Renovation of a circa 1903 Brooklyn Row House

Posted by Steve on Fri, 09/15/2006 - 11:00am

This blog is about the challenges of renovating an old Brooklyn, New York row house.

My last renovation project was the master bedroom, most of which is about finish carpentry. You can follow the progress here (or backwards in time if you prefer). You'll find other completed home improvement projects in the Renovation Photos in the navigation above.

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Hole In The Wall Cafe

Posted by Steve on Wed, 06/28/2017 - 11:26pm

Yeah, Cafe. Because there are several things on the menu... several tips from my tyromaniac's bag o' tricks.

First thing, I apologize for the long lapse in updating BrookynRowHouse.  Fact is, there haven't been anybuild-y things to talk about around here.  The house is just about done, and "just about" is the same as "done" in a DIYer's vocabulary.  So I don't promise to be more active here. I also accept the fact that my Google ranking has dropped like a pigeon dipped in plaster from its #1 position five years ago under "Brooklyn Home Renovation" to, hell, I don't even know where it is now.  Probably where they hide dead bodies

Anyway, a friend asked me a couple of years ago to write an article about fixing large holes in walls.  He had recently installed central air and wanted to remove all evidence of where the in-wall air conditioners used to be. IIRC, he had plaster-over-wood-lathe walls like me.  If you've read my blog you know that I prefer the look and sound control attributes of plaster better than drywall.  In a nutshell, I use drywall for new construction but I always repair existing plaster walls. 

Coincidentally, an air conditioning installation is why I have to repair these holes too. I had an 18,000 BTU split-unit air conditioner head installed in my living room and the installers had to open up some 10" holes in the wall to pull the copper, control line and drain.  I also replaced my absolute CRAP Fujitsu split unit system with a new Mitsubishi.  Warning: if you have a Fujitsu spilt unit system, the company doesn't stock parts for old products. Mine was only 12 years old when one of the compressors croaked yet Fujitsu America told me it couldn't help me. A local Russian A/C tech found a compressor for me in a shop in Moscow and it cost me nearly a thousand bucks!  But I'll end this rant for now.

The Mitsubish installer is Russian as well and gave me a great price for this three-head system.   He also did a very clean job.  The last guys took sledge hammers to the walls, which loosened the old plaster all over both sides of the wall.  These guys used an oscillating saw which makes very clean cuts, as you can see from the photos.  I'm happy to give them a recommendaton: EDITA MC CORP, Heating and Cooling, 646-719-4559.  NYC only though.

Product Warranties vs. The Big Chain Stores

Posted by Steve on Tue, 07/14/2015 - 11:05am

The NJ Tool Show is an annual event that my tool-nut friend and I eagerly anticipate all year. We get to see all the latest innovations in shop tools, from programmable laser cutters that sliced with such precision that they could duplicate a business card in 6 point type in a piece of oak veneer to shade tree inventions that seemed to have no practical use at all.  It's tool porn, no doubt about it.

At one of the shows, maybe 2001, I ducked outside into the freezing January weather to grab a smoke -- a habit I'm glad to say I kicked many years ago. Outside I met a district rep for a well-known German power tool maker. We chatted about the show and I expressed surprise not to see either Home Depot or Lowes in attendance. After all, both were huge tool retailers in the NYC area. He grunted and said that the worst decision his company had ever made was to bring in big chain stores as retailers for their products.

I commented on how much cheaper it was to buy tools from these stores than from dedicated tool stores like A.W. Meyer. "Guess it's their volume advantage, right?" He said I was correct, except not in the way I thought. These stores were able to use their clout as volume sellers to make the companies build models just for them, cutting corners to save costs. He said that's mostly why they're cheaper. "Wait. Are you saying that the same tool bought at a big chain store isn't the same as one bought at, say, Wankel's Hardware on 3rd Ave?" Yup.

Housing Inspections Ain't Insurance

Posted by Steve on Thu, 07/02/2015 - 12:57pm

Recently, I discovered a terrific binge-watching series on Netflix, Holmes Inspections. I don't care much for home improvement shows.  They're either too cute or too elementary or they leverage painfully poor architectural taste.  This Canadian show, features a general contractor, Mike Holmes.  What I like most about this show is that it focuses on fixing problems created by bungling contractors and overlooked by incompetent home inspectors -- two topics with which I strongly relate.  The show no longer airs on HGTV but fortunately there are a bunch of old ones streaming on Netflix now. They're a wake-up call for anyone looking to purchase a home, new or otherwise.

I learned my lesson about bad contractors years ago. It's why I try to do most of the work myself. It's taken me years but I've assembled a short list of professionals I trust when I encounter a job I can't handle myself. 

But the home inspection game is a crap shoot.  Your bank wants the house inspected before they'll approve the mortgage and finding one is usually on you.  Chances are, you're moving to an area where you don't know any trades, let alone any house inspectors.  What most people do is ask their realtor for a recommendation.  This is a huge mistake.  Your real estate agent isn't going to recommend anyone who could potentially queer the sale and the inspector probably has an ongoing business relationship with the agent he doesn't want to alienate.  So guess whose interests aren't being served? Yours.

Every episode on Holmes Inspections is about how new homeowners got screwed by a parade of shoddy existing construction and capped by a bad inspection which ended up costing them tens of thousands of dollars to fix.  Some of the examples are egregious, like missing stair railings, no plumbing or roof vents, obvious water damage and mold infestation and sagging porches which the inspector passed with a "well, it's an old home".  So wrong.

Holmes' show has obviously struck a nerve with Toronto-area home inspectors because at least one of them released a video attacking Holmes' credibility:  I suspect that this unnamed inspector was the featured bonehead in one of Holmes' episodes.  He nitpicks about how Holmes tested where a leak was coming from, using a garden hose.  Laugh all you want, buddy, butt it's a technique that waterproofing companies use as well.

Well, it's done.

Posted by Steve on Wed, 10/22/2014 - 12:55am

After three years in the making, the boiler epic finally wrapped today. I have a brand new, Williamson 140,000 BTU steam boiler.

Granted, it's not on the epic scale of Lord of the Rings but I think it took even longer to complete it.

This story began in 2011 with this tale of woe.  I had big plans about extending the house renovation by gettting rid of steam heating altogether and replumbing the house for hot water heat instead. 

It made sense to do this for several reasons.  First is that hot water heat is cheaper to run.  You're not heating a cauldron of water to the boiling point and having static pressure force steam evenly throughout the house.  

You don't have to concern yourself with the black art of air vent sizes and with water spills from stuck air valves or, worse, stuck float valves in the boiler.

You're not dependent on gravity for the return so you can heat basement spaces easily. You can zone your heat with a manifold, even solenoid driven ones that will let you have a wireless thermostat in every room.

Plumbing hot water heat is relatively easy too because you can use flexible Pex tubing and compression fittings.  It would give me the option of having a heated towel rack in the bathroom doubling as a radiator.  The current master bath has no heat (and a vented skylight... brrrr).

On the other hand, it would have meant ditching all seven existing steam radiators in the house and replacing them either with larger units or with more radiators... probably twelve. Even the DIY cost of doing this job would push the new heating plant installation into five figures.

My old boiler actually worked fine.  It was the autofeed -- a device that maintains the boiler's water level -- that broke.  Replacement was $1100-1500 and there was no guarantee that the boiler wouldn't croak the next day leaving me with both no heat and a useless mechanical autofeed. 

I probably could have nursed the old boiler untll warm weather by manually filling and purging the boiler every couple of days.  Then I could have started on building the new heating installation in the spring. 

But pragmatism and a good spreadsheet rules.  My new steam boiler is 82.9% efficient. Factoring in my current gas bill + the additional 12-13% efficiency of hot water heat + the current cost of natural gas, it looked like hot water heat would save me only about $200/year, and that's based on the old boiler's heating season costs.  It could be 30 years before I saw break-even.

So when Dennis Behan at Bay Ridge Plumbing gave me an estimate that beat the next lowest estimate by almost two thousand dollars, the decision made itself.  The bonus is that Dennis is a nice guy.  He even knocked another hundred bucks off his estimate today.

Dennis told me last week that he'd start the job Tuesday morning and be done by around 3pm.  True to his word, he did. 


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