Power Aid

It dawned on me last week that one reason I wasn’t getting my projects finished (or started) is that I don’t have any power tools. One trip to Home Depot later, problem solved. Possibly need a new camera as well.


I have been working on a doozy of a post. It’s all about the predicted vs. actual energy savings and will even include numbers and graphs and charts and stuff. The energy savings was the central purpose to this whole convoluted soul-sucking enterprise. As Ed Mazria of Architecture 2030 says, “It’s the Energy, Stupid!” Did I mention I had graphs? It’s gonna be great. Stay tuned!

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The Heat is Not On

Long time no update, mostly because nothing much has changed. The leaky chimneys and resulting drywall damage have been repaired, so I am back to status quo ante bellum.

Now that our lovely summer weather is winding down I can turn my thoughts back to house projects. My neighbour in the Sixth Apostle is tackling some interesting projects himself and every time he invites me over to take a look, I am inspired all over again. His place has a lot of exposed, unpainted brick and he has a nice urban loft look going. The living room is spare and modern with well proportioned furniture. I admit that I am filled with envy. Here is a shot of his living room fireplace:

Living room fireplace at the Sixth Apostle

My living room is still coated in primer and contains unpacked boxes, mismatched furniture and unhung pictures. It is driving me crazy, but clearly not enough to do anything about it. I have been fixated on how to maximize storage space while simultaneously paring down my possessions. My main concern is the living room where I currently have a couple bookcases arranged on either side of the chimney.

My living room “fireplace”. Notice the mantel. What mantel? Exactly.

Instead, I would like some sort of built-in storage cabinet on the floor and open shelves above with room for my currently non-existent TV. In a room this small, I think the TV should be modestly sized and inconspicuous, so a 50-incher on the mantel is out of the question. I also would prefer to avoid custom cabinets that are made for a certain size TV, we have all seen how that works out five years down the line. I like this:

This is a good solution to the TV problem.

Or this:

I think a low horizontal cabinet like this will make the narrow, tall living room feel wider.

The chimney breast is sort of weird because there is no actual firebox just a small clean-out door. Given that the slate mantel was smashed off many years ago, it is not very visually interesting.

The alleged fireplace.

I have thought about rebuilding the mantel and visited a stone supply shop recently and discovered that it is not so much of a big expensive deal as I thought it might be. They told me that it is unlikely the mantel is local slate; there were no slate quarries in the area until about 30 years ago and most slate prior to that was imported from Vermont. The supplier can provide whatever I want in slate or very similar looking black granite, cut and polished. So that’s great news. Now I just have to decide what I want.

I was thinking about building out the chimney and incorporating some sort of heat source for quick warm-ups and some sexy sexy ambiance. You know what I am talking about – the three Bs of fireside seduction: bearskin, brandy and backgammon. At least that is what I learned from watching Dynasty in the 80s.

Bearskin rug not included.

Some of the apostles have little woodstoves installed and that is a nice idea but not very practical due to the clearance required, the poor condition of my chimney and the pain-in-the-ass factor.  It’s too bad, because I discovered this adorable little marine stove called The Sardine, formerly made nearby in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, now made in Washington State. A wood burning stove on a sailboat sounds like an all around Bad Idea, but it must have been the only option at one time.

The Sardine’s big brother The Little Cod installed in a cabin.

So then I thought about installing an electric fireplace. Yes, I said electric, as in fakey-fake flickering flames. I hate to admit it, but it makes sense and is not quite so appalling when you consider that the house is heated electrically already.  They make some decent looking fireboxes and until someone can shake some sense into me I haven’t discarded the idea entirely yet. I would also like to raise the hearth in order to incorporate some sort of storage bench into it so I can eliminate chair seating to save space.  The closest thing I can find to this idea is something like this:

All these ideas in one package, except for the mantel.

If you’ve followed my disjointed screed this far, it may be obvious that I am all over the place with this and no closer to making up my mind. Wikipedia describes the problem as analysis paralysis but does not offer any solutions. Maybe I need to do more research?

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11-11-11 at the 11th Apostle

Thanks for checking back after such a long dormant period. To reward you for your temerity, here is a batch of interior photos showing the state of things at the 11th apostle on this rainy Remembrance Day.

Living Room

Living Room

Living Room and Porch


Still needs work, but you get the idea.

Does this give you a sense for the unfinished-ness of it?

The new back door looks like it's been there 100 years.

The new and old back doors.

Martin made the bathroom door. It does double duty.

When the door is open it hides the laundry.

In Gaelic that's a "shnicken"

The bathroom.

The stairwell.

The upper hallway

The boxes!

The inner sanctum

More boxes!

Hallway window

I never noticed that tread marks on the stair before. I will be stripping all this wood over the winter.

Lest you think it is entirely without evidence of ongoing work. No it is not.

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Renovators Remorse

Looks like August, September and October got away from me. I am suffering from renovation burn-out which is not surprising given that this project is more than a year old. Some days my To-Do list looks more like a Wish List. It occurred to me shortly after moving in that I was never going to have that Grand Reveal moment like you see on the TV home improvement shows. You know the one where the homeowner gasps and covers her mouth with both hands, crying and hugging and squealing “I Love It!” Cue to montage of large walk-in closets, granite countertops, soaker tubs, throw pillows, tall stemmy flower arrangements, jars full of rocks, wicker balls. Yeah, so I have shabby ikea furniture, cardboard boxes and paint cans. Everywhere I look I can only see what needs to be done, not how much has been accomplished – and it’s been a lot. Everyone I know who has been through it assures me it’s all normal. Especially fleeing town at every opportunity so I don’t have to look at it anymore. So that, my friends, is why I haven’t been posting to the blog much these last few weeks.

For the sake of visual gratification (which, face it, is the only reason you keep checking back) here is a picture of some out-of-my-league inspiration. This is the home of NYC architect Diana Kellogg who is living my dream. So beautiful and timeless. “I Love It!”

Let me be clear, this is not my house.

See more pictures at Remodelista

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Movin’ on up

It’s true, I moved in last weekend. Just in time to host friends visiting from NZ. The last couple weeks have been a flurry of priming, painting, and polyurethaning. Not to mention packing, cleaning, unpacking and trying to find space for all my stuff. OMG, so much stuff. There aren’t too many interesting shots to be had at this point, what with the cardboard boxes piled everywhere. Until I get it sorted, here are a couple of things that we have been working on along the way:

The scary corner of the kitchen is all painted.

Starting to look like a kitchen.

Sink and cabinet. That is working plumbing, folks!

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Dirty Old Floor

Still not moved in.

We finally scored some beautiful weather here in Halifax this past long weekend. I celebrated by staying indoors to clean and paint like mad. Even then I feel like I did not make much headway. As I mentioned earlier, every original surface in the place is filthy. I have been up to my elbows in TSP and buckets of dirty water for the last two weeks. I think I finally understand how to wash a floor the old-fashioned way – hands and knees and a scrub brush. As I work, I keep thinking of Barbara Ehrenreich’s book on minimum wage slavery, Nickel and Dimed, where she worked as a maid for one of those franchise outfits. She was trained to wash the floors on her hands and knees, especially if the home owners were present. It gave them the sense that they were getting a better cleaning to see someone toiling on the floor beneath them. What they didn’t know was the maids were also trained to use only a half bucket of water, for everything. Yuck.

If I had unlimited time and funds, I would have all the floors refinished or even do it myself. They appear to be the original hardwood strip flooring and the condition is, uh, rustic. The upstairs floors and stairwell are painted blood red, if you recall. It looks like the paint was poured on straight from the can and slapped around with a straw broom. In the interest of DIY and saving time I decided to repaint them. I did a little googling on painting wood floors. The advice seemed to be primer, two coats of paint, and two coats of polyurethane. That would be great if I had an extra week to let everything cure. So I talked to my curmudgeonly local paint guy and he said, no way, just go with one coat of floor & porch paint. Sure the poly would protect the paint and add shine, but would have to be removed if I ever wanted to paint again. So I spent one day vacuuming, washing, rinsing, sanding, etc. and the next half day putting on the single coat of floor paint. It went on like a dream. The colour is dark grey with a hint of blue, which I am not sure I love, but once I get some other things in the room I am hoping it won’t be quite so in-yer-face.

Here’s a quick peek at the progress to date:

Before and after cleaning the living room ceiling joists. I put this cleaning job off for months. Not a fun day, but the results are good.

Front bedroom floor - before and after

Before and after of back bedroom floor

Clean vs. dirty brick. These Mr. Clean moments never lose their thrill.

Primed but not painted brick wall in stairwell.

Mirror in the shower. Turns out it doesn't looks as weird as it sounds.

New front door light. Not crazy about the glass shade, but now we know what Simulated Etruscan Glass looks like.

Butcherblock countertop with walnut stain and four coats of tung oil. I am pretty happy with how this is turning out.

Bathroom sink mock-up. Buckets not included.

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Wall of Goo

When I removed the 60-year old drywall last fall, I was rewarded with a couple more inches of space and some very dirty painted brick. Even the interior walls in this joint are made of brick. We tried sandblasting the paint and gave up without finishing the room where we started. I decided that repainting the brick was the way to go, but I also knew that solution was not going to work everywhere. Namely in the kitchen. Recall this little corner of horrors.

The paint is in very poor condition in this area. This is where the stove and part of the counter will be located and as such will be the ideal paint chip consumption delivery system. So the paint has to be removed. I looked into options and found that chemical strippers or heat ‘n’ scrape were my two best options. I settled on a chemical stripper called Peel Away. You spread the paste on like cake frosting and cover the paste in a special paper for 24+ hours. Theoretically, when you peel off the paper the goo and the dissolved paint come with it in one gooey sheet. I did a test patch and things looked promising.



I tried a larger area, and it also looked ok. Turns out there is whitewash under them layers of paint and whitewash appears to be unmoved by the goo. Surprising since they are both alkaline substances. If I paid more attention in chemistry class I might be able to explain this, but alas.

The test patch below and the larger area above.


Then I tried the rest of the area on the adjacent wall. Most of the goo came off in one go, but what was stuck-on refused to budge without the help of a wire scrub brush and a lot of elbow grease. The problem was that there was red paint under there. Partially liquified red paint + water + scrub brush = bloody mess. Seriously, it looked like the killing floor of an abattoir in there. Here is the before and after shots.

The dissolved paint shows through the paper.

This is the cleaned-up version.It represents about 12 hours of work.

Here is the slate mantel in most of its former glory.

So the lesson here is what? Don’t remove paint? No, that can’t be it. How about: things are never as simple as the instructions make them out to be.

Here are some bonus shots of the beginning of what very well may be kitchen cabinets!

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Picture this

After last week’s lengthy missive this week is less talk, more action.

All the windows are in. They look great!

The granite sills were painted at one time. I will be removing that paint eventually.

The insulation detail around the interior window opening. That's two inches of foam for R10.

With the drywall returns installed.

The only thing missing is the window ledge. It will be a chunk of solid wood, species and colour to be determined.

The full effect. They look great. Did I mention that already?

Indoor plumbing!

Prepping the brick for painting. The right side of the vertical line shows what it looks like after 110 years of crud was scrubbed off.

Dr M demonstrates her painting technique.

The interior porch doorway framing is done.

That is custom milled trim by Gerry. In order to match....

the existing trim. Of course, it needs a good going-over, but I like the simplicity of it. I think it is true to its humble barracks roots.

We finished up the side jamb of the back door. Here it is with air spaces and exposed brick.

So we foamed the gaps and covered the brick in board foam.

And covered it with pine, which will get a coating of shellac on the knots and then primed and painted.

Repeat on other side and top.

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More on insulation

Now that the drywall is complete (and looks great!) I thought it might be time to go back and take a look at the crowning achievement of this whole renovation – the roof assembly. It took a substantial amount of time and cost to complete and it was not something I had even considered at the outset of the project. However, I think the added loft space, the insulation values and the visual space that it creates in the bedrooms and hallway made it worth the effort.

The original roof/ceiling assembly looked like this:

In terms of R-value for the assembly it was clocking in at R7. That translates to heat losses of about 36 Watts per square metre during winter temps of -20°C (occurs annually about 0.4% of the time). The NS Building Code requires R40 in this type of roof configuration.

The new unvented roof configuration is more like a cathedral ceiling which requires a minimum insulation value of R31 in the NS Building Code. The original roof rafters are 4.5 inches deep, so even if we filled them up with spray foam at R6 per inch, we would only get a total of R27 for the total roof assembly. So we had to deepen the cavity by framing down a few more inches, which we did with 2x6s in the bedrooms and 2x4s in the loft in order to maximize head room. With that additional insulation cavity, the assemblies are R54 and R45 respectively. The attic heat loss during (abnormally low) -20°C winter temperatures is reduced to 5 Watts per square metre versus the 36 Watts in the original uninsulated roof. Keep in mind, that all this insulating and tightening up is only possible if you provide a mechanical source of ventilation into the house. We installed a new Heat Recovery Ventilator unit in the loft.

As-built, as they say.

Initially I decided the newly framed down portion of the roof would be filled with R20 fibreglass batt. A layer of spray foam followed by a layer of batt insulation in deep cavities is a common application called “flash and batt”. The idea is that the closed cell spray foam is a high quality, high performance insulation/air barrier/vapour barrier, but it comes at a relatively higher cost. So if you use it to your advantage in the first few inches the rest of the cavity can be filled with a lower cost batt insulation to provide the remaining R-value since the air sealing and vapour diffusion have been already addressed in the first couple inches of foam. And that, folks, is what we call optimum value engineering.

One concern with this arrangement is the old one-third/two-thirds rule for placement of a vapour barrier in the insulation assembly. The old adage of vapour barrier goes on the warm side of the insulation still holds, but the 1/3 rule-of-thumb says the vapour barrier can be installed up to one-third of the way in the roof (or wall) assembly’s R-value. The purpose behind all these rules and axioms and adages is to prevent moist interior air from filtering too far through the assembly where it will eventually hit dew-point temperature. That can lead to water inside which can lead to big problems. The spray foam IS the vapour barrier and it’s buried underneath 5.5 inches of batt insulation. Is that one-third of the way through the assembly’s R-value? Well, I could do a quick check to see where that location was, but rather than rely on bumper sticker wisdom for the assembly I decided to calc it out. It’s a pretty straightforward exercise if you can find the thermal conductivity and the vapour permeance of the materials. I set it up in a spreadsheet and when I mess around with interior and exterior temperature and relative humidities I can see the condensation potential in the wall and roof assemblies. It’s a little more accurate than the rules-of-thumb and it makes me feel slightly more secure. The upshot is, there is potential for condensation in the assembly if I am running a hot tub in my bedroom during a hellishly long cold snap in January. I am ok with that risk.

My original calculations were for fibreglass batt in the roof cavity. Martin actually used Roxul (made in Milton, Ontario!) which is rock wool. That added a few extra Rs to my R-value. So the roof assembly R-value went from 50 to 54. That’s 74% more than code required minimum.

Original condition minus drywall

With the additional 2X6 framing and some strapping.

After four inches of closed cell spray foam.

With layer of rock wool batt.

After drywall.

My Wall Wants to Party All the Time

The party wall on the main floor also received some insulation treatment. The concern here was to improve the sound barrier rather than reduce heat loss. Surprisingly a single brick wall is not quite enough to stop sound transfer. I did a little research and learned that you have to block air leakage, keep rigid material layers from touching when possible and fill all air spaces within the assembly. So we built a 1-5/8 inch steel stud wall just about a half-inch from the party wall with the intention of filling the cavity with batt insulation. Good old Roxul has a product for this called Safe and Sound that strangely enough doesn’t even list the R-value on the package. That means it probably isn’t as good compared to their thermal insulation products. A higher density batt would help with sound dampening but would have the disadvantage of increasing thermal conductivity.

Original state.

Old drywall removed

Party wall with steel stud framing.

Stud wall with sound insulation.

After drywall.

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Bath update

We finished the wall tile in the bathroom last week. I will say one thing about it – it is very, very white. To mix things up a bit, I picked up a marble tile and we cut it to fit the window ledge. It has a bit of a slope so the water will drain away from the window. My bright idea for the wall mirror in the tub is bringing about some unexpected consequences. I can’t say for sure until it is installed, but based on viewing angles it may be possible to see into the bathroom from the kitchen. Not a big deal, I guess from someone who thinks it’s cool to have a skylight over the toilet. Apparently I don’t have any qualms about privacy. My little nieces have already gone on record to say that they will never use the bathroom at my house because of the skylight. They don’t want the planes flying overhead to see them in the loo. I have to give them credit for critical thinking skills. Wait until they find out that I don’t have a bathroom door.

The bathroom floor is still unfinished and I am chickening out on my idea to seal the concrete and leave it exposed. It sure seems like it needs more colour than cement grey in there. The nice part is, the floor is only 5 feet by 5 feet and will not be obstructed with either a toilet or sink since they both will be wall mounted. If I change my mind later, it won’t be hard to add flooring. Maybe I will stain the concete and then seal it. We’ll see. 

The is the bathroom pre-tile

Post-tile, pre-grout.

With grout and paint, still needs mirror.

The toilet and sink locations.

Window detail with a view to the outdoor half bath.

The doorway but no door. Yet.

Watch your step.

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