The Atrium

One of the features of our house that we really like is the center atrium.  We never really had a vision for the atrium though, it just sort of evolved.  Here’s what we had to work with when we moved in:

(view from the office):

The very first project we tackled in the atrium was to lower the planters. The dirt was held in by the bricks and the level was almost flush with the top of the bricks- a few inches HIGHER than the siding and window sills.  Our pest inspector had pointed out that having dirt up to the wood window sills and siding was not good (burying wood in dirt eventually turns the wood into dirt… and it makes it easier for termites to get to the wood)- the soil level should be 3-6″ below the siding/sills.  Before we could lower the dirt, however, we had to remove the white marble rocks that surrounded all of the plants.  Andy’s mom did this project on the weekend we moved in (she is very industrious!).  Next, we started de-foresting.  We began by transplanting the ferns to the back yard but we kept some of the tropical plants including all of the birds of paradise plants (we moved two from the back yard into the atrium). Our de-forestation efforts cleared enough way that we could start removing dirt.  As we did this, we noticed quite a bit of wood damage.  The bottom 2-3″ of the east wall of the atrium (the one next to the long planter) was rotted, as was the windowsill on that wall. There were also a couple patches about 12″ square on that wall that had rotted. Our initial plan was to replace the siding on the entire wall- and since that would be about $400 worth of siding, we put the project on hold.

Next, we replaced the lighting in the atrium- previously there was a one fixture that was wired with an old extension cord that went through the boiler exhaust vent to tap into the light in the laundry room, and another that piggy-backed off that one (again, hard wired with an old extension cord) that showcased the fountain in the corner.  Both were replaced with two matching minimalist fixtures (Home Depot Clearance) centered on the long wall of the atrium.

Once it started to get hot last summer, we quickly learned that our atrium was serving as a green house (hence the lush plant life).  One particularly hot July day it was about 90 degrees outside and 120 degrees in the atrium.  Since we were borrowing my brother-in-law’s truck and the atrium cover was old, cracked, and leaky anyway, we decided it would be a fun afternoon project to remove the covering of the atrium.

Not only did that make it much more pleasant on summer days, it also gave us a view of the hills from our dining room.

The next project we tackled was the sliding door between the garage and the atrium.  You can read about that project here.  This picture shows how you could see into the garage from the atrium (it’s also a regal picture of Honey Brown staring at her food!):

To patch the atrium side of the wall, we got 2 sheets of thinline Beckenridge Eichler Siding from Jeff, the Eichler Siding guy.  It was a bit tricky to install and we ended up with a 1/2″ gap between the new and existing siding- but it was nothing that a fresh tub of wood putty couldn’t handle 🙂

A pretty painless project was to add some privacy to the tall narrow window adjacent to the front door.  Previously it was completely transparent allowing someone to see clear into our house from the street:

I simply covered it with transparent contact-paper using a spray bottle and squeegee method:

Clearly, a new frosted window would be nice- but you can’t really beat a $6 fix (from Target) that takes an hour!  It even fooled a neighbor (who has an AWESOME house in our model) who was tempted to try it on her own window!

Speaking of contact paper, we needed to find a slightly classier solution to our don’t-run-into-the-glass-door problem than what we currently had in place:

(wait for the solution, I don’t want to give away everything yet!)

The biggest transformation came in the spring when we decided to plant hops (the kind that goes into beer) along the long wall in the atrium.  We had limited time before the hop vines would be climbing up the wall, so we had to do something to repair the wall of siding which had several rotted spots and a rotted bottom.  Rather than replace all of the siding, we decided to do some patching.  We had extra siding from where we replaced the sliding door on the other wall, so the smaller patches were pretty straight forward.  For the bottom 2-3″ of siding that was rotted all the way across the wall (from having dirt against it for years), Andy simply trimmed off the rotted part (plus about 1-2″ for a total of 4″) with his circular saw, installed a long strip of wood (that looks like a baseboard) and siliconed the heck out of everything.   Andy is a master at carpentry and I am a master at wood putty and paint, so once everything was painted, it was hardly noticeable as a “patch”.  Once we got that wall patched and painted, Andy installed some steel wire for the hops to climb and I got to work prepping (scraping and sanding away a LOT of old paint and caulking lots of gaps) and painting (Behr “creek bend”) the rest of the atrium.  Here she is now:

As you can see, it’s a perfect place to relax, drink some coffee and read.  Especially with some machine generated relaxing nature sounds.  We thought about getting a fountain for ambient noise, but this is much cheaper and easier to maintain!

Here’s our new view of the hills from the dining room:

You’ll notice that we don’t have nearly as many tropical plants as we started out with… some were badly sun burnt when we removed the plastic top from the atrium, some died from a combination of neglect and cold temperatures over the winter, and lots were trampled with my ladder as I was painting.  Oh well- at least the hops survived!  I also planted an herb garden- the basil, parsley and mint (which I transplanted from the side of the house) are doing really well.  The parsley is ok, but the cilantro died by a combination of getting paint spilled on them and being trampled by the ladder.  I think this little patch of dirt is quite perfect for plants- last year we had some MAMMOTH tomato plants growing there:

The brick perimeter to the planters is not the most beautiful or sturdy thing (in some areas the bricks are simply staying in place from gravity, not mortor), but it provides enough of a barrier to keep Honey Brown out (too bad we can’t say the same for my sister’s dogs!). Speaking of Honey Brown, she really enjoys the atrium too- mostly because we spend time there now too:

Though Honey enjoys baking in the sun, we’re a little more fair-skinned, so we brought in an umbrella ($50 from Home Depot) and the umbrella stand (which came for free with the house) to provide some shade and some nice cheerful color:

Oh, and here is our more classy solution to our running-into-glass-doors problem:

More contact paper!  I used a circle punch to make a bunch of dots, then stuck them to all of the sliders at eye level.  So far, so good! They’re on every sliding door in the house (except the ones with the plastic grids that look like fake window panes).  Before we have our friends with toddlers over again, I think we’ll have to stick more up at 3-year-old height (and maybe even Dog height).

Another quick project was to doctor up our door stop (we like to keep the front door propped open so that Honey Brown can explore the front yard).  We had been using an old brick but it started crumbling, so I make a quick “brick cozy” for it by wrapping it in some scrap fabric and quickly stitching it together.  It took all of 10 minutes:

Some day we’ll have a nice solid door…in a different color… some day.  The third project that made its way into the atrium is our stump table.  It’s a remnant from the giant oak tree we had cut down last winter:

It’s the perfect height for our chaises.

That’s all for now- I’m sure the atrium will continue to evolve (as I slowly kill more and more plants).  We’d like to add some outdoor speakers, replace the tile floor (it’s cracked in many places and also uneven), maybe put in a big dining table and some outdoor heaters instead of the chaise lounges and maybe even build a retractable cover.  For now, the atrium is good enough and we have bigger fish to fry anyway (like replacing the siding)!

The Office

Before we moved into our house, we knew we had some damage to one of the beams in our office (the front room off the atrium).  Our $400 pest inspector made this clear when he stuck his screw driver into the beam and left the lovely holes to remind us of his $400 bill:

This beam runs from the wall adjacent to the atrium, across the office, through the front wall of the house from which it extends another 3 feet, for a total of 16′ in length.  It was also clear that the exterior of the beam had some damage and it was starting to sag (due to damage to the post holding it up) which was affecting the siding:

Apparently this is a very common problem with this model of house- water intrudes around the beams which stick out from the front of the house with no eave to protect them.  We have a neighbor a few houses down who apparently faced a similar situation since he is now missing one of the beams that should be sticking out of the front of his house- it’s pretty obvious that it rotted and simply fell off (there’s still part of the rotted beam there).  Anyhow, this is the main reason we chose to extend our roof– to prevent this from happening again or to another beam. However, before we could extend our roof, we needed to replace this beam since the roof would be resting on top of it.

We thought about hiring this work out and talked to a contractor about it when we were shopping around for contractors to extend the roof.  After having one of them explain the process to us, Andy felt confident that he could do it with the help of the best brother in the world, Tim.  We also knew that if it got to be too difficult to handle, we could call the best contractor in the world, our friend Kevin Sullivan who helped replace the beam above our garage last summer.

The first step (done by Tim with close supervision from Honey Brown) was to build a false close to where the rotted beam was in order to support the roof while we replaced the beam.

Once the false wall was up, Tim started removing the drywall around the beam.  Like most of our house, the dry wall was applied directly to the existing paneling, making for extra laborious demo.  As soon as we started, we realized the damage was REALLY bad- the entire post holding up the beam was rotted.

Next came the fun part of taking out the rotted beam.  The exterior part came out pretty easily.  It was less attached to the rest of the beam than to the flashing!

The rest of the beam was attacked with the sawzall in about 3-foot sections.  As we (and by “we” I mean Andy and Tim) removed the old beam we came to realize that the ceiling was holding the beam up rather than the other way around (as we removed each section of beam, the ceiling seemed to breathe a sigh of relief).

While Tim and Andy were removing the old beam, I was busily priming and painting the new 20 foot beam (which was delivered to our driveway that morning by Golden State Lumber).

As Andy and Tim moved the beam from the street to the front yard, they started to get a feel for just how heavy a 20′ douglas fir beam is.

Our original plan was to simply insert it through the hole left by the old beam until it hit the opposite side of the office (13′ away) where it would rest on another post. We quickly realized that is much easier said than done.  Our first modification was to insert the new post on the exterior wall as clearly, the 2 layers of siding would not be enough to hold up that side of the beam.

Then, the boys built a “shelf” to rest the beam on which would prove to be extremely helpful as we slid it across the room:

Being scientist types, we decided to use some tools of physics to help us out, such as a lever created by our little giant ladder.  We also realized that our other ladder, a  4′ aluminum ladder was not nearly as sturdy as the kitchen table. On our first attempt we (and by “we” I truly mean myself included- though I lent more “advice” than muscle) got one end of the beam resting on our newly installed post like so:

At this point, we realized we would need to enlarge the hole that the beam was to slide through.  This meant removing the newly installed post and putting up a temporary one that was a few inches shorter.  We also learned that taking the beam down from that position is much harder than getting the beam to that position.  Trial 2 involved Andy on the roof with a harness.  The beam sustained some grass stains and I though we broke Tim.  Trial 2 was a failure.  Finally, at the end of the day, as many of our neighbors drove very slowly by the house taking in the scene that was unfolding on the front lawn (and likely wondering how long we were planning to keep the kitchen table on the front lawn) we had success!

Once the beam was pretty close to its final resting place, we simply had to re-install the permanent post and attach the beam to the post on both sides of the room.  We used some steel brackets as well as some 2x4s.  We later screwed through the roof into the beam, but not until just prior to getting the new roof. We also had to trim the beam on the exterior to make sure it was even with the others (we left it a foot or so long on purpose so that we could be assure it wouldn’t be too short).

This is also about the time we realized we may as well remove all of the walls in the office.  This would allow us to check the posts supporting the other beam (it was in good shape-phew!), install an overhead light in the center of the ceiling, ground all of the electrical:

replace and add insulation to all of the walls:

And remedy some of the sloppy trim and drywall work like this (notice the crack in the corner of the wall and the way the window casing is inset in the drywall):

Tim had gone home (exhausted and sore) so Andy hung the new drywall and I was in charge of the taping and mudding (apparently this fell close enough to the realm of painting which is clearly my territory). I was very nervous about the taping and spent many hours researching online how-tos ( has some great how-tos, as does youtube).  Luckily enough, I procrastinated long enough that Uncle Joe took the initiative and did all of the taping for me (during his vacation no less!), leaving just the mudding.  It turns out you can do a pretty god job with drywall mud even as a novice, it just takes LOTS of time and sanding.

For the wall color, we chose Behr’s “Reflecting Pool.”  In the Home Depot, the color looks very grey, but in the office it is a very pale blue, which Andy likes very much (I had voted for “Dolphin fin” which is much more neutral, but got vetoed).  Ultimately, the office doesn’t look TOO different from how it started (the light fixture is way too small for the room- it’s just a place holder until I find something better), however the temperature difference from the insulation is quite noticeable- it went from being the hottest room in the house during the summer to the coolest!

Some day we’d like to replace the flooring and maybe the desk, but for now it’s good enough.

Roof-a-palooza 2012: Part 3 (Extending the roof)

Aside from making all foreseeable protrusions to the roof, we had another major project to complete before the roofers arrived- and that is extending the roof line in the front of the house.  This is arguably the most exciting of the roof projects as it’s the biggest impact.  Here’s what we were starting with:

Notice how there are 8 beams sticking out from the front of the house topped with a trellis?  The problem with this set up is that the beams themselves and the areas surrounding them are very susceptible to weather, specifically water intrusion (the white one in the photo above was in such bad shape the entire beam needed to be replaced).  There is also no eave on the front of the house to protect the siding from weather.  For these reasons and aesthetic ones, we decided that now is the perfect time to extend the roof line (by 33 inches to be exact) all the way to the end of the beam.  Several of our neighbors with the same model house have done the same thing- so we had plenty of examples to look at before we committed to this very large project.  Also, the back of the house has an eave over the extending beams, so it made sense to us for the front to be the same way.

I should mention that we considered hiring this project out, but after talking to several contractors, Andy decided that we would do it ourselves (by we I mean Andy and his little brother Tim with advice from our favorite contractor, Kevin and a tiny bit of help from Mary).

First, we removed the trellis.  Although several neighbors have added similar trellises and they are definitely better than nothing, they were not original and do not do a good job at protecting the house, so we wanted something better.  Judging by the condition of the wood, ours was probably about 5 years old.

This picture nicely demonstrates several concepts

  1. The siding on the front of the house is in really bad shape- notice the green tint and the horizontal seam?  I’m no siding expert, but I’m guessing those things are not good.
  2. The house is pretty ugly “naked” like this (in my opinion).  Some neighbors have naked houses and seem happy with them while others have gone a step further and completely trimmed back the beams so they are flush with the house and do not stick out at all- I’m personally not a fan of that either (although it may solve some of the water intrusion problems).
  3. We did this job (yes We, as in Andy AND Mary) after work one evening- hence the bad lighting.
  4. Andy really loves his Sawz-All.  It’s probably his most used tool after the drill.

Removing the trellis actually took a bit of engineering.  See, it was attached to the beams via nails so large they are better classified as stakes.  To pry the trellis off of the beam we used a combination of a steel post, the car jack and a sledge hammer.  Safe? No. Effective? Yes.

Next, Andy ordered the lumber which consisted of 1.5″x6″ tongue and groove, 10″ fascia (which we later trimmed down to 8″) and lots of 2×4’s (we had to make a second trip to San Rafael lumber for the plywood). He ordered all of the lumber (except the plywood) from Golden State lumber in San Rafael who delivers directly to our driveway.  Even though Andy has a truck now, this is still much more convenient considering the tongue and groove came in 16′ lengths and the fascia boards came in 20′ lengths and his truck bed is nowhere near that long.

Because my least favorite thing is painting tongue and groove ceilings, I decided to prime and paint the tongue and groove before it became the ceiling of the eave (so that once it’s installed, it will just need touch-ups).

Honey Brown was very curious about the 24 16′ boards that were taking over her back yard.  I only painted one side (the only side that will be exposed- as the under side of the eave).

Once the wood was prepped, the protrusion projects completed and Tim (Andy’s little brother) was in town, the extension officially began.  The first step was removing the flashing:

then the siding and finally the berm at the front of the house.  The berm basically extends about 4″ up above the tongue and groove that comprises the ceiling.  This step was nerve wrecking because it meant that we were seriously opening up our house to a complete soaking if nature decided to rain.  I believe a sawz-all, wedge and sledge hammer were used to remove the berm.

Once the berm was gone, the tongue and groove went directly on top of the beams (just like in the back of the house) and they started building a new berm from 2×4’s:

Plywood was added above the tongue and groove to try to bring the level of the eave up a bit so it wasn’t a low spot of the roof (we are enlarging our existing down spouts but did not add any down spouts to the eave):

And a fascia board was added.  This took a lot of debate over how to compensate for the un-levelness of the roof line- the fascia could be level or it could follow the roofline but not both- so we came up with a bit of a compromise.  Andy, Tim and I can see precisely how it’s not level, but hopefully it’s not as apparent to others.  We also confirmed that there are neighbors whose rooflines/fascias look way less level than ours.

And finally, the fascia board got topped by a new piece of flashing (this step was done by the roofers):

Sure, it needs a top coat of paint (everything is at least primed) and our house still needs new siding and paint, but we think it’s a huge improvement- both aesthetically and functionally!

Roof-a-palooza 2012: Part 2 (Planning and Making Protrusions)

One day, Joseph Eichler said to himself, “I like roofers- they are nice guys and do hard, back breaking work.  Because I like them so much, I will plan my developments so as to give them as much work as they can handle.”  That is when he decided to

  1. Make all roofs flat or very low pitched
  2. Ensure any changes to plumbing, electrical wiring, HV/AC or ventilation require penetrating the roof creating the potential for leaks.  He did this by building all of his houses on solid concrete slabs (which house the radiant heating systems) with no attic or overhead crawl space.  Effectively, any new plumbing, electrical wiring etc has to either run through the minimal wall space or through and over the roof.

Thanks to Eichler’s collusion with the roofing industry, we’ve been spending the last 3 months planning for and doing anything that we foresee needing to penetrate the roof.  The advantage of doing this just prior to getting a new roof is that the new roof mitigates the potential for leaks around the protrusions- they just seal everything in with the spray foam (same theory for tar & gravel).

We started out in March (very naively) thinking that we could seal around our protrusions with Henry’s wet patch.  Because none of the bedrooms nor the living room have overhead lights, we wanted to add one to the office and one to the master bedroom (all other rooms without overhead lights have beams in or near the center of the room which makes things difficult- so we ignored these rooms for now).  In theory, this was a pretty easy job.  First, we (and of course by We I mean Andy with some ill informed advice from Mary) drilled a hole through the roof in the center of the room and another directly over the wall containing the pre-existing light switch.  Then we ran some Romex (2-12 for the office, 3-12 for the master- we wised up and thought we may some day want a ceiling fan which requires 3-12) encased in Schedule 40 (looks like gray PVC) which we set in a small trench dug in the tar on the roof between the two holes then attached to the roof via brackets.  We connected one end to the switch and the other to the light fixture then “sealed” the roof with some Henry’s.  This is the same basic concept they used when originally wiring the house, the only difference is that the original wiring wasn’t grounded and was set under long metal teepees (or upside down V channels).  The other very crucial difference is that they didn’t use Henry’s- they immediately applied the roof (hot tar).  Turns out, our sealing job wasn’t so successful.  This is what our bedroom looked like after the first rain:

(pardon the iphone picture- this was taken at 4am).

Needless to say, we couldn’t live very long with makeshift rain chains in our bedroom.  We called Abril roofing the next morning and they came out and fixed the leaks (and the similar problem in the office) the day we called.  In retrospect, we should have postponed this project until much closer to getting the new roof, after any threat of rain- but otherwise, we’re happy with how it turned out.

After the rain-chain-over-the-bed incident described above, we were hesitant to penetrate the roof- so we put all other protrusion projects off until about a week ago (about 10 days prior to the new roof).  Next up was adding an exhaust fan to the master bedroom which only has a window.  Although having a window in the bathroom meets the minimum code requirements, in order for it to be effective it has to be opened after showers and such- which doesn’t always happen, especially in the winter.  The house we rented last had the same set up and the bathroom had so much mold and water damage that it had to be completely gutted.  That’s not to say I wouldn’t mind gutting the master bathroom, but once we do that, we don’t want to have to worry about mold- hence the exhaust fan.  We chose the Panasonic Whisper Ceiling (80CFM).  For the install, we followed the tutorial provided by Marin Homestead which was consistent with the instructions provided by our roofer.

1. Cut a hole in the roof just a hare larger than the vent fan:

2. Mount the vent fan to the ceiling (ignoring the fact that rather than being in your attic like it should be, it’s now on top of your roof) .

3. Attach a 4″ elbow to the side exhaust then a 4″ stack (so the exhaust is now directed towards the sky).  Scrape away tar around the fan (down to the wood ceiling).  Surround with a rectangle made of 2×8″ douglas fir nailed together (we made this in our garage) and attached to the wood ceiling with screws.

4. Open the bathroom wall around the light switch and drill a hole up through the roof:

5. Run 12-2 Romex from the switch (through the hole you just drilled in the roof) to the box containing the fan (we like to encase our Romex in Schedule 40 sunk into a trench through the tar for protection).  Drill a hole through the box (to let the Romex in) and connect the romex to the fan:

6. Attach a plywood cover to the box (with a 4″ hole cut in it for the stack) with screws.  Add a flashing piece (we got the kind with the rubber ring that is supposed to replace the need for caulk) and a China cap (that’s the name on the tag) and you’re done:

Andy did a very similar install in the hall bathroom- the difference being there was already a fan there (it a was super loud and inefficient NuTone ).  Even though there was already electricity going to the fan, he re-ran the wire so it could be grounded.  We’re very happy with the fans.  They’re super efficient- I can take a shower without the mirror fogging up and they’re so quiet you can barely hear them!  Here’s a view from the inside:

We installed timer switches so the fans stay on at least 5 minutes (I think I read somewhere that you should leave the ceiling fan on for at least 30 minutes when you shower):

(The switch on the left controls the light above the vanity- the fan is on the independent timer on the right.  As you can see, I haven’t yet patched the drywall around the switch.)

The next protrusion we made was to move the kitchen exhaust fan.  Originally, these fans were installed on the opposite side of the beam from the range, which means they basically don’t work.  We moved ours so that it’s directly above the range.  Well, I lied- it’s shifted by 18 inches from the center of the range.  The reason for this is that we someday hope to move the range 18 inches to the left so that it is not against the wall/window.  We may also replace the original fan with a proper vent hood, and when we do, we’ll have the hole for the 6″ vent in the perfect spot.

(Old location on the right which we still need to patch and new location on left)

The final protrusion we made was actually 104 protrusions… we had to secure the beam we installed in the office to the roof.  We had the option of screwing up through the beam or down through the roof.  Of course the disadvantage of screwing down through the roof is that it opened an opportunity for water to leak in- which is why we waited until just before the new roof came on (sorry no pictures- but it’s not much to look at- just another trench through the tar with 104 screws in it).

That’s all!  We considered doing the kitchen vent hood now as well, but there’s no real advantage to that (plus it may look a bit weird not being centered over the range, whereas it’s harder to detect the off-centeredness with the original flush fan).  We also considered running some speaker wire throughout the living room for surround sound- but we couldn’t figure out exactly where we wanted it (and we ran out of time).  It took a lot of planning to figure out exactly what protrusions we wanted and where we wanted them- but the hope is it will save us a lot of effort down the road, and hopefully keep us as dry as possible!

Roof-a-palooza 2012: Part 1

We’re getting a new roof in 4 days!!! We started researching and shopping around back in March which is when we chose to go with Abril roofing.  Because we have a completely flat roof, we only have 2 general choices for a new roof- tar and gravel which we currently have or foam.  We decided to go with foam even though it is more expensive because it adds a lot of insulation (the foam itself is insulative).

Disclaimer: All of the following info is probably only interesting if you are interested in flat roofs (which probably only happens if you have a house with a flat roof and need to replace it).  Consider yourself warned!

Aside for leaking every time it rains, the roof we have today has very little insulation:

As you can see, the original roof consists of 1.5″ thick tongue and groove douglas fir (the underside of which is our ceiling) then 0.5″ of fiberglass insulation, then an 1-4 inches of tar (which compresses the fiberglass to about 0.125″) then white semi reflective gravel which has become very thin over the years (the current roof is probably about 20 years old).   Roof salesmen and our neighbors with foam roofs say that having a foam roof significantly lowers the temperature in the summer (they’re very reflective) and reduces heating bills in the winter (very insulative)- both of which we support.

Once we decided to go with foam we still had many options in types of foam roofs.  We talked to Orlando from Aussie roofing about rigid foam coated with bitumen (he initially proposed pitching the roof which would have cost $35,000 all together!).  We also talked to a guy from Custom Craft, George from Armstrong roofing and Rick Abril from Abril roofing, both of whom quoted us for spray polyurethane foam (SPF).  We found George (a salesman) from Armstrong to be a little too pushy for our liking- he convinced us to sign a contract before he left the house (which we later cancelled) because if we didn’t get the roof replaced ASAP (this was back in March- recall- the beginning of this year’s rainy season) they would have to do what amounted to several thousand dollars more work, because, he argued, any waiting would rot our existing roof so much that they would need to add more wood decking.  George also bad mouthed his competitors, specifically Abril. The man from custom craft was a little more knowledgable than George but also long winded (we went through a streak of talking to very long winded salesmen/contractors)- Andy talked to him so I don’t have much more to report. The reasons we ultimately chose Abril are:

  1. Almost all of our neighbors with spray polyurethane roofs used Abril- so we can walk around our immediate neighborhood and literally see dozens of examples of their work.  Everything looks pretty good, and no other vendor gave nearly as many references in our area.
  2. We talked to several people who went with Abril (including neighbors we know well) and all were happy.
  3. We have personally used Abril for several repairs on our current roof and found their work to be good.  When they couldn’t fix a leak on the first try (which, granted, is difficult on a flat tar & gravel roof) they came back and fixed it on the 2nd shot.
  4. For all of our repairs we did with Abril, they offered a 50% credit towards a new roof- which basically meant our repairs were half off.
  5. Rick Abril is very easy to deal with.  His quote took less than an hour- mostly spent on the roof making measurements.  Other salesmen took up to 4 hours of our time- which, frankly, we didn’t need.  Rick got to the point and didn’t waste our time (we especially hate when roof salesmen waste our time by bad mouthing competitors).  I will say that getting ahold of him can be a challenge.
  6. They charge several thousand less than their competitors (for similar scopes of work- there were some minor differences in the quotes- Abril included more flashing while Armstrong adds more foam over the eaves than does Abril- but at the end of the day, we don’t really care how well insulated our eaves are).  This alone wasn’t enough to make the decision- believe me, we did our research- but it certainly helped.

The “granule” debate:  All spray foam roofs are coated with a latex-like paint for protection.  On top of that, some companies add granules (like chunky white sand) and some don’t.  The advantage of them is that they can add a bit more protection, especially from birds pecking at the roof (which has been a known problem with foam roofs).  The disadvantages are (a) they collect in the down spouts after heavy rains and (b) they make it harder to re-coat the roof, which is recommended every 5-20 years depending on who you talk to and whether or not you’ve already paid for your original foam roof (before paying they say it doesn’t need to be coated for 20+ years, after paying, I’m guessing they want more business and quote more like 5 years).

Price:  We were quoted prices ranging from about $20,000 (SPF from Abril) to $35,000 (pitching the roof with rigid foam).  This seems to depend on square footage (our house is 1700 s.f. plus the garage and some eaves) and difficulty (number of vents etc. protruding the roof).  I’m guessing location (Marin County) also factors into the price- that’s how free markets work after all.  All of our SPF quotes were within the $20,000 – $25,000 range, which was very hard to digest (we’ve never spent that much on anything besides the house… and that amount of money could buy a pretty cool car)… but I guess that goes with the territory.

Hopefully, this is helpful to other people in the market for a foam roof- I certainly wish someone had made this type of info available when we were shopping around!

Year One

It’s been a year since we moved in!  Here’s a quick list of the major projects we’ve tackled in the last year:


  • Upgrade electrical service/ replace panel
  • Remove weed tree/stump growing over chimney (in order to get insurance)
  • Add GFI’s/Outlet covers where needed
  • Fix receptacles with reverse polarity
  • Add spark arrester to chimney
  • Replace water pressure regulator
  • Remove excess coaxial cable
  • Remove faulty wiring in atrium
  • Added stickers to all sliders to prevent walking-into-glass injuries (a minor upgrade from this:

  • Add “frosting” to front windows (so you can’t see into the house from the street)


  • Remove moldy drywall
  • Add work lights to interior of garage
  • Add Outlets to garage
  • Replace beam
  • Install new garage door with opener
  • Add shelving
  • Add workbench
  • Add peg board


  • Remove palm trees in front and back yard (ugly) and try to get grass to grow in their place
  • Remove white marble rocks from planters/ palm trees
  • Remove tree stumps in front yard
  • Remove atrium covering
  • Add lights to atrium
  • Add tomato/herb garden to atrium
  • Remove (ok, kill) plants in atrium, replace with new ones
  • Paint trim on back of house

  • Remove side deck and sidewalk
  • Remove oak tree and stump in back yard (too close to house)


  • Buy new refrigerator
  • Fix Dishwasher
  • Replace plumbing under kitchen sink
  • Professionally snake drains
  • Replace lighting
  • Replace garbage disposal
  • Install gas line to stove (with T’s for beer brewing, fireplace, bbq grill)

  • Buy/Install new gas range
  • Fix outlet by dog door
  • Add outlet to end of peninsula
  • Replace Dishwasher


  • Replace beam

  • Ground outlets
  • Add insulation to walls
  • Replace drywall
  • Add molding and baseboards
  • Paint
  • Add overhead light Fixture


  • Patch Roof (many many times!)
  • Buy/Install new washer and dryer
  • Open up dryer vent that was drywalled over
  • Install dog door
  • Fix leak in hot water heater
  • Install Thermostat
  • Buy/Install screens on sliding doors
  • Replace living room window after unfortunate rock+lawn mower accident
  • Make/hang drapes and shade in master bedroom
  • Replace hallway light fixtures with original Eichler fixtures
  • Add expansion tank to hot water heater
  • Install New Door Knobs
  • Add work area (table and shelf) to laundry room
  • Replace dining room light
  • Replace fireplace insert
  • Major boiler service (conversion from pilot light to piezo-electric ignition)
  • Add bedroom light fixture

So… what’s next?  Here’s a hint: there was another unfortunate rock+lawn mower accident this past weekend 🙁


The Garage: Before and After

We’ve done a lot of changes around here, but the garage was the first “room” that we officially can call finished!  Here’s a look at it before we moved in:

The picture above is a picture taken from the MLS listing for our house.  Probably 10 minutes prior to taking this picture, the major load bearing beam above the garage doors was painted orange.  There is also a matching orange paint spill on the drive way (which we later power washed away).  Anyhow, by the time we looked at the house the paint was already bubbling and peeling on the beam.  Odd, right?  Well, the beam was about 30% rotted- you could peel the paint off with your fingers and then start picking away the beam… with your fingers!  We knew going into the purchase that it would have to be replaced.

Notice the style of garage door.  That is the original style door from 1958- kind of like sliding barn doors.  The thing was, they didn’t look great- they were veneered with the same fiber board siding that veneers our house.  They were using the original rusty hardware- so only one door actually slid.  We weren’t happy with the design- basically, you could only have one side of the garage open at a time.  Our goal was to be able to park a car in the garage, and we knew that, given my driving skills, we needed a wider opening.  That also meant that the vertical support beam in the middle of the garage had to go.  Oh, and there wasn’t a garage door opener  (I had to use my full body weight to manually open the one side that actually moved).  In a perfect world, we would have kept the original door style, but to us it wasn’t practical, so we decided to put function ahead of form… which is probably sacrilege to Eichler enthusiasts.

On the interior there were even more issues.  The elephant in the room was the moldy corner in the front right (when viewing from the street)- just next to the electrical panel.  There was obviously a leak there (though not in the roof) that had been going on for quite a while.  In the first week we lived here Andy tore out the moldy drywall which let the corner air out a bit.

The next issue we had with the garage was that there was a sliding glass door from the garage to the atrium:

Back when this was Mirabelle’s place, there was a bedroom in the garage which was entered through the atrium via a sliding glass door.  We debated whether or not to remove it because we used it quite a bit, especially given the difficulty in entering/exiting through the garage doors.  In the end, we decided to get rid of it because (a) our garage is ugly and seeing it from the interior of the house was not aesthetically pleasing and (b) the door wasn’t built to code which effectively weakened the house plus it was a little dangerous.

The final problem with the garage was its lack of organization- no work area, no storage area.  For several months we just had piles of stuff everywhere.  It really irritated me every time I saw it- like I was living the life of a hoarder.

So here’s the step by step of what we did:

First, we (and by we I mean Andy) removed the moldy drywall in the corner of the garage (sorry, I couldn’t find any before pictures… Let’s pause here to acknowledge the fact that we lost a LOT of pictures recently in a tragic computer incident) let me paint the picture with words: Holmes on Homes would have been appalled.  Enough said.  The next project was to remove some more drywall so that we (and by we I mean Andy and my brother in law Shawn) could do electrical work- both the main panel and sub panel are in the garage- so all electrical lines originate from the garage.  Some of that electrical work was to enable some overhead shop lights which Andy hung.

Then came the big project: Replacing the beam.  This step was so big and intimidating that we actually called in help in the form of Kevin Sullivan- an amazing contractor who knows everything about Eichler homes and has every tool known to man (and he’s a genuinely nice guy).  The basic procedure was to remove the doors and the windows above the doors then to support the beams running perpendicular to the one we were replacing.  Then, the to remove the problem beam.  It was heavy.

I think it was at this point that it was discovered that the former mold-ridden area had serious rot, so the vertical posts (2×4’s and 4×4’s I think) got replaced.  Once the old beam was out, the new beam went in.  Because we were eliminating the center support, the new beam had to be steel reinforced.  It was heavy, heavier than the original one.  In the process of putting in and trying to level the new beam, Kevin realized that the roof line was not level because the right side of the garage was several inches lower than the left side.  They ended up jacking up the right side of the garage by several inches to compensate.  It was pretty crazy.  Good thing Kevin was here- he wasn’t freaking out like I was.

Once the new beam was in, our plan was to just rehang the old doors and wait a little while (until our bank accounts replenished) to get a new garage door.  It was a Sunday afternoon and we were planning to go to a BBQ at my boss’s boss’s house.  We had an hour or so before the BBQ, so we sent Kevin home because we could handle putting the old garage doors up our selves.  BOY WERE WE WRONG!  At one point Andy and I were holding the 6’x6′ wood door and Andy had to let go but as soon as he did the door basically feel on me.  Andy was screaming “let it fall, let it fall!” (actually, that wasn’t the last time he would scream that).  At the end of the day we barely had the doors leaning against the garage and just started screwing random scraps of wood everywhere we could connect garage to door.  We never made it to our BBQ.  I think I got up in the middle of night to make sure nothing had crashed down.  Needless to say, this accelerated our purchase of a new garage door.

We chose a roll-up door with four flat panels from RW garage door in Vallejo who also did the installation.  It was reasonably affordable and had a much more modern look than the ones with raised panels- at least in our opinions.  When we made the purchase over the phone, we were told that we would need a low profile opener which we bought, but the installers said that wasn’t necessarily true (although a traditional opener would have been more visible from the exterior through the windows).  At first we were upset that we spent the extra money for the low profile one, but in the end we decided we liked it because it is SUPER quiet and unobtrusive.  Right now the door is white- we are debating the color (Andy likes white, I want it to match the color of the house when we paint the house).  We’re VERY happy with it.

To handle the interior organization issues, we built a work bench for Andy out of some 4×4’s and an old door we had.  We insulated the interior facing wall and added peg board to the interior facing wall as well as around the work bench.  I went wild buying peg board accessories and hooks- all from Sears (using my “shop your way rewards” points).   It makes me really happy because it gives us organization. The wall opposite the work bench  is lined with shelves from Costco ($300 for two sets spanning 12′ all together) which you can see to the left of the picture below:


The last project we tackled was removing the sliding door to the atrium- which was pretty easy.  We even sold it for  $70 on Craigslist.   Once the slider was out we had a giant hole between the garage and the atrium:


Andy re-built the wall which required the re-running of some electrical wire:

Then we attached siding on the atrium side of the wall.  The siding we chose is “Eichler Siding” that we bought from Jeff Nichols (another very nice guy and very pleasant to work with).  He only had the rough finish in stock at the time- and since the rest of the atrium is a smooth finish, we had to use our palm sander to get it smooth:

Andy and I took turns sanding, which took a LONG time and gave me a tension headache as well as the motivation to upgrade my orbital sander to the RIGID R2600 which is amazing compared to the old Black & Decker “Mouse”.  After sanding, we hung it and then primed it.  According to some instructions on Jeff’s site, he strongly recommends priming the bottom and even some of the back- which is very difficult to do once it’s hung- so if I had to do it over, I would do the priming first.  Oh, and this stuff LOVES primer- I think I used about a half gallon on this 6’x9′ section.  Now it’s hung, trimmed, primed and almost ready for paint (I need to work a little wood putty magic to compensate for the fact that the installer-Andy- was just a beginner).  It’s beautiful:

Here’s the garage side:


Here’s the whole garage today:

(Please pardon the dresser/night stand combo blocking the shelves- that’s another project for my RIGID R2600)

As you can see, there’s plenty of room to park a car and it’s relatively organized.  I’m sure Martha Stewart’s garage is much neater, but compared to what it was like before, it’s heaven.  Having a home for all of our stuff makes it much less daunting to start tackling a new project.  Having an area of the house “finished” to our liking gives us hope that other areas could be finished some day too.


Internet Woes with a Marinwood Eichler

So, we bought our home last april (2011) and promptly had Comcast come out and hook us up with their adjective filled super incredible amazing speedy boost 20 Mb internet.  This worked “ok” for a few months but I noticed (almost immediately) that the internet would slow down or become almost totally inaccessible.  We also have an ATT microcell that decided to stop working after about a month.

Well, I should say, “we thought the microcell stopped working after a month”.  My theory (because Comcast will never confirm nor deny ANYTHING) is that Comcast changed something in our neighborhood around May of 2011 or changed how their signal is transmitted to our house.


Anyway, not having the microcell (device that provides cellular service for ATT) and not having internet AT ALL on a daily basis was/is extremely annoying.  So, this is what we did:

Step 1). I thought “I know, it’s probably that old DSL modem and wireless Linksys box we have.  I’ll replace these and that should make everything work swell”. WRONG, We just spent $150 on new equipment that never worked any differently.  (Side Note: The equipment was destroyed from our leaky roof!!  What are the odds that a single roof would leak directly above our wireless router?  Apparently about 100%)

Step 2). I thought “Maybe the internet is fine and it’s my wife’s microcell device.  I’ll just get a new microcell device and everything will work all hunky dory”.  WRONG, after 2 months of haggling to get a microcell device through an “Enterprise ATT Representative” (or something like that) the internet is still flaky and the microcell doesn’t work.

Step 3).  I know, “I’ll just get a piece of equipment directly from Comcast thereby insuring it is not our equipment or a third parties equipment causing the issues”. WRONG, still flaky internet that slows to sloth-like pace every evening and just dies sporadically.

Step 4).  I know,”I’m canning Comcast and going to DSL”.  Although the internet will be considerably slower I really don’t care as long as it WORKS RELIABLY.

On the same topic there’s something to be said about worker efficiency and how large companies have really lost the view of the trees (customers) for the forest (corporate profits).  What I mean by this statement is that the wasted time of both the customer and the service provider REALLY ADD UP but cannot be easily quantified. The customer (both my wife and I) have spent at least 12 hours on this problem with no solution.  The company (Comcast) has also thrown about a half dozen hours at the problem with “automated automatrons” (these are the people that make minimum wage, and through no fault of their own, have zero critical thinking tasks (and are forced NOT to make any problem solving decisions).  I guess my complaint is that complicated problems are becoming more and more difficult to solve but COULD be solved AND save $$$ if someone escalated these issues to someone making more than $8/hour.

Anyway, we are both happy with our network access now.  Comcast cannot be trusted!!

People who live in glass houses…

People who live in glass houses (like us Eichler-owners) should seriously consider investing in window coverings.  As we’ve mentioned, one of the features we like very much about our house is the amount of natural light thanks to the rear south-facing wall of windows, enhancing the “indoor/outdoor” feel of the house.

Master bedroom windows- there's another floor-to-ceiling window immediately to the right of this view.

This luxury, however, comes with a price.

  • Heat exchange.  While a few (<50%) of our windows have been replaced with dual pane insulated glass, most are the original single pane glass which is not a great insulator.  In the summer, the windows make our house like a green house (even the dual-paned ones) and in the winter it’s noticeably cooler next to the windows.  I recently caulked around all of the windows to avoid drafts, but they still do a poor job at insulating.
  • Light.  One wall of our master bedroom is said south-facing window wall.  In the summer, the sun rises around 6:30am.  Not a good combination for a sleeper-inner.
  • Privacy.  We do have a solidly-fenced back yard with a 5′ stretch of trees between the fence and the road behind our house- so it wouldn’t seem that privacy is too big of a deal.  We weren’t concerned until we had a (less than fully clothed) 7am run-in with a PG&E (gas company) worker randomly inspecting for gas leaks IN OUR BACK YARD.  Apparently they do that (as I found out by calling PG&E) and there’s nothing that can be done to prevent it short of locking all of our gates, I suppose.  Hopefully that was an isolated incident, but nonetheless, considering the number of house guests we have, a diorama-esque bedroom is less than desirable

So with these factors in mind, we decided that at least our master bedroom needs window coverings.  After some extensive research (trips to Ikea and internet browsing) I opted to fabricate my own “ripplefold” drapes.  They’re hung from a track system on the ceiling and have a hidden wand-draw- sort of like traditional pleated drapes that you would find in a hotel room.  I like them because of their structured “ripple” appearance when they’re closed (which is 99% of the time for us).  Initially Andy and I endured a  multi-week decisioning process after which we decided on a solid dark gray fabric (poly blend silk shantung).  However, by the time I had a 50% off coupon and went to JoAnn’s fabric to make the purchase, I discovered they had slightly less of the fabric than I needed within a 100 mile radius and were discontinuing it.  I did some quick re-calculations and decided to insert a stripe of contrasting fabric at the bottom rather than starting from the drawing board on the fabric choice.  This allowed me to get most of the fabric at a clearance price BUT it was a pain in the butt to make (we don’t have a single room in our house that’s as big as one of those drapery panels which made measuring and cutting and lining up the stripe very very difficult).  In the end, we both love how they came out and they were worth the cost (even with clearance and coupons the quantity of fabric needed for the finished side and lining is huge… plus the hardware is pricey as well) and time involved in designing and fabricating (about 50 hours).

Ripplefold Drapes-Closed


(The picture at the bottom of this post is much more true to the color).  When open, they still allow lots of natural light.  When closed, they block almost all light (they are fully lined with black-out fabric).  We’ve also found that when it’s hot outside our bedroom is the coolest place in the house and we are toasty warm in the winter (we even had to down-grade the thickness of our winter blankets because our room stays so warm!).

I know the color may be a bit controversial (the woman at JoAnn’s thinks I’m crazy for choosing such a “serious” color). Personally, we like the “cave” feel.  Plus, other than the almost perfectly-matching Crate and Barrel shag rug under the bed (which offers  a nice place to land your feet when waking up) that Andy scored at a garage sale in our old neighborhood for a steal, everything else in the room should be much more colorful (like the bright yellow quilt!) once we’re finished.

For the other window in our bedroom I found a couple yards of a nice orange fabric which I used to cover a $7 home-depot black-out roller shade (with spray adhesive).  To make it a little more dressed up looking, Andy helped me make the white cornice (wood thing on top of the window) out of a left-over piece of 4×4 we had:

Other than replacing the closet light fixture (which I broke while trying to dig out my winter coat at 4am before I left for my flight to NY last month), that summarizes all of the changes we’ve made in the master bedroom so far.  Here’s our wish list for our master bedroom:

  • Paint and drywall repairs (the drywall throughout the house was installed very poorly over the original paneling.  We’re debating between repairing the existing drywall and replacing it.  Our current level of ambition and speculation concerning insulation is pointing towards repair.)  Our My plan for wall color is a nice colorful shade of teal:

Master Bedroom Wall Color Sample

  • Trim (simple white crown molding and baseboards).  Like the drywall, the trim was poorly installed and doesn’t span the whole width of the wall in many places.
  • Add wall sconces above the bed for reading light and to free up night stand space
  • New Furniture- bed, dresser(s), night stands.   Our current furniture is “Country Bumpkin-Themed” (Andy’s words, not mine) … some day we hope to replace it, maybe with some vintage or modern pieces.  I’m a huge fan of teak furniture with clean lines.
  • Maybe another light fixture in the center of the room?  As you can tell by the photos (mostly taken at night) it’s a bit dark in there, but maybe that’s ok for a bedroom.
  • Sound-Proofing.  I know this seems like overkill, but the dining/kitchen area is on the other side of the (un-insulated) wall and sound travels very very well in our house.  It’s nearly impossible for us to sleep if there’s someone else awake in the house- we can hear every sound that is made.  Andy has some ideas for adding sound proofing to the wall that the bedroom shares with the dining room, plus we may get a heavier door.
  • New flooring- TBD, probably consistent with the rest of the house (polished concrete maybe?) and not done until we do the rest of the house.
  • New roof.  I know this is not directly related to the bedroom, but for some reason, every time the roof leaks the leak is in our bedroom!  Sleeping in a room with a dripping roof is a form of torture, so I consider a new roof a huge improvement to our bedroom!

Since nothing on the list is easy and cheap, I doubt much of it will happen very soon, so our bedroom is likely to stay as-is for quite a while.  At least we’re not lacking in the privacy department now though!

P.S. Andy loves our bedroom drapes so much that he convinced me to make drapes for the living room.  The good news is that the fabric has already been chosen (Andy said I could get whatever I wanted as long as it was a solid color) and purchased.

P.P.S. I know you can buy Ripplefold drapes already made… but they are REALLY expensive (>$1000 for our sized windows) and don’t come in a good selection of fabric.  And hanging/ironing them is still about a day’s work.