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The 90/90 rule

I promised an update on the kitchen plumbing several weeks ago, so you might be surprised to learn that it isn’t done yet. To loosely paraphrase computer programmers’ “90/90 rule”: the first 90 percent of the plumbing work accounts for 90% of the job, and the remaining 10% of the plumbing work accounts for the other 90% of the job.

The most important pieces of the project are done: our master bath is back on line and the new water heater is doing its job. But we’re still without an upstairs guest bathroom, the gas rough-in for the range isn’t complete, and the new vent hasn’t been punched through the roof.

A handful of minor hiccups stole momentum from the project. First, they couldn’t figure out how to connect the new chrome supply lines to the clawfoot tub in the guest bath. I was given the option of buying a new set of pipes for $250 to replace the supplies that I’d already bought for $150. Frustrated, I spent 10 minutes looking at fittings in the plumbing aisle at Home Depot, bought a $3 brass part and made the pipes work. I can’t figure out why the plumbers weren’t more embarrassed when I showed them the solution.

brass bushing

Last week the roofer that the plumber hired to make the hole for the roof vent was too scared to get on our house. You read that right: a roofer, scared of a roof. Matt (the lead plumber) and I agreed that the guy was not invited back to finish the job, even if he could find the courage to do it. Now, we’re waiting to be worked into another roofer’s schedule.

Owing to a number of weighty life distractions, I haven’t been nearly as annoyed as I should be about this whole situation. And instead of dwelling on my frustration here, I’ll just leave you with some random old house porn. Weezie and I were in Winston-Salem, NC last weekend and made a quick visit to Old Salem, a Moravian village started in the 18th century. I was particularly fascinated by the Fourth House, the oldest surviving structure in the village, dating to 1768. It’s a half-timber house, with wood posts exposed to the weather – a phenomenally bad idea in the warm, wet, termite-ridden American South. And yet, because old-growth wood is amazing, it still stands.

fourth house

If you look closely, you can see roman numerals carved into the timbers that helped the carpenters keep the custom-fit joints organized when they were erecting the house.

carpenter mark

Positive reinforcement

One day I’m going to write the crassly titled book, “Sh*t people do to old houses”.

I’ve seen some real forehead slappers while poking around aged structures. Take, for example, this attic that burnt to a crisp and was left in place by the owners with no reinforcement:

burned attic

This is a particularly egregious example of homeowner-on-house abuse, but even well-loved homes like the Ordinary House suffer scars of neglect, laziness, or well-intentioned but unknowing house butchery. The structure of our kitchen ceiling (and master bedroom floor) is a perfect example of this last category.

The joists that form the ceiling are rough-sawn 2x8s that span nearly 16′. These days, that same span is barely handled by 2x12s, and not without a fair amount of bounce in the floor. Even with this knowledge, the plumbers who last “remodeled” the upstairs bathrooms saw fit to chop out large sections of the floor joists to fit their pipes. The worst example looks like this:

chopped joist

For reasons that I can’t explain, the plumbers drilled away nearly half the width of the joist for a distance of about 6″. If that wasn’t bad enough, when faced with the fact that the shower drain was directly above the same joist, rather than simply move the shower, they cut a deep notch to allow the pipe to pass through it. For all intents and purposes, this joist had zero structural capacity once this was done. In an attempt to patch up their mess, the builders positioned a section of LVL (a very strong type of engineered lumber) next to the joist and bolted the two pieces of wood together. Then they notched that. [rolling eyes] 

Many of the adjacent joists had similar notches. It’s a testament to the resiliency of wood structures that this floor didn’t sag any more than it did.

old ceiling

While we’ve got the kitchen ceiling down, we’re replacing the upstairs plumbing. Knowing that we’d need to make more holes and notches to get the new plumbing in the floor, the plumber stopped his work so that we could assess the situation. I quickly made up my mind that we needed to reinforce the existing structure with new full-length “sisters”, joists that are glued and screwed to the existing lumber.

joist sisters

In order to run the new plumbing, I decided that we would build a completely separate ceiling structure below the existing one. Fortunately, there is enough height between floors in this part of the house that we can have two ceilings and still pull out a 9′ finished ceiling height.

Last Monday, the plumbers came and ripped out all the upstairs plumbing. The next day, a good friend and contractor colleague began reinforcing the existing ceiling and building the new one. We’re fortunate that the downstairs bathroom has a shower, so we’ve been able to bathe. Yesterday, the plumbers began piecing together the new pipes.

It’s decidedly unsexy work, but sexy’s not worth it without the peace of mind of knowing that our floors are strong and our pipes are leak-free.  In my next post, I’ll show you what the finished ceiling looks like.

Winter’s last stand

There’s sleet tapping on the windowpanes on March 6. I’ve never known a winter so relentless, and that includes all my years living in Boston and the mountains of southwest Virginia. It seems as though spring will never arrive, but the yard knows better. The land around us has been tended for hundreds of years so there’s nearly always a floral display, even in the depths of winter. I like how a garden acts as a calendar. I know that fall is just around the corner when the spider lilies show their exotic petals, that it’s nearly Halloween when the pink camellia blooms, and that the dog days of summer have arrived when the dahlias on the corner are flush with flowers. But it’s the early springtime show that is particularly exciting to me, as a harbinger of longer, warmer days and a return to outdoor living.

At the Ordinary House, the surest sign of impending spring is the purple carpet formed by the crocuses (croci?) that trace the banks of the stream at the bottom of the yard.

crocus carpet

Their fleeting display is a welcome reassurance that we’ve nearly made our way through winter.

crocus

The droopy blooms of the hellebores are out, slumping as if they too are tired of the never ending cold.

hellebore

And, of course, ever eager daffodils are popping up here and there. They appear out of nowhere when we get brief spurts of warmth and seem to pause when temperatures cool again.

There’s hope for next year: NOAA just issued an El Nino warning, which could portend a warmer winter for us East Coasters – but not before giving us plenty of opportunities to complain about heat and rain this summer.

Eating an elephant, one bite at a time.

In architecture school, I shied away from the professors who had short careers in the real world before retreating into academia. I was born into a family of self-sufficient builders and engineers, so I’ve long been wary of anyone who lacked the resourcefulness to translate their book learnin’ into day-to-day pragmatism. Now that I’m a registered architect with more than a decade of experience, I continue to believe that there’s no substitute for real world experience. I’ve learned more about building and designing while renovating my own houses than I have from everything else I’ve done in my career.  Until you’ve nailed together a stud wall or run a new electrical circuit, it’s hard to really appreciate what it takes to build something.

Today, I’m getting a fresh lesson in the realities of renovation. I guide clients through this process every day, so it’s easy to get desensitized to the stress of working on an old house. Unless your pot of gold is limitless, work on existing buildings is never dull.  Projects on the Ordinary House keep me in touch with the gut punches that renovation delivers regularly. It’s the best continuing education I could ask for.

Since last week, we’ve hired a plumber (really) and today a small crew of three guys got started. Two hours into the work day, my phone rang and Matt, the lead plumber, delivered this news: “Man, it looks like the last plumber in here used a chainsaw on your floor joists.”

I had two immediate reactions:

1) Thank you, Matt, for stopping work and picking up the phone. Anxious for a paycheck, many contractors would have gone ahead and done their own hack job to put themselves one step closer to pay day.

2) FML. Somebody remind me again why I enjoy this?

random plumbing

We’ve set up a meeting tomorrow with a county building inspector to get input on what he’ll pass on inspection. Loaded with that information, we’ll develop a plan to reinforce the floor joists and keep the plumbers moving. Until then, I suppose we’ll just have to get used to the toilet sitting in the upstairs hall.

toilet in hall

Wisely and slow; they stumble that run fast.

It has recently been brought to my attention that this blog is occasionally “boring.”  Touché.

If you’re here to to see regular updates of light fixtures being bedazzled with metallic spray paint, I’ll save you the effort – your blog is over HERE. If, however, you’re interested in peeking into the mind of someone who’s probably thought more about houses today than most people will this year, keep reading.

The success of any project-based blog is predicated on consistent progress, and I will admit that there has been precious little of that lately. For many reasons, some house-related, but most not, our kitchen project is crawling.  But that doesn’t mean there’s been NO progress.  Here’s what’s up:

The new kitchen window was approved.

Thanks to my fellow historic district commissioners, the window we proposed to take the place of termite-eaten siding was approved. It’ll be sized and detailed to match the windows on the library and should help to brighten our new kitchen.

Kitchen window.PC9

kitchen window shaded

We almost hired a plumber.

Before launching my search for a plumber to work on our kitchen project, I asked two trusted general contractors for a recommendation. Both had the same response: “Good luck.” And, boy, were they right. My calls were ignored by three plumbers. Another stood me up for our appointment. And one went to Weezie’s old house in Durham even though I never mentioned her name, my relation to her, or a Durham address. Of the people who did show up, only one has been consistently responsive, but his estimate is jaw-dropping. To paraphrase my dad, sometimes you can’t afford NOT to hire the expensive guy.  We’re hoping to firm up our decision this week so that we can get the worked started pronto.

busted plumbing

We bought a kitchen sink.

You see? We might not have much of our new kitchen yet, but we DO have the kitchen sink, and I can understand why you’d leave it for last: this mugger-bugger is heavy. The sink was an easy selection for us. In our last kitchen, I used an Ikea Domsjo, a deep farm-style sink that we absolutely loved. It was durable, beautiful and huge, allowing you to wash large pans without constantly banging them on the sides of the sink. We chose a 30″ fireclay, single bowl farm-style sink for our new kitchen. It’s like a mini bathtub and weighs nearly as much as I do. The under-mounted, farm-style configuration is a no-brainer; it’s timeless and perfect for an old house like ours.

farm sink

Pretty ordinary #011: Snowmageddon 2014

I was all geared up to write a meaty post this afternoon, but it’s cold, it’s snowing, and the Olympics are on. I made it outside long enough to shovel the slushy piles from our front steps and porches and got some good shots of the house bedecked in white.

colonial house in snow

Beautiful as it is, I’m done with polar vortices and snowflake-induced hysteria. Bring on spring!

Meet Joyce

countertop dishwasher

Joyce is a countertop dishwasher that I gifted to my lovely wife for Christmas. We named the blessed machine after our pre-marital counselor because it serves in the same capacity: prevention of marital discord.

Due to my ongoing upper respiratory distress and recent travels, progress on the kitchen has slowed to a crawl. Even so, our dishes have never been cleaner, at least as long as we’ve lived in Hillsborough. Despite her diminutive proportions, Joyce cleans as well as any full-size dishwasher I’ve ever owned.

small dishwasher interior

It’s as if a normal under-counter dishwasher was squashed to 1/3 of its size. Just like a fancy full-size machine, Joyce has a stainless steel interior, separate racks for plates and cups, a silverware carrier, and an automatic detergent dispenser. Perhaps the biggest indicator that it’s not a full-size model (aside from the obvious fact that it holds fewer dishes) is that it must be hooked to the kitchen faucet for water.

dishwasher faucet connection

It’s a minor inconvenience for the automation of a task that’s universally loathed in our household. Now, if I could figure out how to extract my sinuses and run them through Joyce on the pot rinse cycle, we might be able to make tracks to the day when we can wash dishes AND use the sink at the same time.

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