Category Archives: project addition

the post everyone wants to read and i don’t want to write


House woes.

I haven’t written any house stories in awhile for lots of different reasons. Mostly frustration, but also a fair share of caution in being careful about just how much I share here that’s still floating up in the air, undecided.

When we started the process I warned that it would likely be a long one, but I didn’t anticipate it being quite this long. I thought that it would be fun to share the process, but it was also sort of exhausting to do it. I admire people that share these kind of renovation stories as they go. I also know that they do it as their job, and I have another full time job plus about a half dozen serious side gigs that keep be perpetually busy.

The biggest reason for my silence was disappointment. I wanted things to go smoothly. We worked our tails off to ensure that. If I were to add up the hours of time spent and the thousands of dollars spent on drawings and models and engineering and site work, etc. I would probably cry. I have cried. On two occasions, in epic fashion. The first was on my birthday last year, when we met with our first contractor to discuss the lack of subcontractor participation and skyrocketing construction costs and packed schedules. I didn’t actually cry in front of him, but I did later, when I let myself sit in that disappointment. I had glued myself to a chair and a laptop at our dining room table for nights and weekends too many to count, and it felt like an impossible project at that point.

Contractor #1 proposed a new idea – a collaboration with contractor #2, with more availability, less expensive overhead, and the opportunity for contractor #1 to do all the finish work that he’s exceptionally skilled at. Hope again, until that crashed and burned. Contractor #2 had less luck with sub bids, and the summer and early fall felt wasted to us before he got back to us and confessed that the project was out of his comfort zone. That was the second big cry.

In the meantime, we considered a few other houses in our zip code. Several of our favorite houses (from the outside) were listed over the past year and a half, and we’ve made appointments to see four of them on repeat occasions. Three moved to heavy consideration phase, and one recently moved beyond that stage before the owners changed their minds and decided not to sell. The entire time we remained conflicted about leaving our current house, a place that has quite literally been built on sweat and tears and love. The girls enjoy looking at other houses, but remain firmly in the current home / forever home camp. They want to build the addition and carriage house so badly, and that’s the hardest part of the whole thing. Time is flying by, and I worry that we’ve missed our window. I worry about that a lot.

We regrouped in the late fall and winter, and streamlined the entire set of drawings in order to reduce cost in three areas that seemed out of control. We re-engineered everything, and again I chained myself to the work most nights and weekends. Contractor #1 wanted another go at it, and had more time to devote to it this year. We handed our revised set over in early March, and then I got to relive my birthday disappointment  yet again this past April. Better, but not good enough.

In really basic terms, here is the issue. We have a tight, narrow lot, that makes everything more complicated.

See me here in the early 2000’s – hand digging out bricks to create this lovely blank slate for construction? If only I could just build the whole darn thing myself. (Joking.)

We’re drastically changing our house with this addition, but the overall footprint of the addition is not large. So the square foot cost of the work is really high. We have to work within a range of values dictated by the future value of the house post-construction. Our neighborhood has so many different housing types – apartments, two- and four-family flats, single family homes – it’s one of the things that I love about it. There’s a place for everyone. Other neighborhoods in our zip code (think Lafayette Square or Compton Heights) have a much higher ratio of single family (very large!) homes, where property values can soar to twice the highest value of single family homes in our neighborhood. The bank can consider comps in both of those neighborhoods when assessing the value of single family homes in our neighborhood, but there’s definitely a lower cap on values where we live that you don’t see in some of these adjoining neighborhoods. So we keep hitting this over-improvement ceiling on our house. It makes us nervous and cautious, and it turns the bank off completely.

Our single best asset in this whole thing is the ability to construct a separate living unit above the garage. I go into detail on why that’s a great thing (and a rare opportunity) in this post. So we have that going for us. BUT. We have to build it to see the future value of our house support the improvement costs. So we can’t just build the addition now and do the carriage house in a later phase. And we can’t build the carriage house first and do the addition later – we’d be completely landlocked at that point. So it’s all or nothing, and at the moment we’re still nothing.

We’re much closer than we were last April to that magic number, but we’re still not there. We met with contractor #1 in early July, and we’ve petitioned our lender again for some leniency, but to no avail. It’s frustrating to know how to do something and be able to afford to do something, and still be told that we can’t do something. We have another hybrid plan that we’re trying now, and I want to be optimistic again. But I’m guarded about it. I’m not up for that third ugly cry anytime soon.

This isn’t a great story. It involves a lot of disappointment and long stretches of sadness and regrouping. We’ve continued to knock off some of the interior projects on the existing house as we go, and those are good things that we enjoy. The fireplace might be at the top of that list. We’ve helped my sister on her new house, and that’s been exciting and also a little hard to watch. We’ve seen friends plan and implement their own renovations and we’ve wondered how we’ve managed to have a project that nobody wants to do when everyone else seems to be able to line up help and expertise with no sweat. It’s not a place of jealousy where I write this, just a place of sadness that we haven’t been able to complete this project with our girls. I want them to be a part of it because we’ve included them in the process so much already.

They love our home, and don’t want to leave. I’m with them.

Here’s tiny F next to giant scaffolding during our last major project phase. She’s nine now, and three times this size, so we’re overdue another overhaul. It’s good for the soul, a little dust up, I say. We’ll take all finger crossing you can manage our way.

garden inspiration

It’s starting to thaw out a bit here, and the days are stretching a few minutes longer each day. I’m ready to be back at the garden on Wednesday mornings – we draw the line at temperatures in the thirties or below. I don’t mind a brisk walk, but it’s also been nice to linger in coffee shops with F for an hour or more in lieu of our garden strolls. Much warmer too!

But I’ve got gardens on the brain, specifically our own. Our yard has been really neglected for ages – it’s just not something I’ve wanted to invest too much in once we knew that we wanted to add onto the house. And things are looking hopeful for that this year (please, fingers crossed, everyone together now), and so I’ve been collecting my thoughts on it while the weather is still cold and gray.

Our new front gate was delayed in production, but I received word on Monday that it’s done, and installation of the gate and missing panel should be happening next week! Other than the long lead time, so far we’ve been really pleased with Classic Metal Craft. I had one of the owners come out last week to measure the sides of our front yard so that he could work up a quote for replacing the sorry looking chain link fences there. Our plan this summer is to remove the front boxwoods, erect scaffolding for repairs and repainting, install new windows, and then we’ll have a blank slate in the front yard.

Before we implement a landscape plan there, I want to install those side fences, so it’s nice to have a quote in hand.

And then we’ll have our rear yard as a blank slate too, once the construction is done. I want continuity between the two spaces, and I want to also green as many spaces (even vertical ones) on the house as possible. Because our yard is small I’d like to keep it simple. Greens and whites and silvers against a backdrop of charcoal and existing brick. Some purples as well. Pea gravel and salvaged brick in areas for walking or sitting.

The roof gardens will be a good opportunity for some vegetable growing, and a cutting garden as well. I see those being a little more colorful, and will likely take awhile before we get them laid out and planted. They are listed as “future” on the house plans, and we just might be broke and exhausted before we get there.

Having a “new” courtyard garden with a nice fence on two sides and a glassy dining room on one end and carriage house on the other is beyond exciting to me. It feels like we’ve been dreaming about this for ages. My patience is waning. I wish it was here, done, ready for weekends of playing in the dirt.

For now there are pictures, lush and green for a gray January day. A few more months – I can do this. I think.

dust off, dust up, hang up

My living room is super clean this week. I realize this week has barely started, but it’s been clean for four days now, and it’s a really good feeling. On Saturday I set up the ladder and worked my way down from the ceiling – dusting, straightening and shifting all of the books. I brought books down from all over the house and shelved them on the newly clean shelves. It felt really good. 

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The only way we could devote so much time to the planning and drawing and coordinating on the addition project was to let a few a lot of things go. Deep cleaning was one of those things. We weren’t living in filth, but we couldn’t let ourselves get distracted by the piles that inevitably stack up if you don’t attack them on a regular basis. I haven’t filed anything for almost a year. It’s a nice, neat stack, and if I need to find something I can thumb through it. But if I had time to sit and file papers, that was time I needed to spend on the drawings. I just had to let some things go, and ignore the piles. I’m behind on a lot of things like that – photo sorting and printing, closet cleaning, etc. I have stashes of framed artwork and portraits that haven’t been hung on the walls, and there’s trim to be touched up, and a summer front that is almost ready to be installed… and we’ll get to it all, eventually.

The nice thing about forcing myself to let so many of these things go is that they now feel more exciting to tackle – less chore-like and more reward-like. Cleaning the living room felt great. There is nothing better (to me) than relaxing in a freshly cleaned room. I basked in that joy for almost 24 hours before this happened:

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My photo is a little blurry, but if you follow M on Instagram, he has a series of photos / video of the mess on there. M cut a hole in the bookshelves – in the area where we plan to install a fireplace. This one, to be exact:d604b8537048729b692df570f67c78e9He created a tent to contain the dust – and there was a TON of dust.

Then he used a vacuum cleaner to create negative air pressure so that he could take down the tent and the dust wouldn’t immediately fill the room. He cleaned the whole area up and you can’t even tell that he did the work. Now we have a giant hole where our insert will go. The foam core is a to-scale replica of the actual unit, and it conveniently hides the hole. Our early spring was squashed this week by freezing temperatures and snow, and so F keeps pretending to use the “fireplace”.

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I’m rambling a bit here, but I’m trying to circle around to the topic of mudrooms. Our living room is our mudroom – it’s our entry and our drop off space and it always has a zone of items destined for other places. Right now that’s the east wall with a neat line of bags and bins ready for Goodwill.

BUT NOT FOR LONG! My very first mudroom is on its way!

As I mentioned before, it’s not a huge space, but it’s a space. An entry space, half a level down from the main floor, with an adjacent area to stash our stuff. It’s not large enough for lockers or cubbies, but I’m not sure those are really necessary for us. More than anything, I want flexibility. I want a system that is simple and elegant and can adapt to our needs of the moment and of the season. And because this room is pretty open to the new stair, I want it to be an extension of the finishes there.

I don’t think I mentioned this before, but we are working with a general contractor that I’ve had a working relationship with for almost two decades. He’s built several of the projects I’ve worked on professionally, and he’s also done some of the smaller projects around our house for us. (The library shelves and our staircase are some notable ones.) He’s wonderful to work with on a project because he’s truly an artist at his core. He has an amazing studio space and shop – he’s an incredible cabinet maker, and we can’t wait to work with him on our kitchen. When we get further along in the project, I promise to take some photos of his workshop and post them here.

I mentioned in the stair post that we would like to incorporate wood in the stair “link” as a material change between the old house and the new addition. I’m thinking that some of that might also extend into the mudroom, and help create a flexible storage area. If the stair enclosure at the lower level is perforated wood, maybe that same idea extends into the mudroom on the walls and becomes a place to insert dowels for hanging up items or adding shelves. I’m still in love with the pegs in our master bathroom, and I’ve pulled a few of the images I’ve saved over the last year or so along these lines. Think of it as a modern interpretation of the classic pegboard – just weightier for bulkier items.

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This last image relates more to the new living unit over the garage, but it has the same lines we’re looking for in the rest of the project. I love the simple shelf for towel storage with a place to hang a few items for a weekend visit. I also love that walnut shelf – it’s almost exactly what I have in my head for the kitchen cabinets and shelves – material and finish. More on that kitchen soon…

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