Four years ago, on a sunny day in June 2011, Sarah and I bought our house. She was three months pregnant with our son Derek. I changed the locks still wearing my dress shirt and pants. We had just sunk a large portion of our savings into a moldy two flat that smelled so bad that just walking through it made you want to take a shower. Everything was sticky, as in everything. You couldn’t touch a door knob, a wall, a bit of trim, or the floor without feeling like you were contaminated by roach droppings and a pervasive, cloying, humid funk.

Our inspector had told us that he would normally recommend not to buy this house, but we seemed like we knew what we were getting into. Before we bought this house, I had never seen an actual rats nest. I’d never used a shop vac to suck them out of wall cavities, or dug them out of the dirt under a concrete floor or had to dispose of a rat carcass. I’d never pulled back a piece of trim and had to stand back so I didn’t breath in the shower of dead roaches that fell out. In that sense, I’m not sure that we did know what we were getting into. We didn’t know how much having two kids would complicate home improvement. Most importantly, we didn’t understand that knowing what needs to be done is not the same things as knowing how long it takes to do it.

The past four years we’ve learned a lot, done a lot, spent a lot, and we have a long way yet to go. Going in we hoped this would be roughly a five-year project, but I think we’re only about 25% done. If we want the remaining three-quarters to take less than twelve years, we’ll have to hire out a fair bit of what’s left. Even so I’m sure we’ll be working on this thing for a long time yet, but I also hope that our current basement plan helps us get the inside of the house to a (mostly) completed state in the next couple years. As daunting as what’s ahead is, keeping the goal in mind keeps us going. It also helps to remind ourselves how much we’ve already done.

We’ve removed about 75 tons of material from the house, no small part of which was rats nests, roach bodies, and layers on layers of laminate flooring. By weight, most of it was concrete and dirt with a fair amount of plaster, but in there was a purging of all the awfulness that the house embodied when we bought it. The house was cleansed, not just in the literal sense, but in a spiritual sense. While it’s still ugly on the outside, with its cheap vinyl siding (over cement-asbestos siding over wood siding), Picasso-inspired window flashing and comically bad roof, it’s slowly become ours. We demoed the whole basement and first floor, ripped out the raised cinder block garden in the back yard, took down the chimney brick by brick, tore down the old back porch and garage are gone, and dug down the basement.

 

Structurally, we have a new steel support beam and columns in the basement on new concrete footings and we have a new LVL beam and columns in the first floor. The first floor has a new level subfloor and is completely framed, including new doors and windows and a front staircase. Mechanically, we have a new high-efficiency water heater and boiler and the start of a new hydronic heating system. We have new electrical service and panel and new wiring and lighting in the basement.

The next big step is new sewer and supply and an interior weeping system so we can get the new basement floor poured. Once that’s done we’ll focus on getting the basement livable: bathroom, temporary kitchen, stairs, and walls. We can move down to the basement and demo the whole second floor. This is our goal for the next six months. It’s ambitious, and historically we haven’t made our deadlines, especially the ambitious ones. Worse, we haven’t gotten much done the last few weeks; it’s so easy to lose momentum. We’re going to try just the same, and I really hope we can do it. We wouldn’t have gotten this far without the extraordinary help of our family and friends, and knowing how much effort they’ve put into our project, how much they’ve given us, makes me all the more committed to seeing it done.

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Sarah using the digger

Sarah using the digger

I’ll be honest; I’m not sure how many “parts” to the dig out there are, but this is Part 3. It kind of feels like it’ll go on forever. We filled our fifth heavy debris dumpster in a row and took back the mini-excavator. I’d like to say that means we’re done, but instead I’m saying that “principle excavation” is complete, which is just another way of saying that we’re not done. What remains to do is finish clearing the dirt from the footings, remove a few piles of loose dirt including the dirt ramp we used to get the digger out the back door, and level everything, probably by renting one of those heavy rollers you fill with water. The bottom line is there’s more than a few wheelbarrows of dirt yet to haul out, and a lot more work to do.

Digging for new back steps

Digging for new back steps

The last thing we used the digger for was to excavate a pit behind the house. This is where the new outside basement steps will go. Having the steps go up to the left makes more sense since it’s toward the sidewalk that runs along the side of the house and to the currently nonexistent garage, but it requires some reconfiguration, by which I mean busting out the existing concrete retaining walls and stairs and then putting in a new one. With the steps going to the left, we can eventually put a deck on the right side of the house.

In addition to the final clearing and leveling, we also need to clean up the inside edge of the footings so that it’s even enough to finish the walls down the road. Exactly how we do that “clean up” remains to be seen, but it’s stone, so probably hammer and chisel, concrete saw, and angle grinder. Of course after everything is nice  and clean and level we have to dig trenches for the plumbing and weeping system, so we’ll be busy for a while yet.

Because we have to take out the concrete walls and there’s undoubtedly more dirt to clear for the stairs, there’s a strong likelihood we’ll need yet another dumpster in the not-too-distant future. Also, just a heads up to anyone planning an extended rental from Home Depot: a “month” is four weeks, so if you bring it back in thirty days it costs extra.

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There are a few drawbacks to living in a house while you remodel it. It takes longer, it’s more complicated, and you often have to spend time on temporary solutions to keep things operational. In this case, the water heater and laundry in the basement needed to be moved up to the first floor so the basement dig out can continue.

Basement water heater and laundry

Basement water heater and laundry

We installed the water heater back in August of 2013. At the time we were getting everything disconnected from the chimney so we could redo the subfloor on the first floor. When we decided to do things the right way and do the basement first, we had to reshuffle things. We considered disconnecting everything and moving out for a few months, but instead we just moved the water heater to the first floor temporarily and rerouted the plumbing. I even managed to hook up the laundry, so we don’t have to go to the laundromat for the next several months.

Relocated to first floor

Relocated to first floor

Getting gas, electric, water, and venting run was a task, but I simplified it by using PEX tubing and quick connect fittings for the plumbing. PEX isn’t code in Chicago, but this isn’t permanent so I’m not too worried about it. Once the new basement floor is done we can move it all back into the basement. I took off a few days from work this week and got everything set up on the first floor for about $150 in materials. The whole house water filter had to get disconnected, but because of how we plumbed it we were able to just bypass it with a few valve turns.

The next step was to fix the drainage. The long-gone basement bathroom had been badly spliced in where the cast iron stack connected to the vitrified clay sewer line. I repaired that connection with a section of PVC and a rubber gasket. I had to cut out the cast iron and the broken clay. I did both with a diamond grit reciprocating saw bit. Don’t waste your time on the carbide bit. That thing is crap, just spend the extra few dollars. Once that connection was made, I redirected the drain from the kitchen (and laundry) into the main sewer instead of the collapsed line that goes to the catch basin and backs up all the time. When we replace the underground sewer line this will get changed again, but for the time being we don’t have water all over the floor and noxious sewer gas leaking in the basement, which is nice.

Everything removed

Everything relocated

Finally, with everything moved and rerouted, I took up the last section of concrete floor.

Concrete removed

Concrete removed

Now we can finish the dig out! We have nine days left with the mini-excavator before our month is up and we have to return it, so we’ve got to press on and get this thing done! It’s looking like one more dumpster after this one should finish things up, or roughly 2 concrete dumpsters and 4 dirt dumpsters total (plus the 2 debris dumpsters from the garage and back porch demo). It’s been a busy Spring.

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Ramp to basement

Ramp to basement

I’ve got this great new workout you should try; it’s called “pushing wheelbarrows full of clay up a steep ramp”. In the last two weeks we’ve filled two 10-yard heavy debris dumpsters, emphasis on the heavy. Tomorrow they swap the full dumpster for an empty one and it starts again, so this is basically our day off. We’re getting one per week and I expect that to continue for the next couple weeks.

Second dumpster filled

Second dumpster filled

Our original wheel barrow was old when we got it and was not up to the rigors of this project.  The bucket tore loose from the frame and we set it aside. Sarah’s dad lent us his wheelbarrow, but it’s looking a little crooked these days. Sarah bought two new wheelbarrows, and between the three we’ve been putting them to use. I hauled 30 loads in two hours Saturday evening. I’d guess each dumpster is about 150 loads, since we can only fill the wheelbarrows about half-full and still push them up the basement ramp. The ramps are working well, though the one up from the basement is the tough one, especially when it gets slick from the rain and mud. The ramp I built to get up to the top of the dumpsters is great, though. That was time well spent.

Digger and wheelbarrows

Digger and wheelbarrows

The digger (mini excavator) has proven its worth too. Every time we grab a shovel to manually dig around the footings we’re given a taste of what the task would have been like without it, and it’s just awful. Digging with the backhoe on the other hand is a breeze. Hauling up bucketfuls of heavy clay, the hardest part is dropping clods into the wheelbarrows without knocking them over (especially the crooked one) and not digging too deep. I used my laser level to confirm the footings are pretty consistent in height, so we just need to dig even with the bottom of them, about 14 inches total.

Excavation

Excavation

Looking forward, we’ve gotten about a third of the dirt removed. With the dumpster we get tomorrow we can get most of the next third removed. That means it will be time to move the water heater and the laundry upstairs so we can pull up the last section of concrete floor. I’m taking off some time from work next week to get that done as well as level what we’ve dug so far. Our goal is to finish with the digger by the weekend after Memorial Day, which includes digging out the new back steps. May’s looking pretty busy!

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Loading dumpster

Loading dumpster

It’s time to start digging out the basement! We got the first heavy debris dumpster in and last week I took out the concrete back steps leading out of the basement with a sledge and the rotary hammer so we can make a ramp. I used the concrete saw to cut out a section of patio at the top of the stairs to make the ramp more gradual, then put in a section of shingled plywood from the garage roof so we could start bringing wheel barrows up.

We got the leftover concrete that didn’t fit in the previous dumpster loaded, along with the pile of bricks and dirt that I’d pulled up by hand. Just that was enough to fill the dumpster to the point that we had to close the door. Then we started using the ramp and platform I built to dump full wheelbarrows into the dumpster.

Mini excavator

Mini excavator

Saturday I picked up the tool that will help make the dig out just a bit easier: a mini excavator. After a quick review of a Youtube video for a similar model, we got the excavator into the basement (I wound up having to take the door jam off) and started digging. The bottleneck is definitely the wheelbarrows. The excavator can fill a wheelbarrow in two buckets, so it took some practice before we worked out a solid system for working efficiently. About the time we’d worked it out, the first dumpster was full and we had to stop.

While we wait for the next dumpster I’ll start clearing out the footings along the wall and get our depth figured out. Up to this point we’ve been winging it, and we don’t want to go too deep! Using the excavator is fun, but I’m still sore from pushing all the wheel barrows of dirt up the ramp. We’re expecting to have three or four dumpsters all told, so this process will probably eat up the better part of a month.