10 September 2015

Getting plastered

I finally took on the job of filling in some plaster on the stairwell wall, item #101 on the never-ending to-do list. I've been putting it off for years a long time, but it really wasn't that bad once I got started. Now it's just waiting for the drywall mud guy to tape the corner and finish smoothing it out.

It's hard to tell exactly what I did, but everything to the left of that window trim moulding (the existing plaster is painted white, the new stuff is grayish) was just exposed brick. I had to build up layers of Durabond until it matched the level of the existing plaster, which was a little over an inch thick.

08 September 2015

More drywall

I guess I never mentioned I finished drywalling in the kitchen too.

I'm now in the process of moving everything out of the drywalled rooms as much as possible so the mud guy has space to work. 

02 September 2015

Back stairs

I finished repairing the old back staircase. It wasn't nearly as difficult as I'd imagined it would be, and it probably only took 6 hours total to complete. I built a box out of 2x8 and attached a tread before building the next step on top. They aren't to modern code, but since this is a repair of an existing historical stair, simply replacing what was missing is acceptable.

Having another staircase in the back is kind of awesome, and I use it almost as much as the front stairs now. In the second photo you can see where I've built in a drawer for a little bit of extra storage. The riser will double as a drawer front and will all but disappear when closed.

11 August 2015

Drywall? No big deal.

Still working with just the camera on my phone. Sorry.

05 August 2015

After a few intense weeks of work, we are finally far enough along to have put in a big drywall order at Lowe's. It was supposed to be delivered today, but when it arrived, it was short by more than 20 sheets. Also, chunks were missing from corners, and the edges were badly torn. I told the guy I couldn't accept the delivery, so he'll be back on Friday or Saturday with (I hope) a better and correct supply. In the meantime, I'll be prepping the kitchen so we can start hanging sheetrock as soon as the delivery arrives.

I have officially waved the white flag on the bathroom plumbing and called a plumber to help. He's finishing up a whole-house rough-in installation this week and *hopefully* will get to us next week. It shouldn't take him more than a day or two for him to complete his work here, and I'm optimistic about the progress I can make in there once he's done. The ceiling will need to be dropped somewhat, and I have to wait for the plumbing to be completed before I can do that. Pictures to follow once there's something to take pictures of!

07 July 2015

The next major project I've been working on is finishing the downstairs framing. After 1001 iterations of the floor plan, I've got a plan and it's as set in stone as we get around here. The walls are up, the electrical boxes are starting to go in, and we're well on our way to having more habitable space in our house.

I spent a bit of time today in the basement installing a beam and posts. There was a bounce in the floor of the kitchen that's always bothered me a little bit, and the new beam virtually eliminates it. The house is fine structurally, but it was unsettling to hear dishes rattling when you walked through the room. Now the kids can be downstairs running around without giving me a nervous tic with all the bouncing.

20 June 2015

Clara calls it the "curly path"

Unfortunately, my camera won't take clear photos anymore, so I'm stuck with a crummy cell phone camera to document my progress. Here's one project, the side yard, as yet incomplete. Here's what it looked like before:

And here's what it looks like now:

I obviously have a lot of filling in to do with plants (I've actually done a bit more since this picture was taken), but I like how it's coming together so far. The sunlight conditions are difficult - a few hours of intense afternoon sun, which means it's too sunny for shade plants and too shady for full sun plants. You'd think that part-shade would suffice, but most of those plants will wilt in afternoon sun. I'm trying a few plants at a time to see how they handle the spot and will find new homes for them if they don't work.

21 May 2015

I didn't mean to leave the completion of the steps a mystery, I just sent the pictures to my family and forgot to update here. So, while it still needs newel posts and handrails, the front steps are functional and sturdy. They need to weather for a few months before they can be stained or painted, but naturally I'm in no rush for that.

04 May 2015

Front steps, again

Tom and I got the second half of the top tread off on our own, but we needed help for the next three. Fortunately we have a very strong (and very generous) friend who donated a couple of hours on Saturday to help us get them moved. I plugged the stair dimensions into a calculator online, and it came up with an estimate of about 650 pounds per tread! Luckily, they didn't move very far, just 9' over to outline the edge of the sidewalk. We got them onto a couple of furniture dollies, then simply rolled them to where they needed to go. Once they were roughly in position, we tipped them off the dollies and used a demolition bar as a lever to get them in place exactly.

I'll backfill the area a bit and eventually get some flowers and shrubs in there. Here's what the front of the house looks like without steps:

I dug another trench and laid another row of concrete block close to the wall. The house stayed stairless overnight, but by Sunday evening we had finished the framework for the new steps.

I had already cut all the components and marked their locations, so assembly didn't take very long. A few non-standard construction details: first, I installed 2x4s along the bottom edge of the stringers. I made the treads much deeper than standard treads, which cut deeply into the 2x12 material. The 2x4s simply add additional strength and reduce the stress put on the bottom edge of the board.

Next are the newel posts. I used 4x4 treated lumber, which is standard. Most people will just bolt the 4x4 through the stringers on the end. Those bolts are not the sturdiest connection by themselves, especially when they're only coming from one direction. I added blocking around the posts to add rigidity, then bolted them to the post from two different directions. 

An added bonus to using the blocking is that I could avoid having the bolt heads showing from the sides. And here's a picture of the newel post in place with a couple of bolts in (still needs one more).

The next detail are the back legs, next to the house. The 4x4 posts here are not only newel posts but structural legs that hold up the stairs. They sit on a 2x6, which in turn rests on the concrete block. The 2x6 is bolted to the block, and the legs are bolted to the 2x6 with angle clips. I put a spacer block under the post to raise it off the 2x6 a little bit. If any water sits on the top of the 2x6, it won't get absorbed by the end grain of the 4x4. Just another detail to improve the longevity of the structure.

Now that the structure is set, I can start on the treads and risers, making our stairs usable once again.

01 May 2015

Engineering the front steps

My house is load-bearing masonry. That means that the bricks on the outside of my house are not purely decorative; they actually hold the house up. Similarly, our porch foundation is solid brick. Brick is great in compression, but its shear and tensile strength are practically nonexistent. As a result, attaching stairs to the brick porch foundation is prohibited by code. So I had to figure out the best way to build these stairs and make them safe and secure.

The solution is to build them completely freestanding. Freestanding structures have a different set of rules than ones attached to permanent structures. If I had been able to attach a ledger board to the house (as is typically done with wood-frame buildings), the footings would have to be buried below the frost line, which is about 30" here. This is to prevent frost heave - the movement that occurs when moisture within the soil freezes in cold weather (ice expands as it freezes, displacing the soil around it and forcing it up). Below the frost line, the water within the soil does not freeze, so footings at this depth are safe from that displacement. Frost heave could easily shear the bolts and damage the brick or the ledger board, which is why it is so important for attached decks and stairs to have footings below the frost line.

But because these stairs will be freestanding, they only have to be set on undisturbed (for 5 years) soil. The reason for the difference is that if the staircase suffers from frost heave, the stairs will move as a unit, independently of the house, damaging neither structure. The rise on the final step might change slightly, but not significantly enough to cause problems. That's the reason I only dug about 8" down, tamped down, then filled with gravel and sand before setting solid concrete block. Once I had the foundation figured out, the rest of the construction just fell into place. I'll leave that for the time I actually have pictures as a visual aid.

30 April 2015

Replacing the front steps

It was sickening to my soul, but we had to make the very tough decision to remove and replace the solid stone slabs that made up our front stairs. The stone was spalling and crumbled a little more with every footstep and raindrop that fell on it. The top step had broken in half and wobbled precariously under any weight. They needed to be replaced before someone got seriously injured.

So we needed to decide what we would put in their place. Replacing with comparable stone would have been prohibitively expensive. Concrete would have been cheaper but still pricey and probably not DIYable. Wood won out. Although not accurate to this particular home, wood steps are true to the time period and can be made to look as if they always belonged to the house. Hopefully the local historical society will not raise a stink about it.

We removed the bottom tread, which was actually 3 blocks of stone. Layers of stone came off in sheets. I was amazed and a little frightened by how easily the stone crumbled in my hands. Once the bottom treads were out, I pulled out an incredible amount of stone debris that had fallen off the bottoms of the other treads. I dug a trench along the sidewalk, then filled it with several inches of gravel and then sand. This will help water drain away from the bottom of the stairs and hopefully prevent rot. Solid concrete block was put on top and stabilized and leveled all the way across.

Tom grabbed a demolition bar and wrestled out one of the pieces of the top tread.

We carefully rolled it down step by step to a furniture dolly and rolled it to its new home, just a few feet away.

The stone seems randomly placed at the moment (my landscape architect sister is probably cringing right now), but it will eventually become flowerbed edging.  There is still a lot of use left in these stone slabs, just not as structural elements. I'm glad I'll be able to use them as part of the house and not just have them hauled to the dump. We're waiting for the weekend before we tear apart any more of the stairs to maximize our work time and minimize the time we have to climb up and down the porch foundation to access the house.

29 April 2015

When I was a kid, I had a favorite rock. It wasn't a fancy polished rock, or pretty color, and it wasn't shaped like a heart or a bunny or anything. It was a ruddy purplish brown with flat sides and sharp corners, about the size of my adult hand. It had some sparkly bits on one face, but otherwise it was just an ordinary piece of rock. I'm sure it was puzzling to my parents as to why I was always walking around with a rock in one hand (and probably a book in the other), but by that point in my childhood they'd learned to not ask questions.

But now that I'm an adult, I no longer have a favorite rock (although if I saw that rock in my parents' yard I'd probably take it just for nostalgia of my childhood weirdness). Instead, I now have a favorite brick. You see, I have piles

and piles

 and piles

of brick (several more piles than just these) at my disposal, and I've already used them in quite a few projects. So far I've built a raised flower bed,

lined the flower beds along the sidewalk,

buried a line of bricks under the neighbor's fence (to keep the former neighbor's terriers from digging under it, plus it helps keep my weeds contained to my yard),

and outlined around the heat pumps (to keep the stone "mulch" in place).

Whenever practical I orient the bricks so that you can see the brickmakers' stamps. In our one-half of a city lot, you can pretty much see the entire history of the Portsmouth brickmaking industry. I like having that history literally under my feet, and yesterday I spotted this gem:

Not only does it have raised lettering, which in itself is unusual, but the S in Sciotoville is backward. I don't know why this is so appealing to me, but it's a reminder to me that all of these heavy, durable bricks were made by artisans using hand-set molds. I have dozens of these Carlyle Sciotoville Blocks, but this is the only one I have found so far with this mistake. Here's the larger view of the project:

It's a work in progress.

28 April 2015

Where has the time gone?

Oh, hi strangers. Nice to see you again. Believe it or not, I've actually been working on the house and quietly ticking things off the to-do list. I finally finished the crown moulding in the master bathroom, back bedroom, and the tub/toilet half of the hall bathroom. I also finished baseboard in the hall bath and back bedroom. Other than some touch-up paint here and there, the back bedroom is done.

The temperate weather has inspired me to get some projects done outside as well. The next major project is replacing the front stairs, which we should make some serious progress on this weekend. Demolition of the existing stairs will be by far the hardest aspect of this job, since each of the steps weighs several hundred pounds. I promise I'll post some pictures soon of all our progress, but I just wanted to check in and assure you that I'm still alive and kicking!