When I heard The Wandering Monk muttering phrases like “close enough” and “we can live with that” as he wielded my four-foot level, I knew that I — or my house — had corrupted him.
The Monk is a stickler for precision. Ye Olde Wreck has a different view of reality. I can’t tell you the number of times The Monk’s tried to build something straight or level and I’ve had to remind him, “You can’t do that. It won’t line up with everything else.”
Don’t get me wrong; starting at the rotted foundations, we’ve raised rooms by as much as seven inches. We’ve rebuilt entire walls nice and straight, or shimmed sound-but-leaning walls to render them vertical where it mattered. But where the foundation was sound, but not level, we left it. Where a wall was solid but canted imperceptibly inward because it was built that way, we left it. Sometimes, even when we straightened and leveled heroically, we could go only so far without breaking the structure. (The Great Foundation Project from two years ago popped drywall seams and subtlety twitched closet openings that are still awaiting repair.)
That’s old house/low budget reality.
Now, though, as we get down to finishing details, some of our funky angles are starting to bite us.
I’m prepping for a visitor to arrive soon.
The idea of this hermit having a week-long guest is so unlikely it’s become a joke. Or a trauma. So I started readying the house a month ago, so I’m feeling well ahead of the game. I’ve converted the final construction-rubble storeroom to a makeshift bedroom with a nice big blowup mattress. I’ve cleaned and neatend — happily discovering that the current supply of construction scrounges awaiting disposition can be reduced to a couple of discreet stacks. I’ve completed minor house projects that didn’t seem urgent when it was just me. I’ve laid in food. Yep. Well ahead of the game and feeling relaxed about receiving a guest.
Or I was.
One of the projects I wanted to get done before my old friend’s visit was the laundry/sewing room ceiling. My guest won’t care. But I care. That ceiling was the last truly, deeply ugly visible remnant of the original construction. Aside from being a mass of peeling flakes and holes, it visibly ran downhill by two inches.
I had tongue-and-groove pine to cover it, but first it had to be shimmed — leveled, actually level this time! — and that was a Monkish task. The Monk (who has a really good part-time job now and is easing himself out of construction work) wasn’t available until this week.
So there we were, emptying an otherwise finished room, heaping its contents around the house, and making a dusty, splintery mess days before the arrival of company. Oh well.
The back end of the house should have been demolished. That’s all there is to it. I realized it shortly after I bought the place. That entire 18 x 24 section plus its 4 x 12 add-on was scary. It was full of rot, holes, mold, dead mice, spiders, layers of bad construction, and above all bad ideas. Not only was it scary — and I mean literally scary, like some people wouldn’t set foot in it — but it was a collection of indescribably bizarre concepts. You wouldn’t think two bedrooms, 1-3/4 baths, and a hallway could be so full of drunkenly warped judgment, but take my word for it.
That section was Jim Beam and Jack Daniel at their “finest” plus 70 years of leaks and decay.
(I’ve used that photo on the blog before, but it’s one of my “favorites” and truly shows the quality and good sense that Jim and Jack put into the original construction.)
I thought long and hard about demolishing the entire the back-of-house catastrophe and either rebuilding or simply letting this become a studio house. I drew possible floor plans. I laid awake (in the living room because no way was I sleeping back there) pondering how to do it.
The big problem was that the sole bathroom (only the 3/4 bath was functional; the other had been abandoned and closed off long ago and was beyond help) was in that scary section. Determined to pay as I repaired, I couldn’t afford a teardown and complete rebuild or even a small new section to contain just a bathroom, storeroom, and laundry room.
If I did a tear-down, I’d have no toilet or bathtub for an indefinite period. There have been times in my life that the prospect of going months or years with only makeshift amenities wouldn’t have bothered me. This is not one of those times. I’ve learned to appreciate good indoor plumbing as one of the finer aspects of civilization.
So, unwisely but of necessity, I began working piecemeal on that back wing. It’s been … interesting. I can’t tell you the number of times since 2013 that a project has come to a halt mid-way because of “surprises.” I can’t tell you how many plans have had to be altered or abandoned thanks to the work of Jim + Jack + time.
As a result, the back of the house isn’t what I (or we, once The Monk became my greatest asset in the endeavor) intended. It has occasionally benefited from serendipitous necessity; that’s how I got my pleasant screen porch. But the overall layout isn’t ideal. Still, it’s solid and sound and has its own funky charm and that’ll have to suffice.
Anyhow, the result of working by fits and starts over a bad base is that occasionally we end up doing something half-assed to solve one of those oddball problems. The laundry room ceiling project is one of those times. Totally half-assed. No excuses. But sometimes half-assed fixes can get creative.
Here’s the issue:
The bedroom/hall ceiling has an almost imperceptible slope to it that never particularly bothered me. Parts of it should have been shimmed before I finished it, but I was out of money and anxious finally to have a real bedroom after five years.
Where the hall gives way to the laundry/sewing room, suddenly that slope increased. And made me insane. I forgot to take a before picture, but it was just out-of-kilter enough to cause brain itch.
So how to shim the worst part of the laundry room ceiling while still bringing it into line with my sadly un-shimmed bedroom and hall ceiling?*
While I was still pondering what arrangement of shims would let the two like-but-not-like ceilings blend seamlessly (and concluding it would require magic), The Monk, who’d examined the problem with me multiple times, went right past that. He arrived for work with the idea of simply dropping the laundry room ceiling (making a false ceiling), thus letting the meeting of ceilings be a big, bold difference, not a blending. Then we’d create some kind of “drama piece” not only to cover the ugly, inharmonious joining, but to distract the eye with its unusual shape so nobody would be likely to say, “Oh look, that ceiling’s flat and the one right next to it slopes just enough to be annoying.”
So that’s what we did. Or what we began. The “drama piece” in the photo below is temporary and merely a flat, featureless version of what will eventually be in its place. View from hall:
Back view from laundry room. Because of the camera angle, the ceiling here appears to be sloping. But this is actually, nicely, the level side:
Keep in mind this drama piece is only temporary. I suspect we’ll eventually develop something along the same lines, only with more features and solidity.
But it does the job. If you’re standing in the flat-ceilinged room looking at the sloped one or vice versa, you may get a sense of something odd, something maybe a bit off. But you’re not immediately going to think, “That’s weird. Why don’t the ceilings line up?”
You might look at the drama piece and think that it’s weird. Particularly if you prefer your domestic architecture respectably rectangular. Okay. But at least this item will be weird-on-purpose and not weird as in “couldn’t you people match up a ceiling?”
Sometimes that’s the best we can hope for.
It was also quick. The entire project took 13 hours with two of us mostly working together. The drama piece was an evening of me sketching on graph paper and about an hour and a half of The Monk working on his own.
By noon of the day after The Monk left, the house was (almost!) back into company shape.
Here’s the current status of the laundry/sewing room.
Some drywall still needs mudding and the moldings are only partially in. No floors in the house will be finished for years.
But compare this to the same space six years ago:
Yep, this used to be that derelict full bath. Holes in the floor, formica on the walls and cemented to the tub, a tiny window surrounded by rot, and dead things everywhere.
It was still a wreck years after we began:
I look at those new pictures and as I’ve done so many times working on this house, I smile.
We’ve come a long, long way on one of the last areas of the house to get cosmetic attention. I doubt I could count the number of small projects that have slowly converted this space — first to decrepit usefulness, later to something with good bones and interesting lines. But it’s taken us two, or is it three?, years merely to do the drywall, put up shelving, and finally get the laundry/sewing room looking like a real room in a real house.
I went through the entire set of house before-and-during pix as I wrote this post and I wonder how I ever faced the prospect of so much work. It’s a good thing I mostly had no idea what I was getting into. And that I had good help along the way.
* My original plan was for the back of the house to be bathroom + one huge open bedroom/workroom. That plan got canceled by reality, but the ceiling still visually flows — or should flow! — from area to area. Also, the opening to the laundry room is both angled and too wide for a conventional door header, in case you’re wondering why we didn’t just build something like that instead of resorting to the tricky “drama piece.”