Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Blind Guy with Sewing Machine

Of all the power tools I have used since losing my vision, the one that is the most difficult and frustrating is Ann Nathan's old Singer sewing machine.

I know that Tom and I may be projecting a somewhat butch attitude in this project. I've written about sweating pipes, using various power tools, doing wiring, stripping paint. It all sounds so...macho.

But I've also been working on making curtains for the Cheney Cottage's living room. And using a sewing machine has got to be the toughest of all the tools to use. The chop saw? The table saw? The router? Piece of cake.

But the sewing machine is a major pain in the ass to use, particularly for a blind guy. It's just so incredibly complicated.

Winding the bobbin is pretty simple, although I do have a hard time getting the end of the thread through the hole in the bobbin. But generally, I can do that, and the bobbin gets wound.

But then I have to thread the machine, and that takes time. The thread has to be put through several very small spaces, the last (and most difficult) of which is the eye of the needle.

Every time I talk about this, people tell me "Dmitri, there is an adaptive technology for threading needles" I know, I know. I've tried it. It doesn't really work all that well, nor does it make it any easier.

Fortunately, when my father died, one of the things I inherited was his super strength magnification goggles. I put them on, and then, if I get the light and the angle JUST right, I can see the eye of the needle. For a second or two.

But that gives me enough time to line up the thread, and then I try to push it through. Often, it takes 15 or 20 minutes to do this, but eventually, I get the thread to start through the eye. I keep a pair of needle nose pliers nearby, so as soon as I see the thread peeking through, I grab it with the needle nose pliers and pull it through.

All this wouldn't be so bad if I didn't have to do it SO MANY TIMES. The thread breaks. The bobbin runs out. The spool runs out. I end up doing it many many times.

The dreaded sewing machine - goggles and pliers to left

I've also learned not to use pins on the hems. Pins are problematic: first, if I drop one, I never seem to find it (unless I'm barefoot). And getting the pins in properly requires additional use of the goggles, and my eyes can't hack it. So I take the fabric and iron the hems, then run them through the machine that way.

On top of all this, I am hardly talented with the damn thing. My hems are generally even, but if you look at the stitching, it zigs and zags somewhat. Since I can't see it myself unless I am right up against it, I figure no one else can either. (If you pass by the Cheney Cottage and notice that the stitching on the front curtains looks crappy, please keep that information to yourself.)

In the Cheney Cottage living room, there are 9 windows that need curtains - the 5 windows in the bay, the window in the door, and the three windows on the west wall. So since I'm making pairs, that is 18 panels. Daunting.

But I'm almost done. I've completed 16 of the panels. Two more to go, and the curtains are finished.

This weekend, Claire stopped by and suggested that I should be buying curtains from Ikea. She's right, of course, except that no one has curtains in the sizes i need for these windows. And after all the woodwork we've stripped in that living room, I want the curtains to look good, and to cover as little of the woodwork as possible. The curtains I've made for the front windows cover the glass but leave the woodwork fully exposed.

Tonight, I was going to finish the last two curtains. I have a summer cold, so I haven't been up for it for a couple days, but I thought I could manage it. Then I looked at the sewing machine, ready to use, and saw that the spool of thread is running out. So I'll have to re-thread the machine at least one more time. And of course, that's assuming that nothing goes awry during these last few hems.

So I'm taking Claire's advice, and the rest of the windows will have pre-made curtains. They'll go in faster, and I won't strain my eyes like I have on these ones. But I'm happy with how the curtains are looking. I might even make some matching pillows for the window seat. I think Mae Cheney would be proud.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The First Window

The first of the new Kolbe windows is finally installed on the first floor of the Delaney House.

The kitchen window on the back of the Delaney House

This window took a long time to install, because the rough opening for it was wrong. The opening was supposed to be 24" wide by 54" high, but for some reaosn, it was 34 1/2" wide and 66" high. So the first step was to fix the rough opening.

Next, we installed bituthane on the ledge below the window, to keep water out, and added flashing to protect the wood around the window. Then the window was caulked, and it was supposed to slide gently into place.

After reducing the size of the opening, the window fit, but it was very tight. So we had to adjust it several times, which is a major pain. But finally, we got it right, nailed it in place, and the window was in.
Looking out the kitchen window

One down, 11 to go.

Friday, July 27, 2012

The Front Yard

The front yard of the Cheney Cottage is shaping up. In the past week, we've made two major changes to it.

First, Hilary used the bobcat to grade the yard. It had been pretty uneven, with piles of dirt and debris. We have been cleaning up the site, making piles a lot of the broken concrete and bricks. Hilary loaded those piles into a truck to haul them away, and then he used the bobcat to fill in some of the trenches and make the front yard relatively level.
The Cheney Cottage, with the power pole out of the front yard

Then today, the company came to remove the temporary power pole. With the power hooked up to the house, the Cheney Cottage finally does not have the ugly yellow power pole in the front yard.

But as the front yard becomes more finished, the side yard has been torn apart. Hilary also dug the trenches for the water and sewer lines. The plumbers have already been in to hook up the sewer laterals, and on Monday we will have them inspected. Assuming they pass, we'll then get the new supply lines run on Tuesday, and then we can fill in the trenches.
Running the new sewer laterals to both houses (Cheney to the right)

Yesterday, Tom and I met with the concrete guy, and if all goes well, the new sidewalk, the steps and the front walkway for the Cheney Cottage will be poured next Saturday.

There are more trenches to dig: for the electric line back from the Cheney Cottage to the Delaney House, and for the gas line back to the Delaney House. But hose little trenches pale in comparison to what's been done. When the plumbing trenches are filled in, we can also start working on putting in the driveway. And landscaping can actually begin in front of BOTH houses.

This weekend: more of the same. We still haven't worked on installing windows in the Delaney House, and we have to get them out of the Cheney Cottage. So that is probably next on the list, in addition to working on plumbing.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Cheney at Night

The window at the landing, and the WC window, with electric lights on inside

The power was turned on at the Cheney Cottage, and now there are lights on inside the house. Yet another milestone. PG&E came out, and disconnected the power from our temporary power pole (which is being removed from the front yard on Friday - hooray!). Then they ran wires to the power drop that Jeff Williams installed, and installed a meter in the box on the side of the house.

Then one by one, I turned on the circuits - half expecting the fuses to blow, or the house to explode in front of me. But everything worked, and the power began flowing through the miles of romex that we snaked through the walls to the various outlets, switches and lights.
The front porch, after dark

The back porch light and the dining room window

After a somewhat quiet month, spent making plans and trying to figure out exact budgets, we're back on track to getting the Cheney Cottage done and making significant progress on the Delaney House. So Hilary is on 62nd Street this week, digging the trenches for the various services that go underground. We're hoping to get water to the Cheney Cottage, and drain pipe laid to take away the waste water.

The upstairs bathroom, with the lights on

We've also put up some curtains in the front windows, which makes the house seem much more lived in. Every step moves the Cheney Cottage closer to being completed, to joining its new neighbors on 62nd Street.
The Cheney Cottage with curtains. The power pole will disappear on Friday.

I've been re-reading some of the early blog entries, and marveling at our naivete. I guess it's really the only way we could ever actually address projects like this, but did we really think, back in February of 2010, when we were preparing to cut the Cheney Cottage in half, that we would finish both houses by September? Back then, we still thought the City would expedite our permits and we'd be able to move the house directly from the campus to 62nd Street.

I think it's the only way we get through these things. When we bought the house next door ("the Old Magahey place") on Fulton Street, it was infested with rats, and her cats had...well, they'd left their mark. Everywhere. The house needed everything except a roof: new wiring and plumbing, a heating system, every surface refinished, new foundation, new porches, floor joists and beams replaced. Our friends were horrified by this undertaking, and most refused to even walk in the door (the smell was pretty overpowering).

The first day we actually owned the place, we made a video - the "Before" video - and I did my best Jackie Kennedy imitation as we walked through the house ("As we walk down the hall, will you point out the rat droppings?" "Well there's this one, and this one, and this great big one, and this teeny tiny one....") But we never actually sat down and watched it.

When the house was done, we finally watched the video. We couldnt' believe it. What were we thinking?!? The house was such a wreck, and we took this on? And spent our every waking hour in there?!? Suddenly we knew why our kids, our friends and our neighbors all thought we were nuts.

So it goes on 62nd Street. Maybe my vision enables me NOT to see everything that's going on, and Tom has blindness by proxy. But somehow, we keep our enthusiasm and expectations high, and we put our heads down and plow on through. The results ultimately speak for themselves. But we get pretty tired in the process.

More soon.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Cheney Update

Things at the Cheney Cottage continue to move forward. We are meeting PG&E at the house on Tuesday, and the power will finally - FINALLY - be connected. So the ugly temporary power pole in the front yard will go away, and we won't have to run extension cords across the dirt to bring power to the house. We'll actually be able to turn on the lights in the house and leave the porch light burning.

Once the power pole is gone, we can start thinking about landscaping the front yard. Our neighbor on Parker Street, Mark Nakahara, has been growing a japanese maple for us that is the seedling of our 60 year old tree. Soon we'll tae it over to 62nd Street and make it the centerpiece of the new front yard.

I spent much of the weekend finally building the back steps on the Cheney Cottage. After figuring out the rise and run, I determined the number of treads and risers, and the lengths of each. Then Tom and I cut the stringers out of 2x12s, and I attached them to the porch.

Once this was done, I wanted to put some temporary steps in place, just so we could use them but not have to buy the wood for the finished steps. I remembered that we had saved a short run of stairs from the back of the Delaney House, from when the stairs were inside, so I pulled them off the woodpile. In an amazing coincidence, the rise and run of the stairs was EXACTLY the same as the steps I had just built - even the same number of stairs. The stringers on these stairs were in poor shape, but the treads and risers are still usable, so we took them off the old steps, and I attached them to the new stringers.

We also had some shades made for the four upstairs windows of the Cheney Cottage. When I finish the curtains for the first floor, it should make the house look more lived in - especially with the power pole gone from the front yard.

Hilary is set to start grading and digging the trenches for the water, sewer, electrical and gas, and so then the plumbers can start running the waste lines out to the street. We started working on the interior plumbing again, and once we have the water line to the house, we should be able to easily run water to the bathrooms, the kitchen and the laundry. Power and water - it feels like a miracle.

We're going to have the plasterer come in early August, so we expect to have the house appearing pretty finished after that. We'll still have to shellac the woodwork and refinish the floors, but most of the rooms will soon be completed. Then all that is left is hooking up the heating system and insulating the attic, and then pouring all the concrete walkways outside.

We've been meeting more of the neighbors, including Jim and Patrick, a gay couple who live across the street, and Franklin and Darnis, who own the pink apartment building next door. Darnis told us that her father had built the 7-unit building in 1962, and it's been in her family ever since. Patrick bought his house in 1982 - it's a neighborhood with a lot of long term families. And Franklin told us a sad story, that an older woman who lived in one of the apartments was found dead there yesterday - she had been in declining health, but had had no family and died there alone.

Everyone we meet is encouraging about our work, telling us how happy they all are to see the progress and to think that there will soon be people living there. Except for the squatter, and the brief time that our son Elliott was there, no one has actually lived in the Delaney House since 1990. And no one has lived in the Cheney Cottage since the 1940s or 50s - it was used as University offices for the second half of the 20th Century. Having families in there will be a big change for both houses.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Back on the Blogspot

It's been over a month since I posted an update on the blog - have we been out of town, taking a long vacation?  Did we take a break from laboring on 62nd Street?  Has the whole project just fallen off the map?

Not hardly.

We've been working on the houses pretty consistently, and progress is being made.  But Tom and I have been facing a tough reality lately: we just aren't as young as we used to be.  We used to happily spend our weekends working on houses, then we'd take the dogs for long walks in the hills, make dinner, do some projects in the evening, and stay up late, before starting it again.

Lately, we've been working on the houses, and the dogs have not been neglected - but other than that, we've been pretty out of it.  Last night, for example, we went over to Jane and Dave's house for dinner, which was totally lovely.  We got home by about 9:30, and pretty promptly passed out.  One of the projects I've been wanting to get done is making curtains for the Cheney Cottage.  I have the fabric to make the 18 curtains needed for the front room, but I haven't even begun to cut it to size.  It just seems daunting after working our jobs and working on 62nd Street.  We really don't do much else these days.

So enough whining. I'm back on the blog, and have updates to give:

At the Cheney Cottage, much has happened.  The most exciting news is we passed our electrical inspection, and so are now working with PG&E to move the power from the temporary power pole in the front yard to the actual main panel on the house.  In addition to not having to pay for the temporary pole, the house will actually have power in the outlets, the lights will work, etc.

We've begun the plumbing, and overcame the biggest hurdle: getting hot and cold water to the second floor bathroom and WC (without having to demolish walls on the first floor).  We're running Pex for supply, which has two advantages: it's easier to work with, and it's unlikely that someone would break in to steal it (unlike copper).

The kitchen cabinets are all in place, and we hope to soon have a counter installer come in to start making up the new counters in the kitchen.

The heating system has not been installed, but that is next.  We're putting radiators on the second floor, but having a radiant floor on the first floor.

We've taken out the old broken up hearth, and installed a new subfloor to support the new hearth, which will be in front of the restored fireplace mantle.  We hope to install a gas fireplace as well, as an additional source of heat (and charm) in the living room.

The paint scraping is mostly done, except for the upstairs hall.  So we hope to have the plasterers in during the first week of August, and then have Tom Pedemonte come in to do the finish work on the beautiful redwood trim, wainscoting and doors. We have a floor company lined up to repair and refinish the floors, and the house should be largely done.  Dale and her crew will also be back in August to finish the exterior painting (we still have the siding to put on some of the crawlspace walls, and have to build the back stairs).

Hilary should be at 62nd Street next week with his bobcat to dig the trenches - we need to dig out a trench for the sewers, a trench to bring the water to both houses, and two in the back (one to bring the gas services from the Cheney Cottage to the Delaney House, and one to bring the electrical service).  At the same time, Hilary will also grade the entire property, and dig out for the driveway.  Tom and I will be framing the walkways, getting them ready for concrete.

In the Delaney House, the windows have arrived, and they've been sitting in the Cheney Cottage living room for the last month.  Finally, we're prepping them for installation, and we're going to be installing them, starting next weekend.

We also have the front and back doors for the Delaney House.  We bought them all at Urban Ore, which is a building materials recycling center here in Berkeley.  Urban Ore can be a real crapshoot - the place is infested with feral cats, and so the whole place has a not-so-faint stink of cat urine.  A lot of what they have there is not that interesting to us, and we often go there and come away empty-handed.

But Urban Ore's focus really is on recycling, and so when you do find what you want, it's generally pretty inexpensive. The front doors of the Delaney House are the perfect example: we needed double doors for the house, and double doors are expensive.  After looking for quite some time, we finally found a pair of nice wooden doors at Urban Ore - they are 8 feet high and each door is 3 feet wide.  They're really beautiful (although needed repair), and when we saw them, we knew they were the doors for the house.

Most items at Urban Ore are not marked, so you have to ask the guys who work there for prices, and Tom and I had agreed that we'd go as high as $300 for them.  We asked one of the guys to give us a price, and he looked at them and said "How about forty bucks?"  I have to admit that my inner bargain hunter was tempted to say "How about thirty?" but I resisted the temptation, and we bought these nice wood doors for $40.  We hope to install them in the next week or two as well, along with the metal clad double back doors (another Urban Ore find).

The house has become a haven for pigeons, and so yesterday we spent some time covering all the rough openings for windows and doors, getting the house pigeon-free.  Today one of the tasks on the project list is to clean up all the pigeon poop in the house (yes, the fun never stops for Tom and Dmitri!)

With the birds out of the house, we're ready for our first 62nd Street party.  On Sunday, we're having a potluck for people who were involved in the Building Education Center (formerly the Owner Builder Center).  The BEC offered classes and workshops for owner-builders, and Tom and I took several classes there back in the day.  In fact, we met Andus, the architect who designed the layout of the 62nd Street property and the plans for the Delaney House, by taking his workshop on "Attic Conversions".  Andus was the person who designed the third floor addition we put on the Fulton Street house, and we've worked with him on a couple project since then.

The BEC went moribund in 2010, and Andus and I, along with a group of interested former instructors, are getting the BEC back on its feet.  We hope to begin offering classes and workshops again this Fall, and the potluck is for people who are interested in being involved (let me know if anyone reading this wants to attend).

So the $64,000 question is, when will this project be done?  Our hope is to finish the Cheney Cottage in August (yes, next month!) and then finish the Delaney House in the Fall.

And then what?  Well, I'll save future plans for another post.  But there are other irons in the fire.  We may be old and tired, but we're not stopping yet.