December 2005

Another snag

Looks like this was the week for miscommunication. First our cabinets came in slightly misconfigured (which we decided we could live with), now this.

The floor in the kitchen was kind of a mess. Originally pine planks, it had a layer of linoleum, then a layer of plywood, then another layer of linoleum on it. We wanted to strip everything down to the pine and have that refinished. The floor would have a lot of “character” (ie, flaws), but that was OK. If the old floor turned out to be excessively torn up, we were thinking of having oak laid to match the rest of the house as Plan B. We were clear with our contractor about our plans, and he thought he had clearly communicated it to his crew. The crew had previously ripped away the plywood, and had made a little headway on the lower layer of linoleum, but when we dropped by the house yesterday, all the pine planks were ripped up.

We called Karl to ask what was going on, and he was as surprised as we were. Apparently, someone on his crew had it in mind that we wanted everything stripped down to the subfloor. I know exactly how that is—you take an idea into your head and it refuses to be dislodged. Karl commented that some of the conversations he had with this guy indicated (in retrospect) that they really weren’t on the same page, but he didn’t realize it at the time.

So, Karl asked “what kind of floor do you want?”. Since he’s eating the expense, we didn’t want to stick it to him. We hadn’t been thinking in terms of putting tile down in the kitchen, but once we did, it started making a lot of sense. Plus (as a benefit to Karl), it’s something he can do with his crew, rather than job out (he’s not comfortable laying hardwood floors), so he’s only stuck with the costs for materials. Gwen and I headed straight over to Travis Tile and in a remarkably short time found a tile that we liked and that was pretty inexpensive—it’s a porcelain tile that looks remarkably similar to the countertop material we’ve chosen. Gwen commented that it was probably the fastest decision she’s ever made—no doubt an exaggeration.

This sets us back a day, and it’s a tough break for Karl (probably to the tune of $400 in materials), but it’s a happy accident that we’ll come out of it with a better floor than we had even contemplated before.

Week 5: cabinets and trim

Week 4 was pretty quiet, what with Xmas and all, but things are rolling along again.

Our kitchen cabinets arrived on the 27th, a day ahead of schedule. Karl called and told me “We’re having a little trouble fitting things in the way we planned.” Uh oh. “I’ll be right over” I tell him (even though I need to be at a practice for First Night in less than an hour). Fortunately, we’ve had very few moments like that.

One of our design constraints has been preserving this nifty old Vent-Rite hood that came with the place. It’s 40“ wide (to suit the original stove). We wanted our new 30” stove centered underneath it, or nearly so, but this resulted in an extremely narrow base cabinet (5“–6”) between the stove and the wall. We had approved plans that showed an open-fronted 6“ base cabinet there.

When the cabinets arrived, we discovered that the cabinet-maker had borrowed 3” from the left of the stove and put it on the right, to make that narrow cabinet 9“ wide. This meant that, without some modification, the left side of the stove would be almost flush with the left side of the hood—something we had explicitly been trying to avoid. Either we could live with this, have one of the wall-hung cabinets remade to be narrower (allowing the hood to slide over), or have all the base cabinets remade to the original specs (there is one monolithic base cabinet left of the stove, and the narrow one right of it). Had we insisted on that, the cabinet-maker would have taken a bath on this job, and it would have pushed our schedule way off. I called Gwen to advise her of the situation and say that I was willing to live with the cabinets as-is. She decided to come over and look for herself. She was annoyed at the situation, but decided she could live with it too after seeing it.

I’m not sure why the cabinet-maker made this change. He may have decided a 6” base cabinet was a dumb idea, and wasn’t aware of our reasoning behind it. More detailed communication might have helped. All that said, the craftsmanship on these cabinets is excellent. Better than we were likely to get from any of the big cabinetry suppliers, and tailored to our kitchen’s small dimensions.

Karl’s crew has made the massive boxes for the bedroom’s wall of storage. I think Karl is going to let the cabinet-maker handle the face-frames and doors, but he might be taking care of that himself.

The butcher-block surface for the kitchen island arrived yesterday, and we’re still getting an estimate on the quartz surface for the main counter. Most of the baseboard trim is in place. Karl has been measuring out the built-in bookcases—these are in the part of the house where the foundation and framing are most askew, so those will need a little fudging to look right.

First Night

Other cities have been doing this for some time, and now Austin is holding its first First Night, which will turn the downtown area into a big arts festival on new year’s eve.

I’m going to be a performer—there will be a total of five fire troupes (including Sangre del Sol, who are amazing, and our own troupe, which we are calling Pyrogenesis) performing at Auditorium Shores, in front of the skeleton of the old Palmer events center. The fire extravaganza will supposedly be running from 8:00 to 11:00 PM (add N minutes to allow for disorganization); our troupe is smack in the middle.

Every time I mention First Night to friends, they say “wha…?”. I’m sure this blog entry will make up for the paucity of publicity the event has been getting.

There’s nothing so pure as the kindness of an athiest

Gwen’s been a fan of Freakwater for some time—a couple of women belting out country music with warped lyrics. Last night they played at the Cactus Cafe, along with a drummer/clarinetist/keyboardist, pedal steel guitar/mandola player, and bass player ripped straight out of the Rockabilly Book of Stereotypes, with an ugly old turned-around Rickenbacker and a black cowboy shirt with pearl snaps and embroidering. It was a good show. Two encores. The Zincs (well, the Zinc, since there’s only one) opened, and he was good too.

As a side note, it is interesting that Freakwater posts fan transcriptions of their lyrics on their website. After the recent flap over lyrics posted online, this is refreshing.

And as an update to this side note, it’s doubly interesting that Google’s new music search takes you directly to a lyrics search link.

Week 3: nitty-gritty

Week 2 was relatively slow, according to Karl, but seemed to go by pretty quickly for us.

Week 3 is where we start encountering money problems. We’re not even done with the week yet, but we have to confront the fact that now, we’re spending a lot more of it than we planned on.

Floors: When Gwen and I put together our preliminary budget, the floors were a big question mark. We knew we’d be refinishing them. What we didn’t know was whether we’d need to patch in underneath where walls had been. The answer to that turned out to be “yes.” The cheapest estimate so far is $1000 more than we allowed for the floors. Figuring out when the floor work would be fit into Karl’s schedule is another question, since Karl has his schedule, and the floor guys have their schedules, and each would prefer to work into the other’s at a certain stage in the project that may not be perfectly aligned.

Cabinets: We may have backed ourselves into a corner here. Karl has a local company he likes to work with for cabinetry, although in theory he’s capable of doing the carpentry himself. He told me his cabinet company would be competitive with the estimates we got from Lowe’s for kitchen cabinets. They’re not–they’re a lot more. I’m fully prepared to believe the local guys do better work than Kitchen Craft or whoever, but I’m not sure how much better we need for it to be. One benefit of the local guys is that they’re a lot faster, and at this point, we may need to pay for that speed: we’re at or beyond the drop-dead date for have Lowe’s take the job and still finish the whole project on-schedule. This has been the subject of considerable gnashing of teeth for Gwen and me. It’s hard to say how big the discrepancy is here (the local guy’s bid includes some stuff Karl would have been doing himself otherwise, and which had not been on the Lowe’s bid), but I’d estimate it at about $1000.

Our plan for the bedroom built-ins is also probably going to balloon beyond Karl’s original estimate. I think this may be a case of Karl not quite knowing what he was getting into when making the original estimate, and getting an education after-the-fact from his cabinet-making compadres. He’s been looking for alternatives to keep us on budget, but so far there’s nothing that we like that will also fit within the original budget. He wouldn’t say how much over his original estimate we were going to go, but it looks to me like a lot. This is one area where Gwen and I are going to have to suck it up, because we just want something nice for the bedroom. Our current plan is to use something that resembles Shaker-style doors, with 2′ x 2′ sections topping 2′ x 5’6“ sections; we’re considering filling the center panel not with wood, but with a frosted plexiglass. The original plan was to just do massive floor-to-ceiling slab doors but we’ve learned that apparently won’t work.

bedroom closet appearance

Our plans for the office built-ins have mutated into conventional closets, so we’ll probably save a few bucks there.

AC: Karl told us that we’d need to involve an AC guy in the project, but wasn’t sure how much that would run us. He guessed $1000-$4000, but didn’t put a number in his original estimate. We didn’t add anything in. The actual figure is going to come in a little under $1000 (phew), but it’s still money we had left off our spreadsheet (oops).

Kitchen Door: It was obvious at the beginning of the project that the kitchen door should go. It became obvious once we got into it that the kitchen door must go. $600.

Foundation: I noticed yesterday that (at least) one spot of the house has some pretty obvious sagging—half an inch over three feet. We’re having a foundation guy give us an estimate before the crew starts taping and floating.

Although Karl says we’re a little behind where he’d like to be (by a day or two), things have been moving along swiftly–swiftly enough that we really don’t have time to make mistakes in planning without forcing work to be reversed or delaying the project. Almost the entire interior should have sheetrock hung by the end of today.

As much as we have planned and obsessed and tinkered and mapped things out in our heads and obsessed some more, we’ve still been caught short by some major aspects of the projects. And we’re at least $3600 over-budget already.

Week 2: Mechanicals

Although Karl’s crew has continued to beef up the bracing in the attic and only installed the frames for the sliding doors yesterday, this week has mostly been about the mechanicals.

I was somewhat dismayed that they ripped out the old rigid ductwork, which our inspector told us was better than the snakey stuff they use now. I’m not clear on why it had to go, but it’s gone.

The lighting plan has been one of the most complicated aspects of this project to figure out. Where do we want lights? What kind of lights do we want? Where should the switches go? The options are endless. We spent hours just picking out three ceiling fans. Hours researching different kinds of track lighting systems. Hours discussing the relative merits of different switch placements. Eventually we did manage to find options that we liked and which were not budget-busters. The whole track-lighting thing is really complicated. We wanted something that functioned like track lights, but Gwen wanted something less ugly. She likes monorail lights, but it seems that these generally fall into two camps: inexpensive kits where you’re pretty much stuck with what you buy, and expensive a-la-carte systems where you’ve got many options. We found that Lowe’s stocks a monorail kit (Tiella) that’s pretty cheap but that also has enough wattage in the transformer to allow the addition of a couple lamp-heads, and for which there are enough add-ons to give us some flexibility. So we wound up getting three of those. We wound up getting three different ceiling fans, although they’ve all got a sort of retro-modern style.

I discovered that if you want to have a light switched in two places (using what are called three-way switches), you can easily have a dimmer on one, but if you want a dimmer on both, you need to spend over $50 for a pair of special switches, because the two dimmers need to talk to each other (otherwise they multiply their effects). We decided this is not worth it, so we have dimmers on everything, and three-ways in a couple of rooms, but trying to do the double-dimmer trick would have added something well over $100 to our switch budget. Not worth it.

electric wiring plan for 1727 Giles

Then I got down and tried to figure out our signal-distribution plan. This has been (and remains) a source of ongoing confusion and frustration. I figured out a lot of this on my own, but I also wound up calling a tech-support guy at hometech to clarify some points for me.

It doesn’t make any sense to have one DVD player and try to distribute its signal to two TVs, unless you are happy with the picture you get over coax. DVD players can generally output to component video, which is much nicer, but the cost associated with distributing a component-video signal easily exceeds that of a good DVD player. Just buy one for each room.

Although I am setting up a rudimentary head-end in a closet, I’m not running the speaker cables through there. They’re all terminating right at the stereo. We’re running speaker wire to three locations in the house, but it didn’t make sense to run that through the head-end. One option I have (perhaps unwisely) not allowed for in this plan is having volume controls or switches in each of the three different zones. If I had it to do over again, I’d probably do that, but I don’t want to backtrack at this point, and it is possible to control at the stereo anyhow. Since it’s a small house, I’m not going to get worked up over it.

Although cat-6 cable is readily available, I couldn’t find any that was plenum-rated (at least on the shelf at Lowe’s or Fry’s), nor could I find any structured-wiring products that support it. So, cat-5e for me. I expect that 802.11n will make most wired connections irrelevant anyhow. 802.11g is already more than sufficient for most purposes.

One (hopefully) smart thing I am doing is installing only a single phone jack (of course, that’ll be served by the cat-5e, so we could have four lines if we wanted). We’re going to use one of those expandable cordless systems to put handsets elsewhere in the house.

Since we’re going for a clean look, we wanted all the speaker cable run through the wall, even for the speakers that will be on the “TV wall” and hence close to the receiver. Figuring out where those cables should exit has forced me to pretty much lay out the entire living room and figure out where all the furniture in it will go. Getting all the TV wiring out of sight requires more creativity: we’re planning on getting a flat-panel TV and hanging it on the wall. But there will probably be seven (!) cables running between it and the console, plus power, and setting up wall plates top and bottom just to hide a 30“ run of cable was looking to be very expensive, with poor future expandability, and would require a triple-gang box or something crazy like that. What I’m hoping to do instead is run a PVC pipe down the inside of the wall with elbows to bring the openings out of the wall. Then I’ll just slide cables through it. Both openings should be hidden ordinarily.


Renovation, day 4

Work is moving on schedule according to our contractor, and they seem to making quick progress to me. With the exception of a little bit of framing, all the demolition that needs to be done has been finished, and the crew has made a significant dent in the new framing work. We can get a much better sense of how the house is going to look when it’s done, and we’re confident it’s going to look good. We’re also getting a sense of our lighting plan—we’ve been talking about that for some time, but it’s been difficult to pin it down without walking around in the space. Now we can do that, which is a good thing, because electrics are next after framing.

We made another minor tweak to the plan, to make a closet a little bit shallower, and we figured out exactly where a couple of doors are going to be positioned. It’s been interesting to see how much of a plan can only be decided once you’ve got the actual thing itself in progress. I’m sure that with better drafting tools and more meticulous measurements, we could have planned some of this stuff better, but other aspects (such as the lighting) really require you to be there.

I’ve got a renovation photoset going, and I’m adding pictures to it as things move forward. I’m commenting on a lot of the details of the project over there.