Friday, September 21, 2018

Ow! My Bank Account!

As is becoming the norm, I'm way behind on updates. Where we left off  last time  I had just raged against the local machine. But this time, I have some serious progress to report.

This garage, like many parts of our old house, was designed to maximize use of the available space. Old houses were built smaller because people used to be more in tune with the labor and energy required to build, maintain, and heat the house. It's something I've grown to really appreciate, and I wish the average American gave more careful thought about how we use the resources like land and building materials. Good design enhances quality of life.I tried to design this garage carefully, and make the best use of the space I have. No thanks to the city, I think we have a reasonable compromise on yard space, garage space, and cost.

On to the actual updates, the concrete was done by a local concrete crew, who did a great job from my non-expert perspective. Concrete is not cheap, and this project made me incredibly curious about concrete. I read tons of blogs, articles, and forums to learn all I could. Did you know the oldest concrete in the world is 8500 years old, and that the concrete in the Hoover dam is still curing? As long as the cement stays wet, crystals continue to form, and strength increases.

About 5 minutes before Jen and I left for a summer vacation, the building materials showed up on a truck. We left and crossed our fingers that when we came back, there would be a garage in our back yard. 

The framing was done by an Amish crew, beards, hats and all. They were recommended by a friend at church, and did great work. Apparently they use all pneumatic tools, and hire a non-Amish driver to get them to the job site. Sadly they built the garage while we were on vacation out west so I didn't get to watch, but they built, roofed, and finished the entire building in less than three work days. Normally I would want to be around for a build just to make sure all goes well, but I figured if I can't rely on the Amish to do good work then we're pretty much screwed no matter that.

So this is the finished product... Sorta. We caught a lucky break and had the garage door installed much sooner than was originally planned. Originally it was going to have a month lead time because it was a custom order, but the vendor found one in stock in Grand Rapids. 

So why were we willing to wait a month for a garage door? When I was shopping for garage doors, Jen said she didn't want the standard garage door you see on about 95% of garages because it "looks so 90s!" I was more than ok with that, so I started looking. I began to notice that every house built in the last 40 years has the same garage door! I got a quote on something I thought looked good and I about choked when I saw the total!

A double garage door can range from $800 for a very basic single layer steel to about $6000 for an aluminum and glass, or unfinished finished wood door. We needed to be on the well into the lower half of that range and for a while I was worried I wasn't going to find anything that fit that requirement. Eventually I stumbled across a line of stamped steel faux carriage doors by Amarr, available in single layer and insulated steel configuration. 
This door checked all the boxes but was a custom order, which is why were willing to wait. The early delivery was just the frosting on the cake.

At long last, Grace has her new home. Unfortunately, that does not mean that I've had time to work on her. Instead, I've endured a bit more wrangling with the city in order to get a concrete driveway approved. This morning the concrete crew laid the driveway and a small patio in the back yard.

Max even got to leave a mark in the patio!
As of today, we've completed the last of the big expensive house projects. There are still plenty of house projects to be done but I'm ready to start moving towards car projects again, and when I do, you'll read about it here.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

If it pleases the Crown...

Good news: I'm building a new garage. Bad news: you are going to have to endure my sorta political rant.

Anybody who knows me knows that I can get political, and when I do it goes from zero to sixty faster than a Yugo being pushed off a cliff. National politics can get me fired up, but where the rubber hits the road, local politics, I get really hot under the collar. I'll try to keep it under control here, but I have some venting to do. I promise I'll get to the stuff you actually want to read eventually.

I am a real believer in personal freedom, and personal responsibility. If a person wants to do something with their own property, then they should do so while shouldering the costs and liabilities of their actions. If they choose to pay someone else (like insurance) to shoulder some of those liabilities, that is their business.

I've had a lot of experiences in the last year that have showed me how far off the reality is in this country. It was well put by a friend who said "you think America is a free country until you try to build something on your own property". We really have fallen in love with the idea of telling other people what to do with their own property and lives.

This became painfully apparent last fall when I had a disagreement with the city building inspector about where I could put a toilet in my bathroom. It had sat in one location for nearly a hundred years, but when I wanted to keep that location while replacing an ailing plumbing stack, used his "authority" to force it to a new location. Now if some accident had come upon me or a guest in my house due to the toilet being too close to the wall, who would bear that liability? It sure wouldn't be ol' Steve-o the inspector, or the city of Saline. It would be me, or my homeowner's insurance agency. So really what's happening here is that I'm being saved from myself by a non-invested benevolent dictator. This "protection" cost me a few thousand dollars in the end, and added no value.

Fast forward to this spring, and I'm trying to get permits to build a garage. The old garage was an 18x20, 2 feet from the property line. My neighbor's garage is also 2 feet from the property line. I submitted a plan as shown below and was told that due to local zoning code, not only did I need to be 3 feet from the property line, I needed to be 6 feet from the neighbor's garage. This meant my garage had to be moved another 2 feet from the line. Never mind that it's been there since at least 1940, fire code says it's too dangerous. Now you may say "no big deal, it's just 2 feet" Well, my lot is only 50ft wide, and it's my two feet. neither I, nor my neighbor felt the need for our garages to be further apart. But then I'm sure the city would be the first in line to pay the bill if they had allowed the original location and my garage caught the neighbor's garage on fire... Oh well, at least I can expect my property taxes to go down since that land isn't really mine. Right?

A visual offense worthy of police action

Fast forward again to this week, and we are having the garage demolished, so we can start construction of the new garage. Of course the Falcon can't stay in the driveway due to construction equipment, so I park it on the street. Then the police start visiting us. It seems a "concerned citizen" doesn't like the look of my car parked in front of my house. On the first visit (while I'm at work) they ask if it's registered, and my wife tells them it is. They inform us that it also needs to have liability insurance active if its on the street. So I activate the liability insurance. On the second visit (I'm at work, wife is away, concrete workers talk to the cops) they threaten to tow it, but the good guy concrete workers tell him it was in the driveway, and they just had to move it to work. When I call the police department to find out what's going on, the dispatcher insists officers haven't been to my house because she didn't call them in. With just a hint of exasperation in my voice, I say either officers have been to my house twice in two days or my wife is lying to me. Eventually they get the officer who made the visit on the phone with me, and I explain to him that it is registered with a Michigan authentic plate which never expires, and that I put liability back on it yesterday. In the course of our discussion I have to clarify this point four times. He then mentions that storing a covered car on the street may be a violation of city zoning code (yay zoning), and I tell him I'll need to see that specific code, because I am not aware of said code. He then speaks to the code enforcer (big fan of this guy too) who decides that since it's temporary, it's ok to stay. I thought that was the end of it. Hahahahahahaha. Guess who shows up again saturday morning? It's the boys in blue! It seems the neighborhood Gestapo has reported me yet again. This time I show him the documents for him to see with his own eyes. He says I'm ok to park in the street as long as it moves every 48 hours, but that he would prefer if I park it in the driveway so they stop getting calls. Needless to say, I'm ready to go to war with whoever is making the calls (I was ready to go to war after the first visit) but my wife, has some tempering influence on me. So here we are on saturday night at the time of writing with the car in the driveway. Come Monday however, it's back on the street and I'll be in no hurry to put it in the driveway again.

Deep breaths. Serenity now.

With that off my chest, take a look at my garage progress! To start with, I modeled my property in SketchUp so I could get an idea of what the new garage would look like. It's a 20x30, which should give a lot more room for working than the current 18x20, while also allowing Jen to park in the garage during the winter next to the Falcon.

Site Plan, minus the massive maple trees

I think there is a shortage of builders in Michigan (the housing market is booming) so finding contractors was not an easy job. Eventually I did, and got permits from the city government and we got started. First the old garage had to come down. As much as I want a new garage it was still hard to say goodbye to the old one. I just have a lot of respect for well built old buildings, but it was time. Carpenter ants had infested it, it was horribly musty, and the foundation was crumbling. I said goodbye to the old garage and when I came home from work it was gone.

Next, they dug the footings. The footings had to be 42" deep because Michigan is friggin' cold. We found an old clay drain pipe in the rear trench.

After the footing trench was inspected, the cement was poured, and they began to lay block on top of the cement.

base course of block
second course, one more to go

Once the final course of block is laid, backfill will be added and compacted and the slab will be poured on top. Once that is done, we wait for the materials to show up. That may take a while, but what matters is this: It's happening!

P.S. This is my son Max, who has joined us since the last post. He's pretty neat.

P.P.S. If you've made it this far and you want to know why I don't like zoning, read onRecently I've been thinking a lot about zoning and realizing just how far reaching it's effects are. I think it's the reason for suburban sprawl and Megamalls. It's the reason for the decline of mom and pop shops. It creates hurdles that only large corporations can clear, and incentivizes bribes from developers. It creates the acres of unused blacktop outside every new business. It killed the viability of public transportation in America due to insufficient population density. It segregated communities that were on the path to voluntary desegregation. Most fundamentally of all, it voilates property rights (and no I don't care what the Supreme Court said in 1926, they were wrong)... I'm sure I've missed a few. Anyway, a few links.

Zoning impedes incremental growth
Zoning was created to segregate neighborhoods
Zoning knocks the rungs out of the economic ladder
Suburbs are freaking weird if you actually think about it
Develoment styles mandated by zoning are economically unsustainable

I apologize for the tangent, I'll try not to do it again. I just felt this was important  enough to say something about.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

A fine place to do business

If you read the last post, you know that we have been working on a complete home remodel since we moved to Michigan. Just last week, I finally finished the downstairs bathroom that I had been working on since Christmas day. We had originally planned to have a builder do both bathrooms for us, but he went over budget, so I decided I would save some money and do this one on my own.

So first off, here are the "before" photos:

This part of the house was an addition, probably added in the early 80s and renovated in the 90s.

Everything was the cheapest materials you could buy. Still functional, but not particularly nice.

The porcelain throne 
This is a standard low cost fiberglass insert tub/shower combo. On the right was a wall just for plumbing. It made the bathroom feel very small.

So then I tore it out. This was the easiest part of the whole job. Pro-tip for pranksters: Did you know you could probably gut your buddy's bathroom in about three hours and then when he comes home from work, he has just an empty room instead of a bathroom??

Let the throne stay for a while in the interest of keeping two poopers in the house as long as possible 

 Then came the crawl space... The single digit temperatures outside were actually a positive thing. I can access this crawl space from the basement so it's was probably 20-30 degrees in there. But that means the spiders are asleep, and I could easily locate and insulate any gaps where the really cold air was getting in.
original tub drainage pipes

I had to change the rough plumbing from the stubby wall in the right of the tub (which I tore out) to the exterior wall on the left. 

Exterior plumbing can be risky because when it's that cold outside, pipes can freeze and burst, and are not easily accessible. I decided to invest in closed cell spray foam. It's not cheap, but has double the R-value of fiberglass. I put down about 2" of spray foam, and then filled the remaining 3" behind the plumbing with fiberglass at a later time.

So here's the plumbing, pretty standard PEX. I've plumbed automotive fuel, brake, and cooling systems before, but this was my first time doing home plumbing. I pressure tested it and it held 50 psi for several hours, so I figure it will work.
This tub is original to the house, and was in the upstairs bathroom. I really wanted to keep it because it has a lot of character. The contractor we had hired wanted to break it up throw it out, he wouldn't take on the job of moving it down the stairs. I told him to get it out of the bathroom and I'd get it down the stairs. I'm not really a big guy (extra medium, actually), but I have some big friends who were willing to risk their lives getting out down a stairway with a 90° turn in it.

Waterproof membrane on the lower part of the tub surround 
After doing the drywall (I hate drywall. I really really hate drywall), I got started on tile. I'd never done tile before, but I Vaughn (you remember Vaughn from California who used to help me when I still worked on the Falcon...) was visiting and he got me started.

Tiling upwards isn't so bad, but tiling downwards suuuuuucks.

Wall   tile done. It goes up about 40" around the whole room, and to the ceiling in the shower area.

Then we laid out the floor tile. Had to make sure it all fit and that we had enough. We didn't, I sent the wife on a materials run.  This hex stuff comes in about 1sq ft mats. We picked out the white tiles where the black tiles went, and I labeled each mat.

B5! It's like playing battleship.

Then I laid the tile. This was incredibly challenging. I spent all free time for a couple weeks on my hands and knees for this floor. Sometimes the mats get misaligned and that is bad times. You have to find ways to cheat the gaps or you end up with very noticeable seams. My wife helped where she could but she's very pregnant, so that kind of limits what she can do. 

Fitted and laid

Next up was grout. Not too difficult, or even time consuming compared to the tile.

Floor grout

Paint was easy once we found the right color.

Final step was finish plumbing and vanity install. My wife found an antique dresser on Craigslist, so I had a top made from the remnant quartz from our kitchen. I cut down the drawers to half depth so I could fit the plumbing in the back. 

In progress


New easy-to-clean pooper
Shower. Needs a shower curtain and rod but we'll get there. 

Sothis is the final result. I'm happy with how it came out. It cost all of my free time for four months and a few thousand dollars, but barring any plumbing catastrophe, it was worth it.

With that done, the living area of the house is basically complete. I still need to do some reorganization in the basement, and possibly a footer drain to keep it dry (we still have some water intrusion issues down there...) but the inside is pretty well finished. It's quite a nice place to live now.

Next up we have to put our attention to the landscaping and.... garage???

My beautiful wife, and a swamp with turtles.

Nope. Baby. Baby boy is next up. Then maybe a garage.