Thursday, February 25, 2010

Meanwhile, at the Cheney Cottage

Today, Andus and I met and went over some ideas for the Cheney Cottage. As always, Tom and I prefer not to alter a house too much from its original condition - in fact, we prefer to bring the houses back as close to original as possible.

I think sometimes we can be frustrating for an architect. Our idea of putting our own stamp on a house is to tread very lightly, without changing it much. I think most architects like to make a project theirs, and change an old house into something that reflects more of their style and design tastes.  Fortunately, Andus is willing to work with us. I think he sometimes raises an eyebrow about our decisions, but ultimately, I think he sees what we're trying to achieve and enjoys working with us on it.

So today, he and I went over some plans for the Cheney Cottage. Andus had thought that, since the back of the building will now face south, we might want to add some windows, and also move some of the windows in the kitchen, but Tom and I both want to retain the original look of the house.  We really don't want to change the exterior facade at all if we can help it, and we definitely plan to keep all the original windows.  

We did come up with an idea for how to lay out the kitchen (which is basically just a big room right now) and how to make the two 1/2 bathrooms on the second floor back into one full bath.

This afternoon, Tom and I went up to the Cheney Cottage.  We got to go alone, just the two of us, and spend some time looking at the house and figuring out how it must have been and what work we have to do.  It felt so great to walk up the steps, put a key in the door, and go in - knowing that it's now our house (even if it's not sitting on our land).

The Cheney Cottage needs a lot of work.  Outside, the house has not been maintained by the University, and it is badly in need of a good paint job (with all the scraping and prep work that goes with it).  The windows all need to be reglazed, and the front porch is in a seriously deteriorated state.  The roof is also at the end of it's life, and needs to be replaced before the next rainy season.

Plus, the house clearly is ready to be moved.  The landscape around the house is solid concrete, with cars parked right up against the back and right up to the front porch.  There is nothing that says "home" about where the Cottage is now.

Inside, not much has been done, and most of the changes that have been made to the house will be relatively easy to fix.  For example, most of the wiring that has been added is surface mounted, using conduit.  We want to rewire the house, so it will be easy to rip out all the old wiring and then we can start fishing romex through the various walls and floors.  We also plan to refinish all the floors (which are currently covered with brown indoor-outdoor carpet).

One of the more interesting things we want to change is the connection between the front entry and the living room.  The room origianlly had half walls on either side of the opening, which would have made the stairs have a feeling of being separate yet still be able to be seen as part of the room.  At some point, the wall was brought all the way to the ceiling, but the half walls still are there. In fact, the cap pieces of the half walls stick out of the finish wall:

So it should be a relatively easy to tear out the wall above the caps and retain the original look of the room.  The stairway will again be fully visible from the front room.

The house also originally had a dumbwaiter (or maybe it was a laundry chute) from the second floor to the first floor. The original door is there on the second floor, but it doesn't go anywhere.  We plan to reopen it to make it a usable laundry chute, terminating in the kitchen.

Another interesting decision we made today was to retain the back room. At present, the house has a small room off the kitchen, which we had originally thought we would remove before the house was moved. We had thought that this small room (about the size of a mud room) was added long after the house was built.  But we looked at it today, and while it doesn't strike us as original, it is an old enough addition to warrant further consideration.  Now we're thinking that the room should stay, and we plan to use it as a laundry room - both for the Cheney Cottage and for the Delaney House.  

The house also cries out for restoration.  We looked at the coffered ceiling in the living room, and all the woodwork was probably originally shellacked.  In the dining room, the wainscot was also probably left natural, so we hope to have the time and energy to strip all that woodwork. It would really make the house a showplace. 

So now we have a plan, and we're working on getting the permits.  The Cheney Cottage will soon be 62nd Street bound.  

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Quick Updates

Andus and I met with the City of Berkeley's planning office, and talked to them about the plans for the Delaney House and the Cheney Cottage.

Far from being difficult to work with, I've found the Planning Department to be relatively easy and clear. They have pretty clear requirements for what they want done, and they are pretty easy to talk to. We showed them the plans, discussed the houses, and explained how we were taking one blighted house, and one endangered historic house, and how we need to expedite the process to make it all happen in time.

Aaron, the City Planner we spoke with, is a good guy, and he tried to think of ways to make the process faster, and to figure out when we have to go before the Zoning Adjustments Board for our public hearing. It looks like it can all happen on time, assuming that we get the materials in to the Planning Department in a timely manner.

Tomorrow, Andus and I are meeting at the Ed Roberts Campus to go over the final changes, so Andus can submit the plans on Monday. The timeline seems tight but possible.

Tonight, Tom is on his way home from Raleigh, where he went for a conference about residential energy efficiency. I've had a couple days of an empty house (just me and the dogs) and no time at the Delaney House. It's been a nice break, but I'm itching to get back to 62nd Street and keep the work moving along. WE bought a hot water heater for the house - it was a kind of difficult purchase, because our long term plan is to put in radiators and use a tankless heater for both domestic hot water and for heat - so the hot water heater will be removed witin a couple months. But we need hot water, so we have a water heater to install.

The last piece of news: we got the keys to the Cheney Cottage. Andus has measured it and is going to make some recommendations on ways we might want to remodel it, but our current plan is to do very little to it. We plan to turn the two half baths upstairs back into one full bathroom (we think the people who live there will appreciate having a bathtub), and we plan to remove the wall between the front hall and the stairs that was added in the 60s (the original half wall is still there, with the top piece sticking out of the new wall - very bizarre). But we hope to keep the house mostly original, just with updated systems (and an updated location).

Sunday, February 21, 2010

How did we get here?

Today I was in the basement, running romex for more outlets. I barked my knuckles on the floor joists several times in the process, and also managed to scrape my scalp against a wayward nail, sticking down from the joists (which are only about six feet high). The basement of the Delaney House is filled with old cobwebs that are full of dust and dirt, so when you brush against them, they stick in your hair and leave dirty tracks on your face and arms. It was raining and cold, and the water was beginning to pool in the north east corner of the basement - right where I would have to stand to hook the romex up to the electrical service. The basement has a feel to it that can only be described as "dank".

All of a sudden, I started thinking: How did we get here?

Tom and I moved to San Francisco from Northampton in 1979, and lived in an 1883 victorian on Haight Street, between Divisadero and Scott. 858 Haight was a first floor flat, 7 rooms, which we rented for the exorbitant price of $435/month. Our landlord was a deaf man named Don Parodi (I had gotten the apartment for us because of my ability to sign), and he was not exactly the handiest landlord around. His repairs were mostly cheap and shoddy - he had his own victorian in Pacific Heights, and I think he saw the Haight Street house as something to keep together, but not restore.

The house had numerous tumors, mostly benign, but no one was treating the patient. We often woke to find our kitchen floor flooded from the leaking pipes from the upstairs flat. The wiring was iffy, and the windows mostly didn't work. In addition, the ground floor flat faced a busy street with 5 bus lines, and because we were on a hill, the buses frequently sat in front of our house revving their engines, holding the hill while waiting for the light to change. Diesel exhaust blew in through the security gate and coated everything - the house was always full of thick black dust.

We loved it.

But by 1983, we wanted to buy a house of our own. We knew we wanted to be parents, and we thought that the best thing we could do was appear to be stable, so someone would want to give us their baby to adopt.

In 1983, we bought a four room house in Bernal Heights. OUr plan worked: We moved to 79 Wool Street in July 1983, and within two years we brought home our first son, Elliott.

The problem with 79 Wool Street was that it was too small. When we moved, we had 3 dogs, and the 5 of us (plus Ricky, who moved in for the first year) crowded into that tiny house. But we had a plan: underneath the roof, the attic was tall enough to put two bedrooms. Unfortunately, we didn't have the money to hire someone to tear down a wall, build stairs, reinforce the joists, put down a floor, and put up wallboard to make the two rooms. So, following our own maxim that "Poverty is the mother of invention", we decided to figure it out for ourselves.

We had the Reader's Digest Home Improvements Manual ("A Do-it-yourself Guide to Renovating, Modernizing, and Adding Space to Your Home"), and armed with little more than a couple tools and our own determination, we started rebuilding our house.

Over the course of the next 5 years, we restored all the first floor rooms, opened up the wall between the kitchen and dining room, remodeled the kitchen, built stairs, and added two bedrooms up stairs, and even installed a roof window. We learned plumbing, electrical and carpentry.

We made plenty of mistakes, but we realized that any mistakes we made could be corrected - all we had to do was figure it out and try.

In 1988, wanting another child and feeling like we needed more space, we moved to Berkeley. The house on Fulton Street that we bought was definitely a fixer upper. It had asbestos siding, the foundation was bad, the wiring was bad, the roof leaked. The kitchen had been remodeled (hideously) in the 1950s. When we bought the house, you could sit on the second floor toilet and see the kitchen table through the holes in the floor. My father, who came out to see our latest venture, reported back to my mother that "There's nothing wrong with that house that $100,000 and a good contractor couldn't fix"

By 1989, we had 4 dogs, 2 kids (Sabastian arrived the day before the earthquake), and the house restoration was underway. Once again, we did everything: windows, wiring, plumbing, removing walls, fixing plaster, painting, refinishing floors, removing the siding. The project took us 10 years.

AFter that, we were hooked. We had a fully restored house, so we decided to rip off the roof and add a third floor. Elliott was 13 by then, and the prospect of sharing the one full bathroom with two teenage boys inspired us to add a bedroom, bathroom and roof deck to the third floor.

Then in 2003, our next door neighbor, Susan, decided to sell us her house. 2642 was infested with rats. Everything was bad except the roof. Susan's many cats had left their mark on every surface. The two fires in the house had lead to repairs that were done in a shoddy manner.

We bought the house in April, and realized that, in order to be successful, we had to have it ready by August. So we dove in: after tenting the house, we removed 30 dead rats, and while we had foundation done, we rewired the entire house, redid the plumbing, remodeled the kitchen, moved the downstairs bathroom, and refinished every surface in the house. The chimney, which had been the rats main route to get up and down through the house, had to be removed brick by nasty smelling brick. It was exhausting: we both worked full time jobs, then came home and worked every night on the house. Every weekend was spent working on it.

But by August, the house was done, and we rented it to four graduate students. Dale painted the outside after we rebuilt the front and back porches, and the house was again stable and ready for another 100 years.

Then we found the houses on Parker Street. We were drawn to them because, though neglected for years, no one had tampered with them - most of the original fabric was still there. We did all the same work (sans rat removal) and had the unenviable task of stripping the 6 foot high wainscoting and box beamed ceilings in the dining room and back parlor. When we finished the restoration, the results were good enough to win us an award from the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association (BAHA) for the interior and exterior restoration.

We found the Delaney house last November, and then learned of the Cheney Cottage the same month. And we came up with our ambitious plan: we would move BOTH houses. The Delaney house is moving back on the lot, and over away from the property line, and getting a new foundation. The Cheney Cottage will go in front, just behind the redwood trees. We realized that we've done many different renovations, but we have never moved a house - and how many people get to move two houses!

Tomorrow, Andus and I are meeting with the City of Berkeley's Planning Director to go over the project and get the City onboard with our plan (Tom is flying to Raleigh for a conference). The Delaney house has been a blighted property for over 20 years, while the Cheney Cottage, a historic structure, is in danger of being demolished. We're hoping that the City will assist us in streamlining the permit process so we can get both houses moved in time.

More to follow - wish us luck.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Grout makes such a difference

Today we finally got around to grouting the tile that Sarah and I installed last weekend.  

The amazing thing about grout is how it evens it all out.  The tile looked good, but without the grout you can see every imperfection, every place where the tiles didn't quite line up.  There are plenty of those: The walls are not exactly straight, and neither Sarah nor I are professional tile setters -  so the tiles didn't exactly line up as we had hoped.  

But the grout made most of that disappear.  Once the grout goes in, the tile looks finished, and really pretty good.  We're quite happy with the way it looks - and the bathroom is one step closer to being finished.

We also hooked up all the electrical outlets that we have been installing in the front room and the front bedroom today, so we eliminated a number of extension cords.  And we installed the mantle, so the front room is moving closer to our ultimate goal: painting.

Today we had three visitors on 62nd Street: Claudio and Alessandra, and their son Massimo.  They are our neighbors on Parker Street, and we really love living next to them - they are sweet and kind and really nice neighbors.  

Claudio and Alesandra are from Italy, where, as Ale says, "we don't have old houses".  Ale told us that the house she grew up in was about the same age as she is (36-37), and it is considered an old house.  When her parents heard that they had bought a 100 year old house in Berkeley, her mother said "Is it still standing? How long will it last?"  

I think they enjoyed seeing the house, but visitors to the Delaney House have what I've started to think of as "The Delaney House Smile"   They tend to be more than a little horrified at what we have taken on, and though most of our friends trust that we will be able to put the house back to rights, they really can't see it.  

Our real estate agent, Malcolm, was the first to have this look.  When we saw the house with him, the windows were boarded up, the wallpaper was hanging off the walls, and everything was completely filthy.   Malcolm told us later that "I thought OUR house was a fixer-upper until I saw 62nd Street".

It's all about vision.  Or maybe it's because I don't see that well - the house looks beautiful to me.  Maybe that's why Tom looks so nervous so much of the time.


I love all things in old houses, but I'm especially fond of old linoleum

The old patterns of linoleum are unbelievable and beautiful.  Linoleum is a wondrous substance, long lasting, adaptable and beautiful.  Far from the mostly ugly linoleum patterns of the 60s, turn of the century linoleum is often wonderful.

In the kitchen of the Delaney House, there was ugly white linoleum, mostly torn and peeling up from particle board. We pulled up the linoleum, then pulled up the particle board.  Several more layers of linoleum later, we came to the original floor - a blue geometric pattern that we loved.  After pulling out all the stapes from the various levels, the floor is virtually flawless.
In the back bedroom, there was another linoleum pattern.  The bold red pattern with pink and white roses was mostly deteriorated, but we managed to save a large piece of it.

It's a shame that most places that recreate antique linoleum do not make patterns like these.  I have heard that linoleum is becoming increasing popular again, and I would certainly put it in our kitchen if it was available in these patterns.

Tomorrow, we grout the bathroom tile - stay tuned for pictures - and then hope to get a hot water heater and install it.  Progress in all areas!

Friday, February 19, 2010

Dealing with Antique Windows

I'm a big fan of old windows.  Despite Tom's penchant for energy efficiency, we have not replaced any of the old windows in any of our houses.  

I think the easiest way to muck up the historic fabric of a house is to replace the windows.  Old windows give the house such character, and replacement windows never quite get it right.  Often, new windows require that the size of the window openings be adjusted, which changes the entire look of the facade.  Even if the new windows fit perfectly, they usually look out of place, and if the original wooden windows are replaced with something that is not wood (vinyl or aluminum, for example), the entire house cries out for help.

Many people replace the windows in the name of "energy efficiency", but new windows don't really add that much to the overall energy gain.  Old windows often have a rating of R-1 to R-2, but the newer double glazed windows are usually rated R-3.  True, they will reduce the heat loss, but there are a lot of other ways to reduce heat loss that will have a much bigger effect.  Old windows that are properly maintained can be tight and reduce air infiltration as well as replacement windows, so the only difference is the heat loss directly through the glass.  So the difference in heat loss is so small that I don't believe the windows ever really pay for themselves.

Plus, the original windows are better designed.  On our houses, most of the windows are double hung (meaning, they open both top and bottom - or were designed to). On all the houses we have bought, we have never found a single window that actually operated well, and opened at both the top and bottom.  In our old house on Fulton Street, for example, we found that every window in the house was painted shut - top and bottom.

So on 62nd Street, just like in our other houses, we are fixing all the windows, so they all open at the top and bottom.  On a hot day, there's nothing like a double hung window - the upper window lets out the hot air, and the cooler air comes in through the bottom.  

Repairing old windows really isn't that much work.  This is how I do it:

First, I gather my tools.  I have a window kit that I use: a hammer, a flat bar, a screwdriver, a piece of monofilament string, a small fishing weight, a putty knife, a glazier's tool, a piece of bee's wax, an oil can, and a new package of sash cord.

With each window, I first remove the sash, both top and bottom.  I pry off the interior stop that holds the lower window in place, and then pull the window out.  Generally, the ropes are broken, but if they aren't I pull the ropes out of the side of the windows, letting the weights slide to the bottom of the weight pocket.  Next, I remove the parting strip (the little rounded wood strip between the top and bottom tracks) and then remove the top window. This often involves going outside the house and breaking the paint seal that is around the window - where the window has been painted shut.  

While the windows are out of the frames is the perfect time to replace any missing putty on the exterior of the window.  I scrape the putty to make sure it is not loose, and gently pry off any loose putty, and replace it with new glazing compound.

In order to fix the sash cords, I remove the access doors that open into the weight pockets.  On some windows, there are no access panels - this then means that I have to remove the interior trim around the window in order to access the space between the wall and the window, where the weights are located.  Then I remove the weights and take off the broken pieces of rope that are generally still tied to them.

Next, I oil the pulleys at the top of the window - there are four of them, two for the upper sash and two for the lower. The upper sash pulleys are generally in good shape, as the windows have been covering them, but often the pulleys for the lower sash are clogged and coated with paint.  If possible, I try to remove the paint from the pulleys to make them run easier.

Then I clean the channels for each window.  There is usually a lot of dust and cobwebs, and so I scrape it to get the channel smooth.  I take bees wax and run it up and down inside the channel, which will help make the windows glide easier.  True window restorers strip off any paint that is there and put linseed oil on both the window sash and the channel, but I'm generally not that fanatical about it.

The next step is running the new sash cord down through the pockets - the hardest part of the whole job.  There are two ways to do this: one is to feed the sash cord down from the pulley, and try to fish it down using a coat hanger bent into a tight hook.  This actually works pretty well - but an easier way is to tie a tiny fishing weight onto a string of monofilament, and drop it down through the weight pocket.  Then, tie the monofilament to the end of the rope, and feed it over the pulley and down.

Once the sash cord is pulled down, the weight can be attached to it (I triple knot the cord - the last thing I want is for it to come loose again), and reinserted in the weight pocket - making sure that the weight moves up and down freely.  

The step in this process that's easiest to screw up comes next.  The sash cord has to be cut to the proper length. The idea is to make it so the weight doesn't hit the pulley at the top nor the bottom of the weight pocket.  This is the step when I have to pay the most attention - I have mistakenly cut the cord with the weight at the bottom of the weight pocket (so it doesn't lift the window at all) and cut the cord up close to the weight (so the window couldn't move down from the top).

So what I do is pull the weight up until it is almost to the pulley, and then see how long the cord has to be to allow the window to be pulled all the way down.  Then I cut the cord, and knot the end so it can be fit back into the window.

Once both weights are done, they can be reattached to the upper window, and I reinsert the upper sash, making sure it glides smoothly. Then I attach in the sash cord to the weights for the lower window, replace the access doors, replace the parting strip, and reinstall the lower windows.  Then all that is left is replacing the stop, and the window is done.

Okay, maybe it IS a lot of work....

The problem is getting the motivation to actually DO all this.  But fortunately, on 62nd Street, we had no problem with motivation - all the windows were broken, and had to be removed so we could replace the glass.  In the front bedroom, for example, each window had a large bolt through it (where the glass had been) that held a 2x4 on the inside, and a sheet of plywood on the outside - the accepted way of boarding up a window.  Some of the other windows had plywood nailed directly to the exterior trim, or even to the window sash.  And most of the windows had security gates, some of which had been bolted into the plywood.  So just uncovering the windows was a big job - and then we generally found broken glass in the sash.
The casual visitor to the Delaney House will now find that all the windows on the main floor have been repaired, and they all open and close well.  We still have windows to replace - the windows in the bathroom and back room were both removed and replaced with (gasp) aluminum windows - so we have to find sash of the appropriate size to restore them.  

The windows into the basement have not been restored, and probably will not be.  Since the house will be lifted, the lower walls will be rebuilt, and the windows will not be the size needed. But we'll keep the frames and sash, and use them in another house whenever we can.  

The best part? We have another house coming.  The windows on the front of the Cheney Cottage are casement windows (a whole different animal), but I was happy to notice during the last inspection of the building that most of the double hung windows don't seem to operate. We'll wait until the Cheney Cottage is on 62nd Street, but there are more windows to do.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Stop the House from Spinning

I know that the 62nd Street Faithful have been anxious waiting to hear about the grouting (could ANYONE be anxious to hear about grout?) but unfortunately, it didn't happen.  On Monday night, I had a recurrence of my vertigo - it had been mostly dormant for the last several months, but it's back now, so I'm heading back to PT for another Epley Maneuver.

But the developments keep coming. Andus has been talking to the City about getting the Use Permit to move both houses.  Phil Joy has confirmed that he is on board with doing the moves, and so it looks like April will be when it all happens.  Kevin in the Real Estate office at Cal has asked that we do our best to move the house prior to April 21st (the original deadline was May 15th), so we're going to push hard to make it all happen.

It's all moving forward (no pun intended).  More to come soon.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Tiling with Sarah

I spent a lovely afternoon today, tiling the tub surround with Sarah.  It was a lot of fun to do.

Tom and I put up backer board where the tile would go - cement board designed to hold tile and resist moisture.  Once that was up, Sarah and I started tiling with the white subway tile we bought at the Tile Shop on Friday.

We quickly discovered that we have a similar tiling technique - messy.  As the tiling went along, we became more and more coated in thinset.  We dropped the spacers everywhere (including into the thinset), we tracked blobs of thinset across the floor, and we generally made a pretty good mess.

But the tile went up.  We finished at about 6 PM (Sarah is a trooper, staying to make sure it was all done, and even helping clean up afterwards) and it looks good.  There are four rows of white subway tile at the bottom, then a think line of green (matches the floor), then a field of subway tiles, and two rows of green, separated by a row of white, at the top.   We cut the tiles to fit around the spigot and the valve, and despite some minor unevenness, it all looks great.  

Tomorrow, we're going to meet to grout the tile.  Grouting this much space (about 8x5) is generally a pretty easy and fast job, but I'm sure Sarah and I will end up coated in group, to match our outfits that are coated in thinset.

Today was also notable in that we had a lot of visitors on 62nd Street.  Ady came and brought lunch, along with her friend Jenny from Milwaukee.  Dale stopped by with her son Julian, ostensibly to give us a bid on painting the house, but really just to see the progress. Sabastian and Noah came by too - Sab hasn't been in the house since the windows were all boarded up, so it was a big change for him to see it.  

Tomorrow is a vacation day, so other than the grout, and maybe installing a few outlets, not much is planned.  I think Tom is going to steer clear of 62nd Street altogether, spending the day walking the dogs, hanging out with Sabastian and doing taxes.  I'm meeting Eric and Jim Tobias for lunch to work on our new project, and then after the grout and wiring, I'm going home.  

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Sweating pipe, sweaty wiring

There's nothing like wiring and plumbing for satisfaction.  Both are discrete tasks, and both have tangible results.   

Sarah Dunham and I went to the tile store yesterday and bought tile for the bathroom - white subway tile for the shower surround, with some green accent tiles to break up the white.  Sarah offered to help with the tiling this weekend - which meant, we had to get ready for it.

So today, I took out the last of the pipes from the old shower/tub, and installed a new shower value.  The old pipes were galvanized, and so rusted that it was hard to see how any water could have gotten through them.  So I needed to replace the pipes.

The process of soldering copper water pipes is known as "sweating pipes".  The way it works is, you clean the ends of the pipe that will go into the joint, and the inside of the joints, with emery paper.  Then you put flux on the pieces, and fit them together.  Then you take a blow torch, and heat up the joint.  When it gets hot enough, you touch the solder to the seam, and the heat melts the solder, which is pulled into the joints.

This is called "sweating the pipes" because, as the joint is heated, the flux bubbles and runs, and the pipes actually appear to be sweating.  (Also, if you drip hot solder on your leg, particularly when you are wearing shorts,or onto your chest, you sweat a lot too.  Trust me on this.)

So today I sweated the pipes for the bathtub.  We bought a new Price Pfister valve, and I hooked up the supply pipes to it, as well as the pipe that leads to the spigot for the bathtub, and the pipe that goes up through the wall to the shower head.

The hardest thing about installing copper pipes is that they are rigid - you have to measure pretty exactly and cut them so they fit together and the pipes end up where you want them.  Tom tends to be better at measuring than I am - even with the special tape measure Eric gave me (The Blindman's Tape - it has large print numbers), I tend to not be too exact.  I'm more of the idea guy: I come up with the ideas, and can picture how things will work and how they fit together. Tom is the one who actually gets out the tape measure and figures out IF it will fit.

Despite this, I was successful: The new pipes are not yet hooked up to the water yet - but they're in the wall and ready for use.  

Meanwhile, Tom was in the front room, installing additional electrical boxes.  He spent the day cutting holes in the baseboard for the new boxes, and then we pulled the romex through to each box.  Tomorrow, when he finishes, I'll have 4 more outlets to install.  But we will soon have outlets in both of the front rooms, in addition to the overhead lights that now work.

Tomorrow,  Sarah and I will install the cement board ("Hardybacker") and then begin tiling the walls of the tub surround.  We hope to get it all finished tomorrow, so we can grout the tile on Monday.  I also plan to hook up all the outlets on Monday, so we can stop having extension cords running all over the house from the one working outlet we have.

Also tomorrow Ady has said she will be coming over and bringing us lunch at the house. Sabastian is home for the weekend, so he said he's going to come see the progress too (the last time he saw the house, all the windows were boarded up).  

Stay tuned - more progress tomorrow!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Questions About Bids and Plans

The big question that everyone who reads this blog keeps asking is, "How much is this all going to cost?"  Until today, we really had no idea.

When we bought the Cheney Cottage from the University, we had to give them the full purchase price ($17) plus a $50,000 deposit.  The deposit will be returned to us once we get the building off the University's land, so we have been hoping that moving the house would be less than $50K.

But we're also moving the Delaney House.  We have to first pull the Delaney House back toward the rear of the lot, and slide it over 4 feet or so.  Then the Cheney Cottage will go in on the front right side of the lot.   So we're moving not one but two houses.  The big question has been, how will we afford all this?

We talked to one house mover, and he gave us a tentative bid of $60,000 to move the Cheney Cottage. His plan did not involve removing the second floor and moving the two segments separately, so his bid included the costs of moving PG&E wires - which we have learned is incredibly expensive to do.

Today, Phil Joy gave us a bid for moving BOTH houses.  His bid to move both houses is $29,000!  This is great news for us - we can actually afford to do this, and might even be able to put a foundation under the houses.  Eric Angress, the contractor who will not only do the foundations but also help with the cutting and splicing of the Cheney Cottage, gave us an estimate of $5000 to $6000 to remove the second floor of the Cheney Cottage and then to put it back on.  We've worked with Eric before, on both the Parker Street houses, and Eric understands our hands-on approach.  

Obviously, Tom and I will be doing much of the work: all the fixing of holes in siding and plaster, the rewiring and replumbing of both houses, the painting, fixing windows, installing heating systems, etc.  But today, we're feeling that we can actually pull this off.

I also got a couple questions about the specifics of the plan - first, people wanted to know if we have an architect we're working with? Fortunately we do:  Andus Brandt of Blackbird Design.  For those of you who have been following our exploits over the years, Andus is the architect who designed the third floor addition of the Fulton Street House.  We like working with him because he is very sensitive to old houses - the addition on Fulton Street got wonderful reviews from neighbors and the City for how well it fit in to the 100 year old house.

And then I've been asked: "How are we going to put both houses on one lot?"  It's a complicated thing to determine, which is why working with an experienced architect (one who has built in Berkeley before) can be such a help. There are setback requirements for both houses, both from the back and front of the lot, but also from the sides.  We also have to provide two off-street parking spaces (one for each house).  And in Berkeley, the City likes to see green space surrounding buildings.  Plus, we are concerned with preserving not only the historic nature of the houses, but also ensuring that both houses fit on the lot, without crowding each other out. We want to make sure that the people who live in these houses for the 100 years feel comfortable and at home, not crowded in to a space where they don't have enough room.

Working with Andus, we figured it out. We made a scale drawing of our lot, and then cut out paper houses the size of each building, and played with them - how could they fit, where would they go?  Andus taught us about the setbacks and parking, and helped us figure out how to put the houses so they both can be seen and have ample yards.

The resulting plan gives the Delaney House a large front and back yard. The Cheney Cottage will be near the street, but the yard area behind it is very deep (and keeps the existing Meyer lemon tree).  It also enables us to do this without removing the large redwood trees at the front of the lot.  (We don't know if we'll end up keeping both trees, each of which are probably 80 feet high, but with everything else going on, we can't afford to remove them even if we wanted to.)

The most commonly asked question, however is, "What are you guys, nuts?"

The answer, of course, is yes.

Monday, February 8, 2010


The Delaney House is lousy with wallpaper. Some walls have as many as 7 layers of it, most of it begging to be removed.  There is almost no paint on any walls - just layers and more layers of wallpaper.  

The first day we were in the house, I noticed a bulge in the living room wall above the fireplace, so I poked it gently with my finger. For a moment, it looked like the entire wall was falling off, but then we realized that it was a giant sheet of wallpaper - the whole thing had become so heavy with the multiple layers of paper that it just came off in one piece.
Whoever lived in the house clearly loved wallpaper, and clearly loved flowered wallpaper.  Whoever hung the wallpaper clearly didn't know a lot about it: when hanging wallpaper, the generally accepted technique is to butt the edge of one piece against the next, aligning the pattern so the seam virtually disappears.  In the Delaney House, most of the wallpaper overlaps itself, much of it by almost an inch. There was little regard for how the pattern lined up, either.  So at every seam, there are breaks in the pattern, and usually a little lump where the two pieces overlap.

Most of the wallpaper is falling off, and all of it has to come off - the walls need to be stripped down to the bare plaster (much of which is in surprisingly good shape). So we started pulling off the paper, sheet by sheet.

Once we'd pulled as much down as we could, we went to the Berkeley Tool Library and borrowed a wallpaper steamer.  A wallpaper steamer consists of a box full of water with a plug on one side and a hose on the other.  The plug goes into the wall, and the water heats up. When it starts to boil, the steam is pushed through the hose to the end pieces, a rectangular plate.  One holds the plate against a section of wallpaper, and the steam saturates the paper and loosens the glue - then one simply moves the plate to the next area, and scrapes the wallpaper off using a scrapper held in the other hand.  

Johno is an accomplished wallpaper remover, and over the course of several weekends, he has managed to remove most of the paper with a steamer.  Most of the walls stripped relatively easily, but the exception was the kitchen.

In the kitchen, the walls and ceiling were coated with grease, and the wallpaper (which was fortunately only covering one wall) refused to budge.  We peeled as much as we could (which was very little), and then Johno went at it with the steamer.  Over the course of two weekends, he slowly compelled each little section to let go, and then scraped off the resulting glop with a scraper.  It was hot, tiring work.

Meanwhile, Julia was coming over and documenting the various layers of wallpaper.  Like an archeological dig, we traveled back in time, finding wallpaper from the 70s, the 60s, the 40s, the turn of the century.  The grey wallpaper with white poppies at the top of this post, for example, was the original wallpaper in the front bedroom.  There were 5 additional layers over this, showing the tastes from various decades.

Almost all the paper has been removed - only the back bedroom is left to strip, and the walls there should be relatively easy to do - so the paper lives on only here.   I hope you enjoy these samples of the past.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

More wiring, more drama

When we got to the Delaney House today, we noticed a large U-Haul truck, backing in to the driveway of the white house directly across the street. This is the same house where the gang of guys were threatening each other yesterday, so we paid attention and noticed that the people who live in the house quickly began packing the truck with their possessions.  By 3 PM, the truck was loaded and the people in the house got in the truck, and into their cars, and drove off. The house is now empty.

Later, we ran into some neighbors, who told us the story:  Late last night, around midnight, the same gang of guys who had been there yesterday showed up, and they all started threatening each other.  At some point, someone started shooting.

Our next door neighbor, Dave, told us that he didn't think anyone was actually shooting at someone - they were more shooting to scare someone.  All the neighbors called 911, and the Berkeley PD showed up within minutes.  62nd Street was blocked off for the rest of the night, and the cops were at the house for hours.  By morning, everything was quiet again.

We don't know all that happened, but it's interesting that they moved out just hours after this all happened.  The neighbors seem mostly happy to see them go.

So while all the drama was going on, Tom and I were wiring again. We have installed new outlets in the front bedroom. The process is simple but time-consuming: first, we pull off the baseboards, and then drill down inside the walls into the basement.  We use the holes to run new romex to each place where we are putting an outlet.  Then we cut out an opening for each electrical box in the baseboard, and attach the new boxes.  After that, we pull the wire through the boxes, re-attach the baseboard, and then wire in the new outlets.  

We haven't done any work on the plaster yet, but we hope this week to start patching the cracks in the walls and getting the rooms ready for paint.  Next weekend, we'll finish wiring both the front bedroom and the living room, and once we paint, those rooms will be done, - except for refinishing the floors.

It was a quiet day, with Tom and I working together but mostly in our own jobs and our own thoughts, listening to "This American Life" and Harry Shearer.  Our neighbor on Parker Street, Carole, stopped by to see the progress and to offer her help, and Kathy Martinez called from Washington to tell me about the snow - but mostly, the house was calm and quiet.   And fortunately, not snowed in.

We still haven't gotten the bid on how much it will cost to move the houses.  Keep your fingers crossed that we can afford to do all this.  But somehow, it will all work out.  We'll just be seriously in debt - so what else is new?

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Wiring and Rumbles on 62nd Street

I spent today crawling around the attic, covered with cobwebs and dirt, working on wiring.  It was the perfect day.

All of the wiring in the Delaney House is knob and tube, and it has all been sitting unused for at least 20 years - so we made the decision to disconnect all of it and start from scratch.  The house had a fuse box that looked like it was from about 1910, and the electricity had been cut off years ago - so the first order of business was to get new electrical service to the house.

We had a new breaker box installed, and then waited a month (yes, one month) to get the City of Berkeley to sign off on it, and then PG&E to bring new lines to it (the old wires had been cut as well).  We finally got electricity, and I had installed one outlet in the front room - so when we want power somewhere else in the house, we run extension cords.

But today, we finally got some good light.  Using the old knob and tube wiring, we fed romex cable up through the walls to the attic, where we put a junction box that will feed all the lights in the house.  Then we pulled additional romex to the switches in the front room and the hallway, and I installed the switches and the light fixtures.  

Electrical work is one of those things that I seem to understand intuitively.  The way electricity flows seems analogous to how water flows, and I imagine the power flowing from point to point, the switches acting like valves.   Once it's all done, you throw the breaker, and everything flows - it never ceases to amaze me.

While making the final connections at the breaker box, we noticed there was some little kerfuffle gong on across the street.  We never figured out exactly what it was, but it looked like there was some kind of gang activity.  Our neighbors called their kids in and told them to play in the backyard until it all blew over - and nothing happened at all.  

62nd Street reminds me of when we lived on Haight and Divisadero in San Francisco back in the late 70s and early 80s.  The neighborhood is very diverse, and even though there is definitely activity going on that is illegal, the neighbors are friendly and happy to see us there.  They have all been very happy to see the boards on the windows being taken down and the glass repaired, and several neighbors have stopped by to introduce themselves and see the progress.  

Tom spent most of the day stripping wallpaper in the back room by the bathroom.  Most of the wallpaper is gone (only the back bedroom is left to strip), and the house seems lighter already.  

Tomorrow, we begin running the new outlets throughout the house.  We'll also start patching plaster on all the newly stripped walls, getting them ready for paint.  When we have some extra cash, we'll buy a tankless hot water heater and install that downstairs - that will be a banner day, having hot water in the house again!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

More on the Cheney Cottage

Today, we met with staff at UC Berkeley, along with our house mover, Phil Joy, and the contractor who will build the new foundations for both houses, Eric Angress.  

The UC Berkeley Real Estate office, Kevin Hufford, is very helpful and a nice guy, but until today I think he thought we were nuts.  When I told him we were planning on cutting the second floor off the first floor, and moving the house in two sections, he seemed shocked.  And when we mapped out the route for how we plan to get the house off the campus of the University, I don't know if he thought it could be done.

But today, everything changed.  Phil Joy is an ebullient and energetic, bursting with confidence. He has moved many houses, and has a wealth of experience. We walked through the Cheney Cottage, and Phil figured out where it would be cut and how it would be moved.  We're basically going to lift the second floor walls right off the floor.  The second floor will be stiffened with metal framing and temporary floor joists, then cut right at the bottom plate of the walls, and lifted up and lowered onto dollies.  Then the second floor will be rolled down through the campus, out on to Bancroft, and then down toward the new site.  Once it arrives on 62nd Street, the second floor will be jacked 14 feet in the air, and left on cribbing.  

The following weekend, the first floor will be jacked up, put on dollies and follow the same route the second floor too.  Once on 62nd Street, the first floor will be slid under the second floor, and then the second floor will be carefully lowered down into place.  The two floors will be joined together, and Tom and I will begin the process of repairing all the damage done to walls and siding, and running new plumbing, wiring and heating pipes.  

The amazing thing about this incredible process is how routine and almost mundane Phil makes it seem.  Cutting a 108-year old house in two and rolling it down hill and across town seems almost impossible, but he makes it seem effortless.  We were standing looking at the house, and he said, "Don't stand next to the house and think about it. Step way back, and look at the house from a distance - then you can see how small it really is, and how you can just pop the second floor off the first."   It all sounds so do-able.

The Progress

It has been a couple weeks since we started our project, and we have made significant progress.  All the windows on the main floor of the Delaney House now are uncovered, all the glass has been replaced, and the double hung windows now all open top and bottom.  The house has electricity - one working outlet in the parlor.  There is running water in the bathroom - the toilet works, and water comes out of the cold tap on the bathroom sink.  Much of the linoleum has been removed and the floors prepared for refinishing.  

Thanks to our dear friend Johno, much of the wallpaper has been steamed off the walls.  He worked diligently to strip several rooms, and is coming back to do more.

Our friend Duffy came by and spent a delightful day with me in the basement, demolishing all the rotting wallboard that had been put up there - clearing the way for new plumbing and wiring and insulation.  Duffy had told me that she loves demolition, and she's surprisingly good at it - I love any woman who owns her own wrecking bar.

Our eldest son, Elliott, has been helping clean up the yard, particularly removing the accumulated debris from the 4 80 foot redwood trees on the property.  (Our youngest, Sabastian, has been cheering us on from his apartment at UC-Davis, but he has steered clear of getting his hands dirty.)  

And our architect, Andus Brandt, has been working on the plans.  We now have agreed-upon plans for the Delaney House's new first floor. The existing house will remain virtually intact, but the living room and kitchen will be relocated downstairs.  The house will go from being a 2 bedroom/1 bathroom house to being a 3 bedroom/3 bathroom house (with an office and an upstairs living room).  The house mover, Phil Joy, has assessed the house and is ready to move and lift it, as soon as we have the permit.

We're already feeling tired.

The Project

How did we get into this?

We're not even full time home remodelers.  Tom is the Publisher of Home Energy Magazine.  I'm the Executive Director of the Center for Accessible Technology.  I'm also running a project building a 47 million dollar center on disability services called the Ed Roberts Campus.

We've restored several old houses in Berkeley and San Francisco.  We've won a restoration award from Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association (BAHA) for the house we live in now.  We even converted a garage into a small studio (which we lovingly refer to as either "The Houselet" or "The Homo Hut").  

Yet this is beyond anything we've done before.  

First, we're buying an 1880s victorian cottage on 62nd Street in Berkeley.  The house, known as the "Delaney House",  has been empty and neglected for over 20 years, boarded up and forgotten.  For a couple years, a squatter was in the house, and he tried to take possession of it from the owner (unsuccessfully).  The house was trashed, yet somehow stood through it.  When we first saw it, all the windows were covered in plywood, most of the interior doors were broken or missing, the transom window was boarded up, and the house had no plumbing, no wiring, no heat and no foundation.  Pieces of the chimney had fallen into the living room.  There were multiple layers of linoleum, all broken, on all the floors.

So after buying the Delaney House, we have to restore it - fix all the windows, scarpe and paint the exterior, strip multiple layers of wallpaper, patch plaster, run new wiring and plumbing, strip linoleum and refinish floors.  (Did I mention the bathroom is disgusting? And the kitchen is non-existent?)

The next step will be to move the house.  The house currently sits in the front corner of a large lot.  As it has no foundation, and is right against the neighbor's driveway (just 5 feet from their house), we're moving the Delaney House toward the back of the lot.  So we also have to remove the chimney.  

While we're doing this, we plan to lift the house up. It has a 6 foot high basement, which we are going to increase to 10 feet.  Then we plan to build interior stairs, and create a living room, dining room, kitchen and a fully accessible bedroom and bathroom downstairs.

In the meantime, we bought yet another house.  We saw an article in the Berkeley Voice about two houses on the University of California-Berkeley campus.  One of them, a 1902 house known as the "Cheney Cottage", is a 1400 sf, 3 bedroom house in the Swiss Chalet style.  It's a historic house, but severely delapidated, with much deferred maintenance. The University agreed to sell it to us for $17 - yes, seventeen dollars - but with one caveat: we have to move it.  By May 15th.

So the Cheney Cottage, formerly of College Avenue but now squarely on the campus of UC Berkeley, will be cut in two (the top floor removed from the bottom) and then pulled 2 miles across town to 62nd Street, where it will be reconnected and situated on a new foundation.

And then, the restoration of the Cheney Cottage will begin.  It needs a familiar list of upgrades: in addition to the new foundation, new wiring, new plumbing, a new roof, floors refinished, insulation, windows repaired, and lots of scraping and painting. And a new kitchen and bathroom.

After that, we're in the home stretch: landscaping, fences, a driveway.  

And we hope to complete all this by September.  Stay tuned.