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The Renovation That Never Ends?



Oct 5 2006, 11:47 PM

This is about carpentry, struggling against poverty, and being in a positon where one's back is against the wall and slowly prevailing, little by little.

It is about an ongoing project that I started in earnest in 2003.

I live in a house that, a few short years ago was fit for condemnation and demolition. Having gotten married late in life, to an Asian, we returned to the US and the situation was, fortunately, not too much of a shock for her. And American woman would have taken one look at the house and filed for divorce.

With a baby on the way, I had to do something. A few estimates from contractors were evidence that they had better things to work on, and financing it would have been out of the question. The house was not even suitable as collateral for a mortgage.

Lacking any alternatives, I realized I had to do this work myself. So I surveyed the situation and figured out a way to break the job down into more manageable projects.

My first project was to rebuild the bathroom. The ceiling had partially collapsed and was being held up by large sheets of plastic and some 2x4s propped under various sections. There was a family of squirrels living in that ceiling, and every fall, we could hear them mating and in February, the babies would be born and more little squirrels would run around up there.

For years, I tried trapping them, shooing them away, and even shooting them when they came out for air. I tried rhodent repellant deviced, drilled holes and injected everything from moth crystals to bleach and nothing worked. The darned animals just kept coming back and dug further and further, making holes in the already termite and water damaged joists, until much of the roof was unsafe.

In April 2003, I began renovation on that bathroom. I tore down the sheetrock and yanked out the beams, most of which were rotted beyond belief. Since there was no non-rotten part of the house to attach new joists to, I decided to build a floating frame and worked from there. I used pressure treated lumber this time, anticipating that we live in an area that is subject to various kinds of attack on wood.

The next thing was to rebuild the wall. The east wall was on the leeward side of the flat "shed roof", and there was no overhang, so it became ao waterfall whenever it rained. When I tore off the sheetrock, I found no studs left in the wall. Instead, there was a layer of mulch and leaves--the remains of studs that rotted. The only thing holding the wall together was the Transite fireproof exterior siding.

I carefull and surgically removed a section of wall at a time and rebuilt it, but before I could do that, I had to rebuild the floor! The outer couple of feet of the entire floor was so badly water damaged from both the leaks and the toilet leaks that had occured over the past forty years had rotted both the subflooring and underlayment and the joists! I had to rebuild a new frame of joists and put down all new flooring before I could rebuild the wall.

That room was largely rebuilt in about a year. It was only 10x10'. We put in new cabinetry and sink, but kept the deluxe toilet and bathtub, adding a new set of fiberglass walls and a glass shower door.

The following year, I had to set to work in turning the second bedroom into something suitable for my daughter. It was next to the bathroom, on the same east-facing side of the house, with no overhang. Again, the situation was a disaster. That room was so bad that the windows had fallen out of their frames! The wall studs on the east side had also turned to mulch and were nowhere to be found. The roof had been leaking so bad that it would just flood the floor, seep through and flood the basement. The room's heating system froze one winter and the pipe ruptured, necessitating my cutting the pipes to that room and sweat soldering caps onto the feed pipes in the basement. The room had been deteriorating for decades and was uninhabited since 1999. As such, I had sealed it off. Opening the door to that room was like opening the door to outdoors, except that it smelled awful from the mold, feces and urine of squirrels and whatever other animals lived there.

In April 2004, we had Amanda, during which time, I was working hard on the rebuilding of this second bedroom. The process was much like the bathroom, only it was a corner room, so it had two external walls and on the east side was a chimney I had to contend with.

I had to work fast with certain parts of the project. I started rebuilding the floor, after knocking down the wall, both on the 2nd floor and below, down to the basement level. The reason for this was that the supporting walls on the floor below were also rotten and had to be rebuilt. I tore everything down to the foundation that spring. The side of the house reminded me of a bombed out hotel in Beirut--the entire side, from basement to upper floor, was open to the outdoors.

I rebuilt the frame of the first floor in about 2 weeks and got it sheathed and tarpapered. Then I worked on rebuilding the floor upstairs in the bedroom. Once the floor joists were replaced, I was able to build a new wall. I had to rebuild the entire east wall and most of the north wall.

Then came the scary part: the roof. I watched the weather forecasts for a while, looking for a string of sunny days. I was pretty lucky that year. I had a week of clear weather and it was between two hurricanes that were tracking up the coast, so I was under the pressure of urgency to work fast. I spent about a day and a half tearing down the old, rotten roof, while trying to avoid being crushed by falling sections of it as I made it collapse, a section at a time.

Once the old roof was clear, and I was staring at the sky above, I knew I had to work quickly, and I started installing the new joists, cutting and notching them as needed, and fitting them into place. The first one is always tough, because there is nothing to support it laterally. Subsequent joists were easier. I built the new roof, got it sheathed and got asphalt, 30lb felt, more asphalt and 90lb mineral roll roofing installed, all in about a week. It was a grueling job!

As the place closed up, I moved on to installing windows, insulating and sheetrocking, as well as electrical wiring. The final touch was engineered flooring, after painting. By November 2004, the room was ready to move in and my daughter was so happy to have her own room finally.

I felt that I was over my head with the larger rooms and contacted many contractors for estimates. I got few responses, but only one contractor actually gave a rough estimate of $170,000 to rebuild the roof. That pretty much made my decision.

2005 saw the finishing of the exterior siding for that section and this year, 2006, I chose to undertake the most expansive and difficult renovation task yet: the dining room, kitchen and part of the livingroom roof. This was a total of about 456 sq ft of roof that had to be gutted, new joists installed and completely rebuilt.

In April of 2006, I started the first step with my two fingers: I pushed against the east wall in the old dining room. It fell outward in a big, terrible crash. Suddenly, I had a 12' long side of the house with a view of nature. The scaffolding was built and I set out to rebuild a new wall. But before I could, I had to rebuild the floor joists and the supporting systems. Then I attacked the rebuilding of the wall. However, the weather was not in my favor. April saw continous rain for 27 days, with only brief letups every 3-4 days. I was working with my power tools wrapped in plastic, to prevent the waterfall (this was again on the east side of the roof where the water runs off) that was falling on me from shorting out the motor of my drill and saws.

In about 3 weeks, I had rebuilt the floor and a new wall. Next came the roof. This time, I purchased a special order size tarp of 20x40' to cover the section of roof that I was planning to rebuild. Little did I know that I would end up rebuilding about twice that area!

The corner was the most complex. It used a diagonal carrying beam, and joists met up with it at perpendicular angles. Plus the roof was pitched at a slight angle, so I had some complexities to deal with. I chose to visualize the entire project in CAD first, so I made some drawings in 3D and observed things from various angles, making plans as I went along.

Once I had a plan in place, I unfolded the huge tarp and covered the area to be removed. This work began in mid May. It was still raining. In fact, it rained for the entire month of May, except for the Memorial Day weekend. By this point, I was somewhat alarmed at the amount of rain and was thinking that something was wrong with the climate lately. But I had work to do and developed a "damn the torpedos!" attitude toward the weather, which had me working even in the raging of thunderstorms.

I began demolishing the old roof and that started with pulling down sheetrock. Boy did I find some weird stuff! The eastern end was full of brown powder from the plywood above and joists--termites or carpenter ants had been busy for decades! It seemed that if I didn't get a shovelful of powder falling on my head when removing a piece of sheetrock, it would be an ant colony being revealed, with a theatrical horror quantity of swarming ants, startled by the sudden exposure to daylight, scattering from the scene.

I took about two weeks to demolish the corner, including carrying beam of 19' length. In the following week, I built a new carrying beam in-place, and started putting in joists in their perpendicular directions on either side of the diagonal beam. I extended the beam beyond original design, to create an overhang that we never had, so that the east wall would not be under a waterfall.

As I was tearing up the roof, I found one small section that was not rotten. Apparently asphalt had been applied directly to the plywood, and even though the layers of roofing on top of it were soaking wet, the plywood was pristine in that area. That would confirm my hunch that pre-coating all the roof sheathing with asphalt roof cement would be a good hedge against a failure of the roofing materials above it.

By late June, I had gotten almost to the halfway point with removing and replacing joists, and that's when the apocolyptic thunderstorm--the strongest, most intense I had seen in over 20 years--hit. Within two minutes, about 70 gallons of water had accumulated in the tarp between a large 4' gap in the joists old & new. It sagged like some huge elephant belly, hanging between the rafters. The dining room floor was just below it. And below the dining room floor was a recording/television studio with my life savings of investment in equipment, computers and hardware. For a short time, I struggled with trying to lift this balloon of water and push it out above my head. It was utterly futile. I then tried poking a hole and letting the water drain. But it was under so much pressure that it came out like a firehose with a narrow jet of water. I raced to the kitchen and grabbed the largest pot I could find and put it under the jetting water. After dumping several pots full, I realized that even though the rain had tapered off, it was still collecting faster than I could drain it. It was about this time that the whole thing gave way. Instantly, I had 70+ gallons of water on the dining room floor!

Luckily, a section of the floor on the overhang was not completely closed up, so I grabbed a broom and swept frantically, like a deranged madman, with broad and wild strokes, trying to move that water over to the gap where it could drain to the outside. In less than five minutes, I had the majority of the water out of there, and started up a leaf blower and an industrial shop vac. I had lots of air moving and between the sucking up of water with the wetvac and the 200 mph air flow from the blower, the floor was drying up in a couple of hours' time. Fortunately, I had moved fast enough and the floor had a good enough seal that no water came into the studio on the first floor.

For the next month or so, would be fighting rain, by placing plywood sheets to span the gaps in joists and keep the tarp from caving in. But that storm came up quickly and with a ferocity that I had not expected.

The summer dragged on. June was rainy, July was rainy, but August saw the first string of sunny days. The removal and replacement of joists was slow, taking about two days per joist, because these 16' long beams were also supporting kitchen cabinets near the other end of their length. There were five joists that directly supported box structures onto which hanging cabinets were bolted. I had to rig up a support under the island of cabinets and unbolt the lag bolts from the ceiling joists before removing that particular joist. This slowed things way down. The project dragged on and I was becoming tired of it. That was much of July.

By August, I had gotten past that and had made it up to the west entranceway wall. I had been following up with sheathing and had gotten a close friend to help for a day with getting started with the toughest part of the sheathing. Eventually the whole dining area was closed to the weather, so I installed the new window unit that I had purchased for that area.

Work had to continue along the outside where the roof overhanged the deck. And more so, it had to continue north--there were six 18' joists over the kitchen that were so rotten they were beyond help. I spent a week and a half removing and replacing these joists. Then I spend a few more weeks insulating, bracing and sheathing and finally applying waterproof roofing materials as before with the rest of the roof.

I worked my way toward the western side, toward where the existing joists were in better shape and where the sheathing was still intact. Much of the weather work done, I focused on getting insulation, vapor barrier and RF shielding (we are next to a 50,000 watt FM station and cellular sites) installed and then had a 'sheetrock party' and invited two friends who had helped me on Amanda's room. Plastering and taping followed and finally, painting.

My wife and I picked out a nice chandelier and had the painting done in time for installation.

Last week, I put down marble in front of the entrance, and we put down a hardwood bamboo floor over the rest of the dining room. I had to rent a pnuematic floor nailer and a compressor, as hand nailing proved to be glacially slow. With the proper tools, we had the floor installed in about 5 hours.

The room looks beautiful now and we have the peace of mind that it is structurally so overbuilt that it is about as solid as concrete, but not nearly as brittle. And our daugher, Amanda, loves to play on the floor in there now.

There is much more work to be done on this house, but this year was the most monumental achievement so far. I thought I had bit off too big a piece, but somehow, with a will of iron, I prevailed!


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