Archive for July, 2009

I think I might be more excited about it if Nick hadn’t just told me that it looks like one of the exterior walls is about to fall down.

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I created a whole separate tab on this blog for floor plans because I wanted  to give you an idea of where we’re starting with the house plans and where we hope to end up. I’ll start with the original downstairs floor plan:

Original downstairs floor plan

Original downstairs floor plan

So what’s changed? Well, now, Day 33 of the demo, we’ve taken out the kitchen stairs and all the walls of what seemed to be an old laundry room. We took out most of the long wall dividing the kitchen from the “porch,” though we had to keep some of it because it’s a load-bearing wall. We’re going to hold the whole thing up with a beam of laminated veneer lumber, or LVL, which is stronger than traditional lumber and used for headers and in other load-bearing capacities. The strange, 3-part wall dividing the porch from the living room is also gone. The image below has X’s through the now demolished walls:

Downstairs demo'ed

Downstairs demo'ed

And now for the exciting part: our plans for the downstairs:

Downstairs plans

Downstairs plans

You can see that removing the kitchen stairs, though it was a difficult decision, has opened up more space for the kitchen appliances and cabinets. I think this was a good idea, given that the whole house is only 1150 square feet. We need all the space we can get. There will be a small pantry area off the kitchen, and then a very efficient half-bath. We plan on using the toilet Nick got for $15 from a local carpenter who was doing a renovation on the East End (eww, I know, don’t be grossed out, we’ll clean it all up and buy a new seat). We’re hoping to salvage a sink at the Habitat Restore, and then we’ll just paint up the bathroom and make it all look nice. It will just be the plumbing that will cost a pretty penny, but I’m quite sure we’re going to want that half -bath.

A couple of other things to note: Though these plans don’t show it, we are going to bring the main stairwell up to code, giving it human-sized treads, not short ones made for those with cloven-hooves, and we’re going to stretch out the pitch of the stairwell so it won’t give us vertigo while climbing up and down it. That means the bottom of the stairs will turn out at the wall where the “other” front door is currently, which means we will probably have to replace that door with a window. We’re waiting to find out if having only one point of egress would put us out of code. (It makes me kind of nervous even if it doesn’t, to be honest.)

Also, we’re still trying to figure out what to do with that wall between the porch and the living room. We want a simple and natural entryway leading from one room to the next, but we also need a real entryway from the outdoors, a place to take off our boots, hang up our coats, and drop off the mail and keys. Like I said, it’s a small house–there’s no room for a grand entrance, or even a walled off entryway. It’s going to be tricky trying to figure that one out.

Now for the really exciting transformation: the upstairs! Here’s the original layout:

Original floor plan upstairs

Original floor plan upstairs

We took out the wall between our bedroom and the 3rd bedroom, took out the 3rd bedroom’s closet, and of course, the stairwell landing is gone. It’s now just a big hole. I guess when I say we “took out the wall” I should add that the studs are still there, it’s just the two layers of drywall, the several layers of wallpapers, and the lath and plaster that are gone, in addition to the old decaying insulation in the exterior walls. Again, X marks the spots of the demo:upstairsdemo

And now, the plans! We’re going to move the bathroom into the far corner of the upstairs, where the attic stairs used to be. Then we’re going to turn the old bathroom into our walk-in-closet! Can’t wait for that one. Sadie’s bedroom will stay the same size and shape. We’ll put a little laundry room just to the right of the bathroom where the old stair landing used to be.


It will all be connected by that groovy slanted hallway I designed. We’re hoping we can add some daylighting to the bathroom and hall closet with SolaTubes, but that might not be in this year’s budget. SolaTubes are these great sunlight capturing devices that direct light down a mirrored tube that snakes through your attic, ending in a little opening that sort of looks like recessed lighting. The sunlight is then distributed more evenly and intensely than a skylight, so it’s almost as bright as having an electrical light on. One of our overarching goals with the Greening of 58 Turner is to bring as much natural light into the house as possible. This has the added benefit of reducing our use of electricity.

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Early in the demo reno we met with a local guy who makes concrete countertops in his spare time. He showed us some large samples of his work, and left us with a few small blocks in different colors. A few nights ago, we decided to test the concrete’s stain resistance. We squeezed some lime juice on one of the samples and left it overnight, along with a little puddle of olive oil. The darker stains you see there are from some frozen blueberries, half defrosted in their juice, that we set on the sample earlier in the day.

Concrete sample put to the test

Concrete sample put to the test

We let this all sit overnight, and the next morning rinsed it off. This is what we ended up with:

Concrete sample after

Concrete sample after

This did not bode well for our concrete countertops.

Fortunately, Nick emailed the guy to find out whether the samples had been sealed. They hadn’t. Concrete countertops require sealing before installation with a waxy sort of finish the makes the concrete less porous. I think you have to reseal it every now and then to keep it from staining, but otherwise concrete is heat and scratch resistant. It can also be tinted–as you can see, this one has a sort of greenish cast. We’d probably go with a straight-up grey.

After looking at countertops yesterday at IKEA and at Lowes, we’re realizing that the are really quite expensive, averaging about $60/square foot for solid surface materials. The concrete is considerably less pricey than that, and given that it’s a pretty natural material, and would be sourced locally, at this point it’s our top choice for the counters. This photo gives you an idea of what concrete countertops would look like:

20 concrete countertop pic

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This morning I was up at 4:30 to put Sadie’s pacifier back in her mouth so she could sleep for another hour and a half. Unfortunately, I didn’t fall back asleep with her. Nick and I were both up by 6:30, and on the road to Stoughton, Mass, a couple of hours later. That might not sound too remarkable, but for us to be up and in the car by 8:30 on a Saturday morning is a pretty big deal.

We made the two-hour trip to check out IKEA’s kitchen cabinets. We’ve heard good things about them, from friends, and even from our contractor, Ben. They come in a zillion configurations; what you do is buy your base frame, then pick from the 30 or so door fronts they have and several types of hardware. Right now we’re leaning towards these two styles, ash and beech:

I think I’m partial to the beech, but of course both of these choices are the top two most expensive cabinet finishes that IKEA offers. Fortunately, we have a small kitchen, and we’ll most likely be getting just a corner cabinet, a sink base, and two others of undetermined size.

We didn’t actually make any major purchases today other than some magnets for the fridge and a pair of all-body bibs for Sadie that will hopefully make the learning-to-eat-on-her-own phase a little less messy. I tried one out tonight when we got home, and I have to say it worked pretty well, even though it does look a little bit like a straitjacket:bibsNow it’s 8:30 at night and I’m ready for bed. Something about going to IKEA always ends up being an all-day, exhausting affair.

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Not So Much Stuff

IN PLANNING for our move into the new house, I’m trying to figure out what we really don’t need to bring with us from our current apartment into the new house. (Ahh, house. The word itself sounds so foreign, so unlikely to be used by either of us in the same sentence as the word “move.”)

Having a new house is the best excuse I’ve had yet to get rid of years of unwanted clutter. Let’s see: I’ve got the clothes I’ll never wear again, either because they just don’t look right anymore on my post-baby figure, or because I’ve held onto them for so long that they’re actually out of style now.  I’ve got quite a few pairs of sexy high-heeled shoes that are completely impractical for my life as a mother living in Maine. (And, truth be told, I never wore them much anyway when I was single in New York City, because I always seemed to live about a half-mile from the subway and was usually too broke to take cabs to the fancy parties I rarely went to in the first place.)

Then I have the books. I’ve actually weeded out many of my books in the last two years: once, when I moved from NYC to Portland; again when Nick and I moved in together in Portland; and yet again when we moved together from one end of the Eastern Prom to the other. Even after all the weeding out of the books, I think I’ll probably get rid of even more of them. Books are hard to say goodbye to, but I’ve recently rediscovered the local library, and I’m loving it. It’s like shopping, but you don’t have to pay for anything when you leave. Then you finish the book and return it, and then you don’t have to find a place for it. (Then again, I do feel guilty bout the authors who aren’t getting royalties and the struggling publishing companies, but I won’t digress.)

I like to think that other than the clothes and the books, I don’t have a lot of other unnecessary objects, besides letters and photos and things like that that I will NEVER get rid of, because I want to look at the photos and re-read the letters when I’m 94 years old.

Nick, on the other hand, has hardly any clothes, or books, but he does have several plastic tubs filled with electronic gadgetry I can’t even begin to name. Cords, hard drives, important parts to computers, gizmos, radio scanners, eight-track cassette tape players, PixelVision video recorders, reel-to-reel tapes of live performances of his band, Sgt York, cassette tapes, mini-tapes, CDs, all manner of multimedia…I could go on and on but there’s more there I can’t even identify. That stuff, to him, is as important as my old letters and photos, so we’re keeping that, too.

HOWEVER, to our credit, we did attempt to get rid of some of our stuff. We held a yard sale. Then, when the yard sale wasn’t as productive as we’d hoped it would be, we donated a lot of the unsold yard sale goods to a church in our neighborhood that was holding its own yard sale the following weekend.  I put some things up on our local Freecycle board, and they went instantly. We sold one or two things via Craigslist. I even dropped off some of the impractical shoes at a consignment store in the Old Port.

Despite all that, we still have some leftover stuff. Things that might fetch a pretty penny on eBay, like Nick’s old Star Wars figures. And maybe even his collection of Garbage Pail Kids’ cards, although Sadie has recently discovered those, and likes to carry them around, as if they are very important pieces of paper she absolutely must hold onto.

But there is still more stuff. Always more stuff.

So this weekend, and in the weekends to come before we move, we’ll be trying to cut through the clutter. I just read an article in Natural Home with a pretty handy checklist that I think I’ll print out and keep with me while I go through this process. In deciding what to eliminate, Natural Home suggests:

1. Things that don’t work
2. Things that annoy you (e.g., a rickety old file cabinet with a stubborn drawer)
3. Things you’re keeping because someone gave them to you
4. Things that bring up negative thoughts such as I was so stupid to buy it, but I paid a lot for it, so I’m keeping it.
5. Excessive amounts of freebies, such as all those pens you’ve collected.

The article also includes a passage from The Not So Big House, by architect Sarah Susanka, whose “Not So Big House” series of books (I checked out several from the library) have been a real inspiration to me in thinking about the design and layout of our renovation. Her basic premise: bigger is not better. Or, better is better than bigger. She advocates for living in and remodeling smaller houses as an antidote to the more hollow McMansion living that has defined the last couple of decades.  Smaller, better-built spaces are more appealing, better for the environment, and better for our souls than large houses built quickly and with cheap materials. I’d also add that those qualities make a house inherently green, which is basically what we’re trying to do with our own remodel.

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Hope for HELP

I didn’t blog about it, but on Thursday I met with a loan officer, who told me that Nick and I were not income eligible for the Maine State Housing Authority’s HELP loan. She cited an upper limit on income that sounded quite a bit lower than what I thought I had seen on the MSHA’s website. She even went to the website and clicked a link which brought up the too-low figure. So we thought we weren’t going to get any HELP after all.

Dejected, I went back online to check the program requirements for myself. And it turns out that the website ALSO lists a higher number as the upper income limit. And guess what? Our income squeaks under the limit by literally just dozens of dollars. But we’re under it.

So I called the loan officer back. Turns out the website had three different links to income requirements, only two of which were correct. It just so happens that while I was sitting in her office, the loan officer clicked on the wrong one. So we’re in luck! I’m going back to today with all my paperwork to apply.

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Remember what I said about using the old upper cabinets in the kitchen for open shelving? I had already taken the doors off (using the cordless drill, which made me feel really handy), and my plan was to paint them white:


Well, as of yesterday, that’s not happening. Here’s the kitchen as of Friday, after Nick put in a full day of demo: uppercabremvd

I don’t think the cabinets are going back up there. Here’s the panoramic shot:uppercab2

Our plans for the house seem to change daily. I think that’s a good thing, though, because we’re trying to work with the house, not against it. The more demo we do, the more is revealed to us about what sorts of changes we can and can’t make.

But now we’ve run up against a conundrum without an easy answer. If you look at the space where the corner cupboard used to be, you can see the backside of the little staircase that wraps around the back of the kitchen and goes upstairs. If you step around to the right of the sink, this is what you find:backstrsNick and I are strangely attached to these stairs. They’re narrow, unstable, and most likely unsafe, but they’re a charming and quirky aspect of the house we really love. Every impartial person who has come in the house has suggested we get rid of them to add more space to the kitchen–our broker, our first contractor, and now even Ben (et tu, Ben?). Each time we heard someone say it, we dismissed the idea out of hand.

But. After spending a whole day in the kitchen becoming intimately acquainted with its every nook and cranny, Nick says he is warming up to the idea of removing the stairs. It WOULD give us more space. And it would let in more light from our single kitchen window by not diverting the light’s path up the stairwell.

A part of me feels that it’s bad karma to just rip out this quaint little piece of our home to make room for bigger and better. Another part says this is one of those hard but practical decisions you make so that you can help the house realize its full potential.

We’re still debating.

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The Waiting

Is the hardest part, as Tom Petty once sang. We met with B this morning. (Okay, make that Ben. Ben Pollard. He’s given us the go-ahead to use his real name.) Ben told us that realistically, we can’t expect to be living in the house until mid-September. We’re pretty bummed, especially since that means we’ll be paying a mortgage and rent at the same time (um, beans for dinner for the next two months??) , but we’d rather know what we’re dealing with now than be unpleasantly surprised a few weeks down the line. Ben said once he gets the permits squared away and his sub-contractors lined up, he expects that work could start on August 3. Which is pretty funny, since originally we thought we’d be moved in and LIVING in the house by August 1. Hahahahahahahahaha!!!

Seriously, though, a lot hinges on my meeting tomorrow with a loan officer at Norway Savings Bank, which is one of the banks that administers something called the HELP Loan (Home Energy Loan Program). It’s a Maine State Housing Authority Loan that can be used to finance home improvements that increase energy efficiency. You’re required to get a home energy audit, then you can use the loan to make any repairs or upgrades that meet the auditor’s recommendations. The interest rate is pretty low–lower than a home equity loan–and the term is for 15 years. The loan can be used for new insulation, new storm doors and windows, Energy Star-rated appliances, and other energy efficient upgrades. We’re really hoping we qualify. It’s supposed to be for those of us with “moderate” incomes, i.e., those of us making enough to pay their bills and feed their kids and maybe go out for dinner once in a while, but not enough to join the country club or buy a yacht and register it in Delaware.

If we do qualify for the loan, then combined with the 30% tax credit (up to $1,500) you can get right now for purchasing energy efficient items and materials, it would definitely seem to be a very good time to be renovating. And how great is it that government is supporting renovations for energy efficiency? (If you live in Maine, you may also be eligible for the Gift of Green–$5,000 towards closing costs for first-time homebuyers. Nick and I already had our mortgage locked in, so we couldn’t take advantage of this program when it came out, but it sounds like a great deal.) Add all of this to Obama’s tax credit for first-time homebuyers, and we’re able to do something this year that would have been unthinkable just two years ago. Very cool. Socialism FTW!

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Wall Art

One of the most fun parts of the demolition phase so far–besides ripping out huge chunks of drywall and smashing hammers into soggy ceilings–has been finding layer upon layer of old-fashioned wallpaper in the rooms in the older half of the house. Most of these prints look to me like they’re from the 1940s, but that’s just an uneducated guess. If anyone knows anything about any of these motifs, please let us know!

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Day 14: KitchenAid

Our kitchen needs help. Serious help. Here’s a picture we took when we were under contract (that’s Nick and Bill, our real estate broker, whom we highly recommend to anyone looking to buy in Portland):


Because we have so many other pressing things to take care of before we move in (have you seen the bathroom?), we aren’t planning on doing much to the kitchen besides fixing the ceiling and laying down a new floor. But B, our new contractor, said that by the time we pull down the kitchen ceiling and replace the floor, our cabinets probably won’t even fit correctly anymore, and we might be better off just adding new ones.

Since new kitchen cabinets aren’t in the budget, we’re trying to figure out how to make the most of what we already have. I realized the other night that the kitchens I’m most attracted to in magazines and online all have open shelving. So our plan as of now is to either keep the cabinets and take the doors off, or install shelves. We actually don’t have a ton of dishes, so this is a feasible option. Nick has had open shelving before, and he said as long as you use the things on them pretty regularly (which we do), they don’t really get that dusty.

So yesterday, while my mom watched Sadie, and after hours of chipping away at the hardened linoleum upstairs, I gave up on being the Michelangelo of floors and used our new cordless drill to take the doors and hinges off the upper cabinets.cabinetsoff I plan on painting them white, and then using them for storing dishes. My goal is to have a kitchen that resembles (even if vaguely) some of the kitchens in this Remodelista round-up.

The next phase of the kitchen overhaul would include just buying a few lower cabinets, probably from Ikea: a sink base, a corner unit, and a narrow cabinet for drawers. We’ve already met with a local concrete artisan who gave us samples of his poured concrete countertops, which are really cool. Oh, and we scored a nice cast iron porcelain Kohler sink from a neighbor for only $25. It just needs to be cleaned up and will be as good as new. Except a lot cheaper! sink

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