One year

Front door view

Gwen and I moved to our new place one year ago today. Any home purchase is momentous, and perhaps worthy of commemorating. We put a lot of thought and energy into the renovation—which wound up being a design for our lives in many ways, so this feels especially so. Even though the customary observation of romance is tomorrow, today feels like a more significant date to mark.

Compare this view with moving day. While the boxes are all gone, almost all our furniture is in the same place in both shots. For most of our furniture, there’s only one place it’ll fit. We had it mapped out ahead of time, and that’s where we put it when we moved in.

renovation post-mortem: kitchen

Kitchen Main View-1

Now that we’ve had some time to live with the decisions we made in our renovation, I’m going to occasionally look at how different aspects of it turned out.

The kitchen is typically the most functional room in the house, and receives the biggest investments in appliances and built-in furniture. So let’s start there.

On the whole, our kitchen turned out really well. But there are a few areas where we could have done better.

We’ve moved

Giles house after move

Our renovation is done. We’ve moved in to the new place. Now we just need to unpack and get rid of all the stuff that won’t fit. I’m exhausted.

Renovation, week kajillion: colors, trim, and hardware

We’ve gotten to a point in the job we’re all the fussy stuff has to get tackled, and where it takes a lot of work to see a little progress. We’re also starting to see little fit-and-finish issues, consequences of bad planning, etc. Nothing too serious.

One mistake I made in our electrical plan was that the ceiling fans all have light-kits, but I didn’t reflect separate wiring for both fan and light in the plans. I just figured that out last night, and correcting that problem will be a little sticky. We’ll have to compromise in a couple spots. I can live with that. As much work as I put into trying to figure that out, I could have put in more.

Karl noticed that, now that the cabinets are installed in the bedroom, the ceiling fan looks poorly positioned. I didn’t think it was a problem, but he said “we’ve feng-shui’d the heck out of this room, and it would be a shame for it to be out of place.” Another problem with this room—one which we could only detect under the harsh glare of flashlights at night—is that there had been some sketchy taping and floating at some point in the past (I think), and so the new paint was forming bubbles over those spots. We’d caught a couple spots previously, but found more last night.

The brown color we had chosen for the bedroom just didn’t quite look like we expected. Karl pointed out that the color chip we had used is flat, but the paint we had selected is eggshell, which has a little sheen to it; he said the sheen changes the way you perceive the color. He went and recovered the room with flatter paint (and perhaps a tiny bit blacker) and it looks very close to what we were expecting. The paint in the other rooms looks great, though. Karl repainted the oven hood, and annoyingly, hairs got caught in the wet paint as it dried.

One of the two sets of double-doors for the office closets are up, and they don’t quite line up with each other. Not hard to fix, Karl tells me.

I’m thinking/hoping that by catching all these little things as we go along, our punchlist at the end will be very short.

Although the process has been moving along quickly, we’re getting impatient to move in, mostly because we’re fed up with the place we’re in now. It’s not a bad place (hey, we’re trying to get it rented out), but the new place will be a lot better.

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.

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.

Well, that was fast

Just had a pow-wow with my contractor, Karl. We discussed a few problems that necessitate some modifications to our plans.

This house has a gabled roof. Normally the ceiling joists would run parallel to the rafters. Not in this house. A related problem is that they are not continuous beams from one end to the other, and we were planning on removing a wall under a spot where they join. Fortunately, there were going to be non-structural built-in cabinets there, so it is a relatively simple modification to turn them into structural closets. There’s another spot where we want to remove a wall underneath another run of joints. There’s no easy workaround for to this: Karl’s solution to this is to actually take down the joists, install a reinforced beam to carry the load out to the nearest load-bearing walls, turn the joists 90°, and hang them off this beam. It’s a lot of fooling around, but I don’t want to cheap out on the structure. In 100 years, when someone crawls up into that attic, they’ll look around and wonder “…what the hell?”.

The kitchen is a little bit knottier because of tight dimensions. Our plan called for a 72“ kitchen island where a wall is now. The problem is that this would leave only 32” of space to pass on each side, and Karl is pretty convinced you need at least 36“. I’m inclined to trust him. The simplest fix would be to make the island 8” shorter, which we may do. Karl suggested a more ambitious plan that involved making the island into a peninsula against the wall, and running a narrow 12“ counter along the wall between the original counter location and the peninsula, and leaving the fridge where it is instead of moving it, as we currently plan to. Moving the fridge to the corner we’ve planned could clash with the island/peninsula.

And so it begins

Last night, Gwen and I took possession of our new house, the one we bought about a month and a half ago. We then proceeded to throw a party:

Wake of destruction, Empty house party - 2

The house we’ve bought is basically a good house, but it’s a little on the small side for our purposes, and that means there’s not a lot of slack in the floorplan. Very quickly after we put in an offer on the house, we took pretty good (though not quite good enough) measurements, plotted out the house’s current floorplan in Illustrator, and then started to monkey around with ways to improve it. We showed our ideas to our contractor, who suggested a few tweaks but thought the ideas were generally sound and doable.

Current paln

Current floorplan

Proposed floorplan

Proposed floorplan

Some of the windows are positioned incorrectly here, and there are some omissions in the proposed plan–there’ll be a big kitchen island, the kitchen door will probably go, and there will be some built-in cabinets not pictured. There are some dimensions that are pretty sensitive–not allowing any wiggle-room–and they still need to be pinned down more accurately than we know them. So there will probably be some tweaks to these plans.

As I said, the house is a little on the small side. This means we need to divest ourselves of a bunch of furniture. So if you’re in the market for a bed (king or queen, both really nice) bookcase (we have three), a pair of speakers, a futon frame, or some bentwood chairs, drop me a line.