Friday, 18 December 2009

Mantel famine to mantel feast

Remember how last week I caved and bought a fireplace mantel which I love but which is totally different than what I originally had in mind? Well, no sooner had I done that than I found *exactly* what I have had in mind on Craigslist. Like I hadn't spent the past 8 months scouring Craig's (along with every other mantel source I know). The seller had not one but two of my dream mantels...for literally 1/10th to 1/15th the price of anything comparable that I've seen. Crazy. So exciting! Naturally I bought both. And now we have not one but three fireplace mantels.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Papercut injuries

I guess you can't die from them, but they sure are annoying. My fingers are covered with them after 4 hours of signing letters, folding them, stuffing them into envelopes, sealing those envelopes, stamping them and sticking on address labels. I'm ready to drop them in the mail later this aft or first thing in the morning, so that 200 of our closest neighbors are apprised of our plans for the RBB. Don't mind doing it but really hope that after all this trouble they let us have our freakin' conservatory.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

On the agenda

We're on the agenda for the two neighbourhood groups' meetings in late December/early January to ask for their support for our appeal to the Zoning Board (for the garden house and to use the RBB's basement as living space). I spent the morning at City Hall trying to get the names and addresses, not just of all the property owners who can see the top of our building from their own, but also of all their tenants, since all the buildings in our neighborhood are multi-family. I came away with a list of the 47 names and addresses of the building owners but have been getting conflicting information about how to obtain the names of the buildings' residents. Either a list of their names will arrive by email this aft or I'll have to make another trip to City Hall tomorrow and try to get it. Then this weekend we'll be drafting a letter to all the affected residents (I'm guessing about 250 names) explaining our proposal and afterwards I'll have the unenviable task of addressing and stuffing all the envelopes early next week. I'm feeling very in-the-trenches.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

ISD application submitted...and a new mantel

On Monday we submitted our application to renovate the RBB to the city's Inspectional Services Department. That gets the ball rolling and clock ticking down the path to a rejection of our plans, neighborhood hearings, an appeal date and - hopefully - approval to build! It's such a relief to be out of the stage of eternally hounding the architects for drawings and answers to various building code questions, even if this next part of the process is sure to come with pitfalls of its own. Fingers crossed that we can get the rejection letter from the City soon, since we have our first presentation to a neighborhood association (there are two such groups on our neighborhood) at the end of December and are supposed to bring that letter to the meeting.

In other news, I bought the mantel for our fireplace today. In a sense it's not what I expected it to be, but in another sense it is. I wish I had photos for you, but we stopped by an architectural salvage place on a whim and of course I didn't have my camera. I had in mind something like the ones in the images above: marble, intricately but above all delicately carved, with an arched opening, and quite large. Instead, we ended up with a wood mantel, regular rectangular opening. It's stripped oak and we might leave it stripped, or else possibly paint it white. What sold me on it were the carvings...they are absolutely stunning. They're not chunky at all like so many mantels, with leaves and swirls, rather than overly feminine roses/flowers. My bf is pleased with the absence of flowers and also by the fact that the mantel is wood, which he far prefers to marble. I can't say I wasn't swayed by the price, either, which was fabulous, even for an wood number, never mind the saving over marble. I'd rather economize here so we hopefully can go big with the budget elsewhere. My only concern is with the size of the mantel. It's a bit smaller than what I had pictured. But our RBB is pretty small, so I'm hoping the proportions are right when we install it.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Art for the red brick building

Yup, work continues to be bogged down by the architects.

Meanwhile, I had a fabulous time at a Skinner auction yesterday and scored these two amazing paintings for very short dollars. I'm so excited I just had to show them off!

Monday, 19 October 2009

I wasn't kidding about it being very slow going

Hence the lack of posts. Despite the fact that our contractor pulled a permit to begin re-doing the Red Brick Building's roof, and our architects promised to have us the plans by the first week of September, it's only last week that they were turned over to the structural engineer for him to be able to do his engineering drawings. Yup, it's been six weeks of hounding and hounding and even more hounding of architects. Not fun. But we are hoping to have turned a corner, and the engineer promised us the plans by tomorrow.

Meanwhile, I've been doing a little showroom visiting today and last week, since some of the spatial dimensions within the rooms are becoming more defined. I visited a local appliance showroom and did a quick whip 'round Sears' appliance section, for comparison purposes. I went in with some "musts" and came out with a few strong contenders.

For the tenants, we're going with all stainless, since that's what most people seem to like these days. A side-by-side fridge/freezer, since it strikes me as the most "neutral" choice (not deciding whether the future tenants are more from-scratch cooks or frozen food reheaters). The Bosch was the clear winner among those I saw, in terms of attractiveness, a feeling of quality, good internal illumination and space configuration. Plus it has the ice/water dispenser in the door, which is a nice touch. For their range, I liked the Bosch and the GE Cafe model. The Cafe seems a little more practical and intelligently designed, the Bosch is a little more elegant-looking and has the "brand-name" factor. Also, apparently if you buy several applicances from the same manufacturer you get a discount. And the saleswoman was saying that the Bosch dishwashers or washers and dryers (I forget which) are the highest rated. But I haven't even gotten to dishwashers and laundry yet. It feels less urgent since there are fewer variables in terms of size and hook-up.

For our own unit, I want white appliances, a French door fridge and a gas cook-top on our free-standing (or rather, as I learned it is called, "slide-in") range. My favorite fridge was the KitchenAid, though there was a Whirlpool Gold that was acceptable, if cheaper-feeling, and half the price. This after going back and forth about whether we need an in-door ice and water dispenser, consulting with my cutie and deciding we don't. Our range was trickier, because I want something white and attractively designed and my boyfriend wants something similar to the Thermador in our rental, which means something more professional style. My other requirements are something with a decently big oven, 4 burners, no or minimal backsplash, and no gimmicky electronics. This morning I went to a showroom that specializes in ranges and deals mostly with European brands. In particular, I wanted to check out Blue Star, Aga and, if possible, see a white KitchenAid range.

Well, after strolling around the showroom and speaking to one of the salespeople, I fell in love with the Blue Star. It reminds me of the ranges I cooked on in restaurants with its open, flush and dropped-in burners. And it comes in white! (as well as over 100 other colors) Apparently the oven is the most capacious of any range its size and the broilers get mega-hot. There's a convection fan to keep things baking evenly, a pull out foil-lineable drawer that catches spills and crumbs, you can take the grate off for true wok cooking, and unlike the Thermador, the simmer setting maintains an evenly low simmer, rather than switching on and off on a timer. So enamored am I that I am even tempted by the possibility of adding a 12 inch grill to the 4-burner 30 inch model that I was originally eyeing, so getting the 36 inch model instead.

Of the other options, the Aga did nothing for me (can't see what's going on inside, except with one model, has non-continuous burner plates, and little ovens which, the saleswoman told me, take surprisingly long to heat up). I think it's best for someone who's a real back-to-basics kind of person (which I emphatically am not). The KitchenAid they had on show wasn't white and it had lots of electronics to control the oven. Plus, it just doesn't hold its own, style and heft-wise with the pro-style ranges. The surprise of the visit was an Italian brand called Ilve which was gorgeous. Comes in a half-dozen colors including white and optional copper trim. Cute styling and nobs, but pricier than the BlueStar (which itself isn't cheap), non-continuous grates and none of the other advantages of the BS.

After these visits, it feels great to know what I'm putting on the appliance wish list. We'll still need to cost it all out, though, before we reach any decisions.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Our first building permit!

We just got our very first building permit for the RBB: it's for the new roof. Our contractor and code consultant went down to the municipal building department and pulled the permit for us this morning. Had I received this news a couple of months ago, I would have thought it was no big deal, but I now know that getting to do this much work on a short form (which doesn't need all kinds of plans to be submitted and a longer wait) is a pretty spectacular thing to pull off. We're so excited! And so pleased with and impressed by those two members of our project team. Our contractor says he can start the work in two weeks' time.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Very slow going

Progress on the red brick building has been very slow, hence the lack of new posts.

Today we met with the architects to restate the priorities we gave them a month ago. 1) Get four details checked/worked out on the engineer's drawings of the roof so we can give the go ahead to our contractor to begin construction. 2) Figure out what the building code requires of us in terms of emergency egress in case of fire. 3) Decide where the utilities are going to go in the basement so we can get our contractor moving pipes and wires around. 4) Analyze the facade to know what changes, if any, we'll make to the windows and doors there. Locate the new fireplace so we can get a mason in to brick up to windows at the back of the building and put in the new fireplace/chimney.

Over the past month, there's been activity related to these points, but nothing that actually puts us in a position to start altering the building's structure yet.

We've also had a wood flooring guy come in to look at our existing floors (which are in very rough shape) and he recommended laying new ones. That's what everyone has been telling us so far. He told me about a place in Portland, Maine that has a good selection of old, reclaimed lumber, so the plan is to head up there one weekend. Meanwhile, I found a gorgeous, inspiring, herringbone-patterned floor in a shop here in Boston. It's very pale in color: old, unstained, unfinished oak. I want to approximate that look on our living level using the old pine framing that we've been pulling down. We'll likely need to buy some wood too, though, since what we can salvage from other parts of the building won't be enough to cover its floor square footage.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Save this wood?

We need to decide whether or not to save and reuse the old wood that we're tearing out of the building. We've been thinking about using them as flooring. We've got three kinds of it: old 2x4s that were used to frame the rooms, ceiling joists that are holding up the roof, and roof decking that's laid on top of the ceiling joists, covered with a layer of tar and gravel and then topped with the roof's rubber membrane.

Yesterday our contractor met me at the RBB with his portable planer and a Sawzall. He cut out pieces of each and cleaned them up. Then I brought them home for us to consider when the bf got home from work. This is what they look like:

From left to right, it's: decking, joist, framing 2x4s. We think the decking and joists are pine and that the 2x4s might be poplar or hemlock. If we used them for flooring, we'd lay the decking and joist wood as (fairly wide) planks and the two by fours in a herringbone pattern. The plan is to buy some stains and urethane, apply them and see what we get. Then maybe take our wood bits to an antique wood flooring place and compare them to what we could buy off the shelf.

If we don't use it for flooring, my bf had the idea of using the joists (which are much thicker) for our new staircases. I like that idea. I also like the idea of saving some of the wood to make furniture for our new place or maybe built-in shelves.

You may be wondering why we'd even consider having the demo crew just throw the wood out. Answer: it's probably more expensive (and possibly significantly more) to dismantle everything carefully, pull all the nails, cut the planks to the right lengths, plane the layer of tar off the roof decking and then plane all the pieces, than it would be just to buy ready-milled flooring. And since we need so many square feet of flooring (about 3000 sq. ft of wood, plus tile for the bathrooms), the difference between, say, $10/sq ft and, say, $15/sq ft is gonna add up fast. So we really do need to cost it out.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

First photos

Here are some photos of the top (third) floor, the level where our unit's bedrooms are going to be. The stairs going up are to the roof. The snaps are from a few weeks ago, when we were trying to clear out the old framing to get a sense of how the space would look opened up. Looks pretty bad, don't it?

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Three priorities for the architects

We showed the new architects the building yesterday, then met with them to talk about the order in which we need to proceed with the work.

The first priority is to finalize the drawings of the roof so that our contractor can get it built. On Monday, he gave us a really reasonable estimate for the work - $49,000 - based on the engineer's drawings. That's to rip the old one off, including the head house, put in all new thick LVLs, to bear the weight of 150lbs/square foot of earth/pavers/plants, install a drainage system, prefab, sloped insulation and a rubber membrane. The architects need to double check that the supports will accomodate the stairs, whether we need to leave them exactly where they are, or whether we're given permission to move them a couple of feet if we are granted a variance for the conservatory. The architects need to make sure the skylights are positioned to alight perfectly over the shower area in the master bathroom one story below. And then we just need a couple of height measurements checked by the architects and noted for the builders. It's pretty exciting to think that we're actually going to get to *build* something soon. We'll be sad to temporarily do without rooftop picnics/sunbathing.

The second architectural priority is to shore up the envelope of the building. Figure out exactly where the brickwork needs repointing, make final decisions about which windows to brick in, draw exactly where the chimney and fireplace should be situated, etc. Then we can get a bid from the mason for that work and turn him loose on the job.

The third priority is ensuring that we have a second egress from all three units (including the troublesome owner's unit) that will satisfy the city. Our first line of attack on that problem is to get the architect to draw a new fire escape with a levered staircase. Then we'll take it over to the building department at the city and see if they'd be okay with it. If so, we can get the ironworker I met with on Tuesday going on the new fire escape. We're doing everything we can and pursuing every glimmer of hope to avoid creating a dreaded second internal staircase, but word on the street is that since our overhaul of the building is so extensive, they're going to want something internal instead of being content with the external stairs that are on the building now. Once we get the emergency egress issues settled, we'll be able to finalize the floorplan enough to situate HVAC, utilities and plumbing and thus, clean out the basement and pour a new concrete floor down there.

Friday, 10 July 2009

Engineer's drawings of the roof

The structural engineer sent us the drawings of the new roof structure this morning, complete with stamp. They were also sent to the contractor, who's working on an estimate as we speak. Next week we're meeting with the bank's representative, who needs to see and approve the plans and pricing before the bank releases the funds and construction can begin. I can't tell you how exciting it is to maybe be able to actually start implementing some of our ideas. Also, it would be comforting, whatever the number, to know what kind of expense we're set up to incur, so we can make a decision about whether or not it's worth it.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Choosing new architects

Since Architect No. 1 resigned my boyfriend and I have been hunting for a replacement. Based on some internet research I identified a firm that seemed to have the skills and experience we're looking for: someone who has helped to develop small apartment buildings in the RBB's neighborhood in the past (so that they can help us get our variances and permits), who is knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the historic character of the project, who is professional and will help move the construction forward with the other collaborators, and all this without costing an absolute arm and leg.

I spent a lot of time looking at architecture firms' websites and found the process enlightening. Some architects seem to pitch their websites to home owners who think that by paying the most they'll get the best. One site actually talked about the principal partner's family's 17th-century summer chateau in France. Thanks but I don't want to be paying for that, and frankly can't fathom how someone who has such a residence is going to be a fiscally-responsible shepherd of our renovation budget. Also immediately ruled out were the young, hip, design-boutiques. The "artiste" role is not one we're looking to fill. Give me someone who knows the ins and outs of getting our specific neighborhood association on our side and I'd pick them any day.

Anyway, we met with our favorite prospective firm 10 days ago and they came back to us with an estimate just before the holiday weekend. Since then I've been checking references and we've been talking about whether to interview at least one more firm before committing. I definitely feel that we jumped in too quickly in the past and, though it hasn't killed us yet, our luck isn't going to hold out indefinitely. But all this dithering is making it hard to get started with the actual construction work. This firm seems far and away to have the most experience on similar buildings in the immediate neighborhood (their office is even around the corner from the RBB), they are strong in preservation and have been very professional to date. The references checked out great too. We're getting ready to jump in with them.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Fourth of July inspiration

I spent the Fourth with a friend who is renting a house in Portland, Maine. The property has a vintage, utilitarian, cottage-y feel. I want to keep some aspects of the decor in mind for the RBB.

The shower had a cute and convenient slate ledge in it for stashing bottles, soap, etc. That might work perfectly with my plant-filled, outdoorsy, master-bathroom-as-courtyard plan. That bathroom also had a very thin and characterful shelf made of worn, unpainted wood.

Both bathrooms had very simple wall-mounted sinks, with exposed pipes underneath. Those could be more fun and casual than pedestals in our powder room and our guest bathroom. One of the sinks was a retro cast-iron model, with a little built-in backsplash. Charming.

In the new addition, the owners used salvaged doors and windows, which went a surprisingly long way towards giving the place a feel of age to match the original part of the house. The vintage frosted glass panel in the top of the downstairs bathroom's narrow pocket door was pretty and practical, providing privacy and light.

I loved the beat-up wide plank pine floors in the kitchen and the fact that it was completely unfitted. They'd deliberately chosen small appliances (including a half-height refrigerator and have located the freezer in the basement). Don't want to follow them there - fine for a weekend, not very practical for a lifetime - but the determined, less-is-more approach was interesting. The kitchen had the most fabulous old cabinet with glass doors, repurposed from a laboratory. In it, the owners store their mismatched dishes and cups. And speaking of cups, they had saved Bonne Maman jam jars for use as glasses, which is a nice, summery idea. I also admired their white built-in sideboard with its mix of white drawers and old, unpainted wood drawers.

It was exciting to have the chance to see how these elements feel and work in real life. All in all, a design-educational holiday.

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Gossip from decades past

We're starting to worry about what will happen if we don't get the variance to build the rooftop conservatory. It takes 4-6 months to find out if the city will grant the variance and we want to move forward with construction in the meantime, since the cost of carrying the empty building and paying rent to live in our current digs isn't exactly cheap.

The plan was to just build out the whole roof as a garden if permission for the conservatory is denied. We put our contractor and our structural engineer to the task of figuring out how much the garden will weigh and designing and pricing the supporting structure. And it's looking expensive. Which got us thinking about how much we really want to sink a huge chunk of money into changes to the roof. (It's currently a flat rubber roof, about 8 years old, in great shape.) Definitely, if we could get the variance for the conservatory, it would be worth doing. But to do all this in order just to have a garden for the 4 months or so of nice Boston weather? Could we be happy with a roof deck and planters?

Looking at our street and the surrounding ones, we can see a couple of very basic decks, but nothing more than rudimentary head-houses capping staircases on the neighboring buildings. (We have one too.) The existing buildings in the neighborhood were mostly built as tenements and are now small mostly rental apartment buildings containing between 3 and 5 apartments each. We can't tell if no one's interested in sinking money into elaborate rooftop structures or whether people have wanted to but been blocked by the city's rules.

Last night my boyfriend set me the task of figuring out if permission for a similar roof structure has been denied to anyone else in the immediate area. I spent the day digging deep into the building permit archives, and uncovering lots of gossip - er, historical information - in the process. The feuds over long-delayed repairs to a neighbor's crumbling retaining wall; the tenant who steadfastly denied entry for a fire escape to be installed; the mysterious eyesore of a building that was given building permission (and coveted underground parking!) because it was designed as apartments for elderly, low-income, long-time residents of neighborhood. Little things, but revealing of the story of the RBB and his colleagues.

The RBB was owned by at least three generations of one family for nearly 100 years, up until it changed hands a couple of years ago, was gutted, and had some framing put in. We know how much (or how little) the guy we bought it from planned to spend in the renovation, and that the bathrooms and kitchens were destined for cheap linoleum floors and basic 4 x 4 white tile. We know when the fire escapes were added '53, and that the previous owner was concerned about what would become of the vacant lot next door in '48. (It had been a bakery, which was abandoned and torn down by the city, then it became a parking lot, and finally, in '71 the hideous building next door was built.)

But back to the conservatory. From what I can gather, the request would be treated as a request for permission to add a story to the building. Only one nearby neighbor has made a request to build upwards and that was 20 years ago. Her request was denied on three grounds - exceeding Floor Area Ratio of allowable living space, being in a restricted roof structure district, and having an insufficient rear yard.

We already need to request a variance for the F.A.R. in order to use the RBB's basement as living space. We're told that that shouldn't be a problem in the basement, but I'm not sure if it would be on the roof. Since we're planning to use about a third of the basement for utilities anyway, I wonder whether we can apply the basement square footage (if granted) to the roof structure. I'm not sure what it means to be in a restricted roof structure district, but wonder if it has to do with a regulation I was told of a while back wherein our building can't be taller than about 55 feet. The conservatory wouldn't put us over that limit. As for the rear yard being insufficient, I have no idea what that means - no one's got a yard in the whole neighborhood. Will look into it.

Friday, 26 June 2009

The dream table

I've been hunting for a dining room table for at least a year now. The perfect one has been really hard to find. The main reason is that dining room tables are an emotionally-loaded issue for my boyfriend, who really wants to throw big, fabulous dinner parties when our new place is done. He has a distinct sense of what he's looking for and I have my own likes and dislikes to juggle against them. The mandate he gave me when I started the hunt was something antique, seats at least 10, with leaves, a skirt, inlaid wood that's not oak, with a pedestal, non-chunky legs and with something unique and unexpected about it.

I looked for a solid year, several times a week, on eBay both in the U.S. and in Europe, and on Craigslist too. Finally, three weeks ago, I found it, watched it, and we scored it - for cheap - off of eBay! Drink it in:

C. 1900, it has three leaves so it pulls out to a good size. Sure, it's not a pedestal and the leaves, though original, don't have a skirt. But look at the gorgeous, detailed carving! (The trim around the table top is more like a chain of figure eights than the plain beading it appears to be in the photo.) Those slender, reeded legs! Those adorable little casters! Love. Plus the rounded shape is going to be fabulous for squeezing in extra people.

The auction house in New York state delivered it on Wednesday and we couldn't be more thrilled. I keep going into the room it's in just to stare at it. Talk about patience paying off!