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.