Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Cottage

A realtor was the first to refer to this little house as The Cottage and this tag appealed to me immediately. 

The Cottage - Before
The Cottage - After

This run-down home had been abandoned by the family that owned it and although it had great potential, many had opted not to buy it.  Because no one else wanted it, The Cottage was the perfect project for me.  After I bought it, I got right to work; I moved every interior door, every window, relocated and rebuilt the stairs, demoed the old front porch and built new ones (at relocated front and back doors), expanded the second floor, added a half bathroom, moved the kitchen, moved all the interior walls (except one that was critical structurally), and lowered the floor downstairs to establish 8’ high ceilings (in lieu of the 6’ 4” headroom I’d inherited). 

I moved into the The Cottage after I sold and moved out of The Fire House.  I finished it while I lived there and then designed and built a new home on a vacant, adjoining lot that had been part of the original deal to buy The Cottage. After I sold it, I moved into the new house before I took on the next project; a home torn up by Hurricane Hugo that we call The Hurricane House.             

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Picture Window at The Bungalow

It will come as no surprise that I am a big fan of This Old House; the television show, the magazine, and the web site.  The current issue (Jan./Feb. 2012) of my magazine subscription put forth a question:  How have YOU used salvaged architectural details in your home?

In 2008, I bought a Pig’s Ear to renovate in Charleston, SC that we call The Bungalow. Although this 50 year old house had not been condemned, it should have been.  The roof leaked, the heated and cooling system had been abandoned, there were plumbing leaks, the electrical system was a mess, floors were caving in, there were serious structural issues, and without question it was the ugliest and worst home on the street.

The Bungalow - Before
The Bungalow - After

After I addressed all the major issues, I had one minor matter that was solved with a salvaged architectural item.  My task: a space within the heart of the home needed some natural light.  The solution:  replace window panes in the home’s original picture window with equivalently sized mirrors and mount it on an interior wall to create the illusion and feel of a window.  I understand that this is not an overly original idea.  However, I will take credit for carefully removing the window during demolition and then storing (and moving) it safely throughout the two year renovation until I needed it. 

This mirrored pictured window not only added natural light into this part of the house, but it brought charm and an element of craftsmanship that was not costly or time consuming.  Since I salvaged the home’s original picture window my cost for the frame was $0.  It took a couple hours to safely remove the glass panes, a little time for two coats of paint on the frame, and two or three more hours to buy and install the twenty 11” x 14” mirrors which I bought from a glass shop for $3.50 apiece (although I had quotes for twice that).

Eating Area - Before/During Renov.

Eating Area - After  (Same view)
When renovating a house, I always make an effort to redesign it to feel bigger than its actual square footage.  The Bungalow was one of these homes and the mirrored pictured window helped to make this feeling come about.  The wooden frame made it look like an authentic window and the mirrors created an effect of openness and light that felt real as well.  Most people (but not all) weren’t fooled and knew what the mirrored frame detail actually was, but what made it so gratifying for me was that it created something necessary and at the same time special because I was able to repurpose part of the original house and incorporate it within the interior that was all (except for the wood floors) new.   

Picture Window with Mirrors Installed

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Blood and Sweat?

I don’t have tattoos.  I have scars.  An injury that caused one of these marks came during the Blizzard of 1978 when one of my brothers accidentally hit me in the head with his shovel while we were trying to dig out the drive of our rural Midwestern home.  He stopped working for a minute to give my bloody head a quick review and then said, “You’ll be alright, but don’t stand so close to me.”  Since we were snowed in, medical attention was not an option.  I pulled the stocking cap back down on my head to soak up the blood and kept shoveling.  That would have been the end of it except for the scar that gets more prominent with age and hair loss.  A decade and a half after the blizzard I found myself working in the Appalachian Mountains on a large construction project.  A piece of rebar sliced my hand as efficiently as a razor blade, but for multiple reasons, a trip to the emergency room was once again not an option.  So, on that hot summer day, I covered the bloody gash with leftover fast food napkins, wrapped it with duct tape, and got back to my job of tying steel.    

I’ve consistently taken a hands-on approach to my renovation projects because I totally enjoy every phase of fixing up a run-down home.  I can and will hire subcontractors for scopes too great or technical for me to tackle alone, but if I’m capable of knocking out an activity working solo, I will.  When it’s been suggested that I pay others to complete various tasks I’ve often explained that I wouldn’t hire someone to watch a football game or play golf on my behalf so I’m not going to pay someone to complete work that I enjoy doing myself either.  It’s simply too much fun to pay people to do it for me.  Scrapes, cuts, work related wounds with the resulting blood are routine.  It’s not uncommon to see red drops suddenly start appearing on my work that serve as evidence that I’m bleeding.  This is not all about how I was raised, I really become so immersed in what I doing that I’m oftentimes oblivious to whatever caused me to accidentally injure myself. 

Sweat is part of the process too.  During the summer months I’ve gotten into the habit of rotating shirts to deal with the issue of excessive perspiration that often starts in the first sixty minutes on site and continues until sundown.  I’ll hang a wet shirt on a section of handrail or fence, grab a dry one from the stack, and keep swapping shirts in and out until the first shirt is dry.  Then I slip back into shirt number one as I start the rotation cycle from the beginning.  It makes me more comfortable so I can focus and I need a dry shirt for the seemingly endless need to wipe the sweat off my face. 

In addition, I make a point to fill an empty milk jug with water and place it in the freezer overnight.  In the morning I’ll throw the block of ice encased in plastic into my truck and I’ll suck it down all day as it thaws out in the sun.  I regularly finish off this gallon of water myself during an average work day in June, July, August, and September. 

Blood, Sweat, and Pig’s Ears, they all go together for me in a way that makes me truly feel right at home in a run-down house. 

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Fire House - After

The brightest thing I saw on the Fire House when I found it was the prominent red tag on the front door declaring that the home had been ‘CONDEMNED.’  It was vacant and run-down and pulling down the property values of everything surrounding it.  It was an eye sore and a Pig’s Ear and twelve months after starting, it had been transformed into the most valuable house on the street.  Not only was the Fire House no longer a neighborhood liability, but several of my new neighbors credited me with making their homes more valuable.  I’m no home appraiser, but I sure agree that the neighborhood was better than when I started because the ugliest house on a highly-visible corner had been fixed up.  The outside was clean and bright and the driveway, sidewalk, and landscaping were all more distinct and well defined. 

The brightness and improved appearance from the street initially got people’s attention.  Strangers knocked on the door, clearly curious to see how things looked on the interior and the responses were a huge payoff after the year long project.  The common living space of the Fire House’s interior underwent the most radical makeover.  The conversion of the garage into a den and the addition of the master suite (both by previous owners) had made valuable square footage in the Fire House into little more than extra wide spaces for foot traffic.  This inefficient use of valuable space had been the biggest challenge when I reworked the living area on paper before I started.  I relocated the back door, extended one hall and added another hallway to establish a more efficient flow within the ranch house.  I made the original living room (which had been like a gigantic foyer) a dining room, I converted the laundry room into a breakfast/eating area, and made the dining area from the original home into the hall leading to the new back door (which was next to the new laundry room).  In addition, I opened up the main living space by re-framing the area over the den as a cathedral height ceiling (twelve feet) and by adding columns in lieu of solid walls when possible.  This openness was the most dramatic change on the inside with the refinished heart pine floors being the second dramatic difference that grabbed people’s attention when they walked through the front door.  There wasn’t much that needed done on the bedrooms and bathrooms of the Fire House.  They all received new carpet and fresh coats of paint, but little more.  

The view from the den looking up into the kitchen.

The view from the kitchen looking down into the den. 

And finally, besides finishing this house within budget and receiving my Certificate of Occupancy on schedule I must also report that there was no trace of smoke odors when the renovation was complete.  And a few months after completion, the Fire House was featured on as a monthly winner of their Your Old House contest.  
This was the corner of the Fire House that was totally obscured by overgrown bushes. 
The back corner of the house with the new, relocated back door and deck.


Friday, November 11, 2011

The Fire House - During

We call it the Fire House, because it was condemned by local building officials years after a dryer fire in the laundry room pushed the home into the category of uninhabitable.  It was the only run-down, vacant house on the street and I saw its potential immediately.  There was a towering Oak tree in the back yard, a pair of giant Pines in front, and a couple of beautiful Magnolia’s that needed pruning, but were still busting with southern charm.  The garage in the house had been converted into a large den, but there was a detached carport in the back yard that contained much needed storage space for materials, tools, and equipment that would be required for the renovation work.

It's clear to see that I'm covered with soot.  This was how it was for months until the drywall was hung.

I made a lot of new friends as I renovated the Fire House.  The families nearby and around the neighborhood were excited to learn that someone had bought the place with the intention of fixing it up.  The brick had been painted light gray, the shingles on the roof were a darker shade of gray, and the trim was a very, very dark blue that looked more like black.  It was an extremely ugly, dreary house and it’s no wonder someone called it a Pig’s Ear.  

For the entire year, I spent all my spare time working on the Fire House.  Nearly every evening after work and any spare time I had on the weekends.  However, to be accurate, it hardly felt like work for me because I wholeheartedly loved every minute of the time that I worked on that house.  I did all the initial cleanup and demolition by myself as well as the carpentry (framing and fine), roofing, and landscaping.  I won’t say that these were all simple tasks, but they were accomplishable as I knocked them out in progressive, steady steps before I went on to the next activity on the project.   

The converted garage included a fire place.

When I started the Fire House I was in no way an experienced home renovator.  I knew where I wanted to go and by that I mean I could picture how I wanted the home to look and feel when I was finished, but I certainly didn’t know exactly how I was going to get there.  It was an adventure (as I’ve written before) and my plan took shape in specific ways day-by-day, week-by-week, and month-by-month.  I failed more than one inspection and once had to frantically figure out how to shut off the water to the house after I started doing plumbing work I was unqualified for and had water shooting out of one the shower valves.  I didn’t let any of those missteps or screw-ups discourage me.  I was willing to admit that I had a lot to learn, I made the required corrections when needed, and I pushed on.  I hired tradesmen for the plumbing, HVAC, electrical, insulation, drywall, masonry, cabinetry, painting, and flooring.  I won’t say that these crews shared my vision or optimism for how the house would be resurrected, but as long as my checks cleared at the bank, they were happy to be a part of the team.  

This is a view from the spot of the fire.  What had once been the laundry room had become the future breakfast area next to the kitchen & the space that had been the living area would soon be the dining room.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Fire House - Before

The Fire House was vacant, yet For Sale when I saw it for the first time.  There was trash and abandoned children’s toys throughout the overgrown corner lot and a red tag on the front door that officially labeled it as condemned.  There was a charred hole in the roof over the laundry room as clear evidence of the fire that had caused the home’s demise and more than one window had been broken, likely by rocks thrown by kids in the neighborhood.  When co-workers learned of my plans to purchase and renovate the house, they tried to persuade me to reconsider.  It was the ugliest home on the street and people just had a tough time getting a handle on where I'd start and found it difficult (if not impossible) to imagine the place in livable condition. However, I saw a forgotten brick home with potential that would be transformed into an amazing place to live when I was finished.

I borrowed money to buy and renovate the Fire House.  My agreement with the bank included a twelve month time limit to complete the renovations and receive my Certificate of Occupancy from the local Building Officials.  More than one person advised me that I’d be unable to obtain my CO in that amount of time because I was doing so much of the work myself while working my full time job that occupied the majority of my time Monday through Friday and portions of my Saturdays.  In addition, I was peppered with warnings about the smoke smell that existed in the house as quite a few folks thought it was there to stay. 

I grew up in the Midwest and had spent plenty of time with my sleeves rolled up shoveling manure, baling hay, and detasseling corn.  In addition to that I'd also had a lot of fun on our small farm building tree houses and hay forts.  For me, work, building, and fun had been rolled into one for much of my life.  I heard what people said when I started to work on the run-down house, but didn’t really understand why they were so full of doubts.  I felt confident that the Fire House would look, feel, and be a real gem when I was done.  I didn’t sleep very well the night before my first day of work, but it wasn’t nerves making me toss and turn in my bed, I was simply too excited to sleep well.   

The Back of the Fire House where the damage was the most extensive.

The Front Corner of the Fire House
The Kitchen, next to the Laundry Room

The Back Inside Corner of the Fire House.  The section to the left of the bay window was a previous addition that added a Master Suite which turned the 3 bedroom, 1bath Ranch into a 4 bdrm., 2 ba. home.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Renovating a Pig's Ear is American?

There’s something very American about wrapping yourself around a challenge others say is impossible.  Christopher Columbus ignored naysayers and set off to find a better route to Asia in the east by traveling west.  And consider the American Revolutionaries who came up with the notion to break away from the British Empire.  There were certainly more than a few who didn’t think that was such a good idea.  And what about landing on the Moon?  Who did we really think we were setting our sights on that goal?  But that’s what we’ve grown up to believe in; putting things on the line and persevering to achieve what others say can’t and/or shouldn’t be done.  

It’s A Wonderful Life is a classic American movie made back in the 1940’s.  In one memorable scene of that film George and Mary are standing outside the abandoned Granville house.  Mary says she wants to live in it someday just before George makes a ‘hatful of wishes’ and then breaks some glass by throwing a rock.  They ultimately get married, honeymoon in the old home, fix it up, and raise a family there.  This house was definitely in the Pig’s Ear category.

At the start of the process of renovating a Pig’s Ear, I’m anxious and willing to roll up my sleeves and get to work and for me, buying and resurrecting these wrecks have exemplified American capitalism.  I invest money, make improvements, and then (if all goes well) I sell for a higher amount which creates a profit that compensates me for my time and the risk I’ve taken.  

I believe that buying and rehabbing an old, run-down home exemplifies who we are as Americans, especially if the house is considered a hopeless cause and beyond the point of repair.  It’s not easy, but in most cases that’s why other people have not fixed up these properties.  Sometimes it’s hard to explain why renovating a Pig’s Ear is such an amazing experience.  There are so many reasons, large and small, but this tie-in to our American Spirit is at least to some degree an element that draws me in to take these projects on and see them through to completion.     

Friday, October 7, 2011

It's An Adventure

An adventure is exciting, but it’s most often challenging.  It’s jammed full of tests and trials and usually some element of endurance (it likely doesn’t start and then finish in a day or two).  An adventure is laced with satisfaction, which isn’t to say that it’s full of chocolate and giggles throughout, but it has moments that are unforgettable and worth savoring.  An adventure oftentimes has an element of danger and perhaps forces the person involved to deal with fear.  An adventure might provide its participants with the opportunity to meet interesting, colorful characters, but could also put them in some sort of standoff with nefarious individuals who could knock them off track, want to do them harm, or maybe take advantage of them for financial gain.  And an adventure may have a dividend waiting at it’s conclusion like tremendous personal satisfaction, attention, and/or something valuable.   

Renovating a run-down house is an adventure.  Most of my projects have taken at least a year to complete.  On many occasions I’ve had to climb and work higher above the ground than I would have liked, been forced to crawl or squeeze myself into tight spaces in order to finish tasks, and been faced with ridding my project of critters that make my skin crawl even now as I type these words.  While renovating Pig’s Ears I got my dog and have made countless friends.  I’ve had my share of clashes with inspectors, contractors, and vendors when they hindered my pursuit of a Certificate of Occupancy.  And in renovating Pig’s Ears I’ve been thrilled to see my houses featured on-line or in magazines at the bookstore, I’ve been showered with praise from neighbors, friends, and relatives, I’ve made some money, and I married a beautiful girl who parked in my Pig’s Ear driveway without permission.

Like any adventure, renovating a run-down house will involve unexpected obstacles, setbacks, trying times, perhaps some scary moments, and maybe even a visit to the emergency room.  Renovating a Pig’s Ear or taking on any challenge that others think is impossible won’t be easy, but it will be an adventure and you have to believe it will be worth your effort.  So if you’re considering a house renovation that seems overwhelmingly daunting like climbing Mt. Everest or heading across the ocean in a boat, I want to stoke your fire and recommend that you keep that consideration burning.  You may enjoy taking on that Pig’s Ear as much as I do and like me, it might even be a life changing experience.


Tuesday, October 4, 2011

It's Possible

Blood, Sweat, and Pig's Ears is all about doing things other people say can’t be done.  Growing up, my friends and I loved the Rocky movies.  The Italian Stallion always did the impossible.  Nobody thought Rocky could hang in there with Apollo Creed, but he did it.  He went the distance.  Then in Rocky II he defeated Apollo.  Maybe that's why I grew up ignoring other people's negative predictions.  It might just all trace back to Rocky Balboa.

When someone say’s, “You can’t turn a Pig’s Ear into a Silk Purse,” they’re saying you can’t do the impossible.  Fine, I get that.  But who’s to say what’s possible and what isn’t.  There are plenty of folks out there ready to pour cold water on your plans, whether you’re excited about renovating an old house, starting a small business, running for public office, or doing just about anything others judge to be extremely challenging.  What I’ve found is that when someone feels compelled to say, “You can’t do it,” what they are really letting you know is that they believe they can’t or are mystified about how you’re going to achieve your objective. 

I’m not a big fan of the word impossible, but I will share something now that utilizes that word.  It would be impossible for me to name all the times people have heard details of my house renovation plans and let me know with attitudes of authority that what I’ve described could not be done.  I’ve also had lots of support and encouragement from people who have been excited about my projects from the beginning to the end.  All the time, strangers walk by and say things like, “The house is looking great.  Keep it up.  We can’t wait to see how it turns out,” or “We’ve been waiting a long time for someone to come and fix this place up,” and one of my favorites was a man I had never met and only saw once.  He was bursting with excitement as he walked by and shouted, “You’re doing it man!  You’re really doing it!”  Apparently, I had converted him into a believer. 

But there’s a third category of people that seem to consistently migrate to each of my Pig’s Ear projects; people who are curious to know how I do what I do and how they can do the same.  I love to encourage other people to follow their dreams and although my writing will be exemplified with knowledge and experience from renovating Pig’s Ears, in many ways the lessons are applicable to anything other people think can’t be done.  In twenty years working in the construction industry and a decade renovating extremely run-down homes, I’ve come to believe that if someone tells you something is impossible, and you don’t even try, then they will be right. 

So, if you have a big, impossible dream, treat any obstacles as if they were Clubber Lang/Mr. T in Rocky III.  Don't let those challenges bust you up.  Embrace the profound words of wisdom uttered by Rocky Balboa and 'Go for it.'