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.