Saturday, October 31, 2020

BLEAK HOUSE: The Disappearing Bump

 It's Hallowe'en and down at my little haunted house on the hill, I was waffling about whether to get back to work. I don't like working in the cold and this morning the thermometer read seven below zero.  I woke up to frost all over the ground.  Even the ponds were frozen, and some Canada Geese were acting as icebreakers on Pond Two. Eventually I decided that I'd go out and split some logs in the carport and if it went up to five degrees Celsius I'd get to work on Bleak House.

By two p.m. it was warm enough.  I got to work.

My job this week is to finish tearing down the bump-out on the west side.  It was an addition to the original house and I'd like to have a word with whoever constructed it.  This is what I'd like to say:  a four-by-four is not the same thing as two two-by-fours.  No matter how much you like pounding nails into two-by-fours,  could you please just get up off your backside, go to the lumberyard and buy yourself some four-by-fours for the corners, next time you want to frame out a tiny addition to ... well, just about anything really.  Thank you.

I spent at least an hour alternately pulling nails out of two-by-four framing, hammering them all the way in, and bending them into an L shape.  It was the most wasteful waste of time.  Here's the scene of the crime.

Ripping the wood siding off the addition is not too difficult, but avoiding all those nails in the framing is almost impossible..  I wish a giant magnet would swoop down from the heavens and suck all the nails out.  I've got an electric reciprocating saw and two chainsaws on the job, a claw hammer and a crowbar, yet progress is glacial.

Here's a view from the rear:

And here's a general view of the demolition site from half way up the hill.   On the left is the stump of the maple tree I had to take down.  I'm beginning to wish the maple had crashed down on the roof and demolished the entire building.

I don't think I realized how much lower the interior of the bump-out is than the outside of the building.  Here's a view down into the excavation.  This chilling aspect gives you an idea of how badly I want to demolish it.

At a certain point as I proceed with my labours, the shingled roof is going to collapse.  It's got four layers of asphalt shingles on top of rotting plywood.  That stuff can hold a lot of water.  But I hear in about ten days it's going up to 15 degrees, and I can't wait to show you how excellent the interior of Bleak House is beginning to look.  

Stand by.


Thursday, October 22, 2020


I bet you thought I would quit.

Yesterday I realized that it was going to be hard to replace the roof on Bleak House because one branch of a nearby maple tree was closely overhanging it. I studied the problem and realized that my only option was to take the tree down.  This maple tree was half way up the little hill into which Bleak House is cut.  There was perhaps a 30 degree window of space for the maple to fall after I cut it.  If it fell to the right, it would crash through the roof.  If it fell to the left, well, frankly, it wouldn't fall.  It would get trapped in the branches of another maple tree beside it.

One of the ways I relax is by watching YouTube videos of chainsawing techniques, so I knew precisely the sort of cuts I'd need to make.  The pressure to do it right was on a little bit, because some workmen were excavating on the property to the north of me, and I knew they had a clear view of what I was doing.  It wasn't a huge tree, maybe 22 feet high, with a ten inch diameter.  So I planned out my cuts, took the chainsaw to it, and in five minutes the tree came down perfectly in the perfect location. I expected a round of applause.  None came.  I cut it up the branches, put down the chainsaw, and went into Bleak House.

I always knock on the door before entering.  This is a bit superstitious, but I'd rather give any visiting wildlife notice of my arrival so they can make a swift exit.  

And then I decided I'd finish the job of gutting the little house, then and there, if it killed me.

The electrician is coming tomorrow to put in a new outlet so I can plug in power tools.  I wanted it to look presentable for him, so he doesn't think I'm a slob.

It took me two or three hours, but I'm thrilled to report that it's done and dusted.

You'll notice that I used some of the wood panelling to block off the little bump-out addition to the left of the window.  I'm planning to tear that down from the outside.

And here's a view in the other direction.
This is the north wall.

This is the south-west wall, the scariest wall of all.  I imagined it was going to be much worse.

And this is the east wall.

Today is a milestone.  I've hit rock bottom.  Nothing I have to do to Bleak House will be more horrifying than the work I did today.  From this point on, it's going to be uphill all the way.  Tomorrow when the electrician comes, I'm going to tear out all the old electrical wiring and start repairing the exterior shell.  I look forward to having a light and the ability to use power tools.  And I've decided on an exterior colour scheme.  The walls are going to be cream-coloured and the roof is going to be green.  I'm thinking of doing the inside in cedar shiplap.  But let's not get ahead of ourselves, shall we?

Saturday, October 17, 2020

BLEAK HOUSE: Beyond the Screamed In Porch.

I was dreading my trip down to Bleak House today.  In fact, I avoided it for so long, I had to put my work jeans into the dryer to warm them up to encourage me to put them on and get to work.  That did the trick, and by two p.m. I was masked, wearing eye protection and walking bravely through what I now call the screamed in porch.

First, I'll tell you that leaving all the windows open was brilliant.  The little house is much less oppressive now that air is circulating.  It's also brighter, and that's important, because all the electrical power to the house is shut off.  Here's a photo of the view out the south window onto the little hill into which the house  is built.

So that's a cheering-up sight.  I'm delighted to say that all the news today is good news.  I finished pulling the sheets of panelling off the walls of the first room, and made a couple of excellent discoveries.  First, there is a partition wall separating the two rooms.  Removing the panelling from the partition wall was incredibly difficult.  Eventually I realized why: because it was covering a wall that is actually in good condition.  My heart soared when I absorbed this happy news.  See that?  It's dry, it's white, and it's in good condition.

That wasn't all the good news, either.  You see the rotten wooden joists on the wall where the window is?  I bet you think that's a problem, don't you?  It's not.  I know how to "sister" joists to solve that problem, and I have some old-style two-by-fours here that I can use to do the job in no time and at no cost.

Now, you see what looks like moldy white boards at the base of this wall?  I inspected them carefully to see what I needed to do to replace them, and guess what?  They're not boards.  It's a poured concrete foundation wall. You have no idea how thrilled I was to see this.  What I thought were roots that had grown through the wood are not roots at all.  They are probably just a rotten four-by-four.  I'll crowbar that sucker out of there so fast.  You have no idea how much I'm going to enjoy this part.

My nephew Sam dropped by this morning to pick something up. Because he often works in the plumbing trade, I asked him what was the fastest way of disconnecting the pumping equipment in the second room.  He suggested that I saw through the thick hoses.  As it happened, I had taken a hacksaw down to the screamed-in porch, and it was even simpler that I'd ever imagined to saw the hoses in two. 

See what I did?  That blue tank is no longer there.  Now it's lying on the lawn, waiting to be disposed of.  I'm tempted to call an electrician to help me disconnect the thick red cable running from the electrical panel to the green pump.  I know all the power to the cottage is shut off but it's a pretty thick wire, and it's red, and you know what colour a stop sign is, don't you?

I downed tools at six p.m. as dusk was falling. I can hardly wait till tomorrow.

Friday, October 16, 2020

BLEAK HOUSE: The Journey Begins

If I don't document my progress by way of blog posts, I worry that I am going to lose my nerve and turn back.

I took a couple of days off, but I am planning to continue tomorrow. Yesterday it rained heavily, and the rule around here is: when it rains, I clean the house. It's a large house, but it's easy to clean, and I enjoy doing that in bad weather. Today, on the other hand, was sunny and dry, but surprisingly cold, so I went out to the carport to split some apple and cherry logs. This is what my late father would have described as "sorting my paperclips according to size".  I was procrastinating.

I had promised some people I know in Toronto that I'd bring them a load of fruitwood for their backyard meat smoker, and it was really pleasant sitting on a stool in the shelter of the carport splitting logs.  It takes no effort; you just put a log on the splitter, push one button and one lever, and four tons of hydraulic force shows up and splits the log for you.

In less than an hour, I'd split perhaps 120 lbs of fragrant fruitwood.  The carport smelled glorious.  I loaded it up in four heavy bags.  Then I walked out onto the driveway and marvelled at what a beautiful day it was: cool, crisp and colourful.  A gorgeous day for a drive.  And the car hadn't been out on the highway for quite a while.

Next thing you know, I'd texted the people with the smoker to say I'd do a fly-by at their front door at 2:15 p.m., loaded the bags of wood into the car, and I hit the road. It was a perfect highway trip, and an hour later I was in downtown Toronto unloading bags of fruitwood onto their porch.  After a brief stop to buy some vegan doughnuts, I headed home.

So you see what I'm doing here:  I'm still procrastinating.  When I got home, the carport still smelled of apples and cherries, so I split a few more logs, went inside and lit a fire in the fireplace.  I had dinner sitting in front of the fire, which is not strictly permissible in my nice clean living room.  But I was being good to myself, as the real work starts tomorrow.

I'll break you in gently.  This is the screened-in porch.  

You can probably see that the first step was to remove the screens to create some air circulation.  And the next step was to bring garbage bags.  There's not much inside the house, but whatever there is, I sure don't want to keep it.  You might observe that the screened-in porch is only meant for small people.  The ceiling is less than 6 feet high.

I was surprised, once I ventured inside, to notice that the front door was fitted with a deadbolt.  I'm very doubtful that anyone would want to lock themselves  in.  Anyway, we're inside now.

The house has two rooms, plus a little addition on the west side.  The first room is grim, but it's the more luxurious of the two.


You still with me?  I'll describe the decor, just to ensure you get the full picture.  There is wood composite panelling on the walls and a concrete floor.  First step is to remove the panelling.

Under the panelling, there's fibreglass insulation. It's surprisingly dry till you get to three feet above the ground.  Below that, it's not so much damp as it is decomposed.  It has broken into clumps and is lying on top of some roots which have grown through the exterior.  The roots are surprisingly hard to remove.  So I move on to the next room, which contains the pumping equipment.

Honestly, if there were a lightning storm tonight and the little house caught fire and burned to the ground, I would not even call the volunteer fire department.  And if the gigantic gnarled willow tree beside the house blew over and landed on the roof, the only tears I'd shed would be tears of joy.

I suppose you think I'm going to quit, don't you?  Let's see how I feel about it tomorrow.

Thursday, October 15, 2020


There's a tiny wooden cottage on my property.  I've been avoiding it like the plague.  If you are short-sighted and squint your eyes when looking at it from a distance, it looks almost charming.  On closer inspection, it's not.

Words like squalid, derelict, neglected and horrifying come to mind, the closer I get to it.

Part of the problem is the location.  It sits at the east end of Pond One, at the bottom of a hill.  In fact, its south wall is built right into a hill.  Looking out through the south window, I can almost imagine Peter Rabbit, Mrs. Tiggy Winkle and Tom Kitten going about their business on that hill.

The first spring I was here, the land around this cottage flooded badly, almost knee deep.  It was August before the water had dried out enough for me to come close to the front door.  I imagined that the flooding was because the water level in Pond One was especially high, so I built a partial stone wall around that edge of the pond to keep the water back.  It worked only to a degree, and this year I was still ankle deep in water till late summer.  

The cottage had a poured concrete floor and a screened-in porch with patio stones on top of a cement foundation, and though there was moss growing on the patio stones, the floor of the cottage was elevated and was perfectly dry.

My first instinct was to remove the screening from the porch.  Birds flew in regularly and couldn't find their way out.  It was distressing having to remove the ones that had died in their vain attempt to exit.  The absence of screens helped with air circulation.

In recent years, the cottage has been used as a pump house. There's an elaborate underground network of thick hoses on the property, which enabled former owners who were avid gardeners to water the grounds with pond water.  This meant, though, that one room in the cottage was devoted to pumping equipment, a tank, and lots of heavy duty plumbing.  

There are only two options if you have an outbuilding like this on your property: one, you can have it demolished and hauled away.  It will cost you several thousand dollars and you will have nothing to show for it except a patch of concrete.  Two, you can gut the interior, do whatever repairs you wish, and put a new roof on.  This will also cost you several thousand dollars. Then you can paint the outside and hope that the next owners will be short-sighted and squint a lot.  What you cannot do is nothing.  

I decided on Option Two.  Option Two meant that I would have to summon up the courage to go inside.  Option Two meant that I would have to shed several thousand dollars. I do not like to waste money.  I like to use money for worthwhile causes,  I like to give money away on occasion if it will cause someone to feel loved or happy or both.  But I do not like to throw money at lost causes.  

I summoned up my courage.  I went inside.

I promptly revisited my principles about wasting money, and let it be known that I'd pay one thousand dollars cash to anyone who agreed to gut the place for me.  That involved pulling off the wood panelling, removing the insulation and the pumping equipment and sweeping it clean.

There were no takers, and honestly, can you blame them?  So I hired myself.  I'm no stranger to hard work. First I went inside and opened all the windows.  This is a project that's going to take me a while.  Luckily it's going to rain for the next few days, which means I'll be spending my time in the nice big house on top of the hill, cleaning.  That's what I do on rainy days.  I clean. Meanwhile, I'm summoning up the courage to start disconnecting the pumping equipment in the second room of the little cottage.

Follow along for updates if you are curious and have a strong stomach.  Otherwise, it's been nice writing to you.