All posts tagged: Olivebridge Cottage

Designing Olivebridge Cottage 2.0: Part 2!

So, you may recall that last time we discussed Olivebridge Cottage, we had a plan to kinda-sorta rebuild the house and it looked more or less like this:

This period was the closest this job probably ever came to feeling manageable: we had the town and the engineers on our side, the homeowners were happy with the direction, and the tasks ahead were difficult but not that difficult. It’s a little one-story house—a few more months and we’d be out.

Then the homeowners threw a second floor master suite into the mix. Which they wanted me to design. In approximately 5 minutes. Two weeks before we were set to start construction on a plan that had remained unchanged for a few months.

At the time, the logic went like this: after spending so much time and so much money on this house, reselling the house at a price that bore any resemblance to the amount invested would be somewhat impossible if the finished product didn’t really differ materially from the original house. Adding a whole bedroom and bathroom would turn the house from a 2 bed/1 bath to a 3 bed/2 bath, essentially shifting it into a different bracket of real estate. Obviously the upfront building cost would be higher, but the homeowners felt that it was the right move.

And so, the second floor. Maybe it sounds easy to you. It did not sound easy to me. It didn’t even necessarily sound fun to me, because I think I’m more of a renovator at heart. I like working within the constraints of an existing structure. Pulling a design out of thin air…that’s a whole different thing.

And you can’t just plop a second floor onto a house and call it a day! You have to rethink everything. For starters, stairs! Stairs take up a lot of space. You also have to think about using that new space efficiently. You have to think about plumbing paths and electrical requirements and septic systems and all the codes. And you have to think about what that new house is going to actually look like! And, in my case, without really any experience to lean on, I had to do it in a really short amount of time and have it approved by two homeowners, a team of engineers, and the fine folks at the local building and zoning department. And then I had to be able to build it.

All that being said, it’s not like I could just propose/build whatever. Every design job has constraints, and often those constraints guide the design much more restrictively than your imagination does. As somebody with some educational background in architecture, and certainly a personal interest, my mind immediately went to all kinds of things I’ve seen or read about. The Eames Case Study House, constructed from factory components in a matter of days. The stark geometry of the Bauhaus. The undulating concrete forms of Saarinen and Niemeyer. Those incredible walls of glass and rich wood finishes and the indoor-outdoor dialogue they create that Neutra did so well. It’s easy to get caught up.

And then you come back down to reality, because these were my constraints:

  1. Experience: at this stage, we didn’t even have a builder. Obviously I can’t literally, single-handedly construct a house, so I knew I’d be working in conjunction with a contractor, but we didn’t know which contractor. New construction is somewhat uncommon around these parts, so there really just wasn’t room to gamble on some complicated or experimental design. This house needed to be simple and straightforward to construct.
  2. Cost: I had to be able to build it inexpensively. New construction is never cheap, but there’s a big difference between a simple, traditional stick-frame structure and a complicated one that requires steel supports or tons of custom components or hard-to-source materials. Time is money when working with contractors, going back to the ease-of-building point. Cost is also part of what eliminated prefab as an option: everything I found was priced much higher than we hoped to be on a cost-per-square-foot basis, not to mention really tiny!
  3. Footprint: partially because we were working with most of an existing structure, and largely due to zoning regulations and setback requirements, we essentially had to maintain the footprint of the existing house. More on that in a second!
  4. Site: this site was somewhat challenging. You have the beautiful wooded areas in the back and off to the side with big mature trees and boulders and the wonders of nature, but then across the street and next door you have houses. Two of the three are currently in states of disrepair (and even fixed up, it’s not like you want to highlight neighboring houses when you have nature as an alternative!), so I had to try to maximize the appealing views and minimize exposure to the less desirable ones.
  5. Practicality: even with the additional floor, the house still isn’t particularly large. You can dream all day about the architecture of a space, but ultimately you still have to have a functioning kitchen, three bedrooms, storage, wall space for art and small storage and display, two bathrooms that meet code, utility space, and laundry. The house has to work.
  6. Codes: There are codes for almost everything. Heights, spans, clearances, distances between supports, the rise and run of each stair tread, the R-value of insulation, the placement of electrical receptacles, forms of egress, the type of glass required on a given window, fire safety, vapor barriers, grades of lumber for interior walls vs. exterior ones, the space around the toilet bowl. To say the learning curve for me was steep is an understatement.
  7. Engineering: Regardless of what would have actually been possible, the engineers had some restrictions that my hands were somewhat tied to follow—the most consequential being the pitch of the roof. You hear a lot about snow loads being greater than they used to be, and our engineers said emphatically that our roofs had to be 6/12 at a minimum. This refers to the rise and run—for every 12″ of run, the roof must rise 6″, which is fairly steep. That’s kind of fine for a regular gabled roof, but wouldn’t allow us to build, say, a shed-style roof without the angles just looking insane.
  8. Time: there just wasn’t enough of it! I had to design it quickly, primarily because all of this came about in mid-September, and we had to get a foundation in the ground before winter hit! And we had to build it quickly. Had is a strong word—the homeowners wanted it done quickly. They wanted it done yesterday. There was quite a bit of time spent on this project trying to explain why various things were so time-consuming, and why we probabbblllyyyy couldn’t build and finish (and furnish!) an entire house in 3-4 months.
  9. Homeowners: as much as the homeowners and I really did get along and were on the same page about so many things, remember that I’m designing this house for them, not me! It’s easy to forget now, but during this period there was SO much anxiety and frustration that, for the homeowners, it started to feel essential that the house had mass appeal. OH DEAR. To me this house was always aspiring to be more modern, not less, but Adriana started showing me examples of these very traditional, kind of generic but well-executed new construction projects that just felt so at odds with the actual house, or what they even wanted to live in! I think it was really just panic about the future prospect of resale, which I understand. Not only did this feel really…uninspiring, it also seemed like an efficient way to increase construction costs: with modernism you can get away with simplicity and utilitarianism, but it’s hard to do that with more traditional styles without everything just looking cheap and flat. As a small example, we were aiming to reuse certain things like windows that were still in fine shape, but large single-lite vinyl casement windows were not going to look right on a house that’s supposed to have 6-over-6 divided lite double-hungs. Nonetheless, this period of not wanting to go “too daring” with the design was happening in the background of this and felt like a big complicating factor, even though they eventually got over it. Ha!

SO! The first thing was figuring out the space I had to work with. Our original footprint was this, with the top facing the street:

Since we asked real nice and applied for a zoning variance, the town allowed us to bump out the living room wall 6 feet, giving us an addition 120 square feet of space to play with. Like so–shaded section is new:

One of the challenges I see in designing a structure vs. renovating one is that with renovations, you tend to be thinking mostly about the interior or mostly about the exterior. Exterior work is often cosmetic—re-siding, re-painting, re-roofing, landscaping…ya know. But you have a structure: you have window locations, doorways, ceiling heights, the direction the roof pitches. But designing a building, you have to consider the how the interior looks and functions and how the exterior looks, and the two don’t always play well together! You might think a certain window would be nice inside the house, but then outside it just looks totally dumb. Or vice-versa! Or you want really high ceilings inside, but that makes the structure really tall and proportionately unappealing. There are so many things like this. In this case, it felt imperative to maximize light and views on the elevations of the house that face nature, but ALSO create a street-facing facade that looked welcoming and attractive, but didn’t highlight the undesirable views available to that side of the house from inside. Tricky!

In super simple terms: green is where we have good views, red is where we have bad views.

So, at THIS point, the back portion of the house (now the “guest wing,” since the master bedroom is moving upstairs!) was supposed to remain fairrrrly unchanged, although I wrote in the last post about some of the stuff we were required to do with it.

The kitchen and dining room plans were also more or less set, at least in their locations. That footprint wasn’t changing, and since we were hoping to keep some framing and the foundation under the kitchen/dining space, which would not allow us to put a second floor over that part of the house without redoing the foundation as well. Weight and stuff. So our second floor master suite is confined to the area where the whole foundation would be new—directly over the living room.

So basically we have this enlarged living room, which is also the only artery to get to the kitchen/dining spaces, the guest wing, up the stairs that don’t exist, and into the house at all unless you’re just going in the front door and into that long skinny guest room. It’s a ton of space, but once you add in all of those factors it gets a little tricky to create a room that doesn’t just feel like a massive pass-through.

It dawned on me that nobody was especially tied to the front door location, and that maybe it ought to be facing the street. Incidentally that’s where the front door was before the previous owners bought and wreckovated the house.

It also occurred to me that it’s not like you spend a lot of time in a stairwell, and you can get sort of creative with window placement in a stairwell, and that the stairwell should probably go against the street-facing wall, too. That way, we concentrate the views from the living room out into the woods, not onto the street and neighboring houses.

That’s how I got to some earlier version of this. You’ll notice that a couple of walls have shifted around in the guest wing with the elimination of the old entry, but those changes weren’t planned for until after we started building! A number of major things changed on the fly once construction got underway.

ANYWAY—if memory serves, all of this took place in a couple of days, and then it was time for another meeting with the engineers and Adriana the homeowner. In the background of all of this was the fact that I was no longer under contract at this point—we had to scrap and re-write my contract for the job completely, which was underway but not complete. This sounds inconsequential, but typically I wouldn’t be designing or sharing drawings and renderings (not to mention running around town to building departments and engineering firms) until after I have an executed contract and a deposit check in hand—a little freelancer safeguard against doing a bunch of work and never getting compensated for it if a client decides to be a jerk. Unfortunately it’s happened so I’m leery of it, even when I work for people that I know and trust!

The point is, we walked into this hour-long meeting with the engineer, and I didn’t really know what we were doing there. Adriana had called the meeting but without a design in place, it seemed premature and potentially like a waste of everyone’s time.

As it happened, Adriana had been corresponding with the engineer and had submitted a sketch of what she thought the second floor layout should be. I think she’ll be OK with me pointing out now that it was…a mess. Haha! Problem number one was that it wasn’t at all to scale and showed the staircase coming up in a location that made no sense for the first floor. The allocation of space was choppy and complicated and gave the toilet the best corner in the whole house! There was an enormous amount of space given over to closets, not enough room to actually use the washer and dryer in the plan…and I was just sitting there like…oh shit. 

Again. I am not hired. I am not being paid. I am watching the engineer set these plans in stone in CAD, and feeling like if the meeting continued on this way, we’d have a terrible plan that I could then be possibly tasked with executing, and a client who might not understand the need to start over with a different plan since why did we have that meeting in the first place where we designed the house in an hour?!

So, I stepped in. And drew up a little sketch of what had been tumbling around in my brain. Then we dropped it into CAD. And then we moved a couple things. Then we rotated the roof 90 degrees to have a street-facing gable. Then…the basic strokes of the design were all there. We had a shape. We had walls. We had rooms.

Then some more decisions. How tall are the first floor ceilings? I say 10 feet. Adriana wants 12. How tall are the second floor ceilings? I say 8. Adriana insists on 10. All of a sudden the house gets four feet taller. That doesn’t sound like a big deal, but things like that had a bigger impact on everything—costs and time, for instance—than any of us appreciated at the time. That’s longer lumber, more insulation, more of all the finishing materials…whoopsie!

With those plans and decisions in hand, and shortly thereafter my contract executed, it was time to take our basic shape and basic layout and flesh it out into something resembling a house!

Because budget was such a concern, it was always the plan to reuse as much of the original house as we could in the rebuild! That’s right up my alley, of course, but it’s tricky—you don’t want to be so tied to the idea of reuse that the end result suffers because you were just trying to make too much stuff work together. This started with the windows, so I made a simple visual of all the windows that could potentially be relocated and the rough openings required to install them:

Pretty exciting stuff.

Then I set about placing them, and quickly realized that we’d need more windows, and the sizes we had were mostly really strange and difficult to work elegantly into a design. I tried, though! In order to keep costs down, I recommended that new window purchases be readily-available stock sizes.

Here was the first proposed design—oof! I hated that entryway when I proposed it, and I hate it now. Haha! Since the front elevation is where we wanted to minimize views, I kind of liked the idea of doing it up really fortress-like with just a couple little windows on the front. Those windows come from the list of windows with potential for reuse, but the sizes felt arbitrary and not so great.

The clients thought it looked uninviting and scary. I get that. Moving on…

Idea #2! In both of the first two designs, I sort of liked the concept of doing a shed roof over the kitchen/dining spaces, but the required 6/12 pitch was kindaaaaaa too much. I also turned the entryway inside-out, thinking a little recessed covered exterior mudroom kind of thing might be totally cool? Especially clad in a cedar tongue-and-groove or something? Given that we already bumped the front of the house out closer to the road than the existing zoning allows, it seemed like an interesting way to avoid pushing our luck with the building department by also asking for some kind of porch/portico/something that would bring anything structural even closer to the road.

The clients did not like the outdoor mudroom concept. Still not feeling the facade. Next!

I liked this plan! I think I still kinda like this plan! The mismatched window sizes on the second floor window are an error on the rendering, so ignore that. Anyway.

This plan definitely felt the best so far to the clients, but something still wasn’t sitting quite right (with all of us, really) so we brought in another set of eyes! Trained, talented, and experienced eyes! Adriana is great friends with an NYC-based architect named Matt Bremer, so she brought my renderings to him for some input!

Matt drew the above doodle, Adriana sent the doodle to me, I made the alterations in SketchUp, and that got us to…

Boom, house!

And that’s…pretty much what we ended up building. With some minor changes, naturally.

All in all—is this the house I would have built if I could have built anything my heart desired? No. But it IS a house that I think takes into consideration the things that I talked about at the beginning of this post. Simple and relatively inexpensive to build fairly quickly, satisfied our technical requirements, had the happy approval of the homeowners, made effective use of the site, and allowed for an efficient but spacious-feeling interior layout. Check check check!

Now let’s build this thing! This is where it gets fun.

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

  1.  New Season, New Project!
  2. Plans for Olivebridge Cottage!
  3. Oh Dear, Here We Go…
  4. Little House of Horrors
  5. From Bad to Worse (And Worse and Worse and Worse)
  6. Blogger is Hired to Renovate, Mistakenly Destroys Ulster County Art Piece “House”
  7. Olivebridge Cottage: 2.0!
  8. Designing Olivebridge Cottage 2.0: Part 1!

Designing Olivebridge Cottage 2.0: Part 1!

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

So that was fun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was tricky.

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

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

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

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

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

To more like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The living room foundation needs to be rebuilt completely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Annnnd the roofs. Oy vey.

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

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

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

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

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

TIME. IS. A-TICKIN’.

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

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

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

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

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

“Up?”

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

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

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

“OK, I think we’ll do that.”

“Sure.”

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

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

“I was thinking you could do it.”

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

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

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

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

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

In two weeks.

Top to bottom.

Soup to nuts.

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

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

  1.  New Season, New Project!
  2. Plans for Olivebridge Cottage!
  3. Oh Dear, Here We Go…
  4. Little House of Horrors
  5. From Bad to Worse (And Worse and Worse and Worse)
  6. Blogger is Hired to Renovate, Mistakenly Destroys Ulster County Art Piece “House”
  7. Olivebridge Cottage: 2.0!

Olivebridge Cottage: 2.0!

Ladies and gents, do I have a story for you. I think it’s a good one. I built a house. Yeah. I build houses now. It’s just a little thing I picked up.

As some of you may or may not recall, I got hired by this nice couple a little while ago to basically renovate a kitchen and spruce up this little shitbox of a house they bought, which sounded to everyone at the time like a basically fun and quick and relatively inexpensive little project. We called it Olivebridge Cottage. It looked like this:

El diablo. Shudder.

I have never been more wrong about anything in my life. Possibly neither has the nice couple, and hopefully neither has the home inspector who seemed to be under the impression that this house was normal and habitable and not a steaming pile of doo-doo. Not to put too fine a point on it.

It started off with so much light-hearted optimism and excitement. Then I began the work, and it quickly descended into…the opposite of that. Fear, terror, anxiety, serious sads, total dejection. We tried to hang onto some semblance of my original renovation plans, but the issues kept piling up, one on top of the other. We tried chasing our tails, rebuilding one thing only to discover that the adjacent thing also needed to be rebuilt. After a few months, it really felt like living in some kind of practical joke that wasn’t even remotely funny. It made me wonder if I was working on somebody’s art project gone awry instead of an actual house at all, which is sort of funny in retrospect but was just BRUTAL at the time.

Before long, there wasn’t a ton of house left. And what was left was a total nightmare. And everything was terrible.

Here’s the abbreviated list of what we found and then had to figure out a way to address, from the ground up:

  1. Faulty or completely missing foundations. This house was the product of a small original structure and about 5 different additions, and none of them had anything approaching a structurally sound foundation.
  2. Rotted or improperly built framing. Entire walls and floor framing were rotted through and no longer structurally sound. The bulk of the newer framing work had been done with drywall screws(!) rather than nails. Sheathing and siding around the house was rotted. Windows improperly installed without headers or any other means of support. Improper use of pressure-treated lumber. Seriously under-sized framing. So bad.
  3. Faulty roof systems. Basically the house was a heavy snowfall away from collapsing due to a fun combo of rot and improper roof framing. All rafters were undersized for their spans. Ridge beams unsupported. Shingles failing. EPDM on flat roofs improperly installed and leaking. Sheathing rotted.
  4. Old or inoperable utilities. Everything pretty much broken or on its last legs.
  5. Serious pest infestations, including extensive rodent and termite damage.
  6. Significant plumbing issues, including the kitchen sink which drained directly into a hole in the ground right outside, and an overflowing septic system overrun by roots.
  7. Significant electrical issues, including blatant code violations and damage to wiring wrought by aforementioned infestations, necessitating all new electrical throughout the structure.
  8. Lack of insulation, excessively pest-damaged insulation, or insulation that did not meet minimal R-value requirements.
  9. Unsafely installed wood stove.
  10. Serious black mold problem throughout house.
  11. I don’t know, there must be more. It was never-ending.

Truly, I’ve never felt worse about anything—ever—than I did about the first few months of this project. Going there to work every day filled me with so much anxiety and dread. And this wasn’t my house, mind you (THANK GOD), so at the same moment I was having to constantly contact the clients and explain the situation, what it meant budget-wise, why something was necessary…it was Very Bad Times. The number of unexpected issues easily made this the biggest renovation job of my life—much bigger than my house, even though this is half the age and half the size! It didn’t help that I was concurrently trying to run for city council, renovate two other houses, mentor a teenager (long story), get over a long term relationship, not destroy a new relationship (spoiler, it didn’t last!), deal with some health problems, keep this blog even minimally afloat…OY VEY. Do you ever reflect on periods of your life and say confidently that someone couldn’t pay you 5 million dollars to time-hop back there and relive it? Yes. That.

At a certain point, we had to completely change our approach. We’d started with an already slim but workable budget of $25,000, and it was almost spent—just tearing stuff out and trying to rebuild things piece by piece. It got to a point, though, where the issues were just too extensive and I was running out of solutions. I was definitely also starting to feel in over my head, which is usually the time to cut your losses and walk away. Which is more or less what I intended to do.

The turning point eventually came when the building inspector showed up and was somewhat less than pleased about the conditions of the house—not because of anything we were doing to try to improve it, but just being confronted with the sheer magnitude of all these issues within a single structure. The thing about inspectors is that they’re generally not architects or engineers—ours wasn’t—so he couldn’t really tell us what to do, either, except to bring in a team of engineers to provide a roadmap for us. He essentially said that he would enforce the engineers’ plans, but that the scope of our work was beyond what he could individually judge as OK or not OK. Totally fair.

This was both good news and bad news. On the good news front, he did not issue a stop work order and seemed to have some real sympathy for the situation. The engineers’ plans would hopefully provide us what we needed in terms of a very clear set of directives to get it done. On the bad news front…we had NO IDEA what an engineer might say when put in front of this property, and it was their task to not only make things OK and safe, but make things code compliant. This house isn’t that old, but old enough that building codes have steadily changed since its construction or subsequent renovations–which were not permitted and most likely never met code. Once the renovation exceeds 50% the value of the house (which this one certainly would, particularly because that percentage is based on the assessed value of the structure not including the assessed value of the land), you lose the right to have stuff grandfathered in that might otherwise be permissible even if it doesn’t meet modern codes. This is kind of frightening, particularly from a budget perspective. It kind of felt like immediately entering another realm of cost and time and potential heartache that nobody was particularly prepared for.

For example, one of our foundations was essentially a concrete slab, about 4 feet thick, filled mostly with big rocks and chunks of concrete beneath the smooth outer surfaces. But it was sitting right on the ground—no footings at all to keep it stable and in place with frost heaves, that kind of thing. It’s wrong. It is not how you build a foundation. But…the thing was solid. And obviously extremely heavy. Could we have built on it and had everything be fine? Probably, yeah. But it didn’t meet minimal modern code requirements, so it would have to go and be redone properly. Now spread that example across every part of an entire house—even a small one—and suddenly your situation is…sobering.

So I had a few meetings with the engineers, and then we all waited several weeks for them to generate their report. At this point I knew the house and its issues like the back of my hand, so I felt valuable from the standpoint of being able to provide information about the existing conditions and brainstorm possible solutions, but that was about it. You might not think there would be a lot of room for creativity when you’re talking about foundations and 2x8s, but some issues required some unorthodox thinking to find a fix that was structurally sound, code-compliant, and allowed us to maintain as much of the existing structure as we could.

That said, at this point it felt likely that we were looking toward demolishing and rebuilding at least most of the remaining house, and…that’s not what I was hired to do. Need a new sofa? Sure, I can help with that. Want to pick out tile? Funsies. Need to underpin a foundation? Hire a builder and leave me the hell alone.

Then the engineering report came in. We’ll talk more about the contents, but basically it was about what I was expecting—some areas of the house being completely rebuilt, others needing major work in order to salvage.

So. I was prepared to flee. Not literally flee, but at this point we’re like 5 months into a 2 month job, and looking at a really long road ahead. I had my own projects to get back to. And this was totally outside my wheelhouse. It wasn’t just that the going got tough—that I can basically handle—but overseeing all this work I’d never done seemed rife with potential to do more harm than good. I just wanted to be done.

And I felt like the clients, if they knew what was best for them, would also want me to be done. The job had so clearly outgrown the little dog-and-pony show we’d been putting on—wherein a blogger with some interior design experience was tasked with making over a house with the help of a couple contractors (Edwin and Edgar, my dudes) for a few hours here and there. That would have been challenging but OK had things gone according to plan, but this? This felt distinctly like a job for an actual builder, with an actual crew and an actual team of subs, who had actual experience, who could actually get this done without actually losing their fucking mind. That, or inadvertently steering their clients into even more treacherous financial straits.

So I tried to explain this to the clients, Adriana and Barry. And they did not exactly agree.

To the enormous credit of Adriana and Barry, they were always very good about separating the work I was doing from the issues I was finding. In other words, they weren’t blaming me. They understood that the issues with the house pre-dated my involvement, and that so many of them presented major safety concerns that they were relieved to know about them, even when the truth hurt. That was HUGE for me, because uncovering all of this while I basically dismantled this house day in and day out for months had not been kind to my psyche. I knew it wasn’t my fault. I did. I also felt like it was. It was an awful way to feel. And I know I’m talking a lot about my ~feelings~ during this period, but you know what? I think it matters. It’s easy to look at this kind of thing as a set of financial and structural and aesthetic and practical decisions, but it’s all really emotional, too. I felt awful about the house and I felt awful for the clients, and it’s not like that feeling went away when I was off site. It was 24/7. The clients felt awful about the amount of money they were spending, the fact that they still couldn’t enjoy the house they’d bought 9 months prior, and that they pretty much never would because we were going to tear most of it down. That they also had the energy to feel awful for me is pretty remarkable.

The point is, they wanted me to see it through. They felt more confident in me than I did that I could pull it off. Plus, they didn’t want to start over with a new plan and a new contractor they’d never worked with, particularly living two hours away, and they really wanted to move swiftly and get it done so they could actually enjoy their house! I’d been there since Day 1. I knew the house better than anybody. I knew what they wanted out of it. And as many times as I told them I just wasn’t the man for the job, they weren’t having it. And if that was really what they wanted, then walking away began to feel worse than staying around and giving it the old college try. Even though it all seemed…risky.

So I stuck around. And now I’m really glad I did, because what followed was definitely one of the most challenging, educational, and ultimately exciting things I’ve ever done. I built a whole house. Not single-handedly, and not entirely without the usual hiccups, but I did it. And I’m pretty damn proud of that, thankyouverymuch.

Building a house is hard work, and building this house specifically tested everything I’ve got in so many ways! So forgive me for holding out on writing about it. It was one of those things where I was so drained from living it that writing about it as it was happening just felt impossible. And I didn’t want to jinx things, which never felt like such a real and potent risk until I experienced the first go-round of renovating this house.

But now? I have so. much. to. tell. you. This…this is gonna be fun. Let’s build a house!

Psssst! There’s obviously much more to come, but maybe you need a little refresher on Olivebridge Cottage, 1.0? A condensed record of my descent into insanity? Here ya go!

  1.  New Season, New Project!
  2. Plans for Olivebridge Cottage!
  3. Oh Dear, Here We Go…
  4. Little House of Horrors
  5. From Bad to Worse (And Worse and Worse and Worse)
  6. Blogger is Hired to Renovate, Mistakenly Destroys Ulster County Art Piece “House”

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:

exterior3

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.”

squirrelhouse1

“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.”

squirell-house4

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.”

Lbrackets

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.”

squirrelhouse2

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.

rodentnestelectrical

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.”

porchdemo1

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.”

porchdemo3

“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.

bedroomwall

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.

diningsliders

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.

bedroomwindow2

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.

bedroomwindow3

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.

diningroomwallreframing

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

anchorbolts

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.

diningwindow

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.

diningwindow2

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.

bedroomsliders1

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.

bedroomsliders2

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

1

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.

2

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.

3

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.

sunkenLRdemo

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:

diningstairs1

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.

diningroomstairframing2

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.

bathroomframing1

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.

eatenframing

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

eatenelectric

Or catch on fire.

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

kitchendiningfloorframing

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.

LRjoists1

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.

LRjoists2

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?!?!

LRjoists3

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

LRjoists

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.

Roofline1

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:

rendering-5_18

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.

LRsillplate

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?

LRfoundation

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.

LRfoundation2

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

LRfoundation3

Hot holy damn.

livingroomdemo2

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

livingroomdemo

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:

livingroomdemo3

Which got cleaned up to look like this:

livingroomdemo4

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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