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cottage renovation: replacing the sill beam is not sexy work

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Our upstate cottage renovation is moving along at a rapid clip! Before we can start talking about any of the fun stuff (house and door color, ceiling height, kitchen planning), I need to tell you about some of the down and dirty work that had to be done. Warning: It ain’t pretty — but I think our woes are a valuable cautionary tale for all future home buyers. The lesson being — beware what you can’t see!

As I wrote in this previous post, during the winter our pipes and radiators froze and burst. This lead us to having to replace those, along with most of the interior floor. This circumstance forced us to address some issues the house had that we had been avoiding for years: namely, poor drainage was causing the sill beam to rot. The house does not have a foundation, but rather cement footers and wooden sill or support beams. The house is built on a slope, which means the back of the house has been hitting dirt for years — or I should say decades! The previous owner had disclosed that she had found and repaired termite damage, but it was under the house in an area we couldn’t see or access. Cement stucco covered the houses exterior, so we couldn’t really tell how bad the sill damage was. But we knew it was there. Along the ground in back of the house, parts of the sill were exposed to the elements — and didn’t look good.

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So off comes the stucco to see what’s underneath, and the damage on the sill beam is even worse than we expected. In some places nothing remains of the old beam, in others what’s there crumbles in your hand like Styrofoam. it runs the entire length of the house and that damage is like a virus. In the worst spot, the back corner shown here, it infected the exterior wood panels above it and some of the floor it was attached to. It all had to come out.

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The weak support had been causing the whole house to sag. We had to lift it up 8 inches to where it was meant to be. Lifting up the floor meant that we had to remove anything that was attached to it on the interior — which meant we ended up tearing out the kitchen cabinets (which were buil-in after the floor had sagged). It was a crappy little kitchen, so we didn’t cry for it’s loss — but we did cry thinking about how much a new one would cost us!

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As you can see from these photos, our contractor placed the new beams on the existing pillars, which were still solid. In replacing the beam, our contractor (Eric Carlson) had to secure multiple boards together to create a strong support. It is made from pressure-treated wood that is more durable and less susceptible to future water and as tasty to termites down the road. In addition to all this house repair work, we also dug a deep French drain around the back of the house and filled it with stones. Now the water will drain around to the side yard, rather than hitting the house.


See the first post about our renovation here.

river cottage renovation begins!

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Seven and half years ago, when we were still living in New York City and before our little girl was even an idea in our minds, we bought a small cottage close to the Hudson River. During the house inspection, several issues were pointed out to us — poor drainage around the house which caused damage to the sill beam, old termite damage that had been haphazardly fixed, patchy concrete stucco that covered the house. “Everything’s fixable,” our inspector had told us. In love the little patch of land and the quaintness of the place, we naively plunged forward thinking, we’ll take care of that, one day. Then life happened, as it does, and the big plans for our little house took a back seat.

This winter, we were served a twist of fate that plunged us into action. You may recall that especially harsh blizzard back in February? Well our furnace took that opportunity to stop working. Four or five days passed before we discovered the malfunction, and during that time all of our six of our radiators burst (yes, burst!), pipes under the house had split and the hard wood floors got water logged. We wouldn’t be able to use the house again until all that was fixed.

Fortunately, we got a bit of insurance money to help us pay for this work. But immediately we started asking ourselves — should we be installing new floors and radiators when we know that what’s under the floor, the sill beam, needs to be repaired. We didn’t want to just fix the cosmetics — as the previous owner we bought it from did. We decided to wait until the weather warmed up so we tackle the drainage, stucco and sill beam as well. Once that work is done, then perhaps we could have some fun on the interior, and bring some of my country kitchen fantasies to life. (You can see some of them here on this Pinboard.)

We found an amazing local contractor to help us with our project and set a plan. First we’d remove the floors and the old radiators. Then we’d take down the stucco, add a french drain and repair the sill be beam. None of that is especially fun or sexy work, but it had to be done. Little did we know that we would be pulling the string on a sweater ready to unravel.

Coming up next: The surprise under the floor!

we did it: making a garden trellis from old knob-and-tube wiring

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marytrellis3There’s nothing I love more than gardening, but our narrow side yard was pretty challenging. Houses in our 1940s development are just a few feet apart, so while a six-foot fence gave us much needed privacy, I was stumped on how to put it to use without going broke buying trellises. Then I saw this video by Organic123 and knew that concrete reinforcing mesh (remesh) was the affordable answer! We picked up several 42”x84” panels at Home Depot for $7.20 apiece.

The next challenge was how to attach the remesh to the fence, since vines need a little space to grow up through the trellis. Fence posts work great as a natural spacer, but we were working with the flat side of the fence. But then my husband had a stroke of genius at one of our local architectural salvage places: use ceramic insulators that were once part of outdated knob-and-tube wiring. Not only did he find a whole bucket of them, the two-piece insulators were practically ready made, since they were originally designed to hold electrical wire. We used a sawzall to cut through the old bolts that held the two pieces together, used new screws to attach the insulators at even intervals to our fence, fit the remesh down between the two pieces, then tightened the screws into place.

The resulting trellis has a great, industrial chic look that the ceramic makes a little more finished. It immediately transformed the most neglected part of our yard into one of my favorite spots. And not only do we love it, but our scarlet runner beans, Virginia creeper and raspberry vines do, too.

Turns out remesh is great for all kinds of garden projects. Here are just a few: chicken coops and fences, a freestanding trellis using rebar, wire towers for tomato plants, and my favorite (maybe I’ll try this next), a charming trellis tunnel.

gnome eating garden monster: cute, but will it keep away the squirrels?

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One of the nice things about being a parent with kitschy tastes: You can blame your kids for anything overtly silly you display in your home. At least, that is the line we would use after putting rampaging Kaiju garden gnome in our front yard. Cast of polyresin, this fierce creature is having a feast with the unfortunate garden gnomes left in his path. We love the giggles he inspires, but will he help with our squirrel problem at all? If only he really roared. $25 at thinkgeek.com.

More Shelterrific gnome goodies can be found here.

a home owner’s tough decision: taking down an old oak tree

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In the four year’s since we’ve been living in the suburbs of New Jersey, we’ve seen the damage falling trees can do. During Super Storm Sandy, one neighbor’s house was whalloped by two trees, one on each side. Neither of them were theirs, but that didn’t make the holes they created any less big. We’ve seen mere limbs fall and smash cars, decks and playgrounds. Just the other afternoon, after a few rainy days in a row, we heard a crackling in the distance followed by a thud. Turns out a tree fell in a backyard a few houses down, hitting a playground that was occupied by children less than a half an hour earlier.

All this destruction has had made us look at the large oak tree in the corner of our front yard in a whole new way. Actually, we learned after consulting several arborists, that it was two trees competing for the same place. One went straight up, the other leaned precariously towards the corner of our house — the corner of the house that happens to house our daughter’s room. But the tree was by no means dead. In fact, it was teaming with life. Acorns littered our yard, delighting the generations of squirrels that called it home. In the summer, it kept the front yard shaded, allowing for hours of sidewalk drawing with little fear of sunburn. The leaves would hang on tight until late October or even November, before falling like a blanket overnight. For the past four years, we have spent hundreds each summer pruning branches and attempting to strengthen the two trees by tying them together with metal chords. Every storm that came through town caused a smattering of limbs to tumble down. One large one was caught on a powerline above and had to be removed by truck. But so far, nothing terrible had happened.

As I mentioned, we called in several arborists. Each gave an extremely vague assessment of the trees and their life span potential. The space they were in is too small for their competing roots. If one fell down it would take the other one with it. But it could be fine. No one was willing to lay their reputation on the line and say not to worry. So… we worried.

Last summer, after the tree specialists said they couldn’t say that the tree was safe, we applied for a town permit to have it removed. They turned us down and I was secretly relieved. Someone else had made a decision for us! We can’t cut it down. This spring rolled around and my diligent husband reapplied for the permit, just to see what would happen. Perhaps the town is worried about the upcoming storm season, or the unusually wet spring we had — because to our surprise they approved the removal. I was hoping we could wait to the end of summer to decide what to do, but it turns out that the tree removal business is booming. Our preferred local vendor told us he was booked through July and August but had a window to do the job if we did it soon. Was he giving us a line? Perhaps, but we went for it. (Note – cutting down a large tree is expensive! Ours cost thousands of dollars and we went with the lowest quote.)

Last week, the tree came down. We set up a web cam so I could watch from my office in New York City. It took two days due to rain, which seemed like cruel torture. I came home one night and the tree was still there, but stripped down of all its mighty branches. The remaining trunks came down fast the next morning. I cried as I watched. We managed to save two stumps that I hope we can dry out and turn into side tables. I was hoping for more, but having the removal company’s price would have been much higher if we needed them to cut us firewood as well. They take the tree and resell its mulch and wood, and that factor is worked into the quote they give you.

The day after our tree was removed, a wild storm hit our area. As usual, I stood listening after each loud clap of lightening, wondering what damage it may have caused. I definitely enjoyed the relief of knowing that at least our house and our family was safe from immediate tree-falling damage.

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Now, in the place of our tree, we have a huge pile of mulch. We spread as much as we could around our yard, and neighbors have been coming by wheelbarrows to help themselves as well. A landscaper will come soon to smooth out the area, reseed it with grass, and give us ideas about what to plant next. I cannot wait to plant another tree! I know until we do there will be a hole in our yard, in more ways than one. What kind of tree will we plant? The jury’s out. If you have suggestions and recommendations, please send them my way.