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.