Sunday, February 24, 2008

Tripping on the ceiling

Are we attempting to make a low-budget sequel to a Space Odyssey? Just who is that limber alien?

If we've learned anything during this long process, it's that home renovations are seldom straightforward. Some little problem always arises to trip us up. Even so, when we get on a bit of a roll we get excited and start to believe we can keep up the pace. Our minds rush ahead to the next steps and just as we're feeling really optimistic some stubborn obstacle brings us to a stand still. Saturday morning's stumble came when we were just about to finish securing the vapour barrier to the ceiling in our eating room. A little investigation with the six-foot level revealed that our assumption of several weeks ago that the ceiling was pretty much level, was wrong. To level the old wooden ceiling joists we had to pull out all of the fibreglass insulation that N had neatly installed between them last week. We used lightweight metal studs to level the ceiling. It's a technique N read about in Fine Homebuiding magazine. The metal pieces are installed alongside the existing joists--no shimming or planing necessary.

Steel studs--lightweight, square, easy to cut

Late Saturday night, N was still working on the time consuming and exacting job of levelling. I doubt anyone but a homeowner would take this much care. But N cannot stand wavy drywall, so the joists were leveled before we called an end to the day.

This morning N donned the white space suit and the respirator (with filters colour-matched to the insulation), and once again fitted the itchy stuff between the newly leveled joists.

p.s. The sprightly person in the fancy jump suit above is N reinstalling the itchy pink stuff in the newly leveled ceiling.

After the glamourous work was done, I smoothed out the wrinkles in the vapour barrier and taped up all the cut edges with red tuck tape. Then I marked the location of the joists and pot light centres on the walls while N went to buy drywall and rent a drywall lift. Unfortunately, I don't have the neccessary braun to hoist 5/8" sheets of fire rated drywall overhead for minutes at a time, so the lift is an invaluable tool, and its bright yellow arms never tire.

The drywall lift in action

While we work away to restore our eating room, our indefatigable tile installer, Harry Dunbar, is busily tiling our master bathroom. The tiling process is taking longer than Harry anticipated, but he is doing the most beautiful work. We know that Harry is pleased too because he says he'd like to hire a professional photographer to take pictures once the whole room is complete. Every night after he leaves, we go into the room and enjoy the tile. It's beautiful and will be even moreso once the tile is grouted. We are very happy with our tile choices and can't wait until we can use our new bathroom, even though that luxury is probably still a couple of months away.

My version of Alton Brown's brownies

During our work breaks we've been refortifying ourselves with the brownies I baked last night. If you're a fan of cocoa-based, cake-style brownies with a crispy, shiny surface, these are fantastic. They're from a recipe by Alton Brown, who apparently is a celebrity television chef. I've never seen his show, but I'm a fan of his brownies. In fact, I think this will be my default brownie recipe from now on. The recipe didn't include any chemical leaveners like baking soda or powder and didn't specify a type of cocoa, so I used a Dutch-process, fair trade, organic cocoa powder from a company called Camino Cuisine. The depth of flavour is fantastic--better than I would've expected from a Dutch-process cocoa.

So, it's late now, on Sunday night, but we're still hard at it so we can return our drywall lift first thing tomorrow. We have three more sheets of drywall to install before we quit. Here are some things about attaching drywall to metal studs that we didn't know when we started:

  • the metal studs (of the flimsy gauge, dimpled variety available at home supply stores) don't hold screws very well

  • in fact, when using self drilling drywall screws (supposedly intended for metal studs) with a regular drywall drill, most of the screws strip out

  • So, we now know to use regular, fine-thread drywall screws

  • the bevel edge of drywall is often much harder than the rest of the drywall board and can cause screws to strip

  • So, we now know to baby the screws into the drywall bevel--either by drilling a pilot with a self drilling screw, or using our regular battery operated drill

At 10:30 pm, we have two sheets of drywall in place, two to go. Our rate of progress should get us into bed just a little before 6:00 am. Wish us luck.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Tile Update and French Muses

Before ordering our tile, which took us just under two years to choose, we carefully calculated the necessary amount of every type of field and trim tile and added 6% more to accommodate broken tiles and waste. Unfortunately, things change, well, some things change, and some things are just miscalculations. Anyway, the changes were not in our favour. Harry discovered our shortfall of tile and I donned my role as contractor (and general gofer) and spent today driving to and from Toronto, to both of our tile suppliers to buy two small boxes of additional tile. Very luckily for us, the necessary tile was in stock. I’ll have to remember, in future, that special order tiles require far more accurate calculations. While hanging about in two different drafty warehouses waiting for people to pick my tile orders, I was struck by the contrast between the showrooms’ calculated displays and the homeliness of things when stripped of their glamorous context. Why does the stuff in the clearance bin never look nearly so appealing as it would in an orchestrated display? Context really is everything.

Tile progress showing baseboard and ogee

When I got home from my little trip, I was thrilled to see the progress Harry had made. In one corner he’s completed mortaring the wall tile and it’s becoming easier to extrapolate how the room will look. This morning we tacked up our window trim, which has been lying in stacks in the basement waiting to be refinished, so Harry could tile up to and around it. The progress right now is exciting. I’m glad that we chose to abandon our black inset tile for glass and stick to a more monochromatic palette.

scenes from La Maison de Rhodes, Troyes, France

Ever since a trip to France for our tenth anniversary, our plan had been to adopt a lighter scheme upstairs. When the pale porcelain wood tile we were going to get from Italy fell through, we kind of lost our way. Subsequent trips to Palm Springs, where we were seduced by the graphic Hollywood Regency style of the Viceroy hotel, and San Francisco, where we toured some of the famous painted lady Victorians, had us stylistically confused for a while, but recently we rediscovered our original muse. Our inspiration came from one hotel in particular called La Maison de Rhodes in Troyes, Champagne, France. Of course our Victorian house will never be a half-timbered 17th century, slate roofed manor house on a cobblestone street, but we hope we can recreate something of the mood of the place. When I remember it, I think of the textures: bleached ancient wood worn smooth by feet or hands, rough brick, smooth stone and tile. Everywhere, one surface butted up against another, but the overall effect was far from jarring or discordant. Instead the feeling was familiar and somehow stimulating. The surfaces all invited further examination, and touch. My eyes didn’t just gloss over the place, they looked everywhere and at everything and were constantly rewarded. I want to do that here. I think the unifying factor was colour. Although the palette didn’t seem artificially restricted, the surfaces were all drawn from a similar palette of I suppose natural, or elemental colours like clay and limestone and wood. That’s one of the reasons I’m glad we’ve avoided high contrast in the bathroom. Constrast reads too easily. It presents a conclusion before giving a chance for exploration. I didn’t intend to state a thesis here, but maybe I’ll think about this a little more and try to see if I can work out my own theory about what I like and why.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Holiday Monday

A lurking menace threatens my beautiful green Valentine’s Day bouquet

We have a new statutory holiday in Ontario. Today is the first official Family Day. Despite grumbling about the name and dire warnings about lost productivity from business people, I think a holiday in bleak mid-winter February can only be a good thing. And we are spending the day very productively, working on our house (as is our fantastic tile installer Harry Dunbar, who is not taking the day off).

Wildlife report

Although we live in the city core, wildlife abounds here.

Our gardens and small pond have regular visits from raccoons, opossums, millions of squirrels, chipmunks, mice, a great assortment of birds, and neighbourhood cats and dogs. We keep our two predatory animals in the house, although on separate floors.

When I ventured out to refill the bird feeders two days ago, I trudged through knee-deep snow and noticed that most of my tree wrap and chicken wire protection was now buried and many of the exposed branches of our shrubs have been neatly pruned by sharp rabbit teeth. I’ve been wondering whether an alternate food source, like a bale of clover hay or some carrots, would discourage them from the shrubs or just lure them to my backyard in greater numbers. Anyone?

Non-avian interloper at the bird feeder

The resident mouse who lives, probably with many offspring, in our ramshackle garage, was restocking his food cache with seeds within seconds of me refilling the goldfinch feeder.

The low-res close up of our deer mouse neighbour

No sign of our goldfish who overwinter (we hope) at the bottom of the pond.

Upstairs, the messy bathroom renovation provides perfect camouflage for the local wildlife

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Happy Valentine's Day

Spicy Mexican chocolate cookies and tin of Kusmi tea

In our house, these are the Valentine's day cookies. I'm not quite sure how we came to associate spicy Mexican chocolate cookies with this day--maybe the cayenne and cinnamon somehow remind us of those little red heart candies. I think I first made them about 10 years ago. At some point I must've decided to form the log of cookie dough into a heart shape and since then we've tried to make them every Valentine's Day.

This afternoon, I plan to eat a whole plate of these with a pot of Kusmi Christmas tea, scented with vanilla, almond, and orange (a gift from J). Still later, if there are any left, I think I'll spread them with strawberry ice cream and stick them in the freezer. We've learned that a day or two in the freezer will make the cookies soften and become perfectly textured ice cream sandwiches. The deep brown chocolate and pink ice cream should make a gorgeous and delicious combination.

The recipe is by Alice Medrich, chef, cookbook author, and recognized genius with chocolate. We've always made the cookies with butter, not the butter margarine combination the recipe recommends, and they've always been delicious. Here is a link to the recipe: Mexican Chocolate Cookies

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Renovation Backstory

Although this was intended to be a general blog to show off our diverse interests, the truth is that despite the occasional glamourous hiatus most of the time we are obsessed with our home renovations, either researching some procedure, working on a project, cleaning up after ourselves or a tradesperson, sourcing some part or supplier, or sub-contracting out the myriad jobs that we need professional help to accomplish. In the several weeks since we began this blog, the balance of our posts is already shifting to reflect our bias towards all matters house.

Our front room as it is now, featuring some of our vintage IKEA furniture

So for those of you who care to know, here’s a little background: In 1998 we purchased this, our first house. It is an 1889 double-brick, 3-story Victorian on a fairly generous lot (by city standards) in the downtown of a medium sized city. Although many houses of a similar vintage in our neighbourhood could be called Queen Anne, ours lacks some of the typical hallmarks of the style—no bay windows, turrets, or capricious woodwork adorn it. Despite its lovely gables, large front porch, stained glass, and arched windows, its overall look is staid and solid rather than elegant and fancy, more like a lady in waiting than a Queen. Our brick is a very soft yellow clay, not red, and was painted at some point, possibly to hide the seams where additions were made, or more probably to brighten up the exterior after the brick became blackened by pollution. Three, century-old sugar maples tower over our house and garden. They are in fairly good health, but definitely approaching their declining years. We worry about their inevitable demise. No matter how many trees we plant around our property, barring a miraculous anti- aging pill available to the masses, we will will never have trees like these again.

My studio view of the sugar maple canopy in fall

Some time in the last century, our house lost its back stairway to accommodate the addition of modern plumbing and bathrooms upstairs and down. Then, in the 1940s it was converted into a duplex with one unit on the main floor and the other on the upper two. This change altered the flow of the house considerably and resulted in a warren of odd hallways and chopped up spaces. When we purchased the house, the owner occupied the upper flat and rented the lower. The aim of our renovation is to restore our house as much as possible to its original floor plan with concessions to contemporary style, technology, and the way we want to live today. Although the stairway banister and newel posts disappeared in the 40’s reno, much of the original woodwork in the house remains and has never been painted, except for the trim in the kitchen and bathrooms. The doors all have their original hardware—brass with strange runic-like designs. On a recent trip to San Francisco, we toured the Haas-Lilienthal house which has very similar door hardware, possibly ordered from the same manufacturer’s catalogue. We also have an amazing, manual doorbell (in desperate need of polishing and remounting right side up), whose peals reach every corner of the house. If only the pizza delivery people could recognize it for what it is, they wouldn’t have to rap their knuckles raw to get our attention.

Our door hardware left and right, the door hardware of San Francisco's Hass Lilenthal house, centre

Over the past decade we’ve tackled many projects including converting the attic to an art studio, switching fuel from oil to natural gas, replacing the boiler, tearing off the old multi-layered roof and installing a new one with defective shingles, re-shingling the roof, installing french doors to the backyard, repaving the driveway and front walk with clay brick, sandstone, and asphalt, building a temperature and humidity controlled wine cellar (yes, we have our priorities straight), replacing all knob and tube wiring, removing asbestos insulation from the water pipes in the basement, converting from two 60 amp services to a single, 120 amp service with exterior meter, insulating the previously uninsulated walls room by room, fencing the yard and adding substantial gates to a side garden, replacing the old wooden front porch steps, building up garden beds with over 40 cubic yards of triple mix (yes, we’re metric, but not for landscaping supplies), and many other garden and landscaping projects. In the spring, our attention usually shifts to the garden, but now in February it’s hard to believe we even have a garden under all that snow, and we may not if the rabbits get their way.

Last night's snowfall had almost nowhere to go--the snowbanks are ready to collapse

The very same sidewalk in early June last year (we live in hope)

We are currently in the midst of kitchen and bathroom renovations. Since we are acting as our own general contractors and doing much of the work ourselves, these projects are measured in years, not weeks or months, and have become the constant backdrop for our lives. Despite the long haul, inevitable setbacks, and horrible toll it takes on other things, like career ambitions and seeing our friends, the process is truly rewarding. Truly.

When we bought the house, we didn’t have Internet access at home, our first digital camera was a few years off, and blogs had never been heard of. Now, the Internet is an indispensable resource. Besides the practical benefits of free software like SketchUp and the ability to find products and tradespeople online, what most amazes and inspires us is the fairly new phenomenon of access to other people’s experiences through websites, blogs, and forums. We love reading about other people who, like us, are deeply involved (some to the point of obsession) in their home renovations. They make us feel sane. In future weeks and months we hope to post, in addition to our daily progress, some detailed accounts of our completed projects, and some of the arcane problems we’ve solved in the hopes that someone, somewhere can use our experiences as a resource or a mental health check.

Monday, February 11, 2008

More Exciting Bathroom News

Since our last renovation entry, the bathroom tile saga has ended in success and two parking tickets. All of our bathroom tile, including the hard-to-find glass inset tile, is here awaiting installation.

Tile from L to R: hex, glass, square, 6 x 6, ogee, subway, bead, chair rail

Our tile installer has put another full inch of concrete over the Ditra, plus a painted-on waterproofing coating (just in case). He's also installed a shower curb at the shower door and finished up the shower bench, which has a loop of radiant heat tubing running through the seat, so we'll never have to sit on cold marble in the shower (what luxury).

Shower seat frame with loop of hydronic tubing (for radiant heat)

The tiling was to begin today, but the highways were closed because of blowing snow. Tonight the forecast calls for even more snow, but we hope our tiler will make it. Tomorrow the tiling begins in earnest

This afternoon we met with a furniture designer and builder about the bathroom vanity he's going to build for us. We designed it ourselves to fit the space and accommodate our undermount sink. Here's our working sketch:

Goings on in other rooms
Yesterday N ripped up the floor in what we call the eating room, which used to be a tiny bedroom off the kitchen, and before that a back porch, but is now part of the kitchen. His ambitious plan was to rip out the hardwood, subfloor, and old pink insulation, and replace it with superior insulation and a new subfloor (all in one day). Needless to say, we didn't quite make it. What we did manage besides exhaustion, was a room with no floor, just an expanse of fluffy pink insulation, and a pick-up truck full of debris in the driveway. In the process of the floor demolition, N inadvertently blocked off our pantry, which is now inaccessible between a cast iron radiator on one side and the floorless eating room on the other, which means we are cut off from the bulk of our food supplies, which means takeout for dinner, maybe for the rest of the week. This could prove hazardous to our health.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Fleur de Sel

Grilled hake coiled like a medieval sea serpent with its tail in its mouth
at Fleur de Sel this summer

Regardless of what you think of culinary competitions, or whether you think of them at all, they certainly draw attention to chefs who might otherwise remain largely anonymous outside their devoted local followings. This year’s Canadian Culinary Championship being held in Toronto features one of our very favourite chefs among its seven finalists from across the country.Chef Martin Ruis Salvadore of Fleur de Sel in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia will compete against six other chefs: Anthony Walsh of Canoe in Toronto, Roland Ménard of Manoir Hovey, outside of Montreal, Melissa Craig of Barefoot Bistro in Vancouver, Paul Rogalski of Rouge in Calgary, Judy Wu of Wild Tangerine in Edmonton, and Michael Moffatt of Beckta Dining and Wine in Ottawa. I’m lucky enough to have dined at three of those seven restaurants in the past year: Beckta, Canoe (thanks, E), and Fleur de Sel. All are truly excellent restaurants, but my heart goes to Fleur de Sel.

The view from our favorite table at Fleur de Sel

We first happened upon Fleur de Sel in the summer of 2004. What drew our attention, while we walked down the streets of picturesque Lunenburg, was the large wooden sign in the distance which read “Fleur de Sel” (with all of its subtext of French influence, location-specific, hand-harvested ingredients, and culinary sophistication). Perhaps it was a kitchenwares store? a gourmet grocer? As we approached the beautiful yellow wooden house typical of Lunenburg vernacular architecture, I said to N “If that’s a restaurant, then that’s where we’re eating dinner.” Well, luckily for us, it was and we did. The restaurant is as beautiful inside as out with several intimate dining rooms, pale yellow walls, white woodwork linens and china, wooden floors, and vibrant paintings. Large windows fill the rooms with light by day and candlelight sets them aglow at night.

Lunch outside at Fleur de Sel

The back lawn, bordered on one side by a steep hillside, is a perfect place for a summer lunch. The co-owners Sylvie and Martin Ruis-Salvadore are an ideal team (N and I have noticed that many of the best run and consistently excellent restaurants are run by couples--one of the pair in the kitchen and one out front). At Fleur de Sel, Sylvie is in the front of the house making everyone welcome and orchestrating the seamless and professional service, and chef Martin is in the kitchen. The food is spectacular, the kind of food you dream about and long for when you’re 2000 km away. Martin studied at the Cordon Bleu and worked with chefs at both one and two starred Michelin restaurants in Dublin, Ireland and Lyon, France. Now, using the bounty of Nova Scotia’s fish, produce, and wine, and his French influenced cooking acumen, he makes food into art (but accessible, highly edible, art). Since our initial visit, we’ve been back to Fleur de Sel four times-- always making at least one detour to Lunenburg during our summer holiday on Nova Scotia’s south shore for a lunch or dinner at Fleur de Sel. We are always excited when we read accolades about Fleur de Sel. Good Luck this week Martin!

Butter poached lobster served 'naked' at Fleur de Sel

The Canadian Culinary Championships take place this Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at various locations in Toronto. (Unfortunately, we were already booked for a slow food event at Toronto’s Grano restaurant when we received Fleur de Sel’s email about the championships. We’ll be dining elsewhere, Martin, but we’ll be thinking of you.)

A glamourous fish stew at Fleur de Sel

Monday, February 4, 2008

High-Functioning Membrane

Schluter-DITRA being bedded in thinset and
becoming a permanent part of our house

Our tile setter started work today. He built the rough framing for the shower seat and affixed a membrane to the existing concrete bed (poured by our previous tile installer) with a layer of thinset. The membrane is called Schluter-DITRA and, according to the product website, it performs four functions: it uncouples the tile from the substrate to prevent movement in the subfloor from affecting the tile above; it waterproofs the floor; it allows any vapour rising from the subfloor to escape by evaporation; and it distributes the tile load evenly across the floor. I suppose we'll only know if it lives up to its claims if it never fails us. But we admit that it looks substantial and capable and bright orange. Something about that strident colour declares "I am strong. I mean business. I am not mere decoration".

Tomorrow we pick up our tile.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

The Real Corner, Revisited

The same corner, now taped, sanded, and primed

A week ago, we could not have imagined our progress.

Thursday, we signed our contract with the tile installer, then drove to Toronto to find a cheaper source for our floor tile, which we did at a significant savings (of almost $10/sq'). The nod goes to Weston Tile in Toronto's west end. If you know what you're looking for, they have a good selection of tile in a large but modest showroom, knowledgeable staff, and very good prices. Because they aren't reviewed in any of the shopping guides, like the one Toronto Life publishes, I never would have happened upon Weston Tile except for an obscure reference to them in a comment on a 2-year-old tile forum thread about sources of 1" unglazed hex tile in Canada. We are grateful to the writer whose post of 2006 has saved us a bundle in 2008.

To celebrate our good luck, we went--for the second time in several months--to the lovely little neighbourhood restaurant called Cowbell in wilds of Queen St West. Luckily, Cowbell is not participating in Winterlicious and we were able to walk right in and get a table, although the place was pretty much full by 8:00. Chef Mark Cutrara specializes in locally sourced foods, homely robust dishes, and old fashioned slow cooking techniques, as well as the currently popular sous-vide method. The pork and beef pot pie was perfect comfort food for a winter night, beef brisket was tender and very beefy (and quickly disappeared from the chalkboard menu), the selection of five Quebec cheeses including Migneron, Pied de Vent and Benedictine Bleu, was well chosen and appropriately flavourful at room temperature, and the pecan tart decadently memorable, sweet and savory all at once. The 2006 'Jack-Rabbit Flats' Pinot Noir from Fielding Estates (one of our favourite Ontario wineries), available by the glass, was a great accompaniment to our meal and my cheese. Chef looked out smilingly on his happy patrons every once in a while and seemed pleased with what he saw. We wish we had a restaurant like this in our neighbourhood. And, lest this mini review seems out of place, I assure you that there is a tile connection to this culinary aside. Cowbell's floor sports the VERY SAME TILE we were in the city to buy for our bathroom, yes, the very same 1" hexagonal tile, from wall to wall. Coincidence? Perhaps, but I think our dining choice last night must have been influenced by our tile buying mission. The little sample of heaxagonal tiles I'd been carrying around in my purse all day (or some subliminal memory of our last visit), must have exerted a divining rod type pull to Cowbell.

So, back to the renovation news: we've decided that the floor will be 1" unglazed white porcelain hexagonal floor tile surrounded by a 5" border of 1" unglazed white square tile, and, so as not to be entirely enslaved by our home's Victorian past, we'll include an inset detail of glass tile between the hex and square tiles. We have a sample of white glass tile, but it looks perhaps too white against the ivory of the floor tile, and we may decide to keep the colours closer because there will already be a lot of textural contrast. On the other hand, all of our bathroom fixtures are bright white and a white border accent could unify things. I think we'll have to make a sample board to see how much the grout colour will influence the tile. We plan to use marble for the countertop and shower seat and hope the detail in the floor will pick up either the veining or the body colour in the marble. I think we've decided to strip the ancient shellac from our wood mouldings and whitewash window trim (as below) rather than paint it to allow the grain to show.

the current tile and trim choices