When we’re growing up, we’re given the impression that as we get older we will discover what we are truly good at, what we’re really interested in, and then go off and make ourselves a career of that. We’ll do that thing until we retire, and while retirement means different things to different people, we generally view it as a time of leisure, to enjoy ourselves and live off our accumulated work, spend time with family, that sort of thing.

As we reach adulthood, we usually come to discover that the world is vastly more complex than we thought. Our own interests more nuanced, challenges are not so easy as they seemed, and simply diving into a fascinating lifetime career isn’t always the way forward. Some people find themselves doing things that they’re good at, things that may even pay fairly well, but don’t fulfill them in the ways that they thought life was supposed to. Maybe it’s not as exciting or glamorous as we envisioned, maybe we thought we were “special”. We end up searching for a purpose, something more meaningful.

Along the way, we may start families, build friendships, move to new cities, come up with dreams and plans and new ambitions. Sometimes we simply cling to ambitions we held as children, convincing ourselves they will yet come to pass, that we’ll conquer the world… next year. Maybe we’ll start a business, earn passive income online, invest in real estate, win the lottery, travel the world and eventually get the glamorous life we know must be in store for us. In the meantime we watch television, play games, and read books.

Sarah and I decided to buy a crappy house and fix it up ourselves. This was our dream and our plan. Maybe it wasn’t going to give meaning to our lives, but it was a way to stretch ourselves and do something more than just watch TV. We both knew what we were getting into and we both didn’t. I think what we didn’t know was that we were going to have less than half as much time to work on the house as we planned, and that everything would be twice as much work as we imagined, meaning it will take four times as long to finish.

Part of the reason we bought the house was that our condo was small, and Sarah was pregnant with our first child, Derek. He’s two now and our second is due in the next few weeks, maybe sooner. The upstairs unit of our house where we’re living is smaller than our condo. I tried for a while to really push, working on the house every day, as much as I could. The result was that it didn’t seem to go much faster, I was more worn out, and we weren’t as happy. It seems the regular pace is the one that works for us, no matter how long it takes.

Working on the house is frustrating, time consuming, and expensive, but I do derive satisfaction from it, and imagining what it will be like when it’s done keeps me going and makes me smile. The house presents challenges and problems to solve, mental far more than physical. I know that I’m getting better at the work, day by day. I may not attain the level of craftsmanship that I aspire to, but I keep trying. I just hope that by the time we get to trim work I’ll be good enough to make it look nice.

We envisioned working on the house together, but between pregnancies, kids, and graduate school, Sarah hasn’t been as hands-on as she’d hoped. Instead we’ve been overwhelmed by family and friends who have volunteered their time to help us with this crazy project. It’s made us feel very grateful for the people around us.

I’m still dreaming of winning the lottery or stumbling upon the amazing idea that changes the world. Until that happens I’m going to keep working on this house. It’s more than something to do, more than just a hobby. It’s building a home for myself and my family. It’s a purpose.

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Subfloor installed

Subfloor installed

The subfloor is finally all installed, which means it’s time to look forward to the next project: blocking. Blocking is the process of installing short pieces of framing between the wall studs at the bottom, middle, and top of the wall. This provides structural bracing (since the house tends to sway when there are strong winds), fire code (fire inside the wall takes longer to spread if there is solid wood in its way), and as a nailing edge for drywall. In addition, all along the kitchen wall we’ll install extra blocking to make cabinet installation easier.

Before we can get to work measuring, cutting, and installing blocking, I need to do some wall straightening. Because our house is built from rough sawn lumber, the studs are not exactly the same thickness. The original lath and plaster evened things out in ways that drywall will not, so we need to establish what straight looks like and then plane and shim the studs so that they are even and plumb.

Laser line establishes straight

Laser line establishes straight

I started work along the front of the house, where in addition to the above described challenge we have to allow for the support column in the wall and the front door, which is fairly thick. The column is 3½” thick, so it should sit flush, but the column cap at the top extends back, so the column is proud of the wall by about a half inch. I debated framing it as a visible column, but decided instead to bring the wall flush with it. I will still have to deal with the column cap and bolt at the top, so something will wind up being visible regardless, but that’s a finishing detail I’m not currently worried about. Maybe I’ll use a cornice or something.

Laser line on 6' level

Laser line on 6′ level

I used my laser level to project a plumb line and marked my shim position. I ripped that down on the table saw and then cut an angle off of it so that it would match the inside edge of the bay. After I glued and screwed down the remaining shims I ran my straight edge down the wall and realized that things weren’t quite where they were supposed to be. I wound up cutting thin wafers to shim my shims out so that everything was actually flush.

Shimming progress

Shimming progress

One challenge is that I can’t install the blocking at the bottom of the wall in the front or back of the house until the spray foam is put in, since there is a joist preventing the spray foam from being installed from below, as we’ll do on the sides of the house. I’ll wind up measuring and cutting the pieces, but leaving them loose, since we’ll need to put them in during spray foam installation. I also need to contend with the inside corners of the house, since they aren’t framed with a proper nailing edge. Basically, I have some more work to do before I can start putting the blocking in.

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The subfloor is nearly done. I just have to put down a thin, 4″ strip along the North wall. However, before I can finish that up I needed to fix the stair opening to the basement along the outside wall. When Matt B and I framed it last year, we cut back the joist ends along the outside wall. Now, as with all of the other joists, they need to be at the right level. I took a look at it and decided it would be easier to pull out the joist ends and redo them.

Stair opening

Stair opening (also pictured: giant rack of old floor boards in basement)

I first tried cutting the joist ends down to the right size, but they were not in great shape, and a couple of them broke in half. I tried cutting some new pieces but nominal 2x10s are too loose in the rough sawn notches and I couldn’t position them as accurately as I wanted. In addition, I decided I wanted some sort of bracing down the length. A full 2×10 would close up the cavity and prevent it from being spray-foamed. Notching a 2×4 into the ends would work, but would be a real pain.

Instead I decided to just put new 2x4s (planed a few times) on top of the rim on the other side of the wall studs, screw a 2×4 onto the face, and then for good measure, shore it up with some support blocking glued and screwed underneath.

New framing, start of subfloor

New framing, start of subfloor

With the new structure built, I started working on covering it in subfloor. I wanted the OSB to span the opening, which required some fancy carpentry. The narrow section along the wall needed a groove because the rest of the subfloor is tongue and groove. I’ve been cutting my own grooves out of my leftovers on the table saw instead of wasting full panels. The problem here is that the piece is shaped like an ‘L’, so cutting the groove on the inside edge was complicated by the fact that I couldn’t slide it all the way across the table saw.

I started by cutting the groove as far as I could on the table saw, which left about a foot or so. Then I used my circular saw to get closer, leaving about 4″. Finally I used my oscillating tool to cut the sides of the groove and a wood chisel to finish it up. The piece slid in and fit like a glove, tying this section in with the rest of the subfloor. Once I finish this edge, I just need to plane and glue some seams and this project will finally be done!

It goes without saying that in a project like this, having never done anything like it before, that we’re going to make mistakes. As they say, the important thing about making mistakes is what we learn from them. I’m trying to learn from what we’ve done so far, both to help inform us on how to do things in the future, but also just as advice to anyone thinking about doing the same types of things.

Fortunately, most of the things that I would do differently have been small: I would use the “Q” column caps with the “SDS” screws for the LVL beam so I didn’t have the stupid through-bolts sticking out. Drilling those bolt holes was an unbelievable pain and furring and drywalling over them will suck. I would have checked for square when re-framing the bay, and done the rigid foam around the bay differently, since I’m not thrilled with the angled corners. However, these are small enough things that I don’t worry about them too much.

The damn subfloor, though. No project has offered so much “learning” as this. If I could go back in time, the steel beam in the basement needed to be about ¾” higher than we put it. When I was jacking up the old beam, I ran into a lot of resistance trying to get it any higher so I made it level where it was. If we had gotten it up a bit higher, the whole joist leveling project would have been considerably easier. Failing that, I needed to shim under all of the joists at the beam (Method 3). I should have held off making the stair opening down to the basement until the leveling was done. I should have brought all of the OSB in right away instead of letting it sit outside under a tarp all winter.

OSB in the snow

OSB in the snow

I needed to plan out the subfloor courses first, since the joists aren’t exactly 16″ on center. I needed to put down chalk lines for each course instead of assuming the outside wall was reasonably straight, or at least use the laser. I should have taken up all of the old floor right away, instead of a section at a time. That way I could have repositioned the joists that were just a bit off in the middle by using blocking. I should have checked the joists for being out of square, so I could plane down high edges.

I should have ripped the tongue off the first course and left the groove exposed instead of putting the groove against the wall and leaving the tongue exposed. Jamming the groove over the tongue when it’s already screwed down is a bad way to do it.  I needed to put glue into the groove before putting the next panel in.

Slow progress


More than anything else, though, I should have hired it out. It would have cost thousands of dollars, but it would be finished by now, probably a couple of months ago. Instead the subfloor isn’t finished, it’s not done as well as it could have been, and most likely we won’t finish the first floor this year as a result. Well, lesson learned. I’ll definitely be hiring out some things going forward to try and get this project back on track.

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Let’s take a moment to not talk about subfloor. I’ve been interested in home automation since I was a kid reading about “Smart Houses” in magazines. When I was a teenager I bought Plug ‘n Power (later X10) modules from Radio Shack to remote control the lights in my bedroom. The idea of having a house that responds to the people inside, the weather outside, the time of day, and any number of other factors to be more comfortable, more efficient, and more secure has been a dream of mine for a long time. Fortunately, Sarah discovered the convenience of the X10 lights I was using at our condo and is on board with my techno fantasies.

Several years ago Z-Wave was introduced. It’s a wireless mesh technology designed for home automation, meaning that devices can communicate with each other, pass along commands and status, and operate much more reliably and faster than X10. Z-Wave offers the same types of controllable light switches, outlets, sensors and controllers as other home automation technologies, but it’s more DIY and cost effective than most. As I read up on it, I found that the best way to implement it when you’ve got your walls opened up already is to install a wired security system, then connect that to the Z-Wave controller along with the other modules you want.

There’s a few reasons to do it that way. First of all, the door, window, and motion sensors for a wired system are much cheaper than Z-Wave sensors, and since they’re wired they are more reliable and don’t require batteries that need to be changed. Other components, like smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are similarly less expensive with more options than the smattering of Z-Wave enabled devices on the market. These sensors can then trigger Z-Wave devices, like lights or send alerts on your phone via the Z-Wave controller. Plus, while some Z-Wave devices can have a delay between when you push a button and when it happens, a wired security system can trigger events immediately.

DSC Security System

DSC Security System

With all that said, I bought a DSC security system, along with the necessary expansion modules, sensors, and detectors for the first floor. Eventually we’ll be able to use this fancy technology to do some cool stuff, but for the time being it’s just sitting in boxes. When we get a bit further along in the first floor build out, we’ll install the security system and connect it to the Z-Wave controller I got a while ago (the Mi Casa Verde VeraLite) and tie it into some Z-Wave light switches. The electronic deadbolts we bought shortly after we moved in are also Z-Wave enabled so we can remotely monitor and control the door locks.

What can this all do? Since we’re anticipating having several different lights in, say, the kitchen (ceiling, under cabinet, chandelier, etc), we could have a control that would toggle these between different settings with a single button. If it’s dark out, the motion sensor could turn on just the ceiling lights to a dim level when you walk in, but only if you’re not watching a movie in the living room. Using dawn/dusk data or even a light level sensor, it could only turn on the lights if they’re needed or only to a brightness that’s needed.

One button by the front or back door could turn off all the lights, unless the rooms were occupied. You can turn off the lights downstairs when you get into bed or have them turn off automatically at a certain time if no one is  up. The exhaust fan can come on automatically in the bathroom and run for ten minutes after you leave. We can forgo 3-way light switches in a lot of cases and just have a central bank, then use controllers where they’re convenient. These types of things add more than just convenience. In a lot of cases they can save electricity. It takes a larger up front cost in time and money, since setting all of this up will likely be an ongoing process, but the result should be really cool.