Archives for category: Remodeling

Faux Foe

A.V. Walters

So kitch, they're okay

So kitch, they’re okay

We all have our pet peeves. My brother, for example, cannot endure the sounds of others eating. He has to play music. It just drives him crazy. My sister can’t stand the low hum of a truck idling. She once got up in the middle of the night, walked down the block and confronted a young man working on his truck. (Really, it was late…) When he laughed at her, she sealed his fate. After all, she owns the local general store, and she would no longer let him do business there. (Too bad for him. And, a smoker, too.)

My quirk is not so volatile. I’m annoyed by faux anachronism. It started young. As a kid, I would become peeved at the sight of a Landau top on a car. You may remember them, synthetic leather (don’t get me started), roof bonnets, designed to look like a convertible. Why on earth would one put a perishable surface on the enameled, steel roof of a car?! I gathered that the object was to imitate the upper class Sunday touring buggy of years gone by. (And in so doing, to create a vehicle that would age poorly and look trashy. Go figure.)

That was just the start. I’m a history buff. I like antiques and old architecture. I love the feel of old machines and their workings. I still sew with a 1906 era, treadle sewing machine. I don’t mind eclectic, as long as it’s authentic. I don’t mind reproduction, so long as it’s true to the original and as well made. And, I like things to be period appropriate. I remember that when old style stoves were popular one high-end manufacturer made a heavy reproduction nostalgia model—but it sported modern electric burner coils. For this, appearance over form or function, consumers could fork over thousands of dollars.

I could only have been nine or ten when a family in our neighborhood “updated” their 50s tract home with, of all things, plantation-style columns. I marched right to my mother to demand that she stop them. It just looked sooooo dumb! How could they! Just the sight of this tacked-on grandiosity embarrassed me. She laughed. Not that she disagreed with my aesthetic perspective but she was surprised, even alarmed, by my vehemence. It only got worse. As their remodel continued, they added fake shutters to their windows! (And, the shutters were mis-sized; were they to actually close them, they wouldn’t even meet in the middle—much less, protect the windows. Augh!)

The list of things that would trigger my peevishness grew—vinyl siding, faux brick or rock embellishments, wagon wheel yard art, lawn jockeys, you name it. (Oddly, I exempt plastic, pink, flamingoes, because they’re so off the chart as to be funny.)

We’re starting the building process and it’s bringing out the snob in me. Gladly, Rick and I are mostly on the same page. It’s about windows. Modern technology has given us beautiful windows, inviting light and air into our homes, without sacrificing energy efficiency. Historically, window glass was a major expense, and small panes made window glass transportable without too much breakage. And, they didn’t have the technology to produce large panes of quality glass. So our visual history of homes includes many-paned windows. Even though they interfere with the view, and the old single panes guaranteed a winter chill, the look does have a cottage feel. Even I admit that. But, believe me, the solution is not fake dividers. You can actually pay extra for grids to ruin your view! It irks me, just to see grids in windows. Rick just shakes his head. He is, after all, married to an aesthetic nut. Good thing he doesn’t like things artificial.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Progress

A.V. Walters

Things are looking up.

Things are looking up.

We’ve been fighting the weather. As you might imagine, we are not big agents of change in that fight. Mostly, the weather is winning. This is not about climate change (though today’s the big march and I wish you all well.) This is about construction.

We have made some great strides in our building—but there hasn’t been any “honeymoon” phase in which we’ve had the opportunity to revel in the progress. No sooner had the last lag been set in the first floor log walls, than the clouds rolled in for days of heavy rain. It’s not like the rain can really damage the cedar logs—but it can wreak havoc on the plywood subfloors, which, so far, are still open to the sky. (Not to mention that it will all drain into the basement, anyway.) So, as soon as the stacking crew packed up, we pulled out the tarps and heavy duty plastic to try to contain the damage. The good news is that we knew this could happen—so we used a deck sealer on the subfloor—which has helped to minimize the absorption.

That first night was crazy—there we were, trying to secure huge tarps in high winds, in the middle of the night. We had some lighting—you couldn’t even hear the generator over the howl of the wind. Finally we worked out a rhythm to the mechanics of it all. By 1:00 am, we’d lashed it down as much as possible, just in time for the rain to hit. Most critically, we’re trying to cover and keep the floor as dry as possible. Each day we (mostly Rick) run out in the dry spells, pull the tarps, sweep out the water (or pump the basement) and then we re-secure it all before the next wave. Last night a squall hit while we were re-tarping. We just climbed under it and waited for it to abate. When inside, Rick is glued to the weather service site—and the radar projections. We no longer have any dry shoes.

Wait, wait, there’s good news! Tomorrow it should clear and give us at least four days in which to get ourselves more battened down. There could be more, but the weather service doesn’t extend its local prognostications to specifics out of that 5 day window. (Though I’ve already seen internet projection for heavier than normal snowfall for 2014/15 season! Sheesh!) We just need to hang in there until we get the roof on—then we can finish from the relative comfort of a weather tight envelope. And having the first floor done is a step in the right direction.

Rick is a builder from California. They don’t build in foul weather in California. I once knew a fence builder in Oakland who’d pack up his truck if the wind picked up on a cloudy day! Here in Michigan, they’re not much for building in driving rain—but you’ll hear them extol the virtues of building in snow! Probably most Michigan builders would laugh at our tarping efforts; what’s a little wet? (Snow is much better for the materials—as long as your equipment will work, why not? One of our stackers was advising Rick that if, in the dead of winter, the oil in your equipment gets too cold, too viscous, you can use transmission fluid instead. I don’t think that he was kidding, but I also I don’t think Rick was contemplating building in sub-zero conditions.)

Yes, we’ve run late in the season—but it’s not yet color (though some trees are turning, harbingers of what’s to come.) There’s still plenty of time to get things “buttoned down” before snow flies. I told my sister if she uses that expression, (buttoned down) one more time, I would button her down. Most of my family is urging us to hire builders. What is it they think we’re doing? Soon we’ll even have power, propane, and even water somewhere on the horizon. (The well-drillers didn’t want to hear from us until all the heavy equipment was finished.)

But then we had to give it a raincoat.

But then we had to give it a raincoat.

In the meantime, we’re meeting lovely people (the stacking crew—the Flanagan brothers were a total hoot.) We’ve even found a couple of reputable suppliers—rare in this industry. We’re moving right along.

Ripples…

A.V. Walters–

ripples

Sometimes there are crystalized moments in your life, moments that are loaded in a way that forms who you will be, or that define a new direction that your life will take. I’m fascinated at how a chance event can snowball to construct an entirely different version of you, than the expected path might have yielded. You may not even know it at the time but, upon reflection, you can see how the impact of that moment left its fingerprint on you, and maybe on others around you.

We all have answered those “pivotal” questions, “Where were you when…” But they reflect a wider sensibility—that of a community or a nation. And I don’t doubt that those incidents that form the arc of history have an impact overall. What I’m talking about here, though, are the more personal moments—the AHA! events that took who you were, an instant before, and then mapped a new direction for who you became as a result.

 

From time to time, in this blog I’m going to address those ripples—in my life, and in the lives of those I know. I invite you to ponder your own circuitous paths, and how the “you” of today emerged. Feel free to share.

 

The Magnificent Radovini Brothers

stick built

We were stair-step kids, arriving with catholic regularity, one, nearly every year. Before long, our standard issue, three-bedroom tract home was too small, owing to our lopsided gender distribution. When the time came that my brother, the only boy, really needed a room of his own, we four girls were too much for the other bedroom.

My parents own interests were running out of space, too. My father’s woodworking and my mother’s new involvement, in the world of clay, were spilling out of the utility room and into the kitchen. So, my parents took the plunge. Together they sketched out a plan to expand our home to make enough room for our wild tribe, and enough for all the different things we did. An architect made their dreams into plans and the bank gave the go ahead. My parents found builders, the highly recommended Radovini Brothers. These young men accepted the job, but warned that, in the middle of it, they’d be taking off for two weeks for a long planned family reunion. As long as the project was enclosed before they left, and then finished before the end of the summer, my parents didn’t mind. How could they? They understood family.

It was high theater for us. It was summer and we were off school so we could watch. They were doubling the size of our house, there was digging, with its piles of dirt and concrete, and finally, The Radovinis arrived. We loved them. They were five brothers with mops of dark hair and sun-bronzed skin. They worked shirtless. The neighbor women came to watch. The Radovinis worked and laughed and sang—sometimes opera, sometimes Italian folk tunes. The brothers harmonized, in their songs and in the rhythms of their work. They brought enormous lunches, which they unpacked from coolers with great ceremony. Food was important. They ate with great gusto, the jokes and ribbing continuing between bites.

It was like being visited by the circus. They were as charmed by us as we were by them, a string of blond towheads, following their every move like puppies, soaking in the aroma of pine boards, and watching the building take shape.

Our house grew by the day—faster even than we’d been told to expect. These men loved their work, and loved showing off their skills. Our jaws hung slack as we watched the drawings from the plans take shape in the air. It was a two-story addition and they were fearless—walking out on the thinnest of planks, twenty feet in the air, tossing up tools to the outstretched and ready hands of trapeze-artist framers. We tipped our heads back and shielded our eyes from the summer sun with cupped hands, to watch. How lucky we were to have found such tradesmen! As the time for their scheduled vacation approached, they worked long hours, determined to frame and sheath the structure before their trip—as promised.

The oldest brother approached my father. Were we happy with the work? Of course! Sheepishly, he requested that my parents advance the full contract price. The brothers were traveling across Canada for their reunion and wanted a “safety reserve.” My parents, thrilled with their work, were happy to oblige. Hell, they’d have adopted them if they could.

In their absence, we clamored over the new addition like squirrels. We collected nails and pieces of scrap wood—which we hammered into odd towers. When parents weren’t watching, we walked on the skinny joists, high above what would be our new garage. It was all so exciting–we could hardly wait for their return.

My father broke the news at dinner one night. We knew that something was up. My mother’s face was puffed and red. There’d been an accident. The Radovinis, they were going over the mountains—with most of the family riding in a travel trailer. A passing car clipped their trailer and forced it, and its tethered truck, over the edge. Four of them had been killed, along with their wives and children. The surviving brother would never walk again. With him, all that remained of this vibrant family was the elderly grandmother and an infant child, who’d remained home. The singing and laughing, gone.

My parents never mentioned the money. And, from that day, we became builders. My dad rolled up his sleeves and learned. His weekends became building time. We were his cadre of conscripted workers, little fingers stuffing insulation around windows, holding the end of the measuring tape and carrying tools and supplies. He learned wiring and plumbing and tiling (Oh My!) So did we. He harnessed his intense fear of heights to finish the roof and upper walls. We learned to put our fears in context. Money was tight, but skills we could learn. We became a family that built what we needed. We never shied from what willing hands could perform. It took my parents, and us, ten years to finish, but it was done, and done well.

That continues to today—not a professional builder in the bunch, but my siblings, mostly girls, are not strangers to the working end of a hammer. The Radovinis came into our lives nearly five decades ago. Right now, I am poised at the largest project of my adult life—my husband and I are building a home. As I wrote this, the concrete truck arrived to pour the footings.

 

Pouring Footings

Pouring Footings

In my minds eye, I can see the Radovinis, perched, straddling the skeletal ribs of our new roof, drinking ice water from re-filled Coca-Cola bottles. They chug it down and pour the rest over their heads, laughing and working in the summer’s heat.

 

 

 

Gypsies and Win-Win

A.V. Walters

Cozy kitchen

Cozy kitchen

I have a sister who moves all the time. She’s not an economic refugee; she has a comfortable life. It’s just that she and her husband seem to have itchy feet. They buy a house, fix it up, and then, when even a faint whiff of opportunity calls them elsewhere, they are gone like the wind and the process starts anew. I used to say that her middle name was “never-in-ink,” based on the damage that her peripatetic ways did to my address book. At one point she had three homes (and an orchard with a pole barn) in three different countries! We joke that some people go on vacation and send postcards—my sister buys real estate. Her defense? Well, they needed somewhere to park. The process has slowed some, maybe it’s age. More likely, the real estate juggling has diminished because they bought a big boat that now takes them from place to place, to satisfy some of that wanderlust.

Rick and I are not like that. We are homebodies, gardeners and people of roots. So it’s surprising that in the past eight months we’ve moved three times—with another planned before the end of the year.

We did love our little honeymoon cottage in Empire, but it was, after all, a “vacation” rental and that means that we had to move on once the “season” started, or pay the steep hotel-like rates that tourists pay. In a vacation area, the season runs from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Some people extend a little beyond that, for a second-wind season that we call “color.” So, we packed up and moved again.

The problem with living somewhere this beautiful is that, if you’re not a grower (cherries, apples or wine grapes), the most lucrative business for locals is the tourism industry. The county is chockablock with cottages, B&Bs and little hideaway granny units that are rented to tourists by the day, or week. It’s almost impossible to find a longer term rental because everyone is cashing in on the vacation market. Rick and I are building, this summer, and we needed a place to stay—somewhere near the building site—until it’s ready to occupy. We’re getting a late start because of the heavy winter and delays in permitting. That put us smack-dab in the middle of the vacation season—no reasonably priced housing. We checked with our soon-to-be neighbors (two of whom have vacation rentals) but they needed the tourist rates. We considered buying a trailer, or even a heavy duty tent—though that’s a tough transition with cats. Then we stumbled on what looked like a win-win.

 

An old-fashioned look.

An old-fashioned look.

Back in Petaluma, each year in April, we volunteered for an organization, Rebuilding Together, that helps to renovate homes for elderly or low income owners. Often the services are critical to letting them stay in, and maintain, their homes. It’s a great organization—and it was where we met, Rick a volunteer builder and me—volunteer grunt labor. This year, April came and we noted that it was the first time in a long while that we weren’t on a Rebuilding crew.

In preparation for our impending relocation to Cedar, I went around introducing myself to all the neighbors. Some of them I’d known for years. I bought this property over two decades ago, and so I was that absentee owner from California. I thought we should re-connect in more of a, “Hi, we’re moving in,” kind of way. At each stop there were the usual discussions—“we’ll be building, yes, my husband is a builder… no, it’s not a summer/vacation home, we’ll be living here….” One neighbor in particular took interest—“Does he do work on the side?” Apparently some years ago she considered renovating her walk-out basement into a rental. She hired some fly-by-night-guy and it went badly from there. After a considerable investment (and some bad blood) she fired the guy and the job sat, unfinished—in fact, it had barely been started. Though I’d only just knocked on her door, technically I’d been her neighbor for years. Maybe that’s why she felt so comfortable telling me her life story and all her woes, though it seems to be a common thread in my life. People tell me stuff.

It didn’t take long before I thought—hmmmm, she needs renovation work, we need a place to stay… I connected the dots. I suggested it to Rick, before I approached the neighbor. It would be a big undertaking—not to be entered into lightly. Oddly enough, it was an alternative to our usual, April volunteer gig. This was a win-win—there was something in it for us, and it could work for her, too. When we approached the neighbor, she was intrigued, but wary. It took her weeks to decide (and we even had to interview with her priest!)

So that’s where we’ve been for the past month, or so. We’ve been building a little apartment. We were running on a short time frame—after all we had to be out of Empire by June 1. And, as usual, it was on a shoe-string budget. Another project brought to you by Craigslist. We pulled many 10 hour (and a few 15 hour) days until we reached the point of “habitable.” We still have trim-work (baseboards and window trim, etc) to do, but we moved into this little pied-à-terre the first of June. It’s just across the road from our building site. As soon as our permit is approved (which is taking longer than we thought) we’ll be building, yet again, only this time (for the first time) for us.

Still work to do, but a comfortable way-station to home.

Still work to do, but a comfortable way-station to home.

We’re not like my sister. We’re not gypsies. We’re itinerant builders, looking for a spot to call home.

Of course, there is next April…