Basements, Bathrooms, Center City, Home Improvement, Remodeling, Renovation, Philadelphia, Resources

Bringing a finished basement to new heights

There is some serious headroom in this basement playroom.

There is some serious headroom in this basement playroom.

This is part 2 of a previous post. Read from the beginning here. The symbolism almost made it worth it. We just began digging when our first (and hopefully only) obstacle was unearthed in the form of a century-old, eight-inch sewer main right in our path.

Luckily I hang onto aces for this kind of thing. Upon first seeing the ancient behemoth, my go-to plumber shook his head: “You’ve got a major problem here.” I listened to him explain all the reasons nothing could be done, patiently waited during a few minutes of thoughtful silence, then came the nod and “OK, I got this.” I never had a doubt.

He used a camera snake to confirm that the size of pipe heading towards the house’s rear was no longer essential and served nothing but the yard drain. He then removed the terracotta pipe from one end of the basement to the other (which we had to pulverize with a sledgehammer to lift out in buckets) and attached new 4” cast iron. The difference in the pipe size, along with a considerably slighter pitch, gave us exactly the clearance needed to reach our desired floor depth.

Back came the diggers and masons. We formed the benching and underpinning sections in alternating sequence and filled them with concrete. Then came the all-important floor pour day, which went without a hitch (though I held my breath while watching the massive concrete truck delicately inch its chute into the tiny, street-level window opening).

Since we were designing the basement details on the fly, I worked with the framers to maximize every possible space available. We used a “Chicago grid” system for the ceiling, which suspends the metal framing a few inches away from any wires or pipes and allows for finished drywall. The plumber and electrician relocated any junction boxes and shut-off valves in the ceiling, and we made sure to allow plenty of future access to the various meters, panels, boxes and valves.

The new basement space is planned as a playroom, so we weren’t looking for a lot of bells and whistles – just a simple, cozy, spacious and safe spot for the little ones to give mommy and daddy a moment’s peace.



Bathrooms, Bedrooms, Full Renovations, Home Improvement, Remodeling, Renovation, Suburbs, Wayne

If a tree falls...

It’s Armageddon out there! Driving around the Philadelphia suburbs today in the midst of the ice storm, I was reminded of a little more than a year ago when Hurricane Sandy blew through the region. Although today’s damage seems to be more widespread than Hurricane Sandy’s, the latter’s force was devastating enough to fell a gargantuan tree through the roof of a colonial house in Wayne.

Imagine driving up to this after a long day at work!?!

Imagine driving up to this after a long day at work!?!

In just a few months time, we had the homeowners safely back in their house - which, I may say, enjoyed some improvements over its pre-Sandy incarnation.

In addition to the fundamentals – new insulation, drywall, chimney, HVAC system, French drain system, electric, windows and siding – we added some flourishes.

The original, rain-damaged flooring was replaced with red oak throughout, which we stained and finished in place. We installed a vaulted ceiling in the master bedroom with small recessed light fixtures around the perimeter. We replaced the dated stair rail with an oak newel post and custom railing, and we fully renovated a badly damaged bathroom.

We removed a large section of bearing wall between the living and dining rooms; we then built a coffered ceiling to help camouflage the steel support beam. This main living space now gets natural daylight from three sides, and it’s large enough to be creatively arranged into separate areas.

Finally, the back deck also took a major hit from the tree. While some of the framing was salvageable, we painstakingly reinforced certain sections and replaced damaged joists. We installed composite decking and railings from TimberTech, as well as LED lights (on a daylight sensor) in the post caps. Finally came the doggie gate for their new puppy (adopted just before their Sandy-enforced relocation), and we were move-in ready.

Back to the icy present. There certainly are a lot of downed trees out there and, having seen the potential damage firsthand, I hope everyone is very careful, takes his or her time getting around and respects the power of Mother Nature - she can sure throw her muscle around.

Bathrooms, Bedrooms, Full Renovations, Home Improvement, Remodeling, Renovation

Philadelphia Renovation (5/5): Bathroom


This is the last in a five-part series on an extensive renovation we completed on a home in Philadelphia. Read the firstsecondthird and fourth posts. The second-floor bathroom renovation was another variable — what are we going to find once we pull off the tile, drywall and plaster, and two sets of ceilings? One never knows, especially in centuries-old homes, what challenges or obstacles lay in wait. The hope is, with some creative thinking (and willingness from the client), that we can turn them into opportunities.

Once we pulled down the ceilings, we found a mini-version of the exposed beam layout on the third floor, complete with a section of exposed brick wall. The bathroom isn’t very big, so we jumped at the chance to increase the space by giving it the same open, vaulted ceiling as upstairs.

The next discovery was along the sink and toilet wall. Under the plaster, drywall and tile was a wood, exterior door leading to the back bedroom. How odd. Perhaps the back bedroom was an addition? Were there steps at one point leading from the bathroom down to the backyard, and this door was the access? While we stood scratching our heads, the client walked in and said, “Oh I love it! The door stays!”

The door presented the perfect opportunity to give a traditional, classic bathroom style the history and character it needed to become warm and personal.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the past five weeks of posts and photos about this wonderful project. Please check in next week — springtime has arrived and it’s roof deck time …

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Bathrooms, Bedrooms, Full Renovations, Home Improvement, Remodeling, Renovation

Philadelphia Renovation (4/5): Floors


This is the fourth in a five-part series on an extensive renovation we completed on a home in Philadelphia. Read the first and second and third posts. Restoring the original floors of the home, one of the final phases in the process, also presented the greatest mystery. They were haphazardly covered with decades of dust and makeshift patches — carpet here and there, luan, oak flooring, linoleum and plywood. It was anyone’s guess what was left under there.

Once we exposed the entire floor, we found many broken, damaged and missing boards. Badly injured, but not hopeless — if we could find a supplier with matching floors for patching. And this flooring isn’t the kind you can buy at Lumber Liquidators.

So I went on a citywide search. After several unsuccessful stops, I tried Provenance, an architectural salvage resource in Fishtown. Their wood expert solemnly held up my sample to the light and examined it, weighed it in his hands, carved out shavings with a penknife and slowly nodded. He explained that we were dealing with early white pine — pre-Civil War — that was indigenous to the area but obsolete following the industrial revolution. That was when builders started importing the yellow pine that’s often still used today.

Truly fascinating — but where can I find more?? He pointed to a stack of reclaimed flooring a few feet away. “I happen to have some right there.” Jackpot.

Once the floor was patched and sanded, experience and several flooring experts suggested staining the wood before sealing for a uniform look. I discussed the options with my client and flooring contractor, and we agreed to simply seal it instead with clear polyurethane and let the natural color, contrasts and warmth of the aged floor shine through.

And we’re thrilled we did.

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Bathrooms, Bedrooms, Full Renovations, Home Improvement, Remodeling, Renovation

Philadelphia Renovation (3/5): Masonry


This is the third in a five-part series on an extensive renovation we completed on a home in Philadelphia. Read the first and second posts. Once the demolition stage of the project was complete, it was time to bring in the masons. The original chimney (one of two chimneys in the home) traveled through bedrooms on the 2nd and 3rd floors and had framed closets on either side. We removed all the closets and drywall during demolition and then had our crack masonry team (perhaps a bad choice of words) completely remove the chimneys in the bedrooms. Amazingly — with seven huffing workers, buckets and rope — this was one of the speediest parts of the job.

The masons then began the tedious labor of chipping and scraping off the plaster from the bedroom walls that adjoin the neighbor’s house. They used power and hand chisels and actually used a belt sander to get the brick looking clean and fresh. Although the original brick had some funky patterns and were laid in unusual ways, we embraced the originality and left them exactly as we found them. They repointed the entire wall and sealed it with a clear brick sealer.

One hair-graying event (especially this early in the process) was when the head mason said to me, while holding a loose brick in his hand and pointing to a hole in the wall, “Look, David. Belts.” Belts? So, I reached my hand in the wall and grabbed a handful of, yes, dress belts.The party wall, between my client’s home and her neighbor's, was only one layer of brick thick. So when the mason pulled out a loose brick to reset it, he had a clear line of vision into the neighbor’s closet.

A speedy visit to the neighbor’s with some plaster and an explanation made quick work of that situation.

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Bathrooms, Bedrooms, Full Renovations, Home Improvement, Remodeling, Renovation

Philadelphia Renovation (2/5): Insulation


This is the second in a five-part series on an extensive renovation we completed on a home in Philadelphia. Read the first post. Since we removed all the plaster and drywall and had everything exposed, it made the most sense to use spray-foam insulation throughout the house. I cannot overstate the energy-saving benefit of this product — and since we framed the new walls about ½” off the existing brick walls, the insulation was able to reach a thickness of 3”, wrap the 2-x-3 studs and ensure a fully sealed envelope.

We used Demilec’s Heatlok Soy 200, a rigid polyurethane foam that is soy-based and doesn’t release harmful off-gasses. Although the installation was pretty intense — with the workers covered from head-to-toe in white suits with masks and respirators — once they were done I was able to walk in, open some windows and work the next day.

Before we started installing the drywall, I had my floor contractor stop by to check out his part of the project. He was shocked by the (oddly soothing) blanket of mint-green insulation coating the inside of the house, and he exclaimed [in a strong Chinese accent], “Ahhh – like snow!”

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Bathrooms, Bedrooms, Full Renovations, Home Improvement, Remodeling, Renovation

Philadelphia Renovation (1/5): Exposed Beams

Finished Ceiling Beams

We are currently in the final stages of an extensive renovation in Philadelphia. Our client was very interested in maintaining as much of the character and feel of the original structure as possible, while still enjoying the benefits of modern remodeling. Right up our alley.

We completely gutted the entire second and third floors, including the master bathroom and three bedrooms.

The house is over 150 years old, and when we removed the plaster ceilings (which also had a ‘dropped’ drywall ceiling below them), we found the beautiful, original beams. We were determined, with a little TLC, to restore and feature them as prominently as possible in the master bedroom and bathroom.

This was a difficult process, but the result was even better than I had hoped.

On the beams that run along the roof, we first installed pine furring strips along the top edges of the beams to eventually receive the drywall. We then wrapped all the beams in plastic to protect them from the rest of the process. The insulation contractor sprayed foam insulation between the beams, from the roof to the bottom edge of the furring strips. Then the drywall team installed sheetrock between the beams, as well as wrapping the beams in drywall where they met the vertical walls. This process wasn’t easy as, after decades of settling, not one of the beams was square or plumb — not that I was about to adjust them and risk unhinging the entire roof.

Our taping/spackle expert rose to the challenge, flat taping the drywall against the beams in all their skewed glory. The painters followed him and cut the paint along the beams with precision.

Finally, plastic removal (judgment) day — and the work was flawless. An example of a half-dozen different specialties all performing their jobs perfectly.

I love it when that happens.

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