Passing Final Inspection #Renovations

Yesterday morning Wallace, our awesome contractor, called to make sure I was going to be home today. He wasn’t sure, but it was possible the building inspector was going to arrive for final inspection. Knowing how anxious I feel about inspections, he gave me instructions to call him the minute the inspector arrived and he would come over to be available to answer questions.

In the middle of the afternoon the inspector arrived and I unlocked the suite to let him in. With shaking fingers I texted Wallace, “He’s here.”

Throughout the duration of the renovation there has been a package of drawings, maps, and permits we kept in a large plastic bag. In the depths of winter, with rain pouring and mud filling the excavation, the contractor and foreman would pull out the plans and survey information to make sure the foundation walls were built the correct distance from the property lines. When the house was lowered onto its new foundation walls the elevation of the midband matched the architect’s drawings of the slope and height of the grounds. When it was time to build the steps into the entryways the plans came out and discrepancies between the architectural drawings and the reality on the ground were identified and had to be resolved. When we realized the mechanical room was not going to fit where the architect had planned, and we moved it upstairs, the drawings had to travel back to the City building permits department for revisions and notations. When we moved the electrical panel from the basement to the main floor, and disconnected all the old knob and tube wiring, we had to actually open a new electrical permit for the main floor and upstairs of the house, so we could get final acceptance of the wiring in the basement.

The copies of the architectural drawings that guided our renovation also served as the official record of successive inspections and approvals. On the back of the drawings are periodic notations from the building inspector, signalling approval to move to the next level of renovation: from forms to foundation pour, from foundation pour to slab pour, from slab pour to framing, from framing to insulation, from insulation to drywall, and to finish. From unfinished windowless exterior walls to lock up, from lock up to finish.

Over the life of the renovation, this plastic bag of drawings and permits grows, with engineering reports and confirmations and successful rounds of electrical, plumbing and gas inspections.

At the beginning of the renovation, I knew these documents were important because I was told to keep them organized and handy on the jobsite. Yesterday, I finally realized how much those documents were worth. When the building inspector arrived for final inspection yesterday, he walked through the suite and admired our handiwork. He checked to make sure the overhead fan for the gas range was connected properly. He checked to make sure the french doors were installed properly. And then he asked for the collection of documents.

I pulled them out the package of papers just as Wallace arrived. As the inspector perused the history of notations Wallace confirmed the changes and the status of permits on the property. The inspector reviewed the drawings, page by page, with their highlights of changes approved by the City. He checked the collection of inspection sheets from the gas, plumbing, and electrical inspections. And he signed off on our renovation.

At that moment I realized that collection of papers not only documented the history of our renovation, they were worth more than every penny we had spent so far to accomplish this job. These documents were priceless, with their traces of the struggle marked in mud, multiple foldings, and crumpled corners.

We have our final inspection. We are cleared to apply for a permit to rent the basement suite as a secondary suite. I know there are people who can undertake property improvements under the radar and avoid getting permits because the risk of doing unpermitted work causes them less anxiety than having to go through the rigours of following City protocols. I am not one of those people. However, I am also not one of those people who feel comfortable with the random authority of City inspectors to cause undue difficulties, simply because they have the power to use their judgement for good or ill. This is where having a trustworthy contractor on your side makes all the difference in the world. I can safely say this job would not have been possible without Wallace. He shepherded us through discrepancies between architectural drawings and on the ground realities. He stick handled the entire environmental situation when the house was held hostage up in the air on cribs with a stop work order. He supported us when our financing feel apart and it seemed the entire project would be lost. He stood by us as we finished the suite, two neophyte finishers completing our first renovation. He answered his phone to answer our endless stream of questions. In essence, he trained Matt to the point where Matt is now working full time on his new job as a carpenter’s apprentice, working toward his red seal.

It is no small feat to accomplish a project of this scale, complexity, and difficulty. Especially when we did not have a well-endowed renovation money chest to begin with. But we have arrived, and we have passed final. It truly feels like a miracle of spirit, community, and the values of helping each other get things done that we could not do alone.

It took us months to figure out how to finish the kitchen around these posts.

It took us months to figure out how to finish the kitchen around these posts.



Custom Cabinetry #renovations

We did not set out to become custom cabinet makers at the beginning of this renovation. We had assumed we would simply purchase any needed dressers and shelves from a well-known purveyor of cheap, but nice looking furniture from Sweden. But, as we got deeper into the renovation, a value started to emerge that became a guiding principle of our efforts. This value is rooted in our commitment to the environment, sustainability, connectivity, and the priceless dents and scratches that accumulate as a testament to living. With cheap furniture, it looks great in the catalogue and on the showroom floor. It even looks pretty good once it is all assembled, as long as you haven’t inadvertently chipped a corner or set a scratch. However, once that surface is marred, the entire piece of furniture looks shabby. After all our efforts to create a comfortable, cozy, clean living space, we just couldn’t bring in pieces of furniture that were going to look like junk within minutes or months of assembly.

At first, we hadn’t fully formed these thoughts. The fact was we had a space that was between a post and a wall. We wanted to fill that space with a handy set of shelves that could serve as a wireless router centre and a charging station for mobile devices. We tried to find something pre-made that we could just slot into the opening, but there was nothing we could fit, or modify, that would look half decent and serve the purpose we had in mind. We decided we would have to build something ourselves.

Had we ever build custom cabinetry before? Well, no. Did we know what we were doing? A little. We measured, cut, glued, finished, and installed our first piece of oak plywood cabinet. It looked fantastic! Wow, we thought, wouldn’t it be great if we used this same method and materials for the linen closet unit? We can hang it at the same elevation as the charging station so the shelf heights match. Yes, let’s do it. These cabinets are going to be much tougher than anything we can buy, and with each ding and dent they will acquire a patina of history, the history of our family, our friends, our tenants, living in our space over time. The furniture does not become shabby with age, it acquires a history of life, which in turn, imbues it with a life of its own.

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We went ahead and built our second unit, a set of shelves custom fit into an alcove for linens: towels, bedsheets, pillowcases, wash clothes, etc. With this unit I made a discovery: we could hang the shelf unit from the wall, leaving the floor beneath it open and easy for cleaning. Ease of cleaning, that is a value that guides my design and installation every step of the renovation. With this unit we ran into difficulties because I didn’t understand the material relationships between raw plywood, PL glue, and Pentraguard (the sealant I was adapting for finishing furniture as well as concrete floors). Not only that, in my efforts to clean up my material missteps with the sander, I made my own gouges and scrapes on the plywood. With this unit I realized I had beginners luck with charging station and now I was actually learning how to put these cabinets together.

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Undaunted, we decided to build a third unit for the bathroom, to make a nice set of shelves beside the toilet. Instead of having a toilet paper roll and a magazine rack, we put in a small set of shelves to hold extra toilet paper, washcloths, hand towels and reading material. Suspended on the wall, it will be easy to clean the floor, and there will always be extra rolls of toilet paper easily accessible from the throne. This unit went together much better, I was improving my assembly process – sand, pentraguard, glue, repeat. And my planing skills – angle away from the plywood when planing down the cladding, watch the flow of the grain, plane with the grain, not against it. And my sanding skills – just once over, no more, with each layer.

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By now we had three matching built in cabinets and they were very pleasing to our eyes and our aesthetic sensibilities. Well, we needed a broom closet and access panels. So we used the same materials and methods for those pieces. The built-in cabinetry was taking on a presence in the suite, a set piece made up of the composite of these various pieces, they were all different shapes and sizes, but they all matched in tone, style, and installation.

Well, that brings us to today. We are now building two closet organizers that will be installed, suspended in the bedroom closets. They will also be made of oak plywood clad with solid oak trim. They are our most ambitious projects yet, both in scale and complexity. But we persevere and today we are trimming the shelves a saw curf to make sure everything is going to fit together properly.

We are happy we didn’t sink our dwindling resources into furniture destined for a landfill. Instead we sank our time and energies into transforming materials into timeless pieces of furniture that will tell the story of the life in our suite as surely as our photographs and videos. I feel good about what I have attempted and learned. If you had asked me at the beginning if I could build a cabinet, I would have said, “No.” Now, I can definitely say, “Yes.” And it is definitely worth it. There is another part to this that I only just thought of: I built these, we built these, and if we can build these, who knows what else we can accomplish?

Let's not forget the sweet little oak base for the washer/dryer unit.

Let’s not forget the sweet little oak base for the washer/dryer unit.

Plumbers and Electricians #Renovations

After months, almost a year, the plumbers and electricians have returned to finish their work. Yesterday, Angus, our plumber, came and hooked up the gas range to the gas line, while Duncan, our electrician, installed the outlet. We now have a working gas range, even if it is not yet tucked away in its cubby.

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Matt is now in the process of gluing on the oak cladding. When it is finished, the range can be pushed back into its spot.

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At the north end of the kitchen, the custom built cabinet is curing, awaiting it’s final assembly, and then install.

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Seismic upgrade #renovation

We are in the process of renewing our house insurance to reflect the work we have done on this house for the renovation. The insurance agent asked me to provide documentation to prove the seismic upgrade was done.

If you could see my livingroom right now you would see two years of documents sorted into piles, covering the dining table and the grand piano. You would see tubs of documents stacked on the floor, and a collection of hanging folders loosely flopped on the piano bench. The plastic bag of permits and architectural plans are stowed on a bookshelf. There are receipts, invoices, letters of engagement, product information pamphlets, contracts, bank statements, cheque registers, hand drawn notes and plans, and loan agreements.

What I cannot find is the invoice I paid to the engineer for the seismic upgrade. I have noted the cheques paid to the engineer in my cheque register, and I have records of the funds being paid on those cheques in my bank statements. In total, the engineer invoiced us three times. I can only find one, the last, for the smallest amount, in my papers.

I do have the letter of engagement. I do have the letter authorizing the engineer to access information about our property from the City of Vancouver. I do have a large sheet of paper covered in tiny print, called “General Notes” and I do have the actual engineering plans specifying the actual structures that comprise the seismic upgrade. I also have the sequence of engineering inspection sheets, signed off by the engineer, as we completed each stage and were approved to move forward. I also have, in my collections of thousands of photographs of the renovation, pictures of the seismic engineering as it was completed: sistered floor joists, rebar specifications in the foundation walls, hold downs between the stud walls and the foundations, plywood sheathing, etc.

Sigh. I guess I will have to send this portfolio of digital files to the insurance agent and hope they suffice. I think one of the most tiring aspects of living in a renovation is constantly feeling like my life is about to slide into complete chaos. Last night I had two dreams, first, that my 95 lb. reactive gorgeous golden dog was now the size of a grizzly bear and I was riding around with him in the back of an open pickup truck hoping he wouldn’t jump out when we stopped and attack passerby. The other dream was that I had a giant abscess in my gum, above my front tooth and I had to go to the dentist to have the tooth removed. I didn’t want to go, and in the dream I kept hoping the abscess would go down and I would be able to keep the tooth.

Today I am going to leave the renovation alone and focus on writing and cleaning up my place.

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Tiling preparations #renovations

We have been trimming out the countertops preparatory to tiling the bath/shower and backsplashes (kitchen, bathroom). This has involved milling oak trim to line the back of the countertops. Of course, as is the case with every renovation, there were complications that held us up.


In the kitchen, we had to figure out exactly how the gas range was going to slide into the space provided for it. This led us to finally purchase all the appliances. Now we know exactly what range is going to be arriving, and we have a little more oak trim to cut, as well as a side piece to install to clad the far side of the range. As well, the concrete needs a little sanding along the back edge so the trim can slide in. Matt has been milling the trim and we are almost ready for me to start sanding and sealing it so we can install it. We have the basic tile layout done, now we just have to draw in our grid guidelines so we can be confident we are getting our mortar and tile placement right.

Other prep work in the kitchen still remaining is repairing the gyproc where an electrical outlet got moved. That is it. That is all that is left before we can tile the kitchen backsplash. Never underestimate the complexity of a kitchen.

The kitchen tile is going to be a combination of a very common (and inexpensive) 6″ white porcelain tile, with a decorative band of 1″ x 2″ stone tile. We have figured out that there is only one line we can use for the decorative band, as we just don’t have the tiling skills to deal with too many wall elements. I have decided not to tile the posts, after all, because I fear they are going to become too big and prominent, instead of simply sitting there.

In the bathroom, the search for a bathroom mirror took two days. We ended up purchasing the size of mirror glass we wanted and then ordering a custom frame. I shopped for one whole day, and there were no mirrors the size we wanted, much less with a frame treatment we could live with. I am very happy with our solution, I can’t wait to see how it looks in the bathroom.

With the mirror dimensions settled, we are ready to map out the tile design for the bathroom backsplash and bath/shower. We have two kinds of tiles. The main coverage is going to be 6″ square white porcelain, a very common tile. Our decorative element is this beautiful 1″ x 2″ stone tile. The stone tile came in 12″ sheets. We are going to cut these sheets to make decorative lines. Once again, our design is constrained by our tiling skills. We don’t want to try to tile around outlets with the thicker stone tile so we are organizing the design so the stone tile does not intersect with any outlets.

That constraint means we have one line that can transverse the bathroom sink and the bath/shower. It is my job today to figure out how to arrange the stone tile around this line, to travel across both surfaces and create an interesting, dynamic effect.

This is the line that the stone tile can sit above at the sink, but possibly below, in the bath/shower.

This is the line that the stone tile can sit above at the sink, but possibly below, in the bath/shower.


Small steps big results #renovation

We poured another couple of test pieces yesterday. We are trying to figure out the best way to handle the edge where the concrete meets the oak trim. If we were doing a regular concrete countertop this wouldn’t be a problem because there would be no oak trim. The countertops would be poured in a mold, unmolded, and then installed. We are doing our countertops poured in place. The oak trim serves as the form. We noticed in our first test pours that there is slight shrinkage as the concrete cures, and if it has been troweled level with the form, there is a slight depression between the concrete and the trim.

Yesterday I experimented with two methods for dealing with this shrinkage and getting the concrete edge to set up nicely against the edge. I am getting much better at troweling, and understanding how the concrete sets up. On both my pieces I had worked up the cream and smoothed it over. On my first piece, I had over troweled and ended up with a dull finish. On the second piece, I had stopped troweling earlier, and I found I had a hard, shiny shell as a result.

Two more test pieces, working out the edge treatments

Two more test pieces, working out the edge treatments

On the first piece, I tried to smooth the finish with 220 grit sand paper. It was a beautiful, matte finish. Then I tried wet sanding it with 240 grit sand paper. It was coming up nicely and then all of a sudden I had sandy grit on the surface. I had sanded through the cream and was into the aggregate. I hastily dried off the whole thing and hope for the best. I’m assuming it is going to be a rough surface on that one.

In terms of edge treatments, we have figured out that we need about 1/16″ extra concrete over the edge of the oak. This has to be shaped during the skreeding, and when it gets floated with the mag trowel. It is something that you just have to eyeball, so it is going to be a bit dicey. Oh, well. The good news is that the edge of the concrete is part of the material. It isn’t like the edge of a piece of plywood or doorskin. The finished edge of the concrete has a lovely feel of the hand that made it. Not manufactured.

We are definitely getting excited as we get closer to the full pour. We have decided to pour one counter a day, instead of trying to do them all in one day. We are going to be mixing small batches of concrete in a bucket with our electric drill. This way we can manage the materials and keep things fairly tidy.

Matt cut out the kitchen sink knockout yesterday. The bathroom counter should be finished today. The kitchen island is almost done, the base cabinets just need to be pinned to the island structure. With luck we will pour our first countertop tomorrow.

Many months after the island frame was first built, the base cabinets slide in perfectly. It felt like magic but it was really a testament to Matt's amazing measuring skills.

Many months after the island frame was first built, the base cabinets slide in perfectly. It felt like magic but it was really a testament to Matt’s amazing measuring skills.

Inching our way forward #renovations

We have had a good week on the renovation, even though progress is moving at glacial speed. Yesterday I worked on assembling the Ikea base cabinets for the kitchen island. These are two 30″ cabinets nested side by side. They provide the main storage for the kitchen. I got all the drawer rails installed, and even built one of the drawers to test how the system works. When I do my next kitchen I am going to use the Ikea dimensions and hardware, but build my own cabinets. The hardware is brilliant, the particle board does not inspire confidence.

Matt has been working on getting the two sinks ready for the pour. In the bathroom, he had to make a wooden washer to mimic a normal countertop thickness. With that in place, he dry fit the rest of the fittings and it looks fabulous.

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All that remains on the bathroom counter prep is to put the cabinets under the counter, glue the sink to the plywood, and caulk the seam where the sink porcelain rests on the plywood. Before we do the final gluing, we have been trying to figure out how to make sure the sink is perfectly perpendicular to the counter because it is a round sink and there is no hard edge or corner to use for orientation. We have decided to map perpendicular markings onto the plywood and use the laser level to give us a horizontal reference. We will place the sink by feel, using these reference points, and mark indexes at four points around the sink base.

In the kitchen, Matt has built the sink knockout, which took three days of work. First, he built a wooden base for the faucets, so the fittings will thread through the wooden base rather than using pvc knockouts for each water line. Then he built the main sink knockout, to fit the double stainless sink. Finally he built tie down knock outs onto the main sink knock out. These will accommodate the screws that tighten the sink to the counter and stop it from getting jolted or wiggling around. My next job is to tape up the sink knock out so it will release easily from the concrete.

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This was the part about building concrete countertops that we did not anticipate. There are so many finicky bits. Every day we will say to each other, “Tomorrow we should be able to pour.” And then we realize that something else needs to be tested, or built, or fitted.

One of these finicky bits was figuring out how we are going to treat the edge, where the concrete meets up with the oak trim edging. Because these counters are poured in place, we are troweling right onto the oak trim. On our test pieces we noticed we got a much better edge when the concrete was 1/16″ higher than the edge of the form. So our plan now is to actually trowel out the counters so they are higher than the edge of the oak trim, and then shape them to ease that edge. That is going to be my test pour today, practicing making that edge nice and neat.

But really, we should be ready to pour our first countertop on Monday.