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Adventures in Home Improvement


The Attic Project!

November 20, 2004 - February 17, 2005

Stripped walls ready for painting await attic completion.

Pat's input:

This little remodel story started about a year and a half ago when I decided I didn’t like how the hallway looked after all these years. It was really tired. So I decided to go to Ikea and find some cabinets to give the hallway a new look. This also meant choosing paint colors. Well, the cabinets were purchased, and sat, and are still sitting on the front porch, since we aren’t finished with this project yet. Then finding colors.

Lee had seen a dark peacock blue he liked in a friend’s home a year or so ago. At another friend’s home we saw a brown that was really nice. Well, I fought and fought with colors now and again. About four months ago Lee said, “just get some paint and slap it on the walls. If we don’t like it we’ll change it.” So I went to the store and picked out three colors. The trim woodwork will be a bright yellow called lemondrops, the wall above the picture molding and ceiling will be citrus (also a yellow), and the walls will be awning red.

The hall has come to a standstill since we put in the new attic ladder. Lee is putting down a floor so we can use the attic which will become a better work space for me and a lot more storage for the both of us. I am getting excited, but with the holidays on my back I don’t have the energy to help as much as I would like. Then I am also trying to put in our annual holiday window, my gift to the neighborhood and passersby. I can’t believe even though Lee threw out his back last Saturday how much he has done in the attic. It is really shaping up so quickly and well.

Lee's input:

It never stops when you own a house; there's always something that begs to be fixed, improved, or remodeled. After eight years, we decided to focus on the hallway as a "winter project" that wouldn't disrupt our lives to the degree of electrical upgrades, painting the living room, landscaping, or a number of other projects we've gotten through over the years. Pat removed the display cases and framed artwork from the walls and most of it ended up on the dining room table for lack of anywhere else to store it. Next he picked out the colors and brought home the paint. While he was at work I began painting the wood trim around the hallway. Removing the furnace return grate I noticed the wood flooring one layer beneath the ugly gray linoleum and realized it wouldn't be that difficult to get rid of it.

Crossbeams that forced me to duck…

replaced with triangular trusses.

I started with chipping up the linoleum tile the previous owner had installed and after liberal applications of Jasco to remove the glue, revealed the natural wood floor seen throughout the rest of the house. But the glue-removal chemicals also caused my new paint job to start peeling where the wood trim met the floor, so I decided to start anew by stripping the wood trim down to its original finish. At the same time, Pat decided he wanted to replace the molding that ringed the hallway fourteen inches down from the ceiling. The old molding was ripped away from the walls saving me the chore of stripping off the fresh paint job and the five older layers beneath.

Our attention turned to the ceiling where for years I had wanted to install a set of drop-down stairs to access the attic. Now seemed to be the time, prior to painting, so off to Lowes we went and came home with a steel set rated at 300 pounds, enough to hold my 240-pound girth and whatever I may want to carry up there. Our neighbors across the street, Herb & Rona, had hired a Sacramento contractor to remodel their upstairs bathroom and highly reccomended him. Rene and his crew agreed to install the stairs for $250 and the job was done the day after Thanksgiving, November 26th.

There's no floor in the attic, so the following day we came home from Home Depot with five sheets of 3/4" plywood as a starter. We managed to get one of them through the new opening into the attic and after re-routing electrical wires and re-installing floor insulation, I leaned over to start screwing the sheet to the beams when my back went out big time. I've been hobbling around with a back brace and cane ever since. Monday I went over to Rona's and asked Rene if his crew would move the four remaining sheets from the hallway to the attic for twenty bucks. It took them all of twenty minutes. I'm having trouble adjusting to an age where I have to pay to have every little thing done by someone else because my body rebels at physical exertion.

No insulation in the roof. Note pipe going to 70s-era solar panels long since removed.

New wiring meets old in attic floor. Some wires were threaded through the studs while others were simply laid across creating a challenge for laying down flooring.

My body is a wreck from working on the attic flooring, shuffling 4 X 8 sheets of plywood around in a cramped space. Another fun aspect of my age is discovering that I've become thin-skinned. For the second time in 8 weeks, I discovered that my left arm was bleeding profusely, having been ripped open by an encounter with some object that I never felt happen. And I had just finished healing from the previous unfelt encounter the day before this latest incident. My back, my arms and legs, and particularly my wrists and finger joints are aching. And I'm only 56 (at least for another two months)!

Pat's also in bad shape from helping me haul plywood home from Home Depot and Lowes, then carrying it into the house. After trying to lift just one sheet up into the attic ourselves, we quickly agreed it was beyond our physical ability. Ultimately I hired my neighbor's remodeling crew to come over and get the twenty sheets up there. I didn't start work in the attic Friday until the crew finished hauling up the plywood sheets for me around 3:30. While I hammered, sawed, and screwed my way into the evening, Pat put together a beautiful Christmas display window on the front porch making us the first house on our block to turn on holiday lights.

After Saturday's marathon carpentry work, my aching body demanded that I take Sunday off and relax. Pat, God bless 'im, went by himself to Costco to do our quarterly grocery shopping. The guilt got to me while he was gone, so, like the idiot that I am, I went back up into the attic and made four triangular braces to replace the crossbeams we kept banging our heads into. Then I started schlepping up some of the accumulated "stuff" from my bedroom that had found itself there over the years for lack of anywhere else to be stored. Even more stuff was removed from my office and hauled up to the attic. And Jack's old computer printer that had been sitting on the front porch ever since he shipped it here from New Jersey just prior to moving to California finally found a new home in the newly floored attic. When Pat got home from shopping at Costco and Smart & Final, the bulk packages of paper towels and toilet paper were hauled up to the attic rather than their usual storage spot in the garage.

I barely have a quarter of the attic floored, but just that amount of floor space is a major improvement. Eventually we plan to have a work area for Pat to build his stage props up there. That, of course, will require better lighting than the two naked bulbs currently dangling from the rafters and insulation installed on the underside of the roof to keep out the summer heat and winter cold. Only in California do they not bother to insulate roofs!

Before

Later… but a long way to go.

Current

January 16, 2005:

As of yesterday, we now have $1,882.19 invested in the attic project. The flooring and insulation for the main north/south run of the attic is finished and only the particle board remains to be laid along the east pitch. At the two-thirds point between back and front porch of the house, the roof switches direction to east-west, opening up a large expanse for Pat’s future workshop. Yesterday we drove to the San Leandro Home Depot and purchased another ten sheets of plywood and five more sheets of particle board to start the final push on the project.

With Rona’s construction crew long gone back to Sacramento, I pondered where I was going to find a crew to haul the lumber up to the attic . As we drove away from Home Depot with 800 pounds of lumber stacked in the back of the Town & Country, Pat, too, was dreading the unloading of the van upon our return to the house. I headed instead to the day laborer hiring zone in front of the Goodwill store in Fruitvale and hired three Mexicans and a Guatemalan to do the grunt work for us.

Mile, the only one of the four who spoke sufficient English to communicate with me, became my foreman and we agreed to $80 for emptying the van and carrying the load up to the attic. Two men carried the fifteen 4’ x 8’ sheets from the van to the hallway stairs and the other two pulled them up and stacked them in the attic for me. It all took less than an hour and the crew was extremely careful not to bump into anything along the way. I tipped them an extra twenty bucks and drove them back to Fruitvale.

Date
Store
Amount
Materiel

11/20/04

Lowes
$113.01
Attic staircase & Gyp Ready Mix
11/26/04
Construction Unlimited
$400.00
Attic stairs & electric installation
11/27/04
Home Depot
$138.08
5 sheets 3/4" plywood & 2 boxes screws
11/29/04
Construction Unlimited
$20.00
Haul 4 sheets plywood to attic
12/2/04
Home Depot
$258.28
10 sheets 3/4" plywood
12/2/04
Lowes
$83.41
5 sheets 3/4" particle board
12/3/04
Construction Unlimited
$75.00
Haul 10 sheets plywood & 5 sheets particle board to attic
12/11/04
Home Depot
$121.48
13 sheets 1" styrofoam roof insulation & 2 boxes nails
1/2/05
Home Depot
$241.62
17 sheets 1" insulation, jigsaw/coping saw, 2 boxes ea. nails/screws, boxcutter
1/15/05
Home Depot
$331.31
10 sheets 3/4" plywood & 5 sheets 3/4" particle board
1/15/05
Labor
$100.00
4 Fruitvale day laborers to haul lumber upstairs
1/18/05
Radio Shack
$16.83
100" audio cable for stereo speakers
1/22/05
Home Depot
$142.81
2 sheets plywood, 6 sheets insulation, 1 box nails, gloves, eye goggles, Wonder Bar
1/29/05
FirstLine Security
$30.00
Reroute security system wiring in attic
2/6/05
Home Depot
$95.06
10 sheets 1" styrofoam roof insulation & 1 box screws
2/9/05
Van Go Cooling & Heating
$3,795.00
Install ductwork, return air vent, 2 registers, thermostat; remove abandoned heating standpipes, & cap roof.
2/17/05
Roberts Electric
$3,115.00
Install lighting and outlets; reroute below-floor junction boxes
 
Total:
$9,076.91
 

January 22, 2005:

I spent the next week laying flooring in the wing section without too much difficulty. Working too far from the stairwell to hear my music playing downstairs and unable to work without it, I headed down to Radio Shack for a hundred-foot reel of audio cable and ran it from the splitter box in my office, into the closet, up through the air vent, and pulled it into the attic where I attached it to a volume control switch cannibalized from Pat's bedroom. Next I threaded audio cable from the switch box up to the slits in the plywood roofing braces all the way down to the wing area where I attached the other end to a set of stereo speakers I already had. A few tweaks later and I had music in the attic!

Pat located some old track lighting in the garage and we installed it for illumination in the east wing and a fluorescent light box, also found in the garage, was installed overhead to illuminate the west wing. Granted, both required extension cords for now, but eventually we'll have the electrician in to wire the whole attic according to our needs. And Pat has already brought home an old bookcase from work for use in the newly emerging storage and work space.

We're nearing completion! Insulation still needs to be installed in the west-wing/east-wing area of the roof and two more sheets of plywood should finish off the floorwork and roof bracing. So, off to Home Depot we go to get another 20 sheets of styrofoam insulation; they had only 6 left. So, along with the 6 and two sheets of plywood, we headed from the San Leandro Home Depot six miles up the road to the Fruitvale Home Depot where they were completely out of the insulation!

Pat and I figure we can manage to get two sheets of plywood up to the attic on our own, so we don't stop to hire any day workers. Back at the house we get the insulation up to the attic easily, then delay the inevitable battle with the plywood by washing last night's dishes and conferring with the vet over the phone about Tasha's latest stomach ailment. With only the two of us, the first sheet of plywood is lifted up to the attic with relative ease and, knowing that there is just one more to go, brag that I could handle at least three of them. Whatever we did to finagle the first, we couldn't remember as the second proved obstinate. We managed to stay civil to each other, repositioned the sheet, and Voila! We got both sheets of plywood up to the attic without killing each other, and in record time.

East Wing before
East Wing current
West Wing before
West Wing current

February 9, 2005:

As the project nears completion on flooring and insulation, it's time to consider amenities. A technician from one of the two household security firms we employ came out to reroute his wiring last week. Turned out the majority of the wires were abandoned leftovers from the previous security system and could be cut and thrown away. The two remaining wires still snaking across the floor belong to the outdoor security firm and their technician should be out in a week or two.

On a roll, I turned my attention to lighting and called out our electrician to make recommendations and for an estimate. Having just sold my dad's boat and having a spare $10,000 at my disposal, I was pleasantly surprised when the electrician put in a bid of under $3,000 for ample lighting and power outlets. So, I called the fellow that sold us the siding and windows a few years back and he indicated the three attic vents could be sealed off and windows installed in their place for under $3,000. Inspired, I then called the heating & air conditioning company that installed our new furnace and air conditioner four years ago and had them do a feasability study on running additional vents to the attic for climate control. Yes, it could be done! Yes, our current furnace and air conditioner were capable of easily handling the additional workload. And yes, an electronic switching/sensing system could be added that would call for heat or air independently between the ground floor and the attic.

The bid for the work came in at $3,795, slightly over budget. But it includes a separate thermostat for the attic, the removal of some more abandoned ducts running from floor to roof, and covering over of the holes left in the roof. I signed the contract and the work began this morning.

In the interim, I'm still waiting for a call-back from the electrician to get his work started. Because of a misunderstanding with him over the major house electrical overhaul he did for us five years ago, I decided to create a drawing clearly indicating what I was expecting from him. As is typical of most written bids for work, it's impossible to tell by what he wrote if we're talking about the same things.

And then there's the fact that he said he would bring over one of the flourescent light boxes and test it to see if it and the 8 others proposed would be sufficient to do the job. I emailed the drawing yesterday but have yet to hear back from the company. It's one of those Mexican standoffs where they're not going to call until I sign the contract and include a deposit and I'm not signing anything until I'm sure we've achieved a meeting of the minds.

February 13, 2005:

Now I remember why I liked Van Go Cooling & Heating Company. Four years ago when we hired them to remove our old furnace and asbestos-covered ductwork, then install a new furnace, air purifier, AC, and ductwork, their work crew was a modern-day marvel of skill, efficiency, and professionalism rarely encountered with contractors any more. On Wednesday the house was invaded by a beehive of workers who split off in different directions to address the varying puzzle pieces of the project. In addition to running the new ductwork up to the attic, they identified and removed abandoned ducts running from floor to ceiling and capped the roof where they once protruded.

By four in the afternoon the ducts and registers, along with a new return vent, were in place in the attic as well as the new thermostat. The thermostat and ducts in the attic are totally independent from the system downstairs in the house, allowing AC to flow to the warmer attic while the open windows in the house provide fresh outside air to flow down there. The attic never seems to get cold, so I doubt we'll ever need heat up there, but at least it's available should we ever decide to turn a section of it into a guest bedroom. And despite the fact that the attic absorbs far less radiant heat from the roof now that we've installed insulation between the rafters, it still gets pretty toasty on a sunny day. The AC, coupled with a hinged lid that I installed over the stairwell opening, should keep the attic nice and comfortable without wasting energy. I no longer fear the attic being rendered useless during summertime heat spells.

Late on Wednesday afternoon I received a call from Roberts Electric which ultimately led to their two-man crew starting their work in the attic on Thursday morning. On an unusually warm and sunny day for February, the electricians had the benefit of needed air conditioning while they ran the new wiring throughout the attic. By quitting time, the wiring was in place, but none of the light fixtures had been installed. Friday morning one of the electricians focussed on installing the light fixtures while the other hooked up the new outlets and reworked some of the problem areas of the current wiring that were interfering with flooring. Unfortunately, after lunch, one of them had to leave for a family emergency and never returned.

The remaining electrician managed to get all five of the florescent light boxes installed in the main center section of the attic and temporarily wired for use over the weekend. Wow! What a fabulous difference from the two naked 60-watt bulbs. My first thought at seeing them turned on for the first time was Welcome to Walmart! I expect they'll be back Monday to finish up the job by adding the four additional light boxes in the wing section and adding the additional breakers for the new lines in the breaker box of the downstairs hallway.

View towards streetHeating/AC ductwork snakes along the right eve. Note the absence of the old rectangular exhaust pipe from the center walkway. New hinged piece of plywood (foreground, center) now covers stairwell.
View towards backyardNo more naked light bulbs! Five 2-foot-long light boxes, each containing two florescent tubes now light up the attic like a department store.

As you may recall, this project originally started off with our desire to paint the hallway and as the expression goes, once you're up to your ass in alligators, it's difficult to remember that your intent was to drain the swamp. However, while I installed the stairwell lid and filled in some flooring holes in the attic today, Pat spent the afternoon in the hallway with a steamer and scraper removing the old paint-covered wallpaper from the entry to my office. We may get this hallway painted yet!

February 16, 2005:

I'm amazed at how a simple project like wanting to paint the hallway can turn into a major renovation project whose fingers end up spreading throughout the entire property. Over the years we've added a new roof, siding, windows, doors, landscaping, appliances. We've upgraded the electrical system, the heating & air conditioning system, and painted the living room & dining room. The money poured into this house is well into six-digit figures. And despite it all there's always another area of the property that needs attention but remains on a back burner of the priority list. And one of those back-burner projects that's been a thorn in my side since moving into this house over eight years ago just reared its ugly head and said, "You'll do it now, sucker!"

It was Monday, Valentines Day, when the electricians turned on the completed florescent lighting in the attic for the first time. They now turned their attention to the electrical junction boxes scattered throughout the attic's floor beams for relocation to accessible positioning above the newly installed flooring. It was such a simple concept at first: extend as needed some of the wiring, thread it through floor beams where it once crossed over them, and move the junction boxes to nearby verticle wall beams.

Admittedly, the attic had been an electrical spaghetti factory, the result of years of original and additional lines serving every nook and cranny of the house and even leading out to the garage via a heretofore out-of-sight, out-of-mind, unused cavern. And whenever new lines had been needed, the electrician wannabes who installed them over the years had not been picky about the existing line they tapped into, as we discovered five years ago when Roberts Electric replaced our old glass fuse box with a circuit breaker box. Identifying what breaker controlled what lines became a never-ending scavenger hunt with Faustian overtones. Examples: breaker #1 controls the hallway, the back porch, the refrigerator (in the kitchen), and the light in the laundry room; breaker #3 controls my bedroom, the garage, and the pond pump in the backyard; breaker #2 controls some of the outlets in Pat's bedroom and the outlets in the living room whereas breaker #11 controls the remaining outlets and lights in Pat's bedroom as well as the overhead light in my office. And the majority of junction boxes for this Rube Goldberg creation are in the attic.

So, when Tony from Roberts Electric moved the wire powering the exhaust fan and light over our shower, it was no great surprise that although it continued to work just fine, we could no longer turn on the light over the sink & medicine cabinet, or the light on the back porch, or the light in the backyard, or the light at the back door. What Tony and Jeff expected to be a one hour cleanup of the last items on the job's To Do List, turned into a four-hour nightmare that required taking up several flooring sections to trace the wires to their origins and destinations. By five o'clock, Tony had it figured out, I confirmed that all switches were working properly again, the junction boxes were covered and mounted to their new studs, and the flooring was relaid. Ten minutes after they left for the day, job completed, Pat informed me that the bathroom light wasn't working. Neither was the backporch light; nor the backyard light; nor the back door light. A check revealed that no circuit breakers were tripped nor were any GFI's.

Tony returned around three o'clock yesterday after three-quarters of a day of other emergencies elsewhere. He checked breakers, he tested wires, he inspected GFI's and light switches all to no avail. Everything was working perfectly save for the aforementioned lights that still refused to be turned on. But the mystery seemed to point to the God-awful backporch that a previous owner had added to the house some 30 years ago. I've always hated the cheesy wall paneling and the thin, stained styrofoam ceiling panels. And the outlet, switch, and light wiring that the guy obviously installed himself was chincy-looking at best and outright dangerous at worst. But Tony needed to see where the wiring exited the attic into the ceiling of the backporch and that meant tearing out the brittle styrofoam ceiling panels. Further inspection revealed the dangerous condition of naked wires leading to the garage and their lack of grounding.

Back to the attic we go and start pulling up the flooring once more. Within an hour, Tony had all the lights working again and the flooring was screwed back down. But now we have a gaping hole in the backporch ceiling and I'm awaiting a new bid from Roberts Electric on correcting the lines to the garage, the outlets on the backporch, and the line out to the pond pump. And, of course, any outlet upgrades on the backporch will require the ripping out of the cheesy wall paneling. If only we'd had the landscapers plant a money tree!