Saturday, December 20, 2008

Happy Holidays from Chicago 2-Flat

I like to decorate for the holidays. Many years our home has not lent itself to this for various reasons. Anywhere from the house was such a mess it seemed a moot point to we were just to darn tired to we had no extra money.

Now that our home is done to the degree of being livable and not a source of embarrassment, I get to have some fun. There are ways to do this without spending a fortune or looking like an over-decorated retail establishment.

This is where some of my squirrel-like tendencies pay off in spades. For example, over the years whenever I have purchased a wreath or centerpiece or beautifully wrapped gift, I carefully removed any of the embellishments that could be re-used. I also save all my Christmas cards and someday I am going to do something really cool with them- mark my words. It helps to have a basement to store these things.
So, this year I was able to cut way back on my spending. Instead, I made my own centerpieces and cut way back of fresh greenery for the outdoors. I only decorated the 2 pots on our front porch and added red ribbons, which are very festive. A string of colored lights around the door, and finis! Cost was about $30.00 for the greenery and bows. I saved money by forgoing the wreath also.

In the dining room, I spent not a dime. The fresh flowers were scavenged from my office. (We get fresh flowers every week and they get tossed on Fridays if no one wants them)

A card "tree" is a great way to display cards. Buy it once and you have it forever. These will mos likely be on deep discount after Christmas on

The centerpiece is simply a piece I had with acorns from Steve's parents yard and some of those embellishments I had squirreled away. I'm not saying it's anything "fancy" but it's casually festive in a way I like. If I was going to go "hog wild", I would probably be inclined to hang evergreen boughs over the windows with some kind of red ribbons. Not this year though. :o)

Here's another little piece I made entirely with scavenged items. The fresh greens came from trimmings from our tree.

I got these matching ornament wreaths at Pier One a few years ago 50% off after Christmas.

Of course, trees are expensive so it's hard to save there. And you want a fresh one that will last. I don't do a tree every year, but this year we will be home and I am off from x-mas till New Year's. I plan to spend several days curled up in the living room with a good book and this is really relatively cheap entertainment when you divide the cost over all that time.

Plus, there's just something about a real Christmas tree. It's romantic and impractical and it's nice to be that way once in a while.

When Steve was bringing it in, I was struck my how strange it is to take this poor tree and cut it down and bring it into a house. Don't trees belong outside growing in the ground?

But then how perfect is it when we are all cooped up inside because of the cold and snow to bring the outside inside to keep us company? Not practical and maybe not so "green", but I promise I will bring mine in to be mulched after the holidays. And I promise to cherish it.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

I've discovered Facebook...

...and of course being the internet addict that I am I am using it constantly. Well, not constantly, but way more than before I had a profile and signed up. :o)

And I'm devising the ways this fascinating new-to-me-tool can be used.

Of course, faithful houseblogger that I am, I searched for a houseblogger group and there wasn't one. So I made one. And I am the only member right now, so sad.

And of course, the next thought that popped into my head? Let's use it to plan Woodstick 2010!!**

If you're on Facebook, why don't you join me? Come on... it'll be fun! I already consider so many of you friends online so feel free to ping me on there if you like.

**"Woodstick" is houseblogger talk for a huge gathering of housebloggers, which has been talked about, but not yet come to fruition.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Counting our blessings

I took today off work and went over to my Mom's to play sous chef to my Mom, who is a fantastic cook in my book. She uses simply the best ingredients, fresh, organic and locally sourced produce with an emphasis on vegetables and she also cooks an amazing turkey.

We are not a family that serves the same dishes every year. We always have turkey, stuffing, home made cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes, but the specific recipes and preparation style changes yearly. This year, Mom is making a salted turkey recipe from Gourmet magazine and a beet cranberry salad that we have never had before.

She also had the idea that before we start dinner, we go around the table and have everyone share something they are grateful for.

In the midst of this horrific economy that frightens me, a stressful week at work, and the fresh news that our tenants may need to break their lease as one of them was laid off and cannot sustain the expenses of the apartment, I accepted this with some degree of battle fatigue.

I spent the next few hours chopping vegetables and talking with my Mom. We listened to NPR and heard that "layaway" is back. I tuned out news on the economy and asked my Mom, "Why is Obama still asking for money?" (I am still getting frequent emails from the campaign asking to donate.) I continued, "I mean, they think THEY need money. I need money." Mom agreed it was kind of annoying. I discussed my job and some of what has been bothering me. Mom understood and that made me feel better, validated.

And as I was leaving at around 4pm, I thought that I am grateful and fortunate to have such a wonderful cook for a Mother. Food just tastes better and feels more nourishing in her home.

But beyond that I am truly blessed having the parents I have. I could not love them more. Both are living examples of living life with grace. I think if can be as graceful as they are, I will be doing just fine. So maybe I can accept this economy and this job and this uncertain situation with our tenants with grace. And I can count my many blessings.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

I was there

I don't want to dwell on politics because this is after all, my house blog, but I just wanted to follow up on my earlier post and let you all know that my Mom and me did go to the rally in Grant Park on November 4th! It seems like ages ago already doesn't it?

The crowd was very calm going in and there was almost no pushing. I observed not one person smoking, which seemed odd to me since we were outside and waiting for hours.

We arrived at about 6pm and left at close too midnight. We stood almost the whole time and I was pretty tired, but it was also pretty amazing to just be there and see everyone so happy.

My Mom had actually been downtown for the demonstrations at the infamous 1968 Democratic Convention years ago. I couldn't help but think how far we've come since then. It was pretty cool.
And thanks to everyone who commented on my "no-spend-zone" post. It's comforting to know I am not the only one feeling the pinch, although I have to say I don't like it too much. I, as do many, like my creature comforts. But maybe I'll blog more now. That doesn't cost anything right?

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Rebuilding a chimney crown....Chim-chiminy Chim chiminy...our Chimney Cap Project

This post is a perfect example of how projects can drag on for years, and yes I do mean years!

We had our flat roof torn off the summer of 2006 and some faithful readers may recall that at that time we discovered that our parapet wall was very deteriorated. We had to determine how to address that issue. Back story here.

We planned to undertake the chimney project ourselves to save money, but ultimately, we ran out of time and we ended up paying our contractor to rebuild the chimneys before winter. The project was not completed though because we still needed chimney crowns and caps. Due to other projects, this didn't happen until 2 years later..just this fall.

Although my blog posts have been sparse lately, we have actually been still working. Steve completed the cast-in-place chimney crown and installed the chimney caps last weekend just before winter's arrival. Hooray!

The first photo illustrates the starting point this fall- one of the two double flue chimneys exposed to the Chicago elements.

Before undertaking this project, Steve did internet research. He found various plans for pouring cast-in-place chimney crowns made of concrete. He called up the Masonry Advisory Council and the Portland Cement Association. Below is what he learned.

The chimney crown must be made of concrete and not mason mix because concrete is used for foundations etc... while mason mix is suitable for laying brick.

Secondly, the crown should be at least 3" thick and it needs to overhang the chimney by a few inches with a drip edge to prevent rainwater from traveling down the chimney causing rapid deterioration. He also found out that the concrete crown must have a bond break from the chimney, that is there needs to be a separation between the chimney(made of brick) and the crown (made of concrete)because both materials expand and contract at different rates and would compromise the chimney with the different movements during freezing, thawing etc...

The concrete crown must to be sloped so that water will drain off of it. The recommendation was that there should be a 2" slope to shed rainwater. Rebar was suggested to reinforce the crown also.

Steve built wooden forms for both chimneys. The concrete would then be poured into them. The form was screwed into the mortar of the chimney using masonry screws. And alternative method would be to use shims underneath the bottom of the frame, which would hold the form in place. With this approach, there is no masonry repairs to do from the screw holes afterwards.

In these photos you can see the completed form ready for pouring the concrete. Here are the steps he took to create this form:

First, he bolted 2x4s around the perimeter of the chimney flush with the top course of bricks.

Because Steve wanted more than a 1 1/2" overhang (width of a 2x4), he screwed a second layer of 2x4 over the first. This created a 3" overhang.

Then, he took 1x8 lumber and attached it around the 2x4s, which created the box you see here. The 1x8s were also flush with the bottom of the 2x4s. This "box" would contain the poured concrete, which would then become the cast-in-place chimney crown.

This close up photo shows more detail on the form he built. Steve nailed in place about 1"from the form edge 1/4" strips of wood. This creates the drip edge (indentation in the concrete). It was removed with a screw driver after the concrete was dry leaving a channel. This drip edge  channel prevents water from running down the side of the chimney bricks.

To create the "bond break" between the chimney and the concrete crown, Steve covered the entire chimney top with 10 ounce sheets of copper, which extended beyond the chimney base by 1/2". He used 10 ounce copper because that is what was available, but 7 or 8 ounce would be fine.

He tightly wrapped the flues in 2 sheets of corrugated cardboard. (Cardboard was removed after concrete dried and gap was then caulked.

Rebar was put along the length and width and between the two flues and was tied together with wire and then raised up to the mid-point of the crown using rocks.

Steve wasn't sure if the weight of the concrete might cause the form to blow out and break apart, so he took some wire and wrapped the box to be safe. Since the form was screwed together (for strength and easy disassembly), Steve thinks this reinforcement is not needed.

In this photo, he was ready to pour the concrete.

He mixed up the concrete, poured it and created the recommended slope. He took a hammer and pounded all sides of the form to eliminate air bubbles. According to Steve, it was about 75 blows. He is nothing if not detailed and is helping me write this if you can't tell!

He then tarped the form with plastic sheeting to slow the drying process, which makes for stronger concrete. He kept it tarped for a week.

**It's important not to tarp the flues for safety reasons. Chimneys need to operate at all times...CO2 etc...! We do not have fireplaces, but our boiler and water heaters are connected to the chimneys and need to be vented outside for safety.

After the concrete cured for a week, Steve unscrewed the form, removed the drip edge strip of wood underneath, removed the cardboard and installed foam backer rod into the cavity and then applied a generous amount of caulking around the flue.

In keeping with our new thriftiness, we purchased inexpensive galvanized painted steel chimney cap kits.

Of course, there are chimney crowns made of aluminum or copper, which will last forever but are much more costly. We opted to be budget conscious and these should last 10 years. Assembly is very easy. They get mounted to the cap as seen.
One thing Steve did to extend the life of the structure was to raise the cap using 1" chrome spacers, which will hopefully prevent moisture from corroding the bottom of the frame.

So, we have now stopped the rapid deterioration of our chimneys and hopefully we will be solid for some time to come.

Many people never go up on their roof until there is a problem. It's very important to inspect your roof once a year. We usually do this in the fall.

Steve is really becoming quite the amateur mason around here. I think I'll keep him for a while longer. :o)

Sunday, November 02, 2008

We have entered the "No-Spend Zone"

I have to admit I've been pretty preoccupied with what has been going on in the world recently. I'm also very excited because I am one of the lucky 65,000 that have a ticket to the Obama rally this Tuesday. I am going to witness history firsthand (I hope).

I listen to NPR on my way to work in the morning and hear all the speculation about the future of the economy. I read The Huffington Post every day. And I pray. And I am not a religious person, but I still pray. What else can we do?

Well, there is one thing, although to express it here makes me feel like a heretic because it goes against what our economy is generally based on. But I'll just say it. Stop spending money. Better yet, stop spending money that one doesn't have.

Actually, I wouldn't dream of telling anyone else what to do. That would make me like Suze Orman and she kind of annoys me with her dogma. When I see her on TV saying people shouldn't spend any money, I want to respond "Suze, people can't stop living! They have to celebrate their child's birthdays. They have to have some fun. They can't just work and pay debts. They may as well be in a debtor's prison then, even if it is one of their own making." Honestly, I don't think she has a clue of what life is like for most people. She's out of touch. Some of her ideas are good, but she is too extreme for me.

Here at the 2-flat, we are evaluating our plans. We have debt and we have savings. We have been planning a few projects for this winter like adding some kitchen cabinets. We need a new sofa. Things like that. Because of what has been going on in the world, we have decided to wait on any big expenditures.

Rather, we will work on projects where we already have the materials and I am going to get some pillows recovered to spruce up our living room rather than buy a new sofa. There are things we can do that will not cost much and those things will move to the top of the list.

We have cut way back on eating out and are buy things on sale at the grocery store whenever possible. We have entered what I am calling, "the no-spend zone." It's a mind set and I think it will be good for us. We will pay off our debts and save money. This feels like the right thing to do at this time.

We are fortunate in that my job is pretty secure. I work for a high-end company and sales are still up- i.e. the rich are still rich. Steve has his own marketing and communications business and steady customers, but advertising is vulnerable in a bad economy and so we have reason to be cautious.

I just wanted to post about this because it is really a part of what is going on right now and years from now, I want to remember this. And I would also like to hear from other people as to what they are doing and how this whole mess is affecting them. My heart goes out to anyone who has lost their job. I know people in this situation.

With all this going on, I am still hopeful. Studs Turkel just died and I think of him and his book "Hope Dies Last: Keeping the Faith in Difficult Times". I think now is the time to check that book out of the library.

Fall is falling

We took a trip to the Chicago Botanical Gardens last weekend. The wind was brisk but it was a beautiful day.

I've been pretty busy with shutting down the garden for the season (digging up cannas, mulching, transplanting and tweaking, bulb planting etc...). Steve has been finishing up the chimney cap project which I will be doing a post on very soon.
For now, I'll share some more photos from our field trip. With all the rain we had this year, the fall foliage has been so pretty.
How about these mums for some color therapy?

This is from the prairie section of the garden. What you can't get from this picture is the sound of the grass in the wind. There's a reason why "The Wind in the Willows" makes a great book title.

Of course, we often get ideas when we visit places like this. Steve saw this evergreen container garden and said this would be his garden project for next year.

Speaking of evergreens, I realy liked these in the Conifer section of the garden.

Not sure what this is, but it reminds me of some kind of thistle and we both thought it was very cool.

One last look at the fall foliage...

I guess I kind of hope that life follows the cycles of nature. If so, the autumn of life should be pretty great.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

It was a dark and stormy night..

It's been raining here all day long. I really can't complain though because some people have a hurricaine to deal with.

I am a person that is not really afraid of bugs in general. I've been known to smash ants or small moths with my bare hands. Centipedes are a different story. Those, I tend to sick Billie on. Terriers come in handy in this way.

But I am in awe of the spider that dwells in our gangway. First of all, I am convinced this creature is a genius as it it selected probably the best location on our property. And it is eating very well- I've stood there and watched it.

Here it is. Isn't it amazing?

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Parkway Expansion

I took advantage of the long weekend and I am about 90% done with our parkway project.

2 trips to Buy the Yard to get river rocks
400 pounds of rock
4 bags hardwood mulch
3 bags of soil conditioner
1/2 day Saturday
1/2 day Sunday
one achey elbow

Here is the view from the south side. The bed has hostas bordering it, iris, roses, sedum, some alliums, our slowly growing pine tree, and one hardy shrub (seen on the far end).

I plan to add a bunch of daffodils and muscari for the spring.

This is the view from the north. On Monday I saw a little boy walking along the rocks and I thought that was kind of cute.

Here is the last section, which I will be wrapping up this coming weekend.

The worst part about this whole project was removing the grass and also digging out the very compacted and root filled soil.

Anyone who has excavated a city parkway will know what I am talking about. But what I kept telling myself is that this is a "one time" job and as long as I do not plant grass again- I will never have to go through this again! Kind of like stripping woodwork- don't paint it and you won't have to strip it again.

I am super happy with the way this project turned out. I didn't have to buy a single plant either after dividing up the existing hostas and relocating a few others from various parts of the yard.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Life is funny

Last week I noticed my right elbow was hurting, kind of like what one might call a "tennis elbow" only I haven't been playing tennis. I was puzzled over what I had done to injure myself. Plenty of times while working on projects I bruise or cut myself and don't even notice until later on. The adrenaline of working I guess.

But usually when I strain something, I know why. Case in point, pulling nails from a bazillion boards using a vise grips. My hands were in traction after that. I knew why.

I just couldn't think of what had caused this. Then it dawned on me... It was the garlic press! I had made garlic olio using a manual garlic press and pressed so much garlic that I gave myself garlic press elbow. Leave it to me to overexert myself cooking dinner.

I determined to buy a better garlic press. I have too many important things to do to be disabled by any inferior garlic press. So, off to Crate & Barrel I went.

Blissed out day

Today was one of those oh-so-very sweet days of summer. Just an ordinary Saturday for us really. Steve was cutting and installing the trim for the new screen doors and I was putting a second coat of paint on the front iron railing and I washed the windows on the first floor.

But this morning when I went out into the yard to have a cup of coffee, the sky was so beautiful and the light so perfect, I decided to take some photos of the garden.

I've posted pictures this year of the backyard, but it's at it's peak about now, although the lilies are all gone. Sunflowers, Phlox & Black-eyed Susans are all blooming. I like this photo because Mojo was looking at me.

Here is a shot of the frontyard- no grass anymore as you can see. Once you get perennials established, they are so much less work than a lawn. They bring birds and butterflies and compliments. You just don't compliments on a lawn the way you do with flowers. At least not in my part of town.

Here is the parkway, which I have taken over about 50% of the way. This fall I am going to remove the remaining lawn and divide those massive hostas to I have a complete border of them.

And here is what you see when you leave our house. I guess you could say my garden is therapy for me. It sure puts me in a good mood. And so does summer. Tomorrow, we are headed for the lakefront and the beach. I hope you are enjoying your summer too.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Thing of beauty

Last weekend, Steve & I went in search of a table base for a kitchen table. We've been eating every meal in the dining room for quite some time and while that is so very civilized of us, we longed for more casual meals in our kitchen. Actually what we really long for is not having to carry everything into the dining room for every meal.

We headed to a magnificent place called Architectural Artifacts. If you haven't been, go. You won't believe it. It's not cheap, but it is the best salvage place in Chicago and that says something. They have everything from $30K garden statues (I'm not kidding) to tables sprawling with antique tile to rooms filled with an amazing multitude of fireplace mantels. I glazed over at the sight of a half dozen or so polished cast iron fireplaces.
The owner, Stuart Grannen is constantly traveling the world in search of treasures. It shows.

They had a pretty good selection of table bases that I found to be pricey and nothing spectacular. Then, we came upon a selection of English pub tables. As you can see, we took one home with us.

The first thing we did after bringing it in was cut a plywood top for it. This served two purposes. One, we could use the table this way and two, we needed to determine the optimum size for our space. We started with just under 38" and that was too large. The scale seemed a little off in the room.

Steve cut a few inches off and the table size now seems perfect. Today, he went to another favorite place of ours, Owl Hardwood & Lumber to select some bird's eye maple for the table top he will be making. As I said, a thing of beauty, a forever table I am calling it.
As I'm writing this, Steve has just come home and is bringing in the wood. Bird's eye maple... He really knows how to get to me.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

World's Most Famous Kitchen

I'm kidding of course, but our kitchen was featured again in a publication. This time Better Homes & Gardens Do It Yourself magazine.

After the Chicago Tribune, The Reader, and now we've gone national, our humble little 2-flat kitchen just feels so proud.

Nothing like professional photography to make your house look it's best too.

This interview and photo shoot was about a year ago and I had thought it was dropped, but then voila, 4 issues came in the mail this week.

Want to hear the funniest part about this? We actually are not "done done" with our kitchen. It's just hilarious I know.

The pantry is 97% done, just needs some trim work. We decided to add more cabinetry over the stove because believe it or not, we need more storage. And we have just purchased a table base for the kitchen so that we can finally have an eat-in kitchen! Steve will be fabricating the table top soon. And he still needs to make a plate rack too. Then, we'll be "done done," unless we decide to get new counter tops or something.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

This is the house that nature built...

We spent last week in Ludington, Michigan visiting Steve's parents. When we go there, we always get in a day of hiking and a short canoe trip.

As we walked the trail, the thought came to my mind that we were in "Nature's House". I studied poetry in college and sometimes it comes back to me. Not like it used to. I used to think in poems all the time, but when I got into the business world, that kind of went away.

I chalk that up to not being immersed in a creative workshop (as I was in college) and instead being immersed in the business world. I like when that poetic thinking comes back to me. To me that means that this part of me is still there, just kind of dormant for now.

Even a day hike is a lovely respite for my mind. Taking in the quiet and just noticing all the small details. Like this expanse of maple tree seedlings. I was really amazed with nature's abundance when I saw this.

Or this bit of a tree covered in moss that looked like a hand. "Nature's hand," I thought to myself.
Or this area where the dune and forest meet.

Some people need to travel the world to see things, but I am a firm believer that you can see quite a bit right in your own "backyard". Not that I am against travel in the least. But I'm all for being a tourist in your own town. It's amazing to me how many people rush through life and don't notice what's going on right beside them.

That's what a walk in the woods reminds me of.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Hello Civilization Goodbye Moths

I won't miss those dive bombing moths that fly in my face and make me worry about my wardrobe one bit.

One screen door down and one to go. The thing with a 2-flat is you need two of everything. Two chances to get a project right. Two times the fun. haha.

Plus we still have to put the trim back and paint it. I'll get to it soon. I'm just moving slower these days as if you can't tell.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

It'll do (a belated patio update)

I'm the first to admit that our patio is not much to look at. But at least we can use it now.

Just to give you an idea of what is involved to patch a few areas of a patio like we did, I'm going to give a little summary:

Twenty-five bags of concrete were needed for these two areas. One area was about 7' L x 2' W and the other was about 7'L x 7'W.

Steve and I made a few trips to Home Depot and Clark Devon for concrete bags as we didn't want to overburden our car with all that weight (not a good idea).

Since we didn't realize when we planned the project just how many bags it would take, we had decided to not rent a mixer and instead mix it all manually using our brute strength (free advice: Do not do this). We took turns. Steve would mix while I used the hose to add water and then the reverse. It pretty much took all day on a Saturday, but we finished in one day. And it whooped us good- we were fairly useless and cranky the rest of the weekend.

I have so many plans for our backyard and they include a new patio with stone or brick. And I've watched more than my share of "Landscaper's Challenge." But alas, they will have to wait.

Next spring we are 90% sure we will have a new fence on the north side of our yard put in (we will probably do ourselves in a few weekends) and after that I can finally plant more trees and shrubs and implement more of my landscaping plans. But for a new patio, we will probably wait until we get a new back porch.

In these parts (Chicago), a 2-story enclosed deck built to the new Chicago codes would run us about $20K- not exactly small change. (This price includes the tear down and removal of the existing back porch.)
At dinner that same Saturday night, we ate at a local place in their outdoor patio in back. We noticed they didn't have a first floor porch and that gave us the idea to just have an upper deck and only a small landing and staircase from our kitchen to the yard rather than a deck. This would enable us to have a larger patio. And a stone patio would last longer than a wood deck and need less maintenance.

We have time to plan and time to consider our options. Lack of funds gives one time to ponder. And in the meantime, we at least have a usable patio. As I said, it'll do!