To be perfectly clear from the outset, I’ve been living in a construction zone since 1986, the year the late Mr. Right and I moved out to the country and started on our house. Large swaths of the drywall were never painted. Much finishing was left undone. Doors have been missing. Floors were, in some cases, bare concrete. And so on.
I cannot say enough about Mr. Right’s care and brilliance when it came to house design and proper siting on the 10-acre plot we first purchased out here in the sticks. He considered the weather, the lengths of the seasons, the need for sunshine and shade, the best ways to build in passive heating and cooling features, and–it all worked. We based the house design on one in Alex Wade’s book, A Design and Construction Handbook for Energy-Efficient Houses, and incorporated many of his suggestions, including building with what were then (in their very early days) known as Stress-Skin Panels, but which are now routinely called Structural Insulation Panels (SIPs). They were a natural and easy product for the amateur home builder, consisting of 5 1/2″ of fire-retardant foam sandwiched between two pieces of 5/16″ oriented strand board, with–additionally–one side then covered in 1/2″ moisture-resistant drywall. (Funny side note: It was light green. I remember this clearly, because–see above mention of the fact that much of it was never painted, so I’ve been observing it for decades. Since then, there have been multiple generations of moisture-resistant stuff, always a different color from the gray, standard drywall. I particularly remember dark green. And, of course, now it’s purple.)
You built your post-and-beam house frame one floor at a time, and then simply nailed the 4×8 panels to the outside with 10″ barn spikes. The foam around the edges of the panels was recessed 3/4″, so where the panels met, you inserted a 2×6 spline into the recess, and nailed them together. Easy-peasy. And very energy efficient. Once you had the panels for the first floor erected, you put in the beams to support the second floor, and the ledger boards around the perimeter. Then you put in the floor (2×6 tongue and groove). Build your second floor post and beam structure, nail the panels to the outside, and start on the roof.
I don’t remember the roof details too clearly, but it wasn’t stress-skin panels, at least in the main part of the house. It started with 2×6 tongue and groove fir which is exposed on the cathedral ceiling. Above that are several inches of high-density foam and then moisture barrier and purlins. Our first roof was what’s now called Ondura, is it was always our goal to build a house that looked as if it had grown out of the earth around here, and was perhaps a barn conversion–something that “fit” in with the local mood and buildings. As opposed to the place a couple of miles down the road that Mr. Right took one look at and dubbed, “El Rancho Grande.” The Ondura was a big mistake (I understand they’ve improved the product since those days. The current roof is steel, and it makes a wonderful (loud) sound in a good rainstorm, very reminiscent of my days under the tin roofs of my Nigerian childhood.
All those aspects of construction worked marvelously, and just as intended, to produce a well-insulated and environmentally stable house. The year that we lost electric power for ten days in the middle of winter, a period during which–one night–the temperature dropped to -10F, the temperature in the house never fell below 50 degrees, and that was without any heat at all. (The first floor of the house is built into the hill. That helps enormously. Yay, Mr. Right!)
The house is laid out on an East-West orientation, with the majority of the windows facing South. The maple trees we planted just below, which have grown up above the rooftop, provide shade in the summer, when the sun is high in the sky, and a breezy, cooler place to sit on the patio and look at the sheep in the fields below. In the winter, the trees lose their leaves, and the sun is lower. It comes straight in through the windows on the South, and warms the house naturally.
It’s a beautiful thing.
Much as I dearly love Mr. Right, neither I, nor his oldest friend (who went back to the fourth grade with him) would tell you that he was very good at finishing things. He loved puzzles. He loved theory. He loved design. And he was excellent in all those areas.
Drywall, flooring, and paint? Or just details in general? Not so much.
Hence my wandering in the wilderness of my construction zone for almost 40 years.
Oh, I did quite a lot myself, having discovered a knack for, and love of, home improvement work and a (sometimes rather foolhardy) determination to attempt just about anything in that regard. But I was working full-time until I retired, and after I did, family circumstances culminating in Mr. Right’s final illness really cramped my style and rendered further work difficult.
Nevertheless, over the past few years I’ve completely replaced all the plumbing and all the electric wiring. About ten years ago I threw out the entire downstairs, removing all interior walls and flooring (brick on sand and gravel) and ripped everything back to the start. Then we had a slab poured (sort of backwards, I know), with the intention that we (that is, the newly retired “I”) was going to work on things and get things finished. Subsequently, life started to go “haywire,” and the “temporary” door I’d put in (for what I thought would be about six months) where a door really doesn’t “go,” but which I (rightly) thought would be very convenient for the ingress and egress of large construction and demolition material, is still there.
Along the way, life went on. And as you do, we prioritized, and decided there were more important things that finished walls and floors, and we muddled along and about as we could.
After Mr. Right died, I muddled along and about as I could for another year or so, and then I decided to take matters in hand. Knowing that I could no longer do the heavy lifting on my own, I sought out local handymen. The first one (I’ll call him Dave) was OK, but barely. He took too many shortcuts for my liking and (heinous crime) I saw him rolling his eyes at some of my wild ideas, all of which he managed to either ignore or put to bed without accomplishing any of them.
Enter (I’ll call them) John and Ron. They were referred to me by Home Depot, and started work late last Fall on the completely ripped out downstairs which had–when they started out–one barely adequate bedroom (done by “Dave”) and about 3/4 of a bathroom that had been limping along with a substandard shower and leaky toilet for years. The rest–other than the replacement studs I’d put in six or seven years ago, when I’d changed things up from three to two bedrooms, and reconfigured the hoped-for one bathroom to be off the “master” bedroom–was completely unfinished.
Oh, Ron and John have become such dear friends. They are each-other’s neighbors, and one has been doing remodeling for others for quite some time. The other had a difficult job situation made worse by Covid. And they teamed up a couple of years ago in a small remodeling business. Clearly, their families are good friends at all levels, and the two of them bicker hilariously, like an old married couple. Their work is stellar, they’re imaginative and creative, and they never, ever, roll their eyes at my wild ideas. To wit:
RWKJ: Hey, you know where we had to cover up the original posts/beams because we built an interior false wall?
RWKJ: Well, the original posts/beams were rough-sawn poplar (from a local mill). The guy at the local feed store has rough-sawn poplar 5/4×6 fence boards. What about we get some of them, and build them into the false wall, burying them a bit so they match and look like the original posts and beams?
R&J: Great! Let’s do it!
RWKJ: Hey, you know that plumbing manifold that I put in, that’s behind the toilet in the second bathroom?
RWKJ: Well, what if I take this cheap mirror (looks like a rustic window) and put it on a higgledy-piggledy base I concoct of some of the old cedar boards from the original house siding, and put it on hinges and make a cupboard door out of it, and we attach it to the wall you’re going to build there?
R&J: Great! Let’s do it.
RWKJ: Oh, look. Here’s a nice hand-painted tile mural I found. Can we incorporate it into the back wall of the shower? I’ll see if I can find the matching plain tiles to surround it.
R&J: We love it! Let’s do it!
After decades (culminating in “Dave”) of the contracted help saying, “I’ve never done that,” or “I’ve always done it this way,” or “you don’t know what you’re talking about,” I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. And perhaps I have.
And now, we are approaching the end. Ron and John disappeared from my house, but not my life, at the end of April, because they had other commitments. There’s one bedroom left to finish, and then a few odd bits (my house is one odd bit after another) still to do over the next year or two. We arranged that–in the remaining bedroom–I’d do the overhead wiring and lights, and that I’d do any remaining stud framing, and then–come the end of July, or sometime in August, they’d be back to do the drywall and the floor. I’m done with my part. Now it’s up to them.
Otherwise, the downstairs is completed.
Although the master bedroom itself is lovely–farmhouse-y and lovely, with a sliding screen door which I put in last summer) out onto my small sunroom), my pride and joy is my two–count ’em, two!–lovely, working bathrooms.
Really, after all these years, I cannot believe my good fortune:
Still some fine-tuning and finishing to go in a few places. And I realize that I’ll never have those vast expansive spaces than many crave. It just isn’t that sort of house.
However, there are days when my most delightful conundrum is this:
Should I wallow for quite some time–perhaps with a glass or two of wine–in the lovely tub in what my granddaughter dubbed–immediately she saw it–The Fairy Princess Bathroom? Or should I enjoy–in the lighted shower stall, which contains, among other things a teak sitting-stool, a lovely shower in the room which a friend calls The Fiesta Bathroom?
Such a first-world problem.** LOL.
After all this time, I’m just really grateful to be where I am, in a place that I love, with the friends that I have.
Please share your own home improvement successes and failures. No judgment here. I’ve been there, at both ends, for so long and in so many cases.
**I just want to state that–for the last six months, while I waited for my showerhead to arrive from the California Faucet Company (great products when they finally arrive, but lousy communication and customer service, together with frequent misrepresentations as to shipment and delivery dates) I’ve often resorted to going out on the back porch, setting up a three-sided screen, and showering with the dog shower I installed a year or two ago (a frost-free outdoor hot/cold faucet with mixer valve and attached hose). I don’t think I flashed any of the neighbors (they’d have to have really good eyesight, or an excellent rifle scope, LOL), and the sheep, goats, squirrels, rabbits, deer, chipmunks, dogs, and cats, didn’t seem to mind.