The first big coordination piece in this project happened in November. We are installing an interior stair to our basement – up until this point the basement has only been accessed from the back yard. Our house was originally a two-family house, a very common housing type in our neighborhood and on our block. Many of the two-families in our neighborhood have interior stairs – there are two front doors and two rear doors, and the upper unit usually has a front stair and a rear stair. Our house is a more unique type – we don’t have a front door, all the doors are on the side of the house. The first floor unit was accessed from a front side door and a rear side door. The second floor unit was accessed from an exterior stair to the side balcony – that door opened into the kitchen of that unit. The attic and the basement were shared spaces, and both were accessed from the exterior. There were no stairs inside the house, except for a tiny, winding rear stair to the attic that was accessed from the side balcony. The biggest intervention we made in 2000 was cutting a stair into the house – connecting first, second, and (now) third floors.
We didn’t connect to the basement at that time for several reasons. Cost was a big one. The basement had low ceilings, a dirt floor, and we didn’t need the space for much beyond a few utilities and the occasional storm shelter. We installed a laundry room on the second floor, so we just didn’t have a need to get down there – and we thought the floor space where a stair would go was more valuable to us on the first floor. A few years later we decided to excavate the basement floor to gain some head height – we installed a sump pump, perimeter drainage, and we poured a concrete floor. At that point we were able to use the space for long term storage, but mostly it became a workshop for tools and projects for the house above. The exterior access was nice for that – no dragging materials through the house to the basement.
But the exterior stair (and the location of the air conditioning condensers) has really limited how we connect the house to the backyard. And with this new reconfiguration of the back portion of our house, and the 23 year old age of our original furnaces and hot water heater – it was a good time to rethink an interior stair to the lower level.
This required a LOT of coordination. We have to install a lot of new framing members in order to open up the dining room floor to the basement. I added a quick diagram below. The floor joists run east-west and bear on the east and west stone foundation walls. Cutting a hole into the floor means cutting a portion out of 8-9 of these joists. In order to do this, we have to install two major beams running east-west in step one (red). Then we have to install temporary shoring to the east of the opening (yellow) to hold up the joists prior to cutting them. Then we install the third beam (blue) running north-south, connecting it to the new red beams. The newly cut joists connect to the blue beam, and we take the temporary shoring back down. We can’t fill in the rear opening in the basement wall until we have interior access – even if we just have a ladder there for awhile.
In order to install those beams, we had to move ALL of the utilities that run UNDER the joists in the basement. That meant we needed mechanical, electrical and plumbing contractors ready to go in a certain order, and they had to be scheduled before (for demo) and after (for reconnection) a weekend when M and I could devote every waking hour to installing the (red) beams ourselves.
First we dropped the ductwork along the west wall. This meant we had no connection to our first floor registers in the living room. The furnace just dumped heat into the basement, but that did provide a little radiant heat at the floor level above. (Our second and third floors are heated from a third floor furnace, so we always had heat where we sleep.)
Then we added some temporary shoring under the stair above since we are removing a column in the basement that used to support the platform of our first floor stair. That corner of the stair will soon bear on the new framing that I describe in a minute.
Next, the electrician came in to drop all of the electrical wires – lots of rewiring to provide enough length to reach the floor so that we could maneuver the beams up into the joist bays. And at the last moment we’d need to cut the gas and water lines (no heat or water at all) and cut the plumbing waste line (no flushing!) so we could get the beams in.
Installing the beams took all weekend. Each beam was made up of (3) 2×12’s nailed to an existing joist, and the nails had to be in two rows, spaced 6″ apart and staggered every 3″. The nails are very long (tying all the wood together into one beam), so the nail pattern also has to stagger between the layers, which required a ton of math. And we had to purchase a pneumatic nailer that fit in the palm of our hand so that we could fit in between the existing joists to nail them together. Each beam took hours to install. And it was LOUD.
Our plumber was coming on Monday morning to reconnect the gas and water lines, and to reroute all of the supply lines and pipes to be located in the utility and storage room in the new basement layout. So we had a deadline. The other deadline was actually having water and heat again.
By Sunday evening we were exhausted. F had made reminder signs for the toilets – we could use them, but we couldn’t flush them! We had cut the waste line, and installed two of the three 2×12’s in the last beam, and we were really ready to be done. We would lift each board into place to check for fit, then lower it back down, glue the back of it + the existing beam, and then raise it overhead into place, hold it (heavy!) until we got a few clamps on it and could install a couple of the nails to tack it into place. Then we’d nail for another 30-45 minutes. We were on the last board, and we had test fit it, lowered it, glued it, and were about to lift it into place when we heard a rumbling from above. It took a couple of seconds to register the noise, and then we realized that the third floor toilet had been flushed – and the water and pee from the afternoon was headed our way. We quickly maneuvered the beam to the floor and I moved a trash can under the cut pipe. Then we heard the pounding footsteps – down the stairs, out the door, around the yard, and into the basement. F was sobbing – she was so upset with herself. The whole basement smelled like urine. It wasn’t fun. BUT… we were less than 20 seconds from having that beam lifted into place and M’s face would have been RIGHT in front of that cut pipe. He would have certainly had it spraying directly into his face, and wouldn’t have been able to get away until I magically clamped the beam together in multiple spots. So we were actually very lucky. Tired, smelly, but also lucky. (Plus, no poop. So lucky. Ick.)
The photo below shows the cut pipes – this was taken earlier in the day, when the first 2×12 went up. Just imagine M holding the third 2×12, standing directly under those cut pipes, and lifting the board through that slot and pushing the glued board into the other boards. On the other end, I had to maneuver the beam around the furnace, and the steel top plate of the column – so basically, hoisting the wood into place was really difficult and it couldn’t be lowered easily or quickly. We almost had a real life comedy bit on our hands. A gross one.
Okay, enough about plumbing waste. Here’s the cliff notes for the wrap up to the longest post ever: Between 8pm-11pm our welding torch broke, M called our friend to borrow one, and F and I drove to South County to pick it up off their porch. M repaired the gas line, but we still had no water. At 11:15pm on a Sunday night, the three of us packed shower bags, drove to my office, and took turns using the one shower we have in the building. We ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, the first thing we’d eaten since lunch. By 12:30am we were in bed, and the plumbers were there bright and early the next morning. It was a crazy five day stretch – and there are many more of these to come, I’m sure.
Hopefully with a little less pee.