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Doing it for Dad

For little boys, dads are superheroes. They’re big and strong, know how to drive trucks, and can kill snakes with shovels. They teach their sons how to ride bikes, whistle with their fingers, and start camp fires. They laugh at fart jokes, even if mom rolls her eyes and sighs.   As a young boy, your dad is the promise of what you will become when you’re a man.

As little boys grow into teenagers and their hormones rage, they begin to think of themselves as the superheroes of the family. Dad is demoted to the hopelessly uncool guy whose entire existence is tailored to the production of maximum embarrassment for his son. When he mows the lawn in dress socks pulled to his knees, tells you how your mom was smokin’ hot in front of your friends, or blasts the Doobie Brothers with the windows rolled down, the teenage boy wishes (prays) that he could disappear into thin air.

But if all goes well, as a teenage boy becomes a man, he begins to realize once again that dads are heroes. Though they’re no longer as strong or as fast as their sons, they’re perpetually wiser.  It becomes obvious that a dad’s presence, guidance, and unflagging devotion to his son’s success is hugely responsible for who he becomes as a man.

I lost my dad, my hero, on May 24th. Suddenly, I find myself living a parallel life to the one I always imagined, one in which I would watch both my parents reach old age. Though I find solace in the fact that he’s at peace after such an agonizing year, I’d give anything to have him back, even for a day. Grief breeds regret, and I find myself wishing I’d asked him more about his life, told him more about mine, or simply spent more time with him when I had the chance.

My dad loved the Ordinary House. Its quirky charms fascinated him, and he was always anxious to come check out my latest project. He was particularly excited about the kitchen, and after his surgery made seeing the room’s completion one of his recovery goals. I still can’t process the fact that I’ll never again have the chance to share my handiwork with him. Dad was an engineer and a builder with exceedingly high standards for craftsmanship, and there are few thing in the world that made me happier than hearing his approval of my work. His praise instilled me with the confidence to take on ever more complex and demanding DIY projects, first on my starter house in Chapel Hill and now at the Ordinary House. I can state as fact that I would not be capable or confident enough to take on this project if it hadn’t been for him. I will honor the skills he nurtured in me by continuing to do every project in a way I know would have made him proud.

A few weeks before Dad died, he asked me to come get his “cancer car”, the Porsche Boxster that he bought in November as a distraction from his failing health. Though he couldn’t tell you the day or time, he was lucid enough to worry about the fact that his new toy wasn’t being driven. I had plans to visit my dad later on the day he died and I was going to tell him: “You better start feeling good soon, because I’m not giving the Porsche back until you beat me at an arm wrestling match.” That would’ve made him smile.

I like to think he knows I had this challenge in mind and that he’s out there somewhere with a grin on his face and a barbell in his hand, working his way back into superhero shape, ready to wrestle my fist to the table.

I love you, Dad. You were a great father, and I miss you terribly.

walking uphill

 

Five reasons to reconsider that all-inclusive vacation you’re planning

Weezie and I like to travel and we’ve managed a foreign vacation each year that we’ve been together. Until this year, our vacations were highbrow European tours that saturated us with language, culture and architecture. This year we were after something completely different, a vacation that was lower stress, required fewer decisions, and resulted in less jet lag. At the recommendation of a friend, we decided to try an all-inclusive beachside resort in the Dominican Republic, Excellence Punta Cana.

excellence punta cana

Our most stressful decision each day was “beach or pool?” (the answer was always “beach”). I’m a reluctant consumer of luxury, so it took a few days to really get the hang of all-inclusive pampering. Before leaving, I wasn’t really sure of what to expect. So, if you’re considering an all-inclusive vacation in your future, here are a few reasons you might want to reconsider:

You don’t drink.

Because when you get right down to it, for most folks, “all-inclusive” translates to: “I’ve prepaid for 500 drinks this week and I’ll be damned if I leave this place and haven’t had 501.” Barely 30 seconds elapsed from the time we arrived at the resort until we had champagne glasses thrust into our hands. And by day three, it didn’t seem strange to see people sipping cocktails out of coconuts at 8:30 in the morning. Given the daily restocks of the in-room mini-bar, the ten bars and endless drinks at meals, it’s kind of a miracle that the place hasn’t been burned down yet. Even the poolside wait staff plays along:

Waiter: “Would you like another drink, sir?”

Me: “No thanks, I’m fine for now.”

Waiter: “What, are you working tomorrow?”

Me: “Good point. Another mai-tai for me and pina colada for the missus.”

coconut drink

You suffer from middle class guilt.

95% of the other vacationers at the resort were, like us, American, white, and solidly middle-class. The Dominican staff is mainly dark-skinned, of Dominican or Haitian descent, and, presumably, poor. The class distinctions are overt. You’re left wondering what the staff thinks of Americans based on what they observe at the resort. I’ll bet “loud”, “large”, and “entitled” are among their conclusions. Given this, the they were remarkably good-natured and helpful, and we left with very positive impressions of the people of the Dominican Republic.

dominican beach

Bros.

You know the type: aggressively masculine, misogynistic, frequently drunk and determined to let you know it. Formerly isolated to the frat house, somehow bro culture has achieved cultural acceptability in mainstream society. The bro is in his natural habitat at an all-inclusive resort: there’s beach, booze, babes and most importantly, lots of other bros. The most “bro” moment of the week was when a group of said bros started a tribal chant urging the wait staff to bring them a pizza at the pool. Pure class.

palm tree beach

You’re on a diet.

By the second or third day at the resort, we realized that you didn’t have to eat three courses at every meal. Portions were epic and sometimes desserts or appetizers showed up even when you didn’t order them. Mountains of bacon at the all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet set the tone each day, and 24-7 room service meant that food was never more than a phone call away.

dominican flower

Tipping makes you uncomfortable.

Turns out there are two very different points-of-view with regard to tipping at all-inclusive resorts. The first is that you should take the phrase “all-inclusive” at face value: you paid for everything, including gratuities, before you arrived and you don’t owe a penny more. The second approach is, “What’s another hundred bucks over the course of the week? The staff works hard, and it’ll benefit them more than it will me.” I started out in the first camp, but my guilty conscience quickly forced me into the second after witnessing several people leaving tips after meals. Since you don’t pay for anything at the resort, there’s no basis for determining the proper amount to tip. We settled on $1-$5 each time someone helped us out, depending on their helpfulness and attitude.

palapa

Would we vacation this way again? Maybe someday, but we’d go in the winter and take friends. For now, we’re satisfied to cross “go to an all-inclusive resort” off our bucket list and look forward to our next opportunity to travel abroad.

p.s. – For those of you who have requested more people photos on the blog, the reason they appear so infrequently is because this is what happens when we try to take a romantic selfie:

bad kiss

A missed American moment

Last weekend, I finally admitted to myself that the foot-tall grass in our lawn was out of hand rather than attractively scruffy. Once you start mowing in North Carolina you don’t quit until late fall, so I push off the first pass until as late in the spring as possible.

When we moved into the Ordinary House, we hired a lawn service. They did a passable job, but their riding mowers left muddy divots in the grass and their schedule was erratic. When I realized that we were paying hundreds of dollars a month for mediocre work that I could do myself, my self-reliant streak kicked in. I dusted off my old push mower and spent hour after hour pushing it across our three-quarter acre lot. The results were good, but the job was a time sink and took my attention away from  more pressing projects, like that kitchen that I’m supposedly building.

This year, I promised myself that I would let my tightwad shield down just long enough to buy an expensive mower. Even so, I resisted that purchase until last weekend, when I walked into Home Depot and saw the model I’d been ogling on super-sale. Half an hour later, I was walking behind it my yard.

Yup, you read that right: walking behind it. I’m sure you’re wondering: 3/4 of an acre and you didn’t buy a riding mower? What kind of American are you?

Problem is, our yard has enough corners, flower beds and other obstacles that I’d spend an hour going behind the riding mower with a push mower. The mower I bought is a 30″ self-propelled push model by Toro, called the Time Master.  It’s  maneuverable enough to do most of the detail work, but has 9″ more deck width than my old mower, which doesn’t sound like much until you realize that those extra inches decrease mowing time by nearly 40%.

toro timemaster width

The mower is very heavy, weighing in at nearly 200 pounds, but the self-propelled transmission pulls it at any pace, from a crawl to a trot. The blades are engaged separately from the engine, so you can move a stick or dog toy out of your way without turning the machine completely off.   It’ll bag or mulch or discharge to the side. And although it’s large, the push handle folds up while it’s in storage, so it actually takes up less floor space than the smaller mower.

toro timemaster storage

The Time Master took some getting used to.  It felt cumbersome at first, but after an hour I got the hang of it. Though I admit the idea of a riding mower with a cup holder is appealing, I think this is the right choice for our yard.  The mower does the job relatively quickly, it can be stored in the shed we already have, and we spent far less money than we would have to get a riding model.

Now that I’ve mowed once, it’ll be a weekly chore through October.  Twenty-six weeks of pushing will be the true test of my positive first impressions.

 

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

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