Diary of a kitchen remodel, part 2

The walls come down and the cost goes up. So what else is new?

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Along with keeping a diary on the remodeling of her Oak Park kitchen, author Linda Downing Miller, above, leaves after-hour questions for her contractor in a job-site notebook. The temporary vertical supports await the replacement of the load-bearing brick wall with horizontal beams. At left, for the duration, the family kitchen has moved to the basement laundry room.



We were introduced to the saga of writer Linda Downing Miller's kitchen project in "Diary of a kitchen remodel: Year one and counting" [HOMEFRONT, March 9]. Demolition began on March 7. As
promised, here's the second of three parts.

Construction: Week one

The weekend before our kitchen remodel is scheduled to start, we pack and move the contents of our kitchen. Most of the stuff gets stashed in the "secret hideout" under the basement stairs. Our daughters will have to do without one for a few months.

We set up a temporary kitchen near the large utility sink in the basement. A small, back-up refrigerator becomes our main one, and we put our old microwave on top. I lay a piece of laminate countertop on the clothes dryer, where I can use a friend's electric skillet. Who needs a new kitchen?

Cereal in the basement on Monday morning is a novelty for our girls, ages 5 and 7. We wedge ourselves around a small, round table, in a square of space that housed the original owners' dry bar. We kept the kitschy roof, with its scalloped edge and multicolored stripes. I feel like I've wandered into a bad Mexican restaurant.

At 8:33 a.m., I get a call from New Era, our remodelers. They're loading up a truck and are on their way. A few minutes later, I meet our head contractor. He's back at work after a year spent recovering from a spinal cord injury. He seems in remarkably good spirits.

He quickly reports that our fuse box won't be sufficient for the new kitchen. We'll need an add-on box or a complete overhaulâ€"either one an added expense. (The electrical subcontractors will provide an estimate.) I have that stunned feeling I had when I first walked into Abt Electronics.

The workers hang up large plastic barriers to contain the destruction. Banging sounds commence, but I realize with relief that inside play dates are still safe for my kindergartner.

On day two, a huge truck delivers our Durasupreme cabinets. The workers pile the boxes into their section of the house. Soon after, I find a large bill on my front stairs. (A substantial payment is due on cabinet delivery.)

My temporary office space turns out to be directly over the work area, which makes concentrating a challenge. Debris falls into my temporary kitchen, directly under the work area. Making lunch is hazardous, but the workers do a nice job of cleaning up the mess by 5 p.m.

A big dumpster takes up residence on our side drive.

My husband takes pictures of the progress every evening and suggests he'll shoot a video next. I laugh, imagining the camera panning slowly over bare brick and wood, perhaps with an exciting narrative comment like, "the north wall." He explains the video would have practical value if we ever want to determine where pipes or studs sit beneath drywall. Okay, honey. I know he wishes he could be here during the live demolition.

We get a $1,000 estimate for the add-on electrical box. It's not as bad as I'd feared, but it seems the expense could have been anticipated. I'm also hearing we might need a column as well as several thick beams to replace the load-bearing wall that's about to be removed. I share my frustrations with the company's owner and ask for clarity. Can we do without a column? I want the eight ball to reply "it is certain," not "signs point to yes."

I get an answer later that evening. The calculations say "it is decidedly so."

Week two

We spend the weekend obsessing over the entryway between the dining room and family room. It was once a door to an exterior porch, with windows on either side. My husband converted the windows to open shelving.

At our first meeting, New Era's owner suggested we could widen the doorway and eliminate the shelving. We liked the idea of reducing clutter and adding a few inches of wall space. Now he seems to think it will be too much work for little gain. (The expense depends on the existence of a header beam.)

My husband takes a picture of the space and plays with the computer, "painting" drywall over parts of the image. I make fun of him and then try it myself. It's amazingly realistic. We rule out some alternative ideas and wait to hear about that beam.

On Monday, the workers are back on the job. Temporary supports go in. The bricks come down. Beams go up. A fine layer of dust settles on everything on the first floor and many things beyond. Through the back windows and around the boxes of cabinets, daylight reaches our future kitchen.

The head contractor warns me they'll need to make a hole in our half-bathroom ceiling to reroute something plumbing-related. An electrician reroutes something through an outlet in my guest bedroom/office and fiddles with the fuse box in the basement. Can't they just stay behind those plastic barriers?

We now get a realistic look at repair/refinishing requirements associated with our existing parquet floor, which covers the kitchen, eating area and family room. For "only $2,500 more," New Era offers us a new oak strip floor.

I initially chafe at the idea of voluntarily adding expense. My husband goes for the "only $2,500 more" line of reasoning. In a nice way, New Era's owner tells me parquet floors can seem a bit dated.

I picture people coming over to see our new kitchen and wincing at our hideously dated floors. I think of having new oak floors that match the ones in our living and dining rooms. I get a second estimate from the guy who put in those floors. It's a little lower, but I decide it will be easier and hopefully faster to use our existing remodeler.

We commit to the floors.

Week three

My husband gets sick over the weekend, feverish and coughing. I feel no sympathy. We have to cancel a friend's invitation to dinner.

To cheer myself up, I take the girls to Jewel and buy supplies for ice cream sundaes. We eat sundaes on Sunday and start a new tradition. I wonder if I will gain weight during the remodeling from eating too many convenience meals (not to mention sundaes).

Our dinner fare has settled into hot dogs and chicken brats, grilled cheese and tomato soup, microwaved frozen pasta meals, and take-out pizza. Sunday we cook chicken or pork on the grill. I buy salad and baby carrots in a bag, and we eat lots of fruit. To be honest, our diet probably hasn't changed all that much.

On Monday, my husband is well enough to straggle back to work. Our head contractor tells me the plumber has called in sick. He shows up a day later, followed by that hole in the bathroom ceiling. In the meantime, our contractor determines there is a steel header beam above the dining room/family room entryway. The owner calls me with what sounds like a pretty good price to transform it. He makes sure to tell me it's a very good price.

To make the floors and entry accessible, we crowd our family room furniture into the dining and living rooms. Walking through is still possible if you follow a narrow maze (and haven't just eaten a sundae).

Two electricians arrive toward the end of the week. Instead of the rock songs the demolition crew favored, Dr. Laura wafts through the vents in my office. All of a sudden, a lighting decision we've deferred (decorative lights over our future countertop) needs to be made. Our designer runs over a couple of ideas. I wish I'd had a little more notice, but we decide on the location of three pendant fixtures, to be selected at a later date.

On Friday, we leave our house in the hands of the electricians and head to my parents' for Easter weekend. When I tell my mom we decided to replace our floors, she tells me my dad will be happy. He thought we should replace them in the first place. I have to give him credit for not telling me beforehand.

Week four

It's spring break with the contractors. I'm lucky the weather's nice. My second-grader finally falls in love with her two-wheeler.

The electricians spend another whole day at our house and are still not done. This is not good. Our contract has an asterisk on the electrical line item that says "add for electrical clean-up and refeeds, if any."

On Wednesday, I get a full-page "change order" from New Era with estimates in writing for extra projects we initiated along with the extra subcontractor expenses. I learn that our electrical work had significant "clean-up and refeeds," to the tune of a couple thousand dollars. Plus the plumbing work is already over by a thousand.

The owner and designer explain it's fairer to charge for actual subcontractor expenses than to overcharge customers with inflated up-front numbers. They point out that some expenses can't be foreseen until the walls come down. They also say project surprises come early and that we shouldn't see (m)any more. (The status of the "m" is unclear.)

We're happy with the quality of the work and the reliability of the people getting it done. We wish we'd been better prepared for the range in possible costs. I scrap an extra bathroom venting project my husband had proposed. New Era's owner reluctantly agrees to patch the hole in the bathroom ceiling anyway. He also tentatively agrees to take care of another pending hole in our exterior brick, due to the removal of an old exhaust fan. We're sure we mentioned it. They don't normally do brick work.

Friday, our head contractor informs me we've passed the village's electrical, framing and plumbing inspections. This cheers me up. Apparently, he has an excellent track record. He also tells me our project is moving along well, and that he heard I'd written some sort of article.

There's something about good communication that really cheers me up.

Sentences from the final installment of the kitchen diary: "We waffle over another decision."

"I see light at the end of the basement."

"Has my life become my kitchen?"

Find out next month.

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