Breaking down the work.
all of the blue glass in this display was found on the property
As we slip gently into week 3 of the lockdown, we’re working on the house, our garden and the fields. We’re finishing up the laundry room / pantry we created out of our “spare” bedroom - a space that was just barely large enough for a full-sized bed. This new space has radically changed our home and made life so much better for all of us. Moving the laundry upstairs from the cold, damp basement means no more lugging bags of laundry up and down the stairs. It also has given us the space to build a massive pantry and storage closet, which we desperately needed.
Our home is an old post-war rancher sorely lacking in storage and closet space. We live a pretty pared-down existence, but every home needs places to stash brooms and vacuums and all the other “stuff” that goes into keeping the place clean. When we remodeled the bathroom (after the shower started leaking behind the wall and into the basement), we completely gutted the space, losing the linen closet for a second sink for the kiddos. Because our bathroom is impossibly tiny, we decided on a small shelving unit between the two sinks to provide some storage. The new linen closet will be installed after we knock the old leaky chimney down (there is a theme with this house) and the void which remains will be filled with a linen closet on one side of the wall, and a second clothes closet for the master bedroom on the other.
With storage is at a premium, any additional space we can reclaim for that purpose is to be celebrated and utilized. But the new construction leaves us with a conundrum. The old bedroom shared a wall with the kitchen, which we tore out, but has left us with hardwood transitioning to peel and stick tile. We have quite possibly the ugliest kitchen flooring in existence. It is a dingy tan faux terrazzo (think the cheapest, worst example) and always looks dirty no matter how many times I get down on my hands and knees and scrub or mop it. The floor was placed without any sort of chalk lines or sense of straight lines, so the tile looks wavy and the seams collect crud that requires a toothbrush and a day of cleaning. Needless to say, I hate this flooring with a passion.
So now, we have to decide - live with the horror that is the kitchen floor with a six inch gap between it and our original lovely hardwood; or do what needs done eventually and rip out the flooring, the cabinets and take the hardwood all the way through. Our entire upstairs is hardwood, with the exception of the horror-kitchen and the bathroom. The bathroom has gorgeous bleached grey hardwood-looking tile and a to-die-for heated floor (it sits over the garage, so that floor used to be icy cold in winter), so the lack of actual hardwood isn’t an issue.
mid-project. note the green countertops. the floor has been cleaned and it STILL looks dirty.
The kitchen and the pantry all run into one space now, so we’ve decided to go for it and remove the flooring in the kitchen and make it all hardwood in the space. This decision was aided by my finding an entire kitchen of maple cabinets at auction for a steal. One of the cabinets needs refinished because some numpty decided to paint it blue, but it should be a relatively simple fix to scrape and sand it back to the original wood.
the current uppers after paint. I have since installed removable shiplap wallpaper and painted the walls white.
We need new cabinets as our are cheap veneers from the local big box store in the 1980s. I took them apart, sanded, primed and painted them to give us a few more years, but they’re in such rough shape because they’re made of particle board and were not cared for well. I scraped a good half inch of caked-on grease after I scrubbed them down with TSP and dish soap when we moved in. They were absolutely disgusting and smelled even worse. There is no worse smell (after septic smells) in a house than old grease. The walls in the kitchen were literally oozing grease through the primer and paint we used. The countertops were green laminate that was peeling up at the edges. After gluing the loose pieces down and wood puttying over the missing chunks, I primed three coats, painted three coats of chalkboard paint, and then put three additional coats of polyurethane on top of that. As long as you don’t get too close, they look pretty darn good for 40-year-old cheap countertops. But every scuff and scratch inevitably reveals some of the green, and after living with black countertops for a few years now, I’m ready for anything else.
the cabinets and countertops just after finishing. the door has been painted and will be replaced in the next phase. see how gross these floors are - that is one WEEK without a mop on them!
We are in the process of replacing all the gas appliances with electric and the last phase of the plan is to go completely off-grid at some point in the distant future. Our electricity prices are ridiculously cheap, even going with the green option, so paying extra for explosive and poisonous gasses flowing through the house is just dumb. Before you call me panicky, we actually had a carbon monoxide leak at our old house when the furnace cracked in the back. We had no idea until our detector started screeching in the middle of the night, the furnace quit running, and we had to throw the windows open with no heat in the middle of November. The next day, Thanksgiving Day, we had a furnace repair person out to replace the unit and he assured us we were lucky we had detectors otherwise we might all be dead. So, I’m not panicky, I’ve lived through a gas leak and I don’t have any wish to do so again.
So far, we have committed to only replacing appliances and whatnot as they begin to fail. The top oven of our stove stopped working two days after we moved in. We decided we could live with just one oven (because who can’t do that) and the stovetop. But now the lower oven is starting to be finicky so we’re currently searching for an induction cooktop that is small enough to fit our new kitchen design. Later this summer, we are replacing the HVAC (which is inefficient and was sized too small) with a geothermal system, the water heater with an on-demand system, and then we will be gas-free. The plan is to have the line capped and the meter removed.
The upside of all of this is that we’ll be able to rip out the rat’s nest of pipes and duct work in our basement ceiling and gain another 4+ inches of headroom. The basement is also in the plans for the distant future - we finished the family room/ office a few years back when the Boss started working from home, but it was a temporary cheapo fix. The previous owners glued some beadboard onto the cement block and tossed down a remnant. We ripped up the moldy, sodden carpet (remember leaks are a theme in this house), bleached the ever-loving heck out of the cement floor, and put down vinyl strip flooring. We painted the walls white and installed new lights in the drop ceiling. A little electric “woodstove” heater and some plywood over the fireplace opening, as well as pushing a couple of bookshelves in place to hide the broken surround rounded out the space and makes it habitable. It’s cold year-round, but the heater and some throw blankets make it tolerable for now. Much like the countertops, it looks nice from far away.
So, as soon as the auction closes and we pick up the cabinets, we’re off to the races upstairs. Our goal is to finish the project for under $2000 and by the end of April. We’ll be setting up a temporary kitchen in our pantry space - just an induction burner and a section of cabinets and countertop to get us by. That, with the toaster oven, grill and refrigerator will be enough to cook. I’ve lived with less in other remodeling projects, this temporary kitchen will feel palatial in comparison. The big-ticket items are the flooring and countertops, but our plan is to go with laminate again - the current stuff lasted 40 years, I’ll be too old or dead to care the next time it needs replaced. I’m secretly holding us to $1200, but I know it’s the little things that add up in these projects.
The reason for the rush is that once the weather breaks, we have pressing projects that need to be done while the weather is nice and dry. Remember those leaks? Well, the roof is leaking around the flashing of the old chimney, but only when it rains a lot and blows from a specific direction. It has damaged our new ceiling we installed in the bathroom, so we’ll have the cut out the rot and patch it. The light fixture seems to be fine - we tested it after we took it down when the leak started.
The basement leak is a two-fold issue, and not a quick or cheap fix. The first issue is the house wasn’t graded properly, so all of the water from the upper field and the yard drain toward the back corner of the house. This has washed out the soil around the back of the house as well as the piers for our deck. Our deck is now bowing, the screws are popping up, and I have a definite fear that one morning I’m going to look outside, and the grill is going to be in the massive hole where our deck once stood. Fun fact: the deck was built over the old well and foundation from one of the three houses that stood where our house does now. We discovered this after a few deck boards curled up and the screws popped off. We pulled back the decking to discover a whole world of new projects this fall. Yay!
The second issue is that a family of groundhogs decided to overwinter in a series of burrows dug in very inconspicuous places all around and under our foundation. We discovered the entrances a few weeks ago when we were putting the screens in the windows. Our front porch, window well in the garage and under the deck are now in danger of collapse. Oh, did I mention the fact that from the water getting in those holes and freezing in places, our foundation blocks are now popped out 1/2”? So more fun due to water and the added excitement of rodents. Needless to say, those little nuggets have been evicted with extreme prejudice. If Punxatawney needs a few new stars, I know where you can find a whole family’s worth. Another fun fact: you have to take groundhogs at least five miles away to release them, otherwise they return. Go ahead, ask me how we know…
So, between the water and more water and vermin, we are up to our eyeballs in emergency projects once the ground dries out enough to work, which around here is generally June. The first step is to rip off the deck and build a temporary ramp for the dog to go outside. The next step will be to trench around the foundation on three sides, drill out the holes for the geothermal pipes, move and brace the block back into place, seal the foundation and then install french drains all around the perimeter.
The next part of the adventure will be to replace the septic tank that is original to the property’s second house - sometime in the 1920s. We have it pumped out annually, but this year when it backed up into the basement, our septic guy said it needs replaced as soon as the ground thaws enough to dig it out. The septic is a bit of a mystery - we have no idea where the leech field (the place where the “water” runs out into the ground after the solids have settled to the bottom) even is. It’s not on any of the surveys, deeds or drawings we have dating back to the original homestead in the 1890s. We think it might run across the front of the house and out to the lower field, but again, we have no idea where it goes or if it even works. Some septic systems had clay pipes or gravel trenches back in the day - these don’t tend to hold up over the years. So, at the very least we have to replace the tank, regrade the front yard and pray that leech field is ok.
After all of that, we then need to re-grade around the entire house, making sure the water flows down and away from the foundation. We will also dig the trenches for the ground loops for the geothermal system and lay the pipes. Then, and only then, can we finally build our four-season room and patio space and landscape.
I know it needs done, but the idea of our yard looking like a moonscape for the entire summer is just so disheartening, perhaps even more so with being locked down. I have been looking forward to getting outside, planting flowers, tending my vegetable garden (which will, thankfully escape the dozer) and grilling and picnics. The current plan is to throw down some pavers in the upper field, relocate the grill and furniture, along with the pergola (assuming it survives being moved) to approximate our deck area. But my flowers will have to be in containers, which is a major bummer because I love to garden. I will make do with my veggies, which will get extra attention - like an only child - this summer.
We will live with mud and rock and more mud being tracked around the house, into the cars, down the driveway. I will be in a never-ending loop of mopping and yelling about taking shoes off at the door. I will be wiping dog paws every hour because he loves to go out and lay in the sun or follow us around outside as we work. There will be construction equipment, normally out of sight in the barn, strewn across the fields like monolithic lawn ornaments. While the foundation is exposed, the water will pour in, flooding the floor and turning the cement a lovely shade of orangish-brown.
There will be framing, and materials scattered about the entrances, making exiting and entering the house an exercise in death-defiance. We will live with a tarp as a roof for days, if not weeks, as the project progresses, and the leaky chimney and new porch and room are tied into the existing structure. There will be a great, gaping hole where the porch used to be - one that the dog will probably fall into at least once because he’s not the brightest. I will probably fall in the mud at least once because me and uneven surfaces don’t mix. We will all be sore and exhausted and cranky from doing most of this work ourselves in addition to the general upkeep of the fields and structures on the farm.
But, it will all be worth it in the end. Hopefully, at the end of the summer the basement won’t leak, the ceiling in the bathroom will be dry, the new outdoor spaces will welcome fires and food and people once more. The yard will be dry. The fall flowers will be ready to plant. The new front porch will welcome visitors. The new kitchen will be ready to produce delicious holiday meals, and we will be mostly done with the major projects we’ve been saving for since we moved in. It will be amazing, and it will be just in time to savor those snappy chilly fall evenings. The four-season room will welcome us with a massive fireplace and the woodsy scent of warmed timbers as we watch it snow from the floor to ceiling windows. The skylights will let in what little watery light is available in winter, making it feel like a tropical oasis - complete with plants.
This is what I hold to my heart as we move quietly into this third week of isolation, knowing that in all likelihood this will go on for several more weeks, if not months before life will get back to normal. In the meantime, I will write and knit and cook. I will clean obsessively and do laundry, thankful for my awesome new laundry area and pantry. I will play games and watch TV and read. I will dream of summer projects and envision the end of all the hard work. And through it all, I know that life will go on and so will we.