[Another] Chicago Two-Flat

A chronicle of our adventures as owners of a two-flat on Chicago's north side.

Location: Chicago, Illinois, United States

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Stairs/Hole in the Floor

I’ll skip the usual excuses for not posting in about a brazilian years. I’ve been busy. Ooops. So much for skipping the excuse. Anyway, a lot and a not-so-lot has been going on. The latest adventure is that we have determined that we need stair access to the finished part of the basement from our first floor living area. We just are not getting much use out of the basement space because it is essentially a different unit. To access it we need to either use the stairs off the enclosed porch in the back of the house, which are public (shared with the upstairs tenant) and also require going through the utility/laundry area and dealing with the supposed-to-be-locked door to the basement unit or we need to use the stairs in the front hallway – also public with a locked door. Both access methods are also very unattractive in the winter because they involve going through unheated spaces. This whole problem is due to the fact that our house is what in the past I have called “a Phil house” (in honor of our previous landlord) rather than a more common two-flat with an exterior elevated porch (see picture on this post). This means that rather than the stairs to the basement being underneath the stairs to the second floor, the main stairs to the basement are split-level style – immediately inside the main door (you immediately have the choice of going through door 1 to go downstairs to the basement or door 2 to go upstairs to the 1st or 2nd floor). What a pain! Who’s idea was it to buy this place, anyway?

So, my wife has convinced me to not take a saws-all to the floor. I was thinking, let’s just cut a hole in the floor and install a slide for the kids from our place to the basement. They would love it and reminisce about it for decades to come! Well, the boss of the house will have none of that idea. She is concerned not only about gaping holes in the floor, but about the placement of the staircase in general. It needs to be well thought-out and compatible with our long-term plan to turn the place into a single family home. I have to agree, although I am not giving up on the slide idea yet. … All this means we needed to talk to a professional. So we called an architect referred to us by someone my wife works with. He’s a local guy working on his own who is self-certified by the city. I’m not sure exactly what that means, but it supposedly means it is easier and faster for him to get permits. That could be very important for us given the dated state of our place. We also called Airoom, a large design-build firm that does a lot of projects in our area.

Airoom first: We’ve heard various things about them, not all good (you can find some of this on the web), although the projects I have seen first-hand seem to be well-done. My main concern with them was that they would be looking for a massive gut-everything type of job that would involve a huge HELOC loan. That’s not really what we’re looking for, but not completely out of the question either depending on what we could get for that kind of money. We’ve been in a couple of houses that have had the basements re-done very nicely and it could be worth it. We really needed to talk to them as a reference point for the really go-all-out scenario. An Airoom rep came over the other night to give us a consultation. I don’t really think she was an architect, although she was at least a drafter of some sort and was able to do some on-the-spot sketching. She also took a lot of pictures that she will, in theory, use to work up something more detailed at the office. But, my concerns seem to be basically correct. Although they seem more flexible than I may have thought regarding project scope and so on, the project cost will likely come back way more than we initially started talking about and even given the expanded scope that we discussed with her I think it will be hard to justify spending that kind of money when we basically started out by talking about me chopping a hole in the floor. During the rep’s visit I tried to steer us in this direction a bit but she was very car-salesmanesque and was saying things like “well, we’ll do it right” and “aren’t you committed to this project” and “what, do you just want to chop a hole in the floor and have the house fall down?”. She also seemed to focus in on a couple of things that I don’t think are all that important, like the slope of the basement floor. But, I it will be interesting to see what she comes back with. I just hope there’s not a lot more sales pressure to deal with and she will let us take a step back and think about things without making me feel I’m wasting her time.

The local architect: This guy was much more laid back. He has done a few similar projects and done a couple of full conversions of two-flats to single family homes. With him we went in thinking it would be nice to get an overall plan/concept for executing our conversion in phases, with phase 1 being the basement access, phase two being taking over the second floor and phase three being re-doing the first floor (changing the bedrooms to living rooms, re-doing the kitchen, etc). We’d also throw in a back porch rehab with deck build in there somewhere between phases 1 and 2. We could then execute the plan at our own pace, doing some of the work on our own and using contractors for some. The good news was that he seemed very open to this idea. Going in I was wondering about the phase approach and if a professional would say we were crazy for thinking of doing it that way, but he seems to think it is reasonable and also fairly common, and he says he can develop an overall plan to help us execute. On the other hand, he is pretty busy and I’m not sure when we will actually hear back from him (supposed to be a couple of weeks) and I’m not sure what we will really get. He did some sketching on the spot but didn’t take any pictures. Some of his ideas were good but some others I didn’t like so much, like where he proposed we put the staircase to the basement (he proposed it go in the back of the house, but we already have the rear stairs in the back of the house, and if it is in the back we would have to relocate/redo the laundry area back there…). Anyway, we will see what he has to say. I was much more comfortable working with him than with the Airoom folks. With him it was much more design-oriented. With Airoom it was more like “tell us what you want, we’ll tell you that you need more”.

Final observations: With both of our consultations I experienced to a certain extent what I have come to call the “I’m-no-expert-but” phenomenon. I need a better word for that… maybe… Googlebrains? Basically, before I talk to a “professional” about whatever, I will go on Google and do some research into what some of the primary issues might be. I spend a couple of hours reading about this and that and learn a few things. The idea is that I want to be able to ask the right questions. Then, almost without exception I find that I seem to know more about these likely issues than the professional does (actually, I have not had it happen with doctors yet, although having the right questions ready has been very handy with them). This happens all the time, whether it is related to the house, the appliances, the cars, or whatever. Example: This time, with both Airoom and the architect, I seemed to have a better understanding of electrical services and associated requirements. I also knew more about high-velocity A/C than the architect (he actually referred to it incorrectly as “low-velocity air conditioning”). There were a couple of other things as well. Rather than making me feel like a smarty-pants, this makes me wonder “man, if they don’t know this, what do I don’t know they don’t know?”

Monday, December 12, 2005

Slow Go-in

Well, just yesterday I finally finished installing the medicine cabinet that was the subject of my previous post - on November 23rd!!!! (And I had actually taken about a week to write that post, too). So things move pretty slowly around here.

Anyway, the medicine cabinet went in without issue once I was able to spend some time on it. Taking another look at the wall configuration it looks like the original wall was a double wall because some of the drain pipes were a bit too wide for a single wall. Then a new layer of drywall had been placed over old tile remants. A medicine cabinet had been framed out in the same period as the drywall but never installed - don't know why, but this made things a bit easier for us.

This weekend was a big "get things done" weekend, and we did get some things done, although not much. The list of accomplishments included: the medicine cabinet and then taking the mirror that was in the bathroom and haning it in the living room, hanging coat hooks near the door, lots of snow shoveling, replacing lightbulbs, repairing the missing door latch to the basement stairway door (found the original latch in the boiler room and was able to salvage it) so that the door can close now and the basement doesn't freeze, installed glass in the kitchen cabinet doors (worthy of a post on it's own), drilled holes in the cabnets to route computer cables, tacked down some weather stripping around the front door (because for some reason it just would not stick), and more snow shoveling. Things that were on the list but didn't get done include replacing a pull chain switch upstairs, moving the doorbell buttons to an easier to reach location (they're too high now), and sealing the windows on the back porch with those plastic kits. Oh well.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Archeology: Medicine Cabinet Mysteries

One of the big things that my wife doesn’t like about our place is the lack of a medicine cabinet in the bathroom. In place of a cabinet there is a simple mirror, so there’s no good place to keep all the medicine cabinet-type things without cluttering everything up. Well, a few weeks ago she went out and bought a cabinet and decided that it wouldn’t look right unless it was recessed, not surface-mounted. I asked if she kept the receipt.

I was worried that there would be who-knows-what-kind of pipes running all over the place inside the wall behind the sink. Not only might there be the standard vent pipe, but since we’re on the first floor there could very well be water and drain pipes for the upstairs bathroom. Add to it that there is a radiator directly on the other side of the wall behind the sink, and one in the same spot upstairs. I had visions of a major utility relocation project, lasting months and costing thousands of dollars.

“Poke some holes in the wall”, she says, “behind the mirror.” Good idea. If there’s too much back there we will just patch the holes and hang the mirror back up and return the cabinet.

So I get out the drill.

Twelve holes later I find no pipes, but strangely, I find three studs: one right in the center behind the sink, and one on each side of that one – 12 inches to the left and 12 inches to the right. Twelve inches? What ever happened to 16??? And strange again – the wall is drywall, not plaster. Hmmm…

So I start cutting, and this (photo) is what I find.

A false wall has been built inside of the original plaster wall. It seems to be right up against the original and is a full 2x4 thick. Amazingly, a space has been framed out for a medicine cabinet, although for one about six inches shorter than ours (I guess we’re lucky, but not too lucky). There are pipes directly behind the sink (one hot water, one cold water, and one electrical conduit) but they are inside the original wall against the far side of it, leaving more than enough space for the new cabinet to be fully recessed. So, it appears that our project will work out after all. But why the false wall? Why the medicine cabinet framing when no cabinet was installed (the wall board behind the mirror showed no signs that a cabinet had ever been there)???? Hmmm… All I can figure is that… no, I just don’t know. One theory is that the ancient builders of the false wall wanted a medicine cabinet and then changed their minds. Another is that they wanted to rewire the bathroom and didn’t want to have to tear into the old wall (the problem with this theory is that there is not really any new wiring in the bathroom, or if there is some it is very sparse, including an over-the-sink light with no wall switch). I guess I will have to be content with never knowing for sure why the false wall was built. Although I do wish we had the extra 4 inches of bathroom width!!!!

All this adds credence to the theory that all previous owners were nuts (no doubt that assessment will be applied to us someday as well).


A closer inspection indicates that this is the set-up: Original plaster wall, false wall 2x4 thick, old tile adhesive, drywall. So, it looks like the most recent drywall was to cover up some old tile residue, which I can understand. I still don't quite get the false wall, though.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Wrestling Under the Sink

Spent a day and a half this past weekend wrestling with the drains under the kitchen sink. This of course started out as one of those “it’ll only take 10 minutes” projects that turned into a fiasco.

The kitchen sink has two basins, with one drain in each. We often fill up a basin to wash dishes that we don’t put in the dishwasher. We soon discovered that one of the sink baskets leaked when the sink was full of water and the drain plugged, which resulted in the cabinet under the sink getting soaked. This leak did not seem to happen except when the sink was plugged and at least somewhat full of water, which – I assume - is why the previous tenants never mentioned it (they probably never did this). I took a quick look under the sink and it appeared that the basket needed to be tightened or maybe needed more putty because that is where the leak was coming from. I got a pipe wrench and tightened away, to no avail. I did it again and bumped one of the slip joints on the drain pipes and everything came crashing down, with water everywhere, of course. Further investigation led to the discovery that two horizontal slip-jointed pipes had been trimmed a bit too short, making them very susceptible to leaks (and total collapse!) when bumped. They were precariously fitted into a tee, just enough so they didn’t slide right out. Not exactly the kind of set up you want if there’s a garbage can under there, which could cause a lot of bumping. Also, the sink basket was missing its rubber washer and no amount of tightening would stop the leak. The basket for the other basin also lacked a rubber washer. I’m amazed it didn’t leak as well. Took trip #1 to the hardware store, returned and discovered why the washers were missing. The washers that came with my replacement baskets (I decided to replace the whole basket assembly because my wife prefers the metal strainer vs. the plastic ones that were previously installed) were too thick to fit under the sink – or more like the sink dropout was too deep. It’s hard to explain, but basically you put the basket in the sink from the top, with some putty to keep things water tight, then from underneath the sink (in the cabinet) you put on the rubber washer, then a fiber washer, then a locknut which fits on some threads. If the flange-like dropout of the sink is too deep then there are not enough threads available to fit all three of those items (the two washers and the locknut). The “plumber” who did the original installation worked around this by skipping the rubber washer, which was too think on it’s own to fit with the locknut. The result was a delicate situation with a leak waiting to happen. So, I took trip #2 to the hardware store and managed to find some baskets with thinner rubber gaskets. Got home and they fit ok. Half way there. Spent the next 4 hours fiddling with the drain pipes and the various slip joint connections, including re-cutting new pipes for those two short ones, and trying to get everything water-tight and to be stable (I have determined that I HATE slip joints – for some reason it was very hard for me to get them all to stay together). After trip #3 to the store I managed to get everything to work. In the end, I wound up replacing both sink baskets and most of the pvc under the sink with chromed metal pipes, which I think are more stable once you get them together, although they are a bit more expensive. Total materials cost was around $80, with some waste – maybe $15 - because I didn’t know what I was doing.

A three-tripper. What a pain.

My wife suggested just calling a plumber, but that would have (1) cost more and (2) still been a pain to call around, wait for someone to come, etc and (3) I think the guy would have just set it up so it was basically a balancing act once again and we would have had another leak later on. Would he have really gotten new washers, especially since he’d probably have to go out of his way to get thin ones? Would he cut new pipes for the slip joints because the others were ½ inch too short? This is the number one reason I do these things myself – if I don’t, I just end up paying more for less.

Here http://www.hammerzone.com/archives/kitchen/sink/stainless/basket.htm is a step-by-step replacement of a sink basket with pictures. Of course, I didn’t find this until just now. I didn’t use the silicone caulk. Using it would have probably even eliminated the need for a rubber washer. Oh well, live and learn.

This page http://www.hammerzone.com/archives/kitchen/sink/stainless/drain.htm has some decent pictures and other info on sink drain plumbing. The author seems to swear by PVC pipe vs metal (brass pipe) because “Brass has a tendency to corrode and leak. PVC plastic, while seemingly cheap and weak is a much longer lasting material, truly corrosion-proof, for a lower price”. But he also mentions that “Under-sink drain pipes are going to get bumped from people storing items there. Children and rental-property tenants are more likely to abuse things around the home. I believe the casual bumping of drain plumbing explains why they often become loose over time, and this is worse with PVC than with metal, because PVC fittings cannot withstand as much tightening.”

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a corroded brass drain pipe although I’m sure it happens. I have, however, dealt with several leaking PVC joints because they’ve been bumped too much or deformed one way or another.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

What to do About Windows

One of the projects that I always just assumed we would be doing, and probably sooner rather than later, was to replace some or all of the original windows in our two-flat. With the coming of super huge heating bills this winter I decided to look into it a bit more. What I found makes me wonder if it makes sense to replace our windows after all.

The current state of our windows is that they all seem to be original and that about half of them have been “restored” as in refinished and the ropes and chains replaced, probably within the last 5 or so years. Only one or two windows appear to not be tight-fitting, for lack of a better term. The rest are pretty snug and thus either don’t get much air infiltration around the sashes or what they do get could be fixed up with some weather stripping. They are, of course, all wood and all single-paned and all single hung (and obviously do NOT tilt for easy washing). On the inside they are finished wood (no paint) but the exterior side and the jamb liners are painted. The whole building has aluminum storm windows (circa… 1980’s???). These storm windows, again with the exception of one or two, seem to function ok and seal reasonable well – for aluminum storm windows. However, I do not think they are very attractive and they also distract from the look of the house from the outside and interrupt the view from the inside.

My online research indicates even with today’s historically high natural gas prices that from a purely financial point of view it is not worth it to replace a window in reasonably good shape, and particularly one with a reasonably good storm window (this is based on the numbers found in this paper - http://www.ncptt.nps.gov/PDFfiles/1996-08.pdf, particularly page 69 of the report. Even if you double the fuel costs it is hard to make the case for replacing a decent old window based on energy savings alone.)

That said, there are other reasons one might still want to replace old windows including that they are very difficult to wash on the outside (and even more so with storms attached), they may not be drafty but may still cause cold spots in the rooms, they may frost up or sweat excessively, and last but not least - lead paint concerns.

On the other hand, my research has also suggested that most replacement windows are inferior to the originals in terms of materials (new wood = soft pine, old wood = hard) and often appearance (new = often vinyl, old = wood; new= “simulated divided lites”/fake grids, old = real wood separating real lites; new = smaller glass area when using a pocket window, old = full glass area). Also, newer windows seem – at least based on the grousing I’ve read on the web - to go bad in terms of glass seals and wood-rot (not vinyl, but even aluminum clad windows) within 10-20 years. The original windows are, after all, almost 100 years old and in reasonable condition. That’s got to mean something.

So, I’m not sure what to do. I really don’t like the lead paint issue, especially since we have kids, and I also think our storm windows are ugly and in general the windows don’t look good because we can’t keep them clean. But I am hesitant to pay a fair amount of money to toss out something original to the house that actually is in decent shape.

A couple of other good links on window replacement from non-window sellers:



Monday, November 07, 2005

All Praise the Alley Gods

In my previous post I mentioned donating a dryer to the “alley gods”. The alley gods are so amazing that I think they are worth a separate post altogether.

The alley gods are apparently supernatural beings that inhabit the alleys of Chicago and most likely other urban areas around the country. I know for a fact, though, that they are seldom seen out in the far suburbs as I witnessed a prime sacrifice – an old full-sized washing machine – languish at the curb of my folks’ house for days until they finally hired someone to haul it away. What a waste!

There seems to be nothing, and I mean NOTHING, that they alley gods will not accept. These are some of the things I have offered up to them, and the approximate amount of time it took them to wisk the offering off to mount alleyus (or wherever it is they reside):

- Full-sized dryer, less than 3 hours
- Full-sized single-door refrigerator – less than 5 hours
- Dented and scratched up steel exterior door – less than 12 hours
- Piles and piles of old wood torn out of basement – approximately 1 week, although the city garbage might be taking this stuff
- Massive, 7000-year old 5000lb window air conditioner – less than 1 day. I was amazed and thought I would have to turn this thing into some kind of planter and I just about destroyed my back getting it out to the alter (conveniently located right next to the garbage cans)
- 15 gallon-sized cans of old paint, partially full – less than 2 days
- Broken television set, less than 1 hour
- Old silverware (cheap stuff – hope they weren’t offended) – less than 1 day
- Old galvanized pipe – less than 2 hours
- Several old suit coats and jackets – less than a day

Amazing! It has gotten to the point that I am tempted to thing up ever crazier things to put out there just to see if it will disappear. I am also amazed that, given their appetites, they have not attempted to haul off other things like cars, pets and even small children.

I have to confess, though, that in addition to offering many sacrifices to the alley gods, I have pilfered an offering or two from directly from their alters, including a 5-shelf bookcase, a foldable ironing board (use it almost every day!), and a large cartoon-themed popcorn tin that I keep some of my kids toys in (after thoroughly washing it, of course). I can only hope that they will never discover my transgressions, or that if they do they are as merciful with me as they are accepting with my offerings.

Catching Up

Well, it's been about a gazillion years since I updated this blog, but it's not because I haven't been doing work around the house. I'm going to try to start working on the blog again and I hope it will help in my organizing projects etc. Whenever I think about posting I usually don't because I want to get a picture taken or uploaded, etc and that never happens.

Anyway, here is a partial list of things I've done since July. They're mostly small, but ya do watcha can:

- donated one of the two dryers to the alley gods, moved the other one to the corner of the basement next to the washer, which involved moving the 220V outlet (hey, I did it and I'm still alive!) and shortening the vent pipe from about 20 feet of twisting plastic to a cleaner 7 feet or so with one bend

- replaced a horizontal stretch of galvanized iron water pipe with copper hoping to improve pressure. The project went smoothly depite the use of open flames, but the results, pressure-wise, were not really noticable. Still need to investigate ways to get better pressure to the kitchen.

- thought hard about what do to about weatherizing the place without actually doing anything. A $142 gas bill for October (ave temp = 55 degrees) got me thinking hard again. So far only action taken is to close all the storm windows and ratchet down the program on the thermostat a bit. Hmmm...

- Sawed off the bottom of the wooden gate going into the backyard. It rubbed on the sidewalk making it a total pain to open and close. I have no idea why the original owner never did anything about it. My 3 year-old son helped with this one and even used the saw (and he still has all his fingers!)

- Rearranged the garage a bit and continued to throw out previous-owner stuff.

- Watched as my father-in-law worked on building out a workshop downstairs in one of the old storage rooms, including demotiliton of a wall and installation of new florescent lighting

- Adjusted the closer on one of the front doors so it would close properly and thought a lot about what to do with the whole doorbell/lack-of-intercom situation (but haven't done anything yet)

- fixed the kitchen sink drain and marveled at how bad the work was on some of the remodeling the previous owner did including loose and leaking drains and misaligned cabinets that appear to just have been installed incorrectly

Whew! That's a lot of busy-work, and there is a lot more to go!

Thursday, July 21, 2005

A new project!

No shortage of projects with this house. Last night I was upstairs working on the tenant's bathroom sink drain (clogged with hair, and the pull was broken) and fixing her wobbly ceiling fan (loose screws). While talking she mentioned she recently got a gas bill for 6 months of back charges at about $15 per month. We were both surprised by this because we thought that I was paying all the gas charges (believe me, I know I pay for the heat). There are two meters in the basement but I thought one was disconnected since I never saw the dials moving. Turns out that second meter feeds the upstairs stove, and that's it. So, for about $4 worth of gas each month the upstairs tenant has to pay $15 to People's Energy (the difference is a customer charge of some sort).

It seems the solution to this problem is to remove the 2nd meter and connect the upstairs gas plumbing to the first meter (or, more precisely, to the plumbing connected to the first meter).

So, can I do this myself? I assume the gas company will have to take out the meter, and I will call them about it. And I was thinking I would have to find some kind of special plumber to do the disconnect-reconnect job, until I found this:

Relocating a Gas Pipe

Now, I think I may take a stab at it myself. Crazy?

Monday, July 18, 2005

[mini] Mission Accomplished!

Acomplished today a little project that stemmed from the great gutter cleanout of 2005. This was one of those made-for-TV moments that comes with owning a decrpit old house. I got the garden hose to wash out the gutter and went to turn on the water at the spigot. What, the spigot is already on? But no water. Hmmm... must be turned of inside. I turn off the spigot and go into the basement, find the valve and turn it on. The valve starts spraying water all over the basement. I manage to wiggle the handle a bit so that the spray stops. I go outside and the water is gushing from the spigot going all over the place! Turns out the outside spigot was bad. The washer was cracked and brittle. I cleaned out the gutters and got everything turned off. The following weekend I spend my 2 hours of weekly free time on this mini project. A quick trip to Ace by bike, followed by a return trip to Ace, about 1 hour total (I had to go back because I got the wrong size spigot at first), we had a nice new spigot in the back yard. Now about that valve in the basement...

PS - I hope the White House doesn't charge me for using their trademarked phrase (see post title).

Disappearing Doorknobs!

Our next door neighbors awoke Sunday morning to find the doorknobs to their outermost door gone. Gone. As in not there gone. Inside and out. They had decorative knobs like the one pictured above. They also live in a two-flat (they actually are renters but treat the place like they own it). Because they had an expensive stroller in the foyer they took the unusual step of locking the outermost door, too. So, it sounds like a targeted theft, not some drunken kid pulling a random prank. And the stroller was left unmolested. The City never ceases to amaze me!

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

The Great Gutter Cleanout

Ah, the exciting stuff one encounters day-to-day as a homeowner...

A few weeks ago, I can't remember when exactly, we had a monsoon of a storm. I have never seen so much rain in such a short time. I happened to be working in the garage (cutting wood for the storage unit, subject of another post) so I got to see up close the drainage aspects of our lot. It wasn't too bad. The back yard did turn into a lake for about 15 minutes, but it just as quickly drained away once the rain settled down. Other good news - the basement didn't flood, not one bit. I couldn't believe it. But just as I was celebrating the wonders of the dry basement the tenant on the second floor came down and said there was water in her back porch - the enclosed porch on the back of the buidling. You can kind of see what it looks like here - the back porch is the part of the building with vinyl siding (the rest of the building is brick):

So I run up there and she that she has about 1 foot of water on her floor, with still more pouring in from the windows (it was still raining hard, although not monsoon-like). When I say "from" the windows, I mean like from the top of them, straight through the window frame, not from running down the outside of the wall but from running THROUGH the wall.

Well, it was lucky that my wife and I were around when this happened because we were able to run and get the shop vac and and suck up the water before it caused any visible damage downstairs. We've also had a dry enough summer that I am hoping the wall will dry out pretty well and not get moldy...

Anyway, this moved up one of my projects on the urgency scale. Back when we bought the place the inspector warned me that the rear gutter (there is only one gutter on the place) needed to be cleaned out. Well, that was quickly place near the bottom of my list, as something I knew had to be done, but that I would get to later. My hypothesis is that the gutter overflowed because the opening to the drainpipe was clogged with leaved and muck and because of poor design and/or installation, the overflow poured back into the wall. I saw something like this on the condo building we used to live in.

Finally, last Friday, I got around to squeezing through the roof hatch and getting on the roof to clean the gutter. This was also my first look at the roof. Below are some pictures:

General view of the roof, not in bad shape but some low spots that might turn into problems:

And the roof hatch that I managed to squeeze through:

The gutter has a mesh screen on it, but it doesn't seem to be doing much good because the debris just washed under it and into the gutter. The downspout was clogged, as suspected, and the design of the gutter is such that any overflow will roll backwards towards the roof. There is flashing sealed with roofing tar to prevent the water from cascading into the wall cavity, but in a few places the flashing was not sealed properly and in a few other places had apparently been resealed - as if this problem had existed before. The net effect is what we witnessed: a heavy rain that produced too much flow for the downspout would flood the inside of the wall and flow out of the window frames, among other places. This will happen even if the downspout is not clogged if the rain is heavy enough, but with the downspout clogged would happen with even a moderate rain. For a short-term fix I cleaned the gutter and got the downspout working again. That should protect us in all but the monsoon-type situations. A complete fix would require resealing the gutter-flashing connection and/or reinstalling the gutter with a slope that allowed it to dump away from the wall when it overflowed. Also, maybe some scuppers would help.

Time will tell how well the cleanout fixes the problem. Ultimately we want to tear down the porch anyway, so I am not too concerned about any water damage back there.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Thoughts on flat roofs...

Like many old brick houses in Chicago our place has a flat roof. It gets the job done and has the traditional look, but seems like a terrible waste of space. It would be nice to have an attic, that's for sure.

So, I have a couple of things on my mind about the flat roof. Actually, three things:

First, I need to get up there and apply some of the silver roof coating stuff before it gets too cold. This is the kind of stuff I'm talking about:

Second, I'm wondering what the space in between the roof and the 2nd floor ceiling is like. There must be some space up there... like 2-3 feet? Any insulation? Can I get in there somehow to do some rewiring? Add insulation? Re-enforce the roof beams because

Third, I sure would like to take advantage of that nice big, flat roof space. Some ideas include: a rooftop deck, which seems to be very popular on new buildings; a rooftop garden (even just a container garden); an addition of another story/attic space (probably doesn't jive with zoning, though); and my favorite - a batting cage for the kids.

Project 1: basement storage unit

It's always been my wife's dream to have a woodworking workshop at home. Now that we actually own a building she will be able to do this, but we will have to do some reconfiguring of the basment floorplan to make it work. As it stands, there are 4 general areas to the basement: (1) the garden unit - includes a bedroom, living room, small desk area, kitchen and bathroom (2) boiler room - is about 10X8 and includes boiler, hot water heater/tank, old hot water tank, misc shelves and storage, and also has a window (3) the "dark room" - so named because the walls are covered with roofing paper to block out the light because it was actual used as a dark room by a previous tenant. it's about 8 X 10, windowless, and (4) the laundry area which has a single tub utility sink, a washer, two electric dryers, a window on each wall, a couple of shelving units, a treadmill (for current 2nd floor tenant), two unclaimed bicycles, several semi-used buckets of paint, an old not-connected radiator and other misc junk. This area is about 10X20. Area 3 - the dark room, is to be the workshop, but right now it is full of 2nd floor tenants stuff - mostly old junk from her previous house just thrown in there, and even if empty it is not quite big enough for a workshop. So the plan is to build her a smaller storage unit in the utility area (approx 4X10) that will be large enough for her stuff if it is organized. Then we will move wall shared by the dark room and the boiler room to make the dark room bigger by about 4 feet (to about 12 x 10) and to give it the window. This will reduce the storage in the boiler room but should not interfere with anthing else.

We began this project about 1 month ago with the help of my father-in-law, who seems to know everything about everything when it comes to houses. Both the dark room and the boiler room are very old and framed out of 1x6's that double as the paneling and the framing. For our project we did standard 2x4 framing and are using pegboard for panelling (our assumptions are that this (a) let's light in, since there is not light in the storage unit - yet, and (b) let's air in, to keep things from getting musty.

Well, we didn't finish the project in one day as planned. It turned out that we got distracted by a lot of other things (like water flowing through the back porch roof in the middle of a rainstorm), didn't by enough wood (actually only bought about 1/2 as much as we needed) and generally started late. We both have about 17 minutes of free time per week, so it took a while, but last week J went over early on Saturday and cut the rest of the boards while M (that's me) went over later and nailed them and the peg board up. Not my best work, but most of the job is done. What remains is to install the folding door. The door needs to be shortened because the ceiling is not full height (it's about 6ft10inches), and we need to find a good way to anchor the door to the floor.

Project 1 complete (almost).

More background

We bought the house in the winter after a long search (more than 6 months) that included one deal that fell through two days before closing (seller's fault). The place was fully rented with leases running into the summer so we stayed put in our current apartment. The cold weather, combined with absentee landlording (although we're only a mile away) meant that we didn't get much done on the place other than taking care of the usual emergencies like getting the furnace fixed, fixing a leaking drain, prodding a mediocre dishwasher, shovelling snow at 6am and so on.

From the picture in the previous post you get a hint of the condition of the yard and landscaping. Those woodchips that pass for ground cover in the front yard were just tossed there the week before the place was listed (the previous owner was a Realtor). Those little bush things might as well be artificial for all they're doing. And weeds have already popped up all over. The story was the same in the parkway and in the back yard, where I was able to spread some mysterious piles of dirt (potting soil?) around and plant grass. Surprisingly, the back yard doesn't look half bad now even though I spent less than 20 minutes on it.

The building itself is in pretty good shape. The brick is good, the foundation is good, the basement seems to be dry. The windows are original with the exception of the basement (newer vinyl) but they are decent and generally in working order. The heat is hot water with a boiler that is about 10 years old (still went out this winter, though) and original radiators and pipes. The plumbing is galvanized iron and crudded up (low pressure thoughout). THe electrical is mostly original and needs to be replaced, although it is all circuit breaker and a new box was added for the basement by the previous owner. Still, a window air conditioner and a microwave will blow a circuit, even if they're used in different rooms. The kitchens have been remuddled with the first floor being a bit newer than the 2nd. The in-law unit downstairs is fairly big and comfortable, considering it is in the basement. There is a newer 2 1/2 car garage in the back that is in fine shape. The roof doesn't leak, although I haven't been able to get up there to look at it. The porch in back is typical Chicago-enclosed style - meaning it isn't heated, leans to the rear and tends to leak in a heavy rain, probably because the gutter is clogged (when did they do that anyway? Enclosing back porches must have been a fad... in the 50's? Some day we might look back on backyard decks with similar wonder.) The interiors are surprisingly in tact although I wouldn't call them vintage. There is no nasty carpet or linoleum like we saw in so many of the places we looked at. The lot is 30 feet wide versus the standard 25 feet, so the bedrooms are all decent size. There are two non-working gas fireplaces and with semi-decorative windows on both sides of each. Overall, seems like a decent place that has been fairly well maintained. The previous owner lived in the building for a year or two and then rented for a few years after that. The owner before that lived and rented the place for a long time, like more than 30 years.

Some miscellaneous photos:

First floor kitchen. The previous owner opened up this kitchen to the dining room:

2nd floor fireplace (very similar to one on first floor):

Main stairs:

First floor living area - note the floors are in decent shape:

First floor bath (note the quasi new toilet and sink, the original floor):


Here are a couple of pictures of the exterior of our two-flat. We call it a "Phil House" in honor of our current landlord (Phil) who owns the same-style house. I am no expert, but there seem to be 3-4 basic styles of two-flats - two of which are generally brick. The Phil House is a kind of split level design where the front door is at ground level and there is a small "air lock" style foyer with two doors. One leads up to the first and second floors, the other down to the basement. The front of the house sticks out 4 feet or so from the entryway into the front yard and is squarish. This is different than the more common porch-style two-flat that has a porch and steps on the exterior so that one door on the interior leads up to the second floor while the other door goes directly into the first floor (access to the basement is usually via a door on the side of the house). These porch-style buildings also tend to have hexagonal (or half-hexagonal?) fronts versus the square front on a Phil House... obviously my architectual terms need some help, but the point is: We like the porch-style house better (mainly because it has a porch, and seems like it would convert to single family better (more on that later) but we were not able to find one we could afford, etc, so we instead bought a Phil House.

Now, what about those pictures...

First, a "porch" two-flat, notice the angled windows in the front. Usually you'd get into the basement via a submerged entrance on the right side of the house (right side when facing the house):

Now, our "Phil House", the guy in the photo is/was our garden unit tenant, who left owing 1 1/2 months rent a couple of weeks ago, but as always, more on that later. Notice the ground-level entry, the retangular windows in the front. The rectangular window area provides a bit more interior room than the angled ones on a porch-style house, but the porch-style has a bit more interior room near the entry because one set of stairs is on the exterior and the basement door is not crammed inside:

Both styles generally have the potential for a "garden" unit in the front area of the basement, although many of these are not technically legal (not sure why, other than zoning reasons - there may be some minimum ceiling height requirement, or maybe the winodws need to be tall enough to crawl out of...?)

First Post

We're gearing up to move into our new-to-us two-flat, which we have actually owned for over 6 months now (more on that later). While doing research on some of the huge projects we will soon face I came across several house blogs that I thought were very interesting. These inspired me to try to blog our adventures. I'm thinking this will be useful from both a journal perspective (so that others may learn from our mistakes!) and from an organizational perspective (to help us proceed with some thought and documentation into our projects). Anyway, here goes!!!!