“His clothes are dirty, but his hands are clean.” Sweat pays you more than the dollars saved. You spend hours of your own time and effort, but what you get back is a sense of actually being part of your home. Doing imbues meaning. In this episode, our protagonist takes us on a tour of his home’s innards, and of the challenges facing those who try to do renos themselves, or even with the help of subcontractors. For those of us who enjoy sitting back in comfort and vicariously having the sense of being a good person doing sincere and honest work, could there be a better read than this on a rainy Easter weekend? Here’s a real treat from Froogle Scott. -vreaa
Part 6: Renovation Nervosa
I don’t always walk the blocks of our Vancouver neighbourhood purely in the spirit of unscientific inquiry, as I do in February of 2010, when I count all the renovations and new houses. In our first years in the neighbourhood, as it starts to transform, I often feel not exactly envy, but anxiety that other people are getting on with things and we aren’t. When our second set of tenants moves out at the end of July 2006, the time has come to start doing something.
.…When we bought the house it was our intention to fix it up. A 1940s workers’ bungalow, stuccoed-over and given an amateurish renovation in the late 1970s, and 1980s, by the time we move in, everything is worn, tired, and like the vinyl peel-and-stick tiles on the kitchen floor, and the cheap, dark-stained kitchen cupboards and cabinets, not that inspiring even when new. The original wood windows were removed and replaced with those nasty, single-pane aluminum windows that were all the rage in the 1970s, when heating a house, because oil and gas were relatively cheap, just meant cranking up the thermostat. The wood windows were repurposed, cannibalized and installed above horizontal sheets of plywood as a way of boxing in a small back deck. The resulting structure, stuck on the back of the house and clearly visible from a side street, resembles a funky, second-storey, homemade greenhouse.
….The deck is painted white, chocolate brown, and ‘bleen’. My wife and her sisters, as girls in the 1970s, came up with the name ‘bleen’ to describe a particularly noxious colour that pervades East Vancouver at the time, and can still be found if you cruise back alleys in 2010. A kind of unnatural green that suggests turquoise without actually being turquoise — not unlike the colour of public swimming pools, or the Crest mint toothpaste of the era. Bleen is a portmanteau word — blue plus green — but somehow bleen evokes and connotes so much more. Spleen, bleach, blech (for those of you who used to read MAD Magazine), chlorine, clean, it sounds like something that if drunk would cause violent vomiting. Bleen is more a state of mind than a colour. It stands in for ‘crap’. I painted my deck/house/fence this crappy colour because I’m not rich, because life is crap, because I’ll never be able to afford anything other than third-rate crap, so I’m going to revel in my crapdom, and force you to swallow it as well as you walk down the street past my house. Perhaps bleen is like East Vancouver’s visual equivalent of fado, a type of Portuguese folk music, which a friend, who’s traveled quite a bit in Portugal, explains is a kind of Portuguese blues. I’m Portuguese, so this is my fate.
….Strangely, in a certain light, a number of Vancouver’s new glass condo towers look bleen.
….I’m a little uncertain now what my original goals were for the renovation. I have a somewhat queasy sense that they were probably a lot more modest, and definitely a lot less expensive, than what they ended up being. To begin with, I thought I was going to do large portions of the work myself (utter madness, I now realize). I’m reasonably good with my hands, and in my early 20s I worked on two house-building crews, so I understand framing and how houses are put together. I’ve done lots of painting, and some carpentry, and drywalling, and roofing, and a fair bit of demolition. So I was all set, right? What I didn’t have is much of a plan (translation: no plan). Without consulting with my wife, I rip out the skanky wall-to-wall carpeting in the rental suite the day the tenants move out, and reveal a rotten patch in the subfloor. This act is akin to pulling the thread.
….My wife’s goal is clearer. She grew up a dozen blocks away, near Trout Lake, in an early Vancouver Special built in the 1960s, painted entirely bleen. Riding the #7 bus up and down Nanaimo Street and imagining the house she might one day live in, she used to look down the small slope into our current neighbourhood and think that her future house could be anywhere but on those dreary and depressing blocks. Cast back by fate and the realities of the Vancouver real estate market to those very blocks, for my wife, the renovation is simply about getting rid of the bleen.
Pulling the thread
Shiplap — 1×8 boards — nailed to long 2×4 sleepers that lie flat on the concrete slab is what forms the subfloor in the rental suite. In the living room, it’s this subfloor that has rotted in a roughly circular patch about a foot across, allowing me to easily break away rotten bits of wood and place my hand flat against the cool concrete beneath. Everything is dry now, but obviously significant amounts of moisture have been trapped in this area at some point, allowing the rot to occur. A few feet inside the door to the suite is another soft spot beneath the vinyl tiles. I peel away the putty coloured vinyl baseboard in the living room and reveal black dots of mould. When we bought, the home inspector got some elevated moisture readings, and here’s the physical evidence that his readings were accurate. So now we have a decision to make. We can ignore the telltale signs of moisture intrusion — on balance, they aren’t that drastic — patch the subfloor where necessary, and get on with an overhaul of the suite. Or, based on the web research I do, we can address the moisture problem in a more fundamental way, probably by installing new drain tile around the perimeter of the house.
….Outside, I dig a hole a couple of feet deep and confirm that the house does have existing drain tile — old style, orangey-brown clay pipe laid in short sections, with small gaps between sections to allow ground water to seep in. By shining a flashlight into a gap I can see a silt buildup inside the pipe, the weakness of this old design. Over time the pipe clogs up, and ground water no longer flows down the pipe and away from the house. Instead, depending on how much natural drainage a lot may have — our lot is perfectly flat — the water sits in the soil surrounding the house and seeps into the foundation, because concrete is porous. When heavy rains saturate the soil, moisture migrates through the concrete foundation walls and the concrete floor slab. If a basement is unfinished, this moisture evaporates from the bare concrete interior surfaces. But if a subfloor, or carpet, or tiles, or drywall, or paneling have been installed over these surfaces, the moisture becomes trapped, providing ideal conditions for mould and rot. If you live in Nevada or Arizona, this process may not be an issue, but in Vancouver, a city built on the site of a cleared rainforest, it’s a significant concern. Modern drain tile minimizes the infiltration of the surrounding soil, and the risk of clogging, by using joined lengths of perforated PVC pipe, with the perforations — a series of round holes — oriented down, and the pipe laid in a gravel bed.
Clay drain tile, once manufactured nearby in Port Haney
….In 1987, the City of Vancouver changed its building code to prohibit the common past practice of connecting the downspouts from roof gutters to the drain tile system. The problem with this approach is that during a heavy downpour roof water can overwhelm the drain tile and reverse the normal flow, forcing water out the perforations and into the surrounding soil, making the saturation worse, and potentially causing moisture problems for neighbouring properties, or even flooding. Changes to the residential built environment can disrupt old patterns of drainage. Infill houses are often bigger than the houses they replace, with greater roof area to collect water. New houses may be closer together, maximizing their square footage by swelling up to fill the lot. And increasingly, broad walkways, patios, decks, large garages, and parking pads are covering a greater percentage of the typical residential lot, making more of the land impermeable. As the built environment becomes denser, rainwater has fewer options for soaking into the ground, and must be more actively managed. As one way of addressing this increasing need to manage drainage, new construction now requires a two-pipe system: drain tile for foundation drainage, and solid pipe for roof drainage, both pipes emptying into a sump, which then feeds the city’s storm sewer.
This is all stuff I learn from my research. Over the next three years, as the renovation costs mount, and my faith in some of the people we hire evaporates, my early mornings will increasingly be spent scouring the Internet for information and guidance. Research, often last minute and panicky, aimed at making the most appropriate choice among an oppressive number of options, or aimed at spending money as wisely as possible, or in the case of bad hires, aimed at preventing the next rip-off or screw-up. Going into the renovation, I may have known a lot more about construction than the average person, but as I find out, there is a hell of a lot I don’t know, and trying to backfill that knowledge on the fly is at times acutely stressful.
I tell my wife that installing a new suite over a damp basement slab and foundation walls makes no sense. Mould will breed. Expensive new finishings will progressively rot. She agrees and we get quotes from drainage contractors. One guy smells of stale booze, and doesn’t get back to us for three weeks. Another offers to make the GST magically disappear — probably along with his company if there are any problems with the installation down the road. The contractor we end up hiring is at first reluctant even to price the job. He says that giving quotes in East Van is usually a waste of his time because people on the East Side don’t want to pay his prices. And they don’t want to pay for a permit. He won’t do any work without a permit. I assure him that we want everything done properly. Interestingly, his price isn’t that much higher than the no-GST boy — although neither quote is cheap. We opt for a two-pipe system, even though the building code exempts replacement drain tile systems from the two-pipe requirement. Once the trenches are dug, putting in a second pipe doesn’t cost that much more.
….The drainage crew comes in with a jackhammer, diamond saw, and wheelbarrows and removes the old concrete walkways around the house in preparation for digging. The next day the contractor brings in his mini excavator, which can just squeeze down the four-foot side yard between the house and the fence, and digs the necessary trenches around the house, digging out the old drain tile in the process. He also digs a deep trench through the front yard toward the sidewalk to uncover the sewer pipe and tells us they’ll replace the original cast iron pipe with a new ABS one “so we don’t have to come back in a year and dig up your yard again.” The contractor has already surmised that the cast iron toilet drains and main DWV stack (drain-waste-vent stack) inside the house will be on the renovation hit list, and eventually having new pipe all the way from the roof to the street is preferable to connecting new to old.
….We arrive home from work to find our house surrounded by trenches, berms, and piles of earth. Our lot looks like a World War One battlefield, although the onslaught feels more like a World War Two Blitzkrieg. The crew has forewarned us, and we’ve relocated most of the shrubs and plants from the front of the house to the back yard. The place is a mess, but it’s all over in about a week: gravel beds, pipes, sump installed, trenches backfilled and tamped. We’re left with a mangled front lawn, denuded topsoil, and no walkways, but a well-drained property.
Hiring contractors is proving difficult. Finding a drainage contractor wasn’t easy, and none of the concrete outfits we phone is interested in installing new walkways. One guy tells me that if I can build the forms myself he’ll place and finish the concrete, but otherwise forget it, he just can’t justify taking the time away from his bigger jobs. Olympic and associated infrastructure projects, concrete condo towers, and high levels of new housing starts are putting big demands on the local concrete industry. We eventually find an old-time Italian contractor who rolls up in his dilapidated pickup and tells us he can do the job.
(Concrete walkways: $2,000)
….The contractor who does our drainage job goes from feeling East Van is a waste of time to telling me that our job led directly to three others in the vicinity — people living in the neighbourhood who saw our project ongoing and approached him, begged him in a couple of cases, to look at the drainage situation with their properties. Whether it’s the changing demographics of the neighbourhood, or boom-related desperation, apparently getting his price on the East Side is now less of an issue.
….We’re well satisfied with the first step in the reno, although writing the cheque is a bit painful. When record rainfalls deluge Vancouver two months later in November, and a violent windstorm fells thousands of huge trees in Stanley Park a month after that, we feel we’ve dodged a bullet. A woman I work with tries desperately to hire someone to redo her property’s drainage so she can sell the house in the aftermath of a marital breakdown. I give her the name of the contractor who did our job, but like everyone else she phones, he takes days to call back. When he does finally return her repeated calls it’s only to confirm he’s insanely busy and can’t possibly do her job.
Lead and asbestos
My reading and research is causing me increasing worry about lead and asbestos. Most renovation web sites and books warn do-it-yourselfers against merrily ripping into walls and ceilings and old woodwork with demolition tools, especially in older houses. The danger is that you disturb old building materials and contaminate your home with lead dust from old paint, or worse, asbestos from any number of old building materials.
….Until the 1960s, it was common for paint to contain large amounts of lead, and it wasn’t until 1976 that the Canadian federal government limited the amount of lead allowed in interior paint to 0.5% by weight.
….Asbestos was originally thought of as a wonder material because of its heat- and sound-resistive properties, and structural strength. Until the early 1980s, it was used in thousands of building materials including floor tiles and tile adhesive, pipe insulation and duct tape, house siding, roofing felt and shingles, acoustical ceiling tiles, ceiling texture, and drywall mud. Perhaps most notoriously, until the mid to late 1980s asbestos-containing vermiculite pellets under the brand name Zonolite were used for attic insulation. The vermiculite came from Libby, Montana, but was processed in plants all over North America, including one right here in Vancouver on Industrial Avenue. Reading down a very long list of building materials that once contained asbestos, I conclude that with the right combination of timing and bad luck, one’s whole house could be made of asbestos.
….I contact a company that does hazardous materials testing and in January of 2007 a technician takes a variety of samples from all over the house — the white, plaster-like duct tape sealing the joints between sections of heating duct, drywall mud from the walls in the rental suite, floor tiles, ceiling texture, exterior stucco, and three colours of old paint, including the glossy, chocolate brown interior doors upstairs, and the linen closet shelves, which are bleen. The results aren’t terrible. Only the duct tape and the drywall mud contain asbestos. The duct tape is 60 to 80% asbestos, but that isn’t a surprise. More of a problem is the drywall mud, which contains up to 10% asbestos, because it’s spread throughout the entire suite. Undisturbed behind paint, it’s not an issue. But we want to tear out the walls. As for the old paint, the brown has a 3.49% lead content, and the bleen 8.26% — crappy and toxic — however both are upstairs and not part of the first phase of the renovation.
….The situation with the drywall mud puts an end to my weekend warrior aspirations regarding demolition of the old suite. A disappointment, but, safety first. We start looking for an asbestos abatement company that can do the demolition using the approved procedures.
(Hazmat testing: $1,100)
Learning the hard way
2007 is the year I go from thinking we can manage the renovation ourselves, and do a significant amount of the work ourselves, to accepting that we need help. My wife recognizes this reality much sooner than I do. However, I’ve never met a brick wall that I didn’t enjoy bashing my head against.
….In March, I arrange for what City Hall calls “a special inspection”. We want to make the unauthorized suite legal, and according to the city’s Secondary Suite Program the first step is to invite in a phalanx of inspectors — building, electrical, and plumbing — for a look. They itemize all the things that are required to make the suite legal, and the results are packaged up in a letter sent to the homeowner by the city.
(Special inspection: $132)
….When we get our letter it lists 41 code violations, 30 of which are electrical. The entire suite is on perhaps two electrical circuits, which may have been adequate for an unfinished basement in the 1940s in which no one lived, but is woefully inadequate for a self-contained, two-bedroom living unit with multiple appliances. When the tenants are still with us, the electrical outlet they use for a space heater in winter, and the outlet my wife uses upstairs for a blow dryer, are on the same circuit, as are half our lights upstairs — but no lights downstairs. Not surprisingly, this circuit frequently trips, knocking out our lights, and a couple of clocks that will once again flash 12:00 and have to be reset. Because there are no longer internal stairs connecting the two levels of the house, I have the peculiar joy, about once a week, of stepping out into the dark and the freezing early morning cold in my housecoat and rubber boots, feeling my way down the frosty and slippery back stairs, and fumbling in the dark with the key to the outer door of the lower level, so I can stare groggily at the unlabeled breakers on the electrical panel, trying to figure out which one has tripped — because they don’t give much of a clue from their appearance. Nothing other than the heater is affected downstairs, so the tenants have no inkling of this oft-repeated little ritual. I vow once again to label all the breakers, and once again, when the weekend rolls around with various other house-related tasks, I forget. I climb the back stairs cursing the Portuguese brothers who put in the suite, wondering if fado is also extending its tentacles around me, my affection for the East Van do-it-yourself ethos wearing progressively thinner.
No going back
According to our special inspection letter, even if we change our minds about legalizing the suite, or about even having a suite, most of the items in violation must still be rectified because “they do not comply with the minimum safety standards prescribed under the applicable By-laws and Regulations.” So there’s no going back. The City now has us on their books.
….I’m not one of those people who automatically adopt an adversarial or crafty stance toward city inspectors. Building codes have developed over a period of many years based on often-unfortunate community experience. I want to make use of the inspectors’ knowledge. That said, when I look at the long list of requirements in the letter, and contemplate the dollar cost associated with each one, I understand why many homeowners with rental suites want to remain off the books. According to a City of Vancouver report, of an estimated 25,000 secondary suites in the city, only 20% are legal. It’s about money. If the homeowners were to spend the often thousands of dollars required to legalize their suites, they’d lose a significant portion of their mortgage-helping potential. We’re going legal because it makes sense as part of a more general, large-scale renovation — although this may be revisionist thinking on my part. Building a new basement suite would include rewiring it to modern standards, which would wipe out all 30 electrical code violations in the process. We’re also going legal because I am who I am (more on this later).
….One of the city’s requirements is that we deal with the ceiling height issue. We need to provide a minimum headroom of 6’6” over 80% of the suite area and all exit routes. Like many houses of its era, our house has floor joists that run from the outer walls to a central beam supported by posts. In the basement, the underside of this beam is only 6’2” from the floor. Even though I don’t actually need to, I automatically duck my head whenever I walk under the beam. I have quite a bit of back and forth with the building inspector about this beam. The nightmare scenario sketched out by the inspector is that a tall tenant is woken up by fire in the middle of the night, attempts to run out of the suite but smacks into the beam and is knocked out, and dies in a fire that would otherwise be survivable. Promising that we’ll only rent our suite to short people doesn’t get us very far. The solution is to create a section of “flush beam” by cutting the beam where it crosses an exit point, by cutting back the joist ends in the same area, by moving the beam up into the joist space, and by attaching the joists to the side of the beam with U-shaped steel connectors called joist hangers. The inspector suggests we may want to consult a structural engineer.
Central beam in gutted suite causing low headroom in front of doorway
The men in white suits
In April, the men in white suits arrive — not for me, although I suspect my wife is already starting to question the sanity of our undertaking. The white suits are the hooded disposable coveralls the crew from the environmental contracting company wear, along with full-face respirators. The crew seal up the entire ground floor, and install a large fan to create negative pressure by blowing air from the suite out an open window. The open window is fitted with a large sausage made of poly to catch dust and air-borne particles, with a small hole on top to allow relatively clean air to escape. We rent space heaters for upstairs because we can’t use the furnace during the demolition.
(Space heater rental: $145)
….The crew spends a week gutting the suite — the kitchen cabinets and sink, the bathroom fixtures and full-length, funhouse mirrors, the bars on the windows, the garish, crime-scene carpet in the bedrooms, the junky woodwork, the wall and ceiling drywall, the fiberglass batt insulation in the outer walls, much of it black with mould at the bottom where moisture has collected, and all the heating ducts. This final item prompts some discussion. Once the ducts are gone we won’t have any heat. Although the joints are wrapped in asbestos-laden duct tape, the tape is fairly inert and doesn’t pose a huge hazard if not damaged or disturbed. The ducts could be removed at a later date without much risk. We’ve already selected a heating contractor to replace the 50-year-old furnace, a new duct system is part of the work, and the weather’s quite mild — summer is on the way — so I give the go-ahead to remove the ducts.
….Once the gutting is complete and the suite is down to bare studs, the crew vacuums every crevice with an industrial-quality HEPA vacuum. A few items remain: the laundry facilities, the disconnected furnace, the hot water tank, the tenant fridge, and the subfloor and interior stud walls, which I plan to take apart myself so I can stockpile and reuse the wood. The demolition also reveals a nasty surprise. Where the concrete front stairs join the house, the exterior wall sheathing is heavily rotted. I can shine a flashlight right through gaps in the rotten wall to the space under the stairs. The space is full of black, rotted wood falling to the damp earth floor — the entombed formwork from when the concrete stairs were poured — and dozens of white spider egg sacs.
….With the back and forth of the demolition over, we get the front yard, still a mess from the drainage work, leveled and reconditioned with new topsoil, and re-sodded.
Rotted exterior wall sheathing where house meets space under concrete front stairs
“TK” is Tony Kwan, who becomes the structural engineer of record for our project. When he arrives at the house for the first meeting, I’m in the suite and he sees me through the curtainless living room window. He’s accompanied by a young woman. I watch as he marches up the walkway, around the side of the house, and in the door at the rear. He gives a nod and a grunt and starts looking around. No handshake or introduction. He spends about a minute strutting back and forth like a little Napoleon, staring up into the joists, looking at the support beam and posts, occasionally saying Mmnnn. I’m uncertain what role the young woman is performing. My wife comes down from upstairs and I introduce her to TK. I explain to TK the issue with the central support beam and the headroom and he tells me we should replace the posts and beam with a weight-bearing wall, with a flush beam over exit points. The weight-bearing wall will require a concrete footing be poured the entire length of the house, which will necessitate removing a three-foot-wide strip of the concrete basement slab and digging a trench down to the hardpan — the solid material a couple of feet below the surface soil. I mention that I have my doubts about the condition of the subfloor, and the quality of the old basement slab. With a dismissive wave of his arm TK says, “Take it all out.”
….“Take out the entire slab?” I ask.
….“That’s what I say. These old slabs are no good. If this is my house, I would take it all out.”
….TK tells us that if we want him to do the job we need to give him a $500 deposit. My wife reports later that when I go upstairs to write the cheque, TK immediately switches from directives about the house to questions of a personal nature. “Do we have any children?” “No.” “Why not? You should have a family.” We assume that because my wife is Chinese-Canadian, TK feels at liberty to make pronouncements about such matters. He quickly figures out that my wife doesn’t speak Chinese, at which point he and his assistant wander a few feet away and begin a hushed conversation in Chinese, interspersed with giggles, as they look around the gutted basement.
….TK is not our first choice. A friend of ours is a builder, who at the time is working on a million-dollar renovation in West Vancouver. He gives us the name of the structural engineer on that project, someone he highly recommends. I phone this engineer and explain the connection. He’s apologetic when telling me that he’s currently working seven days a week, as are most structural engineers in Vancouver at the moment, and he simply can’t take on any more work. He gives me the name of a former classmate who he’d recommend. I phone the classmate. Same story — way too busy to consider more work. I ask the classmate if he has a recommendation. He pauses for a moment, and then suggests I could try TK. Thinking back, there may be some hesitancy there that I miss because I’m feeling pressure — trying to manage the renovation from my work place, yet again running into brick walls trying to find and hire people during a frenzied real estate and construction boom, the clock ticking on a house with no heat.
….After one or two more disagreeable interactions with TK, my wife and I, by unspoken agreement, begin referring to him solely by his initials.
(Structural engineering deposit: $500)
Do-it-yourselfers hit a wall
Over the spring and summer my fantasy of managing the renovation and doing a significant amount of the work ourselves persists. TK delivers the engineering drawings, which aren’t much more than the new suite layout I gave him, with some added technical specs for the weight-bearing wall and the footing, and his Professional Engineer seal. I’d asked for seismic upgrading information, because with everything open on the lower level of the house we have the opportunity to improve the earthquake resistance of the structure. One thing we discover once the drywall and insulation are gone is that there are no anchor bolts connecting the house frame to the foundation walls. The only thing holding the house on the foundation is gravity. Even a moderate earthquake could cause the house to vibrate off the foundation. The drawings do include some seismic information, but based on my close reading in the interim of Residential Guide to Earthquake Resistance, the information seems inadequate. However, time’s passing and the drawings are what I need to get the required development and building permits from the city — which I do get in June, but not before being initially rebuffed.
(Structural engineering drawings: $1,600)
….Our proposed new layout includes moving and altering the size of two windows on one side of the house. A stern gatekeeper at City Hall’s Development Services informs me that this alteration is prohibited in houses with side yards of four feet or less, because windows provide a pathway for fire to spread to adjacent houses, so there’s no point even submitting the plans. Existing windows are grandfathered — even massive windows in front of sawdust-burning furnaces, I speculate — but altering a window constitutes a new window governed by the current building code. The only way we’d be allowed to make the alteration we’re proposing is if we also install sprinklers throughout the house, a retrofit that typically costs about $25,000, the gatekeeper tells me.
….We’re forced to junk the beautiful layout we sweated over, and do a quick revision that involves some design compromises we aren’t overly happy with.
(Development and building permits: $922)
….Drawings and permits in place, I persevere over the summer months with what now feels like an official plan — or at least more of a plan than initially existed. I disassemble all the interior stud walls and neatly stack the lumber, orangey-brown Douglas fir, some of it free of knots. I remove the pink bathtub. I take apart the raised bathroom floor, constructed of 2x8s, and yank out the flexible bathtub drain pipe that snakes in the space beneath. I put on a half-mask respirator, goggles, and gloves, check my intestinal fortitude, and spend a day cleaning out all the rotten wood and spider eggs from the space beneath the stairs.
….Next is the subfloor. I use a flat shovel to pry up the sheets of 1/4-inch plywood the floor tiles are attached to, before going to work on the shiplap and 2×4 sleepers beneath. The pace really slows down here. The sleepers are spaced about a foot apart, and at every point where the shiplap crosses a sleeper it’s attached with two nails. Hundreds of connection points across the entire subfloor. The shiplap is springy when I try to lever it up between sleepers, and it tends to splinter at the first nail when I shove the pry bar directly into the connection point between shiplap and sleeper. I eventually give up on this method and begin using a circular saw to buzz through the shiplap at the mid point between two sleepers, walking the saw from one end of the house to the other. I can then stomp the short sections of shiplap, or come down on them with a long, straight wrecking bar, and they seesaw up on the underlying sleeper and pop loose. At this point, at my wife’s urging, I bring in a friend to help — the one who told me about fado. Together, we make short work of the subfloor, pile the cut-up shiplap on the patio outside, toss the long 2×4 sleepers to one side of the basement floor, and then relax with beers in the sunshine, feeling pretty good about ourselves. But it’s August 12th. Isn’t there some fable about the ant and the grasshopper and oncoming winter?
….I turn my attention to the now-exposed concrete slab. There’s also a brick chimney to consider, in the center of the house, running from the slab to the roof. After weeks of persistent phone calls, we’ve just signed a contract with a concrete contractor to do the central footing work, and perhaps install a new slab depending on what we decide, and paid a deposit, but we’re on a waiting list. The contractor isn’t that interested in doing the concrete demolition and excavation for the footing. He’d rather use his crew on the more skilled work of building forms, and placing and finishing concrete. I decide to tackle the demolition and excavation myself. I begin by installing two rows of jack posts to take the load off the central beam. Excavating the trench for the footing will require digging around the base of the posts supporting the beam, and likely destabilizing them. The beam and posts will be coming out, but I’m not prepared to handle that job myself. I order a large roll-off container, which a truck drops in front of the house, and rent a Hilti demolition hammer, a big fan, and an extra wheelbarrow. This time I need less urging from my wife to call upon my friend, and I’m also paying him because the work will be heavy and take a significant amount of time.
(Concrete deposit: $2,850)
(Roll-off container: $990)
(Tool rental: $180)
….Along the way, I’ve been taking samples of newly uncovered materials to the hazardous materials lab, and nothing in these new samples is of concern, although concrete demolition does produce silica dust, which is hazardous to the lungs if you don’t wear a respirator. But finally here’s something I can bash the hell out of without turning the house into a toxic waste dump. I make a couple of test passes with a sledgehammer and the concrete breaks easily enough — it’s only 2-1/2 inches thick, poured directly on top of brown soil — but it breaks into small chunks and shrapnel rather than nice pieces you can just lift into a wheelbarrow.
(Additional hazmat testing: $297)
….My friend arrives on a Saturday morning early in September and we put on our protective gear and go to work. The plan is to break the concrete in a three-foot-wide strip the length of the slab, wheelbarrow the debris to the container, and then excavate as much of the brown soil as required to get to the hard ground. I’ve dug a test hole, and the hardpan is about two feet down.
….We work all weekend. Breaking the concrete is very slow going. The problem is that the pointed chisel on the demolition hammer tends to poke through the concrete rather than break it along a line. We soon figure out that we have to work an edge, and break away the concrete a little at a time. I now realize we probably had the wrong shape of chisel. Rather than a point, a flat, wide shape would probably have been more effective. Oh well — next time. If there ever is a next time. By the end of the day we’re wiped, but we have the concrete broken.
My friend with the demolition hammer
….Sunday is just grunt labour. First loading heavy shovelfuls of concrete debris into the wheelbarrows and walking it out to the container, and then digging, digging, digging. Load after load of the damp brown soil. Finally we start seeing the yellowy-grey hardpan. We leave a safe amount of soil beneath the post footings, and the larger concrete pad supporting the chimney. We don’t get the entire trench excavated by the end of the weekend, but we’re about 85% done. Near the end of the day, my friend makes a worrisome discovery at one end of the trench where it meets the concrete foundation wall. The foundation wall extends only 18 inches below the surface of the soil, it stops 6 inches short of the hardpan, and it has no footing — a horizontal portion of concrete — beneath it. Just an 8-inch-wide concrete wall that ends. From a structural standpoint, this is not good news.
….As we’re packing up for the day my friend says, “You’ve got yourself a big project here.” We both laugh, sort of. He’s already suggested hiring the handyman he and his partner have used for several jobs. And during a break in our work he tells me about a recent basement slab demolition he heard about in the neighbourhood. Apparently the owner hired a contractor who used a remote-controlled micro excavator to do the work — a demolition robot. The entire slab was out in a few hours.
….I’m starting to feel I need serious help — interpret that as you see fit.
Concrete broken for central trench
Drainage problems, electrical problems, plumbing problems — the upstairs shower slows to a trickle if the washing machine is running — ceiling height and other building code requirements, asbestos and lead issues, foundation issues, rot, mould, seismic concerns, competing with all the other equity-swollen homeowners during a boom for contractors and construction industry professionals — these are the tarpits we aren’t aware of as first-time buyers taking an anxious 10-minute twirl around a 60-year-old house during a real estate boom, one of the few places we can afford in our target area that doesn’t look like total crap. Typically, these problems affect the things hidden from view, the various systems we rely upon to make a house function as a house, systems that are only vaguely understood, or not understood at all, by the average person. These are the unsexy but expensive things far removed from dreamy notions of granite countertops, stainless steel appliances, hardwood floors, and tasteful colour schemes that coordinate walls, window coverings, and upholstery. They’re the guts of a house, the organs, rather than the skin. And when they go wrong, the whole organism can go wrong. Most first time buyers really don’t understand the implications of those fateful words, uttered so blithely: we can fix it up.
Episode 6 total: $32,572. Includes a number of smaller, miscellaneous expenses not listed individually in the episode – mostly tools, small amounts of materials, and safety supplies.
Part 7: “Renovation Nervosa Continued”
Animal show. Hellhole. No heat. Nightmare contractor. Bleeding money. And so on.
From 2004 onward, all mortgage and LOC balances are as of 31 December of the year in question.
Asking Price: $355,000
Sale Price: $355,000
Down payment: $88,750 (25%, ergo, no CMHC insurance, representing thousands of dollars of additional cost)
Mortgage (at purchase, Sep 2003): $266,250
Terms: 3 year fixed at 4.00%, 18 year amortization, bi-weekly payments
2003 Property Assessment (estimate of market value on July 1, 2002): $260,600
2004 Property Assessment (estimate of market value on July 1, 2003): $330,500
Equity based on assessment: $64,250
Mortgage principal: $247,330
Terms: 3 year fixed at 4.00%, 18 year amortization, bi-weekly payments
2005 Property Assessment (estimate of market value on July 1, 2004): $420,000
Equity based on assessment: $172,670
Mortgage principal: $201,829
Terms: 3 year fixed at 4.00%, 18 year amortization, bi-weekly payments
2006 Property Assessment (estimate of market value on July 1, 2005): $461,000
Equity based on assessment: $259,171
Mortgage principal: $191,884
Terms: 5 year variable at Prime minus .75%, 25 year amortization, bi-weekly payments
HELOC balance: $4,291
HELOC interest rate: variable, at Prime.
2007 Property Assessment (estimate of market value on July 1, 2006): $570,000
Equity based on assessment: $373,825
Mortgage principal: $183,063
Terms: 5 year variable at Prime minus .75%, 25 year amortization, bi-weekly payments
HELOC balance: $49,410
HELOC interest rate: variable, at Prime.
2008 Property Assessment (estimate of market value on July 1, 2007): $639,000
Equity based on assessment: $406,527