Monday, August 18, 2008

The Last Renovation Post?

I sure hope that it is. We are still waiting on the final inspection – have been waiting for a couple of weeks – but other than that the contractor’s work is done. With the addition of some salvaged furniture, we now have a comfortable outdoor room on the front porch. You can read more about the furniture at Stitching Times.

We also finally have a functional patio. After a lot of trial and error, the final solution was to add concrete between the pavers and push the pea gravel down into the concrete to give it texture. It’s pretty lumpy and bumpy, but some of that will wear over time. The whole thing still has some other issue issues – most notably the feeling that you are listing to port when you sit on it. Apparently the original patio was sloped toward a drain at the corner of the carport. Since the new patio was designed to follow that outline, you can see the problem. It’s fairly subtle, but we have a couple of chairs swivel chairs that make it more noticeable. I guess that as long as the drinks don’t slop over, it’s not a problem. With the railing installed and the bones of the landscaping done, it is shaping up. Now we will have to wait for a flash flood to see if the patio solved the water in the basement issue.
We ended up with a couple of piles of leftover gravel. One will form the base of a dry creek bed that we are going to run along the east side of the yard to divert water and the other will be used along with some concrete to make more pavers to create a transition from the patio to the grass.
We also still need to paint the back porch now that the pressure treated lumber has cured. I had a go with hammer and drill this weekend, and countersunk all of the nails and screws that needed it, and the railing seams have been caulked and are curing. In a couple of days we will give it a good wash, then prime and paint. The plan is to paint the railings white and the stain the deck a medium gray color.

I probably shouldn’t even mention the gutters. We do still have one gutter corner that leaks, and one of these days Mark or I will climb up there and seal it up. Ditto with the gutter covers, some of which aren’t seated properly.

Now it is on to the projects we are committed to finish ourselves. We have decided that growing grass if the front yard is a loosing proposition. There is just too much shade, and between the maple tree and the crepe myrtle, too much competition for resources. Instead we are building paths through the yard, and turning the whole thing into a cross between a woodland and a cottage garden. You can read about the garden plans at my Native in the City blog post.

By the way, here are a few thoughts for what to do with left over bricks and pavers. Turn bricks on their side and use them to make rustic stepping stones. Use the pavers to make a narrow driveway wider. We have one side completed, and a stack of pavers to do the same on the other side. Once those are in place we will repair the cracked concrete in the drive.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Gutter Gripes and Patio Peeves

It’s been a month since my last post and we still aren’t finished. When will this end?

The gutters have been a big part of the story this month. The guys who installed them have been called back about a dozen times – first because the gutter on the back of the house was so bowed in the middle that it didn’t drain at all, and the drain in the front dumped out exactly where they were told not to put it. Also, water was running behind the gutters in a few spots, and all of the corners were leaking. And they forgot to install the screens. Gradually the problems were rectified but after several visits, the general contractor finally gave up and sealed the corners of the gutters himself. “But what about the water running behind the gutters”, you ask? One more stop at Home Depot and we now have cute little corner guards that keep the water where it is supposed to go.

These are the same guys who inspected the roof when the project first began and claimed we didn’t need a new roof – just new boots on all of the vents. “Are you sure?” we said. “It leaks an awful lot,” we said. “Another roofer told us we had hail damage,” we said. Well of course, after replacing all the boots, we still had the same leaks, so they climbed up there again and said, “Oh. You have a couple of small holes in the roof. We can fill those with tar and it will last for another couple of years.” Right. Still leaking. Well the general contractor climbed into the attic and found the real holes in the roof in about 5 minutes. He sent a couple of his guys up on the roof with a pack of shingles and we now are leak free. We still need a new roof, but now really can get by for a couple more years.

To be fair, a good bit of work has been completed. Both the electrical and plumbing inspectors have signed off. But not before we discovered the solution to both our hot water heater vent and water leaking from “somewhere” in the basement, was a new hot water heater. We decided to bite the bullet and go tankless, so we are now the proud owners of a Rinnai tankless gas water heater. Unfortunately, it has a bit of an issue.

The whole point of a tankless water heater (aside from certain energy and financial benefits) is that you are never supposed to run out of hot water. Well we do, but not in any sort of pattern that is easy to analyze. Rinnai has suggested to the plumber that, when this happens, we should go read the codes off the system and call him with the numbers. Then he can call them and they can diagnose the problem.

Now picture this. You are on the 2nd floor taking a shower and trying to keep shampoo out of your eyes. All of a sudden, the water goes cold. You jump out of the shower, throw on a robe (hopefully), run down two flights of stairs to the basement, see what code is flashing on the water heater, and write it down on a piece of paper you forgot to grab as you screamed past the kitchen. You are supposed to do this before the thing stops malfunctioning and goes back to placidly informing you it is maintaining a temperature of 125 degrees. Right, that’s going to happen.

The most maddening part is that this doesn’t happen every time you take a shower, and you have no way of knowing how often it happens with the dishwasher or washing machine. The only good news is that the plumber is a good guy and is committed to finding a solution.

Also on the plus side, the front porch is finished and even sporting a few news plants in addition to the roof! Everyone who has seen it thinks it “looks great”.
Part of that is because of the great framing guys we had. Without them, we might still be at risk of the whole porch roof landing on someone’s head.
The other credit goes to the concrete team. That subcontractor has a group of guys that really work hard and they do an impressive job of finishing concrete.

Unfortunately, they aren’t inclined to push back when someone presents them with a dumb idea. They just did what they were asked to do resulting in our patio problem.

If you recall, the idea of the patio was to create a raised area around the basement stairs to prevent water from getting in during our periodic floods. This area was also going to replace the old deck, so needed to accommodate a table and chairs, gas grill, etc. We also asked for a patio design that would be pervious to allow rainwater to seep down through the ground, and to try and reuse any concrete that was demoed from other parts of the project.

What we ended up with was a concrete retaining wall filled with about ten inches of drainage rock covered by four inches of pea gravel into which broken pieces of the old front porch slab had been placed as flagstones. It was very pretty and completely impractical. As soon as you set a chair on pea gravel (especially that much pea gravel), it sinks.

After lots of discussion, research on the internet, teeth gnashing and debate, the stone and concrete guy may have come up with a brilliant solution. He has suggested that we add portland cement to the pea gravel and add some water. In theory, the portland will cause the whole thing to set up like concrete. It won’t be pervious, but it will be stable and it should be really pretty. He is going to do a trial on one small corner next week and if it works, his team will redo the entire patio this way making sure that everything is level and shipshape.

At long last, we may be ready to wrap this baby up. Despite the heat, we are really anxious to try out that patio with a few friends and steaks on the grill. I’ll keep you posted.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

What's Happening at the House?

Well I can no longer pretend that updates on our home renovation project serve as writing exercises, but it doesn’t seem right to leave the saga without a conclusion.
My last post was in mid April, a full six weeks ago, so you would think that everything is done right? Well we are getting there. Dick Weaver tells me that he expects to be wrapped up by the end of next week. I just laugh at that since the guys installing the gutters have been AWOL for days and days.
Our fantastic framing crew installed new bead board on the porch ceiling, replaced all the soffits and fascia boards, and rebuilt the roof returns.

They gave me a day with a new definition of al fresco dining. But it didn’t last. By day’s end, the door had been replaced.

They also worked some magic on the back wall of the house. Apparently, it was a bit bowed. I had noticed the huge gap between the countertop and the wall before, but always assumed someone cut the counter wrong and had to patch. Nope. When the wall was pushed back into place, that counter cozied right up beside it.

The painters also showed up. Given my lack of imagination on colors the house now looks just like it did before we started, (aside from the fact that the siding looks like wood, but is concrete). With the addition of plywood and house wrap under the siding, we can have some confidence that the house will remain standing during our wild spring storms.

The inside trim and patching is done, but we are still waiting for a bit of paint.

We also have a new beam in the basement to hold up the Northeast corner of the house, and the mason stopped by to seal up some cracks and brick up a window.

The plumbers had real fun repairing the waste line leak in the basement. As compensation, we let them install this whomping big pump so that the washing machine could be properly drained into the waste line instead of the yard. They also re-routed the drain on the sump pump. Haven’t got a definitive answer on how to legally vent the hot water heater yet, but hope to have that wrapped up next week too.

While I was in Hartford Mark and Lady supervised and the same company that did the siding built the new deck. As it turned out the guy they had available is a finish carpenter, so this is one precisely built deck!

While we were off in Illinois, fishing and relaxing with family lots of activity went on. The front porch pad was demoed, and both the porch and the patio were framed up for the concrete pour.
One small problem was uncovered when the front porch pad was demoed. It appears that nothing was holding up the front door either. The sill was almost completely rotted. Today the crew cut out the bad wood and replaced it with pressure treated wood and metal flashing to keep water out in the future. Also the porch is now sloped away from the house. What a concept.

Today the concrete was poured and it is looking great.

And lo and behold, the gutter guys did show up.
We still have lots to do in the next week, but there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Writers Can Be Teachers Too

Yesterday afternoon I spent about thirty minutes talking with a group of teachers from Talcott Mountain Academy in Avon, Connecticut. That has me fired up a bit, and thinking about my work as education. I have been invited by the Student Council of visit the students and talk with them about Lou's War: The Stephensons in World War II. The day is being organized for language arts and social studies students who will conduct interviews with World War II veterans later this month.

Though I haven’t been in a classroom in years – either as a student or as a teacher – I often think of my work as educational. In writing non-fiction, my goal is to provide information that is useful to the reader. Here are a few rules I try to follow:

Write with an audience in mind. I can’t know where my writing will end up. A plant profile written for amateur gardeners may also be read by landscape architects. But, I have to decide which audience is my primary target. Will the reader know what is meant by the phrase “cold stratification” or must I explain?

Research the topic before starting to write. Even when writing about a topic I know well, some research is necessary. Reading what others have written on a topic often points to something new I can add. A rehash of what others have already written has little value for the reader.

Position the most important points up front in a news article. Begin with a brief who, what, when, where and why. As the story unfolds, peel off another layer of the onion and reveal more information. This allows the reader to decide whether to read only the first paragraph or the whole story. Either way the reader learns the central facts.

Stories need a beginning, middle, and an end. Stories that are read all the way to the end begin with an introduction that engages the reader quickly. The middle holds the meat of the story. To hold the reader’s interest, it must be presented in a logical manner. The material could be presented in chronological order, or for example, an article about a plant might first cover the positive characteristics of the plant, and then growing tips. The ending should wrap up and unanswered questions introduced earlier in the piece, and may offer conclusions and suggestions for further thought and study.

Leave the reader wanting to know more. And, provide some clues on where to look. Internet links to sites with supplemental information are a good place to start, along with books to read, movies to see and places to visit.

Next week I will have the opportunity to share my ideas about writing with a group of exceptional students. We also will be covering tips research and conducting interviews, and what I have learned about World War II, not from a book but from my father’s own experiences. I’m sure I will come away having learned more than I taught. I’m hoping to encourage a couple of students to try their hand as guest bloggers, so watch this space for that.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

So Many Surprises, So little Time to Write

Is it possible that it has only been six days since my last update on our home improvements? So much has happened. We’ve jacked up walls, found gas leaks, and so much more.

You can’t get there from here.

On Sunday, Mark climbed into one of the attic spaces to see about running a new TV cable up to the master bedroom. After a lot of rooting around under the insulation, he about concluded it couldn’t be done.

Who would guess that the cable runs from the front wall up over the peak of the roof down the back wall to the basement and again across to the front of the house where the cable feed actually comes in from the street. Believe it or not, he couldn’t find an easier way to run it without opening up walls. Problem deferred for another day.

Round one to the house.

Going, going, gone.

On Monday, the guys demolished the old deck in preparation for residing the back of the house and building the new patio. No surprise to find a section of really messed up wall and foundation. In fact, at a spot just to the left of the back doors the whole wall was sagging about 1 ½ inches.

Seriously, that expanding foam stuff is not sufficient to hold a wall together. Our friend Kim has concluded that this house has some magical force field that allows it to float in space with no visible means of support.

Our framing crew is amazing. These guys are nothing if not determined. They just jacked the wall back up into place, removed the loose brick, and added some whomping big tree parts to make it all work. They didn’t jack it up enough to get the house plumb – That would be expecting too much from this sad old girl of a house – but it is much better.

Of course moving walls is not an exercise without consequences. Doors that have been installed to accommodate the existing slope of the floor tend not to close when you change the grade. Sheetrock and cabinetry also have a few issues. But all of that can be fixed.

We win round two.

There must be some good news.

The old natural gas line that someone installed to fuel an outdoor grill, then disconnected and forgot under the deck, isn’t leaking anymore. We have no idea how long it had been leaking. Yes, we are thankful that that no one was blown to bits. Yes, we are hopeful that we will see a reduction in our gas bill going forward.
Our trusty ally at SawHorse, Dick Weaver was half way home when I called him about this one. He drove all the way back to approve Mark’s short term duct tape solution and add one of his own – bend the copper back on itself and then give it the “sniff test”.

We aren’t the only ones that think Dick is great. Lady is a huge fan!

I think I found a paint sample that is exactly the color of the old siding. Yes, we realize this is our opportunity to do something new and daring, like change the color of the house. If this were a true craftsman bungalow, we might go wild. However, we have what they call a colonial revival bungalow and subtle and conservative seems to suit her. We are keeping the red door!

One final note and I do hope this is the last surprise for this week. The electricians showed up this morning to replace the knob and tube wiring on the front porch. When they went to check the apparently new wire running up to the porch, they not only scared a squirrel out of his bed. They also discovered what he had been eating when nuts were not plentiful.

Since I was blissfully walking Lady while all of this was being discovered, it is a good thing that Dick was on the job. By the time I arrived home, they had already replaced the squirrel food.
Round three and we are inching ahead. Stay tuned though. I will be astounded if we have found all the surprises this house has in store for us.

Friday, April 11, 2008

The Good the Bad and the Ugly

The good

Apologies all around for this highly overused title, but it is apt. There really is some good news. The framers are making great progress with three sides of the house covered in new siding and all four of these eave returns rebuilt. Hard to believe these two pictures are from the same view. The dormer work is coming along. And today they hauled away the old dumpster and brought in a new smaller one. Red this time. Somehow that all feels like progress.

The bad

is something you may have seen on Mark’s (my husband) flickr site. As long as there was a dumpster in front of the house, we decided to see what was behind the cheap old wallboard in the basement. Among other things, we found a very cute critter, which we released into the garden.
We also found one very scary vent job for the hot water heater. Never mind that the vent comes out under the deck. We knew about this little code violation. What we didn’t know was that the vent we could see on the outside wasn’t actually attached to anything on the inside! Thank heaven for the idiots who insulated the basement. They didn’t do much to change the temperature in an underground basement, but they may have kept a good bit of carbon monoxide from circulating through the house and killing us as we slept.

Now for the ugly.

It involves the south wall of the house and the fact that a good portion of it appears to be resting on a stack of bricks. That’s right. Sans mortar. As soon as the framers noticed this, they called the contractor to come have a look, and to put in an order for some substantial timber products. The first thing the contractor said was, “well that deck isn’t even attached to the wall is it?” To which I replied, “Well it isn’t exactly a wall.”

The framers are going to pull the deck off the back of the house next week and have a go at shoring things up. Hopefully by the time that is done we will have a permit for the patio work. The original contract called for completion in about five weeks, which would be around the first full week of May. We may still make it, but I’m not going to hold my breath.