Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Virtual Corner

The bathroom corner as seen in Sketchup

This is the same corner S photographed in the previous post. Only this time it has been rendered by Google Sketchup. Sketchup is a fantastic, free, 3D modelling package. I have tried using many other 3D packages for mocking up simple home renovation projects and they have all been extremely difficult to use. Sketchup is a little different. It isn't a CAD program with a 3D modeller added on like AutoCAD and it isn't a full 3D modeller like 3D Studio Max or Maya which is really designed for animators or game developers. In a few minutes you can create a box, drop in a bunch of pre-defined components from the library or the 3D warehouse, colour or texture map the surfaces and then you can navigate around the model and get a real feel for the space in 3 dimensions.

For our home reno, I've been building a 3D model of our whole house. This model has enabled S and I to try out our different ideas quickly. When we started the process S had drawn pages and pages of detailed plan layouts on vellum that she would trace and add paper cutouts of fixtures and furniture that we could move around to see which layouts worked best. I had trouble visualizing the results and asked S to render the drawings in 3 dimensions. She created elevations which helped, but I really wanted perspective drawings. S is a talented Artist but rendering accurate architectural perspective drawings is more painstaking science than art and not very fun, so I never got my 3D perspectives. That is, until I got Sketchup.

When it rains, it pours

The same corner of our house in June 2006, yesterday, and today

Tuesday morning:
For months our bathroom renovation has been languishing while we’ve searched for a replacement for our tile installer (who hasn’t returned our calls since pouring a faulty concrete base over our hydronic radiant heat tubing). We finally decided to contact a Canadian tile guru who dispenses wise advice on an Internet tile forum. In December the guru called us and told us that he wasn’t sure whether he wanted to take on our out-of-town job (he lives a couple of hours away from us), but he would consult with us about the floor and would contact us in January to arrange a visit. Well, he must have liked our project, because last week he came, he saw, he proposed solutions, he gave us a quote, and the long and short of it is that he will begin work next Monday.

our dramatic drywall delivery

Now, we have less than a week to tie up all the loose ends including ordering our tile, running speaker wire, installing and taping cement board and drywall, detailing the placement of all water lines, wiring and blocking that will be hidden forever behind drywall, and many more tiny details. Yesterday we got a bid from a drywall installer who just happened to have a little window of availability but only if he could start tomorrow, which is to say TODAY. So, yesterday we arranged delivery of our cement board and drywall for today. Last night, fuelled with hot chocolate and adrenaline, we worked with tremendous urgency to prepare for the crew. This morning a boom truck operator came and performed a balletic delivery of our cement board through the second floor window by hydraulic remote control. As I write this, the compressor is humming and N is constructing the shelf and shimming the walls. The drywall crew arrives at two. We are a well-oiled efficient machine!

Okay, the truth is we’re just a little anxious about the sudden frenzy of activity. We’ve had years to imagine this bathroom and now the time for changes is slipping away. Our myriad options will shrink to a single choice that we will have to live with forever...oh the angst of renovation.

Later the same day:
The drywall crew were slightly put out with our complicated space full of knee walls and niches. They had expected to finish hanging the boards by day's end, but they will be returning tomorrow morning at 7:00(!) for approximately 2 more hours. They are astonishingly fast. The house is chaos and dust and odd smells.

evidently, the boarding crew doesn't do clean-up

Since our tile quote came in earlier today, we've vowed to find a less expensive source for our hexagonal porcelain floor tiles. We’ve noticed that tile suppliers are sometimes cagey about naming tile manufacturers in their quotes lest we discover their mark-up, but think we’ve determined that our floor tiles are from the rather pedestrian Daltile company. The boutique supplier of our wall tile wants nearly three times the price as some other suppliers for the floor tile. The big trade off is time. Since we’re working to a deadline, we have no room for delay. My mission: to find a cheap source of the tile I want, save enough to rent scaffolding to paint the house this summer, and still get the goods in time for our installer. Mission unpleasant, but not impossible, I hope.

porcelain hex tiles, ceramic subway, and chair rail

Wednesday afternoon
Of course now that we want to find a lower priced tile supplier, we’ve reopened the Pandora’s box of choice. The unglazed through-body porcelain tiles will remain as our field tile. It’s the border that we’re having doubts about. For some time we’ve agreed on a crisp black and white colour scheme, but we’ve chosen a slightly ivory tile (to match the unglazed porcelain floor, and to mimic the look of the subway tile in many older Victorian homes, which tend to have an ivory cast), and now we’re wondering whether our border of 1” square tiles should match the floor (truer to period and more versatile, but a little bland), or should remain white, but include a 2” accent line of white glass or marble tile for a subtle textural shift, or should include a 2” black accent line in glass or marble or porcelain (more dramatic and stylistically definite). In earlier designs we thought we would include both a line and an Etruscan notch pattern in black porcelain in the border, but we’d been looking at grand spaces in foreign parts, and now I think it would be perhaps a little de trop for our ‘umble Victorian. Since I haven’t advertised this blog, I know I may only have two readers, but if you happen to be reading this and have strong stylistic opinions about tile, please weigh-in.

Saturday, January 26, 2008


I'm not quite through with Windsor, but I’m taking a break to turn my attention to matters on the home front. Those who know us well know that we’ve been in a state of perpetual home renovation for several years. What began as a fairly straightforward kitchen renovation has expanded to include, in one way or another, almost the entire house. The reasoning that led us to this state went something like, “If we’re going to do x, we might as well do y at the same time. Then, if we’re going to do y, we really might as well do z…” Unfortunately, we started our line of reasoning with the variable a, not x and have now exhausted the entire Roman alphabet and much of the Greek. So many variables to solve, and so few weekends in a year, not to mention the other things we like to do with our weekends besides renovate.

The key to maintaining sanity and an air of civility about the house is perspective. I am trying to learn the trick of keeping the distant goal in my peripheral vision while paying attention to, and even enjoying, the tiny task at hand. We’ve become quite good at taking pleasure in the small steps. So long as one of us remains optimistic, we can usually cajole the other back from the brink of despair. If that fails, we can run to the single completed room in our house, the tiny, controlled environment wine cellar, take a deep breath of redwood, and return ready to face the chaos. I admit I have been known to dramatize the situation and roll my eyes skyward while sighing deeply when unwary people ask how things are going, but the truth is, I’m enjoying the process.

Sometimes, something happens that seems to bode well for the future of a room. This week, this landed in our living room:

I should be thrilled about the thing inside the crate, but like a cat at a birthday party, I’m more excited about the packaging. Every time I look at this handmade crate, so different from the reinforced cardboard boxes most large items come packed in these days, I am whisked to the moment in the movie A Christmas Story when the much anticipated major award arrives at the front door in the giant wooden crate and the father sounds out the stenciled word fragile: "fra|GEE|lay". I can’t help it, I’m overcome.

What’s inside? Wouldn’t you like to know.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Windsor and Bray

After three nights at a suburban business hotel about 10 minutes outside of Reading, we escaped to spend the weekend in Windsor. Our hotel, the Harte and Garter, which is a combination of two 14th century hotels, had just undergone a renovation and wore a new palette of pale blue-greys, rich browns, and silver printed wallpaper in combination with its historic dark wood, sparkling bevelled glass, and plaster mouldings. The effect was one of relaxed, unpretentious glamour.

Our second floor room had two sets of french doors opening onto a narrow wrought iron balcony overlooking Windsor castle and the bustling street scene below, which was great except that one set of doors was in the bathroom and required us to sacrifice either modesty or the view. Despite that and the single glazing, we loved our room. The British should really try the benefits of the second pane, not just for warmth, but noise reduction. How could we have guessed that all those cardigan wearing, umbrella toting, tea drinking, sensibly shod Brits would turn into such loudmouthed hooligans after a Saturday night down the pub?

One of the best things about tacking a couple of days vacation to the end of a business trip is finding ourselves in places we'd never have imagined being. A cross Atlantic flight to spend a weekend in Windsor England in the middle of January would probably not have occurred to us, but I loved everything about it. For one thing, we didn't realize that Berkshire county was a mecca of fine dining and a site of culinary pilgrimage. The tiny village of Bray just a few km outside of Windsor has two three star Michelin restaurants and a gastro pub noted by Michelin and claimed as one of the best in Britain. Heston Blumenthal, the mad scientist, alchemist chef who runs the legendary Fat Duck restaurant where he serves molecularized, atomized, and reconfigured food a la Jetsons meets haute cuisine, also owns the more prosaic Hinds Head Hotel, an 18th century pub committed to traditional British food cooked with local ingredients and served simply. We were torn between the experimental and the traditional, but tradition won out (not least because the Fat Duck tasting menu with wine comes in at a little over 200 British pounds per person and we thought that a meal at that price requires at least a few months of anticipation and possibly temporary insanity).

Our evening at the Hinds Head Hotel was great. Dropped off by taxi in the dark and the rain, we stepped hastily through the front door and right into what seemed the archetype of a British pub--low, timber-beamed ceilings, worn wooden floor, gleaming warm wood panelling, substantial fireplaces, and a bunch of locals at the bar. We were ushered by an extremely young bartender, who looked as though he were playing hookey from Eton college, to our simple wooden table in the adjoining dining room where the pale walls reflected the glow of candelight and mullioned windows looked out on the village. The restaurant was full of happy couples and groups pleased with their good sense at eschewing the avante garde for historic comfort food and saving enough for cab fare back to London.

And so, to our meal. To begin, I had the rabbit and bacon terrine, rustic and coarse textured, served with tiny cornichons and toasted bread. I could live on this. N had the goat cheese tart hidden under a chiffonade of something green (it was gone before I could move my fork across the table. Our wine was a bottle of Chateauneuf du Pape. As a main course N had the Rump steak (yes steak, not roast) cooked perfectly medium rare and served with a decadent bone marrow sauce. I had the Lancashire hot pot made with lamb. Originally, the hot pot would've included oysters, once a cheap source of protein for the working classes, our waiter explained, and as homage to the original dish a single oyster was baked in. Just writing about that that succulent baked oyster awakens cravings. As tradition dictates, the accompaniment to my hot pot was stewed red cabbage, which looked beautiful with an added side order of broccoli with anchovies and almonds.

For dessert (or should I say pudding?) we were heartbroken to learn that the quaking pudding (click here for desciption and recipe) that chef Blumethal had patiently adapted from a 1660 cookbook was sold out for the evening! Alas. But we calmed ourselves down, N with a glass of Oban and me with a Calvados XO. After much debate with my overfull stomach I gave up on the local cheese platter and chose instead the Eccles Cake, a decadent little confection of currants and raisins stuffed into puff pastry. Unfortunately, I learned too late that it should really have been accompanied by a slice of the very Lancashire cheese I had passed up. N had the treacle sponge, which was the sweet epitome of a sticky steamed pudding. We left feeling content and full but not quite missing the irony that we'd paid the equivalent of a dinner at Susur in Toronto for the chance to eat what centuries before had been the everyday food of the working classes served in a charming, but entirely homely setting.

Other meals of note included dinner at Gilbey's in Eton, a local favourite, and fully booked on a Saturday night. We stopped by earlier in the day and were lucky to get a 6:00 dinner reservation at a coveted table in the front window with a promise to vacate in time for the 8:15 reservation. As a bonus, our early dinner meant we could order from the early evening prix fixe dinner menu available just until 7:00. We also had several cream teas, one at the much photographed Crooked House of Windsor and one at a little antique shop with a couple of tables tucked inside. Unfortunately, we don't think we have experienced the ultimate tea time and will just have to keep trying until we do.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

London Galleries

While N attended business meetings, I braved the National Rail system, the London underground, and pouring rain on successive days to make my way to the National Gallery, the Portrait Gallery, and the Tate Britain. I love the luxury of going to public galleries alone and lingering wherever I want. The Portrait Gallery in particular has been a destination I’ve dreamed about. (One day, if I settle down enough to be articulate, I may write a letter explaining why the site of the Canadian Portrait Gallery should be Ottawa, our nation's capital, and not any one of the competing regional sites). No photography was allowed, even without flash, but the gallery has an amazing feature: if any painting catches your eye, you can make note of its catalogue number or subject or artist and have a copy of it printed from the digital catalogue in the gift shop when you leave. I was struck once again by the marked difference between the idea of a painting I have from print images and experience of standing in front of the real thing. There is a kind of vibration that happens between colours—strange tensions produced by pigments of similar intensity but subtly different hues—that print reproductions never seem to catch. Some paintings just pulse. The Hockney on Turner exhibition at the Tate was my favourite of the specially curated big shows. Turner has never meant much to me, but I was completely won over.

Just a word about the gallery cafes--the British are seriously addicted to tea and cakes. At the National Gallery cafeteria, just to get to the main course food, you must bypass a marble topped multi-tiered island crowded with cake stands and shiny silver lifters and laden with gorgeous iced cakes and slices of pound and nut cakes and fruit loaves and tarts. It was all outrageously decadent. Suddenly the food obsessions of all those British children in the Enid Blyton books made perfect sense. I thoroughly enjoyed the domestic hedonism. I may have to take up the habit of afternoon tea.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Going to London

Flying in to Heathrow earlier this month, just after dark, our plane was forced into a holding pattern by a backup at the airport. As we circled London and its neighbouring towns I kept noticing these luminous unnatural green patches on the landscape and couldn’t make sense of what I was seeing: water treatment lagoons, or maybe giant solar panels that somehow fluoresced after dark like radioactive watch hands? The colour was as oddly green as that glass of absinthe in the Degas painting. And then it dawned on me—football fields, artificially illuminated, hundreds of them. We were truly not in Kansas, um Canada, any more.

We have our reasons

For years we’ve been keeping a journal (in the form of a wiki) of our many exploits, on our home computer. But now, influenced by the zeitgeist of public exhibitionism, we’ve decided to take up that soul baring exercise of questionable merit: keeping a public blog.