Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Home-Improvement Chronicles: Lessons Learned (Part 2 of 2)

allow me to beat the feminist drum for a moment and discuss a sexist comment i heard repeatedly during the course of my remodel. it’s come from both family and friends alike, this idea that i’m somehow amazing/courageous/strong for handling this home remodel... “on my own.” i don’t think i would hear this if i were a man, at least not as often. as a woman, every time i heard it i found myself rolling my eyes reflexively, which is rude as i know it’s meant to be a compliment, but all i hear when it’s said is, “what a brave little girl you are to do this without a man by your side!”

the truth is nothing i’ve done is so amazing. people remodel their homes all the time. sure, it’s inconvenient and expensive, but it’s not impossible, and i’m glad i did it on my own instead of with a man by my side because remodels can add plenty of stress to a relationship, and reconciling another opinion with those of my architect, contractor and myself would not have been pretty.

so please remember this the next time you encounter a woman in charge of a home remodel — or any other project that seems big and daunting. certainly, commend her on her achievement, but be sure to leave out the “on your own” part because it smacks of sexism. personally, i’ve never viewed my gender as a handicap or an asset. i imagine if i were a man i’d be leading pretty much the same life i’m leading today (with a little extra money as women are still underpaid for the same work).

having said this, i do want to extend some advice to the single ladies who may feel overwhelmed by the idea of supervising a big remodel. for starters: you can do this. if you’ve had a kid or dealt with a stressful job, annoying family members, dramatic friends or dysfunctional relationships, then you know how to navigate landmines. a remodel is no different. in simple terms, construction is solving problems as they appear, which is what everything else in life is.

so treat it like you would any job. this means you show up every day, stay professional, keep a cool head, watch the bottom line, see the big picture, complete tasks, and make decisions based on what’s in your own best interest. it’s not rocket science, curing cancer, going to war or landing on mars. what it is is a lot of loud tools that will give you a headache, a bunch of dust and dirt that will make you sneeze, and a gang of big, burly, sweaty strangers walking through your house and leaving your toilet seat up. the most “amazing” thing about completing a remodel is enduring the inconvenience and suspending the idea that your home is a refuge from the rest of the world. this was the hardest thing for me as i’m a nester by nature so i had to work extra hard to get comfortable with the discomfort (and many days i didn’t succeed).

the other thing i had to work extra hard at was educating myself about the basics of construction. growing up, my pops played the role of house handyman, leaving my mom, sister and myself clueless about how to swing a hammer. needless to say, homeownership changed all that. the education came quickly and oftentimes felt as though i were cramming for an exam. i read books on carpentry and craftsmanship, did web searches on “what are the components of a wall” (not just two painted boards with something called a “stud” in the middle, like i once thought), and paid many visits to Home Depot where i walked through the aisles and forced myself to pay attention for a change.

that research helped me understand what the difference between a 2 by 6 versus a 4 by 8 is. i learned about the various species of wood and their properties. when i redid my kitchen, i read up on pipes, tiles and energy-efficient appliances. of course i couldn’t learn everything, but i gathered enough jargon to be able to speak to my contractor in the same language. to my surprise, learning about this was no chore and i now find myself slowing down to get a closer look as i drive around LA and encounter houses under construction. a brand new world has opened up to me and if i’m proud of anything, it’s that i can speak intelligently on every action that was taken on my house and why it was done that way. this is tremendous for a girl who didn’t know there was such a thing as indoor vs. outdoor paint when she bought a house.

so yes, ladies, read up and get yourselves learned. but don’t bother learning about the housing codes in your city as no one knows what they truly are anyway. let other people handle that and worry only about passing your inspection, so be extra nice to the inspector. remember that the education will bring the confidence to know that you can succeed at this and that having a pussy doesn’t mean acting like one. if you’re full of self-doubt, just remind yourself that you have no other choice but to get it done. a lack of options can go a long way in maintaining stamina. one of my favorite sayings: if you’re going through hell, keep going.

because construction can feel like hell at times, where everything goes wrong from the moment you wake up until the moment the crew leaves. there are days when your dog steps in tar and you need to cut all the hair out of her paws. other days your dogs vomit all over the house because they ate something toxic the crew left in the yard. some days you even get into screaming matches with your architect ex-boyfriend and feel just like you did when you were a couple, while other days have you telling your contractor to redo everything he just did because of a misunderstanding about the plans, a mistake that ends up costing you thousands of dollars.

then there are those days when you kick yourself in the head for coming up with a better answer long after the moment has past and decision has been executed. other days you could have something explained to you four times and still not fully understand it. there are times when you run out of patience, moments when you act like an exhausting micromanager and stretches when you throw your hands up and tell them to do whatever they think is best because you’re tired of making decisions.

through it all, remember one golden rule: don’t ever cry in front of the crew. also, never act emotional, get angry or raise your voice. basically, don’t act the way they expect you to: like an overemotional woman who can’t handle it. remember that you are there to do a job and you don’t cry at your day job. another favorite expression of mine: fake it until you make it.

this means not getting upset and going into a lecture about feminism and the fact that this is 2012 when yet another serviceman comes to your house, looks past you and asks if your husband is home, or when you hear that “your daddy must have taught you well” when you tell people there is no husband. it means not losing your cool and calling your engineer “a sexist fucking prick” when he dismisses all your notes and tells you not to worry about the work because he’s done jobs way harder than yours. (instead just blast him on your blog: Never use ATS Engineering in Glendale; Ara is a sexist fucking prick.) it means not letting the hot tears you feel bubbling up inside you reach the surface and spill out even though your response to feeling overwhelmed by any emotion — be it anger, frustration, happiness or sadness — is to release it through your tear ducts.

this is not to say you won’t ever cry. trust that there will be moments when you sit on the edge of your bed, feel the sawdust in your hair and the splinters in your fingers, your nervous dogs pacing around you and looking for reassurance, the orchestra of power tools outside your window intensifying your headache, and pour out a river from your eyes that’s accompanied by thoughts of inadequacy, doubt, loneliness and defeat.

and when the crew is working in your bedroom, you’ll move the pity party to your bathroom, where you’ll remain locked inside for a good hour until you’ve expelled the hot tears and can emerge with face washed, depuffing eye cream applied and a stiff lip to keep going with the day, keeping in mind that this is a home you love that’s worth every inconvenience, however large or small, so buck up, little soldier, because no one promised you it would be easy. 

understand that this is how remodels go, so go with it instead of agonizing over every misstep and trying to attain perfection. know that the failures will be balanced by the triumphs, like that day you carved your name into the wet concrete simply because you could, because this was your house, goddamnit, a house you bought with money you worked hard for, so go ahead and be tacky and put your name on that shit. remember that thrill through your mistakes, which will be plentiful but not debilitating unless you let them be. so get up each day, shake off the past, keep moving, stay confident, try again, bungle it, recover quicker the next time, and know that no one gets to play a perfect game. this applies to every other part of your life, too.

also, double the price and triple the time. trust me on this one, don’t even rationalize it or try to do the math or look at a calculator or calendar. just double the price and triple the time. this probably applies to every other part of your life as well.

and when it’s done, enjoy the hell out of it. have people over so they can enjoy the hell out of it alongside you. feel happy that you did it, but never surprised because you can do whatever you set your mind to as long as you focus, remain dedicated in the face of adversity, try to keep the complaints to a minimum, take responsibility for all of it, and make your way through each day until it’s done. because it will get done. and when it is, the feeling of accomplishment is incredible. 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Home-Improvement Chronicles: Lessons Learned (Part 1 of 2)

before i post final photos of my finished house and painted deck, i wanted to comment on the biggest takeaways this home remodel taught me. everything about it has been an education from the first day to the last, leaving me with so much new knowledge — not only about the fundamentals of home construction, but also about myself, other people, and what having a home really means.

perhaps the biggest lesson i learned during all this was not to shortchange my house.  this sounds so simple and obvious, but it’s often overlooked in favor of the path of least resistance, which is usually cheaper, quicker, easier — and uglier. in the short-term that might be ok, but down the road it will mean more money and time to correct things that could have been done right the first time.

also, cheap looks cheap. that’s fine for apartment living, but a house is a different matter altogether, so i kept saving/borrowing until i had the money to get what i wanted done. of course, i had to work within a budget, but budgets bust — and for big jobs, that
s a guarantee. my job certainly went well over budget, and i found myself at the bank plenty of times extending my credit, but i never once remade the plans into something cheaper out of fear for what that could look like. i’d rather extend my repayment plan for an additional year than live in something i regarded as ugly for the next 10 years. 

in the same vein of not shortchanging my house, i would absolutely recommend that everyone hire an architect. this is not an extraneous expense that can be cut when the budget starts to look scary, because no matter how many remodeling shows i’ve watched on cable TV, i am not a designer. i’m sure the former owners of my house watched a few shows themselves, as evidenced by the bedroom that had been “rag painted” brown when i moved in. i called it “the shit-smeared room.”

i understand that people want to execute their vision for their homes, and a good architect will take that into consideration, while also taking into consideration things like traffic patterns, natural light, color theory and the differences between materials and their costs.
i know this is easy for me to say as my architect looked a lot like my ex-boyfriend Mo, who knew my house intimately after having lived in it for three years. 

added to my luck was the fact that Mo is a creative genius. i say this with complete objectivity. i don’t doubt that anyone who has seen Mo’s work — which ranges from interior design to drawing to furniture building to writing to filmmaking — will agree with me. he’s brilliant in every capacity and i cannot thank him enough for his dedication to this project (which at some points was stronger than my own). the good news is that you can hire him, too. message me privately (my contact info is in the right sidebar) if you want his contact info. you will not be sorry.   

another thing i’ve learned has to do with what not to say to people who are in the throes of a home remodel. for starters, never ask how much it costs, which i see as being akin to asking people to reveal their salary. and if they refuse to tell you the first time, don’t start guessing and asking them “lower or higher” (yes, this really happened). trust that if someone wants you to know how much money they spent, they’ll tell you.

i never felt comfortable discussing it, seeing the financial details of my remodel as being only between me, my contractor and my bank. a golden rule of mine (learned from having made this mistake in the past): Never talk about money. it’s tacky, it’s private and it can make people feel uncomfortable, usually generating more questions than answers. so no, i can never tell you how much it cost. it’s simply not your business.

also, no one going through a remodel wants to be given unsolicited advice or asked obvious questions like “did you shop around for the lowest price?” they (ok, i) also don’t want to hear about your mother-in-law’s bathroom remodel or about discount stores like Lumber Liquidators (which sucks, by the way). unless you’re being asked for advice because you’re known to have gone through something similar, always give the homeowner the benefit of the doubt because, most of the time, all the research has been done and plans have been finalized before the first nail hits the house.

in addition, give the cliches a rest. if i had a dollar for every time i heard “it will all be worth it in the end,” i could pay off my construction debt. i know that sometimes there is just nothing else to say when someone (ok, me) is complaining to you about their remodeling hardships, but cliches only cause eye rolls. a better reply is “that sounds rough, can i bring you some dinner” or “hey, do you want this gallon of vodka?” please also never ask when the housewarming party will be, as that’s like asking a pregnant stripper when she plans to return to work. it’s simply the last thing on her mind.

finally, be nice to your crew. they’re the ones working on your house, after all, and their craftsmanship will likely suffer if they think you are a total asshole. so don’t allow it by treating them well. this means saying “good morning” and “have a great day” before you leave for work. it means learning their names and buying each of them a case of beer on a hot saturday afternoon after they’ve put in a hard week of work. it’s also important to get in lockstep with your contractor and stay on the same side.    

again, i was lucky here as Platon and i worked amazingly well together. this doesn’t mean we didn’t have our disagreements and tense conversations, but we managed to stay civil to each other throughout them because we understood we’ll still need to be working together the next day. ours was very much a marriage built on mutual respect and clear communication, and it became more solid with time.

i interviewed a few other contractors before hiring Platon to do the full interior remodel of my house four years ago, and all of them (but Platon) rubbed me the wrong way. another important note: trust your instincts when hiring a contractor. needless to say, it can make all the difference. the good news is you can hire Platon, too — if you can get him, that is, as he’s quite busy (he’s built three decks in my neighborhood already), but he’s worth waiting for. Platon Markarian, 818-279-3118.  

since i wrote the last check to Platon and the crew took their tools away, i’ve been on a serious high. i actually hadnt noticed how perpetually cranky living in a construction zone made me until it ended and left behind a levity i didnt know i lacked until i got it back. i also didnt realize how much i missed having people over. the paint had barely dried on the deck before the first wave of house-warmers rolled through. more waves have followed and more parties are being planned. 

its odd but the thought that my friends may muddy up my newly remodeled home doesnt bother me much. in the absence of that whole husband+kids thing, i want my friends who are like family to come over, sit on my deck with me while drinking wine, laughing about their lives, telling me about their days and gazing at the valley below. the times this has happened have filled me with joy and reminded me that it was the reason i did this remodel in the first place. 


Thursday, September 06, 2012

The Home-Improvement Chronicles: The Deck


deckless in Highland Park: after a six-month delay spent wrangling with city inspectors, unraveling the mysteries of Los Angeles housing codes, arguing with an engineer i couldn’t stand (don’t use ATS Engineering in Glendale!), applying for permits and saving diligently, Operation: Home Remodel restarted with the sole purpose of building that goddamn deck already.


day 1: construction moved quickly and was far less painful than the first phase of the remodel, which involved a total overhaul of the house’s exterior. the second phase lasted about two months and stayed mostly on budget. there was also less mess, stress, noise and nervousness among the dogs. here, the crew digs my grave, where they can also put the posts that will support the deck.


view from the inside: the crew dug out about four feet worth of dirt, which means the deck’s foundation rests just above the outer core of the earth. ok, i’m exaggerating. it’s still about 10 feet from the outer core.


hey, sewer line with a hole: not sure if we made this hole or found it this way (crew insists they found it this way), but it was patched up before the concrete was poured. i’m happy to report that this was the only surprise during construction and cost very little to fix.

just like legos: then came the posts, four in total, all 100% steel, which doubled the cost, but the city insisted and we were not in any position to argue. (the original plan called for six posts made of high-density wood.) rebar wrapped around the posts to hold them in place and define what would become the foundation of the deck.

then came the cement: which was poured, set and allowed to dry for a few days until it became concrete.

meanwhile: one of the things the inspector dinged us on from the first phase of the remodel was the fact that the awning of the front porch extended into the driveway. this meant that if i ever wanted to park an extra large SUV in my driveway (note: i drive a Jetta), there wouldn’t have been enough overhead clearance, so we needed to cut back about two feet of the awning’s corner.


framing begins: after the cement dried, the dirt that had been dug up earlier was placed over the foundation, leaving only the four pillars that held up the posts exposed. they’re mighty huge, aren’t they? i often can’t see past them and find myself daydreaming about how i can cover them up with creative landscaping. wait, where was i? oh yeah, the framing. it happened, with bolts and all, super solid. good job, guys.


the deck floor: my contractor, Platon, told me that both phases of the remodel used a total of 7,000 nails. i don’t have anything to compare this to, but that sounds like A LOT of nails. i’m grateful that he did a good job lining up those nails on the deck floor, though it’s worth noting that the commercial nail gun he used became my worst enemy during the remodel, sounding like a gunshot every time it went off.


not lined up: through an engineer error (told you that guy was a bastard, again, never use ATS Engineering in Glendale!), the deck ended up being about two inches lower than it was intended to be, which ruined the continuity of that bottom ribbon line that ran around the house. also, Ara at ATS Engineering is a piece of shit! (bear with me, as repeating this will help highlight my blog in Google searches of the firm’s name.)


compensation: to make up for the mishaps with the lower line, the crew did a good job of hitting the mark with the other lines. the idea behind the deck was to make it look like a natural extension of the house, so the horizontal railing matched the siding in size, color and design.


stable: it was around this time, with the railing loosely in place, that i stood on my deck for the first time. i wish i could claim it thrilled me, but it just seemed to amplify my impatience with the project, which had spanned past the year mark at that point. i wanted it done and asked Platon at the beginning of each week if it would be finished by the end of the week.


meanwhile: the side door in the kitchen was being turned into a window. this was also because of a city mandate that vetoed the plan of a staircase that would extend from the deck, wrap around the house, and connect the ground floor, where the washer/dryer live, with the main floor, where i live. this meant that the size of the deck shrank from its original 10 feet by 20 feet (which we intended to replicate) to a city-mandated 8 feet by 14 feet.


the story behind the story: the original deck, which came with the house and had been there as long as the neighbors could remember, had never been permitted, so according to the City of Los Angeles, my deck didn’t exist, which meant that its remodel would count as new construction and be subject to a ton of new codes that weren’t in place when it was originally built. i could have applied for variances to keep things such as the staircase intact, but the costs to only apply were prohibitive and didn’t guarantee a victory, so we had to scrap a few plans and come up with new ones in a jiffy.


also worth noting: the deck was made with 100% redwood that had been treated with fire-retardant, as my hillside house is technically in a fire zone (though i’ve never known a fire to come through the area). that, in addition to the steel posts, roughly doubled the cost of materials. the deck is also not connected to the main house, sitting about an inch away from it (where Juice is sticking her nose). this is because of that pesky gravity thing that would make any deck connected to my house want to pull itself and the house down the hill, so we were required to build it free-standing.


complaining over: but when it was finally built, oh my my. it was beautiful. like super duper, tear-evoking, jaw-droppingly beautiful.


before the big finish: then came the paint, which unified every line, piece of trim, design detail and aesthetic motivation behind the remodel. i can’t adequately explain how floored i was when i saw it done, so the pictures will have to do the talking. coming up in a future post. (more photos can be found here on my Flickr set.)

Saturday, September 01, 2012

One-Hit Wonders: August 2012

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