May 13

2012 Epiphany

Winter country house scenicIt wasn’t a very harsh winter in 2012, so I can’t say, “It was on a bleak, cold winter day that I came to the conclusion that my dream wasn’t going to work.”

No, during that unusually mild winter, on a day that was cold but sunny, I had an epiphany, one that would solve a series of dilemmas and concerns that had begun to trouble me. ​ ​

I had been working on the property since 1996. How was it all going to end? Was there a finish or was I just going to keep hammering, digging and designing until I was too old to do it any more? It seemed to me that everything I’d done up to that point had been somewhat reactionary: first an idea, then a modification based on at unexpected consequence or act of fate or even a marriage. Behind me was an unfurled road of ideas that had been born one after another, comprising a plan that was always expanding and changing. I wanted that to end, and to reach the destination.

In the spring of 2011 I had finished the upstairs of the guesthouse into a one-bedroom apartment to be used as a source of rental revenue. But what was I going to do with the downstairs?  Currently it was being used as I had intended as a workshop and storage. It seemed like a waste for that because there was too much space and the views were too nice. In the past fall I had just put the finishing touches on a large garage that I fully insulated- R16, sheet rocked, spackled and painted. It was heated with a wood furnace, big enough for a workshop and a plow-truck.  Why have two workshops? So in reaction to this situation I decided to make another guest bedroom in the front storage room of the former garage and now guesthouse. Sound confusing? It has been to me also.

As I was working away throughout the months of January and February on this guest bedroom,​ it really started to bother me that I wouldn’t be able to begin on my expansion plans for the main house for a couple of years. The main house wasn’t a “real house” in my mind–only a partial house. Its kitchen was only fashioned in a temporary way because I never planned on it staying that small- eight feet by ten feet. The upstairs bedroom was also 8’x10’ with a ½ bath and that was too small as the queen size bed was pushed up against the wall and there was no room for dressers. That’s no dream, that was a reaction to a fire! So, since the beginning, I had always planned to expand the main house by adding a two story addition with a full kitchen, eating area, living room area and adding another full bedroom and bathroom, in addition to putting in a full basement under the expansion.

There was one big problem: that plan called for 4 bedrooms total on the property including the guest house, and my sewer system was only rated for 3 bedrooms. That would be the kind of issue that keeps you up at night when you go to sell.

I was 59 years old and my aches and pains were not getting any less. For the last 10 years,​ winters have always been a struggle for me physically. Pain throughout the workday was usually present in some way.

For a lot of reasons, I really started to get bothered about the idea of having two houses and neither of them finished.  For Pete’s sake I had been at this for about 15 years, except for taking off one year to gut and renovate our apartment in the city. When was it going to end?

Two houses. Winter 2012

Two houses. Winter 2012

And as I was aging and getting close to a retirement age, I had to look at the money situation. Competition in the freelance TV camera world was getting fiercer. Younger, smarter and healthier people were pounding at the door. I began to speculate that my camera work that supported me was going to fall off and eventually end.

For a long time it was my belief that working on my house in the country had helped me stay physically competitive in my camera job in the city. The variety of bending, lifting, stretching and long workdays of building had helped me stay strong, fit and competitive in the freelance TV camera pool. That was true but now I was starting to worry about the wear and tear I was noticing as I got older. Along with joint pain, stiffness has really starting to set in.

Some of my camera work jobs are very physically demanding. I get these “run and gun” type jobs as we call them. They require holding a heavy 25-lb. camera on your shoulder at some kind of an event–sporting, news or other type–while you run around shooting things all day long. Some times you are lucky and get to use a lightweight camera, but the best cameras are the heavy ones, for good reason. This running and gunning type shooting is something I have a good reputation at, so when the jobs come around I am likely to be someone who gets the call (for now). On the down side, they now can cause me physical pain throughout the day and I began to wonder how much longer I would be able to do them or want to do them.  The consequences of that were obvious: If I didn’t do these jobs, then I wouldn’t make enough money to pay for my dream in the mountains.

To pull off something like building your own home you have to stay focused and keep your eye on the prize, which is finishing the house, living in it and,​ long term, being sure that it’s an investment that will take care of you when it’s time to sell.  I had always prided myself in knowing I had kept that focus.

But, unlike my wife, I never noticed too much that I was always building.  I did recognize that our social life was sacrificed, because, up in the mountains at the end of the day, I was beat and didn’t want to go anywhere.  I always told Deb, “I work with new and different people every day in the city- that is socializing enough for me.”  Also, socializing made me drink more and I didn’t want that going on either.

But was my life becoming lopsided with this approach?  Over the years, my brother and other people had questioned the constant building, which made me question it also- but not for too long. I didn’t question it very long because I had the answer–I loved doing it and couldn’t think of a more rewarding way to use my spare time. It was healthy play. I was lucky because, as a freelancer, I had more unscheduled time, and like all freelancers, I needed to make good use of that time.

And there was another thing that was gnawing at me. As I traveled around our mountainous vacation area, occasionally I would see the remains of unfinished dreams. Dreams belonging to others who probably had started out with as much zeal as I had. I saw places that had been discarded because they were never built well enough to stand being neglected for too much time, or they were built without proper consideration about who would want to buy them in the future. I saw kookie places, places that no one would want unless they were sold cheap. These Unfinished Dream Homes were constant cautionary tales: I didn’t want my creation to end up the same. I had worked way too hard and had more belief in myself to let that happen.

But my own dream was revealing its own kookieness:  it was basically two houses just steps away from one another on a 32-acre lot.  Wait. What? Why? Who would buy that?

​These were the thoughts that were starting to turn over in my brain as I worked.

But the answer was slowly working its way up to the surface. I would be ​working on the new bedroom in the guesthouse and every time I’d stop to pause and look outside, I would be filled with peace–the view outside the guesthouse was gorgeous, almost Zen-like. I was looking out at the graceful, vertical lines of a tall stand of maples, a row of young Norway spruce trees, and glimpsed between them the front road with the rare vehicle traveling by. Beyond all that, the forest ascended.

This guesthouse was already twice as big as the main house, and finally it hit me: the guesthouse should be the main house. Its location on the property was superior in that it was higher by a few feet, had better views all around, and already had a small basement. The idea took hold and the new vision unfolded: I would turn the bedroom I was working on into a living room, make the former workshop area into a kitchen with a bathroom and shower behind that, enclose the area under the overhanging deck for an eating area with views of the mountains and add a bedroom on the north side of the ground floor. No big addition needed on the main house! Wow. For the (former) main house, keep it to 1 bedroom, only expand the kitchen to include an eating area and expand the upstairs bedroom over that so it would be more comfortable. That would make for a sweet, small guest house and it would keep it’s charm.

This would keep the sewer system within its designed, legal capacity to three total bedrooms! It’s a five year plan with a finish line, and I will be 65 in five years.

Voila! My dilemma was over and what a relief! That night I called Deb and told her my new idea, she totally agreed.    OK dreamer, now get back to work! 

Making the change

Yes, changing horses in midstream meant some more modifications!

The front room I was working on in the guesthouse felt too small and cramped to be the living area, so I immediately extended the north wall by six feet (with an insulated frost wall and slab foundation).

Below: the 5' insulated frost wall  extension. Above: 14' I-Beam installation before wall removal.

Below: the 5′ insulated frost wall extension. Above: 14′ I-Beam installation before wall removal.

New north facing living room picture window combination.

New north facing living room picture window combination. (slab foundation extension visible)

I put on a new, metal, pitch-change roof and added a much-needed north facing picture window, which has a white spruce knocking right outside. I visualized this spruce drooping under the weight of heavy snow in winter as I sit in my cozy, warm living room watching TV or reading a book and drinking whiskey at the end of the day.

The kitchen and bathroom posed more complicated challenges. First and foremost, the place I wanted to put them was over a cement slab foundation. The good thing was the main sewer stack was nearby. Even with the stack close by getting the needed pitch for all the new drains was going to be difficult! I decided I would put down 3 inches of rigid foam insulation over the concrete, then 1-¼ inches of plywood sub-flooring and ceramic tile on top of that. This would give me 4 inches of possible pitch for drains.

Problem solved? In one way, but I was in denial about how difficult it would be to get the drain pitch. When summer rolled around and I dug in, I could see the problem more clearly: a three-inch toilet drain is almost 4 inches of outside diameter so there would be no room for pitch and no room for a closet bend, (the fitting that connects the toilet bottom to the drain pipe). Turned out I needed seven total inches of pitch for the toilet!

Additionally, the kitchen sink drain was going to Y into a 2-inch shower drain, so for that drain distance I needed to be 2 inches below the concrete where it meets the main sewer stack.

There was no getting around it: time to break up the concrete. Ugh! Naturally, I had used the stuff that would last a lifetime: this was 4,000 lbs. test concrete, well stratified with ½ inch re-bar. I tried using my ½ inch hammer drill for about two hours then I gave up on that. Stubbornly I rented a big time hammer drill and got the job done in less than three hours.

There was a price to pay for all that hammer drilling- my hands got numb. It has been four months since then and I only feel an occasionally tingling now – but still….  It makes me wonder about the age clock.

Toilet and sink drains cut into concrete slab.

Toilet and sink drains cut into concrete slab.

Start of new bathroom over existing slab. Shower trap shown cut into slab at top right. Bottom 2" sewer drains will continue on right to kitchen.

Start of new bathroom over existing slab. Shower trap shown cut into slab at top right. Bottom 2″ sewer drain will continue on right to kitchen. Line will vent up kitchen wall and back into stack.

May 13

Time waits for no man

RedHillCandleThere was a reason for this burst of activity- my age clock really was ticking. That summer I turned 60 and my wife Deb had invited all of her family to our place in the mountains for their annual summer gathering. With some members from my part of the family, that added up to 21 people over three days. All but 5 of these people had never been to our country place and only one had been there recent enough to know what it was all about. So it was very important for me to show it in the best possible light. The legendary building project that occupied Deb’s husband needed to look good! And in a practical sense, I wanted to give them some shelter: so I knew I needed to enclose the new living room addition and I wanted a downstairs toilet to accommodate everyone. I also figured a shower should be installed–our only two other bathrooms had cast-iron tubs, not convenient for a big crowd.

This was a big deal for me because it was not just a personal milestone but also a kind of grand opening of our place in the country. It seemed that Deb and I had never done any entertaining–we always benefited from other people’s hospitality and would pitch in however we could, but we’d never had to take on the responsibility of pulling it all together.

In my mind it was pay back time to everyone who had hosted us, and I wanted it to be good. By good I mean well-planned, good food and a good presentation. Well Deb did not see it that way for this reason- she is a spendthrift to the degree that surpasses even me! She does not like to spend money even on herself. I admire this about her and I give her credit because it is partially the reason for our financial stability. But for this occasion, I saw things differently: I wasn’t going to go cheap.

Deb believed everyone could bring dishes to pass, while I wanted to feed everyone three quality meals a day. I wanted to present a feast for the Saturday night birthday dinner, when all 21 people would be present: we would grill a whole salmon over the fire. This was the direction I was going and Deb was following me skeptically. Remember, we do not host parties; we’ve never even hosted a kid’s birthday party because we have no kids! And in our 14 years together, we had only put on one large dinner party at our apartment in the city. We were infants in this regard.

The months of June and July were very good months for me work-wise but not good months for getting things done in the mountains. A friend of mine, Mike Drexler, whom I work with often, volunteered to help me put the living room roof on over the July 4th holiday weekend. He was a huge help and although we didn’t get done all I had hoped in the 2 days he was there, it is safe to say I got twice as much done with his help.

Mike Drexler & John

Mike Drexler & John

Once the roof was on and the living room extension was enclosed with plywood sheathing and covered in house wrap, I switched my focus to the downstairs bathroom.

This was when the stress started to build. During the middle of July things reached the breaking point between Deb and I. We started planning for the party two months out. The plan included everything from a house rental nearby for the guest overflow, 20’x20’ tent, table and chairs, dinnerware, cooking pots and pans and lastly the quantity and types of food for the three days.

The closer it got to the date of the party the more Deb and I seemed to disagree about things.  I wanted real tablecloths; Deb was thinking plastic. I wanted individual shell steaks for everyone; Deb was thinking hamburgers. It went on and on, we were going in two different directions and I was getting stressed about finishing the bathroom.

So four weeks out, after one of these confrontational back and forth, I blew up and told Deb to cancel the party. I quit! We can’t pull this off! We are not up to this! I told Deb to call her family and let them know we called it off. It was just too much for me trying to work at my job, finish the bathroom before the party and deal with the planning. The planning was becoming a war between the planners.

Deb said OK and we dropped it there. After cooling off for 24 hours, I brought it up again and explained to Deb my reason for wanting to make a quality party. She gave in and to prove it I asked her to agree on nice candles for the evening’s dinner table and no paper plates. She agreed and we never looked back. It was full steam ahead at that point. We were a new team!

The next weekend I went to work up in the country; Deb stayed home in the city because of work conflicts. The plumbing drains were all in and the plywood sub floor installed. When I cemented in the shower pan I realized there was an issue with my measurements because of something the instructions failed to mention.  There was a ¼ inch gap between the shower pan back wall and the green board sheetrock. This would be perfect if I was going to use ceramic tile for my shower walls but I wasn’t. I had bought acrylic walls and glass doors. The shower pan needed to be flush against the green board for these glass doors to work properly.

Freshly cemented fiberglass shower pan.

Freshly cemented fiberglass shower pan.

The cement had well set by the time I realized this. To rip that out and do it over would mean buying a new $300 shower pan. That night I called Deb up and told her I realized trying to finish the shower instillation before the party was a mistake and I was stopping work on it for now. I knew the solution for the gap and I knew the cause of the problem. The directions were indeed deficient but I needed to SLOW DOWN! This shower job was too important to screw up. It was more important to have a toilet, four bathroom walls and a door than a working shower stall. To give an example of how close to the wire things were- I was putting in the bathroom door the day people started showing up. Eventually I wanted to cut a hole in the outside bathroom wall and put in a window- the glass shower enclosure would just be in the way and maybe the glass would get broken so stop already- things will be fine.

And they were. We had a terrific 3-day gathering and everyone was full of praise.  Sad to see everyone go but, hopefully, they will return. Maybe next time we’ll just have the plastic tablecloth though.

John & Pat with the hot of the fire whole salmon.

John & Pat Little with the hot off the fire whole salmon.

Around the fire pit at John's 60th birthday party.

Around the fire pit at John’s 60th birthday party.

John with is shell steaks for the Friday night dinner.

John with his shell steaks for the Friday night dinner. He hasn’t changed his clothes yet from all the work he was running around doing prepping for the party.

My sister Chris's & husband Ken Mantai's camper & the town in the background. 60th Bday.

My sister Chris’s & husband Ken Mantai’s camper & the town in the background. 60th Bday.

All the guest. John's twin showed up for the party also.

All the guest. John’s twin showed up for the party also.