These home renovation projects – I hate to call them remodeling, which points in some other direction – have established a pattern. The latest, the bathroom and utility room round, is one more in a sequence that began with saving the barn from collapse and then inserting a mother-in-law apartment 16 years ago, then redoing the kitchen five years later, followed by opening up the barn loft for easier access and three-season use just seven years ago. Looking back on photos taken before each of these always startles me. I could have kept living with that?

Each project begins with a vague sense of definition or direction. OK, I did make drawings for the mother-in-law apartment, and my wife had to order the kitchen cabinetry and plan for what would go where in that undertaking. But other than that, much more has happened – should we say been improvised? – along the way than I’d care to admit. Want to talk about lighting, for instance?

The pattern itself begins with ripping away obstacles. Even the first barn project had drywall to come down, windows and doors to trash, improper wiring to tear out.

That, in turn, leads to an urban archeology stage as we discover clues about earlier residents.

The barn, for example, had been inhabited by what we concluded had been an artsy set – the cable television line remains, no matter how outdated its specs – even though their arrangements were simply not allowed by zoning or building codes. Or so the inspector told us. A horse or a goat, we assume, had chewed away at some of the framing years earlier.

The kitchen, in a one-story el extending from the main house, had been added in 1928, as we concluded from Boston newspapers used as insulation next to the sheathing. As one of my favorite headlines optimistically proclaimed, automobile sales and production would just keep soaring through the coming years. So much for the Great Depression right around the corner. Our mudroom had been a pantry with a door where our stove had been, rather than the entry right around the corner. So the original kitchen had been somewhere in our current dining room or utility room?

Framing we find for former doorways often makes no sense now. Rooms have definitely been shuffled around. A hallway ran through two bedrooms, and then the bathroom was added – a small window there had been a full-size two-over-two. The closet to the front bedroom had apparently been just an opening atop the staircase, which would have let daylight in. Was there a second staircase in the back of the house? And were the stairs to the third floor moved from elsewhere? What we often see is how little had been done “right.”

We reflect on what we’ve heard about the previous owners and speculate on which ones made which decisions – many of which we’ve come to regret. Somewhere in the ’60s or ’70s, according to our calculations, two-inch-diameter holes were bored about a foot apart in a horizontal line along the exterior walls so that foam insulation could be pumped in along the framing. Great idea, except that in the subsequent years, the foam itself has dried out and turned to dust or useless puffballs. In reality, we have no insulation against New England winter. Still, I have to wonder about the asbestos siding, just when it was added – whether it was pried away for the foam project or added at the time.

As more and more debris comes down and goes out the door, the remaining exposed rough, dark wood leaves me feeling hemmed in. The windows grow small in response. It’s all part of the pattern.

In the next stage, though, I find myself staring at the open space. Think of an artist looking at a blank canvas or a writer, well, we used to have blank paper. This, though, is something else. For me, it’s Zen. The open framing, unfinished flooring, freedom from furniture – it’s all potential we will soon fill in. Unlike many who prefer lush surroundings, I love openness. The wiring and, if needed, plumbing need to go in, along with insulation and then drywall. We need to make decisions about lighting and color scheme. Toward the end comes the actual painting.

Add furniture. Then get used to the results.

As I said, it’s a pattern.


My poems on the challenges of renovations, repairs, and relating as a husband are collected as Home Maintenance, a free ebook at Thistle/Flinch editions.


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