Friday, 10 July 2015

Are we there yet?

It's been over two months since posting and that's because there's no time. What was I thinking when I decided to blog my way through the renovation?? Whole house re-models are completed in the time it has taken me to put finger to keyboard this time around. The good news is however that, unlike my blogging, the building is progressing well and things keep happening...

After the big beam, came some smaller beams, posts and more beams, each of which were celebrated with ever enthusiastic whoops of joy; not for the logistical hurdles that were overcome in their installation but for the beautiful big open space they have created.

And alongside the beams and posts that have opened the space up on the main floor and brought the summer light streaming in, we have made the first tentative steps towards putting our stamp on the house and making it our own. The first real step, though it now seems so small in hindsight, was the masonry openings for the new kitchen windows. We fought hard for these windows, including a trip to the Committee of Adjustments (the city planning body who hear applications for variances from the building code). Any renovating Toronto resident will tell you, the committee is like an afternoon spent at the Mad Hatter's tea party. Enough said. We did it and here we are - with two beautiful window openings.

After the masonry openings, came the walkout from the basement, the double height entrance and now the framing - this is the design that we've pored over on the drawings. The design that we discussed and debated with the architects for 14 months. We're finally making it happen!

Gone are the days of demolition and the wielding of sledge hammers, now its about careful measurements and precision, spirit levels and plumb lines. The underpinning, the footings, the concrete forms - its all done. Walls are going up, not being torn down. Its all about the building - our new home is starting to take shape.

We can now begin to see the new structure emerging into its surroundings. We're not there yet. There's a long way to go. It's like watching the odometer on a seemingly endless road trip. I've noticed that today is day 117 of our renovation journey. But whilst we've been scurrying around busily, trying to keep a handle on the rest of our lives (if only everything else stopped while renovations were in progress), things are happening and we are moving in leaps and bounds.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

I love heavy metal

Introducing our new beam!!

It's big, it's strong and it's red. A thing of beauty.

Welcome to the family, you gorgeous piece of red steel. Sorry I missed the grand entrance but you're here now, so make yourself at home.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Staying away

I recently bumped into an architect friend and she asked me how the renovation was going. 'It's great', I said, 'I can't stay away'. I told her how we had found a rental nearby and so after dropping off the kids at school most days, I could stop by the house and see how things were going.

'Mmm,' she said, 'I tell clients to stay away'. She went on to explain how clients only 'get in the way' of building projects and 'slow things down'. Take a huff? That would be putting it mildly. No, no, I'm different. I'm interested in it all - love learning about it and want to understand what's going on. Don't we have a right to be there? Isn't it our money they're spending? I told my indignant self. At the very least shouldn't I stop by and make sure everything is going according to plan? To keep on top of 'issues' as they arise?

I've kept up my habitual visits and, truth be told, as the old house has lost it walls and we've excavated new spaces - it is beginning to take on the new identity that we are working so hard to create. The year of design is taking shape and the more of the new I can see, the more I want to be in the space and be a part of the re-birth.  I even managed to work stopping by the house into my runs. Let's face it, rather than bore friends with reno stories, I might as well chat it over with the other people whose time it is also consuming.

I didn't hang around much - about an hour every couple of days.

And so, it has come to pass that I may have 'gotten in the way'. And my own architect has very tactfully asked me to stay away....(for a bit!).

She wasn't quite that blunt but nevertheless, I'm picking up what she's putting down! Today is the day when we are taking delivery of the HUGE beam (750 kg of steel) that will be retrofitted across the width of the house to give us the nice open space the main floor was so desperately lacking. It's the toughest part of the build and will require particular skill and expertise. The three contractors who quoted on our project were all quizzed at length on their experience with retrofitting large beams. Basically if it goes wrong, the house falls down.

It's also fair to say that we are all a bit nervous about it. The design of the house depends upon it, the integrity of the building depends upon it and, most importantly, the safety of the crew depends upon it being done properly. And my architect knows me so well that, in an email last week, it was the last of these points she used to tell me that it would be best if only those 'involved in the fit' were on site today.

Which is a real bummer because I wanted to get pictures and record this important milestone. However, even I can appreciate that the guys need all their wit and energy to get this bit right. So today I'm staying away and trying to think about other not think about the beam, do not think about the beam.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

How I avoid obsessing about the weather

I have suddenly become obsessed with the weather. Will it rain today? What's the wind like? As a Brit, I've always had more than a passing interest in weather forecasts. The unpredictability of the island climates was an obsession for practical reasons - should I take an umbrella? should we have a wet weather plan to avoid our summer barbecue being a washout? etc etc. Living in Canada I now spend half the year watching the mercury drop below '0' and like a spectator at a game of limbo, wondering 'how low can you go?'.

But these days my obsession with precipitation and wind force is all to do with the fact that the back of our house has been removed and is open to the elements. There was a funny moment a few weeks back when I passed by the house one evening and noticed that the contractors had left a bathroom window open on the second floor. The next day I pointed it out and asked them to be careful and check all the windows before they left for the evening - they laughed, 'Katherine, we're taking the back of the house off next week, the window won't matter!'. And here we are, springtime in Toronto (yesterday, it was a balmy 20 degrees) and the house is exposed to whatever the next few weeks will bring....

Until the main beam is fitted and the framing done, the windows installed etc etc, I must not obsess, nor let my waking mind, at 3 am, imagine tarpaulin flapping in the wind... By way of distraction, I have begun the hunt for fittings. Beginning with the narrow door to the powder room (just 2'4"), the sink that will have to be built into a reveal between the studs (preferably no more than 10" x 14"), new fireplace surrounds and the statement lamp to hang in the double height entrance, there is work to be done to find the right pieces.

Living where we do, on the Parkdale/Roncesvalles border, we are only a hop, skip and a jump from some great antique dealers. Places that are real treasure troves to be trawled through on lazy weekends. Coffee cups in hand, we venture out to the showrooms and, with our house-to-be in mind, start eyeing up potential purchases.

This is fun! These places, Aladdin's caves of salvaged treasure, can be overwhelming unless one has a particular item in mind but it is an excellent distraction, whilst also getting the job done. 

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Of posts, beams and 'wonky' walls

One of the things I am enjoying most about this stage of the renovation process (apart from the beautiful exposed brick walls that are seriously tempting me to turn the main floor into a trendy neighbourhood coffee shop) is the science bit. Learning about how a building (and our building, in particular) is made, what it takes to dissect it and the science behind how we go about transforming it into the space we want. The first big lesson I have learned is about posts and beams. The structural challenge of our renovation is going to be the retro-fit of a big beam. In order to open up the ground floor so that we can enjoy unobstructed views out of the back, we need to remove some load bearing walls and fit some steel beams to carry the weight of the upper two storeys of the house.

It sounds pretty straight forward and the science of it makes sense but there are two issues that arise: one structural and the other logistical. The re-design of the main floor calls for a beam that will run the width of the house - almost 21 feet. The bigger the load, the heavier the beam has to be - in our case, about 750 kg. To carry the two floors above. That's a big beam but it can be manufactured and delivered, no problem.

The logistical issue is getting the beam into the house and then fitting it onto its bearings, whilst at the same time supporting the load (the upper two floors of the house), having removed the load bearing walls. This is the bit that has kept us all awake at night.

Unlike with a new build, where the big beams are fitted and then loaded. Retro-fitting a beam into an old house means keeping the load from collapsing and then fitting the beam. Not only does the load have to be 'shored up' during the fit but the beam has to be manoeuvred through the existing building, through the front door, between the studs, out through windows and back into place.

With the majority of the demolition work now complete, the 'big beam' is the next big step for us. And whilst all the consultations and site visits were taking place so that the logistics could be figured out, we hit our first bump in the road...the wonky wall!

I've mentioned before how this house has already seen a number of renovations and bits have been added and built out over the years. The major previous addition runs over the main floor and the second floor and we have discovered that one of these large walls is 'wonky'. That is, in builder speak, it is not 'plumb'.

Our problem is therefore that if we have to install a beam to carry the load being carried by a wonky wall, then we have to fit a wonky beam. And if we build out and extend the wonky wall by another 8 feet, then we will have a wonkier wall. A discrepancy from the plumbline that is now at 4 inches, will be increased to 8 inches and that, when all is said and done, will not be a pretty sight.

The solution, inevitably, is to tear down the previous addition. Take out the wonky wall and rebuild it. This time, however, we will build it in wood rather than double layers of brick.  

And the silver lining to the wonky wall cloud? The new wooden structure will be lighter than its poorly built brick predecessor - the supporting beam will not have to be as heavy and it can be fitted before it is loaded, i.e. the old walls are rebuilt. And so, there is more demolition to be done and the budget will have to be stretched slightly, new drawings will have to go in to the city for the revision to be approved and our walls will all be plumb.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

The skeletons in the closets (or the walls)

We're nearly two weeks into our build and we are all still talking to each other. So far, so good...

Honestly, we are nowhere near the building bit yet, only destruction (or demolition, as it is technically known), and everyone says this is the easy bit. That may be, but I refuse not to enjoy these moments. These first baby steps towards big grown up renovation.

Having lived for a year in a house that made no sense, I am relishing every minute of peeling back the layers and getting to know our home from the inside out. As drywall is torn down, stripping back to the bare bones of the house, we are discovering why the crazy layout was the way it was. Probably constrained by the limits of their times (at least in terms of resources and materials, and quite possibly artistic vision), the previous incarnations have left us with our jaws on the floor.

Starting with the (now defunct) labyrinthine gas pipes that run along the walls between the studs, having once fuelled the gas lamps; to the cement poured between the floor joists in the second floor bathroom to level the tiling and the drains in the basement, blocked up and mortared over under layers of joists and sub flooring; to the wallpaper buried behind the studs, behind the first layer of tiling and behind the second layer of tiling, the walls that we thought were drywall but are in fact brick; to the discovery that behind the poorly crafted new trim that was made to 'look old' lies the beautiful old red brick walls with stone lintels that once housed the long gone original windows ... what were they thinking?

And don't get us started on the wiring.... We've always known that the house had 'knob and tube' wiring (an old system of copper wires coated in paper(!) or cloth and running through 'knobs' of porcelain and glass, which separate the wiring and thereby reduce the risk of potentially setting fire to the wooden framing). Although it was a safe enough system of wiring in its time, the use of electricity in our homes has evolved. Who could have envisaged electronic home entertainment, cooking and washing, not to mention charging devices and the maligned 'standby' function? Who could have envisioned a household that would employ electricity to carry out all those functions simultaneously? Knob and tube was not designed for the 21st century but until we opened up the walls, we had no idea how much of it ran through the house and, given it has been through a number of reincarnations, we also didn't know to what extent new circuits had been 'hooked up' to the original wiring, rather than replacing it.

Well, now we do know and its fair to say that this is an example of a situation where ignorance was bliss. Over the years, alongside the old gas pipes, buried behind the drywall, a spaghetti junction of wiring lay undetected. A tangling of lines and intersections more complex than a London street map. To be frank, we have a very bad case of 'let's just hook up it up to the old stuff and bury the junction box-itis'. But the first rule of renovation is: if you find it, you have to fix it. No more electrical skeletons in our closets. 

There have been pleasant surprises uncovered too. Like the six story bee's nest in the rafters of the third floor. Unfortunately, we weren't in time to see the 30 or so ladybirds who had taken up residence take flight. Nevertheless, the old bee's nest is beautiful and reminds us that this renovation is only the latest chapter in this old house that has known so many tales over the years.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Warning: some readers may find these images disturbing!

There is no doubt that demolition work is fun. The guys who have moved in to our house to start the renovation (as we have moved out to a temporary rental home, a mile down the road) tell me that the demolition is the best bit and they liken it to a form of therapy. After a walk through the house and a rather crude system of marking 'Xs' on the areas to be demolished, the drawings (that took a year to complete and a hefty design budget to refine) are put to one side and hammers are the order of the day.

The entrance way with the vestibule and closet walls removed

It is fast work. In the 48 hours since the men began, the ground floor is unrecognisable. Kitchen cabinets, fixtures and archaic appliances have been torn out, drywall is ripped out to reveal studs and joists, wood panelling and trim is prised away and the swinging hammers smash through partitions (there really is no other word but 'smash' to communicate the energy and speed of the demolition process).

Half of the z-shaped kitchen - gone

Yes, you read that right. Amongst the swinging hammers, there is the more delicate process of removing the wood trim and panelling. Now this is where some may disagree with our approach and the design decisions we have made for our 100 year old home. And so it is with some trepidation that I share these pictures with you.

Dining room - before

At the heart of our house is a dining room. Seen in the picture above as it was when we left it on Friday. In this state, it was a vast improvement on the dining room that we inherited from our predecessors, with its dark blue carpet on the floor, green paint above the panelling and heavy dark ceiling fans hanging in the centre of the room, the combined effect of which was to make the space feel like a cave. When the sun shone outside, sitting in the dining room, we could barely see the food on the plate in front of us. Today that room has changed.

The dining room - now

The wood panels on the walls have gone and I hope, dear readers, that you will not judge us too harshly for this. This is not a strike against wood panels - they are very common in the houses of our neighbourhood and we have seen lots of homes where they add character and beauty. Unfortunately, these did not and so their time was up. The decision was not easy and we spent many hours debating between ourselves and with the architects how to blend the wood with the updated look of the new addition. Ultimately, the panels had to go and I have to admit that seeing the wood lying on the garage floor awaiting its fate (in a kind of demolition purgatory), a moment of doubt overcame me. I'm sure it was the first of many to come. The renovation of an old home is not for the faint hearted.

The kitchen cabinets and appliances 

Other areas will keep their character: the leaded windows, the wood panelling in the entrance hall, up the staircase and on the landing. This renovation is the pursuit of light and where that sits with the original features fitted by the builders in the Edwardian age, we intend to restore and preserve it.

And so, we close the door on the old dining room (at least we would if the door was still there) and look forward to the new space that will be the lighter heart of our new home, where the wood in our mid century Danish dining table and chairs will be the focus of attention.