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?
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.
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.
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.
Oof. This is not exactly what we were hoping for.
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…
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.
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.
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).
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.
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!