I’ll warn you. This post ain’t pretty.
When we first moved into our house in early September and started to tackle its many projects, we gave ourselves a somewhat arbitrary deadline to work toward — a point by which we wanted to get to some semblance of normalcy. Manny’s mother was coming down from Washington, DC for Thanksgiving and we wanted to have things in order for her arrival so we could just relax together and do fun things. We bought a Christmas tree while she was in town and put up holiday decorations, and it was divine…
But the house looked like that — clean, cozy, bright — for all of a month. Specifically, it looked nice and like a real home for the period spanning Thanksgiving to Christmas. On December 26, Manny and I brought out the hammers and since then our house has looked like the image on the right below.
Uh-huh. The picture on the left, which I posted at the end of The Money Pit, represents the culmination of a multi-month scramble to get things to a pleasant place, but the truth is, our house no longer looks like that.
Why? Because… KITCHEN RENOVATION.
It’s sort of like being right back where we started, and it’s pretty depressing — to have worked and worked to see real progress and then to deconstruct it all again and go back to living in reno-squalor. All of the rugs and nice chairs and candlesticks and the like that we were finally able to set out for the holidays have been put away. The new appliances we ordered for the kitchen renovation on Black Friday sit awkwardly in the dining room, with our disconnected washer and dryer. We’re doing dishes in the guest bathtub.
Welcome, Chaos, my old friend.
I beat myself up all of the time these days over our decision to dive into the belly of this particular beast once more, and just when things were started to feel so comfortable and snug in the bungalow. I think, “Why didn’t we settle for a *compromise solution* for now? Just a teensy facelift that would have made our kitchen prettier (if not safer and more functional). Then we could have just gone on with our lives…”
But this is folly. Because we talked about it, Manny and me — the teensy-facelift option — before rushing headfirst into a major kitchen-remodel. We talked about it, and talked about it, and lost sleep over it. There was no easy answer.
Let me explain. Here are some pictures of what the kitchen looked like [a] when we put the offer in on the house, and [b] for the first few months after we moved in:
The pictures actually make it look way nicer than it really was. Words and phrases that come to mind when I try to describe it include: Cluttered. Junky. Cramped. Ad hoc.
And there were issues that, from the first time I saw it, jumped out at me as especially bad. The ceiling in the kitchen was an office-style drop-down with acoustic tiles. Not so nice, and def not period appropriate.
The counters were covered in chipped and broken tiles.
Also the flooring in here, which you can’t really see in these images, was an orangey laminate. At some point, someone had joined into one what had previously been two rooms, a breakfast room and kitchen. The original plan is at least sort of visible in this old Aladdin homes ad:
The breakfast room retained its original heart pine floor, while the laminate, raised an inch and a half from the original flooring because of the plywood subfloor beneath, got the bad-orange-laminate.
Moreover, joining these two small rooms into one larger continuous kitchen space allowed them to remove the wall between them and that inner door (both visible in the plan above). However, this left two entrances to the now-single space, which you can kind of see here:
As we lived in the house and cooked in the space, we also came to confront what I’ve since identified as perhaps the previous haphazard-remodel’s central limitation: the L-shaped plan. The kitchen, when we bought it, came with a corner sink, shown here in the ad I put up on Craigslist giving it away during demo:
I realize there may be plenty of people out there who love a good corner sink, but it was a disaster for us. Having two very small sink basins does not one large, useful, single sink basin make. Plus, corner sinks are just not functional if more than one person is in the kitchen at a time, and typically Manny and I cook together. Then there’s the fact that the sink was too close to the stove. There was no prep space, and the dishwasher, next to the sink, couldn’t be opened if anyone was standing at either the stove or the sink. All around, not good.
When we originally bought the house, we envisioned a mini-reno to start that would fix the hated floor and ceiling. But… there were soffits, attached to the wall cabinets, that all needed to be removed at once it we were going to fix the ceiling. So… fixing the ceiling meant: upper cabinetry demo. Regarding the floor: The base cabinets had been installed over the awful orange laminate. So we either had to leave the bad flooring to keep the (admittedly bad) base cabinetry and L-shaped plan, or we had to rip it all out to fix the floor.
And there was the heavily damaged tile counter. I’ve seen great posts on other blogs, such as Thimble & Cloth, about covering tile countertops with concrete. But that wasn’t going to work for our style and our life and our kitchen. We couldn’t just remove the tile counter and replace it either, because — as we saw when we decided to chip some of the already damaged tiles away — it had been screwed so securely into the cabinetry and the screws were ALL STRIPPED. Yet another problem that suggested a real fix, and not just a temporary solution, was needed.
In sum, we just couldn’t think of a decent facelift solution that didn’t escalate to a full-scale kitchen remodel. So we resigned ourselves. On December 26th, we brought out the hammers.
The first step was removing the upper and lower cabinetry on both walls, as well as the drop-ceiling and damaged beadboard that covered the exterior wall:
The technicolor plasterwork our demo revealed aside, what we found when we removed all this was worse than we’d feared. I mean, yeah, the plaster was wrecked, full of holes and it had long-ago pulled away from the lath. The plywood with electrical cords stuffed in front of and behind it didn’t seem super kosher. Because the house’s original wiring (and the wiring half of the kitchen still used, unfortunately) was knob and tube, there was also a total lack of insulation on that outer wall. And that space where a former window had clearly been removed and blocked off by past owners didn’t have any stud support.
The ceiling — egad, the ceiling. Removing the acoustic tiles also revealed an ancient knob and tube fusebox beneath, still hot:
(What lies beneath — beneath the acoustic-tile drop-ceiling, that is. The electrician has his work cut out for him. You can see in this image he’s removed the fuses.)
Anyway, after we removed all of the cabinetry, the drop-ceiling, and the flooring, we got to work demo-ing the plaster and lath. Full disclosure: I know there are some who would argue we should have tried to save the plaster in here if we’re serious about loving our old home. I tried, I really did. I spoke to contractors and it was just too exorbitant to do so, and we don’t have the luxury of time to try to learn how to do something that requires that much specialization ourselves and mess it up and try again. Plus, that outer wall needs insulation and new wiring, which requires the old knob and tube in there to be removed. There was no saving the plaster, sadly.
Knocking off the plaster wasn’t very hard because it was generally in such a poor state of repair. It is hard, gross, dirty work, though, and anyone who has done this before will agree, I’m betting. It’s not a huge space — the plaster on the breakfast nook side is fine and we’re capable of making the small repairs over there that are needed. So it’s just half of the room that needed to be taken down to the studs. Eventually, once the electric is re-done, damaged studs fixed, and insulation added, we’ll close everything up again with drywall.
The photos above also show that we were able to remove the overhang that visually separated the former laundry nook from the rest of the space. There was an even lower drop-ceiling in there when we started, btw; removing all of that has opened up the room considerably. The beam that runs across here isn’t structural, so we will either be able to dress it up or remove it.
(The lath you see still intact in these pictures is the reverse side of the wall — i.e., you’re looking at the reverse of the dining room walls on the left and the reverse of the guest bedroom wall on the right. We were careful not to disturb that.)
Removing the plaster was definitely the worst part because that stuff is nasty. Removing the lath was no picnic, either, but it wasn’t quite as miserable. We bagged everything up as we removed it, working in two stages — first the plaster, then the lath — and afterwards, I called someone to haul it away and legally dispose of it all.
This image shows two things that bear further mentioning. First, there was lots more plywood covering the interior wall the kitchen shares with the dining room, and when we removed it we found that there was a brick chimney hidden away. You can’t see it from the dining room and it was concealed from view by the hack-job superstructure someone had built around it. The chimney is a remnant of when the house was built and there was a wood-burning stove. We decided pretty immediately we are not going to take it out — mostly because it goes all of the way through the house to the roof, and we’re not messing with all of that. Also this is because, despite how awkwardly it breaks up the wall, it’s really beautiful brick and it’s original to the house. So that bad boy is staying put for as long as we own this bungalow.
The other thing the image shows is the state of that “beam” (I use that term loosely here) that separates the original breakfast nook from the kitchen. The breakfast nook has a beadboard ceiling which is in totally fine shape and which we’re planning to keep and ultimately replicate in the kitchen to get a continuous look. But that beam was too hackneyed and weak and it had allowed the ceiling to bow over four inches in the center. It gave the room a look that suggested “imminent collapse at any moment.” Not so chic.
Here’s where we got really lucky. As this post has implied so far, we are hiring pros for stuff like electrical (and plumbing! the water lines need to be moved…), but we are doing as much as we can ourselves. (CRAZY, I know, since we barely knew how to hold hammers half a year ago.) Demoing is dirty work, and it took us a heck of a lot longer than it would have taken a crew of pros, but we’re glad we did it ourselves and we learned a lot about construction and our house in the process. Installing a support beam was out of our league, though.
Enter my parents, who happened to casually mention our ceiling-issues to a close friend of theirs who is a retired contractor. I’ll call this friend Mr. D.
Mr. D said he’d come and have a look. He arrived. He studied. He prodded. He frowned.
“That beam needs replaced, all right,” he told us.
We hung our heads.
Then Mr. D, out of the goodness of his heart, offered to install a new one for us.
(Shots of Mr. D setting up and installing the beam. The bottom pictures show him jacking it up to eliminate the four inch sag in the center of our ceiling. After he was done and posts had been installed at either end, the center vertical beam, resting on the jack, was removed. Viola!)
When he offered to do this, I was floored — and flooded with extreme gratitude. Because I knew how much it would cost to have a contractor install one, as I’d already called around for estimates with the intention of hiring someone. We reimbursed Mr. D for materials (um, about forty bucks). Otherwise, he did this on a recent rainy Saturday out of sheer kindness.
The result? One beautiful, sturdy support beam. Watching him do this, virtually by himself (though my husband and stepdad, Steve, were on hand to help) reminded me of a Japanese woodworking class Manny and I took in Brooklyn last spring.
(Yeah, you read that right. Bear with me here.)
Manny has long been interested in tools and furniture-making, even if, as a resident of Brooklyn, the closest he ever really came to getting to exercise or encourage this interest was putting Ikea furniture together. So we took the class.
What struck me was the way the instructor walked us through things. He’d explain, then demonstrate, and I’d think, “That looks so easy!” only to realize, once we got to try it, how crazy-difficult even the simplest of tasks he showed us really were. He made it look easy because he was a practiced pro — and it was easy for him. It takes a long time to gain that kind of supreme competence, though.
Mr. D’s carpentry and contractor skills are out of control. Having spent a few months trying to do things ourselves we were in awe of both his generosity and his incredible control over the process. He knocked the beam-installation out in a matter of hours and it dramatically changed the space. Not having a caving-in ceiling is a real game changer, I’ll tell you.
So where are we now?
Our timeline to finish this project, which we’re currently over a month into, is “as soon as humanly possible.” Anyone who has ever been through it would also attest, I think, to how sucky it is to not have a kitchen while you’re living in the house.
The thing that makes it sort of bearable is the proximity of my parents. One, sometimes two nights a week, we stay there to eat food made in a functioning kitchen and just relax. This major project would be a lot more stressful without such mini-breaks.
Also, we don’t have kiddos yet. If we did, we’d both be way more stressed than we already are over the state of the house and what we’re eating just to get by and the dust and what the heck exactly is in that dust. We worry about ourselves and Tilly, but not having kiddos yet is a big part of what put us over the should-we-or-shouldn’t-we precipice. Our hope is that we can finish by tax-day (April 15th… got to love arbitrary deadlines) and that we’ll be so happy with the final outcome it will erase the uneasy memories of microwaved food and Little Caesar’s Hot and Ready’s and back pain and we’ll live happily ever after.
Time shall tell.
What about you? — ever been through a major kitchen renovation? What was your experience like?