Big strong guys are ripping up the old green carpet in the living room and hall. They're also removing interior doors and trim, and storing them upstairs for possible reuse.
The city examiner -- the guy who reviews the building permits -- says there are some structural problems with the working drawings, prepared by an architectural technologist.
"You don't want the roof to cave in," he says.
So Jerry, our contractor, is bent over the drawings, trying to figure out how to solve the problems. He asks me if I want the structural columns in the family room and kitchen. I'm revealing my own cluelessness here, but I didn't realize until now that those circles on the drawings were columns.
Jerry's got lots of ideas about how to replace those eyesores with hidden steel beams. He explains it to me, but my head is spinning. He says the drawings should be reviewed by a structural engineer. The city will approve the plans much faster if they have an engineer's stamp.
So I agree to the engineer. That'll cost more. How much? Don't know. We've just started and I already have extra costs.
Two days later, my husband and I meet Jerry's partner, Patrick, at the house at 7:30 a.m. We walk through the entire house, discussing everything to be done. We talk about which walls we're going to insulate.
Apparently, the drawings called for insulation to be added only in the attic and the addition. We decide to add insulation to all the exterior walls on the main floor, and the basement rec room, but not upstairs. I don't mind cool bedrooms, I tell him. Two hours later, I change my mind, after meeting with Matt Caruana of the non-profit, environmental group GreenSaver.
I've hired GreenSaver (cost: $150) to do an energy audit of the house. If we can improve the energy efficiency of our home, we can get a "reward" from the city of Toronto of up to $4,000.
The money comes from the Toronto Atmospheric Fund. The fund was created by the city to support initiatives to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and improve air quality.
The fund was established in 1991 with a $23-million sale of city lands. Thirty per cent of Toronto's carbon dioxide emissions come from homes.
Matt snaps a metal frame into the open front door -- and attaches a red nylon sheet and tire-sized fan. With the fan, he depressurizes the house -- and checks three gauges he's placed on the banister. Those numbers tell him how leaky the house is.
Our reading "is into record territory. I don't think I've had one that large," he says. The numbers tell him that our house has 19 air changes every hour. (A new house has two or three.) No wonder our heating bills have been so high all winter. (We took possession on Dec. 30 and have been heating an empty house ever since.)
Matt says that all the leaks in our house add up to a 29-inch square hole in the wall. I tell him we decided not to insulate upstairs. He says the bedrooms are going to feel very cold. When he adds, "Next year, gas prices are going up 50 per cent," I decide to insulate upstairs as well. Another extra cost.
He says we'll eventually recover the extra costs through lower heating bills. "You can save easily over 50 to 60 per cent on your heating bills, if you can insulate your walls, your attic, your basement. And the best bang for your buck is draft proofing."
We also have to replace all the leaky old windows. "A well-made, good wood window is the best choice," says Matt. "It's a natural product, it's renewable. If it's well-made, it will last a long time and it looks good."
When our renovation is done, he'll come back to do another air leakage test. The amount of the reward will be based on how much improvement there is.
A dumpster the size of a rail car is parked in our driveway. It will soon be filled.
Source: GreenSaver, (416) 203-3106
I'm amazed at how quickly the house has been gutted. In just over a week, virtually all of the walls, ceilings and flooring are gone. A home that likely took many months to build in 1936 is now a shell.
"It makes you appreciate how much work went into these old houses," says one of the strong young guys as he hoists a heavy chunk of plaster into the dumpster. "And they didn't even have nail guns."
All of the walls in this pre-drywall structure are made out of lathe and plaster -- a combination of thin strips of wood, metal mesh backing and lots of plaster. Ripping it out is back-breaking -- and messy -- work. The house is filled with clouds of plaster dust. The guys are all wearing high-tech SARS-type ventilation masks. I walk through a haze of plaster dust one morning -- and can taste it every time I swallow for days afterwards.
The odd thing that strikes me about the house -- now that we can stand in one spot and see an entire floor side to side, front to back -- is how really small it looks. You'd think with all the walls gone, it would look bigger.
"We hear that all the time," our contractor Patrick says. "We build lots of big homes -- 5,000, 6,000 square feet. When the shell goes up, people always stand in the space and say, 'It looks much smaller than we thought it would be.' I tell them to wait. Once the drywall goes on, the lights are in place, the house looks big again."
The good thing about gutting a house is that you discover pretty much everything that is wrong with it. The bad thing about gutting a house is that you discover pretty much everything that is wrong with it. The surprises, of course, cost more money to fix.
We meet with Patrick and his partner Jerry one morning at 7:30 to review all the problems they've discovered.
The first thing they point out is a large crack that zig-zags down the living room wall. You can actually see daylight. "That's where the mice were getting in," Jerry says. He found lots of mouse droppings in the kitchen walls, he adds, but assures me that they run away from a construction site.
The crack can be patched up. They suspect it was caused by the house settling decades ago. Probably not a problem now, but they'll check it out.
There are far more serious problems in the kitchen. They point up to the ceiling. The floor joists, which support the floor above, are "beavered out" everywhere. That means large chunks have been removed from many of the floor joists to accommodate plumbing and heating ducts. They say that a small hole through the centre of a joist is okay. But carving out holes in the top of floor joists is a big no-no. "You can actually see the floor above sagging," Jerry points out. So all these floor joists have to be replaced.
I've often heard that you have to allow extra money in your renovation budget for surprises you discover along the way. I never quite understood the concept until now.
Next stop is the basement. Patrick and Jerry recommend removing a raised floor, because they suspect some water damage below. We'll see what they discover next week. Any wagers on whether this will cost us more money, too?
"We're going to run out of work soon if we don't get the building permit," our renovator Patrick tells me.
We're still waiting for the report from the structural engineer. We need it to get the building permit. The engineer promised he'd get it to us last Friday, but no such luck. "It's the spring rush," he says.
In the meantime, the demolition continues. No major surprises this week -- thank goodness.
However, lots of major decisions have to be made shortly on some big-ticket items that will take weeks to arrive, such as windows, the kitchen and flooring. I spend the entire week driving all over the city, visiting lots of different suppliers. My head is so overloaded with design details that I forget to pick up my daughter Stephanie from ballet class.
The windows have to be ordered first. Based on recommendations from friends and contractors, I limit my search to three Canadian companies.
The drawings haven't specified a particular style of window. I have to find one I like. Easier said than done.
There are three main materials to choose from: vinyl, aluminum and wood. I also have to decide between casements, single-hung and double-hung. The design possibilities are endless. I can choose full or partial grilles, elegant rounded tops, even leaded panes sealed within energy-efficient units.
I'm immediately drawn to the wood windows. They look more substantial than vinyl and aluminum -- and I know they'll look right with our older home.
Another plus is that wood can be painted any colour. Otherwise, with the limited shades of vinyl and aluminum, you could end up with an Appliance White window next to a Cloud White wall.
The grilles also look a lot better on wood windows. Unlike the snap-on grilles, or the thin grilles sealed between panes of glass on vinyl and aluminum windows, wood grilles are "the real McCoy." They can be ordered as "true divided lites," meaning each square is a separate pane of glass. But window companies have come up with a less costly version -- simulated divided lites -- by sealing wood grilles onto the interior and exterior of the glass.
I've decided on casement wood windows with grilles in the front. In the back, because of the beautiful ravine view, I want a less obstructed view. However, a completely clear window strikes me as looking a little too modern for this house. So I decide on a compromise: In the back, the grilles will be in the top third of each window. This will link the design of the front of the house with the back.
Leaving copies of the plans at the three window companies, I get quotes within a couple of days.
Besides pricing the drawings, Jeff Cairns of Ridley Windows and Doors suggests some changes to improve the overall design. "I've seen hundreds and hundreds of completed jobs over the past 17 years, and I can tell what looks right and what doesn't," says Jeff, who started working at Ridley as a university student. He recommends making most of the windows in the back the same width. That way, the grid pattern of the grilles will be the same. As drawn, the windows would have ended up with three different-sized grilles. "That wouldn't look right," he says.
I like the look of single-hung windows, but don't like to see screens from the outside. With a casement, the screens are inside, and can be removed easily in the colder months to let in more light. So Jeff designs a casement window that looks like an old-fashioned single-hung. A wider sash at the bottom, a wider horizontal bar at the bottom of the grilles, and grilles that appear to have a bead of putty around each pane of glass help complete the traditional look.
Now there's only one decision left. The wood windows come in 150 different colours. This won't be easy.
There are five words that a homeowner dreads hearing from a contractor. "We had a surprise today," Patrick said when he called this morning. Uh oh.
While lifting some patio stones in the back yard, they found something they weren't expecting. "It looks like a room down there," he said.
"What do you think it is?"
"Could be a bomb shelter. Maybe a torture chamber," he laughs. "Or Al Capone's secret gambling bunker. It might even be an elaborate foundation for a porch. We just don't know. But we're going to find out."
He says it's about five feet square and five feet deep, with thick, reinforced concrete walls and a steel beam across the top. There's some water inside. It's located right outside the basement rec room, but doesn't appear to be connected to the rest of the house. Because of the steel beam, he wonders if it's connected structurally to the house. Do I have the original survey, to see if it's there?
I look up the survey. Nothing there. Patrick wonders if it has something to do with the pool. I give him the name of the company that installed the pool. He'll call them.
Sensing my rising anxiety, Patrick quickly calms me down. That's the thing I really like about him. With his ever-optimistic personality and easy laughter, nothing seems to frustrate him. My heart rate can drop instantly when he says these reassuring words: "Don't worry. It's not a big deal. We'll take care of it."
Trying to make me feel better, he adds: "At least it will make a good story."
Patrick calls to say the mystery bunker appears to be part of an old septic system. It's surprising that a home in the city was ever on such a system, but, of course, that's the case in older neighbourhoods. He's trying to get more information from the city on how to deal with this.
The work at the house has come to a dead stop. No one's there today. We still don't have a building permit. Virtually all of the demolition is done. That's as far as we can go without a permit.
We finally got the engineer's structural report late last week -- a week later than originally promised. This is supposed to help speed up the process. My husband Michael delivered it to City Hall, and was told they'd have a look at it today. We're hoping to hear soon that the permit is ready. Patrick and his partner Jerry, meanwhile, are working at Patrick's house, finishing up his own renovation. But the labourers are at home. I feel badly about this. One of the reasons we chose Patrick and Jerry is because they only do one project at a time. And now they're in limbo. Hopefully, we'll get the permit soon.
Still no word from City Hall. Michael sends a fax, asking if they need any more information. "You don't want to bug them too much," advises a friend who works for the city. "Otherwise, you'll end up at the bottom of the pile. That's what happens."
Despite the warning from our friend, Mike visits City Hall again, and explains that workers are sitting at home waiting for the permit to arrive. The examiner says he'll look at it on Monday.
In the meantime, Patrick has heard from the city on our septic problem. First, they have to add a couple of gallons of bleach to neutralize any bacteria in there. Then they have to do a dye test to ensure that none of the waste water in the house ends up in the tank. This involves flushing some fluorescent dye in the toilet and seeing if it appears in the tank.
After a few days, they can remove the tank. But they have to get an engineer to test the soil to make sure it's stable enough for footings for our addition. Just one more thing to worry about.
Still no building permit. That's five days so far with no one working in the house. My husband Michael and I were very optimistic this morning, though, when he got a phone call from City Hall. They're looking at the plans at last! The examiner has a question about a ridge beam (don't ask me what that is) in the master bedroom. Michael gives him the contractor's number. The contractor then tells him to contact the structural engineer. The examiner faxes his questions to the engineer. We foolishly hope we'll get a call later in the day: "Come pick up your permit." The call never comes.
Michael gets another call from the city examiner, who says he is still waiting to hear from the structural engineer. The contractors and I both leave phone messages for the engineer. He doesn't return our calls.
A whole week now without any work at the house. Paradoxically, the week of inactivity is the most stressful one so far. I worry about the labourers sitting at home, waiting for the work to resume. I worry about the contractors, Patrick and Jerry, losing time and money with the delay. And I worry about when we should sell our current home. The original plan was to list our house in May, with a fall closing. Now, with the building permit delay -- and the septic bed problem we discovered last week -- what should we do? We don't want to miss out on a hot real estate market. But we also don't want to sell our house if the new one won't be ready on time.
The good news today is we hear from the engineer. He's spoken to the examiner, and thinks everything's okay. Both the contractors and I leave messages for the examiner: When can we pick up the permit? No one returns our calls.
"You'll feel better once they start the addition and start finishing the interior," says a friend who went through her own major renovation. "The demolition is always dirty and depressing. Think how beautiful it will be when you're done."
Keeping this in mind, Michael and I decide to go antiquing for an hour after we drop our daughter off at her Parkdale ballet school. An interior designer suggested we visit the many antique shops along Queen Street West, just east of Roncesvalles Avenue, to look for vintage lighting fixtures.
She says she often finds one-of-a-kind lights for her clients in shops like Sam the Chandelier Man and others in the area.
"The antique fixtures are so much more interesting -- and often less expensive -- than the mass-produced ones you find in a lighting store," she says. Plus, wouldn't it be great to find chandeliers, sconces and other lighting as old as the house?
The fixtures aren't as cheap as I thought they'd be.
In the first shop we visit, Just Lights, we spot a stunning, massive, hand-forged iron chandelier. The cost is way out of our price range: $9,999!
This isn't the norm, though. We see lots of chandeliers priced from $850 to $1,500. Some are less, like the $250 "Sputnik" brass chandelier from the 1960s, which resembles the satellite.
Each one is unique: some wrought iron, others bronze, many dripping with crystals. Lots were made in France, England, Italy and Spain, often dating from the early 1900s.
In Era, Michael and I fall in love with a vintage, wrought-iron chandelier from France. We decide to get it immediately, because this is one of those rare occasions when we agree on design. (I love neutrals; Michael loves colour. We desperately need the Designer Guys for some serious counselling.)
We're not exactly in complete agreement. Michael wants to keep the chandelier in its original green paint. I think it should be painted black. We leave it in the shop while we decide.
Simply buying the chandelier -- and picturing it in a finished dining room -- has cheered us both up. It has helped us see the light at the end of the tunnel. Now all we need is a building permit.
While working out at the gym at the ungodly hour of 6:30 in the morning with my friend Fern, I mention how frustrated I am that we don't have a building permit yet.
We've been waiting for three months, and the city isn't returning our calls. Work at the house has come to a standstill. She says she'll call a friend of hers at City Hall. Maybe her friend can speed things up for us.
Later in the day, we get a call from the building department. Our permit will be ready this week! It always helps if you know someone at City Hall, our contractor Patrick says.
I'm forcing myself to exercise daily to help relieve the stress. I go for a speed walk along the Humber River at 7 a.m. with Vicki, who's gone through two major renovations. While pouring out my woes to her, I realize there's great comfort in talking to people who have endured a renovation, and survived. I also learn that it doesn't take long to find those who have had even more stressful experiences. At least you get to stay in your house while you renovate your new place, Vicki says. During her latest five-month renovation, when her two-storey house was gutted and most rooms reconfigured, her family lived in several different locations. First, a friend offered them her place while she was out of town. When she returned, they moved to Vicki's dad's condo, followed by her grandmother's house, then a neighbour's while they were away on vacation, and lastly, in with their real estate agent. It was a nightmare, she says.
Then, the first night they were back in their lovely, newly renovated home, she spotted a thin line of masking tape along the edge of the hardwood floor. As she lifted the masking tape, the stain underneath came off. They had to move out of the house again, so the floor could be resanded and restained.
She tells me that she, too, was miserable throughout the renovation. But once it's over, and we have a beautiful home to move into, she assures me we'll soon forget the pain. It's like childbirth. You forget how bad it was. And then you have these funny stories to tell years later, she says. Interestingly, all of my female friends who have renovated use the same childbirth analogy.
In addition to being buoyed by friends' renovation stories, it's also strangely comforting to know that even gazillionaire celebrities like Jerry Seinfeld have their share of construction worries. I read recently that, while renovating the $30-million (U.S.) mansion he and his wife bought from Billy Joel, builders discovered the wooden foundation was rotten and most of the house has to be completely rebuilt. (Then again, maybe if you have tons of money, this kind of setback seems minuscule; to me, even the septic tank in our back yard is a huge deal.)
My husband Michael has picked up the permit. We're excited that work can start again. The contractors are finishing up some odds and ends at other job sites. They'll resume work next week.
Five guys start dismantling the two-storey glass solarium. They quickly discover that the solarium would have come crashing down on its own before too long.
When they started to pull up the floor tiles, they saw the wood underneath "was rotted right through," our contractor Jerry says. "If you stepped on it, you would've fallen through."
They found the same conditions when they removed the side windows. "You could literally push your fist through the beams," Jerry says. "None of the windows were ever caulked."
I'm so glad we didn't take the advice of the architect, who strongly suggested incorporating the solarium into his design.
Everywhere I go, I run into friends eager to share their renovating horror stories.
I see Rob at Loblaws, who asks me how the work is going. He laughs and nods sympathetically as I describe all the problems we've encountered. He understands completely. He ran into costly time delays with his own home, which he gutted and onto which he built a two-storey addition.
One week into what was to be a six-month project, the contractors discovered the house was built on swamp-like soil. They ultimately constructed a 60-tonne, 20-inch-thick floating foundation for the house and addition, which added tens of thousands of dollars to the cost, and several months to the completion date.
Nine months after the first dumpster arrived, he, his wife and three children moved back home after living with his parents the entire time. He says one of the hardest things about living away from home was the two-hour daily commute to the kids' school.
It's now one year since the work began, and contractors are still working to wrap up the project. But everyone is very happy with the bright and spacious result, and we will be pleased with ours as well, he assures me.
After talking to my friend Jane, I'm not so sure. Every day for two years, Jane had workmen in her home. She, her husband and three children lived in their house while a large, two-storey addition was built on the back. Many changes were made to the original house as well. It was done in stages, to minimize the disruption in the household, but it's not an experience Jane ever wants to repeat.
"It was hideous. It was every day from 7 a.m. until 6 p.m. They were in my kitchen, using my phone, my microwave. They were peeing without the door closed," she says.
At one point, she turned into an enraged Sharon Osbourne, when she discovered that bushes along a property line -- ones she'd just promised a neighbour wouldn't be disturbed -- were torn out that same day. "Where are my fucking bushes?" she yelled at the workers in her backyard.
Another day, her daughter slipped in the newly renovated bathroom and fell through an opaque glass door. Jane was always "vehemently opposed" to the glass door, but the architect insisted it would be perfect. The glass was supposed to shatter in a million pieces if broken, so as not to harm anyone. Regular glass had been installed instead. Her daughter's arm was badly cut, and another daughter was injured by flying glass. "My feeling is, if you use a design professional and there is a split decision, go with your own idea. Remember you have to live with this reno when all others involved have moved on," she says.
Although the addition made their home considerably larger, she's noticed the extra space hasn't meant the family's spread out throughout the house. "They'll still congregate wherever I am," she laughs. "Even if I'm in the bathroom. People just want to be together. All they need is the closeness."
Her home is stunningly beautiful today. Was it worth it? "What I gained in material space didn't compensate for what I lost in terms of peace of mind, mental health and interpersonal relationships with the rest of my family," she says. I'm beginning to think she's right.
The solarium is down now, leaving a pockmarked wall. Maybe things will start to look better next week.
It should have been fairly easy to dig the foundation for the addition at the back of the house, but it ends up being a lot harder than anyone ever imagined.
We already knew they had to remove the underground concrete tank -- the remains of a 70-year-old septic system -- which they found several weeks ago. But as the guys started digging, they discovered all sorts of other debris.
The first thing they hit was a compost bin-sized chunk of concrete, in which was imbedded the remains of a television tower. Next, they discovered the concrete block foundation of a former porch, and beside that some boulders. They brought in some heavy machinery to help break up the concrete and rocks, but it took all week.
Our contractor Patrick has brought me a typed list of homework. Here's my assignment: In the next week or so, I have to choose the bathtubs for the two bathrooms, along with the taps, and the shower stall controls. I thought I could put off this decision for weeks, if not months. But the plumber's going to start roughing in the plumbing soon, and he needs to know exactly where the bath drains, faucets and shower fittings will go.
I tell Patrick rather assuredly that I know exactly what I want. Simple, traditional, not too expensive. "I'll be in and out of there in five minutes," I say. He raises his eyebrows skeptically. "You might find it's harder than you think," says Patrick, who just finished planning a renovation of his own bathroom.
I tell him the biggest challenge is going to be finding a tub as comfortable as the one in our existing house. It's a double-walled, cast-iron bathtub -- circa 1929 -- with a perfectly angled back and rounded top.
All five of us take turns lounging in the bath every evening. There's nothing like the sheer pleasure of leaning back in a tub of hot water, resting the neck on the oh-so-comfortable edge, and reading until toes resemble prunes -- or until getting kicked out by the next one in line. "I get the bath next. Called it!" is heard in our house every evening. I can't wait to have a house with two bathtubs.
But will I find a tub as good as this ergonomically perfect marvel of engineering?
I spend a full day test-driving bathtubs -- and shopping for faucets, toilets and sinks -- in several different bath stores, as well as three "big box" hardware stores. All day. Like a disgruntled Goldilocks, I cannot find a tub as comfortable as my own. And as for the faucets, toilets and sinks, there are way too many choices. (At Home Depot, I counted 74 different styles of bathroom sink faucets.) My head is spinning. I can't make up my mind.
It's very easy to get distracted in a bath store. The shops I visit are surprisingly busy for a weekday. The shoppers are predominantly women, walking very slowly up and down the aisles in a dream-like trance -- trying to imagine how this bathtub or that tap will look in their bathroom.
Visiting a specialty bath store is like stepping through the pages of a design magazine. At Taps, I spot a streamlined, stainless-steel wall-hung basin that looks like it belongs in a private jet ($3,000), along with a matching mirror ($2,200), towel bar ($399) and soap holder ($300). Nearby is a huge tub with 40 air jets and a heated backrest ($4,459).
There's a breathtaking textured green glass pedestal sink and countertop ($2,469). Or for a child's bathroom, how about a drop-in basin, painted with vines, pink flowers and an old stone wall, surrounded with written lines from Sleeping Beauty ($2,069).
At Ginger's, among the coolest items I see are a stainless-steel toilet ($3,547.96) and a co-ordinating cone-shaped stainless-steel basin ($2,299.96) I fall in love with a faucet, and quickly fall out of love when I see the price tag ($1,269.95).
Every bath store seems to have different merchandise, so I feel compelled to check out as much as possible. At Plumbing Mart, I spot other uber-trendy items, like a tall basin that sits on top of the counter and resembles a hard-boiled egg (white on the outside, yellow inside), for $972. Next to it is a stainless-steel countertop sink that looks like a huge salad bowl ($1,106), as well as a black petal-shaped one ($714).
See what I mean about getting distracted? What happened to "simple, traditional, in and out in five minutes"?
The next day, flipping through a bathroom feature in a magazine, I get excited when I spot a gorgeous tub that looks a lot like mine. I vaguely remember seeing one like it at Ginger's. I phone the store. "I'm calling about a tub in the April issue of Canadian House & Home," I tell the saleswoman. Before I can even say, "the one on page 122," she says, "I know the one you mean. It's the Empire Waterworks. It's $10,500." Besides being way over my budget, I console myself with the fact that it was too large for our space anyway.
I have another idea where I might find the perfect tub. I'll tell you if I'm successful next week.