War is hell - and so is a chaos of renovations

War is hell -- and so is chaos of renovations

Like a bad fashion trend, dust and other irritants that come with renovating just never seem to go away

Karen Gram

The Vancouver Sun

Friday, August 06, 2004

CREDIT: Mark Van Manen, Vancouver Sun

Interior designer Rachel Brown helps The Sun's Karen Gram choose the right combinations to work in her 'soon-to-be' new kitchen.

Eighth in a series about Karen Gram's kitchen renovation. She's in the zone -- the construction zone. Last week, she watched the carpenters demolish everything recognizable in the room. Now, acting as her own contractor, she's coordinating the reconstruction.

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I hate the chaos, the dust and the realization that I can't expect the subtrades to be mind-readers, able to do my bidding without clear instructions.

Nuclear annihilation is worse, I am told, but living in a construction zone is way up there in terms of stress. And in ground zero, also known as our kitchen, I've already identified a couple of enemy agents.

We have it better than many, however. We have a kitchen in the basement and don't have to wash the dishes in the bathtub or cook everything on the barbecue. We even managed to move the portable dishwasher downstairs.

But like the evil organization that constantly bested Maxwell Smart and Agent 99 in the 1960s TV classic Get Smart, chaos is getting the better of me. Nothing is where it belongs.

Although we have put some things away in the cupboards downstairs, very little is in a place that makes sense. I can never find anything. And worse, it's a small kitchen, no match for all the stuff we had crammed in upstairs. It's far more cluttered than what we had upstairs and that was too much for me. I feel antsy just entering the room.

I also feel great sympathy for our former tenants, who had to live with the terrible lighting system we provided, a sink and faucet that is totally dysfunctional and a stove top that works only half the time. We actually thought it was a pretty good rental space. Now, in their shoes, our feet hurt.

Then there is the dust -- ubiquitous hardly describes it. It's like a bad fashion trend. You can't believe how ugly it looks, you think it won't last long and you try to ignore it. But then you start to wear it!

It didn't take long before I was wearing it in my hair, on my shoes, on big hand prints on my jeans. "This is bad," I thought to myself. Especially since I wasn't the only one wearing that dust. We all were leaving our mark wherever we went.

I figured getting away would help, so I packed up the kids and took off for the islands for a week. We had a marvelous time, kibitzing with my siblings, their spouses and kids, my dad and stepmom. We barely mentioned the kitchen, so laid-back were we. My husband Brian was supposed to come, but since we are the contractors, one of us had to wait for the electrician and come three days later.

It was on our return that I realized that, like trucker hats (a fashion trend my daughter Yette has just adopted), ignoring the dust doesn't work. Sooner or later, it's going to be in your face.

I became a veritable clean bee, mopping, wiping and vacuuming like mad. I felt super-virtuous, but also defeated. This was an enemy I doubted I could beat. It would always be lurking in the corners waiting for me.

In my hurried rounds before all the holiday gear came back into the house, all I could manage was to clean our regular pathways. So I insisted we stop traipsing through the construction dust on our way to other rooms. The kitchen is out of bounds unless you are a worker or are showing a worker around.

Now we have new pathways, complicated ones that go downstairs just to go upstairs, but it has made a huge difference. Except that the drywaller comes this week. We'll be washing the walls so the tape holding up the plastic dust barrier holds this time. We will be vigilant. But we will be defeated, I just know it.

Being the general contractor has been interesting. It's all about keeping the subtrades happy. For example, the electrician -- or "Sparky," as our Kiwi carpenter calls him -- doesn't want to have to cut through any drywall. He doesn't want to have to go digging for wires and he wants to know exactly where his boxes are supposed to go. The more prepared we are for him, the quicker (and cheaper) he can do his job and the happier both parties are. Nothing ticks off a subtrade more than showing up for a job that isn't ready for him.

Always ask the subtrade what he or she needs, advised Gerry (our behind-the-scenes contracting expert) before he went on vacation. Then make sure you do it.

General contracting takes a lot of phone calls -- bringing in the subtrades to look at the job, hiring them, giving them advance warning that they are soon to be needed, talking to them afterwards, calling back for any missed jobs or repairs. Most seem to want a couple of days' notice, but I am learning to ask. And I am still in the early stages. I've still got the flooring guy, the painter, the tiler and the glazier to work with. I sure hope I can hold up my end.

Brian has been working up a sweat correcting our small and medium-sized miscalculations. So far, he has saved us a bundle and kept us on schedule.

We're still due to be done, or almost done, by Aug. 27, just five weeks from demolition day. It could be worse.

I am having fun with the interior decoration, thanks to Rachel Brown of Simple, a Main Street interior design shop.

I am a novice when it comes to using the services of an interior designer. Now I know that more than just having good taste, interior designers are great shoppers. They know where the good stuff is and where it costs less. Sometimes they get discounts and sometimes, like at Simple, they pass them on to us.

Brown knew where to go for tiles (we wanted a bit of irregularity, so she got samples of handmade ones from Bullnose Tile and Stone on West Tenth) and lights (Light The Store is a great store with a great name on Cambie, where they have Canadian-made designer lights).

She had good advice about faucets and drawer handles and she had a knack for putting everything together to make it work. But she never imposed a style or a design. She just helped us figure out our own.

Now if I could just get out of this war -- I mean, construction -- zone so I could concentrate on all those pretty things.

 The Vancouver Sun 2004