Friday, November 19, 2010

Goodbye Ferns, Hello Winter Urns

tropical upright fern/winter urn
I bid a reluctant goodbye to my three tropical upright ferns that had performed so spectacularly all summer and fall.  I brought one of them inside, but their gigantism forced me to send the other two to the compost heap, where they look very forlorn.  Even a Victorian home can only handle so many ferns on stands. In their place are three berry laden Blue Princess Hollies, well insulated with extra soil and lots of cedar and dogwood boughs.  With luck they'll survive the winter and join the far less showy Blue Prince holly in the garden in the spring.  The lovely brown of the underside of the magnolia leaves makes a nice compliment to my rusty iron urns (rust initially from neglect, now turned purposeful strategy). 

Blue Princess holly, cedar boughs, red osier dogwood twigs, magnolia leaves

For the two concrete urns at the top of the stairs I impaled two moss balls on dogwood stakes and thrust them into into my existing pots of ivy with some white pine and salal.  For all of the violence of their making, they have a calm formal look and the moss balls echo the size and shape of the ball finials on the newel posts at the base of the stairs--another subconscious design coup (I'm that good).  So, that's the fun part of putting the garden to bed, I really must get back to the real chores before the final deep freeze.

The impaled moss ball topiary (slightly askew from this angle)

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Half a Bath

A schematic rendering of our basement half-bath, by N using SketchUp

One of the reasons we've taken so long to get to the cabinet ordering stage is that in commandeering space for the kitchen, we eliminated a full main floor bathroom. Then, unwilling to live without a useable bathtub (our existing bathroom had a broken down jacuzzi that we use only for showers), we appropriated an upstairs bedroom for our new master bathroom (a process I plan to recap shortly). Now we have two upstairs bathrooms: the new one and the original, mostly redundant one (original to the time of purchase, but not to the house). But for now we have no main floor bathroom--nowhere to dash quickly when in midst of dinner preparations, or to offer to an unexpected guest. To solve this pressing need for an accessible and less personal bathroom, we had first planned to put a tiny powder room under the stairs in the front hall. But we eventually decided that to confiscate the only possible spot for a front hall closet would be foolish, and so we began to scout for territory elsewhere.
The basement, with its newly soaring ceiling of 6'4" (gained in the replacement of the sagging kitchen floor joists), became the obvious choice for a two-piece bathroom. The new half bath will be just down the stairs and to the left, beside the laundry room, and en route to the wine cellar. As with everything in an old house, this half bathroom presented some real technical hurdles for us to overcome. In particular, the toilet, being lower than our ancient sewer connection, requires a pump to propel the sewage up to the sewer line. Fascinating, eh? 
The Liberty "Low Pro System"

At the recommendation of our plumber, we chose a Liberty "low pro system". In a typical installation, you could set the "low-pro" directly on the concrete floor and build the finished floor up to meet it, but we couldn't afford any loss of height, so to set the pump reservoir  flush with the floor (pardon the pun), we had to excavate a 26" x 44" hole in the concrete floor of the basement to a depth of about 8". Then we levelled the pump and set it in concrete. And we did a beautiful job too, but you'll have to accept my word because the photos have gone astray. 
Toto Drake
We are getting the pump appropriate toilet, a Toto Drake (not nearly as sleek as the Toto Nexus we have upstairs), next week, and if the plumber can come by to install it, we should have a report on how our gravity defying system works very soon. We laboured hard to create a layout that would allow access to the pump in the future should anything go wrong.

The half bath plan, rendered in 3-d by N using SketchUp

You'll notice in the floor plan above that the area between the bathroom and the stairs, and into which we will put a removable pull-out pantry, is strategically located to provide a narrow access route that a plumber (or an unfortunate apprentice) could squeeze through to get to the pump in emergencies.

Fixtures and Finishes
In keeping with its humble location in the basement, we decided to clad the half-bath walls in tongue and groove boards, both for the slightly rustic yet still period feel, and also to avoid the drywall taping and sanding. We found these bargain boards in 6' foot lengths at the Home Depot.
Tongue and Groove boards--great price for 6' lengths

N and my dad made a beautiful door using the same tongue in groove boards.  The 'z' support and general style is the same design as the original basement doors.

The lovely simple new door, and a glimpse at the tongue and groove paneling in the background

Two of our original cellar doors
The new door turned out beautifully and has stayed remarkably true despite the fairly wet wood. The hinges are from Lee Valley tools. We haven't yet decided whether we'll paint them or leave them black (but I'm leaning towards paint).

Most of the bathroom fixtures we chose are from Restoration Hardware, including the vanity:
The Weathered Oak Single Console Sink from Restoration Hardware

the faucet ( a less expensive alternative to the Waterworks Easton we have in the main bathroom):
The Bistro Faucet from Restoration Hardware

two sconces:
The 1920s Factory Sconce from Restoration Hardware

We are still looking for a mirror.  The small recessed cupboard over the toilet will have a door cut from the original door to the small pantry that was demolished in the kitchen renovation.

We are going to frame, or at least plaque-mount, a nautical chart of St Margaret's Bay, Nova Scotia, to hang on one wall. N and I visit Nova Scotia every summer and spend hours kayaking and boating in this little part of the world. We'd like to find a library lamp with a short extension to illuminate the chart.

Library Picture Light from Elte, also available in polished nickel
I did find one I love at ELTE in Toronto, but at almost $400 for a single sconce it may be a little much for a modest half bath.
Tongue and groove paneling carefully scribed to the brick veneer wall
We covered one of the bathroom walls in brick veneer, a process I'll write about in detail in a future post. I know that fake brick sounds like it might look contrived or, well, fake, but since being mortared and patinized with a dilute paint paint solution, it looks surprisingly good and understated. We love how it plays against the texture of the tongue in groove panelling and adds some warmth and a sense of age to the basement space. I installed the brick myself, and even I can't believe it's not the real thing.
Pietra/2  'fiora' from Casa Dolce Casa

The floor was tiled by our tile setter with tile left over from our kitchen floor. It's a gorgeous Italian porcelain tile from Casa Dolce Casa in the colour fiora. It's meant to mimic limestone, but I think it's beautiful in its own right, and it's indestructible.
We've made good and, for us, quick progress on the little half bath. We've filled all the holes with wood filler, shellacked the knots, primed with a shellac-based primer, sanded and painted.  We used Farrow and Ball's shaded white on the walls and pointing on the ceiling--the same colours we've been trying out in our kitchen while the renovation is in progress.  We're still looking for an appropriate door trim molding and baseboard, but I should have some photos of the nearly completed half bath in the next week or two.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Cabinetry Bids Are In!

And after agonizing for several days, we have made our choice.  Next week we'll hand over our deposit and, with luck, our new kitchen will be installed early in the new year. It's taken so long to get to this point that we're astonished at how quickly things will move now that we've actually set the ball rolling.

Although we decided on the custom cabinetry route, we did seriously consider using IKEA cabinets, with some additional custom cabinets, especially after reading this excellent and informative post: "Why I Love IKEA Kitchens!" by Toronto interior designer Carol Reed, who offers up a wealth of design information on her blog.  Our temporary unfitted kitchen is all IKEA and we've grown to love the drawer hardware and spacious interiors. We have knocked down and set up our IKEA cabinets many times over the course of the renovation, and they are still going strong. In fact, we like them so much that we just purchased a bank of four IKEA base cabinets for our laundry/tool room.  In the end, though, it was apparent that our kitchen layout would require so much customization that IKEA would not necessarily be advantageous either economically or practically. 

Not to mention, we won't have to do nearly as much of this: 

N assembling base cabinets for the basement
So, fully custom it is. The small cabinetry company we've hired from Stratford, Ontario does beautiful work--as both their portfolio and extremely happy customers attest--and has the expertise to build and install the kitchen we've designed exactly as specified. The custom route is expensive, but possibly no moreso than the semi-custom options so widely available at the big box stores and larger kitchen cabinetry manufacturers, and we both the believe that the attention to detail will be worth it.  A kitchen is so seldom renovated that we plan to get it right this first and (we hope) only time. 

We had three very high quality bids from three small cabinetry shops. Although there was a bit of a price gap among the bids, price was not the determining factor in our decision. I believe that any of the three cabinetmakers could have built us a beautiful kitchen, and I wish we could've hired all three, but we chose the one that filled us with the most confidence because of excellent communication and amenability to our design requests. We designed the kitchen to have both face frame and frameless cabinets to get the look we want without compromising on space. Most of our base cabinets will have drawers and we believe that frameless constuction will make the best use of space. 

A detail of our bathroom vanity showing the sleek, stainless Blum tandembox and face frame construction
The cabinetmaker we have hired can build both frameless and faceframe and seems to like the idea of blending the two in the same kitchen. So the base cabinets will be frameless boxes with full overlay shaker style doors, Blum softclose hardware, and Blum's stainless tandembox drawers. Maple dovetail drawers are available for the same price or possibly a little less, but we like a little high-tech along with our tradition. The upper cabinets, and part of the island cabinets, will be faceframe with inset, glass-paneled, shaker style doors. 

A detail of our temporary IKEA cabinets showing frameless cabinet boxes and full overlay doors
--details we will duplicate on our new base cabinets
We far prefer to work directly with the builder of our cabinets than to coordinate things through a third party, which would be the case with most larger firms. The cabinetmaker will be here next week to confirm measurements and then things will begin!  It's an exciting, nervewracking time.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Trick or Treat

Forty ghouls and goblins--a record for our neighbourhood!

  1. Butterfly ballerina
  2. Bat
  3. Mad Hatter
  4. Shark Victim
  5. Baby Bumble Bee
  6. Bumble Bee
  7. Grim Reaper
  8. Zombie
  9. Storm Trooper
  10. Ballerina
  11. Pirate
  12. Vampire (with Pirate Mom)
  13. Lady Gaga
  14. Jason
  15. Storm Trooper
  16. Zombie
  17. Dinosaur
  18. Cat
  19. Witch
  20. Ghoul #1
  21. Ghoul #2
  22. Ghoul #3
  23. Nerd
  24. Clown
  25. Jack-o-lantern
  26. Happy Gilmour
  27. Rasta
  28. Bert
  29. An old lady
  30. Vampire
  31. Pirate
  32. Scary thing
  33. Princess #1
  34. Princess #2
  35. Everything ... ghoulish
  36. Baseball player
  37. Stepford wife
  38. French maid
  39. Dead WWII soldier
  40. Jeannie

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Balletic Art of Drywall Taping

The rented drywall lift in action

Hanging sheets of drywall is not difficult, especially with the aid of a few tools easily rented or acquired from your local hardware store: a drywall lift; an electric drywall screwdriver with an integral bit that dimples the drywall just enough to ensure that the screw head is below the surface of the drywall, but not to rip the paper surface; a good long straight edge for cutting--a 4' drywall square works best; a foot jack for wedging the drywall up off the floor enough to firmly abut the piece above; a knife with lots of replacement blades, a rasp for filing ragged edges, and a level.  

DIY drywall toolkit part 1: drywall screwdriver, foot jack, t-square, knife and replacement blades, ear protection, rasp
Oh, and a rotozip type router is also invaluable for cutting around outlet boxes (always cut-counter clockwise or the cut can get away from you), as is a shop-vac style vaccuum that won't be harmed by the fine gypsum dust. And, now that I think about it, we also used two telescoping poles to help support the drywall at ceiling level, So, yes, it requires lots of tools, but hanging your own drywall is a feasible task for a homeowner. 

DIY drywall toolkit part 2: Rotozip, telescoping support poles, level
For our kitchen renovation, we decided to hang the drywall ourselves and then hire a professional to tape the seams.   But here's something we've learned: if you plan to hang your own drywall, be sure to do a good job--no small scraps of drywall, no ragged or uneven seams, no exposed screw heads, no broken paper--or you may have difficulty finding a professional taper to complete your job. All the tapers we've seen in action work with such balletic efficiently (some even work on stilts to avoid having to break their stride to move a ladder around the room!), that they resent any glaring errors of the prior boarding crew that might slow them down. They seem to have an instinctive idea of how long a room should take and how much trouble it should be. Ask for more, and they'll often turn your job down. Believe us, a good taper is a necessity. We've learned that taping is a fluid artform, not a job for plodding amateurs. Like beautiful calligraphy or sumi-e painting, excellent taping requires fluid motion and a deft hand. We've been amazed at how little sanding an expert taper will need to do after the fact. We tried taping a room--once. It was enough to make us recognize that book-learning can only go so far. Some things are better left to skilled professionals. 

With angles like these (and this isn't the half of it), this kitchen needed a professional taper
N, who is the perfectionist around here, is always pleased when the drywalling contractors comment on his excellent job hanging the drywall.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Kitchen Renovation Update--We've Come a Long Way

Sometimes, when we think about the seemingly endless number of steps remaining in the kitchen renovation, we begin to lose heart. But then we think back on how far we've come. ...And we've come a long way, baby.
The original floor plan of the back of the house as it was when we moved in

 It's taken over five years, but after gutting the original kitchen, addressing structural concerns, adding windows, restoring the house to something close to its original 1889 floor plan, and building a new master bathroom so we could remove the bathroom from its inconvenient location within the footprint of the future kitchen without losing the convenience of a second bathroom, we finally have a clean slate to proceed with our kitchen renovation.
Looking east in our new blank slate of a kitchen space

Looking West
Looking East (fireplace)
Last year, when I left off describing our kitchen saga, we'd come to a difficult decision about replacing the joists of the kitchen floor. If we wanted tile, especially tile with under floor hydronic heat (which would mean embedding water tubes in thick concrete), the century-old sagging joists riddled with ill-placed holes would have to go. They did, and with the tremendous efforts of N and my Dad they were replaced with perfectly square, structurally sound laminated beams.

Replacing the floor joists
An engineer and home builder couple once told us that over-building (that is, using materials far in excess of code) was the mark of true amateurs.  That's us! 
And we do love our house--too much not to use the best materials we can. 

Not only did the new joists reduce the floor deflection enough for us to lay tile, they also gained us almost 2 inches of headroom in the basement (which had been lost to the sagging of the old joists).

Luckily, while my dad and N were doing that, I was far away looking at castles, wandering through ruins, art galleries and cathedrals, and enjoying the beautiful city of Krakow, Poland, with my friend E.
A castle in the Pieniny mountains, the courtyard at Wawel Castle, and a self portrait walking
through an art installation at the National Gallery, Krakow
Sigh. Okay, back to work.

After joists came the subfloor: 5/8" tongue and groove plywood secured with construction adhesive and then screwed down into the joists.

Tool Tip: If you have a project that will require a lot of glue, or are engaged in long-term renovations, we recommend you spend the $100 or so it will cost to buy one of these guns: 
Foam gun and sub floor adhesive canister
If you clean the nozzle with acetone and store it upside-down when the canister is in place, you'll never regret it. We used a foaming glue specifically for subfloors that doesn't leave a raised bead of glue (like PL), especially in cool temperatures, but spreads out evenly on contact with the applied surface, assuring even coverage and good adhesion. Trust us, we have learned from experience that any tool that saves wear and tear or prevents injury to any body part is worth its price.  We wish we'd made this purchase several years earlier.

After the subfloor came framing. Then wiring--for lighting, speakers, outlets, range and hood, and future wi-fi (the lighting/wiring required a detailed plan). At the same time came plumbing for two sinks and a separate waterline for unsoftened water. Plumbing costs, if you don't already know, mount quickly, and are a bit of a wild card. Budget for more than you expect. Oh, and then a new gas line for the range. And after all this came insulation--sprayed-in foam to a depth of 3 1/2". Did you know that every insulation company has a proprietary colour of foam?  We've had icy cool blue, but this insulation was pink.
Pink foam insulation
Pretty, huh? Considering that most of our walls were previously uninsulated and where we did have insulation, it looked like this:

Insulation circa 1880--Yes, paper bags of straw!
--any insulation would be wonderful. The R-value of the sprayed insulation should be about 5 per inch, which might just make up for the new large window and longer replacement windows we added. And, since I'm on the topic of insulation, I'll mention that we also applied sound insulation, in the form of mass loaded vinyl, to the toilet stack which still runs through the wall in the kitchen.  

The toilet stack insulated with a sheet of mass loaded vinyl

It seems to have worked.   Then, after months and months of this tedious infrastructural work, and many cheques to many trades, we hid it all behind big blank expanses of drywall. And, like a bad dream, it was all forgotten...except of course for the photographs. You know, I can hardly stand to write about's like dredging up a murky past.

To be continued...

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Apropos of nothing...

I think I might just quietly revive our neglected little blog. To be honest, I've missed writing this semi-public chronicle of our home renovations (among other things). Because we're acting as our own general contractors and more often general labourers, our renovations are still far from complete. Looking back at the blog, I see that I never did post any photos of our completed bathroom, and now we're in the midst of collecting quotations for kitchen cabinetry, so I'll have much to tell. And maybe, just maybe, there will be someone out there to advise us when we need it. More to come.

Sugar maples glow outside the sunroom windows and scarlet Boston ivy climbs our gray brick walls.