Somehow I forgot to post last week’s list, but rest assured there was a list and it had check boxes on it. Here’s what’s up this week:
- Quote lally column replacement
- Quote for termite control
- Call Cleveland Water/Clear Read and figure out water/meter installation steps
- Contact Dominion about Energy Savings Program
- Plan plumbing system, order parts
- Demo: ceiling 2nd floor bedroom ceiling
- Demo: 2nd floor flooring
- Demo: 1st floor addition ceilings
- Remove trimwork, label, and preserve in the house
- Decide HVAC and submit contract
- Demo: Closets on 2nd floor
- Order windows
- Create a lumber order
- Secure a dumpste
- Remove damaged wood from basement
- Continue jacking up house
- Inspect interior doors and save hardware
- Price out borate solution for treating new wood for termites
- Gather lumber quotes
- Remove old iron pipes for Em’s crazy ideas
The most overwhelming part of this project has been the torrent of decisions we have to make. Sometimes they’re easy and you can either work them out through reason or at least pro and con them. For example, we need a new furnace. We got some quotes, looked at some models, and we’re going to pick through a list of options based on money, company presentation, and product. That seems straightforward to me. Other times the decisions are harder. I’m baffled at the range of choices in kitchen cabinet finish. There’s an entire industry crafted around selling homeowners on aesthetic choices and convincing them not only do they need to renovate, but they need to install the Imperial line of Kraftmade branded kitchen cabinetry. Somewhere between these two kinds of choices lay our floors.
The house has around 12 rooms and each one has some flooring issues. Not in the “replace every floor in the house” kind of way, but some need some sanding and spit polish while others have some deeper in grained issues. On top of this, we budgeted in adding things like tiling, refinishing, and carpeting because even though the lovely circa 1992 vinyl stick on tiles could probably be cleaned up and used, I’d rather just put some time into installing a nice floor. Here’s a really neat picture. What you’re seeing is the 2nd floor hallway. When we got the house, there was a huge piece of press board covering this area.
The last owner had carpeted everything save the kitchen and bathroom so absolutely everything is covered in carpet tacks. As part of installing whole house carpeting, the installers went and created transitions between flooring materials where ever they needed to because once you throw a pad and a carpet over it, you’d never know there was plywood and hardwood and tile and whatever else being covered up. Under that plywood is several layers of hardwood flooring. I don’t know enough about wood to identify types, but it’s easy enough to tell the different floorboards. There’s the original floor boards that are in most of the house, covered by a skinnier, lighter colored plank. In the picture, you can see where bits of this lighter colored wood are missing from the floor in a kind of L pattern. That lighter wood only exists in one upstairs bedroom. The two other things you can see are the vinyl floor of the upstairs bathroom, and this funky adhesive tiling in the upstairs landing. I like this picture because you’re seeing 4 generations of flooring, pulled back like a core sample of home improvements.
The question at hand for us comes in two parts. First, do we try to save the original flooring or install new? Second, if we install new, what do we get? Initially in our planning I had pushed for carpeting some of the upstairs. This is probably good because it meant we budgeted for full carpet install. As we’ve gotten more dirty in the project and began talking about the idea of restoring the original
floors, I’ve softened on the carpeting thing. I still feel strongly about tiling the kitchen, and I’ll push for tiling the bathroom we’re redoing as well as the laundry room. We’ll also need to do something in the mudroom and hall, but that will probably end up just being some kind of cheaper floating floor. The other place we’ll need to install a new floor will be the upstairs landing and hall. Unfortunately, the core sample reveals that no particular era flooring remains intact up there and I doubt we can find enough original wood to patch the holes. But we do have enough to work as a subfloor for whatever we put over it. I don’t know if we do an engineered wood or new hardwood in that area, but it will likely be the only new wood we’ll add to the house (knock on wood).
The comforting thought about restoring the original floors is that I won’t need to make many decisions about look and material. They’ll be what they are. The worrisome thought about everything else is eventually we’ll have to come to consensus on what flooring to order. Luckily you do floors after most everything else.
As we approached closing on the house we spent a lot of time batting around ideas for what we wanted to do with the existing space. This has been an exercise in dreaming big and then cropping our dreams to fit our time and budget. We’ve kicked around some really wacky ideas including custom building an aquarium back splash in the kitchen, combining two bedrooms into a massive master suite, and a host of other minor and major ideas. Part of this process has forced us to learn about how houses are constructed generally and how our house is constructed specifically. It’s all exciting when HDTV tells you how you can just open up that load baring wall to create an “open floor plan”, but in reality, such a venture requires an engineer, possibly an architect, and approval from the city planner’s office before you make cut one.
One of the neat things we’ve learned so far is the way the city is involved with respect to the scope of your project. First, if you own the house and aren’t renting it, you can sign an affidavit that allows you to do everything yourself. You’re still held to the same standards as a licensed contractor, and you’ll still have to get inspectors to stamp your work, but you can DIY till your little heart is content. It’s interesting because a lot of other major cities in the US won’t let a home owner tinker with their major mechanical. When you go down to city hall to pull permits, you have to pull a general building permit, and then a separate (essentially an add-on) permit for the three major mechanicals: HVAC, electric, and plumbing. The process is actually straight forward if you aren’t changing anything structural. You make an itemized list of everything you’re doing, cost out the job, and fill out a form. The electric permit is the easiest. You just pay a fee based on square footage. I should point out that I’m talking strictly about renovating residential construction by the owner. It’s a very different process for new buildings, commercial buildings, and whatever else you might be doing. Permits get a little trickier if you’re making structural changes. This could be as simple as punching a new window or putting up a fence, or as complicated as adding an addition. If you’re making changes of that degree, you have to have your plan approved by the appropriate office. Again, if you are an owner who is signing the affidavit, you can do all of this yourself. You have to submit drawings of you changes, but they don’t have to have an architect’s seal. I can only imagine the back-of-the-napkin-style scribbles people turn in. The folks at the department of building in City Hall are fantastically helpful and this layer of bureaucracy shouldn’t put you off any crazy renovation designs you might have.
Back to our project. The existing kitchen is more or less a rectangle with one bank of cabinets. Our house is a 1910 craftsmen-style home and still has that closed, small room design. While I do buy into the “open floor plan” trend that’s so popular today, it just isn’t feasible to go knocking down every room in a hundred year old house. But because we’re basically building a kitchen from scratch, we did let those plans spill over into the adjoining living room. Specifically, as it looks now, there’s two pass throughs in the kitchen. One of which goes right between the stove and the sink. I wasn’t too happy about that as people walking around me when I’m working in the kitchen is one of my pet peeves. Our fix was to close that walkway up. While we’re at it, we’ll open that wall up and build a breakfast bar for people to sit at and look in on the kitchen. I’m really excited about that idea as it’ll bring light into the living room which is pretty dark, and create a bigger feel in the kitchen, which is long and narrow. We were also lucky in that the wall that divides the two is a partition wall with joists spanning above and below parallel to the wall. A simple 2×8 header is all we’ll need to create the opening.
The other big structural change is in the addition. As I mentioned in a previous post, there’s a fair bit of termite eaten wood we need to replace. This gives us the opportunity to reframe the addition in our own designs. Right now, it’s a large hallway/mudroom with a laundry room and bathroom. Our idea is to push those two rooms back and out, so it’ll reduce the size of the hallway, but give us room to create a walk-in pantry. I’m very fond of pantries as a way to organize your kitchen apart from the kitchen itself, and this idea will help alleviate the fact that the kitchen itself won’t have a great deal of storage space, especially if we’re opening one wall. Building a bathroom from the ground up will give us the opportunity to do some cool things with plumbing, and we’ll add a shower that will hopefully increase the overall value of the house. Another positive thing is, while it’s a pain in the rear to move mechanicals if you’re just renovating one room, at the point we’re your gutting a significant portion of your house, it’s pretty easy to push around pipes and electrical.
Before we bought the house we had a structural inspection done. We knew we were buying a rehab project. We knew it didn’t have copper, the furnace had to be replaced, etc etc etc. So we didn’t opt for a full on inspection because so much of it was just a gut job anyway. No reason to pay some guy 200 bucks to tell me what I already knew. On top of that, the CDC that runs this program has their inspector comprise a spec sheet anyways. So far, I feel good about our choices. Especially because a lot of systems in the house are in way better condition than initially assessed. Sure there’s no copper, but the electrical has been crazy upgraded (I’ll post about that some other time) and the garage looks brand new. What we were concerned about going into the project was the structural stability of the foundation and supports because there is a particular point in the back of the house that has noticeably sunk. We would have avoided this property had the inspector told us the foundation was sinking or we had some serious problems that would require $10,000+ of specialty contractors before we could start anything upstairs. What came back was a report that essentially said that all the stone was fine, the main support beams were fair, and the sinking was due to termite activity.
I’m familiar with termites in the south. The big, nasty things that can decimate a house in under two years if you leave them be. Frankly, I didn’t even know that termites existed in the north. In the north eastern part of the US, subterranean termites are actually a fairly common problem but they’re different than southern termites. They’re smaller and slower moving. While they can do the same level of damage, it takes them much longer. Termites are a small, colony-building insect that consumes wood cellulose. Imagine an ant farm. Now imagine that network of tunnels, instead of being built in sand, is built inside the wood of your house frame. Bad news of your structural stability. More over, often you don’t notice or catch termite activity until it’s substantial because from the outside, your wood appears fine. Termites don’t like the light and need a moist environment to live. If exposed to the elements, they’ll die in a matter of a few hours. They do their work in secret.
The inspector found and photographed termite damaged wood and mud tubes. These are tubes built up out of chewed wood particles that they will travel through to maintain their moist environment. You’ll find them along substances that aren’t wood, like stone block where the termites will attempt to get from one point to another. What he couldn’t find was any actual termites. While there’s a plethora of testing methods, the only way you can truly confirm you have an active termite infestation is to find live termites. We haven’t found any. Additionally, the wood and basement are very dry. Here’s another tricky thing about not knowing anything about the history of the house. We have no way of knowing if there was ever any treatment done for termites. It’s clear from the damage that they were active for a long time. So far we’ve tracked the damage from the basement into the first floor in and around the area of sagging. It might go into the second floor but we won’t know until we start demoing walls. But we have yet to find any termites. Its the mystery of the missing termites.
The good news is that they seem mostly confined to the addition and we haven’t discovered any damage to exterior walls. The interior walls were going to be taken out anyways, and we budgeted both time and money to fix the sagging in the floors, replace damaged wood, and test for (and if necessary treat for) the existence of live termites. You can have some crazy testing done searching for pests in the home including heat scans, acoustic scans, and bug-sniffing dogs, but the most common system involves putting traps around the perimeter of the property and checking them every few weeks until you either find something or you don’t. All in all, I was much happier to hear that it’s maybe a $1500 problem than a $15000 problem and we ended up buying the house. I’m actually excited to fix the structural supports. It’ll involve jacking up the house and shoring up some floor joists. It’s something I’ve never done before and might not get a chance to do in the future. Plus, in a strange kind of way, it makes the job easier. Because we have to tear out the damaged framing wood anyways, we were given the incentive to play around with the footprint of that section of the house. As a result, we’re going to add a pantry, move around closets, and change room layouts. Not to mention that demoing what’s essentially balsa wood is way easier than demoing fresh white wood. Thanks for that Mr. Termite.
We’re still waiting for permits. That’ll be its own post. In the mean time, I’ve been working on a few odd jobs that don’t necessarily require the approval of city hall.
As part of putting together our permit application, I called the city engineer to run down the list of things that do or don’t need approval. Cleveland is pretty vague about that line. Like most municipalities, it often comes down to taxes more than safety. But the engineer was very helpful and his list of “that’s just maintenance, get it done” has been my to-dos while we wait. My first major project then was to replace missing and damaged boards on our rear steps. The back door of the house goes out on to a 4’x4′ deck with stairs down to the driveway. When we got the house, the rear door was barricaded with some 2x4s and the rear steps weren’t operable. We’ll need that opening to work for serious demolition time.
Like most things, the project seemed straight forward. I would just remove the existing planks, cut new pressure treated lumber to the same size, and attach it in the same layout. And like most projects it wasn’t without it’s hiccups. The first issue being that once I removed the deck planks, I discovered that the brackets on each end of the joists were rusted out. That required yanking those brackets out and replacing them. (I’m pretty sure replacing structure ties now ticked this job over into that other category I talked about with the engineer, but once you’re in it, you’re in it). The good news is that the structural wood itself is fine. The posts and joists are weathered, but there was no rot, cracking, sagging, or other determinable damage.
I decided to not replace the structural wood since it seems fine and at that point, I might as well just knock the whole thing down and start from new concrete. It’s kind of nice to know that each of these jobs fits into a very large framework. It keeps my tendency towards ballooning scope in check.
The second challenge came in grafting new wood onto old wood. While the structure wood is okay, that doesn’t mean it’s not without some warping, shifting, swelling, or other minor changes that materials exposed to the elements will go through over time. There’s also probably some amount of original craftmanship being less than stellar. I’m not sure if it’s clear in the pictures, but if you look at the wood planks around the posts, instead of cutting single paces to size, they took scrap block and nailed it in to create a uniform rectangle. Small pieces of lumber will inverably decay faster than big ones. And as a result, there were little bits of twisted wood that needed to be yanked off. So it’s no surprise that there were issues like the left side of the platform frame being about 4″ longer than the right side. That makes what should be a relatively easy job of cutting down some planks, dropping them in place, and nailing them down, into a trickier venture. My solution (right or wrong, who knows?) was to cut my boards, and then shave them down to progressively make up for the long side. So instead of installing rectangles, I was installing slight trapezoids. Then, after all the boards were in place, I went back with a sawzall and cut down my ends to make them appear uniform.
That, plus a straight nailing pattern, gives the illusion of a nice squared deck. It also helps that I did the wood around the posts in a single piece. I had a similar problem building out the stairs that I tried to overcome with a combination of shims and board shaving. I’m less happy with that result as you can feel the unevenness in the second step. Not that they were even to begin with, and again, the only way to really overcome that would have been to rebuild from scratch. Still, overall I’m happy with how everything came out and it’s good to actually do something in the property. Up until now it’s mostly been making phone calls, taking meetings, and filling out paperwork.
Things I learned on the project: 1) How to pry off old, rusted brackets — sounds straight forward, but I had a damnable time with the first one and by the last one it was smooth as silk; 2) You can’t treat pressure-treated wood for 6 months — I had originally intended to seal the boards individually before installing them. A conversation with the guy in the paint department at home depot and reading a few bucket labels reveled that the out-gassing takes a long time to dissipate and anything I would be buying now would just be a waste.