Museum District

Our House | Before + After

Three years ago, almost to the day, we made a bid for a century-old house on a corner in the Museum District.  Standing in the front yard, waiting for our turn to go inside the property facing foreclosure, I knew it was meant to be our home.  It took four months to close on what was called a “short sale.”  We took another six months to finalize architectural plans, sell our former home, and gather the finances to begin renovation and restoration.  John and his team spent about a year getting the inside to the point that we could leave the apartment we rented and officially live in the house we had affectionately named “Honor’s Corner.”  We spent an additional year completing the exterior of the home and other projects outside.

This summer has brought a real slow down around here.  We finally just live here.  The construction mess is gone and for the most part the house has settled into the block.  We still get an occasional knock on the siding as passersby, heading to Carytown, try to determine our siding material but for the most part we are just another house on the block.

We have tried to gather photos that best represent the transformation of our home.  Because we opened up the interior, it is impossible to get “Before & After” photos that line up perfectly but you can get the general idea.  Many thanks to Mallory for helping me get this culminating post together and thanks to you for following our journey.  It’s really been meaningful to share this transition with family and friends.

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The wall between the front and center rooms was removed so the living room now opens directly into the kitchen.

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We removed the fireplace and added French doors opening to the side porch.
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We relocated the stairwell to the center of the house to make room for a foyer, shoe bench, powder room, and coat closet.stairs2

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The kitchen and a full bath were at the rear of the house.DSC_0481

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We added a row of windows in the kitchen, reconfigured the bath, and made a 1st floor master suite.DSC_0145

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The former mud room retained its purpose but we added a laundry area with cabinetry. The hole leads to the cat box!DSC_0535

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This is the center room at the top of the stairs.DSC_0722

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The attic was opened up in the center of the house to highlight the interesting roof angles and flood the space with natural light.
A loft was added to provide space for additional family members and visitors to sleep.  It houses a full size bed!

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better flex room

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my room

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Photographs used throughout this blog post are courtesy of Mallory, Alferio Productions, and Adam Goldsmith Architectural Photography
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How much longer?

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This photo was a test shot with my new iPhone right after Thanksgiving to send my sister-n-law.  My brother had just taken out the wall between their kitchen and dinning room and they were adjusting to noise bouncing around the newly open space.  I sent this to her so she could get a sense of our open space. With our kids home for the holiday we had a lot of noise bouncing around and up and down!

With the holiday behind us we are back into renovation mode. It’s hard to fathom that we are not actually done yet. We came upon a huge obstacle this past fall that forced us to come to a screeching halt. We were caught in a bureaucratic snare that was by far the most frustrating part of this journey.  The situation was very emotionally charged for me and I could not write about our plight with objectivity until now. It is a very long story.  I will hit the highlights.

In late April, 2014 we approached the city about the utility pole in the alley blocking the entrance to the old garage.  We wanted to remove the dilapidated, cinderblock garage and replace it with an open carport but the pole obstructed the entrance. The simplest solution for city officials at the time was to grant us entrance to the carport from the side street instead of the alley. New curb cuts on city streets are very limited and a cherished commodity, though granted by code to corner homes that border an alley; a fact that I was unaware of until John and I met with the city to ask about moving the utility pole that apparently belongs to Verizon, not the city.  We were surprised but thrilled and set about removing the old garage and making the changes to install a driveway and a parking pad with underground piers for the carport.  That work took place during an oppressive heat wave in June.

July and August were slow months as we needed to catch our financial breath and John took a much needed hiatus from daily work at Honor’s Corner.  Our adult kids were in and out and we used the time to get acquainted with the house and settle into the neighborhood.  When September rolled around we focused our attention to the final stage: the carport and the backyard landscaping. We hired a draftsman to produce the professional renderings for the carport and took them to the city to obtain the building permit.  Back in April we had discussed the plans with the permit office representative but only had hand-sketched ideas so we were not able to file for the carport building permit at that time.  In October I took the plans to the city.

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A week or so later I received a call requesting that I meet with the zoning office about the plans.  John went with me.

We were informed that the driveway width and carport placement were out of compliance for the Museum District.  This is where the snare begins.  Because we are a corner lot and abut an alley we are allowed a 9-foot (one-car) driveway.  We were permitted and had installed a twenty-two foot (two-car) driveway.  Additionally, because our side street has homes that face that street, our carport could not stand in the plane of those front yards. Meaning, our carport could not be relocated to the side of the yard where the driveway and concrete pad, with several under ground concrete piers, had been installed. Because there was already a two-car driveway and garage directly across the side street from us, the city had allowed us to mirror the design; to keep with the neighborhood aesthetic.  These details were discussed back in April during our application for the original permit.  Apparently there had been some changes to design ordinances for Museum District several years ago that were not verified before our permit was issued.

John and I sat across the table from a very sweet, frustrated, helpless zoning representative that could only tell us that we were out of compliance and could go no further into our project. She didn’t know if we would be forced to tear it all out, use it as it was or wait for the city to come remove the permitted structures.  I fought back tears and John fought back screams and fist slamming.  It wasn’t her fault.  It was someone’s fault that we had been given the permit and spent several thousand dollars in preparations to get to this point.  Assigning blame was irrelevant. We just needed a solution.

The solution came from weeks of meetings with every level of the Zoning and Planning Commission and our city councilman.  In the end, the only entity that could rectify our predicament was city council.  We had to be granted a special use permit to place the carport on the east side of the yard and to have a two-car driveway.  Neither of these are uncommon in our neighborhood, just out of compliance with the most recent ordinances. Obtaining a special use permit requires that the home owner complete extensive paperwork and post a large sign on their property notifying neighbors of the request. The paperwork is sent to city council for review at their monthly meeting.  Along the way the paperwork and plans are reviewed by design committees and neighborhood associations for required endorsements. Once reviewed by city council, Z&P sends a letter to neighbors within 150 feet of the property line on all sides and a public hearing is held. The results of the public hearing are then presented to city council again for a final vote of approval.  It took just over two months for the process to play out.  From what we have learned, two months is lightening speed! We are so very grateful to the Z&P official assigned to our case and our city councilman for helping us navigate the process and expediting the paperwork.

Because we face two streets, we technically have two front yards and thus were required to post two signs.  A neighbor, who was granted a special use permit by city council the month prior, gave us his sign and we made the additional one ourselves.

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There are positives to be found through most unpleasant situations and ours is no exception. We talked to dozens of neighbors and made some new friends!  We became acquainted with our city councilman, Jon Balilies, son of Virginia Governor Gerald Balilies who served the state from 1986-1990. He actually lives on our street but I had never met him and hesitated to reach out to him. That was silly, I found him to be a down-to-earth, no nonsense, genuine person who works tirelessly for our district. It was fun and interesting to see some of the intricacies of city government.  We attended our first city council meeting, figured out the best places to park around City Hall and gained a appreciation for governmental procedures.  I was forced to develop some more patience, which is always a good thing! On December 8th our special use permit was approved by city council!

We are now waiting for the brick mason to build the columns and then John and Patrick will build the carport.  Once it is in place, the landscape work con be done and the fence can be installed.  We have been asked to participate in the Museum District Mother’s Day House tour so we are aiming for 100% completion by May, exactly two years from the first hammer of demolition!

Mallory was instrumental in developing a landscape plan for the backyard and putting it on paper.  The white ring is for flowers and there will be grasses dispersed among the rocks and a planting area under the tree.  We are pretty excited about having a low maintenance entertaining area that provides drainage for rain water to stay on our property.  The yard looks a lot bigger in this diagram than it actually is.  It will be fun to post the pictures after installation!

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We passed the energy tests!

Earlier this week Honor’s Corner passed the final energy audit.  The audit measures the “tightness” of the home by evaluating two features: the exterior seal and the internal ductwork.  Basically, the tests let you know if you have any leaks or holes in your home.  Anyone can have the tests conducted in their home for about $300. The measurements obtained during our tests are part of the total energy model used to calculate our EarthCraft and LEED ratings.

We have actually had the outer envelop tested three times.  Back in March, as a proactive measure, we hired an independent company to come to the house and conduct a blower door test.  At that time we were mostly looking for gaps in our insulation so that we could fix anything before the siding went on and we had the final certifying test.  At that time, the auditor said that our house was one of the “tightest” he had measured.  There is a fine line between having it tight enough for efficiency and too tight for healthy air exchange.  You need to have some fresh air entering your home.  If the outer envelop gets too tight then a whole house fan could be necessary.  At that time, without siding, caulk or paint on the house we were right where we wanted to be.  We didn’t have the ducts tested because Delta Temp, the company that installed the geothermal heating and cooling system, had already tested it as part of their routine service.

The second test took place in July when EarthCraft came for official testing.  The outer envelop test went as expected but there were some issues with the ductwork testing so they had to reschedule.  The third time was a charm.  Brad and Paige came back this week and repeated the blower door test for the outer envelop and were able to successfully complete the duct test.  Both tests indicated that we are in the high efficiency and healthy zones!

A blower door is a big fan that mounts into the frame of an exterior door. The fan pulls air out of the house, lowering the air pressure inside. The higher air pressure outside then flows in through any unsealed cracks or openings. The test simulates 20 MPH winds blowing on the house from all 6 sides at the same time and determines air infiltration into the house.

There is a frame and flexible panel that fits into the doorway, a variable-speed fan, a pressure gauge that measures the pressure difference inside and outside, and an airflow gauge with hoses.

Setting up the blower door test back in March.

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An infrared camera is used to identify “hot spots” where there is a leak or gap in insulation.  This tool is so sensitive that it detected a hole in the foam insulation about the size of dime in a narrow corner in the peak of the attic.  Here the tool is showing where the glass of the window and the frame meet.  It detects a sliver of heat exchange.  The guy chuckled when I seemed concerned about this and he dismissed it as “nothing.” IMG_6897

Paige from EarthCraft is using the same tool to follow ducts behind the wall to see if there are any leaks in the system.DSC_0024

Brad is covering the air intake with tape.  All the vents in the house are sealed during the testing.DSC_0015

Black plastic covers are placed over some of the high vents.DSC_0010

An air pressure gauge is inserted into a vent during the duct test. DSC_0006

This contraption sucks all the air out of the ducts.DSC_0022

The doors have to be kept closed during the testing.  Once the fan was removed the dogs made a quick escape through the hole.  You can see just the bottom of Shelly’s legs as she darted away.  Luci exited right behind her! DSC_0013

John completed his paperwork with Richard (LEED Consultant) documenting his construction methods and materials.

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We have submitted all of our receipts (proof of purchases) and paperwork to Richard who will finalize documentation with EarthCraft.  Together they will calculate our points and file for our certifications.  We are really looking forward to wrapping up that part of the project!

Another set of heroes are on the scene!

The summer months brought a slow down to Honor’s Corner.  We needed a financial respite from the constant check writing and John needed to go live his own life for a few months.  We spent the summer getting used to the house and enjoyed as much time as possible with our youngest child, who has since left for college, and her older sister who was home for a few weeks.  Cooler weather has arrived and we are focused on the final phases of the project!

Honor’s Corner To-Do List

1. Finish exterior painting

2. Back porch finishes (ceiling fan, lights, floor trim)

3. Back yard landscaping (drainage system and plantings)

4. Carport construction

5. Fence design and installation

6. Rain Water Pillow and downspouts installation

7. Inside punch list (paint touch-ups, toilet wobble, baseboard trim in loft, one electrical outlet that doesn’t work)

8. Final Inspection for LEED and EarthCraft Certifications

Some of these items are pretty big;  the carport and back yard landscaping for example, but all the items are actually in the works.  We have a landscape plan, the carport plans are with a design company and the exterior painting is almost complete!

The remainder of this post is dedicated to our painters.  They have really become part of the family since their arrival in January to paint the inside.  I call them “The Dynamic Duo” and Patrick jokingly calls them “Donny and Marie”.  Whatever we call them, they are definitely on our hero list!

Donny and Kathy are more than painters.  Much of what they do is repair and preparation.  Donny is the “King of Caulk.”  He used about 30 tubes of caulk on the inside and is now approaching 40 tubes on the outside!  The inside was completely new construction as is much of the outside.  Over half of the siding was replaced, all of the windows were replaced, a back porch was added and the front porch was completely sanded and refurbished, including the ceiling, columns, rails and all the trim.  Donnie & Kathy have a finely-tuned process. Donnie does all the caulking and sanding while Kathy makes the rounds with the primer and the first coat of paint.  They move methodically around the perimeter of the house, inspecting every single inch of the surface.  Once the area is repaired, sanded and caulked, Donnie joins in the painting process until that area is complete and then they move onto the next area.  Contrary to popular belief in the neighborhood, Donnie & Kathy are not married. They are long-time friends and business partners who complete each other’s sentences and anticipate each other’s moves.  Donnie & Kathy have been painting together for over 30 years.  They have an incredible work ethic and are perfectionists.  To prevent burn-out they work 6 hours a day.  They arrive everyday at 9AM sharp and work until 3PM without taking time for lunch.  They have been dedicated to our house since early August and have missed only a few days due to rain.  We smile everyday at the progress and have 100% confidence in everything they have done for our home!

Here is a look back at the two-tone siding before painting began.

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One of the first areas to receive the new color: Aqua Bay!

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Donnie working his magic with the caulk gun!IMG_8062 IMG_8022

John’s summer respite from the project was interrupted occasionally when large pieces of trim needed replacing.  I was happy to get a picture of all three of them early on working on the same side of the house!
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Large pieces of trim on the front were completely replaced.DSC_0065

Shelly and Luci love keeping them company during the cooler temperatures! (Kathy is painting the doors “Annapolis Blue” as I type.)

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Some days Luci has refused to go inside.  She is 16 years old now and uses a ramp to navigate the stairs. She will have a more permanent set up in the back yard when we finish up the landscaping.  Luci loves to be outside with Kathy!

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John and Donnie have utilized two-part wood epoxy to restore small areas of rot on the original trim.
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The front porch ceiling was caulked, sanded and primed before final coats of paint were applied.DSC_0032

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The house has three tall peaks that had to be sanded, repaired, caulked, primed and painted.

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Donnie is hilarious.  He took a break from the painstaking process of painting the back porch ceiling for me to get a picture of him in his finest.  He is sporting a neck brace, back brace, ace bandage on his painting wrist and tape over his glasses to keep the paint from splattering in his “one good eye.”  What a mess!

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Kathy on the other hand is quiet and graceful and rarely has a splatter on herself.  Her small hands ache some from decades of painting and most often I see her painting with a 2″ brush!  Her attention to detail is mind boggling!

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They should wrap up in the next two weeks!

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BTW: Neighbors were a bit surprised at first by the bold color but dozens of daily comments indicate that it gets the thumbs up.

Here’s what it looks like today…

DSC_0001Special thanks to my sweet friend Wendy Morton who helped me select the house colors and gave me the confidence to actually use them!

Blessings and the gift of good luck

Honor’s Corner continues to be a work in progress.  Last week John was able to install the back splash in the kitchen and laundry area while he waited for the back porch tile to arrive.

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The thought never occurred to me that for two days, while installing the tile, John would be working in the direct path to the cat box.  Our timid and fearful kitties were forced to find a few alternative places to relieve themselves.  While in the throes of this discovery, the main sewer line clogged again and as before backed up into the shower.  What a mess!  I have to say that Woodfin is one amazing company.  They were here right away and just as pleasant as ever!  It took them two days to identify the problem and make the final replacements to the line so that we now have a completely new sewer line.  Crumbled pieces of the century old terra cotta pipe lay in a heap in the back yard.

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Periodically, during the repairs, our water use was limited.  The kitchen was torn apart with tile and grout, the cats had messed around the house, there were remnants of sewage in the shower and I had limited water.  It was a little crazy and I was definitely stressing. I have mentioned in the past how Mallory has a knack for keeping me grounded.  Amidst the chaos, this water color rendering appeared on the coffee table.

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Now that’s something to think about…

Later that evening I was outside cleaning up the yard and hauling trash to the alley when I noticed a young woman sitting on the grass strip between our sidewalk and the street.  We had noticed her a few times before in the clover patch and assumed she was searching for 4-leaf clovers.  As she was leaving I saw that she was carrying a bouquet of clovers.  We chatted and she informed me that she had found about 50 of them!  Apparently we have a lucky spot by our walkway and our neighbor Elise was thrilled to have found dozens of the tiny leaves to press and use in her jewelry designs. What a neat idea!  I told her she was welcome anytime to pick clover.  Wouldn’t you know it…later that evening she rang the doorbell and presented me with a lucky pendant!  I will treasure it and it’s symbolism, the reminder of how blessed we continue to be while building our new life on the corner.

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Two weeks ago our son graduated from The United States Naval Academy and in another day or so, our youngest will graduate from high school.  Two weeks, two graduations.  Too Blessed to be Stressed!

Since we moved…

We have been settling in and getting acquainted with the intimacies of the house.  The day we moved in my sister Diana helped me organize the kitchen. When she left she told me it was a start and that I would probably rearrange it several times before we landed on a system that works.  It’s ironic how well we when know each other and how similar we are in lifestyle.  I haven’t moved a thing since that first day and the flow is perfect.  The kitchen, which so many months ago I feared would be too small, is actually roomy with plenty of cabinet space.  The entire house “lives big” because of it’s open floor plan and tall ceilings. We absolutely love it!

Just after we moved in the sewer line broke.  A backup of the system into our downstairs shower  was the clue.  All the plumbing on the inside had been replaced so we knew the problem was outside and started digging.  Well, we didn’t start digging, Mr. Rooter started digging and he found a big pocket underground where our waste had piled up for about two weeks until it backed up into the house.  The main line was cast iron where it entered the house.  That section was strong and clear.

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The problem was a few feet down the line where the iron pipe attached to the original terra cotta pipe.  That’s right, a 104 year old clay pipe that had been cracked several times and repaired with cement.  Apparently the well digging, gas line dredging and significant landscaping had jostled the pipe enough underground that it had crumbled in several places.

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In hind sight, maybe we should have dug up the line while we were in the demolition phase but in keeping with the spirit of conservation, it seemed superfluous at the time. In any case, when the final landscaping is done in the backyard, the last section of pipe will be dug up and replaced and the entire sewer line will be new!   An added benefit is that we got to know our fantastic neighbors.  Some barely knew us when they welcomed us into their homes for showering!

John is now working on the back porch, hoping to get it done before the Richmond heat and humidity become oppressive.  Our project has become a real family affair as Bobby’s son, Stephen, is assisting John with the porch and Bobby’s brother, Michael, will soon dismantle the old cinderblock garage that sits at the back of the lot.   It will be replaced with a carport of sorts, or open garage that  will have a door to the street but will be open to the inside yard.

A few days ago…

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Today, with Stephen’s help…

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The front porch railings continue to plague us with issues.  It rained the entire weekend we moved.  We noticed that the railing paint bubbled and a brown liquid oozed out and dripped down the sides.  It also oozed out of nail holes in the balustrades.

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After much investigation it seems that the liquid used in the dipping/stripping bath had not completely dried deep inside the wood.  The moisture meter gave a satisfactory reading on the surface so the restoration company felt safe in painting the surfaces.  They have returned, scraped the paint form the railings and the nail holes and are waiting for everything to dry completely so it can be repainted.

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The column and railings restoration has been a difficult process.  We were committed to retaining this feature.  We have no regrets that we undertook restoration as opposed to replacement but it has been a journey.  I have personally driven the restoration company crazy, especially the lead carpenter assigned to our job.  I have pestered her for perfection and insisted upon attention to every detail.  It’s impossible to make 104 year old railings look new.  Our expectations were unrealistic in the beginning and the carpenters are accustomed to a more worn look than we were willing to accept.   We have all learned to compromise and to communicate.   A few more hot days and the process should be complete.  The wood is strong and as the head guy said to me just yesterday: “It’s time to let the beauty of age shine through.”

Lastly, we are thrilled with our geothermal system.  In particular, I love the hot water feature. We installed a Rinnai tankless, on-demand hot water heater in conjunction with the geothermal system.

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The idea behind a tankless system is that it heats the water as you need it instead of continually heating water stored in a tank.  Tankless heaters last about five to 10 years longer than a tank heater, take up much less space and provide an unlimited amount of hot water. They cost a bit more and can require new power lines and venting so it’s easiest to install during the building process.  The geothermal company has set up our system so that the hot air extracted from the air conditioner is used to heat water that is fed into a holding tank.  That warmed water then runs through the Rinnai.  The preheated water is so warm some days we don’t even use the Rinnai, just the hot water generated as a by product of cooling our home.  That means less heat being dumped into our environment, less energy used to heat water and we never run out of hot water.  There is also less guilt for me when I lower the temperature on the air conditioner!

Here we are enjoying one of our favorite Carytown establishments: Nacho Mamas!

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We moved!

What a week it has been!  Last weekend the rent sign went up at the townhouse and we began moving our things in the pouring rain.  It’s taken the entire week to settle in and feel at home.  We still have boxes to unpack, a few furniture pieces to purchase and some inside details yet to complete.  Our dream of living here began over 20 months ago when we placed a contract on this old place.  The outside actually looks a little worse for the wear since it has lost most of its siding for repair and the backyard has been torn apart for installation of the geothermal heating & cooling and the house generator.  The old deck was removed so that we can add a screened porch and “Big Blue” the fence has been partially removed.  But the inside is new and wonderful and we are at last living here!  Spring has sprung and the outside will begin to take shape as well.

Here are some of the highlights from the past few days.

Our first night back in the city we ate our long time favorite Carytown establishment.

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Luci was contained to the front yard all week and barked at almost every passer-by.   She exhausted herself in her new surroundings and just collapsed from the excitement of the move.

Literally in our shower!

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On the bare floor.

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Squeezed between boxes and totes on the side porch.

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Woodfin Oil trenched the gas and electrical lines for our home generator.  The backyard is still a mess!

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Rusty and Charles installed the top hand rails!  The wood was reclaimed from the interior wall studs removed during the renovation.  We are thrilled with the finished product!  Be sure to look for the old nail holes when you visit.  That’s my favorite part!photo 3

A handrail must be a continuous piece to pass current building code.  It was a tedious process to precisely cut the pieces so they fit together just right and traversed from top to bottom through the turns.  Once the angles were perfected the pieces were glued and left to sit for a day before they were permanently screwed together, holes filled, stained and finished.

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Unpacking chaos from above.

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Patrick’s big TV…just in time for the Final Four!

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It looks like the weather this weekend will be much better for us as we continue to settle into our new home!

Next post…All about John who vowed to shave and cut his hair only after he got us into the house!