Renovation Freight Train or Hurry Up and Wait

I can’t believe I am using the words “freight train” and “our renovation” in the same sentence.  It seems we were waiting for weeks for the structural engineer, architect and contractor to formulate a new plan for the extension to address some structural issues and the next thing we knew the crew was skim coating walls.

How did it happen that one minute we were stymied and the next they needed the plumbing parts stat?  We were totally unprepared once again.  That is how it is with renovation.  We were told the plumbing was going to start and we needed the rough-in parts for the showers and our tub the following week.  Panic!

Luckily, we (I) have been doing a lot of Pinterest surfing and we had a board completed for our bathrooms.  Since we intended on using the same bathroom tiles and faucet fixtures that we used for the renovation to our condo bathroom a few years ago, we thought easy peasy, right?  Wrong.  Turns out the tile place we used has since gone out of business, we misplaced the receipts from our previous purchases (so we had no product numbers), and the faucet fixtures we had used were not longer in production.  We had two options:  pick different tiles and faucets or doggedly search for the old ones.  Of course we chose the latter.  With love and renovation:  when you are told you can’t have something you want it even more, even if it was maybe not that great to begin with.

Thanks to a little invention call the world wide web, we were able to locate our tiles as well as our shower and tub fixtures (albeit on three different sites).

Hansgrohe Metris S Thermobalance III -  that caused all the problems.  We loved the fact that the temp and water control were all in one unit.

Hansgrohe Metris S Thermobalance III – the little device that caused all the problems. We loved the fact that the temp and water diverter control were all in one unit.

As for the tub, sinks and vanities, it was a bit more research.  We had a 5.5 foot tub picked out (a Toto) that, according to the website, could be installed as an alcove or a drop-in.  In the photo it looked like a drop-in.  We emailed the website to confirm because we need an alcove due to space limitations.  Just before we were going to order it we had an attack of doubt.  So I emailed Toto who confirmed that this model was a drop-in only.   Moral of the story:  Do not trust listings on websites.   If the picture does not look like what it is supposed to be, then it might not be.  Double check with the manufacturer.  A few minutes might save you a great deal of hassle.

This is the tub we ordered.  Although it is acrylic, we like the square modern look.

This is the tub we ordered in the end. Although it is acrylic, we like the square modern look.

In the end we found another bathtub that we liked better.  We debated the whole acrylic vs. cast iron thing but figured it was more important to like the tub rather than just because it is made with more durable material.  Besides, we had no problems with our acrylic tub in our condo.  We did not see this tub when we did our initial search so goes to show that if at first you don’t find what you are looking for, keep looking and you will find it eventually.

Next up, sink and vanity cabinet.  Our struggle here was finding a double sink that was only 40 inches wide.  The initial plans for the house showed the bathroom with two sinks.  Next lesson, just because your architect inserts two little sinks in the plan, doesn’t mean they can actually fit in there.  All the nice double sinks are in vanities 48 to 60 inches wide.  At first we picked out a 60 inch vanity, then adjusted to the reality and picked out a nice 48 inch one only to measure the room ourselves to see that we had to go down even further.  My dreams of multiple drawers all to myself when down the drain.  As we mentioned before, the size of the bathroom did not initially take into consideration the old fireplace hearth that took a foot and a half of space from our master bath.  For those of you looking for a 40 inch vanity with a double sink there are some options including Pottery Barn, Ikea or pricier option like Lacava.  We still have not ordered the sink and cabinet but may go with the cheap Ikea cabinet and a higher end sink.

An alternative to separate sinks.  We can still both brush our teeth without getting on each other's nerves.

An alternative to separate sinks. We can still both brush our teeth without getting on each other’s nerves.

At the end of the day, the plumber (subcontracted by the contractor) did not show up on the day he was scheduled so our panic was for nothing.  Hurry up and wait is what we do.

Next up, what is with all these trades people in the building industry that don’t show up or return sales calls?  I guess there must be so much work in the city that they don’t need to follow the business rules of etiquette.

Restoring Old Fireplaces

When we were looking at houses, one of our must-haves were at least one working fireplace.  When my husband and I first met, I had an apartment with a working fireplace and it was so cozy and romantic.  But behind the romance there is a lot you have to know to get a working fireplace

Parlor floor mantle

First, most realtors will tell you that if there is a fireplace mantle in the house that “you can get it going” with a little restoration but what they don’t tell you is the cost.   At one point in time our house had six working fireplaces.  We know this because there are six separate chimney flues.  Even though you see only two chimneys on the roof, each of those chimneys house three separate flues.

In the third floor rental unit the mantles were removed and the hearths were dry walled over.  On the garden floor there is one marble mantle (still painted over) and one brick hearth (both closed up).

On the parlor floor there are two marble mantles with metal summer doors (see above).  After our offer on the house was accepted, we looked at the house more closely during the inspection.  In one of the fireplaces, part of the summer door was removable and we saw that there was no bottom.  We asked some contractors and architects for possible explanations and they thought that the house had never had wood burning fireplaces and that there was coal burning heat in the basement and that these were essentially decorative openings to let the heat in.  Turns out they were wrong.  Yes, these were actually once wood burning fireplaces.  We finally got the summer door off of the other mantle and there was a brick bottom on it that clearly had been used to burn wood. This opening (or firebox) was also much deeper than the other one and it is an unsolved mystery why they are different.

The Anatomy of a Fireplace

chimney-diagramA fireplace and chimney is made up of several parts including the mantel, the hearth, the firebox and the smoke chamber.  Over the years these components can get damaged, wear out or no longer fall within modern code requirements.

The Cost

When we first priced fireplace restoration, we researched the average cost in our area for this type of work.  In New York City, the prices varied from five to seven thousand dollars per fireplace.  That does not necessarily include all the extras.  Do the chimneys need refurbishing?  Do you need a new boiler flue liner?    If the house has not been updated in a while, you probably will.  That will run you about an extra three thousand.  Do they need to rebuild or enlarge the hearth to make sure it is up to code?  –an extra thousand there.  If the hearth opening is too narrow, they may need to remove the mantle so it can be enlarged.  That will cost you, in addition to the fact that with a marble mantle it may CRACK when removed.  There is nothing they can do to prevent it and the cost of replacement is on you.  Finally, there is the smoke test which must be performed by a third party company, and as with all construction related inspections, it is not cheap.


IMG_2679A certain amount of fireplace restoration can be done without a permit from the DOB.  However, if you are in the process of doing a renovation then it must be done under the general construction permit.  This means that it must go under your contractor’s insurance and therefore your contractor will “manage it” i.e. tack on a 20% fee.

And then there is the mess.  When we first contemplated our renovations we though we would put off the fireplaces because they weren’t an absolute necessity and we knew they were expensive. Afterwards, we thought we should get some estimates to verify how much it would cost.  We acquired three estimates and they were roughly the same price.  In addition to cost, we learned the physical requirements of the project.

Ouch - glad we did not paint up here.

Ouch – glad we did not paint up here.

When chimney liners are replaced with modern flexible steel liners they need to open the walls above the mantle as well as on any floors above.  While they do put plastic around their work, mess is inevitable.  We realized how crazy it would be to finish the other renovations and then reopen walls after they had recently been re-plastered and painted not to mention the damage that may be done to the floors as well.

Best Old-house Advice You Will Ever Get

Do the fireplace restoration before you start anything!  Once you have filed with the DOB for construction permits, then you must put the fireplace restoration under that permit.  Our house sat there for over a month while we waited for a Letter of No Objection that never came and then waited another month for the preparation of filing drawings and paperwork.  We might have saved ourselves filing fees and mark-up fees, not to mention the fact that something on the house would have been progressing, by starting right after closing.  By not restoring the fireplaces first thing, it also stalled the work in the rental unit. We didn’t want our new floors to be scratched up by the sand in the mortar which gets all over the floor and is ground in by the construction workers’ boots as they walk around.

Cost and mess aside, we were very happy we decided to refurbish the fireplaces.  They look great and will increase the value of the home in the end (we hope).  We look forward to future delightful snowy nights with no place to go.

To keep our metal summer doors looking fresh, we periodically used a black metal polish.  We used a brand called Meeco’s Stove Polish.



fireplace upstairs

Fireplace as we found it covered with several years of paint

They framed to mantle to prevent damage.

This is the chimney in the rental unit that had to be opened up.

This is the chimney in the rental unit that had to be opened up.

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Installing the new firebox.

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Frame and summer door stripped down to original metal.

Frame and summer door stripped down to original metal.

The wall will be re-plastered later by our contractor.

The wall will be re-plastered later by our contractor.