Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Exterior Painting Progress

Paint colours (from top): hiking trail CC 514 (porch, fascia, and eaves), chelsea gray HC 168 (brickwork), frontenac brick CC 182 (gable ends and soffits), kendall charcoal HC 166 (window sashes)

In mid-July we began to transform our house exterior with paint. We've gone from an ivory elephant with bright yellow and coral accents to a more stately and smaller (we hope) neutral gray elephant with darker gray window trim, warm brown fascia and eaves, and brick coloured gables and soffits. Although the job is still far from finished, the mood of the house is completely transformed. I'd like to say that neighbourhood feedback (direct, overheard, and rumored) has been uniformly positive, but in truth I think the comments are about 80 percent in favour, 20 percent against. This is probably a good average in a diverse and recently historically designated neighbourhood. Some people just don't like change. In the winter I wrote that we would probably paint the house ourselves, but after contemplating the massive undertaking--our house is a three story Victorian and requires a 40 foot ladder to reach its peaks--our enthusiasm waned a little and we hired a one-man painting company.

The previous paint colours revisited

When I read on his website profile that he was an accomplished rock climber, I knew he was our guy. In addition to no fear of heights, he had insurance, a commitment to safe practice, and fantastic work ethic. The deal we struck was that he would prep and paint all of the third story wood trim, windows, gable ends, and get as much of the lower two stories, especially the parts most visible from the street done in the five weeks he had before moving on to another job. We would paint whatever trim remained as well as the windows on the on the first and second floors. To help him in his time limited task he hired two assistants: one a champion lacrosse player, one an aspiring singer songwriter with girlfriend problems. I'll leave it to you to guess who was the more efficient. Prepping the woodwork took almost two full three-person weeks. We never could have handled this job on our own. And yet, the job is only mostly done. Some crucial areas, like the windows on the second story front sunroom, remain incomplete.

Our well-tended sash brushes--it's taken years, but N has finally convinced me of the value of good brush husbandry

Since we returned from our vacation we've been ready to proceed with the job and finish at least the most visible bits of the house before autumn denudes us of the cover of foliage and the paint job is on full display. But the weather seemed bent on foiling us. Although the tail end of Ike didn't hit us with the full predicted deluge, the (available) days of early September were wet and cold. N, who once painted with a good painting company in north Toronto between school terms, said that with nighttime lows under 10degrees C, the paint wouldn't properly cure and we were about to abandon hope. But this is where new technology came to our rescue.

Benjamin Moore's new Aura paint

It turns out that the paint we chose to use, Benjamin Moore's new Aura paint, only available in Canada since July, requires temperatures of only 4.4 degrees Celcius (around 40 F). This means despite the chilly evenings we have no excuse not to finish the job. The recent weather has turned in our favour and now we are hopeful about finishing. And a bit more about our paint: in addition to allowing cold-weather application, Aura is one of the lowest VOC paints on the market. It goes on beautifully and smoothly, much more easily than Farrow and Ball paints (except for oil). Its coverage is very good--last weekend N prepped and painted the sunroom windows previously ivory, now slate gray, in one coat, with no primer. We skipped the primer step for expediency, but really, the coverage is so complete you'd never know.

the house wearing its new paint colours, east view

We took a long time choosing our colours because we knew our final choices would be very public. In our pedestrian friendly neighbourhood, nothing escapes comment. Because our brick was already painted, we had fewer limitations on our choice of palette. After cruising around many neighbourhoods to decide what look we liked, we consciously chose a low contrast scheme which relies on tensions between warm and cool colours of the same value rather than the more common high contrast exterior paint schemes. The palette seems to unify the house and bring out the textures of the wood trim, shingled gables, and the brick. For the first time in years, the house looks of a piece. N even admits that the new paint job has changed his mind about the 1940's tudor-style sunroom addition above the front porch that he's often talked about tearing down. We are especially happy with the dark window trim which recedes into the facade rather than standing out (this is an especially good feature on the upper floors where we still have some ugly aluminum storm windows). One thing that bothers us about many home exteriors is the default use of white for windows and trim. As a considered choice, white can look perfect: crisp and clean, but other times the white is far too stark against the rest of the house. Victorians often painted the window sashes dark colours to reduce the contrast between the black voids of window glass and the trim. Our preparations for painting revealed that our wood trim and and windows have been a very dark, almost black, green, a deep red, dark brown, mustard yellow, and in more recent years, tan, pink, and pale yellow. Now, they are a deep slate gray. The house looks good to us right now. I hope we feel the same way about it in mid-winter.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Bathroom Update--Window Coverings

Way back in June (but shamefully only three blog entries ago), N reported on our bathroom progress. The windows had been trimmed and were in need of some kind of covering. Natural light in a bathroom is a wonderful luxury and during the course of our renovation I'd fallen in love with the unfiltered light streaming in all day. Sometimes I'd find myself just hanging out in the bathroom doorway, drinking in all the light. At night, however, the three big uncovered windows became black mirrors and put us uncomfortably on display. So we faced the dilemma of choosing window coverings that would allow bright light through the day while simultaneously providing privacy and standing up to the humid conditions of a bathroom. We have a cellular blind in our current bathroom--the kind that is translucent and offers light by day and some privacy at night and has the option of being lowered from the top to allow views of some of the surrounding landscape. But I've never liked that blind and never felt that it offered quite enough cover at night. The commonly prescribed option for our set of circumstances (at least according to my web and magazine searches) seemed to be the Silhouette blinds by Hunter Douglas. On the website, the blinds seemed to meet our requirements: louvres encased in nearly invisible netting allowed filtered views outdoors by day and near opacity by night. The top-down option was also available for unobstructed views out the top of the window. In the showroom I visited the blinds looked, well, commercial, and manufactured. Something about them reminded me of childhood appointments to the doctor's office where old fashioned gray aluminum horizontal blinds covered every window. The mood they evoked was all wrong, but my options seemed limited, so I got a quote for our three windows and I was astounded. The price for three blinds with the option of the top down function was over $2000. Granted, our windows are large, but for mass-produced synthetic blinds with an inescapable commercial feel and mechanisms that might eventually break or tangle, $2000 seemed ridiculous. I talked to some of my neighbours, one of whom had also recently considered Silhouette blinds for the sunroom on the front of her house. She too had been shocked by the price and was exploring other options. I'm sure those blinds might be perfect in some situations, but they were not for us.

The main window shutters--I can't really explain the strange soft focus

This is when we began considering shutters. Up until now I had thought a custom option would be out of reach. Initially I was also worried that wooden shutters wouldn't stand up to bathroom conditions and might warp. We briefly entertained the idea of vinyl shutters, but didn't like them in person. Most of the shutters we saw required an ugly frame to be installed within the existing widow frame. Given the time and care we'd spent on our window trim, the idea of an aluminum or vinyl frame marring the refinished wood was an anathema. This is when I stumbled across the website of the shutter guys. They offered custom hardwood shutters with louvres of varying widths and complete freedom in choice of finish. They could match our paint precisely or even use a paint we specified. Best of all, the shutters would be constructed to fit our windows precisely, which in our case, because our window trim is deep, would mean no additional framing.

Shutter detail

The shutter guys were as good as their word. One of them came, with samples in hand, which allowed us to change our minds from the 3 1/2" louvre we'd been leaning towards to the narrower 2 3/8" louvre (which in person seemed much more in keeping with the scale of the room and our house), measured, and promised to return in a couple of weeks. Both of the shutter guys returned, on time, and installed the shutters, a process which involved a little onsite planing and retouching for a perfect fit, and left. We couldn't be happier with the result. Even with the bottom louvres almost closed, the shutters allow in a huge amount of light.

The shutters cast great shadows

The cost? Less than half the original estimate for blinds. And, by going with shutters, we supported a small business and the tradespeople in the Toronto area factory where the shutters are built. I'm sure we'll choose shutters for the windows of several other rooms (once we complete them). Any window covering epiphanies or advice out there?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Slow Food Picnic Slows Renovation

Scenes from the Slow Food Picnic

Our home renovations were on hold again this weekend as we braved dire forecasts about the tail end of Ike and headed to Toronto to meet some good friends for the second annual Slow Food Picnic at the Brickworks. The event pairs some of Ontario’s best chefs with farmers and food producers as well as wine makers and brewers. Working side by side with the food producers, the chefs find creative ways to show off the sustainable bounty of the land. For those who attend, the event is four hours of non-stop feasting. When we arrived we received wrist bands and wine glasses—ours to keep. Thus armed we had access to over 60 different food and wine stalls, each helmed by the producer of the chief ingredients and a chef or winemaker. We wandered around the open air pavilion beguiled by new tastes, smells, and sights at every turn. We sampled spit-roasted goat, hand-forked waygu burgers, fresh-shuck’d oysters (granted not local, but still Canadian, definitely sustainable, and served in their own biodegradable bowls), cheeses, sorbets, charcuterie, and all types of late summer herbs, fruits, and vegetables--heirloom tomatoes being in particular evidence.

The great information exchange

The picnic is a billed as an eco-gastronomic event, which means that everything, aside from the reusable wine glasses, is biodegradable and compostable, so the serving methods are creative: one enterprising chef served sausage hors d’oeuvres on oyster shell lids, which worked very well, but the trick of slurping black currant sorbet and poached pear from a grape leaf required more practice. We had a blast. We left feeling completely satiated, in love with all of the small local producers and conscientious chefs (whose passion for small-scale, hands-on farming is the only thing standing in the way of factory farms), slightly better informed, and virtuous: the event is a fundraiser after all. Philanthropy via informed gluttony.

Vicki from Vicki’s Veggies teams up with Toronto star chef Jamie Kennedy

Vicki, standing still, and with flowers in her hair!

We were delighted to see Vicki at the Picnic, and especially gratified that she had teamed up with luminary Toronto chef Jamie Kennedy. Just over a week ago we had stopped at Vicki’s farm in Prince Edward county.

Vicki's road-side, self-serve stand of earthly bounty

We had actually planned our route home from Nova Scotia in part so we could stock up on Vicki’s heirloom tomatoes and wonderful produce on the very last day of our trip. Vicki’s farm is almost 3 hours away from our home, but we have visited her twice in two years, both times on the last day of a vacation, just to partake of the fantastic offerings from her farm (and the handmade soaps of a friend of hers, also from the county).

Garlic, and tomatoes and eggplants of every description (from Vicki's 2007 harvest)

Last year Vicki took us back into her fields to show off her amazing varieties of eggplant. This year the season wasn’t so good for eggplants, but Vicki hiked us back into her tomato field to pick us a basket of stuffing tomatoes. If you’ve never seen one, a stuffing tomato is a revelation. All the seeds are compactly located right up near the stem and the rest of the tomato is hollow, like a pepper, and perfect for stuffing.

One of Vicki's chickens crosses the road.

Prince Edward County, on a little peninsula of land jutting into Lake Ontario, two hours east of Toronto, is Ontario’s newest wine region. Although the vineyards are young--only a decade old--and the process onerous: vines must be mulched over winter and dug out in the spring, the early results are very promising, particularly for chardonnays and pinot noirs (great for us since our earliest lessons in wine tasting were in Burgundy and these varietals have remained our favourites). The region is doing well and boasts several flourishing small towns, passionate local producers like Vicki, many excellent small inns, wineries like Norman Hardie’s, who was also at the picnic, and some fantastic restaurants, notably Harvest in Picton, which we’ve been fortunate to dine at twice, and which also had a booth at the Slow Food Picnic. For a Toronto food event, Prince Edward County was very well represented.

We’re looking forward to the third annual slow food picnic next year.

Friday, September 12, 2008

See you in Sep-tem-ber. See you when the summer’s through

A farewell repast on Nova Scotia's gorgeous south shore

Oh, wait, it is September and summer is almost through. I guess we should’ve mentioned our intentions to stray a little earlier. But we’re back now. Did you miss us? We missed you. We were around, most of the time, but the thing is, it was summer; the days were long, and we could pack so much into the daylight hours that by the time it got dark and we were finally sitting down, maybe with a glass of wine to toast the end of the day, we were too overcome with exhaustion to chronicle our modest accomplishments, or even to read our favourite blogs. It’s only now as we’ve returned from our end-of-summer vacation by the sea on Nova Scotia’s south shore, and the skies are beginning to darken before eight and the unmistakable signs of the winding down of summer mount, that we’re beginning to feel the pull back to the blog and the occasional log of our little pursuits.

The challenge in summer is whether to just do the thing or to take the time to document the doing. The doing won out. But some of the things we’ve done really merit a mention, so the next few blog entries will offer some backward glances into our summer adventures at home and away.