The laundry room was completely Em’s design. She picked out the washer/dryer set she wanted. She picked out the tile, the wall paneling, and the paint. She even picked out where she wanted the vent in the room to be. She plumbed the washer box and painted the walls. I just installed the stuff. We now have a working washer and dryer and a very bright and fun laundry room. As of writing this, I still need to finish caulking the trim, a second coat of paint, and putting in a door, but otherwise it’s pretty much a finished room.
Our new design involves a pass through bar area between the kitchen and the livingroom. We got rid of the doorway in that wall, opened it up, and replaced it with a half wall. The goal was to cut down on the walk through area in the kitchen workspace while still creating open sight lines. You can cook while still socializing into other parts of the house. This meant picking not only kitchen countertops but also a counter for the bar top separating the two rooms. That choice proved to be difficult for us. Pretty early on we knew we wanted butcher block in the kitchen. One of the downsides about butcher block is that it’s soaked in oil. That means any stacks of paper or fabric you leave on the counter over night can be stained. We could have finished it with a sealant, but I was hesitant about that because it being so close to the kitchen. Basically, you don’t want to have raw food interacting with polyurethane if you can help it. We set about finding some other material for the bar top. Emily doesn’t like most solid surface counters. No granite, marble, no stone, etc. On the other hand, I don’t like formica or other laminates. I’m also not so fond of ceramic tops. All of which puts us in a pickle since we’ve now crossed off most options.
This conundrum led Em to investigate metal tops. She looked at stainless steel, zinc, copper, and a few other options. Some of these turned out to be really cool, but really expensive. Then Em hit on this idea she saw in a blog. I believe this was the original entry she read about it in. The basic idea is you take a two part epoxy, the kind used to seal traditional bar tops or those really shiny car showroom floors, and use it to immerse pretty much any cool array of objects. For our project, I built a frame out of poplar and a double sheet of three quarter ply. The trim I stained to match our kitchen counters. The inside of the frame I painted black and then sealed with silicone. The whole thing is set on some pretty beefy brackets and screwed into the pony wall between the kitchen and living room. Next, Em took 35 bucks in pennies and laid them out in the frame in a pretty cool geometric pattern. I got to cut a few bits of pennies using an angle grinder. That was awesome. Then we poured about a gallon of mixed epoxy over the whole thing and spread it out with a plastic spreader. Some heat gunning and finishing nails took care of most of the bubbles and we left the thing to set up over night. By the next day, the epoxy had hardened and the counter top was done. It’s really neat. I suspect we’ll add another layer of epoxy in a few months. It doesn’t quite fill to the lip of the counter and a little bit ran out of an unsealed crack in one corner. But on the whole it came out spectacularly. Now we just need to finish up that wall area, paint the livingroom, and most of the 1st floor is on to little finishing work.
You know those claw games at the super market or highway rest stop? I love playing those things. As we’re cleaning out the rental as part of the move, we have been piling up trash and cardboard. The city of Cleveland Heights allows just about anything to be put out on the curb. I’ve always wondered exactly how they cart away those piles of couches, old construction supplies, and huge stacks of magazines.
When we first designed the project, I kind of expected it to end with a big moving day. I even fantasized about hiring movers for the first time in my life. Unfortunately, with Em’s injury set back, our altered timeline means our lease is up at our current place before we can move into the new one. The solution is to move all our stuff into storage at the new place and couch surf for a few weeks while we finish up the work. That means I’ve been hauling boxes, one car load at a time and storing them in the finished bedrooms. At the end of the month, we’ll uhaul all our furniture into the garage. Towards that end, our new house now hosts our most important possessions: board games and yarn.
I mentioned in a previous post that we ordered our countertops from a mill out in Burton, OH. They showed up several weeks ago. We have a galley style kitchen with two long embankments. We ordered a counter about 6′ long for the shorter wall and about 10′ long for the longer wall. It’s possible that if I was smarter about laying everything out ahead of time, we could have ordered that big piece as two smaller pieces since I had to cut an opening for the range anyways. But at the time I wasn’t sure how all the cabinetry was going to come together. I don’t really trust things on paper. I mean, I measure and remeasure, and I’m decent at basic arithmetic. But until I have everything in the space and push it around, I don’t really know how it’s all going to work. This has been especially true with our crooked house.
Case in point. The shorter set of cabinets sits against the wet wall. The wet wall is a menagerie of original wood, wood that was added for the addition, and wood that I added in this renovation. As it happened, the drywall isn’t close to being plumb. I discovered this when I tried to install the cabinetry. There was a solid inch between the top of my level cabinet and the wall behind it. This challenge was solved by Emily pointing out that I could cut away the drywall behind the cabinets and slide them back. A little bit of scribe molding and you’d never know. The countertop was just as difficult. They show up as perfect rectangles. Our wall is anything but perfect. There were all kinds of bumps and hills keeping it from sitting flush. On this particular wall, our long term plan is to install some uppers with open shelves and probably a tile or metal backsplash. However, because we’re on a tight timetable at this point, that part of the kitchen is getting punted until after we move in. As it stands, I just needed to paint the wall and then make the cabinets and the countertop sit flush against it. After I figured out where on the wall the countertop was going to be, I went about the task of planing and irregular surface to the rear. Essentially I needed to take the wiggly line of our wall and scribe it to the back of the countertop. For what it’s worth, most drywall isn’t straight. Most walls aren’t straight. They have bumps and imperfections. Don’t believe me? Take a flash light or a lamp and shine a light at an acute angle down the wall. You’ll see bumps and pits and scratches and all kinds of things you never noticed before. I’ll warn you though, you’ll never be able to unsee them now that you know where they are. Anywho, I scribed the back to sit flush against our crazy wall.
The company that made them gave us a handout describing their process and stressing that you have to install the countertops within 7 days of receiving them or you void the warrenty. Installation involves finishing the edges and top, and sealing the underside with polyurethane. The top side is sealed the same way if it’s not going to be in contact with food. If you will use them with food, then you need to start sealing them with oil. Traditionally, butcher block was a crude table made of remnant wood set on end that was used to butcher meat. In the hot butchery, animal fat would sit, liquifying on the block all day long. Each night the block was cleaned by rubbing it down with rock salt and then wiping the salt away with a damp rag. The animal fat impregnated the dry wood, filling the fiber cavities that had once been full of water. Since oil and water don’t mix, water would bead up and be repelled be a seasoned butcher block countertop. Modern counters work in a similar fashion. You have to treat them to keep water from penetrating the wood, otherwise the counter can warp or crack. Generally people today don’t treat the counters with animal fat. It goes rancid and smells bad after a while. The two oils of choice are either mineral oil or almond oil. Both are foodsafe and won’t get stinky on you. In the early stages of light for your new butcherblock, you have to treat continuously. Once every day or two for the first 6 months of use, you should oil it down, let the oil sit for 20 minutes, then wipe it up. After that, you can throttle back to every couple of weeks then every month or so. You should beware not to let it dry out too much between oilings. For our counters, we treated them with a product that includes wax for a better seal against ambiant air. When we start using the kitchen, I’ll switch to straight daily oiling.
The counters were also my excuse to learn how to rout. The mill would have charged us to finish the edges. We just wanted a simple rounded edge and the charges worked out to just about the cost of a router. So another DIY project for me! I’m actually really glad we went this route (see what I did there?). I’ve already used the router several times and I’m excited to do some fine woodworking in a few months when I can set up the garage as a workshop. I don’t often feel prideful, but I feel really good about how the countertops came out. I did a small roundover on the bottom edge and a slightly large one for the top and corners. Then I sanded the whole piece with 220 grit paper on an orbital sander and followed up with some 320 grit hand sanding for a really nice finish. We have yet to buy a sink, but when we do, I’ll cut a hole in the counter and reseal that area as part of installing the sink.
The counter on the other side of the room, the long piece spans about 6 or 7 feet of cabinetry, the stove, and then an additional 18″ or so where I was able to squeeze in another cabinet to the left of the stove and make use of an ackward niche near the chimney. That project was one of the most complicated bits as it involved taking a smallish upper cabinet and converting it to be a lower cabinet. Additionally, the placement of the stove had to be jiggled in order for everything to fit around it and it to line up with the gas and electrical outlets while still sitting nicely under the hood range. All that is to say that I needed to have the stove and all the cabinets in place before measuring and cutting the countertop otherwise I would have never gotten close to getting things to sit correctly. I got a little crafty with the long piece. It’s finished the same way as the shorter one, but I got to rout out some grooves and edging so all the parts of the kitchen sit snuggly together. I still need to finish adding molding to everything and I asked my cabinet guy to get me another filler strip for an area about the fridge, but all in all, everything is coming along nicely. Once we have a sink and plumbing the kitchen will be ready for inspection.
Our spec list from the CDC required us to replace the existing furnace with a brand new high-efficiency model. While it didn’t fire up, the existing furnace wasn’t necessarily unusable, but we budgeted and planned around replacing it anyways. The house was actually in really good shape duct-wise. There’s a cold air return in every room of the house feeding the air return trunk. New duct systems are essential a circle. Hot/cold air is blown out from one vent and then collected in a second (usually on or near the floor). This air is filtered and fed back into the furnace. In older homes, and certainly every place I’ve ever lived, the furnace just pulls in ambient air in the room or basement that it’s stored in. Around here, we have “The Cleveland Drop”. This is a hole cut into the floor of large main rooms with a register cover over it. It’s so the cold air can just drop into the basement and be sucked up by the furnace. While it doesn’t usually matter where your HVAC gets it’s intake air, recycling the same treated air is more efficient because the system will be adjusting back and forth between a few degrees of temperature change.
In addition to having the furnace replaced, we decided to install central A/C and have the ducts cleaned (something we would have done on the project no matter how the rest of the HVAC panned out). Em has never lived in a place with central A/C and despite growing up in Florida, it’s not a luxury that I’m used to. In Cleveland we probably have 2 to 3 months of really hot weather and every year there’s at least a couple of brutal days. Last year, the fourth of July weekend was particularly bad. We spent the entire time hunkered down in the bedroom with the wall unit running full tilt trying to watch a tv we could barely hear over the noise. On a personal note, I’m also looking forward to being able to host more house guests, parties, and board games without having to pass out napkins for everyone to blot their faces. It’s funny, in the grand scheme of things, when you’re already spending five grand on a new furnace, a couple more for an a/c doesn’t seem like that big of an expense. I’ve also noticed that it’s been far easier to spend money on this project (I’m kind of a miser in my normal life) because we’ve already debated and budgeted everything at the start.
The heating and cooling is the one large piece of the project we contracted out. We did some minor duct work ourselves (mostly moving things in walls and running to the new rooms). I’m not sure if we would have been legally allowed to replace the furnace ourselves, but it’s a level of complexity that we just weren’t willing to tackle. We ended up having about half a dozen companies bid the project. As part of getting into this program with the CDC, we were required to take a class on home-ownership. Part of this class involved a session with a contractor talking about maintaining your home. He explained that with your furnace, mostly all the equipment is going to be the same as long as you’re dealing with brand names and similar stats. The big difference between a good performance and bad performance in an HVAC system is about the installer. Proper installation means the air is coming in and going out as efficiently as possible. Bad installation could mean leaky gaskets, undersized or oversized equipment, or bad line work. Having your equipment properly sized is a really big deal. If you have too much furnace, then you’ll be wasting energy as you’ll be constantly changing the thermostat. If it’s too small, then your 2nd floor will never feel warm. Likewise, if you have too much A/C, then the house gets colder faster than the moisture can be removed leading to a clammy feeling like begin in a wet cave. And if it’s undersized, your upstairs will be really hot. When we had people quote the project, this difference really shown in the way the different companies handled the estimate. Several companies came in and just measured the physical footprint of the previous furnace and asked me about the square footage of the house. The company we ended up going with, by contrast, measured all the physical dimensions of the interior of the house and calculated out total volume. They also accounted windows, doors, and various other factors and plugged it all into some complex program to figure out proper sizing for the new heating and cooling systems. We actually didn’t get the quote back from them for a few days after the initial visit. Other companies would write us a quote on the spot. If you’re interested, we ended up going with Kasadonis Heating and Cooling. They weren’t the cheapest quote, but they seemed to be the most thorough during the quote process.
The new system is a 96% efficient furnace with a 2-stage blower and a 16 SEER A/C condenser. That all sounds really fancy and to tell you the truth, I really only understand the broad strokes of what goes into those numbers and qualities so I’ll try to explain it with a light bulb analogy. With light bulbs, you have energy that goes in and light that comes out. You also have some amount of heat that’s generated. Heat is wasted energy. So an incandescent lamp that gets really hot is clearly wasting more of it’s energy as heat than an LED lamp that provides similar light levels with a much cooler radiation. Any energy that isn’t coming out as light is inefficient. A heating and cooling system then, uses energy in the form of electricity and natural gas (in our case). Some amount of that energy is not going to be converted into heated or cooled air that is circulated through the house. For example, with older forced-air furnace systems, the furnace is vented up through the roof, often through an existing chimney stack. That venting can be as hot as 400F when the furnace is running full tilt. This is because the heat generated by burning the gas isn’t being efficiently transferred to the air that’s circulating through the house. There’s a lot of reasons this could be the case, and I honestly don’t understand the system well enough to describe the different ways in which waste is happening. What I can tell you is that we were guided in our HVAC choices by a couple of different sources. The more efficient your equipment, the more expensive it’s going to be. That’s pretty much always true no matter what you’re talking about. However, in our case, there were state and federal tax grants and rebates that made the choice a lot more financially appealing. Additionally, the spec list from the CDC required a high efficiency installation, as well as the terms for our renovation loan that requires energy efficient upgrades to the property.
Instillation day was really neat. It took 4 or 5 techs and laborers about 6 hours to put in the whole system and haul out the old furnace. They ran a couple pvc pipes to the exterior wall near the kitchen window. One is the vent and the other is the air intake. They added a couple of circuits to my breaker box to fit in the A/C in, and ran lines to the external condenser. They also ran a pvc drain pipe across the basement and into the floor drain. Both the A/C and Furnace cause condensation that needs to be drained away from the unit. They put in a polymer platform for the a/c rather than pouring a cement slab. I was a little surprised by that but as it turns out, a poured slab isn’t really done anymore due to long term problems it can cause. They also installed a new programmable thermostat that’s pretty slick. The work crew were all real nice and seemed to know what they were doing. I won’t have any gauge on the system until we get through at least a year of running it, but it turned on and seems to work out of the box. We’ll see if there’s any issues with the hvac inspection, but I can’t imagine anything big comes up on that front.
It’s good to have the last big piece of the puzzle in place. HVAC was the mechanical system we’ve waited the longest to get installed and now it’s completely done.