Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Delay Number Two: The Tour

We hadn’t completely arrived at the final decision regarding what to do about the house when the tour that we have been doing for the past three years began again in September. We desperately needed the paycheck from this gig because we had to make all kinds of purchases and had not been reimbursed by the insurance company for anything yet. Our credit cards were uncomfortably close to being maxed out for a while there. And doing the tour again seemed like a good way for us to prove to ourselves that we could keep the fire from upsetting other aspects of our existence. Boy were we wrong about that!

Doug convinced me that we would be able to use the long bus rides to plan whatever it was that we were going to do next with our house. There was no way to predict how other people would react, or not react, to our situation and eventually we both realized that we should have just stayed home to deal with everything. We could have easily earned the same amount of money from the mouthpiece business if we'd thrown ourselves into that. But we had previously gotten so much pleasure from doing this tour together and we just weren’t ready to quit. So we did what we could with the small amount of time that we had. There were many distractions and we didn't really get going on the plans until we returned home, just before Thanksgiving.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Delay Number One: What Should We Do Now?

It took the insurance company forever to figure out whether our settlement would be based on tearing down the house and replacing it with a new one, or repairing what remained. Either of these options would have taken only about six months to complete, and the insurance company would have taken care of everything.

I will not elaborate on the discussions and planning processes that caused us to head in our current direction, but the insurance company's decision to restore our house is what led us (one more willingly than the other) to decide to do something a little different with the insurance settlement.

There would have been some complicated code issues with our old basement that had nothing to do with the fire settlement and they would need to be taken care of first (out of our own pockets) if we chose to go the normal route. It would have been expensive and not financially feasible for us at the time. I suggested a home equity loan, but Doug had other things in mind.

Doug decided that we should tear down the old house and make our addition into a smaller, nicer house and that we really had no other reasonable choice. Hmm. So okay..... I did actually like the idea of a smaller house. After living with the actual structure of the addition plus our house all of those years, I had begun to realize that the whole thing was really going to be much too big for us unless we opened up a boarding house or something.

But at the same time I also didn’t like the idea of tearing down a house that dates back to the 1870s. I think old houses are special and should be saved whenever possible. I really liked the idea of ending up with a fully restored version of my house. It was kind of crappy and run down before, so a refurbishment would have been great, and so much better than it had been. That would have been enough for me. They even said I could change the floor plan around a little bit. And it would be finished in about 6 months. ONLY SIX MONTHS. I really missed my old house and was so sad that it had burned down and I really just wanted to move back into it as soon as possible.

In spite of all this, I reluctantly agreed to go along with Doug’s crazy new idea. But I remained very unhappy about the circumstances which caused this decision to need to be made.

Sunday, September 4, 2005


Our house was completely gutted by a very destructive fire on February 11, 2005. The inside of our house where we actually lived was declared a total loss. We were devastated. We lost all of our personal possessions, furniture, and clothing. Fortunately the fire did not go into the addition so our musical equipment survived.

Doug found the photo shown above online. According to the newspaper, it took 85 firefighters 40 minutes to get the fire under control. I don't think there were 85 firefighters there, but I was in no shape to do a head count. They were definitely there for at least an hour and probably closer to two.

This is what the inside of our house looked like. Everything was demolished. The plaster all came off of the walls. The bedroom area was completely gutted although the basic structure was still there. In the kitchen, dining room and bathroom everything was heat and smoke damaged. The whole house was completely soaked with water and the ashes were a foot and a half deep in places. The stuff that didn't burn all the way was lying in a mishmash on the floor in every room. There was a bunch of melted plastic all over the place too. It was disgusting.

This wooden dresser didn't burn all of the way through, but the clothes inside were still damaged beyond repair. Throughout the house, the wooden furniture remained structurally somewhat recognizeable, but all of the particle board cabinets and bookcases completely disintegrated and their contents were burned beyond recognition for the most part.
If you are truly dying to read about all of the gory details you may do so here.

Saturday, September 3, 2005

1997 - 2004 Our Studio/Shop is no more

In February of 1997 I went out on my very first cruise ship gig for a 5 month contract. When I came back the studio smelled terrible. It seems that Maria, the feral cat, had now taken up residence in the attic of the studio, and wasn’t going outside to pee anymore because it was just too much trouble to climb all the way down the ladder that Doug had put up for her to get to the ground. So yuck! Fortunately by then I had pretty much decided to stop teaching piano and just be a bass player so I didn’t have students coming anymore. That certainly was an interesting and disgusting way to finalize my career change.

By the end of 1997, Doug had decided that it was just about time to tear down the studio and mouthpiece shop building, so while he was out on his holiday cruise, I painted the OSB in the designated music area of the addition a lovely shade of blue and put up curtains and then my parents helped me put down some wall-to-wall carpeting that had previously been in their living room. Then I had my pianos moved into the addition and I gradually brought in all of the other stuff. It ended up looking pretty nice, and about as cushy as a halfway finished space like this could be.

At this point I began to realize that this new set up was going to exist for much longer than what could accurately be called temporarily. I settled in for the long haul and Doug moved his shop into a work space about 5 miles away. The outbuilding was finally torn down during the spring of 1998.

Somewhere in there we ran out of money and time for additional construction. We had both quit our “day jobs” to freelance and to spend more time on the mouthpiece business. It began to do pretty well, but there was not a lot of extra time to work on the house. The framing of the walls was in place, but that was it. I used the main floor of the addition in this unfinished condition for another seven years for practicing and rehearsals.

My new music space was big, and wide open, and stayed surprisingly warm in the winter. The entire addition was heated with one radiator on each floor which Doug had hooked up to the system in the main part of the house. It was warm enough that we only needed to supplement with space heaters on the very coldest days. There were all kinds of air leaks around the windows since they didn't have any finish trim and yet it still stayed relatively warm. And in the summer it didn’t get too hot either, especially after we installed a window air conditioner. These foam core panels really do insulate amazingly well!

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Foam Core Fantasy: The Early Years

In the fall of 1992 my beloved maple tree was chopped down and the back porch room which served as our laundry room was torn down to clear the way for the new basement. The foundation was poured in November of 1992 and the cinderblock basement walls were built early in 1993. The basement walls are extremely solid - the cinderblocks were reinforced with rebar and then filled with concrete. The basement of the old part of the house has a separate wall, so the old basement and the new basement do not connect.

The rest of the early part of the process is somewhat of a blur to me. I was not very involved in the construction and most of my memories are related to being worried about the progress and also about Doug’s safety. Doug had hired a friend who was going to be doing most of the work. I believe that he and his crew assembled most of the floors and the walls and Doug put in the windows, with occasional help from me. I had so many students that I was not available to help him much.

WALKING TO WORK (1992-1996)
One of my main memories of the construction involved the changes that affected my daily trips out to the studio to teach. At first I had to go out the front door and walk through the mud all the way around to the back on our newly dug, but not yet paved, driveway.

When I got back from my “Meet Me In St. Louis” tour in 1993, the new basement walls were up and the quickest way to get out to the studio was to walk very carefully on top of the 8 foot high, 12 inch wide cinderblock walls to a 2x8 board that went over the trench between the addition and the remaining asphalt outside the studio. The trench was there so that Doug could do waterproofing work so that we would always have a dry basement. That trench did not get filled in until many years later.

It was super scary walking on the wall, partly because of the height, but mostly because there were a bunch of rebar spikes sticking up out of the cinderblock and it was very easy for a shoelace to get caught on the rebar. Fortunately that happened to me only once. Believe me, it hurt. Eventually I got used to it and became skilled at both balancing and avoiding the spikes.

A few months after that the main floor was installed and the trip became quick and easy and was no longer like a balance beam with spikes. Yay!

After the second floor went on I finally had a roof over my head as I went out to teach, but there weren’t any windows yet, so it was kind of like walking through a cold dark cave between the house and the studio.

Somewhere in there Doug started food out for a feral cat that had been hanging around and her health immediately improved and she then immediately became pregnant. She and her two young sons lived in our addition for that winter and well into 1995. I would say hello to them every day on my way out to teach. They would just look at me. They were not particularly friendly.

Doug was very fond of Maria. He thought she was so cute and he really wanted to be her friend. She would let him come up to her, but would always quietly hiss when he extended his hand towards her or came too close. Doug said he named her Maria because she loved to sit outside listening to “The Sound of Music” (Bach, Beethoven, etc.) coming from my studio. Isn't that sweet. I said if I had named her Maria it would have been because of the song “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria”. Isn't that mean?

Anyway I thought it was a really bad idea to put out cat food for feral cats, racoons, and who knows what else, and I really did not enjoy dealing with the subsequent problems, including additional litters. I’m not going to mention everything that happened as a result of this except to say that I had to make a couple of very traumatic visits to the Humane Society. Eventually we used a Hav-a-Heart cage to capture Maria so that I could take her to the vet to have her tubes tied. She remained Doug's outdoor feral pet cat for about another five years or so after that. I think she lived much longer than most feral cats do.

In 1994, right around the time that the roof structure needed to be built, Doug’s friend had a family situation arise that made it impossible for him to continue working on our house. So Doug had to come up with a way to assemble the roof himself, without a crew of helpers. The roof panels were 8 ¼” thick and 4’ by 16’. They weighed about 200 pounds each. It was pretty frightening watching him work with these panels. It was difficult to help because he was figuring it out as he went and most of the helping involved standing around watching him do scary and dangerous looking things. Occasionally someone else would come by to help him with the roof, like Doug’s brother and our friend Wade. But I think common sense kept most people away. The roof construction was definitely the most difficult and scary thing that Doug has ever done. It was a major accomplishment.

So how in the world did Doug manage to get all of these huge panels assembled into a roof way up there? It was really quite amazing. First he built all of the roof supports using a structure system made up of collar ties which he came up with all by himself. It was kind of unusual looking, but the structural engineer approved it. These collar ties are much more supportive than they need to be and it is comforting to know that we have such a sturdy roof.

Doug figured out a way to lift the 200 pound panels up to the top of the third floor using two very heavy duty chain hoists. For structural reasons the roof panels were attached to one another with 2 x 8s. Maybe at some point Doug will be able to provide more technical details as to exactly how he accomplished this dangerous mission, but at the time I was just relieved that he survived it.

My enthusiasm for this project was definitely tainted by the constant fear that Doug would eventually injure or kill himself. One day as we were headed out for sushi, he tripped over a circular saw that he had left lying on the ramp over the trench just outside of the back door of the addition. He fell into the trench and banged his chin on the way down. His tooth actually went into his lip on the inside. After it stopped bleeding he thought he was okay, so we continued on to the sushi place and had a nice meal.

By the time we were finished it was swelling up pretty badly and I told him that whether he liked it or not our next destination was going to be the emergency room. I think they said they would have put in a stitch or two if we had come sooner, but it had already begun to heal by the time he got there.

He wasn’t able to play for a couple of weeks, and he had a scar tissue lump in his lip for months after that. Of course Doug just simply made himself a special plastic mouthpiece rim to accommodate the lump and he was able to play just fine after that. Eventually the lump totally went away. And he still leaves his tools lying around all over the place.

ONE ROOF IS NOT ENOUGH - not for Doug anyway....
After Doug got all of the roof panels in place he put down a bunch of 2x4s and built an additional plywood layer on top of the original roof panel structure, creating what is known as a cold roof. He read about this in the Journal of Light Construction. The main purpose of a cold roof is to allow air flow under the shingles which will prevent ice dams from forming. Ice dams are the number one cause of roof leakage after it snows. The snow on our addition melts very evenly as a result of having this cold roof, so it will never leak as a result of an ice dam. Isn’t that great?

During 1995 and 1996 all of the windows were installed. The process of installing windows into foam core panels will be described later. Finally, in the fall of 1996 we got a permanent back door with a real lock. For a while we had a makeshift door that Doug had made out of an extra foam core panel. It didn’t lock, but it sort of kept out the weather.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Planning the Addition (1991)

By 1991 we had begun to outgrow the outbuilding. Doug needed more room for all of the lathes he had been acquiring, and he also wanted a music space that would be large enough to host big band rehearsals. Cyndy also needed a larger space for piano teaching and performance classes.

We met with a architect who helped us design a 24’ x 44’ three story addition connected to the house with a 12’ x 20’ section which would contain a centrally located new stairwell. The basement of this addition would contain Doug’s shop, the main floor would be a large open performance space with teaching areas for both Cyndy and Doug, and the top floor would contain a master bedroom area, a laundry room, and an addition bedroom and bathroom. Our old house was heated by radiators, but it had many deficiencies in the insulation department, starting with the wadded up newspapers in the walls.

Doug became interested in having the new addition be as energy efficient as possible and decided that building it with foam core panels would be the best way to accomplish that. People in the homebuilding business were not too familiar with it at the time, but Doug did the necessary research to enable the architect to design it and to get the plans approved.

Foam core panels consist of 6 ½ inches of EPS (expanded polystyrene) foam sandwiched between sheets of ½ inch OSB (oriented strand board). The standard panel size is 4 feet by 8 feet, but we got 10 foot panels so that we could have high ceilings. Each panel is solid foam except for two horizontal chases and one vertical chase per panel. These chases are hollowed out of the styrofoam by the manufacturer so that electric wires can be run through them. Most of the panels attach to each other with OSB splines and a bead of caulk to seal between the foam of each panel. The construction techniques result in a very solid house - probably more solid than it sounds – and it has an extremely high "R" value.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Life Before Foam Core (1985-1990)

About 20 years ago we bought a cute little old farmhouse with a finished outbuilding in the back. Our property was on a half acre lot on a two lane country road with two vacant lots next door. The front part of the house was built in the 1870s and the back half was added in 1946, which we are guessing because of the wadded-up newspapers that had been used for insulation in the walls. The couple that sold it to us had purchased it in the 1950s and raised seven children there. There were three bedrooms upstairs, one of which contained two sets of bunk beds for the four boys. The parents slept downstairs in a filled in room that used to be part of the wraparound front porch which later became our bedroom as well.

This house seemed perfect for us, because we liked the idea of living in an old house and because the outbuilding was just right for a piano teaching studio and Doug’s mouthpiece shop. We also loved the fact that there was a paved parking area right outside and only one step up into it the outbuilding. And Cyndy adored the beautiful old maple tree that grew between the building and the house.

We did a lot of work on the house for several years after we moved in. We added a wall and french doors between the living room and the hallway so that we could make it into a bedroom. We made the laundry room off of the kitchen into a bathroom and moved the washer and dryer into the mud room. We took down the pine paneling in the dining room and put up normal wallboard instead. We replaced all of the 1940s super-leaky windows with brand-new energy-efficient Anderson windows.

And then to truly make the house our own, we decided to paint it a new color. I wanted to paint it blue, but Doug thought pink would be more fun. I guess it reminded him of all the pink houses in Bermuda where we took our honeymoon. So we copied the deep dusty rose color from an old Victorian house in Rockville and I spent the entire fall painting. The following year I scraped and painted the trim. The previous paint was so old and thick that I had to take it down to bare wood with a heat gun. That was a lot of scraping and sanding! It took me the entire fall to get all of the trim scraped, sanded, primed, and painted, and the house looked great for about seven years. The surrounding area didn't look so great because they were widening the road in front of our house.