I’m Tired…and Excited

At some point a few weeks ago, in the midst of weeks filled with more trips to showrooms, research on the internet, taking field measurements, altering designs to coordinate with plumbing requirements, and drawing up construction details, I felt like I wanted to stop.  Kitchen cabinets and appliances had been selected. Bath cabinets, kitchen countertops, light fixtures, plumbing fixtures, tile selections, and many other selections were in process and needed attention. Construction was continuing on schedule, leaving no time for a break.  It’s been relentless ever since construction started about 10 weeks ago.

It wouldn’t have felt so relentless if I didn’t still have to show up for my full time paid employment!  Luckily I have a lot of flexibility to get to the office late or to leave early. I’ve been taking full advantage of that flexibility to meet on site with the contractor and to work with sales people who don’t work on weekends.  I have worked as an architect and builder since before I received my Master of Architecture degree in 1973. I have done numerous projects for new houses or additions and renovations, but it’s different doing this project for myself while working five days a week elsewhere. 

Here’s a view of our second floor bath showing the piping for the shower, blocking in the walls for grab bars, and sunlight coming through the ceiling from the sun tunnel that has just been installed.

I don’t want to hold up the construction and I want to be sure to provide the guidance needed to achieve the result I’ll be pleased with.  My permit drawings were quite detailed, comprised of 23 drawings of 17” by 22” each. Still, as construction proceeds there are more questions every week about how to handle particular situations.  So it’s no wonder that there are times that I just want the whole thing to be done!

On the other hand I am excited to be engaged in this project of recreating our home.  I do like figuring out how to put things together, whether we are talking about how the kitchen relates to the family room, how the plumbing vent pipes can be routed to their exit through the roof, or what tiles to select to go with the countertop and cabinets in the kitchen.  Meg and I have enjoyed going to showrooms, discussing what will work best in our space, and making selections collaboratively. This process can be a big stress on a relationship. For us, I believe sharing the process has been good for our relationship. We have always liked doing projects together.

Samples for our first floor bathroom laid out on our deck during our vacation in Maine.

I am also both excited and challenged by the opportunity to be creative and to express myself through the design.  I find the process of designing the space and selecting the colors and finish materials is a way for me to engage fully with life.  I feel more fully alive when I am creating the space around me than when I simply accept what’s there. There is a challenge in doing this work well.  There is also a challenge to be confident in this self expression. People will experience our house and, hopefully, find it very attractive and comfortable. In many ways the house will become an extension of who I am.  I want them to like me and appreciate who I am; therefore, I want them to like my house.

Who Knows How High to Mount the Kitchen Cabinets?

My permit drawings did not show the dimension between the kitchen counters and wall cabinets. I had drawn it at 15”, while the framer assumed the more common 18”.  I directed that the blocking should be lower to accommodate the 15” dimension, which was the dimension we were used to from our old kitchen.

At our cabinet supplier we were told that 18” was the required minimum.  This was confirmed by a contractor who happened to be there at the same time.  He was very certain that there could be no discussion with the building inspector about this- it had to be a minimum of 18”.  He said it had to do with the possibility of putting a hot plate on the counter and needing the cabinets to have enough clearance to avoid burning.

This requirement was news to me.  I have seen cabinets at anywhere from 15” to 22” above the counter.  I asked around and my architect friends and colleagues noted that they have mounted cabinets at 15”.  I scoured the code books and did not find any minimum dimension, other than the requirement that the cabinets above a gas stove have to be a minimum of 30” above.

I went to the building department (It’s hard to get someone on the phone).  The inspector said he didn’t know of any requirement for the cabinet height.  Still, I was concerned that there must be some truth behind the cabinet vendor’s  and contractor’s certainty. Finally, I did a detailed search of the International Fuel Gas Code (IFGC) and found that it requires gas appliances to be installed according to the manufacturer’s installation instructions.  Seems logical enough.

The place to look is the manufacturer’s instructions, not the code. And it’s not so much about the placement of cabinets above counters as it is about cabinets near gas stoves.  Most gas stove instructions require a minimum of 18” clearance to cabinets adjacent to the stove. If the cabinets were offset 5 or 6” away from the side of the stove, there would be no height requirement.  So, as sometimes happens, the vendor and contractor had good information, but didn’t know why or where it applies.

Even this diagram is not entirely clear. The correct interpretation is that there could be a wall within 4″ on the left side or 6″ on the right side. Therefore the 18″ height requirement shown applies to the portion of cabinets within that 4″ or 6″ zone. Outside of that zone they could be any height. I don’t think these requirements should be so hard to find or to understand. The appliance people should make note of the correct installation requirements and the cabinet people should, as in our case, also provide the information. However, they should know what the real requirement is and where it applies. Of course I also think the building inspector and designer (myself) should be completely familiar with these requirements as well.

Beware of Unnecessary Scope Constraints

We’ve felt some pressure to make decisions about the appliances.  Naturally, the electrician and plumber wanted to know exactly what we’re getting so they could provide services in the right places.  We also needed to be sure to coordinate the cabinets with the appliances. And lastly, the prices may go up soon. The appliance company has electronic price tags throughout the showroom that allow them to quickly raise and lower prices depending on costs and the competition!

Following our visit to the showroom we had a very good idea of our choices.  There was, however, some doubt that surfaced about our refrigerator selection.  We had chosen a Samsung model that met our requirement for 30” width. One of our cabinet vendors suggested enclosing the refrigerator with side panels to support a 24” deep cabinet above.  When we looked at this in our computer model we were dismayed by how massive the combination of refrigerator and cabinet were in the middle of the kitchen.

35″ deep refrigerator with side panels and deep cabinet above.
We felt that this combination was too massive for such a central location in our kitchen. Our selection was actually a bottom freezer with double doors above. I just didn’t get that into the model at this point.
Refrigerators are big and they easily dominate. However, we liked this better. It’s 28″ deep and 32+ inches wide, so it extends only 3″ instead of 10″ in front of the adjacent counter. Leaving the wall cabinets at normal depth also makes a dramatic difference. We decided not to be concerned that it will be more difficult to reach the cabinet doors.

A familiar issue with renovations is “scope creep”. This happens when you decide that either by choice or necessity, there is additional work that needs to be done. In our project that has already happened in several ways. For instance, I anticipated making adjustments to the existing plumbing system to accommodate the new plumbing fixtures. As it has developed, we had to replace the entire piping system. To keep the budget under control it’s important to limit scope creep. The opposite problem can also occur, where our attempts to limit scope keep us from seeing no-cost options.

Our refrigerator choices had been constrained by the distance between the ‘pass-through’ window to the back room and the doorway. These only allowed for a 30″ wide refrigerator. Once all the finishes were removed from the walls it became obvious that it was a simple matter to make the window a couple inches narrower to accommodate the wider frig. This situation arises often in a renovation project, in my experience. It was not our intent to completely rebuild our house. For instance, we did not want to relocate windows or make other changes to the exterior. That would push up the project budget beyond what we contemplated. We also wanted to limit changes to the interior that were not directly related to our goals. In this case, I did not consider changing the ‘pass-through’ window because it was not on our list of changes we wanted to make. It turned out to be a no-cost change that allows for the preferred appliance choice.

Today we went back to the appliance store to view the refrigerators and, hopefully, make a final choice. As luck would have it, our salesperson was available and we proceeded to make our choices and complete our order. Yay! Check off the appliance shopping!

Picking Up the Pace

At a certain point things start happening very fast. That’s what happens with framing- one day it’s the old way (or non-existent), the next day you have the rough outlines of the new plan. Even before the demolition was complete, the carpenters were on site to begin the alterations to the framing.

The central bearing wall had to be re-framed entirely because of the extent of changes. It was all done in a day. Notice that there is no longer any wall framing between the family room in the foreground and the kitchen toward the back right side.
For comparison here, again, is a shot of the framing that was removed.
Complex angle cuts were required (and expertly executed) for the angled wall above the shower where it meets the sloping ceiling. This room used to have a flat ceiling. Now we’re going with the “cathedral” ceiling, like we did in our front room a few years ago. It does a lot for the sense of spaciousness as you enter the house. Still, don’t you think “cathedral” is a grandiose term for a sloped ceiling?
Framing in place for the slightly enlarged bathroom and coat closet
The plumber also got to work this week, installing the new waste piping. This perimeter run of the main waste pipe replaces a head banging pipe running diagonally across the work space.

The good news in all of this is that the contractor is now about two weeks ahead of schedule. We like that because we want to be able to move back in to our house before our apartment lease runs out in November. That may seem like a long way away; however, we don’t expect every week to be as action filled as this one was.

The not so good news in all of this is that the contractor is now about two weeks ahead of schedule and we have been feeling the pressure to make decisions about all sort of things. Last Saturday we were picking out plumbing fixtures. On Sunday we visited a kitchen design showroom to look at cabinets. Tuesday brought us to the appliance company to pick out the range, refrigerator, microwave, and dishwasher. And on Friday we were at another cabinet showroom.

That’s a lot of shopping for a week during which we were also working our full time jobs. We’ve happily made a lot of progress. There are a few things to work out before we’ve made final decisions. Hopefully we can place the orders next week and maybe take a break before moving on to tile selections.


Demolition actually started on Wednesday, April 24, and proceeded quickly. After one day our kitchen was gutted and the living room and family room were piled with debris.

Debris from the kitchen demolition fills the family room.

Another look at the family room with the kitchen in the background.

Two weeks later demolition was complete.

I find it fascinating to study this old house and try to understand what it has been through. I’ve done this for years. Now with the framing exposed, more things are evident. Here you can see that the walls were originally framed for larger windows. There is a header four or five inches higher than the current window opening, and the original sill may have been lower.

The house was built in 1880. It’s been through one or two major renovations before. We are about to undo some of the “modernizations” such as lowering the ceilings. Why were the ceilings lowered and the windows replaced with smaller ones? Maybe as an attempt to reduce drafts and make the house easier to heat. We’ll be making the house more comfortable by adding insulation in the walls and making them air tight. We’re looking forward to restoring the higher ceilings.

In this photo, with the lowered ceiling removed, you can see old wallpaper in a band around the room above the window. That shows how much we are raising the ceiling- about 10 or 11 inches. We’ve also had the brick veneer above the fireplace removed with the intention of creating a more unified wall and the experience of a bigger room.

In this view, taken while standing in the kitchen space, you can see a surprise or two. Just to the right of the opening to the stairs is the framing for a door (where you can see the electrical boxes and wiring). Sometime before electricity was added to the house the circulation pattern was different. Note the white rectangle to the right of the old doorway. Could this have been a pocket for a fold-out ironing board?

You can also see framing for another doorway to the left of the existing opening. In our current renovation we will be restoring the passage to the left and blocking up the current opening. This will give us more space for cabinets in the kitchen.

Here you see the central bearing wall on the left. This wall will be reframed with the openings in different places, designed to create stronger sight lines that make more sense of the relationships among the spaces. The cross wall will be removed entirely to connect the kitchen across a peninsula counter to the family room (formerly the dining room)

The former doorway between the kitchen and dining room was to the right where there is a part of the header visible at the edge of the photo.

Although we made the big push described in earlier posts to clear out the areas being demo’d, we still have other areas that will be impacted by the construction. One of those was my workshop, which has accumulated too many tools and miscellaneous materials over the years. There are extra tool boxes from my dad and from my sons and old toolboxes of my own.

I counted seven tool boxes, not including the one I currently use. In this photo, I have already cleaned up some of the mess. I worked on this task all day one Saturday when Meg and Craig were away. It was quite challenging as there were so many memories associated with the old tools and supplies from years ago when I built and worked on houses. I kept repeating to myself, “I’m done with needing bits of wire and old plumbing parts. I’m not going to be in the construction business again. Please, just get rid of these leftovers.”

I didn’t have time to go through the toolboxes to organize the tools, but at least I organized enough of the clutter to make room for the plumber to run the waste pipes through the shop. Following this deep dive into the past, it seems appropriate that I took myself out to Burger King for dinner. That’s not something I have done in a very long time.

Okay, so that’s one more step of the process completed. The carpenters and plumbers will be arriving soon to get construction going.

More Moving…and a Contract!

Our big move day was a week ago, as noted in my last post.  With the furniture out of the way we still had a lot of things to sort, dispose of, and either move to the apartment or find a place to store.  We were still in the first half of the week we had set aside for moving and things seemed to be progressing well.  However, as we dug into accumulated possessions, including clothes, books, business records, photos, kitchen furnishings, odds and ends of leftovers from old construction projects, tools, and whatnot, five days left in the week seemed like not much time at all. 

Meanwhile, Erik and I were still going back and forth about some of the contract language and costs.  After a few more emails we resolved the costs, mostly in the contractor’s favor.  We arranged to meet Saturday morning with the expectation of signing a contract.   There was just one issue outstanding- a construction schedule.  I had asked several times for a schedule and got no response. Now Erik and Bob (his dad and partner) were arguing for not giving us a schedule.  They were apparently worried that if they provided a schedule and there was slippage, we would hold them accountable in some way.  They said something about “managing our expectations”.

I responded that the way to manage my expectations was to provide a schedule.  I understood that schedules change, but you need to start somewhere.  Besides, we are to furnish quite a few things- plumbing fixtures, cabinets, appliances, tile, etc.  We can’t do them all at once, so we need to know when they will be required.  It seems reasonable, doesn’t it?  So I was really adamant about it.  Meg says she never saw me quite that way before.  Finally we agreed that Erik would provide an “approximate” schedule.  I never expected it to be more than approximate.  After all, I’ve been in the construction sector for a long time! 

With that out of the way, we proceeded to sign the contract!!

And then we were back at work.  Erik would be back on Monday with the demolition contractor and the plumbing sub.  We definitely wanted things to be ready for them.  The main areas we needed to focus on were my former office in the basement and everything on the first floor.  The bedrooms and third floor space could be put off for awhile as the demo contractor would not be working in those areas.  I won’t bore you with details.  We worked through the afternoon and then took the night off for a Passover seder with friends.

Monday was almost upon us.  We decided to skip the Easter church service and put in a full day of clearing out.  We finally left the house about 2 am, got about 3 ½ hours sleep, and I returned for the Monday morning site meeting.  The plumber disconnected the gas and water lines and work was underway.  Demolition would start Tuesday afternoon or Wednesday.  We had accomplished nearly all that we needed for the demolition to begin, but we had just a few more things to do.  Monday night, after being back at our daytime jobs, we put in another late night.  All in all, it has been an exhausting week.

Nearly all cleared out

Moving Day

Yesterday was moving day.  Meg and I have taken the whole week off from our regular employment to devote ourselves to sorting, disposing, packing, and moving.  However, there has to be a day when we move our beds and start sleeping in our temporary quarters down the street, just ¾ of a mile away.  Did we hire movers to do the heavy lifting?  Not me.  I often tell the story of a long ago girl friend who asked me to help her move.  She had about six empty boxes for her stuff.  She needed twenty.  We packed my Dodge van completely full, tied her bike on the back, and filled up her car.  While our move would be bigger, I didn’t think it would be too hard for us with the help of several friends and a neighbor.

Jonathan, Craig, me, & Tim

Our neighbor, Nate, and me between loads.

We have to empty everything out of both the first and second floors of our house.  Beds, bureaus, and bookcases had to go and most will be welcome in our unfurnished apartment.  Other items, including the guest bed, china cabinet, dining room table and chairs, and half of our sectional couch needed to go to storage.  Clearly, we needed a truck.  I had figured a ten foot box truck would be sufficient.  We would load up the items for storage first, then add the apartment items. It would take one trip.  We would go to the apartment to unload what we needed, including any items we were not sure about.  Finally, we would unload the rest at the storage facility.  One trip should do it.

My estimation was about as good as my former girl friend’s.  We neglected to get a picture of the full truck- or the second full load- or the third partial load. 

Here you can see the furniture beginning to pile up in the driveway. This is just the items going into storage.

Here’s the first truck load neatly arranged in our storage unit. It was a full truckload plus a couple items carried in Jonathan’s SUV.

Following an exhausting day, we spent our first night in our apartment, lovingly named “The Outpost”.  We are looking forward to settling in, as it will be our home for the next 6 months.  But first, we have more work to do moving out of our house.

Bumps in the Road

As I said in my last post, we haven’t signed a contract with the builder. We’ve been back and forth making minor adjustments to the scope. The latest was to add a hard-wired smoke and CO detector system. This system is now required for new houses and may be required when we sell the house. We don’t expect to sell the house for a very long time. On the other hand, it seems that it’s good practice to have a detection system and now is a good time to install it.

It was about two weeks ago that Erik sent me the price for the alarm system. He also said he’d write up the contract and send it over. Four days later having not heard from him, I emailed a request for an update. That’s when he said that he had the permit in hand. He also said he was waiting to hear from me about the alarm system proposal. Who’s waiting for whom? We set up a meeting for the following Thursday, which was three days ago. On Monday Erik sent over his revised proposal and contract for our review.

I scanned the contract and itemized scope of work and quickly realized that there were a couple unexpected cost increases in the revised proposal. There were two things I was particularly concerned about. The first was an increase in the building permit fee. Newton charges double what is typical and Erik had only included the typical fee amount, without checking with Newton. The second item was a charge for some work that had always been on the drawings and in our discussions, but which had not been included in the itemized scope, despite scope corrections I had previously made.

At our meeting on Thursday, I stated my concern about these charges. I didn’t want the increases to be taken lightly or to set a pattern for future issues. The charges were legitimate, yet I felt they should have been included in the original proposal that was part of the basis for selecting the contractor. Should I push Erik to remove the added costs or should I pay them? What’s going to best support our relationship for the long term? It’s not going to work if we lose trust with each other. I suggested that maybe we could split the costs. After discussing some other items, including scheduling we ended the meeting without resolving the cost issue, as Erik needed to confer with his dad, with whom he is partnering. Result: still no contract, although I believe we are inching closer to completing that step. I felt good that I expressed my displeasure and that I did it in a way that I believe will benefit our relationship no matter who ends up paying the added costs.

We also discussed the project schedule at our Thursday meeting. I’ve been pushing Erik to provide us with a progress schedule. We are purchasing quite a few items for the project and we need to know when they will be needed. We don’t have such a schedule yet, but Erik did say he’ll need the appliance and plumbing fixture selections by the time the plumbing and electrical subs start their work. That makes perfect sense, although I’d been thinking we’d have more time

Meanwhile, I’ve been in touch with the asbestos remediation contractor to get the paperwork in place for removing the sheet vinyl kitchen floor that’s under the ‘floating’ wood floor I installed about eleven years ago with help from Matt and Craig. We’d already had the company on site to test various materials for asbestos and were very pleased that all the tests were ‘negative’. We didn’t test the flooring- we just know there must be asbestos, if not in the flooring itself, then at least in the mastic holding it in place. One of the key issues with asbestos remediation is that paperwork has to be filed two weeks in advance of the actual work. Check that one off. I initiated that process with about three weeks to go.

One more big surprise this week was the insurance quote. I did realize that with a project of this scope we should be in touch with our homeowners insurance agent. Sure enough, since we will be moving out, our homeowners policy is not the right vehicle to insure the house. We have to get a ‘builders risk’ policy. We got the quote on Friday and it did not put me in a good frame of mind for the weekend. It looks like it’s going to triple our insurance payments for the duration of the work.

When I have taken a break from the business of this project, I have noticed an increasing level of fear and/or anxiety. I was a bit nervous about getting the building permit, as I mentioned previously. And you might suppose I’d be anxious about taking all the steps we have taken without having settled the contract, but I’m not anxious about that. I think it’s more a fear of the unknown combined with the dismantling of our home base. I find that as I dispose of multitudinous notes generated in past activities, as I give away books that I’m never going to read or reread anyway, as we choose what to keep and what to pass on to others, the sense of solid grounding these things somehow provided me is disrupted. What becomes of me if my past is not reflected in my possessions? Will I lose something precious in the process?

What I know, which I suppose you may be thinking right now, is that we are engaged in a process of completing past experiences and creating space for future ones. In my head I know this is part of the opportunity of our project. However, this week I find it hard to think about new beginnings in a new space. Instead, I’m feeling just a bit homeless. It’s not that I have no place to go, because I do. But, it’s not yet home.

Clearing Space

There’s so much to do to get ready for the construction. We have to clear everything out of the first and second floors. There is also work being done in the basement, so much of that has to be accessible. And our piles of paper and other stuff in the attic/office space will have to make room for installation of a new solar light tube above the second floor bath. We, especially Meg, are getting some help from friends to sort and dispose of stuff that we don’t want to move back in with.

For us it’s not just the physical packing up and moving stuff. We’re taking this time as an opportunity to refresh our lives, to let go of some things anchoring us in the past and to create space in our lives for new things in the future. Almost everything we have is either a) useful, b) might be useful in the future, c) something we’re emotionally attached to, or d) just something we haven’t got around to getting rid of. We generally keep ‘a’ and dispose of ‘d’. I used to keep a lot of ‘b’ items, but that’s changing. For instance, I have accumulated lots of books, many of which I thought I’d read or reread when I had more time. They’ve sat on the shelves for years, but now they have been carted off to local youth-run used book store.

The ‘c’ category can be especially tricky. Since our son, Matthew, died nine years ago we have kept his book shelves intact. To me, it felt like I was having a conversation with him when I looked at his books.

Well, the books have to come down so we can paint. They will not be going back up. That’s part of clearing out the past and making space, not just for our home renovation, but also for new experiences. Of course we will always remember and love Matt. We just don’t need to keep his books.

Our contractor is Erik Rockwood. He’s a young man, a bit older than Matt would be if he were still with us. He works with his dad in the family business. We think he is unusual among contractors as he is very good about emailing us back whenever we have a question or concern. Except he didn’t think to tell me when he got the permit. He got it last Tuesday and didn’t tell me until I asked him about it on Friday. I had already reviewed my drawings with the building inspector and was told that the contractor could probably come in with the stamped drawings and get a permit “over the counter”, i.e. no extended review period. I passed that information on to Erik, so he likely thought there was little to be concerned about. Truth is, I was pretty confident. I was also anxious because things can go awry. It’s good to have the permit in hand.

As you can see, we’ve started packing.

We started moving furniture this weekend. Craig, Meg, and I moved a couple rugs, half our sectional couch (all there is room for in the apartment), a table, and chairs. We’ve scheduled the big move for Tuesday, April 16. We also have reserved a storage unit in a local self-storage facility and a U-Haul truck.

It is all coming together. One big piece that’s not quite settled- we don’t have a signed contract with our builder. We’ve spent a lot of time adjusting the scope of work, the schedule, and the pricing. We should have that wrapped up this coming week.