many linear feet of gutter, half of it while balanced precariously on a ladder.

I’m not the sort of person who cries in moments of self-pity and dejection, but if I were, I would be. I know I try to keep things light and fun and happy around these parts (and I debated even writing this post), but honestly? This feels awful. I feel like I’ve destroyed my house. I know it’s just a dumb cornice and some dumb gutters, but this all feels overwhelming and insurmountable and sad.

We’ve had a couple of contractors out over the last few days who are familiar with rebuilding box gutters, though, and I think things are looking up. One of them in particular I LOVED, and his quote was actually relatively affordable, so hopefully he’ll be able to shuffle his schedule around and I’ll be writing a big update a couple of weeks from now about how he is amazing and solved all of our problems and I didn’t even have to sell my organs or anything AND my house has wonderful and reliable drainage that I’ll never have to touch again.

Hopefully. Fingers crossed, big time.

OK. Make me feel better. What’s the worst thing that ever happened during your renovation? Ready, go.

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