November 14, 2010

Plastic wrapping the historic window

The fellow we bought the house from 3 years ago was a house flipper. He did a ton of work to bring the place up to date, although most of what he did has a handhewn charm that wasn't up to the professional level we would have liked. One of the big improvements he did was replace the windows with modern, double-paned windows. Thank goodness.

For some unknown reason ($$$) he left 2 of the original windows. Maybe he thought they would act as a time capsule to demonstrate the historical origins of the house (which they do). But one of these beautiful, historical, woefully drafty windows is right off my office and is one of the reasons I am dressed in scarfs and gloves all winter.

In the Master Plan, the historical window and patio door will be replaced. We're going to knock out the entire wall they are on and fill in the side porch to create a dining room. So for now, it makes no sense to replace these windows. But... wrapping them in plastic wrap to reduce the draft is our low-tech solution to slowing down the breeze.

Eventually I see this beautiful window becoming recycled into yard art, or becoming a building block for a greenhouse.

October 5, 2010

Ye olde Koal-burning Hearthe

Part of the fun of having a historic home is having useless, yet beautiful items in key places in the home. Take for example, our nonfunctional coal-burning fireplace and chimney. When we bought the house, the chimney was vented with an opening at the top. This was odd, because my guess is that it's been at least 40 years since anyone used the coal burning stove for burning coal (or anything, for that matter).

When we replaced the roof we took the chimney down to the roof level and sealed it off. Given all the brick & chimney damage we could have had in January 2010 earthquake, this was probably a wise move. Plus, in October of the previous year, we had real live spooky spiders rapelling down the opening and into the living room.

The nonfunctinality of the hearth isn't a big deal. We place candles in the bottom and it's a nice effect. SOME DAY a nice gas (or wood?) stove that vents out the top would be amazing. And the heat would be nice too.

In the meantime, Mrs. Strubgrass has been refinishing the mantle, which is a lovely old growth redwood under about 7 layers of garish paint. She has removed most of the turquoise paint and "faux marbling effect" and is getting close to unveiling the original splendor of the Strubgrass hearth. When it's done, we'll spend the winter huddled together under blankets marveling at its beauty.

September 16, 2010

Front yard landscaping complete!

We installed the back row of boxwoods (which puts us at about 150, phew!) and can say that we're done with the front yard landscaping project! The plants are still looking a little dinky, BUT the boxwoods are starting to spread out a little - hopefully to create a nice leafy border and dimension to the front slope.

So far, maintenance has been low key. We opted to go without weed tarp (thinking it would cause mulch slippage, plus - I kind of hate the stuff) and so far, so good. there are some sneaky fireweeds (my nemesis!!) and clover, but a quick sweep about once a week has knocked them out so far. It's so much better to drive up to the Manor and see happy looking grasses & herbs, instead of the dreaded dead grass eyesore that got me in trouble!

August 23, 2010

Front Yard Landscaping in Progress

If anyone remembers "Church Ladies complain about my front lawn", they will be pleased to see that something is being done to reclaim the lumpy, weedy, mass that used to greet the neighborhood. Earlier this month, we hired some guys to come and dig out the fireweed, dandelion, and general funkiness out front. They hauled it all away and replaced it with composted manure.

Then we got to do the hands-on, fun stuff. Which included rounding up about 50 boxwood hedge plants (I think we bought all that were available in Humboldt), some lavenders, grasses, heathers (from Farmers' Market!), and twenty-three 2 1/2 gallon buckets full of small mulch. Then spacing out, planting, and putting mulch on the hillside.

July 6, 2010

Foundation planting

In April of this year, we ripped out some of the lawn bordering the front porch and put in some foundation plantings. The idea was to reduce the amount of lawn (it now takes 10 seconds less to mow the frontyard!) and to create an organic buffer to the tall Victorian foundation skirting.

Ripping out the grass by hand (with a maddock) was a challenge.. let's just say it was a good workout and I got to skip the gym for a couple days afterwards. We planted Mexican feather grass, California poppies, Rockrose, Heather, and some dogwood.

Before/during (including canine supervision):


June 14, 2010

I dream of a 3rd bedroom

This is a detail of Phase 4 - the addition of the 3rd bedroom (red walls are new). Our architect did a great job of figuring out how to reconfigure the potentially wierd addition into a hallway with good natural flow. The new back bedroom will be about twice as big as the tiny 8x8 office where I spend at least 9 hours a day!

This new bedroom also includes french doors onto a private deck. Maybe something like this cedar soaking tub will make its way into the master Plan?

May 25, 2010

Master plan completed!

After working with my architect buddy Julian off & on for the last few months, we've developed master plans for remodeling the existing house as well as a landscape plan for the sprawling backyard. The house plan is broken out into phases so we can do a little at a time (as time and $$$ permit).

The architectural plan involves several small additions. Phase 1 fills in the side porch to create a dining room and add some square footage to the master bathroom (btw: the current master bathroom is tiny, funky, potentially moldy, and despite bordering an outside wall, has no windows). Phase 2 is a small change that increases the size of the living room to accommodate Madam Strubgrass's grand piano. Phase 3 adds storage and a carport to the backyard off the alley, and Phase 4 adds bedroom 3 onto the back of the house. Phase 4 (adding a bedroom) might be the first project we complete for a couple of reasons. First of all, where are we going to put the babies (once we find out how to get them, of course) and also - resale value (for the house, not the babies).

We have no concrete dates for starting any remodel construction, but now that the plan is done we can move forward with landscaping (since we now know what areas of the house are going to expand, we can plan on not getting attached to anything we plant there.)

The master landscape plan really has me excited, especially because now we can get started on removing the lumps of dead grass that make up the frontyard. Plus - we can start to give shape to the huge rectangle of weedy grass in the backyard.

May 19, 2010

Goodbye, crappy dishwasher!

Thanks to some sweet rebate deals from PG&E, we have upgraded the (almost nonfunctional) Tappan dishwasher to a high-tech, super quiet, actually works Bosch dishwasher. There was no do-it-yourself this time. Installation was free, so how could we say no? At the risk of sounding like a total yuppie, this new dishwasher is amazing. Not only does it work and not make loud clanging noises, but it also matches. Now, I will fear no dinner party!

April 10, 2010

A Bounty of Parsnips

Holy crap yes! It's Arcata Farmer's Market season again. There's nothing like the first Farmer's Market of the year. I was inspired to harvest the remainder of the winter parsnips that were in the gardern to clear the way for the springtime planting bug. I love everything about these guys, espeically the carroty-potatoey smell. Before moving here, I had never eaten one or considered growing them. But they're so easy! This is going to be a parsnippy week.

March 19, 2010

Church ladies complain about my front lawn

Although I would like to take credit for the brown lump of dead grass that is our front yard, I would like to point out that it was like this when we moved in 2 & 1/2 years ago. The first year we lived here we were optimistic. We watered, fed, seeded, aerated, & said nice things to the slope, thinking it could be cured with a combination of lawn care products & plucky optimism. It showed signs of hope all spring until about June, when it became clear that our efforts were futile.

It didn't take long for us to give up the not-so-good fight. In year 2 of our residency, we adopted an environmentally-friendly attitude, and stopped watering altogether. We considered it a sign of green pride that we weren't wasting water on our lawn. This had the added benefit of letting it die off so we didn't have to mow. As you can imagine, it looked freakin' fantastic (not really).

Months later, I was at a "ladies tea luncheon" with my mother over christmas when one of the ladies politely (kind of) said to me,

"Oh! Your house is looking great! except for that lawn (tisk) - looks like you have some work to do! Have you thought about fixing that?"

I could be indignant and say she was being rude, but she's right. The curb appeal of the house is stymied by the washed-out dirt patch that greets passerby.

Now that we're on year 3, we are ready to realize our dream of drought-tolerant, slope-friendly, low-maintenance plants to replace the grass. We want something interesting, non-invasive, beautiful, yet hardy. Is that too much to ask? California poppies, sage, Ceanothus? Plus, what do we have to do to prepare the washed out soil for new plants.


March 4, 2010

Death to weeds

Just spent my entire lunch break plucking dandelions out of the lawn with my trusty Grandpa's Weeder. Pulling weeds out via this method is actually very satisfying in an outdoorsy, obsessive compulsive sort of way.

March 1, 2010

Kitchen Before & After: the Final Chapter

Finally - some completed "After" photos. Here's what we did:
- New countertop
- New tile backsplash
- New hardware on cabinets
- New sink & faucet
- Painted walls & cabinets
- New range
- Added Multi-pure water filter
- New electrical outlets (no more 2/3 cut off outlets! I can now sleep at night!)

February 23, 2010

Kitchen Before & After: Part 4

Tile Backsplash Installation

After drooling over Heath Ceramics tiles for several months, we decided that their colors, although beautiful, were just too earthy for the look we were going for. We decided on a gray and white glass subway tile with a random-looking horizontal pattern. You can see my review of the tile on

Picking the tile was easy compared to the royal pain in the ass that installing it was. After viewing a few DIY Network videos on installing tile backsplashes and double checking that our math was mostly correct, we enlisted the help of friends & family (particularly my dad - who, poor guy, had no idea what he was getting himself into). We figured 2 & 1/2 days was more than enough time to complete the project (considering they said in the video that it would take a couple of hours). We underestimated a bit. Here's how it actually went down:

Day 1: Removed the infamous 2/3rds switchplates and outlets. Cut & installed backerboard.

Day 2: Placed 1-foot tile blocks in piles on the counter and figured out where they were going to go. Rented tile cutter.

Day 3: Took tile cutter back after realizing it was too weak for our beefy glass tiles. Rented new, more expensive tile cutter. Started cutting tile. Cut tile all day (thanks Papa!). Mixed thinset. Realized thinset mixed a little too thin. Re-read directions. Poured out thinset. Remixed to correct specifications. Started placing thinset, then tile on backerboard. Realized this is a 4 - 6 hands type of job. Enlisted more friends & neighbors.

Day 4: Finished placing tiles in 1-foot blocks along backerboard.
Note: glass tiles are heavy and like to slide down once you place them on a vertical surface. 2nd person needed to hold tiles in place while thinset dries.

Day 5: Grouted, grouted, grouted. Realized that fingers worked better to apply grout than any tools we had purchased. Sponged off excess, sponged off excess and then sponged it off some more. Applied band-aids to blistered and bleeding fingers.

Day 6: Cracked open a beer and enjoyed the beautiful new tile backsplash! I expect Dwell Magazine to be knocking on our door begging for a photo shoot any day now.

February 19, 2010

Kitching Before & After: Part 3

Kitchen Mini-Renovation

Although it was exciting to have a blank slate, it was a tough decision to choose the material of the new counter. We wanted the look and feel to reflect the informality of a cottage kitchen, but match the Victorian vibe of the house overall. I also wanted the counter to be made from a slab that was one whole piece to create a solid feel.

Granite? Too trendy. Also, too cold. Butcherblock? Too much potential for mold/funkiness. Tile? Maybe.. but it was so satisfying to rip out the old tile, it didn't feel like a good permanent solution. Concrete was also in the running, but of course the artisanal, locally-produced concrete we wanted runs upwards of $4,000 for our modest kitchen.

The solution turned out to be PaperStone, a composite of recycled paper and nut resins. It's eco-friendly, warm to the touch, and comes in giant 5x12 sheets that are cut to fit with minimal seams. Plus, the installer can create custom beveled edges and grooves. The friendly folks at the Alternative Building Center in Eureka hooked us up.

A new range, sink, and faucet were also part of the renovation. A lucky trip through the Sears appliance section yielded a stainless steel Bosch gas range that someone had returned. The $1,100 range was ours for $450. Score! Thanks to, a new stainless steel sink and sweet Grohe faucet were also in the works.

With the fugly tile, backerboard, and mysterious 2/3 switchplates removed, we were ready for our countertop guy to get cracking on the Paperstone.

February 17, 2010

Kitchen Before & After: Part 2

Why is it always so much easier to take something apart than put it back together? Borrowed some crow bars and hammers from the neighbors and started chipping away. This only took a couple of hours. The tile practically fell away from the backerboard (it must have known how ugly it was).

If you look closely, you can see the black mold to the upper left of the state-of-the-art Tappan dishwasher.

February 11, 2010

Kitchen Before & After: Part 1

When we moved in the kitchen was a charming yellow, which over time became a sordid, dingy yellow. Whoever installed the tile countertops did a pretty half-assed job. There were gaps where food and water could get in, leaving areas of frightening slime mold that I tried not to look directly in the eye. The tile itself had a "granite effect" in which the manufacturer stamped faux granite-like ribbons which mismatched to create a dizzying optical illusion.

Interestingly, the tile installer before us had brought up a partial backsplash which cut into the region where the electrical switchplates should be. Instead of cutting the tile to go around the electrical outlets, he cut the bottom third off the switchplates. I'm not sure how this passed inspection - I guess there was nothing really wrong with this. You be the judge.

January 21, 2010

First Things First

The Inspector said there were weak spots in the roof. The kind of weak spots where water, debris, insects, slugs (my personal "ew" was for the slugs) could get in. Plus anyone walking on the roof could fall in (the Inspector seemed personally invested there). So the rush to replace the roof before a Northern California winter was on.