Andi's Kitchen: Demolition, and a Few Surprises

Renovation Diary

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Name: Andi Forker
Type of Project: Kitchen Renovation -- full gut remodel
Location: San Francisco, California
Type of building: 1890's Victorian condo

The Renovation Diaries are a new collaboration with our community in which we feature your step by step renovation progress and provide monetary support towards getting it done in style.

Our renovation officially started on Wednesday after work. We packed up the kitchen and found storage for everything. We pushed the new refrigerator into the hallway and put boxes on top of it. The dishes and small appliances got squished into the dining room china cabinet. Cookbooks went under our bed. More boxes got stashed in the hall closet and guest bedroom (which was already packed with boxes containing our new appliances, cabinets, chandelier and sink). 

We set up a temporary kitchen in the dining room with a microwave, coffee maker, and electric tea kettle. Along with the outdoor grill, this is our cooking station for the next nine weeks. My mantra is, "It will be like camping. I love camping."

On the weekend we planned for two full days of demolition, followed by two "contingency days" on Monday and Tuesday  -- vacation days from work in case of the unexpected. I envisioned Tuesday spent hiking in Marin with our dog but, of course, this is construction so that did not become a reality.

The demolition started easily, with the cheap plastic cabinets breaking apart with frighteningly little effort. The only concern was that the 15-cubic-yard dumpster we rented seemed small. We agreed that we should have ordered a 20-cubic-yard dumpster, but it was too late and too expensive to make a change. From the start we had to break apart the cabinets and be efficient about packing debris.

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The dust is not a joke. Here Dean demolishes the wall between the kitchen and hallway.

Next we tackled demolition of a behemoth lath-and-plaster wall between the hall and kitchen. The dust was simply incredible -- dry, fine, and never-ending. We taped huge sheets of plastic up to prevent the spread of dust, but somehow it seeped throughout the apartment. Using the heel of a demolition hammer, the plaster fell off the wall in manageable croissant-sized chunks, but the dust cloud was a menace. By the middle of the second day we had all of the lath and plaster off the walls and into the dumpster.

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Demolition can uncover many unwelcome surprises in 120-year-old buildings. Past construction experiences taught me not to get depressed or fatalistic (which is easy to do, as this type of surprise often means more time and more money). Best to expect that you will uncover bad things behind the walls, and then switch to problem solving mode and move forward. I tried to employ this tactic when we uncovered an old chimney with a galvanized steel shell and terracotta clay liner in the air shaft. It probably connected to a pot-bellied stove at some point in history.

Weeks before we did "exploratory demo" and knocked a basketball-sized hole in the wall, which gave us a glimpse of this chimney, but we thought it was just an unused metal duct. We did not expect it to have a terracotta liner all the way up to the roof, which could be heavy and dangerous. We will have to be very thoughtful when demolishing it. On the bright side, the back of the chimney had a cool old sign on it, so I cut it off with a reciprocating saw and saved it for later.

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The wall between the kitchen and hallway showed signs of structural importance after we started demolition. The lath (or slim pieces of wood) and plaster still cling to this section of wall.

The second surprise came when we demolished the lath and plaster off of a large wall between the hallway and kitchen. Our structural engineer originally thought the wall would not be structurally significant, but once we chipped away all of the plaster we noticed a few funny things. First, the wall had a base plate that ran the span of the floor joists. Second, it had a thin header that ran the span of the ceiling joists. Most importantly, we thought the ceiling joists were going to be 2" x 12" in dimension, but when we tore down the ceiling they were actually 2" x 10". All of those things indicated that the wall could have some structural importance, so we halted demolition and called our structural engineer. 

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Our friend Kevin is "sistering" new planks to the old joists on our 13-foot ceiling, at the recommendation of our structural engineer.

By mid-day on Monday the structural engineer ran calculations and recommended a solution that would allow us to remove the wall. He recommended a technique called "sistering," which involves attaching new 2"x10" planks to the existing ceiling joists, to strengthen the ceiling and prevent deflection, which is essentially a bouncy floor for our upstairs neighbors. We took the structural engineer's detailed instructions and headed to Lowe's to buy more wood and huge lag bolts. Dean and our dear friend Kevin spent the rest of Monday and Tuesday bolting planks to the ceiling. It is a tough job when you are 13 feet in the air and need to drive 20 bolts into each 12-foot plank. The guys put me in charge of "general conditions," which is cleaning, in construction-talk. Our house badly needed it.

Our final contingency day came and went, and we still had not yet demolished the chimney. We returned to our day jobs the next morning and are plotting how we will remove the chimney next weekend. Despite the dust and surprises, we had a fun time and some good laughs with our friends who helped with demolition -- Steve, Chris and Kevin. I recommend inviting a friend to help you on tough construction days. You can catch up, achieve something tangible together over the course of a day, and the presence of a friend keeps the atmosphere light under frustrating circumstances. Our tradition is to serve volunteers a hearty take-out lunch like deep dish Pizza, Chinese Food or BBQ, and provide cold beers at the end of the day. Our friends seem to like it because they keep coming back to help.

Estimated time for project: 9 weeks
Time remaining: 8 weeks

Check out the full series (so far) and be sure to join us next week for #5 of Andi's Diary.

(Images and diary text: Andi Forker)

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