Orchids: The Power of a Flower

MARCH 2014: I’ll admit that it’s a stretch to correlate the beautiful orchid flower to the muddle of a house elevation project. While one is majestic, capable of inspiring awe, the other is a nonstop exercise in frustration. But we’re in a bit of a holding pattern waiting for FEMA to weigh in on our house elevation to determine our new (discounted) flood insurance premiums and  it’s still too cold out just yet to address our extensive landscaping needs.

A brief diversion from the regular topic, I’ve decided to share the beauty of nature via the orchid show at the New York Botanical Garden in New York City, Enjoy

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Flowers… are a proud assertion that a ray of beauty outvalues all the utilities of the world.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

Best Ways to Prepare for Home Renovation / House Elevation Project

The best way to prepare for a home renovation project/ house elevation: assume the project will be messy. Plan accordingly or at least try to learn from our mistakes.

POST CONSTRUCTION CLEAN-UP:  We’ve been living in our flood mitigated/ house elevated home for almost three months. The remnants of construction dust continue. How can that be? Haven’t you been cleaning like mad?

An emphatic “yes” to that question as anyone who knows me would expect. I”m a bit of a neat-freak and crave organization; we all have our quirks. I began to suspect the vacuum I had been using was no longer performing it’s job sufficiently when stray pieces of thread became a challenge for it.

Channel surfing on a recent morning I came across QVC hawking the latest and greatest product they had found: a HEPA filtered, wind tunnel, 3 channels of suction – Hoover.

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My new favorite vacuum

With the company’s 30-day money back guarantee, I figured I had nothing to lose. I was a bit skeptical as my last vacuum had been the Rolls Royce of vacuum’s at the time when I bought it – an Oreck. (Is this post seriously about vacuum cleaners? Sort of, but I have a point).

WHOSE JOB IS IT ANYWAY? When we’d moved out of our home just prior to the start of this house elevation project, our contractor had assured us that they would cover and protect everything. That was their job. They took pride in their neatness on the work site. Well unless their last customer was Oscar-the-Grouch, the muppet who lived in a garbage can on Sesame Street, I can’t imagine anyone finding their version of clean and neat desirable.

MISTAKES WERE MADE: The mistakes we made could easily be avoided once you know what to expect. First off, never trust a builder to appreciate the level of clean that most of us our referring to when we say we don’t want to have a giant mess. Second, go ahead and prep your space yourself.                                                                                                                                                   1. Roll up any carpets and put them in a room, away from the construction zone. Not only will dust and dirt accumulate from the job, it also will accumulate just sitting there. When we moved out we knew it would be for at least three months. It turned out to be six months. That is an awfully long time not clean a house – even if no work were taking place.

2. Cover any furniture that can’t be moved out of the way

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Cover all furniture

3. Seal off all vents. This was a huge oversight on our part. Most of the dust and dirt came up from the basement through the vents. All duct work was removed prior to the lift so these vents were completely exposed to the area below them.

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Seal the vents with saran wrap

4. Pack away all smaller items and store them in a zone away from the construction. Anything that is too big or awkward to move, such as a mixer, cover it.

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Kitchen counters cleared except for largest items, such as this mixer

It’s much easier to pack things away, clean up the mess, then restore the items to their proper place. So much of the discussion during a house elevation was that you didn’t have to move anything. Nothing would be damaged from “movement” but a huge mess was left due to simple and inevitable construction dust.

WARNING:  to those fellow cleanliness aficionados’ out there, the following may be too graphic to see. Here’s is what my new found favorite vacuum pulled up from my floors and areas rugs this morning:

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Dust, dirt and nerf darts

That is after a vacuum has been over the same areas many times in the past few weeks. I’m not trying to sell any Hoover’s and I’m not being paid to write this endorsement, however, the dirt collection speaks for itself. This excessive amount was from the entire house, including the mud room which is notorious for collecting significant dirt.

Keeping dirt at bay during any renovation project, let alone a full house elevation, is not feasible. However, forewarned, the labor to bring a house back to it’s former level of acceptable dust and dirt (with three boys, I have to have some margin of acceptance or I’d do nothing else but relentlessly clean) can be minimized. I prefer neatness, but take what I can get as I am outnumbered in my house as to who cares and who does not.

Insurance Costs Remain High post House Elevation

OUR HOUSE IS “SPECIAL”: We live in a flood zone that has been deemed “special” by FEMA, and not in a good way. It’s rated in the highest category of flood insurance, beat out only by those who have ocean front views. The guilty party in our instance is not the Atlantic Ocean, but a gentle brook whose size is disarmingly small. Yet, it provides, under the right circumstances, significant flooding around the entire perimeter of our house. For all kinds of obvious reasons, we no longer wanted to have the brook entering our house like an uninvited guest who crashes the party and trashes your house.

RAISE THE ROOF: or the whole house, as we did. That’s right. Ripped it from its foundation, jacked it up about 5 feet, built some new access stairs and endured a few months of costly construction. All in the name of decreasing our flood risk and ever-climbing flood insurance rates.

Our updated information was sent to FEMA complete with our required new flood elevation certificate. We weren’t looking for a gold star for our foreheads, just a decrease in our flood insurance rates.

FEMA’S RESPONSE: No rate change – same as  BEFORE the lift. Why? Two words – Flood Vents.

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Interior view of flood vent

WHAT IS A FLOOD VENT? Simply put, a flood vent allows for a free flow of flood water in and out of a home’s foundation walls. They serve to equalize the pressure on both sides of the foundation walls, decreasing the chance of significant damage. (see earlier post on flood vents)

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FEMA accepted flood vents

Not only do you need to have them, you need to have the right number of them based on the square footage of your house. The correct number of vents were on our plans, but our builder missed two of them. FEMA is a stickler that all criteria be met. Our house is out of harm’s way, but because we have seven instead of the required nine flood vents, they offered no reduction. A true all or none philosophy.  They have no competition, you can only get flood insurance through FEMA so they get to make all the rules. Once installed, we’ll resubmit our data to FEMA and hope for a better outcome.

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Flood vents cut into the foundation near the ground

 

Kitchen Renovation – Post House Elevation

THE PROBLEM: As the saying goes, you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.  Or, as I like to say,  you can’t undertake a massive house project (house elevation) without eating a few crap sandwiches. Today’s topic hails from the kitchen. The situation created stems from careless foundation work when our house was lowered (see older posts). An entire bank of cabinets, along with the granite counter top, shifted out-of-place, resulting in drawers that would roll open and an unsightly gap in the counter. Not an entirely big deal, until you appreciate that this kitchen had recently been fully gutted and renovated ALREADY!  Here’s what it looked like before:

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Gap in granite seam about the width of a pencil.

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Entire bank of cabinets shifted away from the wall

THE FIX: This project required a bit of re-tooling of the cabinets, or in  construction speak “shimming” to readjust them.  The backslash had to be  pried off  with a crowbar to achieve this and then the kitchen sink had to be reset.

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Shimming the kitchen cabinets

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Small pieces of wood added to the bottom of the cabinets, kick plate removed.

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Ripping off the backsplash

AFTER:

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Gaps are gone!

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FOR EVERY ACTION, THERE IS A REACTION: For the most part, this side of the kitchen was restored. We’ll still have to shore up the refrigerator, again. Plus, a new gap was created at the top of the backsplash. You can sort of see it in the picture above. Note how the beadboard and the backsplash do not meet. The gap is too big to use caulk . Eventually, we’ll put in new tile or replace this beadboard.

NOW FOR SOME GOOD NEWS: At the very beginning of this house elevation project, we had to remove a superfluous chimney that ran right through the kitchen. We decided to install new cabinets in its place to open up the kitchen a bit. The crew today did a fantastic job seaming in the new cabinets to blend in with the already existing ones.

BEFORE:

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Chimney tucked neatly behind the bead-board.

AFTER:

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Cabinets replace former chimney

We opted to go with a walnut cutting board instead of more granite. This kitchen already has plenty of it and it was much easier to seam in a piece of cutting board than another piece of granite. When I asked the lead installer about this kitchen in terms of how this project faired compared to others he has worked on he said,” This job was a nightmare.” Tell me about it!

Although you can’t tell from the photos above, this old house has walls that are no longer square, if they ever were.  A lot of tedious maneuvering went into lining up these cabinets. Many thanks to Pablo and his crew for working some magic.

Things (About my House) I Never Wanted to Know

FOUNDATION-TO-FLOOR BEAM CONNECTIONS:  … and other things I could have gone my whole life without knowing and never missed it. Here’s the scoop: A sill plate is a lining of pressure-treated wood that is secured to the top of a foundation wall before a house is either build up (most scenarios) or lowered back down onto it  in the case of a house elevation. It looks like this:

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Sill plate: the little piece of lumber atop the foundation wall.

PRECISION FRAMING: Ideally, your house would be level and square all the way around, providing a seamless transition between the house, the sill plate and the foundation.

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Good: Foundation – sill plate – house frame all secure without any gaps.

SHIMMING THE SILL PLATE: If the house is uneven (not ‘square’) there will be gaps between the house and the sill plate as shown below:

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Bad: All kinds of wrong

If the house is supported in some spots, but not in others, that’s not good. Enter the shim …

Shims are used to fill in any gaps. It’s a common practice and can be applied successfully. They should be made from a strong material such as metal or pressure-treated wood. Using whatever is handy at the time, like a scrap of wood or a crumbled up receipt from your pocket, is a big no-no. Anything marginally soft will be crushed by the house like a fat man sitting on a fragile chair and shifting will occur.

WHERE THINGS GO WRONG: In the picture above you can see where shims were installed in the back corner – see how the house is pushed up in that area and not sitting on the sill plate? My kitchen sits right above this area and the floors, cabinets, granite counters, etc. are all bulging out or pulling away from their frame. Ugh!

Could a proper calculation on the part of the masonry team have avoided this issue? Maybe. Was jamming random scraps of wood into any gap a bad idea? Definitely. The “fix” will require a slight re-jacking up of the house in this location to properly shim it.

Useful tips about your home that will come in handy the next time you elevate your house or lack witty banter at your next cocktail party.

Settling In or Just Plain Settling: House after Elevation Project

HAPPY NEW YEAR! As the calendar turns over to reveal the start of a new year, 2014, we are still in the midst of our house elevation for flood mitigation project that began many moons ago. What’s left? Final inspections, certificate of occupancy, landscaping, driveway resurfacing, exterior painting and a few other odds and ends.

MOVEMENT AFOOT: We moved back into our home just about a month ago and continue to see some settling with the house. But how do you decide between to-be-expected movement and compromised structural integrity? Hairline cracks in most of the walls – fine. Gap in seam of granite countertop – ok. Buckling of floor boards due to misplaced shims between the house and the foundation – yep, that too. We had mentally absorbed all of those issues. But the list continues to grow …

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Built-in refrigerator pulling away from the wall

It may be hard to tell from the photo above, but the built-in refrigerator is beginning to pull away from the wall. Fueling my discontent here is that I paid a refrigerator specialist to secure it back into place just last month. Also:

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Granite countertop pulling away from the wall – brand new injury

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Yesterday we saw new signs of movement with the granite beginning to pull away from the wall as well as the floor beginning to buckle in a new location.

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Floor boards pulling apart

In the photo above you can see how the floor boards are tight on the right side and pulling apart on the left – again, brand new development as of yesterday.

THEORIES: Two thoughts on what is perpetrating these new injuries to my kitchen. One: the house is simply settling into its new foundation and due to temperature changes and shifting weight from our boys running around the house, the house is in flux. Two: Due to misplaced shims and missing shims (thin pieces of wood added to the foundation wall for the house to sit flush), the house is moving  – and will continue to move – until the house is properly shimmed.

I’M NOT A CONTRACTOR, BUT … It seems to me the only new problems are in the exact location where the shimming has been called into question. With a call into our contractor and a promise to investigate the issue, hopefully we can stave off any more problems.

Spread Some Kindness

“The art of war is simple enough. Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can.  Strike him as hard as you can, and keep moving on.”  Ulysses S. Grant

MY OWN LITTLE WAR: After months of enduring an overage here or extra charge there by seemingly every service provider who crossed my threshold during our house elevation, I had begun to feel like I was fighting my own little personal war against being ripped off and was determined to fight back. So when I met our unsuspecting movers recently, I greeted them with an aggressively defensive stance – like bringing a sword to a pillow fight – ready to thwart any trumped-up extra charges.

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The price for the move had been predetermined with the moving company weeks prior to meeting the actual movers. When they arrived and started talking about additional transportation fees, extra gas charges, blah, blah, blah I was ready. Not today, buddy. You just found the wrong customer to start talking about extra anything. 

GET A MOVE ON: You think we’re already 45 minutes on the clock and decided to add another 15 minutes of intro chit-chat?  AND you walked up all the stairs to my apartment without carrying any moving supplies in your hands? Sounds like you guys are going to have to hustle like mad-men to get this job done within the time-frame I already agreed upon for this job. Giddy-up!

BEHIND ENEMY LINES: And they did. They were fantastic – quick, careful, courteous – the whole deal. I began to rethink my initial stance. These movers were not the enemy. They didn’t OWN the company, they merely worked there. They weren’t going to receive the fees for this job, their company would, they’d get a small fraction. And they were doing all the heavy lifting – literally.

LIGHTBULB MOMENT: Maybe it was seeing the sweat on their brow that cold December day or the Christmas music playing in the background that sparked my epiphany: this crew were mere worker bees in a corporate hive, working as best they could in a grueling job that probably didn’t pay that well. They were just doing their job, trying to make a living. Not setting out to put the screws to us, not these guys.

We made restitution by giving them a generous tip, a heartfelt thanks and an ultra favorable review, by name, to their company. I learned two lessons that day: It’s a jungle out there, but not everyone’s an animal. And, kindness matters so spread a thick layer where you can.

Happy Holidays!

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