My Mike Holmes Moment

Well, it finally happened. I had a ‘Mike Holmes moment’ of my very own here at Boo Manor.

You know the drill. Mike Holmes descends on a hapless couple in a helpless house that desperately needs fixing. The small problem that started it all soon leads to larger problems, and then the crowbars come out. Rip down a few walls, and the really big problems emerge. Then Mike Holmes manages a sincere look of sympathy for the camera, and says, “I’d better go talk to the homeowners.” That look is always very, very expensive.

Through much of the renovations, we have in fact been very fortunate. Sure there was the infestation of raccoons in the garage, and the rotted corpses they left behind. And there was the 10-foot wide room that managed to have a floor be three inches off level. And wallpaper was discovered under the paint in the dining room—as we started painting—meaning that the wallpaper needed to be removed, the walls needed to be skim coated and the room had to be repainted. But really, in the grand scheme of things, these are the problems you expect to encounter. Or at least, you should.

Finally, however, I found myself in the basement of the old house having a conversation that will sound very, very familiar to frequent viewers of Home & Garden TV. It started when Jason, the furnace guy (and he actually calls himself the furnace guy) was charging up the cooling system for the wine cellar. He had 15 minutes or so on his hands, and happened to hear our nearly-new furnace sounding a little unhappy, and decided to take a look. That’s when all the trouble started.

In the home inspection, this furnace was particularly singled out as being a fine example of the species. Brand new, two stage, with an awesome motor, it should give us years and years of happy service. Or so we were told. And this is not to fault the home inspection; everything that the inspector said was true, and they are generalists—they don’t specifically know everything there is to know about everything, and certainly aren’t experts in all things furnace.

Jason, however, is that guy. And what he saw concerned him. First, there was a cold-air-return grill directly installed on the ductwork leading to the furnace, which is usually an indication that the furnace is struggling to get enough air. A quick check of the ducting revealed that there were a lot of cold air return grills in the house, and many of them were no longer connected. At all. The intake in the furnace was much smaller than specified in the installation manual. Jumpers that should have been cut based upon our installation weren’t. And while the furnace might be appropriately sized if we were heating the entire house, it was entirely overkill in order to heat the half-side of the house it was responsible for. In fact, it was so overpowered that it was sucking the air filter into the motor.

I’ll stop there. It pains me to go on.

The question, then, was what to do about it. And the answer, apparently, was to keep the furnace but get rid of just about everything else. And so, on Monday of this week, Matt and Josh showed up as scheduled with their Tim Horton’s coffees, a boatload of sheet metal and looks of grim determination on their faces. So ensued two days of banging, crashing, hammering, sawing and more hammering, as our previous ductwork disappeared, and new ductwork took its place.

The furnace needed to be raised eight inches to put in an intake for a larger air filter. Two new cold air returns appeared in our floor. Useless cold air returns were covered up, rather than being gaping holes to the basement. Ducting to the outlets was upgraded to six inches. New outlets were created out of old and not-used cold air returns. And the result, two days later, was a magical transformation of the old basement from something scary and slightly hideous to a new, clean, relatively modern-looking heating system.

A few dip switch settings later, and Jason the furnace guy deemed us good to go. Our super-duty furnace had been dumbed down to a much more moderate heating unit, with appropriately sized ducting and sufficient return air for the furnace not to starve.

The moral of this story is that furnaces need to breathe, just like we do. Smother them, and they’re going to desperately try to suck air as well. If you have heating problems, that doesn’t mean that the problem is your furnace, it may be your ducting. A bigger furnace will not solve the problem, and it will likely fail faster because it has to work harder, ironically, to do the same job as a smaller furnace. You need an appropriately-sized appliance for the ducting that you have, and the ducting will tell you how big the appliance will be.

Which is really good to know, because now we’ve been told that the air conditioner in the old house has finally died as well.

For Want Of A Hinge (Part 2)

Given my failure to find any of the hinges that we were looking for at Addison’s, the next stop in my quest was in Waterloo. The Timeless Material Company is another organization specializing in reclaiming materials from older buildings (everything from office buildings to factories to churches) and houses. Situated in a restored barn from the 1840s, they have multiple levels featuring everything from reclaimed flooring (massive amounts, at a surprisingly reasonable per-square-foot costs) to doors, windows, pews and staircases.

The Timeless Material Company in Waterloo. Salvage for sale.

We had first visited the Timeless Material Company with Gene, when we were on the lookout for a potential bathroom vanity. While they didn’t have any candidates at the time, I had filed them away for future possible uses as we proceeded with the renovations. Stock continues to evolve based upon what comes in. A sister company is involved in on-going demolition products, and what can be recovered is either refurbished or sold ‘as is’.

More types of recovered doors than you can possibly imagine. And the hardware to match (sort of).

Having visited twice, I have to say that it is surprisingly impressive what it is possible to salvage. They have the sign from the old ‘Seagram’s Museum’ (one of the first places that I shopped for alcohol in my mis-spent youth), as well as rocks (boulders, really), beams and floorboards. You can get a weathered, 20″ wide piece of lumber in surprisingly good condition (something that, once again, you won’t find at your local hardware store). Although that single piece of wood will also put a surprisingly hefty whole in your wallet. As an example, I saw single boards that were priced at $120. When someone is specifically looking for a wide board as a specific architectural feature, however, I am sure that there are more than a few people that will happily pay the price.

Gorgeous church windows. And boards of a width that you won’t find today. At prices you won’t believe.

The Timeless Material Company also sells hardware, I’m pleased to report (although a surprising amount of it remains attached to salvaged doors). Antique doorknobs, latch sets, mortise locks and the like are all available, although in less selection than Addison’s. This is also an area that they do less work in terms of refurbishment. Much of the hardware is sold ‘as is’, and a good deal of it is going to need a fair bit of sweat equity to bring up to scratch.

From awesome archways to vintage windows, and everything in between.

Sadly, though, there were no hinges of the period that I was looking for. They again had a vast area of tarnished, rusted and well-painted hinges of various eras, but ‘era’ in this context could be defined as ‘seventies’, ‘eighties’ and ‘nineties’ — all firmly in the twentieth century.

They did helpfully suggest a place in Cobourg that specializes in hardware, and is certainly somewhere that I will have to check out. But sadly, I left the Timeless Material Company empty handed, with no material and only an investment of time to show for it.

Of Lighting Dangly And Respectable

As we already noted when buying the rest of the lights for the house, the direction that we were going to take was eluding us. Not only were we not seeing any fixtures that worked for us, but we did not even have a clear picture of what we wanted. Not an auspicious place to being the quest for something that was going to stand out pretty substantially in one of the more important rooms of our house (for what’s more important than food, one might ask? Well, there is that, but the bedroom already has its lights, so we’re good there).

Given that we were sorely lacking in inspiration, we decided that there was nothing for it but to go out and get some. Cartwright Avenue in Toronto is home to a spectacular number of lighting stores (not all of which are, to be clear, spectacular — but there are a very large number of them). Right around the corner from Of Things Past, it’s a pretty handy street to scope out if you want to understand the diversity of what is out there in terms of possible lighting fixtures.

And so, one early December day, Dianne and I set out to explore the landscape and find what inspiration we might. To be sure, there were many, many directions that we could have pursued. We quite early along found one fashioned from antlers, for example. Perfect for the modern hunter (and a sure sell south of the border, no doubt).

The NRA firmly defends your right to use this light fixture.

One store was clearly catering to those seeking to channel their inner Louis XIV, with every light in the place fashioned from crystal. Really, one hasn’t seen bling quite like this in, well… a very long time. And with vajazzling no longer trending, hopefully that is the way things shall remain.

This is what a ‘wardrobe malfunction’ looks like when done with lighting.

There were a couple of fixtures that started to frame a direction for us, however. We were wanting to stay within the traditions of the house, for starters. The dining room is part of the original farmhouse, and one of the most attractive rooms within it. There is beautiful, dark-wood wainscotting on all four walls, a built in china cabinet and a gorgeous plaster ceiling (somewhat marred by what was a pretty hideous chandelier). As the main room for entertaining, it needs to have a certain presence. For a chandelier, then, we wanted something that would stand out and provide good ambient light, but that wouldn’t overwhelm the room.

Alright. We’re getting somewhere, here. Not perfect, but better.

One of the early possibilities was a fixture comprised of ornate armatures finished in an antiqued bronze, with each arm topped by an opaque, antique-finished sconce. It didn’t stand out as an absolute winner, but it was the first piece that we had seen that was at least moving in the right direction.

Nice, but big. Overwhelmingly big. And yes, size matters.

The fixtures got larger and more imposing from there, although they continued to evolve style-wise in a relatively appropriate direction. One light in particular stood out at the very last store on the street as being promising. Perhaps a little too promising, however, as with 15 sconces and a span of more than 39″ it would have been pretty imposing even in a dining room on the scale we were working with.

Small. Far too small. Size still matters. But it apparently can get bigger.

We did find one other piece that would have been workable, even preferable, except that it was – at three sconces – far too small. And that’s when we finally asked the question: “Do these come in any other sizes?” As a matter of fact, they do. Many, many other sizes. You can get six-sconce, nine-sconce, twelve-sconce and an absolutely mammoth, 51″ tall and 49″ wide fifteen-sconce version of the same fixture. The latter would have completely overwhelmed not only the room, but the dining room table as well. But finally we had something that looked like it could work.

From here, our journey took us in a slightly different direction. The previous year, when we were outfitting the condo, I had spotted a store in downtown Toronto specializing in antique lighting fixtures. As we were outfitting a pretty modern condo, we didn’t even bother going in. With a 19th century farmhouse on our hands, however, the requirements were now much different. It was time to pay a call to Turn of the Century Lighting.

While some of the stores on Cartwright Ave had been essays in tacky, the experience of walking into Turn of the Century Lighting was overwhelming. Everywhere you looked, there were beautiful, antique (or at least antique-looking) lighting fixtures of every shape, size and application. In fact, the store specializes in stocking both actual antiques and also reproductions that they make on site. Not only were there viable candidates in the store, but they could quite literally build us a custom fixture to our specifications.

Beautiful, decorative features. Absolutely love the detail in the bowl.

There were several lighting fixtures that we were taken with. Many of these had nothing to do with what we were looking for, in fact, and was leading in to the (very expensive) territory of replacing already serviceable fixtures with newer (well, older) equally serviceable (but really, really gorgeous) fixtures. A slippery slope, that one. Reluctantly wrenching ourselves back to some semblance of sanity, we left with a rough quote of what a custom fixture might require and a need to do some serious pondering.

There are totally serviceable fixtures I want to get rid of so I can buy this light.

Ponder we did. Working to build a custom-spec lighting fixture was very tempting, but likely to completely blow the budget. Going with a larger version (but not the fifteen-sconce version!) of the chandelier we had liked was tempting, and much more cost effective. Particularly cost effective when I was able to source one on-line for less than $700, taxes and shipping included. Custom and period was nice, but at the price differential, not THAT nice.

Sconces? Don’t get me started on sconces. Our Visa card can’t afford sconces like this.

And so, at long last, we have a chandelier for the dining room. But I’d still love to find a home for some of the sconces we saw at Turn of the Century Lighting.

When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Go Shopping…

And so, it’s that time. The time to pick out what we want in terms of finishings for Boo Manor. Granite, flooring, plumbing, lighting… the works. This is where major dithering and debate can happen, not to mention untold arguments, disagreements, exhibitions of righteous indignation and walking-off-in-a-huff displays of orneriness. This is where a designer earns their keep, delicately negotiating between husband and wife, while trying to ward them off of decisions bordering on, in aesthetic terms, capital offences. Unless, of course, they are working with us. Then they just need to keep up.

The first order of business was finding granite. In that there are much fewer options for granite, and infinitely more in terms of tile, paint and colouring, the theory is that we start with an anchor and work up from there. So we picked up Gene and headed off to London to find some stone.

The granite showroom. How we are used to shopping for granite.

What we found at our destination was a showroom that looked a whole lot like the showroom that we picked our last granite from. There is a wall of samples, of a reasonable size, that show the types of stone available and the finishing options that can be applied. We hung around for a while, waiting for the granite consultant, considering our options. This, though, is not how Alberto helps you to pick granite. No wimpy samples for him. We’re going back into the warehouse to look at whole slabs.

Shopping for granite, Alberto style. Samples? Bah. We’re going to look at slabs.

Granite, when quarried, starts life as a 50,000 lb. block of stone. And no, I am not making that figure up. It’s a block that is about six-by-six-by-nine feet in size. From there, it is cut into a slab that is, depending upon the quality of the stone, either 3/4″ or 1 1/4″ in thickness, but still a good six feet by nine feet in size. And not light. To check out one stone, Alberto had one of the workers turn it around. This involved a ceiling mounted crane that can literally go anywhere in the warehouse, pluck up a stone in hydraulic pincers, and carry it wherever it needs to go.

Moving a slab of granite. Making it look this easy involves some impressive machinery.

When you look at a slab, you realize just how much variation there is in stone. Two slabs mere feet apart in the original block can show completely different colouring and pattern. Given that a kitchen the size of ours will use at least two (and probably three) slabs, you need to work with consecutive panels from the same block. And you get to pick your slabs. The actual one that will go into your kitchen. Or bathroom. Or wherever.

The CNC machine makes cutting giant pieces of stone look like child’s play.

Working with Alberto was hilarious. For the most part, he doesn’t think about price. Differences between grades one and five are rounding errors, and from there we progressively move from eek to boing. In his perfect world, every kitchen would be finished with Carrera marble. In fact, he showed us slabs that came from the same marble quarry that supplied stone for sculptures by Michelangelo. Impressive as that is, marble is really not optimal for a kitchen; it is porous, shows scratches and changes colour with time. For Alberto, this is ‘developing a beautiful patina’; and in a bathroom, I might go for it. But I cook with cast iron frying pans, and I’m not about to change, so granite it will be.

Having toured the warehouse in its entirety, we quickly settled on a short list of two slabs. As I said, keep up; we move fast. One was an amazing piece of granite that featured gorgeous, warm colouring – browns, beiges and blacks in a really intriguing, vibrant pattern. Very tempting, and for a while it was my first choice (although I think it never got higher than number two on Dianne’s short list). It would have made a major statement in the kitchen, and pretty much defined the look and feel of the rest of the room. Counters as show pieces. Two years ago, I would probably have gone there, as well. Today, we’re buying for us, not for what other people think of us.

A beautiful piece of stone. Vibrant and impressive.

And that led to what quickly became a unanimous choice – a mellow, green and brown granite slab dominated by gorgeous undulations of grey, black and brown; it almost looks sedimentary, but isn’t. That also led us to revisit our choices in terms of cabinet colour (we were going with an ivory cream colour, but have since recanted – we may be decisive, but we’ll still change our minds when necessary). Called ‘sea mist’ or ‘Bora Bora’, depending upon who you ask, it is a fabulous, relaxing, awesome-looking piece of stone. The two slabs in the warehouse, however, are already spoken for. Which will simply not do. Alberto needs to find us three slabs of Bora Bora, stat.

Bora Bora. Or Sea Mist. Your call. Alberto, we need three slabs.

And So It Begins…

It would be easy to assume that nothing has been happening for the last little while. And nothing could be further from the truth. It’s just that most of it involves lots of follow-ups and discussions and preparing quotations and figuring out just what this little renovation is going to cost us. That was a lot of Gene working behind the scenes, developing specifications, producing drawings, conducting site visits and getting quotes, until he could put a number in front of us. And what a number it was.

But we are now beginning. The paperwork is signed and we are officially underway. We did a detailed walkthrough with Gene and Seren of the plans, the quotation and what that would mean in terms of work. Neither Dianne nor I passed out, which we are certainly taking as progress. We also did a detailed walkthrough of the house itself, to go over clarifications and be able to get a real sense of what would go where, when that would happen and the questions that would need answering. We have already made changes as well. Which took all of about an hour to start identifying. Add a new toilet, change the approach to heating water… it is mind bogglingly amazing how easy it is to add things on. And it is amazing how much discipline is required to keep a project on budget. Based upon our track record to date, our amount of discipline would appear to be highly questionable indeed.

Some of the changes are quite reasonable, on the face of it. Rather than a new and larger hot water heater, we are taking the plunge (as it were) and going with a tankless, on-demand system. We had done some research earlier that raised a few cautions about proceeding with an on-demand system rather than a traditional hot water heater. In particular, early systems (and by early, we are talking only a few years ago) could run alternatingly hot and cold, and took some time to deliver heated water. Depending upon the draw, a trickle of water might meant that the hot water doesn’t engage. And when the final verdict of Consumer Reports is that many homeowners are better off with a newer model, high-efficiency traditional water heater, it’s enough to make you think twice.

Certainly there are pros and cons to both: the tankless system is a more expensive up-front cost, but saves on fuel costs over time. The hot water heater means you have hot water right there when you want it, but uses a great deal more energy and has a finite amount of hot water; a couple of showers later, you are waiting for more hot water. But the prices on tankless, on-demand solutions have come down, the reliability is going up, and given that we will be back and forth to the house, we won’t be paying to keep a really big tank of water really hot around the clock. So while we had originally veered in the direction of going with a traditional hot water heater, we are now going the on-demand route. We shall see how that plays out going forward.

In the next couple of weeks, we will be getting to do some of the fun and exciting things about renovating: choosing stone, flooring, paint colours and lights. For now, we get to face the fun and exciting challenge of paying for it all.