Renovation and Human Kindness

I am writing this from my new desk in my newly painted, trimmed, and book-shelf-lined office. My desk, a sheet of melamine counter material that Jeff, my contractor, cut to fit and trimmed with nice wood edging, is perched it on two clean sawhorses in the window bay with a view of one of the huge old spruce trees in my backyard.

Above me hangs a beautiful boat-with-a-sail sculpture by Salida sculptor B Strawn, half of the renowned Strawn duo (her husband, Mel, is a also a visual artist, and former chair of the DU art department). The colors could have been chosen for this mid-century modern house, but that's just a happy accident–Richard gave me the sculpture for Christmas years ago. 

Keeping ahead of Jeff and his colleagues means I work long days scrubbing and scraping, painting and assembling (or disassembling), making decisions about renovation and ordering materials, plus preparing for two different presentations at two different garden conferences later this week. I fall into bed each night exhausted but deeply happy to be here, and get up and plunge in again. 

We've made a huge amount of progress, mostly the kind that if you don't love house guts as much as I do may not seem impressive, but trust me, it's big stuff, all critical to bringing my terribly neglected home back to health.

I've got a new main electrical panel, so I no longer wake up at night worrying that the rat's nest of wires in the old one will catch fire. And when I want to replace one of the many truly ugly light fixtures the "investors" who owned the house before me added, I actually know which breaker to turn off so I won't electrocute myself in the doing. 

The rat's nest, partly untangled. (Thank you, Sam, of Bucking Horse Electric!)

My office, a bonus room that opens off the master bedroom, which when I first looked at the house might have been described in real-estate-ease as a "fixer-upper" with "great potential," is now clean, sports trim that seals the gaps between the walls and ceiling and at the corners, is painted cheerful lemon-yellow, minty green and a pale aqua (very 50s colors!); and is lined with bookshelves. 

I did the cleaning and part of the painting (and figured out the color scheme, which was the most fun), designed the "desk" and the bookshelves. Jeff did the trim and the building, and his daughter Chantal, who has way more patience than I do, finished painting the office, including doing the ceiling and the baseboard registers. 

The biggest project we've undertaken so far, replacing Igor, my 60-year-old boiler with a new, more efficient boiler plus an inline water-heating system, should be finished by the end of the evening. I hope so, because I've been without heat and hot water for three days and I'm really looking forward to having them again! 

Igor, just before being retired…

The plan for replacing Igor was inspired during the biggest blizzard in what the locals here are all calling the worst winter in decades, before I even bought the house, when my plumber had an appointment one Tuesday night to assess Igor. When he and Jeff got inside with my real estate agent, John Feeley, the place was cold.

John said in his laconic way, "I think we have a problem." And then they heard a Crack! followed by gushing water, as the faucet in the main bathroom broke and began to fountain. Igor had quit and the waterlines had begun to freeze. (The house was vacant.) The guys spent the next two hours draining all the waterlines to save the house.  

My plumber's been designing Igor's replacement system in his head since that night, and this weekend he began the long and thorny job. (It's a whole heck of a lot easier to put a boiler in a new house than to retrofit a modern boiler system in an old one.)

The big job began on Friday, when Jeff rented a rock-drill with a bit the size of a gas pipe to bore a 12-inch hole through the concrete foundation wall between the basement boiler room and the crawl space for the new boiler flue, which had to go that way before going up an inside wall in my bedroom and out the roof. (The old flue wasn't up to code, and as my plumber discovered when he unhooked Igor, it was so clogged with spruce bark and needles and mummified birds and other detritus, it's a wonder Igor worked at all.) 

Jeff in the crawl space, drilling away…

Listening to the whine of the drill from the basement reminded me of days when Richard would be drilling or grinding away, shaping a boulder into a basin in the breezeway between his studio and Terraphilia, the big house. Is it any wonder that I love tools, and design and construction?

Saturday morning bright and early Jeff and the plumber started in on the actual replacement. First they detached Igor, which meant no more heat or hot water until his replacements, Pancho and Lefty (photo below) were in place, plumbed, wired, and attached to the gas line again.

Pancho, the new aqua-blue boiler (positioned below the substantial hole in the foundation wall) and Lefty, the new inline water-heater to be attached to Pancho as the weekend progresses. That's Igor photo-bombing on the far left side of the picture.

Which will be by the time I get this posted, if all goes well. 

After the guys wrestled all 500 pounds of Igor out of the way, and then wrestled both Pancho and Lefty down the basement stairs and into the boiler room, Dave worked on designing the plumbing while Jeff worked on a path up through the house and attic for the flue (I suggested using the inside wall of my bedroom, which turned out to be the best route). 

Then came the drilling and sawing of holes by Jeff, and the pipe design by the plumber. Getting the flue in place and out the roof (Did I mention a Chinook wind was blowing? That was a blessing in that it was relatively warm, but made erecting the flue chimney challenging) took the better part of the day.

Jeff (left) and Dave (back to the photo) assembling and hanging Pancho's flue in the crawl space. Not fun. 

Out the roof at last! ("There's water leaking down the flue onto the bedroom floor," said Chantal as she carefully painted trim in my office. I relayed the message to her dad on the roof. "It'll quit as soon as I seal the roof," he shouted back. It did.)

Once that was done, my plumber got out his copper pipe and begin cutting and fitting and soldering. That continued until quarter to nine on Saturday night, and all day yesterday, while Chantal finished painting and Jeff installed my office shelves and I worked on a digital presentation. By the end of the day (meaning seven-thirty last night), the copper-pipe sculpture connecting Pancho and Lefty, and the four zones of my heat plus the hot-water-tank was finished. 

The copper-pipe sculpture in progress

This morning, George, the 78-year-old electrician, appeared to do the wiring magic. At dinnertime, my plumber returned to cut and fit gas lines, test the system, check the pressure and install thermostats.

As of right now, I hear a humming in the basement, a happy sound that indicates my radiators will soon be emitting heat, and I'll be able to take a shower tomorrow morning, when the system reached temperature. 

I'm headed for the living room to lounge on my fabulous new couch, which arrived by truck freight this noon. Jeff helped me uncrate it and haul it inside, but I put on the legs myself using the ridiculously too-short hex wrench supplied. 

The house is beginning to warm up, and there's the promise of hot water soon. I'm feeling pretty fortunate. Those simple pleasures remind me to be grateful for what I have. 

Which is a lot. Not the least of my blessings is that I work with people who care enough about the job they do that they stay late and get it done right. We might not agree on everything–I don't know because I don't ask–but I do know that they're kind and caring folks because of how they've treated me, a stranger new to their community.

And that restores my faith in humanity, something we can all use, now and always.