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.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Calling a spade 'a spade' and not 'the biggest dessert spoon ever'.

I know this blog is supposed to be about renovation but as we wave a fond farewell to February, I feel compelled to share an observation about life over here in Toronto. Bear with me whilst I veer off piste - there is a tangential link, I promise.

When we arrived in this city, the winter of 2013/4, there were two hot topics of conversation; Rob Ford and the Polar Vortex. It was the winter of all winters, we were shoveling snow almost from the get-go and met our new neighbours over talk of snow removal, plunging temperatures and the sprinkling of salt on the sidewalk. We were assured that last year was the exception, ‘Toronto is never like this’ everyone chimed. 'Its extreme', 'We're sorry about the weather', 'Next year will be better'.

And here we are, a year later, and Rob Ford is off the front pages but again the headlines are all about the weather. Would you adam and eve it, this year the temperatures have dropped again and the city is in the grip of another wave of extreme cold? Its bad, we're told. In fact, its so bad that the past month, February 2015, will go on record for the ‘most consecutive days of extreme weather warnings’. There it is again, proof that this year its bad. Toronto is never like this, its extreme, next year will be better.

Well, that’s a bit of bad luck on our part. We land in a new city and hit two of its worst winters. But this isn’t my first time living here, I came over from London in 1998 for a year on a scholarship program. Now those were the days before Facebook, iPhones and a life archived in social media. However, I did keep a scrapbook and so I've dug it out from storage to remind myself what winter was like in 1998/9. This is what I found - newspaper clippings from 'the ice storm’, the winter of the power cuts and when so much snow fell on Toronto that the army had to be called in to help shift the stuff. Everyone remembers that winter, it was bad, it was extreme.


And so, according to my small sample of winters spent in Toronto, it would appear that winter in this city, is tough. Its cold, its snowy, there is ice involved and some days we are advised to stay indoors, i.e. there's an extreme cold weather warning. 

I have a sneaking suspicion that, put quite simply, this is it, Toronto. This is your weather and every year is simply a variation on this cold and frigid theme. So, why the superlatives? Why the compulsion to give each winter season a title that will condemn it to the annals of meteorological history as the season to beat all others? Well I have a theory about that too!

Could the need to view this winter as an extreme be a survival tactic? It surely helps to brave the crippling cold if we can tell ourselves that this is unusual, its not normally like this, next year will be better. After all, who wants to face the harsh reality that the climate here is hostile for at least a third of the year and we choose to live here, like this?

I've come to the realisation that this is the reason that Toronto’s roads are choked with cars (and not small cars, but SUVs, minivans and the like, so that they can plough their way across the inevitable snow banks), its why cycling is not a feasible means of transport all year around, its why shopping malls exist and why the building regulations have minimum requirements for HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning - see, I found the renovation connection!).

It's time to tell it how it is: the frigid cold season is called winter, when temperatures drop, the wind chills, snow falls and water freezes.

Tis the season of down coats, fleece lined gloves and furry ear muffs. Put the leather boots into storage til spring, and resign yourself to the salt marked snow boots, Wigwam socks and thermal leggings. Ski, skate (on rinks, not the lake), snowshoe and toboggan, drink hot chocolate and toast marshmallows on the fire. Fly south if you have to (but don't forget to budget for the plumber's bill when you get back and find the pipes frozen).

And those of us anxious to get renovating, toes on the start line and ready to go, we have to wait for the big thaw when the snow and ice disappear. There's no demolition work to be done til it does.

Unless of course, I'm wrong and next year will be better.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Why renovating is like childbirth

I'm new to this but I get the distinct impression that renovating is like childbirth. So far, my limited experience of the process is the design phase - we've bought the house, got the architects and for the last year we've been tied up with plans, surveys, drawings and sketch up. Incidentally, it has been looking at sketch up (the software that architects use to show clients a mock up vision of their design dream come true) that made me think of the nervous visits to the hospital for ultrasound scans of my children when they were in utero. A sneak peek into our future.

Yes, we're pregnant with the possibility of a new design for our house. Unlike the process of human procreation (at least for the time being), there has been a lot of picking and choosing - our home, once renovated, will be a genetically modified version of the building that luck and fortune threw our way.

It's the missing link about how we will go about transforming the pictures on the screen into our new home reality that reminds me most about the aura of mysticism that surrounded childbirth. It turns out that just like with the physical delivery of a child from the womb, the world is made up of two kinds of people, those who have been through it and those who haven't. Wise older women look upon young mothers-to-be with a scarcely disguised air of self-satisfied smugness - the knowing look that the entry to motherhood is a leveller. It brings us all to our knees.

And so, with renovation too. Ask anyone who has done it and the hint of a passing cloud of darkness passes over their face (don't blink, you'll miss it) and they are reminded again of how pleased they are to have arrived (alive, with relationships intact) on the other side - living in the space they have created. They radiate smiles (of relief?) and self-satisfaction at their achievement. We expectant renovators look on in wonder, seeing only joy and mistaking the smiles as a sign that it was a positive experience and one they would do again because they loved it, stayed within budget and everything went exactly as planned - maybe they even finished early....maybe... though they're being coy about it.

I'm doing what any self respecting renovator-to-be does - I'm finding solace in the world of interior design porn that is published with exactly my fears and dreams in mind. (Like the mother-to-be and the bride-to-be, the renovator-to-be is the perfect marketing target.) I could make some serious savings on construction costs if I recycled the piles of Grand Designs, Dwell, House & Home, Elle Decoration, Living Etc, Bo Bedre, Mad & Bolig (because the Scandinavians do it best), Toronto Designlines (because I need to know the local suppliers) etc etc But it doesn't stop there - I'm buying books on the subject, as if by osmosis I can absorb the style advice of the design gods and store up anti-dotes to the pitfalls. Its basically a drip feed equivalent to 'What to Expect When You're Expecting'. A holy grail towards design and building enlightenment.

But I'm wondering if, much like childbirth, every renovation experience is unique. There is only so much one can learn from other builds. Grand Designs is compulsive viewing not least because we see behind the scenes how personalities can work together (or not), how problems can be solved (or not) and how dreams can be realised, which they thankfully are for the most part. However, I suspect that just as 'One born every minute' can never convey the truth about labour pains, TV renovations are of limited assistance in reality. 

I guess our story will be just that. A story. One of many. A story that belongs to this house. It'll be our renovation tale from which we will edit out the time(s) when I am brought to my knees but we will hopefully end with a triumphant delivery of a re-modelled home and a sense of achievement (and relief) at having survived.

Please forgive, in advance, any smugness.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Born to renovate

Some are born to renovate, some become renovators and some have renovation thrust upon them... That's us. We are the people who are taking on a big renovation project without ever having put up shelves before. It was a funny anecdote for the last year, now it is becoming a reality. And in this little corner of the blogosphere, I want to tell the story of how it unfolds. I sincerely hope it won't be like watching car crash TV but I have my doubts.... And my fears. Yes, I'm nervous and I'm wising up to why people prefer not to buy houses that 'have potential'. But I would be lying if I didn't also admit to an intense degree of excitement; excited to learn about the building process and how the houses we live in work, excited to be a part of a creative process that will (hopefully) transform ideas and design concepts (debated and discussed ad nauseum) into a reality. And, of course, I'm excited to try and build something that will be ours and a reflection of our lives.

So, how did we get here?  Just over a year ago in the time of the Polar Vortex, we moved from a utopian expat life in Copenhagen, Denmark to Toronto, Canada. Incidentally, the expat episode was an equally exciting chapter in our lives which I wrote about in my other blog These Sublime Days  (if you're at all interested). When those days ended, we landed here, in Toronto and chose a neighbourhood to call home for the next chapter.

We sold our little flat in London, England, and bought this house. Built around 1915, it is typical of the houses in our neighbourhood on the fringes of High Park, in the west end of the city. A solid house, with 'good bones' and having myself now lived through 14 months of the Toronto climate, any house that can survive 100 years of these hostile extremes (there's a reason Sorel, Nobis and Canadian Goose hail from this side of the ocean) is worthy of our respect. Besides the weather, this house has also survived a number of renovations so far: previous owners divided it up into a multiple unit boarding house, the basement has separate entry and each floor has its own bathroom and then it was re-renovated back into a single family dwelling where our predecessors raised a family of six children.

No doubt if they could speak, the walls would tell stories. It's already a home with a history. But it's not a tale I want to hear. I want to make our own story in this space. Maybe the rooms worked for others, they don't work for us. And here is the point: this house is not a 'fixer-upper' - it is not a preserved relic from a bygone era in desperate need of an upgrade (although the kitchen appliances are from a different age). It is simply an arrangement of walls that create rooms that do not make sense to us, with an ecclectic mix of fittings and trims that we dislike.

Maybe 3 years of living with Scandinavian design left their mark on us and we no longer have a tolerance for dark spaces, dark carpets and small windows. The picture above shows the back of the house - the south facing side of the house - yes, the side that faces the SUN and yet none of the light can enter the living spaces because there are too few windows and too many decks and stairs. Earlier additions have created tunnels and darkened the already gloomy living quarters. The Z-shaped kitchen is clumsy and makes cooking a workout of sprints from stove to fridge.

The land at the back of the house drops away from the front so that when one looks back up to the house, as in the photo above, the three storeys loom. This in turn makes the inside detached from the outside and there is no connection with the trees and the space that could be a garden for us to enjoy. 

And herein lies another problem with this house  - even if there was an indoor/outdoor connection - it is not an outdoor space anyone would want to look at or venture out to. This house has too many garages. Besides the single garage integrated into the basement, a two and a half car garage monstrosity consumes all the land that could be a play area for the children, a vegetable garden, a patio for outdoor dining or a combination of all three.

And so, our mission with this renovation is to create light, spaces that are intentional, in that they work for us and the way we live, to connect the indoor with the outdoor and, above all, to make it sublime. 

Surely that isn't too much to ask of one's home...