When the weather finally broke, it did so with conviction. Two weeks of perfect weather announced spring’s overdue arrival. At the Sullivan House, it meant open windows, and open doors. The safety gates I installed at both sets of porch stairs plus a backyard privacy fence means the dogs get free range from the front porch to the backyard in warmer weather.
As plants and weeds started poking out of the ground, we quickly pivoted priorities to landscaping before it could get out of control. Our mantra is low-maintenance. Anyone who visited us frequently in Warren knows how overwhelming that yard was (double lot, huge hedges, huge beds, and a pond). We can tackle projects, but everything falls apart when it’s time for regular maintenance. We all hate mowing the lawn. Overgrown lawns and hedges were hallmarks of our previous home.
So my plans to sod our backyard disaster here didn’t ring true. We still had ivy around the perimeter and the south side of the yard was still mostly covered by it, but it was largely crushed by the backhoe and subsequent foot traffic in the central part of the yard. Thistles had come last year in force and it took days to beat them back. Sod seemed the obvious solution, but I felt like that much more lawn would put us back into motored lawnmower territory.
Our contractor Andy was last here in early November. We started easing off the pedal as the cold descended on us and it was time for my bank account to mend itself over winter. It was very odd to not have him around. It was reassuring to have someone else continuing to push things forward even while we were occupied by other work.
An incomprehensible amount changed in the year and a day since everything went to Hell. I fell in love. I became a Detroiter. I own a toolbox now, am a mean hand with a drill, and can coat a wall in drywall mud like a pro. I’ve painted walls 35 different colors, met dozens of new people, and vaulted over fences to answer cries for help. I have a contractor, an electrician, a boiler specialist, an attorney, a mason, and a hundred volunteers. We bought a stake in the city and brought a house back to life. Everything is different, and so, so good.
The last unfinished area in the living space of the house was the dining room. I’ve taken to calling it “the pub,” and its full name (courtesy of its five sponsors) is the “Mighty Worriers Mead Hall.” I really like its position at the rear south corner of the house, out of the normal traffic flow between the front and rear doors. It has very heavy wood trim and crown molding (including wood beams across the ceiling) that immediately made me want to style it on a classic British pub.
These days, when I get the frequent “How’s the house going?” question, my answer is that our remaining big-ticket items are the rain gutters, siding, and carriage house. I have a contractor hired for the gutters, the siding is on tap for summer 2013, but the carriage house is a story unto itself that I only tell if they really want details.
If I recite the carriage house’s litany of problems and recommended repairs (a long list of structural reinforcements), the inevitable next question is, “Have you thought about just tearing it down?”
When one buys an historic home in an historic district, one generally acquires certain materials that were used to build said home in the era in which it was produced. Those materials, as has been revealed by modern medical science, are listed now in this more enlightened era as “hazardous” materials. I speak of things like asbestos and lead.
I’ve been living in Detroit for a week now. In that time I have:
- Eaten in Mexicantown twice
- Shopped at Eastern Market
- Walked my dog around the neighborhood every day
- Walked to Midtown
- Gone to the “Dlectricity” special event in Midtown
- Rescued a neighbor’s dog
- Met 3 new neighbors
- Been awoken by a midnight street party next door
- Watched as the only favorably-viewed city official, Police Chief Godbee, resigns amid scandal
The city inspection was… enlightening. After all my panicking over details, the inspector was completely relaxed and complimented the work we’d done. “A lot of these places are terrifying. This is a lot better than I expected,” he said after we’d completed the first floor.
When I asked about the criteria for passing, he basically indicated we weren’t anywhere near passing, saying, “Man, everyone fails. New buildings fail. They think they have paint on the walls but it’s just primer,” and so on. He probably checked even more boxes than the first inspection. Some of them weren’t even accurate, but it seems a moot point for now based on the rest of our conversation.
Tuesday was the first day of autumn in Detroit. Technically the Autumnal Equinox is Saturday, but Tuesday was the day the weather changed from shorts to pants. It was the day that hot tea mid-afternoon became a brilliant idea to ward off the chill. Down at the Sullivan House, the warmth coming from the now-functional back loop (half) of the radiator system felt wonderful on my cold hands.
With the cold came a powerful recollection of the numbness of last winter when we were focusing on bare necessities and worried for our safety. It’s amazing the difference that light, heat, and solid doors make on your perception of a place.
When I got to the house Saturday morning, I was ready to start tearing the roof off the carriage house. Our friend Ryan drove into town from Wisconsin to help, and a dumpster had been delivered for depositing the carnage. But you know the day is going to have a twist when Andy, our contractor, greets you with “You want the good news or the bad news? The good news is it’s a sunny day.”
When Andy had climbed the ladder to the carriage house roof, the entire building shifted. Further review of the structure inside made him believe the entire building was listing to one side and might possibly be ready to tip over. Our plans for the day were immediately scrapped and reorganized, and we made some calls to get a second opinion on the carriage house’s condition. I did my best to remain calm.
We’ve been working our tails off to get moved into the Sullivan House by the end of the month. It’s a breakneck pace, and it’s wearing us down pretty fast. I arrived at the house before 8am today to have the kitchen floor measured. Today was special because several key things came together.
First, we now have wifi. Internet means I can do my job (for Vanilla Forums) from the house. Second, we have a water filter installed and a microwave. That means… hot tea!
I sat out on the porch for the first half of my day, the morning summer sun rising. Joggers, deliverymen, neighbors walking dogs, flier hangers, and the postwoman all passed by. A neighbor moved in. I waved to a lot of people. And worked. It was a perfect peaceful morning and I got a ton done.
As I sipped on my tea to keep warm, it hit me: this is my new morning commute. After all this moving crap is done… I get to sit on the porch of our new castle to do what I love while the neighborhood hums quietly around me.
It’s a downhill boulder now. Boxes are packed up at our old house, we’ve moved several things already, and contractors are at the house almost every day working on getting things ready.
Today we accepted delivery of a new stove, and a masonry contractor came out to give us a quote on chimney repairs. The Soley guys are just about finished installing the ultra high-tech condensing boiler system that makes our basement look even more like a mad scientist laboratory. They’ve also re-plumbed the hot water line in the house, replacing a bunch of useless old galvanized pipe, and removed the old water tank.
It’s getting down to the wire. Renovations are ramping up to a fever pitch. As of this moment, we have calls out to Comcast, a plumber, a scaffolding contractor, a masonry repair contractor, and a roofer. The new boiler system is halfway installed, and the majority of the interior has been primed with at least one coat of primer.
The problems we had with primer peeling off in massive sheets are gone, as oil-based primer has solved the issue. The last “frighteningly high-up” surfaces have been covered with primer, and the kitchen is nearing completion (paint is done, sink is installed, light fixtures are up, and fan is installed). Continue reading
I got sucker punched, so I snapped right back. I got together a mess o’ gear, donned goggles & mask, and tore into that mold-infested space with a crowbar and a huge bucket of bleach water.
Terror building as I prepare to enter the void.
I took out two big bags of shattered drywall and found… nothing. Well sure, there was some white and yellow mold, and there was indeed a strip of black mold by the opening. But that strip quickly fell to my spray bottle, and its expected siblings were nowhere to be found. The darkness and stench had fooled us.
Actually... it kinda looks OK. Huh.
Suddenly, I had a manageable project again.
Last week was a setback. Today, it was a sucker punch.
Andy and I were investigating why the walls in the rear stairwell were always damp. I’d previously determined the walls outside weren’t leaking, but we went outside and had another look anyway. Nope, still fine. But the walls were definitely abnormally damp, even after repeated priming and spackling. Then Andy said those fateful words: “It can’t be coming up from the ground, can it?”
He asked if it was wet under the stairs. I said “You can’t get under the stairs, it’s sealed off,” and my stomach dropped a little as I could see where this was going.
For the last week or so, we’ve been sanding, prepping, spackling, and priming the front foyer and front main hallway of the house.
It took four days and nine coats of primer to turn the formerly pink plaster walls white:
It was exciting. The walls were old plaster, dyed pink from some previous wallpaper (most likely), and a bunch of us put a ton of work into patching, sanding, and priming them. It took nine coats of primer (two of PVA primer and seven of Killz) to get to these smooth white masterpieces, ready for painting.
The hallway complete, we started sanding and priming the round tower room in the front of the house yesterday. Perry and Kyle helped prime and we got one coat on the entire room.
Today Lincoln, Nicole, and I returned to continue priming. I poured the primer and got ready to apply a second coat to the foyer.
That’s when I noticed the blister.
Today I made a decision on the carriage house roof. We’ll be removing the old roofing materials ourselves and building the subroof. Then a professional roofing company will install a metal imitation shake shingle roof. It will be the second truly major expense of this project, on par with the boiler and heating system repairs. And, we’ll be doing it in the next month.
Fifteen people came to the Sullivan House over the weekend and catapulted us forward. The house I found at 11 AM Saturday morning was not the same house I left at 8 PM Sunday night. It was transformed from looking a broken building to a home that was being redecorated. The amount of work that was done was amazing.
The Sullivan House has matching, original handcrafted wood trim around every door and window in the entire house. The wood is gorgeous, and it’s a very bold and wide trim. In fact, I’m resolved to removing the paint from every inch of it in the entire house because it’s a crime for it to be covered.
In the renovated kitchen and bathroom, we need new trim to replace pieces that were lost, broken, or no longer cut correctly from before the renovation. We have sources for trim, of course, but it will be a poor substitute for the original. In the kitchen, especially, it will stick out like a sore thumb against the originally-trimmed windows. Getting it professionally custom cut seems prohibitively expensive.
Does anyone out there have the ability to either produce custom cut trim or produce router bits for custom patterns? Of course, if someone has the actual rotary tool for producing custom trim (I’m forgetting the name presently) that would be amazing. Additionally, if anyone has skill at identifying and matching wood types, I’d appreciate help with that as well.
I met our contractor Andy at the house this morning and we talked strategies and solutions for a lot of issues throughout the house. Smoothing walls, minor electrical fixes, appliance and cabinet installation, and door placements were some of the many things that came up. I notice a water leak in the upstairs near the rear chimney, and a litany of smaller issues.
I had an agent from American Metal Roofs come out and check out the Sullivan House. I’ve been interested in metal roofs for a while now. My uncle originally mentioned them to me after discussing them with my cousin, who’s an architect. They are essentially permanent insofar as they’ll never need to be replaced again in my lifetime, and they absorb far less heat. You can also get them in various styles, like vintage shake shingles to match the original style of my house, and they look damn good.
As the months drone on, with some weekends bringing big improvements and some none at all, we find ourselves in a rut. “Going to the house” becomes something of a chore. It’s just a thing we do, as the passions fade and the work never seems to end.
Some days, we go to the house and do almost nothing at all except walk around looking for something to do. The most miniscule things derail us: Oh, a wire didn’t get run, oh a tool was lost, oh we didn’t buy a tool we needed, oh we’re waiting for this… or that… or this…
Since this project began, one thing has been consistent: The times we really got a ton of work done were the times we were motivated and kickstarted by friends and family; when people show up to help, things really move quickly.
The rut manifested as the house becoming a job, or a “project”, in our minds. Other than ploddingly slow progress on the bathroom and kitchen, it still hasn’t felt like much more than a big job site. The things we do are things that don’t accelerate the move-in date. We repair walls. We move stuff from one room to another in a large-scale game of musical chairs. We do landscaping. We run network cables. We’re not contractors, and our expertise isn’t in things like HVAC systems and electrical.
What we needed was a morale boost.
What we needed was a party. Continue reading
Some friends showed up for the weekend, our contractor Andy returned from his trip to the motherland, and suddenly we’re back to ludicrous speed at the Sullivan House. We’re aiming to have the kitchen and bathroom functional by Memorial Day weekend, and we’re well on our way. Check out the renovation log for what we’ve done the last couple weeks.
The last of the “junk” left by the previous owner exited the house yesterday, which felt like a big milestone. We’re getting ready to put up the kitchen ceiling, and the bathroom is almost ready for that magical moment we install a working toilet in the house. My current project is clearing the main room and office to prep for painting. As usual, we’re figuring it out as we go.
Two rooms have sold in the second & final round of sponsorships, but there’s still quite a few spaces available if you want your name to forever grace the halls of our new community headquarters.
My uncle visited again last week. It was his first time in the house since just before I bought it, and he was duly impressed with the improvements that had been made. It made me remember what things were like that day back in January, and it made me feel a little better about our progress. We’ve really done a lot in three months, but it never feels like enough when considering how much is left to do.
These days, a lot of things are moving between the two houses. Outdoor furniture and supplies head downtown, and left-behind junk for our impending yard sale heads to the suburbs. We typically only get to work on the house on the weekend, but it’s usually for 4-8 hour stretches when we do.
We asked for people to sponsor the Sullivan House, and you responded in a big way. Every room we put up for adoption was snapped up, and you found even more spaces in the house to sponsor that we hadn’t thought to include.
Here’s the breakdown of how the rooms sold.
So how’s the Sullivan House coming along? Here’s a quick run down of what remaining tasks we currently know about. Before we can move in:
- Bathroom needs tiling, painting, appliances and fixtures installed, and radiator adjusted and installed.
- Kitchen needs tiling, painting, countertops, sink & cabinet & appliances installation, radiator installation (including re-running cut copper lines), a gas line for the stove, and ceiling & light installation.
- Ground floor needs more electrical ground (office, dining room) and CAT-6 runs
- Exterior requires repairs to the fascia and sophets, new rain gutters, and a ton of primer and paint.
- Chimneys need repairs, liners, and a new damper.
- Boiler / water heater needs to be installed.
- Basement and carriage house need to be further emptied of junk while we have the dumpster.
Other than that, we have a litany of other tasks ahead that are not necessarily going to be finished before we move in:
I am so very tired right now, but it’s time to write again. I’ve been quiet here for six weeks and now I have a lot to say.
Since the major events of St. Patrick’s weekend, progress has been significantly slower on Avery Street. I’ve been swamped at work and met someone special in February, so I’ve been pretty limited with how much time I spent at the house. We put in a big effort every Saturday, but otherwise I’m usually restricted to coordinating work and purchases. Brian’s been awesome about scheduling & meeting our myriad experts (heating specialists, chimney sweeps, electrician, and plasterer) these last few weeks. It’s been our contractor Andy who’s probably putting in the most time, but he just left for a three week trip home to England. Luckily, just as he left the rest of us sprung back into action!
The past week brought days of heavy rain in Detroit. It was gloomy and dark, and the cold came back.
The rain was significant. The backfill dropped six inches
This was a perfect opportunity to test out all the basement foundation repairs we made earlier in the month, though, so it’s not all bad. After two straight days of downpour, I went into the basement with bated breath.
Every area that we patched was dry.
Very soon after we closed on the house, my old friend Josh from Coca-Cola reached out to me and said he’d be happy to send the work crew along some VitaminWater and SmartWater to help keep us hydrated.
Little did I know he’d be sending cases of it out.
Thanks to the awesome sponsorship, all of our friends during the huge Icrontic week-long renovation adventure had drinks at the ready. And hey, since this March has been the freakiest hottest Michigan March I’ve ever lived through so far, they needed it.
Some of the crew take a break with delicious refreshment
We had bottles of VitaminWater Zero in three different flavors and SmartWater. Luckily, the fridge works so they were cold and available whenever anyone needed one. Our contractors and friends were all appreciative of Josh’s generosity.
Thank you Coca-Cola and Glaceau for the awesome sponsorship. Our house now contains a little piece of love from you guys!
Just some of the crew that showed up to help this week
This past week has been a blur, and it almost defies explanation to people who don’t know us or our friends yet.
If you haven’t seen it yet, you should check out our page “About IntoDetroit“. It explains a lot about where Lincoln and I come from and what the Icrontic community is.
The best way to say it is this:
The Icrontic community is the greatest group of friends that have ever formed up around a website.