Questions about the Renovation

So we've been showing these renovation plans to people for a couple of months now, as we work on finalizing how things will come together, and here are some of the most common questions they have for us. I thought I would share them with you to get them out of the way, and also clarify some things.

Isn't that going to cost a lot of money?

Yes, it is. It's going to cost quite a bit of money.

How can you afford this?

I'm not going to go into great detail about our finances here, but we worked it out. It is unlikely that anything that we did to make this happen would help anybody else do the same thing, so we are no help there.

One significant factor for us is that I can get things at a professional discount (no, I can't get this for you; I don't work for free and the work involved in sourcing materials even for myself takes a lot of time). We will save 10-20 percent on the cost of finish materials, which makes this all work out.

Do you really need to put in an elevator?


I know it's tempting to think there's a way to do it without an elevator, but the first floor is 54 inches from the ground, and an ADA-compliant ramp has a slope of at most 1:12, which means that for every inch of rise, the ramp is a foot long, and it has to be 42 inches wide. That's 189 square feet, and that doesn't include the space used to make switchbacks or landings as would surely be required. We're not required to meet the ADA in our home, but the ADA is a minimum standard for accessible independent living.

Those infomercial chair lifts are not great: they tend to require a lot of maintenance, they have greasy moving parts that get dirty and clog up with pet hair easily, and they often must be operated by a second person. (We'd also need between three and five of them, depending on how much access we want to give people with disabilities in our house) Most of them can't handle a curved staircase as tight as ours. And they are ugly as hell. There's a reason why they are primarily sold to gullible audiences on TV rather than through professionals.

The elevator will be expensive-ish (they cost about as much as a cheap car, so more than some people have thought and less than other have), but it is useful to us for more than just moving people from floor to floor, because of the whole piano collection thing and my treadmill. An elevator is a better access choice than other mobility devices because it is easily understood and can be used independently. It is useful to people with no disability so it doesn't put people with a disability into a separate access class. It is the best solution for what we need.

Why don't you put in a master suite?

Mostly because I hate them.

I totally understand the concept of the master suite. But we don't have kids, we don't spend a lot of time in our bedroom outside of sleeping, and the idea of making a bathroom that can only be accessed from one room feels wasteful. In theory the new addition on the back of the house could be seen as a large master suite, and it's designed so that it would be easy to convert it that way if somebody wanted, but I don't want to live that way. That's also why there are no walk-in closets in the design: I don't have that many clothes and I don't want to.

I like to think of the whole house as one giant master suite, anyway.

Does this mean you will be done?

Hahaha. No. I went through our initial design and removed everything that we could reasonably do outside of this project without just giving up on ever getting it done. Some things, like the built-in bookcases in the library, are staying in the project because we really, really want them and things aligned to make them cheap enough to do now. But several things, like installing a new gas fireplace where the old coal fireplace was, can be done separately (we'll frame it in now, install the appliance later). That's one way to save some money on this project, and we are taking advantage of that. We will definitely not be done.

Are you going to do this yourselves?

No. We are hiring a contractor to do the work. We have a fairly tight timeline on this; I want the house to be ready for my parents to move in by the end of 2016, even if they may choose not to do that at first. With both of us working full-time jobs and already kind of exhausted by the bathroom project this would not be doable by ourselves, so we are hiring it out. I love working on the house, and we bought this house to work on, but for this project it doesn't make sense to try to do it ourselves.

Where will you live while this is being done?

This will be our first time doing work on the house that we can't just ride out. So we will move most of our stuff into storage, and will rent an apartment short-term. There are some places locally that will rent to people with pets, even pets like ours, for a substantial deposit. That's included in the budget for this work. I'm not worried about getting our deposit back because two older Labradors don't actually cause too much trouble. The other option would be to send both of them to dog camp for an extended period of time, which is not a great option in my opinion.

That's not an option at all with cats, but cats tend to be a bit easier to work around rentals.

Are you doing anything else that's not shown on those plans?


We are going to install a solar water heater -- they can reduce your water heating bills by 60-70 percent, depending on who you talk to, and in our climate they are good all year round. We'll have an additional backup water heater, but the solar will take the edge off.

This will help with our plan to replace the forced air heat with hydronic radiant heat.

We'll also prep the roof and electrical system for grid-tied photovoltaics. We've been thinking about this for a while, and what makes the most sense for this area is to stay on the grid. We don't have the money to buy the system yet, but getting the roof ready when it is being rebuilt makes sense. We may actually install a small non-grid battery photovoltaic system to run the sump pumps and help keep the water tank from overflowing, since those take a lot of recurrent energy and will cause us much grief if they lose power (and are most likely to lose power when they are most needed). I'll talk about photovoltaics and designing for them in a future post.

On the roof, we are going to install harness anchors to make working up high a little safer. These are special metal loops tied into the framing of the house that you can clip a safety harness onto, either to keep you from being able to go as far as the roof edge, or to stop you from falling to the ground if you slip (there are different lanyards for the two setups). Since our roof is 35 feet above the ground and we're about to install all kinds of equipment on it, this seems like a prudent move, and they're relatively cheap. I'm sure contractors will like them, too. Nobody wants to fall off a roof.

We may install a central air conditioning system. I'm divided on this right now (I was more convinced on our third consecutive day over 90F last summer). I know that would be helpful for my parents, since my mother can't tolerate heat very well. The only real issue for me is that the compressors are ugly and big, and it would mean putting some kind of duct system in the house. I'm going to talk to HVAC contractors about it. I'd go with a roof-mounted or attic system, to take advantage of cooled air tending to fall. I'll talk more about that later.

In the attic we will put plywood down to make a walkable floor, which will make maintenance easier. This is something we'd been planning for this year, anyway. I guess we could store stuff up there as well, but my goal is to not have caches of hidden crap throughout the house.

We'll also put in a hatch to access the roof, so we don't need to break out the 40 foot ladder to get up there. We'll still need the big ladder to get to the side walls, but that doesn't seem to come up very often.

And the other big thing we will do is hire the painter/restorationist who restored our neighbor's facade (and the Neumanskys') to start working on the exterior here. I think having him do the whole house will be too expensive, but we will start with the front and move around as we get money together. As he works, we will replace the old windows (which are mostly just epoxy and paint at this point, the wood is so rotten) with replacement window units that match the existing windows. This will probably cost as much as the whole addition, but it will be worth it. I can't tell you how much I am looking forward to being able to open windows all the way.

posted by ayse on 01/04/15


As a senior citizen who lives in a retirement community, I know that your parents need a master suite. There might be even an oxygen concentrator in the future.

I;ve seen some very nice house interior elevators with doors that look like regular doors. Of course, for a piano-sized elevator, some other door arrangement would be necessary.

How long do you expect to be in a rental?

One annoying thing about AC to me is that there never seems to be a nice midrange temperature. The darn things blow really cold air. I was told that's unavoidable, I don't know if that's true. In my house I have put baffles at various vents of the whole house AC. The ones on the second floor are in the ceiling, which is a whole other nuisance in terms of baffling them.

The piano-sized elevator only requires a 36" door, which is a pretty standard size. You need a thing called an interlock that prevents people from opening the door when the elevator is not there, but that's added on to a regular door. Residential elevators use swing doors, not the sliding ones used on commercial elevators. (You can do sliding ones, but they take more space and are more expensive.)

Oxygen concentrators don't require a bathroom opening into a bedroom, as far as I can tell. Not even a colostomy bag requires that. And with a hallway, when we eventually have to have a live-in nurse, they can use the bathroom without going through the bedroom.

I've worked on hospitals and age-in-place developments. I see no need for a master suite apart from personal preference.

How are you going to handle the exterior door for the elevator? Are you going to pour a concrete sidewalk from the elevator location to the driveway? Is there any sort of licensing/ongoing inspection when an elevator is in a private home, or is it akin to a furnace in that one should have it regularly serviced but there's no enforcement?

The only reason I can think of that would require an on-suite bathroom would be if you needed a track lift to get from bed to bath, but that's more of an issue with severe disabilities than aging-in-place, and involves other, unpleasant changes to the architecture. I'm sure you'll be fine.

I'll add to your excellent list more reasons to have an elevator or lift, even just for a short run: my wheelchair-bound husband was originally fine with a ramp in our house that spanned a few steps, but after years of medications and chemo he tends to feel dizzy and disoriented going up and especially down the ramp, an unexpected and unpleasant development. He also has a very hard time with outdoor ramps made of boards, as the bump-bump-bump from one board to the next jars his spine. And those loooooooong ramps are very unpleasant in the rain!

Chair lifts are also not good for people with a limited ability to hold themselves upright and balanced, and their biggest drawback is that they are useless for people in wheelchairs - what do you do when you get to the top? You can keep a different chair upstairs, but power chairs are very personalized and insanely expensive, so that's not a good solution. And additional transfers are stressful and tiring.

Thank you for sharing all these interesting details. Best wishes for living in rental limbo while the remodeling happens!

Jim, we'll have a paved path from the front to the back, yes. And a roof over the entrance so you can get in even in the rain without getting utterly soaked. Though if you've already gone around the house, that wait at the doorway is not going to kill you.

You might consider a ductless mini split system for a/c. For one or two rooms (bedrooms and a living area) they aren't too expensive and they have smaller compressors than normal a/c

I did consider that, but we need more than just a few rooms and the house is really too big for that kind of system. Fortunately, we will have to run the system only for a short time every year, rather than all summer like in some places -- with the new insulation installed the house will stay a lot cooler, and our overnight temperatures are usually in the 60's in the summer, so we can take advantage of that to dump heat at night.

Note: We're getting pummeled with spam comments, so I've turned off the ability to use any HTML or include any links for the time being. Email with any issues.

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