Tag Archives: renovation

modern victorian terrace garden – part one, existing conditions

I’m going to try and not be too wordy here, as I have plans for this Sunday afternoon, and I can tend to get carried away here if I’m not careful. So I’ll start with where we are and add some follow up posts to this one.

To quickly address the elephant in the room (or the moose on the table – whatever your preference is for that lingering question / stuck point) – our big plans for the rear of the house were coming together really nicely the first week of March, and then everything ground to a halt. So we’ve arranged with the city to extend our building permit a little longer, and while I’m still VERY frustrated and disappointed that we’re delayed again, I’m also glad we haven’t been navigating quarantine with a half opened house and no kitchen. We do have plans for that area, but for now we’re just growing vegetables and focusing attention on pieces of the overall project that we can bite off ourselves and get done.

Here are a few before photos of the yard to get you oriented. (I’ll also include a video on Instagram.) You might recall we removed all of the foundation plantings last summer to erect scaffolding for our mansard repairs, so the yard has looked really barren for awhile. I realized that I never posted photos on that work here, so I’ll try to do that soon. We used to have hostas where the ground sloped to the front fence, and ivy as well, but we cleared a lot of that out when it got out of control and we addressed some drainage issues.

The fence between our house and our neighbor to the east is rusty chainlink. Also, notice how his yard is much taller than ours – it’s always drained down to the low area at our front entrance (which is really on the side of our house). We’ve submitted for permits to replace this fence, and we’ve put the deposit down on its fabrication. It’s still a few months out from fabrication which will give us time to get the rest of the grading work done (more on that soon).

The fence between our house and our neighbor to the west is a really temporary look! Basically posts with some chainlink rolled and tied to them. That house is currently being renovated, and we’d like to get this work done while they are also under construction. You can see our dogwood tree here as well, and then see how our yard slopes fairly quickly down to the front fence. We’ll be replacing this side fence as well.

Our new fence will be a black painted steel fence that mimics the spacing of the old front fence, but will be simpler in design – not a copy of it. It will have three horizontal bars that match the front fence, but it won’t have the scroll work. We’re using the same company we hired to make our new gate – more on that replacement here.

Our first goal with this work is to address some of the grading issues we have – we want to create a level upper terrace that is in line with both of our neighbors’ yards. That means that our front walk will remain lower than our yard, and that we’ll need quite a few low retaining walls to achieve this.

The image below demonstrates where we’ll be adding retaining walls and how the front walk will change. First, we’ll remove the existing concrete sidewalk and step all the way to the city sidewalk outside the gate. Then we’ll install a simple retaining wall (shown green below) that will create a level portion of the main garden area on the right, and will allow us to match the grade of our neighbor’s house to the left as well. The top of these walls will be flush with the yard, and we’ll plant them as well so that eventually they will be covered in green and will look less like an actual wall. The biggest drop in elevation will be at the front of the garden, and we will install large custom planters in front of the wall there. We are looking at a very simple, modern rectangular planter, and have color samples and quotes in process from several manufacturers. These will be ordered and placed on rock or pavers for stability, and they will hide the retaining wall completely on that side.

We’ll continue the brick pavers to the city sidewalk, and install large stone steps (1 or 2 as needed) at the transition point at the planters. We’ll also install a stone step as the entrance to the outdoor terrace from the middle of the sidewalk. Another issue we have is that the existing concrete sidewalk angles from the gate to back to the side entrance to our house – and we don’t want to recreate that angle with our brick pavers. It’s taken a lot tweaking, but we’re finally satisfied with the layout of the sidewalk that creates a little forecourt at the entrance and also works with the grades of the yards and where the retaining wall needs to stop and start. The downspout isn’t modeled correctly at the bottom, but it ties in underground and will still do that in this configuration – it won’t just dump out onto the sidewalk.

Here’s an overall view of the hardscape pieces, and a view different angles to help you visualize it. (Keep in mind the side fences will adjust to accommodate the grade changes, so they need some tweaking still in the model not to disappear into the earth!) More on the landscape design and inspiration photos and plant ideas to come!

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.