Home ownership is this:
Fourth of July. Outside the air is a dry 88 degrees, breeze out of the southeast, flag fluttering in its brass bracket on the front porch. My two kids are in the backyard trying to rig a zipline from the tree fort to the swing set. My wife is making iced tea and packing some boxes to store in the attic.
Me? I'm up here in said attic. I don't know how hot it is, but it feels like at least 150 degrees, and there's certainly no breeze out of the southeast or anywhere else. It's a long weekend, and I'm using the string of days to reinsulate my attic and lay down a plywood floor. I'm wearing Dickies (the ultimate work pant), a long-sleeved T-shirt (Grumpy's, a tavern in Ketchum, Idaho), and unbreathable Tyvek coveralls. Invisible flecks of pink fiberglass insulation float in the hot, dense air, looking for my skin. They sting my neck and wrists. My paper ventilation mask smells like the breath of a dog that has just eaten a tuna sandwich with a side of dead mouse. Sweat flies off my face and drips into my eyes and off the brim of my cap. I think I can hear the faint laughter of my children playing outside, but it might just be the sound of fiberglass splinters scratching my brain. I see visions of them running through the grass, or maybe that's just the deranged wasp that keeps flying into my safety goggles.
So this is home ownership, I'm thinking.
These moments happen to everyone, do-it-yourselfers or call-the-plumber types alike: You hate your house, you hate yourself for buying it, you hate heat or water or the bitter cold or whatever it is that's assaulting your dwelling this time. You just want everything to work so you can sit down and watch a meaningless baseball game on TV. And you consider, briefly, the fact that you are but a speck of dust in the universe fi a problem that doesn't matter to mankind but that nonetheless must be fixed.
Today's problem began a couple of months ago, when senior editor Roy Berendsohn and I, with help from contributing editor Richard Romanski, installed a set of spring-loaded, pull-down stairs in my attic, the kind that disappear into the ceiling. We figured it would take the better part of a day. But when you start peeling back the layers of a house—any house, but especially one built in 1854—you find that nothing is going to take the amount of time you thought it would. You can generally take your initial estimate and multiply it by 3.5. Then add a couple of hours.
We planned to install the attic stairs over my home's main staircase. I wanted the bottom step of the extended fold-down stairs to rest neatly on the landing at the top of the main stairs, but the location of an antique light fixture foiled my plan. The attic stairs, once unfolded, would in fact be dangling in midair, suspended. Obviously not an option. Nevertheless, we stared at the scene for a good hour, looking for some other way. This is one of the hallmarks of home remodeling: When an unforeseen obstacle renders your plan undoable, your brain doesn't know how to accept it at first, because you had one vision in your mind, so you spend forty-five minutes to an hour just staring.
Roy said something like, "I don't suppose you'd want to put it in the bedroom?"
Roy. Always thinking outside the vestibule. Of course! My son's bedroom had plenty of room to install and then pull down the stairs. So we walked into his room and stared at the ceiling for about an hour, trying to get used to the new plan, thinking it through. Every once in a while we'd measure something. Maybe make a pencil mark on the ceiling. That's another remodeling routine: stare, measure, mark, stare. Discuss.
Then it was lunchtime.
After the meatball sandwiches, we moved all the furniture out of the room. We hung sheets of plastic everywhere. We laid cardboard on the floor. We had one guy in the attic—at this point accessible only through a ceiling hole in another room that you reached by climbing a stepladder and hoisting yourself up through, like a gymnast mounting a balance beam—and one guy in the room. I christened the Milwaukee Sawzall my brother gave me for Christmas, cutting a perfect rectangle in the ceiling according to the stair manufacturer's specifications. And when we went up through the hole into the attic and examined the situation, this is what we discovered: My house was probably built by drunken elves using twigs and branches they found in the woods, which they cut to length by chewing them.
It was unbelievable. Ceiling joists with the tree bark still on them. Ceiling joists that weren't long enough to reach from roof rafter to roof rafter, so they were sistered to another piece of wood to complete the journey—which, of course, led to wildly erratic spacing between the joists: twenty-four inches on center, then twenty-six, then nineteen. In the corners and other oddly shaped spots, the builders had nailed together scraps of wood at bizarre angles. Sometimes the homemade lumber was nailed to nothing at all. The joists themselves were mere 2 x 4s, not the requisite 2 x 8s, or at least 2 x 6s, you'd use today. And they were 2 x 4s of unequal dimension, no two alike.
And yet: There we were. Standing in a house that itself had been standing for 160 years, through blizzards and hurricanes, through multiple generations of multiple families, through the introduction of electricity and plumbing, through ice and heat and heavy rain. Somehow, here it was.
When my home was built, many balloon-framed houses were constructed using whatever wood was available within walking distance, and the 2 x 4s in mine, uneven though they were, had been milled from solid, dense hemlock. The nails were cut steel. The more closely we looked at the house's construction—and we looked at it very closely, because you can't even stand up in the attic, so our noses were practically pressed against the floor and walls and underside of the roof—the more we realized that whoever built this house may not have had the finest materials available, but he was remarkably resourceful at assembling what he had.
Because we had sawed through two of the joists holding up the ceiling in my son's room, we had to reframe the hole, adding crossmembers to make up for the lost strength. For this we used fresh 2 x 4s doubled up to the existing joists, perpendicular ones at either end of the hole, and 2 x 6s laid flat and screwed into the joists to pull them together. Then we hoisted the stair unit into place—backwards, of course, the first time, which necessitated pulling it down and flipping it around. We fastened it to our new framing with construction screws. Then we patched the ragged edges of the hole with joint compound and added trim to cover the seam. My sons sat in the corner of the room, giving periodic thumbs-ups. All of this took until after dinner on day two of the project, but we did it.
Two months later, when I finally had that three-day stretch provided by the Fourth of July weekend, I drove over to Ridgefield Supply, my excellent local hardware store/lumberyard/everything center, to talk to Tom Cicero, one of the store's all-knowing salesmen. Tom is a dry guy, and I could tell he thought I was insane for insulating my attic over the hot holiday weekend. He was also concerned about the fact that any flooring I put down over the insulation would crush some of the fibers, compromising its effectiveness. Tom and I finally came up with a plan that would minimize fiber smashing while maximizing the R-value of my attic insulation from whatever it was to at least nineteen, respectable for my part of the country.
I was glad I hadn't dragged Roy into this, because I'd felt bad enough that our attic-stairs project had turned into such a bear. Now, though, I wished he could see it. The attic was starting to look like something. Fresh, pink clouds of insulation in tidy rows, and a network of plywood creating a sturdy floor for storage. I was proud, but I was also drenched and felt like I'd been clocked in the knees and worked over with wet sandpaper.
A half-hour shower later, I walked outside. The temperature was pushing 90, but it felt cool and crisp after hours in the hot attic. I joined my boys for some backyard soccer and an intense game of monkey in the middle. Inside, my wife was marinating some steaks for dinner. I lit the Weber, poured myself a drink, and sat on the picnic table admiring some bugs my six-year-old son had collected and put in his pocket. And I thought, this is what home ownership is.
This story appears in the October 2015 Seniorhelpline.