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Part II: Stripping an 1870s home down to its bones — and building it back up

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In the second installment of our 2016 Renovation Diary, Mark Goff and Phillip Engel get to work on their extreme fixer and get schooled on demolition, plumbing, and electricity

Photos courtesy Mark Goff and Philip Engel

After years of shuttling between New York City and Los Angeles, Mark Goff and Phillip Engel wanted to change their location and their lives. They landed in the tiny town of Healdsburg, California (approximately 1.5 hours from San Francisco in Sonoma County Wine Country, population 11,254). The home they found there—an extreme fixer—was certainly transformative. The work they did on the 1870 Victorian turned the business analyst (Engel) and graphic designer (Goff) into seasoned renovation experts and tested their patience and skill. This week, in the second installment of our 2016 Renovation Diary, the pair describes the joy—and the frustration—of bringing the decrepit home back to life, a process Goff fully details in his blog, 227NorthStreet.

We had never done a remodel on this level. However, when Phillip was growing up on the East Coast, his father was always working on something: homes, cars—always something. Although he wasn’t directly involved with these projects as a child, he must have absorbed some of it. At one point during this remodel, he said that he realized he had become his father.

When we needed to learn how to do something, we read a book, we looked online, or we asked questions (Scott Ward, a Healdsburg city building inspector, was an invaluable resource). We would identify what we needed to do, learn how to do it, and tackle it. We came up with this saying: "What can be done, can be done again." Meaning, if we did it and it didn’t work out or we didn’t like it, we could always redo it. We also had another saying: "Suck up and bust!" Mark has a dear old friend from Tennessee, and this is one of her favorite sayings. It means, buck up, get over it, quit whining, and work harder.

The first thing we did was have a contractor, Jim Glazier, build the foundation. We had the house lifted into the air and placed on blocks for the process. Once that happened, we had to think about things we had never thought of before: Where would the cut-out for the water main go? How would the air ducting for the heating and cooling system get from one side of the foundation wall to the other? Should there be electric outlets and light switches on the basement walls?

Mark Goff and Phillip Engel liked the PEX plumbing system because of its clarity—red pipes for hot water, blue pipes for cold water. Goff said that the creators made it "hard to make mistakes." That said, nothing was completely easy in this remodel. Goff wrote: "Someday...all of these walls will be sealed up and we will forget the torture of the magic that lies beneath them."

It seemed like the foundation happened very quickly, and in hindsight, we should have figured these things out before the house was lifted—but we were new to all this when we started. Back then, we considered the foundation and cellar level as just a big black hole. So, we tried to put everything where it would logically go, and we centrally located the cutouts for the water main and irrigation system. We decided we would keep the ducting and plumbing high, close to the floor joists, so the cellar could be finished later with a ceiling.Where we couldn’t do that, we put the pipes and ducting where they could be easily soffited.

As the job progressed, Phillip noticed that workers we hired to run the gas main through the foundation used the cutout he'd designated for the irrigation system. He realized he should have put in two cutouts. But here’s the beauty of remodeling: Nothing is as permanent as you think. We had to drill another hole through an eight-inch foundation wall, which seems like an impossible thing, right? But when you have the right drill, the right bit, and some water, anything is possible.

When these decisions were made, the foundation was poured and the house came down to rest on firm footing for the first time in many, many years, and Jim could start work on the addition that would give us a larger kitchen and master suite. Demolition on the original house came next. We removed what was left of the trim and the doors (we worked on refinishing them throughout the project), and then the old plaster and lathe—we stripped it down to the studs and put what could be saved down in the basement.

When we took down the walls, we were exposing timbers that hadn’t seen the light of day for more than a century. Actually seeing them gave us a huge feeling of relief. After the deal was done, we started thinking about it and realized we had basically purchased the house for its framing—everything else had to be replaced or fixed. So, finding that the wood had held up perfectly well over 140 years was a great feeling.

We also found many, many rodent nests in the walls, a couple of stashes of Playboy magazines, and the cover of a book about adult spanking, entitled "Spanking and…" by Dr. Guenter Klow. We also found a piece of jewelry, a cuff bracelet. It wasn’t gold or platinum, it was just a cheap piece that was, oddly, hanging from a wire behind the wall. We didn’t know the story or the significance, so we decided to simply put it back when we sheetrocked, which we did after we got the first approvals on the plumbing, sewer, gas, and electric.

To make way for the new plaster, the old lathe and plaster had to be taken down. Mark says the debris filled two 30-foot-long dumpsters. In his blog he writes that the demo of the walls was followed by "sweeping, sweeping, and more sweeping."
Mark described the moment demolition was finished as a "freakout" event. The men looked at their house and realized they owned a shell. Phillip says he realized that they had paid for framing only, as everything else had to be replaced.

But before the sheetrock, we had to install sheer walls and earthquake retrofitting. Next came the things that live in the walls: electricity, plumbing, and HVAC. The HVAC was one of the things we hired done—given the discounts on the materials the pros get, and the fact that they own the tools to do it, it would have cost more to do it ourselves.

When we had the whole thing stripped, we had a freakout moment, because we looked at it and thought: "Oh my god, it’s nothing...it’s just a shell!" But the way you make it work is to put on blinders and move ahead. Phillip became the electric and plumbing expert (Mark is the artist, Phillip is the mathematical-engineering one). We figured out where everything would go (light switches, toilets, etc.) and then he went to work. We jokingly called Phillip the "Mole Person" because he spent days down in the basement unraveling and organizing a spaghetti mass of wires and connecting them to the electric panel. When he was done, the inspector dubbed it a work of art.

Phillip started out with two books purchased at Home Depot, one about electricity and one about plumbing. The plumbing book is called Black & Decker: The Complete Guide to Plumbing, and we lent out the other, but we're reasonably sure it’s Black & Decker: The Complete Guide to Electricity. Anyone who has visited Home Depot has seen these books or ones very much like them, they are basic handbooks written for homeowners. What Phillip loved about them, and what really helped him absorb the information, is that they had lots of drawings and diagrams that were easy to study and understand. When he didn’t get the information or needed help, he turned to Jim, the contractor we hired for the foundation and addition.

As we said, Scott Ward, a city building inspector, was really helpful to us. It seemed like he got behind our project, and he went above and beyond the call of duty answering questions to make sure we got it right. And when we got something wrong, he told us how to make it right. For example: We drilled a hole for a plumbing pipe in a joist that was too far out into the center of the room. To keep the joists stable, you are only supposed to drill in the first third of the plank and close to the wall. Scott explained how to stabilize the joist by sistering it with another piece of wood, that is joining the joist with another piece of wood to make it stronger.

Before the remodel of their Healdsburg home, Mark's tiling experience was limited to the installation of a backsplash. The tiling of the bathroom floor, wall, and ceiling presented a greater challenge. Before they laid the floor tile, the men put down a Ditra waterproofing system (the orange mats seen here).

YouTube videos weren’t our primary resource, but it’s amazing how many professionals are online giving their expertise away. It’s hard to call out or remember a particular one we looked at, but let's say this: Once you’ve watched 20 or so videos on a topic, you can see a common theme of best practices running through them. Of course, we took that advice from YouTube with a grain of salt, because how do you know these people are as experienced as they say they are? We would always check it out with a professional we knew. Even though we had done the homework, read the books, and asked the experts, when it came time to test the circuits, we were a bit nervous. As Phillip flipped the switch, he thought: "God, I just hope the house doesn’t burn down." It didn’t, of course. We both felt a huge sense of accomplishment.

We took out the central fireplace, and the chimney became the home for our drain system, supply plumbing, and some electrical. For the plumbing, we used PEX pipes and SharkBite fittings, and they were great to work with. Everything is so straightforward: red pipes for hot water, blue for cold. We installed the water supply for the entire house in three days. You just cut the tubing, push on the fitting, and move on to the next. It’s hard to believe it’s that easy, but it is.

One thing people don’t tell you, and we didn’t know, is how long almost everything takes. The things we thought would take a long time generally didn’t. The things we thought would go quickly would take weeks and weeks to accomplish. That’s one reason we didn’t have a concrete plan and timeline.

When the house was built, the original owners covered most of the first floor with carpet. The subfloor was interesting, but too rustic for Mark and Phillip's taste. They installed and finished a walnut floor on their own. "The experience gave me a deep respect for professional flooring people," Mark says. "I never had trouble with my knees, until I worked on the floor."

Laying the walnut, wide-plank floor was supposed to be an easy task. We imagined it would snap right in. Boy, were we wrong. It took seven weeks. Seven weeks of drilling pilot holes in the very hard wood for square-head nails (which we decided to use for a period look). There were two nails every 16 inches.

Mark did a calculation, and figured out we drove 11,000 nails into the floor. We realize that it would be much easier and faster for professionals who do this every day and know all the tricks for keeping the boards straight. But this was all new to us and were were learning as we went. We started in the closets to help us work out how to do it.

We had an inkling of how long it would take to put in the insulation and sheetrock, but we did everything far and beyond the minimum, and so that also took longer than we expected. Insulation is a nasty job that’s time consuming. Nothing in this old house is square or even, so insulating it meant hand-fitting rigid foam coated with mylar in each space. It seemed to go on and on. We thought the blueboard sheetrock would go up quickly, but it took two and a half days to do just one room...and then there were 11 more to go. We wanted to cover the walls with integrally colored plaster, so we hired a plaster professional to teach us how to do it, and then troweled it on ourselves. Plaster is by no means an easy thing to do, and in addition to taking awhile to complete, it’s physically exhausting.

After the demolition, the men had to fine tune where they would locate everything. "We had to think about exactly where every light switch, appliance, sink, and toilet would sit," says Phillip.

For one thing, plaster is heavy when it’s wet. For another, it sets in 45 minutes once mixed, so you have to work quickly. When you start, you can’t stop or there will be a seam in the wall. If you start the ceiling, you have to keep going until you get to the last corner.

You learn to train your body and eye to do the task. You trowel the plaster on, spread it out, and smooth it out. Sometimes working on these projects gets discouraging. You want to stop, walk away, and forget about it. But as Mark wrote in his blog, 227NorthStreet, "Every day we did a little bit, and every little bit adds up to a lot of bits—and a lot, a lot, a lot of bits add up to a whole bit. We should live so long!" Luckily, we have the patience of elephants.

Sometimes we would get so burned out on a repetitive task like that, we’d take on something else for a bit just for fun and a change of pace. One day, Mark started refinishing the staircase just so he could work on something that was pretty. Of course, it was a much bigger job than he realized, and when he took it apart, it looked like a giant pile of Tinker Toys lying on the floor. Phillip had been on a conference call, and when he came out and saw it, the look on his face... It was the biggest disagreement we had during the project.

Some people say remodeling drives a couple apart. This wasn’t the case for us. We’ve always been of the same mind on things and we work well together. Sometimes we disagree on items—but we’ve always been able to discuss it and come to an agreement. However, there aren’t many things like that, because when it comes to matters of style, we generally agree.

– As told by Phillip Engel and Mark Goff

Up next: Things get cooking in the kitchen.