Monday, September 21, 2020

Digging in

Notwithstanding the quiet on the blog, we're still here and oh-so-slowly working away on the house.  Needless to say, starting a major construction project during a pandemic is not exactly a great idea and, had we known what was coming, we would have just hunkered down for awhile.  But once we broke ground and things looked like this, there was no going back (though we did pause and then slowed things down considerably to follow guidelines):

Here we go!

This is now a basement

Inspector Bella (in her safety harness) checked the work.  Approved.

Give me the keys, I'm ready to drive this thing.

Skipping waaaay forward, the addition is on.  The inside is still just a shell and we've had more problems with our (now fired) contractor than I care to relive so let's just go to an exterior picture.  This is only phase I - we'll also put a big shed dormer on the back, which will ultimately lead to a roof deck on the new addition but it's starting to come together.

Oh hello, new space!

Easy to tell what is old and what is new here

Your eyes are not deceiving you in that last picture - we also bought another bobcat.  That's right, this is the third bobcat we've now owned.  If you had asked me in 2010 if I thought we would own three different bobcats - each one bigger and fancier than the last - by 2020, I would have said no.  And also would have said some other words. we are!  This one is a S650 and it has a fully enclosed cab, heat/ac, and a radio.  Brian has easily spent more time in it this summer than he has in his truck.  I would say that's a result of the pandemic might have happened anyway.

We usually focus on the interior first but given that our yard was all torn up from the addition, we moved onto the outside late this summer.  Right in time for record-setting amounts of rain through August.  Which was not helpful.  At all.

But, we've finally had a few good weekends and have made some progress.  We tore out all the old shrubbery that was taking up a lot of space and the uneven patio and started fresh.  The old yard had two tiers with a steep grass slope between them, an uneven stone staircase, and a lot of shrubs and bushes encroaching on the grass.  Although it made a nice obstacle course for Bella, it wasn't very usable for us.

We decided to put in two tiers of retaining walls to square the space up and have room for a big patio.  We've done paver retaining walls in the past but decided to try something different this time.  In our heads, trying something new was a fun and exciting idea.  In reality, it was still exciting but not in a good way and definitely not in a fun way.  Alas.

We went with gabion walls and, in our original vision, planned to put in 56 feet of wall for both tiers, with a staircase in the middle.  Once the gabion cages arrived and we started tearing everything up, we at least had the (minimal) good sense to pause and re-evaluate the plan.  We realized that putting the stairs in the middle would be both technically more difficult and would break up the patio space in a way that we didn't like.  So, we moved the stairs to the far side.  Then we changed the staircase plan from bluestone pavers to natural steppers.  Then we decided we needed some bigger retaining walls to flank the gabions and ordered 15 tons on boulders. a lot of boulders.  And it's even more boulders when the rock company delivers nearly 20 tons instead of 15.  That was quite a day.  Turns out that 20 tons of boulders consumes most of the space on a two car driveway and all of my sanity.  

After I stopped panicking about the mass of boulders, Brian got into the bobcat and started moving material around.  Step one was to install the staircase.  Each step weighs over 500 pounds so the bobcat had to do the heavy lifting here.  We were generally able to get the stairs in from the side and then used a breaker bar, a burke bar, leverage, and a lot of shoving to get them settled into place.  By ourselves.  Quite a few Advil were sacrificed for the cause.

You can sort of see in this picture how the old grass slope just came down a steep hill and fell into the lower level.  It was not very usable.

Once the stairs were in place, it was time to start grading and get the boulders in.  Building the rock walls to frame the stairs  

Skipping forward a bit, we started setting the gabion cages into place for the first tier.  We ended up using six 7' cages for a total of 42 feet.

At this point, we called in some helpers because there was a lot of stone to move, plus we needed to get the waterproofing in behind the wall and get the drainage dug and installed.  We had hoped to be able to drop the rocks into the cages with the bobcat bucket but they really needed to be handplaced to keep everything straight and stable.

Moving along with the gabion cages

Now this is a lot of rock in place!  Plus landscape fabric and dimple board behind the wall and an unseen drainage pipe at the bottom.  Really hoping this wall lasts a long time!  And starting on the second tier, which is seven 7' cages, so a bit longer than the lower tier.

And with two tiers of wall in place, plus drainage.  I marvel at how easy it all looks as the pictures scroll forward.  It was not easy.  But they're nice and straight and seem very solid!

Once the walls were in, it was back to installing boulders so we could close off the ends and start grading the slope properly.  Plus installing more drains.  We've had more than a few moments recalling how, before we started any of this, we waved our hands at the slope and said "oh, we'll install some walls over here and some over there and it'll all be so easy and great!"  Hah.  Hahahaha.

Between the constant rain and the sheer amount of work and material involved in this project, it seemed like it would never get done but here we are, definitely not done-done but making some very clear progress.  One last weekend of drain installation, grading, sod installation and plantings on one side.  We put phlox, stonecrop, sedum angelina, and blue rug juniper on/between the boulders and we'll see how they grow.  The big (sort of finished) reveal:

Now that's a side yard!

Oh right, we had some steppers left so added another little staircase here because why not move some more rock around?

Hoping these little plants grow well and expand over the rocks

All planted now, hopefully happy in their new home

Not bad for a(nother) weekend of work

We still have a lot to do, including installing a paver patio and fire pit on the main level, a garden bed between the retaining wall tiers, finishing the other side of the retaining walls, and grading and installing sod on the other side.  Plus we'll keep working on cutting back the foliage around the edge of the yard to expand the space.  But the entire side yard pictured above used to be a tangle of ivy and overgrown bushes so we've already reclaimed a lot of space and, we think, it all looks intentional and usable now.  This was a much, much bigger project than we thought it would be (a repeat theme around here - wonder if we'll ever learn?) but it's coming along and we can finally see an end in sight...for the yard at least.  Once the backyard is done, we'll have to turn back to the addition and see if we can move things along there.  But for now, we're going to call this a partial success!  And the end of a long overdue post.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

And now for something completely different

Happy almost new year!  It's been awhile since we've posted and we're still plugging away on getting our plans drawn up and permits approved for the house but in the meantime, we...bought a studio apartment and renovated it.  This wasn't mentioned before because it wasn't actually part of our plan!  One of the hazards of not having a renovation in progress is that it apparently leaves me with too much time to look at real estate listings and, long story short, we found a very good deal on a very tiny studio in a condo complex where I used to rent many years ago.  The combination of familiarity and opportunity proved too much to resist and we bought it in mid-October.  And promptly found ourselves spending a lot of nights and weekends working on the renovation but, in just a couple of months, we finished the renovation, listed it for rent, and will have a tenant moving in soon.  Fingers crossed that we like being landlords...or our realtor will be getting the next phone call!

The studio is so small that it was both quick to finish and very frustrating for the lack of space for tools.  We're already looking forward to working on our own house where we don't have to drive even a short distance or play the never-fun game "where is that tool we need right now?"  And there are a lot of things we would normally rip out and replace but shared walls and basic economics prevented us from doing so in the studio.  Nevertheless, we've managed to make some tweaks to the studio and think that it's nicer now than it was before - the pictures will tell the tale!

Existing kitchen - meh, fine, nothing great to see here

Existing bathroom - that is not a trick of lighting, there really are two (slightly) different color tiles here!

The main room, looking towards the entrance (on the right).  Floors aren't bad, everything else is pretty much just okay

Main room, looking from the entrance.  Note the fancy green "feature wall" (spoiler alert: we did not keep the green wall).  Old windows, old window blinds, trim around the doorless door, weird box-out on the wall for long abandoned hvac.  All functional but...could be better
One of the more perplexing design decisions was that the former owners took out much of the wall between the kitchen and main room.  But with a studio, you need all the wall space you can get!  We decided to install a half wall here with a bartop to provide more seating/counter space and a wall against which a sofa can go

Getting going with the new kitchen flooring - a cement-look tile

New flooring complete!
Drywall up on the half wall
Turning to the bathroom - old, mismatched tile gone, starting install on the new marble-look porcelain tile.  Love a large format tile, it makes install so much faster!
Working on the floor - going with a gray hex tile here for a more modern look
Skipping ahead...we didn't do a good job taking in progress pictures but here's the reveal:

Ta-da!  The new kitchen has stainless steel appliances, granite countertops, new light fixtures, and space for a cafe table by the window.  The oak bar top provides a transition into the living room and the half wall is a good place to put a sofa

Hello kitchen!  You look much better now!
One more of the kitchen - Brian custom built the wine rack to the left of the microwave because there wasn't an off the shelf option to fit the space.  Maybe it's just because I love wine (I do), but it's one of my favorite things about the kitchen

Another angle

And still looking out from the kitchen - Brian designed and built the moveable divider wall, which separates the main room from the entrance and provides some privacy to have a bed against the back wall.  He also built oak shelves on both sides and they can be moved anywhere on the rack to provide storage.  It turned out to be quite a squeeze to get the wall into the studio - we were lucky it made it up the stairwell but it did and now it's here to stay

More main room - you can see how the divider wall makes for a nice entry way when you come in

Among other things, we replaced the windows and added trim around them.  The new trim makes such a big difference!

Moving into the bathroom
Having a lot of oak boards in the basement turned out to be very useful - more custom shelves in here, plus everything else is new (vanity, countertop, medicine cabinet, lights, fixtures, towel racks...literally not one thing was worth saving)

Newly tiled bath/shower - and no mismatched tiles here!
And finally, the two walk-in closets.  It might have been overkill but we ripped out the old single poles, repaired the walls, painted, and put closet systems in.  There's actually a fair bit of storage for a small apartment and this should make it even more usable

Second walk-in.  Hopefully no one will complain about storage space!
So that's it!  The final tally for 2019 is one house sale, one house purchase, one move, and one condo purchase/reno/rental.  That's a lot more excitement/stress/progress than we would have expected a year ago! 

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Here we go again

And...we're back at it with another renovation project!  After looking at what seemed like every house for sale - with our wonderful realtor, Heidi Robbins of Buck Realty - we settled on a project that is new in more ways than one.  Unlike our prior projects, we're not intending to completely change the exterior look and feel of this one because we love the original style.  Also, it's already bigger than any of our other houses originally were so, hopefully, we have less to add to it.  And instead of aiming for a Craftsman-style look, we're thinking of a more modern design this time around.  All in all, there should be plenty of new challenges ahead!

Starting from the exterior - the house is a Federalist style, built in 1940 and designed by Louis R. Moss, a DC architect who also designed the Chevy Chase Arcade and Yates Gardens in Alexandria.  Some exterior shots:

Hi new house!

The house sits up on a big hill

With our trusty pickup truck in the driveway

And from the back (with more hills)
And another from the backyard

We found the original blueprints in the basement when we were cleaning things out - check them out!  We'll frame them and eventually hang them in the house.

There were a few changes to the house (most notably, the garage and room above are wider than shown) but the house today still looks much the way it was envisioned in 1940

Another blueprint of the exterior

And the back of the house

Moving to the interior, we forgot to take photos on moving day so instead of a big roundup now, we'll be posting before and after shots by room.  We're working with our architect and engineer to draw up plans but have also started deconstructing the house.  Now that we're on our third major project, we have the (over?)confidence to start demo before our plans for how to rebuild are finalized.  We both took a week off from work in July and spent the time gutting the basement and starting to demo the family room.  Among other things, we took out a half bathroom in the basement and a full bathroom on the first floor - so as Brian likes to say, we're in the stage where our house is currently worth less than we paid for it.  Which to me means, there's no turning back and the renovation is officially on!

From the basement:

The basement is/was partially finished, with a storage room and a game/family room off to the side (with the plaid carpet)

View from the other side - all these walls made for some tight spaces

Partially finished laundry room

Getting the demo tools out - time to get to work!

Oh hey, a whole room is gone!

Just taking stuff apart
Now that is a demo job!  Still need to get that carpet up but one big room is done

Much better
Then we moved up to the family room.  You'll be shocked to hear we aren't keeping the wood paneling:

This side of the room had two closets and a full bath

Same side, different direction of photo
Given the location, this was the easiest demo of anywhere in the house - we just built a little ramp to the dumpster and opened the window and tossed everything out.  Minimal carrying required!

Side view - since this was temporary, we used clamps to put the side rails on
Taking out the formerly full bath and small closet
We forgot to take an "after" shot with the other closet and that side of the room demo'd but here's a good before and after of the dumpster!

Getting going in the basement
Nearly done!  We packed this thing completely full by the time the week was over