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Posts from the ‘Kitchen’ Category

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.

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

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.

Our haunted house

We’re told that our house is home to two ghosts. The first is that of Jane Hayes, a young girl who died of consumption in 1850. She’s a typical ghost, ethereal and wispy, able to float through walls. The second specter is odd: a cat’s body with the head of a man. The story goes that the face belongs to William Hayes, a physician who kept his offices in The Ordinary House in the 1920s, and who believed that humans were reincarnated in the form of animals. We’ve not yet had the pleasure to meet either of these apparitions, but I’m soundly convinced that we’re haunted by a third ghost, one who is bound and determined to keep us from having functional heating and air-conditioning. After last year’s boiler breakdown and this month’s furnace failure , I hoped that we might be free of HVAC woes for a few years, at least.

But recently, while doing some remedial framing work in the kitchen, I yanked out a piece of wall insulation and was surprised to feel a sudden whoosh of air. I watched as some sawdust on the floor was sucked into a void in the wall. A bit of poking around with a flashlight was all it took to discover the problem.

When crafting return air ducts, particularly in old houses, HVAC contractors will often “pan” joists. That is, they line the voids between framing members with sheet metal to create boxes that collect return air and direct it back to the furnace. The return for the downstairs HVAC systems begins as a sheet metal box above the floor, transitions to a panned joist cavity in the crawlspace which in turn connects to a duct leading to the furnace.

Our HVAC installation technicians probably didn’t stop to think that there’s nothing normal about the way The Ordinary House was built when panning our joists. In contemporary wood construction, the floor structure ends at a rim joist. The floor cavity is separated from the wall framing by subfloor and a 2×4 wall plate, like this:

normal return

In our new kitchen, the walls are partially “balloon” framed, meaning the wall studs are continuous from the foundation up to the ceiling – there’s no subfloor or wall plate to separate the wall cavity from the floor framing. So, for the past year, our HVAC return air has been pulled from the wall vent in the living room, where it’s supposed to, and from the INSIDE OF THE WALL through filthy fiberglass insulation.  To complicate matters, our siding sits directly on the wall studs rather than on top of plywood sheathing. Tiny gaps in the siding placed under negative pressure would have admitted freezing outside air to the return duct in the winter and hot, muggy air in the summer. This means, of course, that the system was working overtime to heat and cool the air. Fortunately, the filter is located at the furnace, so at the very least, the air was being cleaned.

busted return

I’ve filled the gap between the wall and floor framing with wood blocking and plenty of duct sealing mastic and spray foam so I can be certain that the return air is being pulled only from the living room, not the inside of our walls or through the siding.

As the snowflakes fall outside, I hope that I might have finally exorcised our HVAC ghost.

The human-head cat ghost, on the other hand, is welcome anytime.

Ignorance is bliss

There’s a point in every renovation project when you must face the unexpected. I knew it was too good to be true when the pest control man who inspected the Ordinary House before closing pointed to a few termite-eaten boards in the library and announced, “That’s it.” A 250 year old wood house in the muggy South and that’s it, huh? Dealing with the financial strain of buying the house, I was content to believe the guy, even though my left brain was screaming, “This joker’s on the pipe!”

So, I wasn’t altogether surprised when I demolished the walls of the kitchen-to-be and discovered some suspiciously crumbly wood. Since termites don’t leave telltale signs of their presence on the surface of the timbers they’re eating, I tapped the post a few times, listening for a hollow sound.


I poked the wood with my finger – it plunged right in. Then I grabbed a corner of the post with my fist and watched as it disintegrated into powder. 

Crap. Termites.

A few gentle taps with my hammer was all it took to reduce the post to a pile of dirty cellulose. After a few moments of abject terror, with visions of collapsing houses playing in my mind’s eye, I evaluated the damage. The good news: the infestation is no longer active and was largely isolated to a diagonal brace that was only structurally critical when the existing kitchen was a freestanding structure. The bad news: in addition to the brace, the little buggers got into the back of the siding boards behind it.

termites in siding

I’m not known for my unbridled optimism, but after years of architectural training and practice, I’m conditioned to turning construction’s inevitable lemons into lemonade.

The solution to the termite damage is is to completely remove it and put in a window that’s already on our list of “someday” projects. Though the trio of windows in the kitchen-to-be admit a decent amount of light, they’re east-facing which means the room gets limited light late in the afternoon and into the evening. The termite damage is on the west wall in a spot we’d already identified as window-worthy. In addition to late-day light, an opening in this spot will give us views to the backyard.

backyard window

Didn’t realize our backyard had a Rhode Island sea view, did you? It’ll be a trick to figure out where to locate the window. That white beam in the picture continues across the wall on the other side of the post; it’s actually the ceiling beam of the kitchen, down the stairs on the other side of the door. A transom window above the beam might keep the main window from feeling awkwardly low. Clearly, I’ve got some design studies to do.

The main reason we didn’t include the window in our original plans was that I wanted to pull a building permit quickly so that we could get the kitchen project underway. Since we’re smack in the middle of the Hillsborough historic district, any change that impacts the outside of our house requires the approval of the Historic District Commission, of which I’m now a member (I hear the boos – don’t hate the player, hate the game). HDC approval requires additional documentation to be submitted in advance of a monthly meeting, and approval must be granted before a permit can be issued. Fortunately, with a building permit already in hand, I can continue working on the the kitchen interior while I prepare for the next HDC meeting.

My elementary school art teacher used to say, “mess up, fix up” as a way to encourage us to recognize the hidden opportunities in mistakes we made while working on our noodle art. Who knew I’d be putting that lesson into practice 25 years later while restoring a house?

Happy New Year!

Update: no update

Note to self – get a flu shot next year. Last Thursday, a tickle in my throat in the morning progressed to a feverish fugue by nightfall. It was four days until I felt like half a human being again. I’ve been lucky to dodge the influenza bullet for several years without benefit of a shot, but this was a convincing reminder of how unpleasant an illness it is. Needless to say, the kitchen remains in exactly the same condition I left it week before last. With a few more nights of rest, I hope to tackle demolition of the walls this weekend.

In preparation, I bought a new toy. Meet the unfortunately named VacMaster:


I’ve owned several loud, bulky shop vacuums over the years. Some sucked harder than others (read that however you prefer), but none was particularly satisfactory. They all had a tendency to tip over and dump their contents, and to spit dust into their exhaust, defeating the purpose of vacuuming in the first place. After learning how filthy a very old house can be while I was demolishing the kitchen ceiling, I decided an upgrade was necessary.

The new vac is small, but VERY powerful. It’s relatively quiet, has a long hose and cord, and wheels designed to give it plenty of stability. Most importantly, the tool is fully HEPA rated by the EPA. The entire unit is certified to filter 99.97% of particles down to 0.3 microns. Translated, this means that the exhaust air of this vacuum is cleaner than normal room air. I can safely vacuum nearly anything, from piles of mouse poo to lead paint chips to plaster dust with confidence that they’re completely contained within the filter bag and won’t be spread any further.  It was a several hundred dollar investment, but one that will pay off in peace of mind as I continue to work on The Ordinary House.