Wednesday, 6 February 2013

The Zen of Renovating: Living in the Present

As 2012 slid into 2013 Pascal and I began work on the renovation of the second floor of Peace Flag House. We moved our lives onto the first floor, cramming a giant desk and my spinning wheel into the living room. For the first time in three years we slept in a bedroom with drywall. It took a few nights to get over the claustrophobia.

First floor kitchen.
Basement apartment Kitchen.
Renovating the first floor from start to finish was over a year in the making. It turned out beautifully.

The basement apartment took another year. Once again, gorgeous.

We told ourselves that the second floor would move along at lightening speed.  It's all finishing, no structural work.  Besides, we've learned so much. Our skills have leapfrogged forward. We were lean, mean, total renovation machines.

Oh the realities of ignorance.

Renovating a house, I have discovered, is a process of discovery and an exploration of interlocking pieces and overlapping systems. Taking down walls, lifting floors, removing ceilings is like walking back into history, where you uncover years of decision making very different from you own. Why did this furnace vent stop in the middle of the wall? Why was the stove wire just plastered over and not safely stowed in the studs? Why were the joists cut off under the bathtub?

This last one, the floor joists being cut off underneath the second floor bathtub, is a big deal.  Joists hold up the floor.  They run from supporting wall to supporting wall.  They are big pieces of wood required to make sure the flooring you stand on doesn't cave in.  Cutting the joists off underneath a bathtub (which holds a lot of heavy water and humyns) is not recommended because of immutable forces, such as gravity.

Remarkably enough the bathtub had not landed in the kitchen.  We had repaired the joists when we did the kitchen ceiling but a 100 years of gravity meant there was still a dip in the second story floor.  A slow moving slope from the middle of the house to the bathroom at the back, ending with a dip totaling 3 inches. This was a seriously uneven floor.

While we certainly realized this dip existed while installing the kitchen ceiling, somehow in the past 3 years we had forgotten (willfully?) about its existence. 

Packing the joists.
Too move forward on the second story meant levelling the floor, which meant a/ pulling up the old hardwood (recycled into a friend's cottage), b/ lifting the old sub floor, and c/ levelling the joists, also called 'packing the joists'.

To achieve of all this meant pulling out the bathtub, vanity, and toilet.  As well as, lifting a layer of self-leveling cement and exposing the joists.  While the floor was open we might as well move a couple of furnace vents and improve the sound insulation between the floors.  Since getting at the joists meant taking out a few 'small' walls we might as well change lighting fixture locations and move a plug, rebuild closet walls, remove framing to reveal exposed brick, rebuild a bathroom wall, remove the old railing and newel post, remove the carpet runner on the stairs and raise the headers on the doorways.

So much for lightening speed.
Having to back track doesn't feel like moving forward, even when it's your only option.

"Why, oh why, did THEY decide to cut off the joists?", I moaned.
I had no idea.  Neither did Pascal.  I couldn't know who or why they made this decision.  I couldn't know the circumstances under which this decision was made. 

All I could know was that their decision had produced my present reality.  Although frustrating, I couldn't change the past and put the joists back together.  The only place I could effect change was in my present reality.  I could only work on improving the present, which meant packing that floor with giant, individually cut shims that brought it up to level and relaying a solid sub floor.

One step forward, three steps back. Starting the second story renovations by pulling up good flooring and sub flooring felt like getting pushed back into the early days of our renovation when we had no shower and no kitchen.  It was frustrating because there was nothing we could do to make the joists be uncut and the floor un-sloped.

That's the rub with the past; it can't be changed.  However, our efforts to make change in the present, to make things better, to heal what was broken (whether floor joists, or a life, or a system), have huge and lasting impacts.  Now is where we can change our patterns, fix mistakes, try again, and alter our contexts.

The result of our efforts? A solid, non-squeaking, level floor easily capable of holding us up.


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