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.

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