Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Top of the Slope

After a year-long hiatus I've been wanting to get back to this blog because a lot has happened in the meantime, and a lot of interesting stuff that did happen throughout our project hasn't been written about yet.

I recently watched a Youtube video where some people started a renovation and the host of the program remarked that they were on a "slippery slope".  I think this is the way a lot of renovations seem to go; you end up dealing with a lot more than you bargained for in terms of time, money and stress. It also seems like a common thread that people get the idea that they want to do a renovation and they start out being very ambitious and really stretching themselves to the breaking point.  Everybody has their own story for how they got onto the slippery slope, I guess.  For me it was this Dwell magazine from February 2010.

Yep, way back in 2010 is when the seed of what would become this crazy renovation saga was planted.  This magazine cover really jumped out at me, and believe it or not I think the reason is because of that green car on the cover, which I've since learned is a '63 Thunderbird.  I'm not a car enthusiast, at all, but for some reason that car really grabbed my attention and I think it's because when I was very, very little, I had a tiny green matchbox car that looked like that green mist '63 T-bird. It turns out the house in the picture is in Michigan, where my grandparents were originally from, and which I visited once as a very small child, and it has a kind of eastern US mid-century modern vibe that must have triggered the neural remnants of some deeply buried childhood impressions. Plus it's a damn cool house.

 So my girlfriend at the time, who is my wife now, said "Why don't you get it if you like it?". So I did.  And flipping through the pages I began this journey into all things housey and designery and architecty.

Truth is before I became an engineer, I always wanted to be an architect.  I like drawing, and I drew a lot of buildings as a kid. I also bought the house I was living in with the idea that one day I would renovate it, and add a second storey on it, like many of the houses in our neighborhood have done over the years.  So the idea to renovate was already there but this magazine kind of kick-started my interest in it for real.  One of the ads in this magazine was for the Turkel Dwell Homes Collection which is manufactured by Lindal Cedar Homes. One of the pictures really stood out as a nice design for a narrow city lot.

I thought this house was really cool. Turkel is a west-coast firm from California so it probably resonated with my west-coast roots.  I got a little obsessed about finding out all the details of this plan and managed to track down some layouts for this and other Turkel-designed Lindal homes.  I found the efficiency of the designs incredibly interesting. Architecture is such a cool blend of practical and efficient use of space, mixed with artistic concessions, kind of like a tension-release interplay between hard-cold science and creative, emotional art.

Around this time I stumbled across some pictures by Toronto firm SuperKul who did this amazing house there called the Crescent Road House.

This also kind of resonated because the lot size is and layout is pretty similar to ours. The house isn't much wider than ours, and although this was obviously a really high-end build (it has an elevator inside) I thought this could be a pretty good source of inspiration. I contacted Superkul to see if they could do a project where we live, but then I started thinking it would be hard to work on a custom design with somebody so far away. I like this house enough that I tried building a 3D model of the layout.

It turns out that this house, as well as the Dwell-Turkel-Lindal house were both too big for us to be able to build, because I found out there are restrictions on how big of a house you can build on the lots in my neighborhood, since they are close to the 100-year flood plain. So I started messing around in Sketchup.  Just tonight, I stumbled across a few of the old Sketchup models that I started making back then to try and come up with ideas for a second-story addition and extension on our house.  Here are a couple of them.

I know these are not very good, but they were kind of fun and more importantly, I started to realize that unless you are building something pretty standard, it's hard to come up with a good design where all the details fall into place. Take the carport for example. Way too high for one thing, owing to the fact that our house was originally constructed as a "storey and a half" bungalow with the basement half sticking up out of the ground.

After messing around with Sketchup I realized that even though it was fun it was not really a good way to approach designing a floor plan. This is what architects call "the program" I guess. You have to start by figuring out what rooms go where.  You do that before going all crazy in Sketchup.  So I found an website called Floorplanner, which was really cool.  You can design your floor plan and even put little pieces of furniture in it, and then click a button to see what it will look like in 3D.  This is kind of like playing with legos or a doll house, but for grown ups.

It turns out that the designs I was playing with in Floorplanner are still there, and it looks like they were made back in 2011. So this was well before we started our renovation.  You can only do one "project" on the free version of so I ended up making a few different storeys with a few different designs for each one, until I filled up my quota of possible layouts on the free tier. Here's what some of those looked like.

This was the first attempt and it was pretty boring.  It also moved the stairs to the right side of the house and I realized that keeping the stairs in the same location where the existing basement stairs were, was probably a better option.

The next one I liked a little better. It re-used exactly the same original footprint of the house without any extensions to the foundation anywhere. When you think that the original house fit in a 24' x 28' footprint and had two bedrooms, a bathroom, a living room, entry with closet, a dine-in kitchen, as well as stairs to the basement and a linen closet in the hall, that's pretty amazing. They were small rooms for sure, but they sure packed a lot into a small space.

I kind of liked this layout because there was a fish tank embedded into the wall between the entry and the tatami room. How cool would that be?  Also instead of a full tatami room I tried making half of the room with raised tatami mats. The table would sit in the middle, half over the raised tatami mats and half over the regular floor. That way you could either sit on the tatami mats, like a bench, or on a chair if you prefer.

Next I tried switching up the kitchen and the tatami room, and here's what that looked like:

This was the last iteration of the floorplan I came up with and the one I think I liked the best, based on trial and error from my previous attempts. This layout basically took the kitchen in the existing house from the front left and pushed it to the back right of the house, replaced the bathroom and one of the bedrooms with a japanese-style tatami room, pushed the front door to the right, and used up the space where the kitchen used to be, for a living room. Even looking back on this now, it's quite an efficient layout. The only downside was that the front door would have been separated from the driveway on the opposite side. This can mean a lot of snow shovelling in winter to get from your front door to your car.

Coming up with a good layout for the second storey addition must have been hard, because I don't have any designs saved on floorplanner for that. I just remember spending hours and hours messing around with this site, trying to come up with something modest yet beautiful, and ultimately getting kind of frustrated and finding it can be a lot harder than it looks, and thinking that this is why people hire architects, to solve these kind of problems and come up with the right "program".

In hindsight, I'm not sure we were terribly far off from having a workable layout. If I'd come up with a good plan for the 2nd storey, that last iteration could've worked pretty well despite the door and driveway on opposite sides.  What's a little snow shovelling?!  It would have been a way more affordable build, too, because it required no new foundation work, and we would not have had overhangs on the 2nd storey either.  I doubt that we could have given it the same beautiful aesthetic on the exterior if we'd designed it all ourselves, and no doubt a structural engineer would have required some changes, but it's interesting to see how far I actually got with this back in 2011 before we started looking for an architect who could refine our goals into a workable plan with a mix of Japanese and modern Canadian features.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Walkout: floods and forms

This is a post about the walkout basement at our house, which has been a kind of ongoing source of drama even since I moved here. The picture below is one I found after rooting around in the Photos app for about 20 minutes. It doesn't show the full walkout, but you can see the part of the basement door, retaining wall and sunken entrance. I took this photo from the top of the five steps going down to the basement door.

The walkout basement was a pretty nice feature of the house and I kept my music stuff there - a lot of keyboards including, for a while, a beautiful Hammond B3. From the basement, you could look out the french doors to an unobstructed view of the back yard.  There was a big lilac tree growing right outside the door, which you can see in the photo, and a pear tree, and it was a really nice place to be in the summer especially.

The problem was that about once a year in the late summer we would get a really heavy rainfall, and it would rain for two or three days and things would get so waterlogged that the sunken entrance of the walkout would start to fill up with water. It never got to the point of flooding the basement, but there were at least a couple of times that the water came right up to the bottom of the door. The basement had a hardwood floor, but it was raised up on sleepers, so although I expect there was some seepage from time to time, things were mostly ok, as long as when the massive rain storms hit I had a plan and was prepared.

I knew that this could be a potential problem, so the first time we had a big rain storm I had a couple of buckets and spent a couple of hours in the middle of the night bailing water out of the walkout. The next day I went and got a submersible electric pump, and connected a garden hose to that, and it emptied out all the water in a matter of seconds. After that it was pretty easy to get water out of the walkout, but it usually meant furkelling around with a pump and hose at 2 o'clock in the morning, which for some reason is when the rain seemed to peak.

Anyway, the rainwater getting into the walkout was a pain, so one of the main objectives for renovating the house was to excavate around the whole foundation, waterproof it, install weeping tile, and build a better concrete retaining wall around the walkout so that rainwater wouldn't get into the walkout stairwell.

For quite a while during the construction we had an open pit at the back of the house where the excavator had exposed the foundation but had not backfilled it yet. More excavation was needed to finish the walkout but our first builder, Bramel Developments, had run into some issues with the excavator, Ken Brown, who had put a lien on our house after not getting paid what he thought he was owed.  If you know how construction financing works, you can't have liens on your house or the lending institution will stop lending you money for the work.  I did a little research and found out that Ken Brown has been in the business for a long time and he doesn't screw around.  A couple of the cheques he'd gotten from Bramel had bounced, and in hindsight I can see that our builder was trying to cut a lot of corners and held off on doing the full walkout excavation.  He billed us the full price for excavation, and promised that Ken Brown would be back to finish the walkout in the spring, but that never happened, and who knows where the money went.

So we had a big pit behind our house for a long time. During the summer, this was ok. But as we got toward fall, and into the rainy season, I started to get pretty apprehensive that we might get a real deluge and that without any retaining wall whatsoever, the pit could fill up with water and flood the basement, which we had just finished drywalling.

Sure enough, right near the end of August we had a rainstorm to beat all rainstorms. It poured all day and then at night it started dumping buckets, and I knew I needed to go check on the house. It was a Friday night, and our new contractor, Michanie, had finished up that afternoon and was away for the weekend.  When I got to the house it was dark and raining hard and thundering. Sure enough water was filling up the pit behind our house and rising fast.  The little pump that I had used in the past had been broken by Bramel's crew so I couldn't use that. Instead I found a bucket and started bailing.  It was a frantic effort. At first I seemed to be making some progress but as the minutes went by it started raining harder and harder. I bailed as fast as I could, almost in a panic, trying to keep the water from reaching the bottom of the basement door and flooding in, but it was no use.

I made a frantic call to Michanie and got Chantal on the line, who suggested that I could go to Home Depot and rent a pump to get the water out. She kindly phoned one of the nearby stores and confirmed they had a pump available. As we talked, rain got in my phone and it quit working.

I would have loved to get a pump from Home Depot but it was a full on state of emergency. The water kept rising and I could see it gushing and streaming from beside the house straight down into the pit.  I also noticed, for the first time, that our neighbor had the downspout of his gutters leading into a hidden drain pipe which went under a gravel path and emptied straight into our property. The water was shooting out of his gutter drains straight into our walk-out pit!

At this point I just said "&^%$ it!". I could see that my efforts were futile, I was completely soaked to the skin, and the water just kept coming. I left everything, got in the car and raced off to Home Depot, got there 5 minutes before closing, rented a big pump and hose, and raced back home.  The pit was alarmingly full of water by the time I got back, but by that point I was past the point of panicking, just sort of morbidly resigned to dealing with the mess and doing whatever damage control was needed after.

Setting up the pump was easy enough, but getting electricity was another matter. There were extension cords on site, but none of the outlets were live, except on in the basement, so to get power to the pump I needed to crack open the sliding patio door to the basement and feed the extension cord through.  The water was already above the base of the door by that time, but I had no choice, so I just opened the door and let the water pour in onto the concrete floor while I fed the extension cord out and got the pump plugged in as quickly as I could. Now, when you're dripping wet and it's raining like a typhoon and you're standing in 18 inches of water, plugging in an electrical device is a little unnerving. There wasn't much I could do about it. Fortunately I didn't electrocute myself, the pump went on, and the 4 inch hose went completely solid as water started shooting out the far end like a jet. The pump was a thing of wonder. Within just a minute or two it had completely emptied the pit and was gurgling away in the mud.

With the pit now empty of water, I disconnected power to the pump and turned my attention to the neighbors gutter system that was draining straight into the walkout.  I grabbed a bunch of rocks and an old tshirt and whatever else I could find, and tried building up a little barrier wall to divert water from beside the house and from the neighbors gutters, and channel it towards the backyard. Then I found a big sheet of plastic and tried to attach it to various points at the back of the house, where there was some scaffolding, so that it might keep out some of the rain.  Then I ran a couple of extension cords from the basement live outlet up to the main floor and out the main-floor back door, so that I could close and lock the basement patio door.  The pump I'd rented can actually be left running dry for a few hours without burning it out, but I unplugged it and went home.

It was probably close to midnight by the time I got home, but shortly after that I got a message from Chantal at Michanie that they'd been by the house to check and there didn't seem to be any damage. They'd been at a family event, but came all the way back into Ottawa after midnight to check on things. It goes to show how much they cared and were willing to go out of their way to help. The next morning when I got back to the house, I saw that they had set up two huge blowers in the basement and a commercial dehumidifier.  These machines move a massive amount of air, and are used mainly by commercial drywallers. It seemed like these machines had gotten the basement floor almost completely dry overnight.

Following this near disaster I spent most of the rest of the weekend rigging up a better tarp over the walkout, building up a better temporary retaining wall and channel to drain water away from the pit, and getting a sump pump with a flotation valve to put in the pit in case water filled it up again.

Setting up the sump pump was an adventure in itself that involved a few trips to Home Depot.  And to make matters even more interesting, through all of this battle with the rain water, my neighbor who had been secretly diverting his run-off through a hidden underground pipe onto my property for the past 15 years decided that the water infiltration he experienced through his 50-year old, non-waterproofed foundation wall, was somehow my fault, and he got very, very nasty about the whole situation. His wife said he was so infuriated that he was threatening to get a lawyer involved. So I said I'd love to show the photos of their drain shooting water into my yard and all the clean-up we had to do as a result. After that I didn't hear much more except for a couple of nasty emails, which I ignored.

Finally the excavation of the walkout got done, not by Ken Brown, but by Michanie's people. As a commercial builder, they have all the equipment and people to do this sort of thing. Here's a picture of the excavator having dug out the area for the new retaining wall. They got right down the water table so in a couple of the low spots you could see water flowing. If you look closely, you can see an orange bucket behind the excavator, down in the mud, where I put the sump pump, and a hose for the pump going up out of the pit.

The base of the footings was supposed to be insulated, so there were a couple of layers of high density foam insulation that were put down first.  Then they installed the form-work for the footings.

A lot of rebar then got put into the space.  As I watched this thing take shape and compared it to the simple stacked-block retaining wall that used to be there, this all seemed a bit over-engineered. But I'm pretty sure that Michanie was doing all this concrete work for us for practically no profit margin on this part of the job. And that's probably because they originally proposed to build the retaining wall from blocks, but got push back from the architect and engineer who said it had to be poured concrete in order to satisfy the permit requirements.

The footings for the retaining wall were incredibly wide. Evidently this is because they need to hold back quite a bit of weight of the dirt behind them. In the picture below you can see just how wide the footings are, and the rebar where the wall itself will get poured.

After the footings were set up for a couple days the formwork for the walls went up. Again there was a lot of rebar that went into the walls. This is one solid walk out retaining wall.

The wall got poured, the top looked very smooth. When I saw the concrete work that was done by Michanie compared to the concrete work that had been done by Bramel, the difference was like night and day.  Michanie's work seemed to be very solid and precise. The texture of the finish was always very clean and smooth with Michanie.

After the retaining wall was set up for a couple of days they removed the form work, then came and patched up any small pockets and air bubbles by hand.

The outside of the retaining wall also got insulated, and then back-filled with sand.

The base of the walkout got a few inches of clear aggregate. This is the view we could see looking out of the back of our kitchen, for a while.

We were already living in the house by this time, and every morning at 7 or 7:30 we would see Sylvain and often another carpenter working at the back of the house. At this point the fencing was down and most of the construction debris clean up. We had sand and dirt for our front and back yard and these tractors were parked there for a few days.  It was really a good feeling to have the signs of activity and daily progress that were evident while Michanie was completing our renovation. The neighbors who used to hesitantly comment that things seemed to be taking a long time and that our first failed builder, Bramel, was almost never on site, now commented on how nice things were looking and how impressed they were with the professionalism and dedication of the workers.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

September review

Note: This post was written last last year and continues the story of our renovation through the fall of 2016.

We're now at the end of October and a recap of September's progress is overdue, before covering everything that went on this month. Work has stretched out into the Fall, mainly due to the installation of the siding which took at least two or three weeks longer than expected. They did a nearly perfect job of installing it though. Lots of furring out crooked walls and squaring up corners. With the previous builder I don't think I saw a level or a square on the job site even once. Even though it is an older foundation to start with, the walls which were built brand new even weren't square and true. They just didn't care. But fortunately the new builder and his subs did care and they made sure everything lined up. If you look at the corners of the house, for example, all the joints of the boards line up perfectly on both walls.

Michanie had a gentleman named Patrice come and do the front deck. A retired auto body mechanic who has been working as a carpenter as a retirement "hobby". His work on the deck was beautiful.

On the interior, final trim work and painting has been mostly completed. Michanie did quite a bit of drywall patching and paint touch ups to correct a variety of issues left behind by the original contractor.

Installation of the modest kitchen had a few hiccups, but they were quickly resolved. I got to help a bit one evening to install a panels and trim boards.  The countertops, ordered through IKEA and installed by Uniform Custom Countertops, were unfortunately not shimmed to the correct height and therefore the gas range trim was sitting proud of the countertop.  Sylvain, the foreman and main carpenter who did the majority of work on our house, didn't hesitate to get right in and jack up the base cabinets to bring everything to a proper height. It required a bit of creativity with a drill and screwdriver where the cabinets attach to the walls, not pretty, but it works and you can't see those attachments anyway. We had some adjustment of the hinges and rails to get all the doors square and even. Fortunately the IKEA cabinet hinges are pretty easy to adjust.

The space in front of the kitchen is intended as a small living room / relax area. It's not really big enough for a large sofa but it could accommodate two or three lounge chairs.

The original house had a similar window configuration here: the small side window and a large front window, which is now a (narrow) patio door. The morning sun streams into the house here, filling it with light. It's a beautiful quality of light, too. Hard to describe, but one of the things we really like about this place, and people who visit frequently comment on it. By opening up this space, the entire area has become full of light.

One of my weekend projects in September was to stain this barn door. It's a simple, off-the-shelf product from Home Depot, and a little incongruous to hang a rustic, country-style barn door on a modern stainless rail, but it actually turned out ok, since the color of it is pretty close to the color of the wood-grained tiles in the master bath, which you can see through the open door in the photo below.

Here's a closer look at the tiles in the master bath. I though the tile installer did a very good job. I was pretty impressed with the workmanship. No complaints on the tile.

We used the same simple white 8x16" tiles in the "Japanese bath" (which is called a wet-room configuration here in North America).  The main difference is that there's a second tub filler below the shower. This is a Grohe Geotherm 2000 system that's normally used in a bathtub. We have it over the shower pan, with a separate tub filler for the tub itself, because with the Japanese bath you would use the faucet outside the tub to fill a wash basin for lathering up and rinsing before entering the hot bath.  I'll post more on the Japanese bath later on.

The siding on the house took a very long time to complete, again mainly because none of the walls were square, but I'm glad they took the time to do a good job. There is unfortunately a bit of "caning" visible on the wide fascia in a couple of spots, if the light hits it right. There is a bit of corner trim left to install.

Originally the porch roof was meant to extent across the entire front of the house. The engineer, however, said this wasn't feasible due to load bearing issues on the overhanging portion (we get a lot of snow in winter here). So the plan switch to make a pergola (open trellis) over the steps -- and then maybe install some plexiglass over that, once the final inspections were done.

Finally, near the end of October, we rented a truck, got our friends Yves, Michael, Lillian and Jared to help us out, loaded up our stuff, and moved back to our house!  They offered to do another load to pick up some of the smaller stuff, and I said don't worry.  Later on, after making about 2 dozen trips back to the rental condo to get moving boxes full of stuff, I wished that I had taken them up on the offer.

Work continues to complete the rear walk-out basement retaining wall, footings and deck, and to finish a bit of exterior trim and porch detail at the front. I'll post details of the rear basement walk-out and deck in another post.

Being back home has been such a relief. Before we found a good builder to rescue us, we were living in a nightmare. Even afterwards the costs and many problems discovered as we worked to complete things were very stressful on already frayed nerves.  But since we moved back into the house we really feel like the nightmare is nearly over.  And while the ending is not exactly as we had hoped, we have our house and our lives back and we can now deal with settling in and fitting out the interior of the house as time permits.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

August update

Despite the long radio silence a lot has been happening in the house. Michanie has continued to find many problems but they have not hesitated to keep moving ahead and fixing things.

Trim was installed.

Appliances delivered.

Basement stairs installed. 

Siding work progressed.

Pocket doors installed. We tried a whitewash pickling stain and it made the doors pink! So we tried a medium brown stain over that and ended up with more or less of a teak color. At this point I said, whatever, good enough.

Insulation and resilient channel on the basement ceiling for soundproofing.

Badly placed light switches relocated and drywall patches made.

Basement drywall completed.

Wood siding started.

Vanities installed.

Stairs installed.

Disaster averted - a severe rain storm hit us and the neighbor was diverting all his gutter runoff into the excavated walk out pit behind our house... Water quickly rose and filled the pit. I spent tense hours and worked into the night bailing, digging and installing a pump to evacuate the water. The next day I returned to install a tarp and shore up the sides of the pit where the neighbors runoff had been pouring in.

Basement subfloor in the bathroom area.

Electrical work done.

And the work continues...

The Top of the Slope

After a year-long hiatus I've been wanting to get back to this blog because a lot has happened in the meantime, and a lot of interesting...