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Adding a Bathroom

We needed another bathroom, don’t get me wrong, but we only added a second one so that we could renovate the first one. Read on to find out how we tucked one away in an abandoned attic room.

Entering My Blue Period

Well, I showed you a glimpse of the worst bathroom in the Western Hemisphere yesterday. Bold claim, I know. But in case you missed it, here it is again:

That is, as they say in Mejico, no bueno. This is just how we found the only working bathroom in our house when we bought it. I think that’s antifreeze in the bowl. I mean, I pray that’s anti-freeze in the bowl. Other possibilities are too gruesome to consider. The rest of the room was just as bad. The tub was a horror. I think they were washing farm animals and degreasing auto parts in it, mostly. The sink had scorch marks all over it where the former owners had put down their cigarettes while washing their hands, or whatever they were washing and smoking. I had to convince myself, and then my family, that if I got running water in there, we could use this room for a while. If the room was actually full of wolves, instead of just the wallpaper border variety, it would still be about as inviting to enter. I got the plumbing going, shellacked the floor, painted the walls off-white, and we used it like that. For years.

No matter how you slice it, bathrooms and kitchens cost real money. You can redecorate a bedroom for pennies compared to a bathroom. Hell, that’s the true reason ginormous houses are so cheap, comparatively. After you put in a kitchen, a couple of bathrooms, an HVAC system, and some plumbing, all the rest of the rooms are just big, cheap, plastery boxes tacked onto the expensive core. A six-bedroom house is a lot cheaper than a six-bathroom house for this reason. We just couldn’t afford to fix this bathroom properly for a long time.

But I exaggerated a bit when I said this was the worst bathroom in Christendom. There is one example that’s worse: no bathroom. We flirted with the no bathroom gambit during our Geyser of Excrement period, which you may remember. I sure do.

When we bought this house, I was sure that this bathroom would be the first room in the house to get a real makeover. I was sure wrong. We limped along with it for many years. Four of us using it every day didn’t make it any more convivial in there. But I’d learned my lesson when this hellhole flirted with giving up the poopy ghost. A bad bathroom is bad, but you must avoid the no bathroom problem at all costs. So when it came time to actually do something about this bathroom, I did the smart thing, for the second time in my life. I built another bathroom to take its place first. I entered my Blue Period.

There was this room at the end of the hall upstairs. It’s in the back of the house, so those windows are four stories above ground. Helluva view. But the room was really weirdly configured. There was a lot of it, but it wasn’t in a useful shape.

And like everything in my house, including the exterior, it was painted a dreadful blue color. I essentially never use blue in color schemes for houses. No matter how you slice it, it’s a cool color. In a climate like ours, painting your rooms in arctic shades is a bad idea. And don’t try to run that jive on me about “warming up” the blue color. If you warm up blue enough to live in a room painted with it, it’s green. I just start out with green and skip the blue period altogether.

There was no working electricity in the room. There was a hanging pull-chain light fixture that whacked me in the face over and over like Moe, but it never worked. Mice had chewed all the insulation off the wires leading to that baseboard heater, so we wouldn’t be turning that on. Because the room was so useless, the kids took it over and made it their own. They said they wanted to learn to play music in there. With no heat or electricity, I was certain they really meant it when they said it. If people will do things when they’re hard, they’ll do even more things when it’s easy.

My wife and I used to enjoy watching the kids play up there, with bits of plaster from the ceiling falling on our heads.

But time passes and the kids found other places to play, and the Blue Room was back in circulation.

So the floor was sagging, and the roof was crumbling, and the room was shaped like a Minotaur’s lair. There was no plumbing and no electricity. This was going to be easy.

Interestingly, Derogatory Boston Caste System Is the Name of My Dropkick Murphy’s Tribute Band. But I Digress


Architect: One who drafts a plan of your house, and plans a draft of your money.

Ambrose Bierce

So, we were presented with a common design dilemma. A Victorian house is laid out differently than a more recent pile of sticks and bricks. The rooms are too big, or too small, or not where you expect them. Bathrooms are always in short supply, although a Victorian bathroom in good repair is a wonderful thing. They invented bathrooms, after all. They pretty much got it right on the first go-round. Everything was white, for cleanliness. Toilet, sink, tub, lots of white tile, with interesting patterns on the mosaic floors.

A Victorian house with two bathrooms was a rarity. For instance there used to be a pecking order of poshness for Boston Irish, which I am, sorta.  They knew a thing or two about Victorian houses, and pecking orders. They had to mop the floors in them at first, and eventually they lived in them when the structures were run down enough to afford the rent. The bottom rung of the Boston Irish social climbing ladder was ignant bogtrotter. Then came shanty Irish. If you rose further in the world, you could become cut-glass Irish, also known as lace-curtain Irish. Middle class. The pinnacle, of course, was two-toilet Irish.

So, we were coming up in the world, but a second toilet in a Victorian house presents more problems than just a derogatory Boston caste system. You’re going to have to make a bathroom out of a room that ain’t. Converting a closet won’t do. Victorian houses don’t generally have those, either, and if they do, they’re only big enough for one suit of clothes, and forty thousand moths. Lotsa more recently constructed houses simply convert a bedroom into a bathroom. Modern-ish bedrooms, like you’d find in a ranch, are usually pretty small, and three fixtures and a bathroom scale you’re avoiding all fit in there nicely. Victorians like ours have all kinds of “chambers,” their word for bedrooms, and parlor after parlor. The problem? These rooms are huge.

Our bedroom is 16′ x 16′. Our kids’ bedrooms are about the same, with some jogs in the floor plan to accommodate dormers. Our living room is 18′ in one direction. So is the kitchen. Our dining room is 225 square feet. Hell, our existing bathroom was an afterthought in this house, and it has room for three fixtures and a washer and dryer in it. Many people in the town we live in convert a Victorian bedroom into a much needed bathroom. The fixtures look lost in them, and there’s this weird tiled dance floor in the middle of the room. You’re often required to go through a bedroom to get to the bathroom, too.

There’s plumbing considerations to go with deep thoughts about floor plans. You can snake water lines most anywhere nowadays using pex piping, but the big drain, waste, vent (DWV) line has to go out through the basement and up through the roof. I stood on my head and squinted, but I couldn’t figure out any way to add a bathroom in our house until we discovered a main drain on the opposite side of the house from the original.

So the Blue Room was too big for a bathroom, and too weirdly shaped for a bedroom. We’ve got more bedrooms than we need, anyway. But I began to wonder. What if it was two rooms? Could I fit a bathroom in there, with a room left over? This portion of the room started looking appetizing:

There’s a chimney stack in the wall to the right. That can’t go anywhere. Sloped ceilings all over. Attics and crawl spaces galore behind the kneewalls. I made a plan for a bathroom on an index card. It was a rectangle with two dimensions. I measured down from the imaginary spot on the ceiling slopes where I could still stand up, projected an extension of the existing wall on the left, and miracle of miracles, there was exactly enough room for a three fixture bathroom. The kitchen was directly below that rectangle, and we could continue the plumbing pipes down through there and out the basement. If the rectangle was 1″ smaller in either dimension, it wouldn’t have fit.

I ran downstairs to tell my wife the good news. She casually mentioned it was 2 AM, and that good news can generally wait until daybreak. Then she rubbed her eyes, sat up in bed, and looked at my index card. You know, the one with nothing but a crudely drawn rectangle and two numbers on it. Since I was finishing a sentence I started two weeks before, regarding an idea a month or two old, all she had to go on was, you guessed it, an index card with a crudely drawn rectangle and two numbers on it.

I’ve accomplished many wonderful things in my life. Staying married is right at the top of the list.

[To be continued]

Wintertime, and the Venting Is Easy

Well, the planning stage, such as it was, was over. Nothing left to do but bang nails. We extended one of the walls that formed the dormer straight across until it hit the wall with the chimney in it. There’s a work box for the light switch for an overhead light in the new bathroom. My son is still smiling, so I assume he hasn’t hit his thumb with a hammer yet. Either that, or he’s smiling because his father just hit his thumb with a hammer. I notice a torchiere lamp off to the right in that photo. I’m beginning to recall this job in detail. It was winter, and the room was cold indeed, and dark as a teen romance.

Once the wall was in place, we covered it with 1/2″ thick drywall sheets. If you’re wondering what’s going on in the following picture, I’ll do my best to ‘splain it to you, Lucy. When you frame a wall, it’s customary to extend the bottom plate (the 2×4 running horizontally at the floor) the length of the wall, including across any door openings. That way, there’s less chance that the left and right sides of the opening will be out of alignment when it comes time to hang a door in it. Once the wall is firmly affixed to the subfloor, you cut the stub out. That’s what the spare heir is up to. I’m probably thinking great thoughts, or sleeping. I know which way I’d bet, if wagering was allowed.

I had a scavenged solid wood, 6-panel door kicking around the basement. I rescued it out of a dumpster something like thirty years ago. It was trimmed down already, so we made the door opening fit it, not the other way around. It’s not that hard to make a door jamb, and mortise in some hinges. I’ve done it many dozens of times over the years. If you can deal with slab doors like this, you can save a bunch of money.

We all have to give my wife a pass on the fuzzy photography this go-round.  It was pretty dark in there, and cold enough to shiver. But here’s what’s going on behind the door and under the floor. I had to get the floor level. It was sloped pretty badly from right to left in the next picture. Bathroom fixtures don’t like to sit on sloped floors.

The floors in a house this vintage (1901) are just two layers of wood planks. The top layer is 7/8″ thick tongue and groove pine, and the subfloor is 7/8″ thick pine laid on the diagonal. I demolished a strip of the finish floor on the high side, and added a shim above the floor on the low side. Then we laid a new plywood subfloor. It butted into the existing floor on the high side, and the low side is hidden inside a crawl space we’re leaving. All the drain piping was laid in the floor already when this photo was taken. You can see the floor drain pipe for the toilet, a drain for the sink, and on the left, a vent pipe for the tub. The pipes are at an angle because the new wall is sitting on top of a joist below, and I didn’t want to notch it, or move it. We’ll put the plumbing mostly behind this wall, not in it, because we can.  The hot and cold pex pipes are stubbed up into the wall, too.

Our cat is always getting into everything. This isn’t a surprise anymore, so I plan on it. Every night, after working on the subfloor and the pipes in the floor, I always nailed the demolished flooring back over the hole to keep her out of it. One morning, I opened up the floor to work on it, and looked down the joist bay to see something or other, and saw two blinking eyes in there. I still can’t figure out how she got in there.

Who, me?

We set the tub in its niche. It’s a 60″ long enameled steel tub. That’s the one dimension that was-non-negotiable when planning this bathroom. You have to fit a five-foot tub in it. Enameled steel is the cheapest thing you can buy and still call it a tub. No one likes enameled steel tubs anymore. I hate all plastic tubs, and can’t afford a cast-iron job, so this is fine with me.

If you’re smart, you can avoid most of the trouble people encounter with enameled steel tubs. First, buy it at the store, not online, and open the box right there. You’ll find out if it’s got dents and chipped enamel from being dropped, right away, and you can ask for another one.

Next, deal with the flimsy-feeling problem. Enameled steel is kind of flexible. It feels a little wobbly underfoot. Before you set the tub in place, mix up a batch of mortar. Any old kind. Dump the mortar on the floor, and then set the tub on top of it while the mortar’s wet. When it dries, it’s really solid. The mortar holds heat, too, so your cheap enameled steel tub feels like a cast iron job when you stand in it, or soak in it.

It’s a wild scene when you’re setting a tub like this. You have to line up the drain with the rough plumbing while it’s being set. You need to smoosh the mortar down at the same time. We had fun with me laying on the floor behind the tub to futz with the plumbing, while my wife and son marched in place inside the tub. If you’re smart, you cut up the box the tub comes in and lay a piece in the bottom to protect the finish. If you’re really smart, you cut a piece of OSB and lay it on top of the tub after it’s in place and use it like a worktable.

Lastly, be careful when you affix the tub to the wall studs. Unlike a plastic tub, you can’t just drill holes through the flange and screw it to the walls. Get plastic fender washers and pinch the flange to the wall with the screw fully above the flange. Don’t use metal washers or the enamel will crack and get rusty.

Here’s the rough plumbing in place. You can see the big drain, waste, vent (DWV)pipe going up through the roof. I had to punch a hole in the roof and put a flange around the pipe. That roof is forty feet up, but you can walk on that part of it, thank the savior. We also poked a hole for the exhaust fan and installed the outlet while I was up there.

In the picture, you can see the blocking installed in the stud bays for the sink. There’s a double-gang electrical work box. It will have a GFCI plug and a duplex switch that has the fan on the top and a wall sconce switch on the bottom. There’s a copper stubout for the toilet, and two for the sink. The drain is under the floor, going left to right. It drops, takes a turn, and runs along the ceiling in the kitchen (hidden in a soffit), goes outside to the pantry porch, goes down two stories into the car hole, and finally leaves the building through the main house drain. Everything just fit, without 1/2″ to spare. The pex pipe is color coded for hot and cold, but it’s the same stuff no matter what color it is. You always end up with too much red and not enough blue, and use the red up on cold water lines, and things like that shower spout leader.

The sink’s drain continues up and becomes a vent, and ties into the main vent. The pipe on the left is a vent for the tub. It’s technically overkill, because the sink vent could handle another fixture, but what the hell, the wall is open and the venting is easy.

[To be continued. Thanks for supporting this site. Please tell an internet friend that Sippican Cottage is back in business]

Always Go for the Least Worst Option

You’re drowning in the deep blue sea, and the devil is dog-paddling right behind you.  You just bounced off the Scylla, and now you’re careening towards Charybdis. You’ve waved goodbye to the frying pan, when the fire says, “Trick or treat!” Where are you, exactly, to find yourself in such dire straits? In the tile aisle at the home center, of course. You’re trying to figure out the lesser of two evils.

Well, to be precise, if you’re like me, you’re trying to determine the lesser of 457 evils. Man, tile has gotten ugly in the last twenty years. It used to be fairly difficult to futz up your bathroom with tile. There just weren’t that many styles and colors to choose from. Of course you could still choose the ugliest color because you saw it on the teevee. I know, you’d love to tear it all out and make a completely different kind of error this time. But the ugliest tile from a selection limited to four colors can’t compare to what the 457th bay in the Home Depot has in store for you. Imagine Zsa Zsa Gabor’s bathroom if she lived in a single-wide, to get the idea.

Like most things in the redecorating world, a good offensive coordinator isn’t helpful, or even necessary. You don’t need to know what the latest design trend is. You’d be better off not knowing. You need to learn to play defense. You’ve got to defend yourself against fads, and confine yourself to the least worst things available.

We were luckier than most people. We were broke. We couldn’t afford to buy any really of the manifold examples of ugly, gaudy tile they had for sale. But as they say in high finance, bad money drives out good. Same goes for tile. There’s a lot of tile in a home center, it’s true, but there’s only so much shelf space. The bad stuff crowds out the good stuff. But if you poke around, you can usually find a small selection of the plainest, least expensive things they’ve got. That’s what you want. That’s what we got.

We’re tiling the tub surround, and the floor. The floor is a sheet of exterior grade plywood. That’s a great substrate for tiled floors. We screwed some form of concrete board to walls around the tub. Plastic three-piece tub surrounds are all the rage. I hatem. It’s weird, but they cost more than inexpensive tile in some cases. It’s the labor that costs, and I’m not paying me, so I don’t care about that.

This job is from a few years back. There was a tremendous fad for really gaudy cement tile in very bold patterns. I have no idea if it’s blown over yet or not. It all looked vaguely Iberian to my eye. We selected the least worst version of it. It was discontinued, and discounted heavily. That’s another tell. In general, discontinued patterns and colors are no longer available because they’re not hideous enough for the botoxed host-du-jour on H&G teevee. We’ll take ’em, thanks, and keep the change.

Sorry, but there aren’t many how-to photos available. I was working pretty fast and don’t carry a phone to take incremental pictures, and my wife was busy feeding us and homeschooling the spare heir and so forth. We relied on an old stand-by, subway tile, for the tub surround. You can spend a lot of money on subway tile, if you’re a lunatic. They do have fancy kinds, which are like cheap ones, but made deliberately defective, or swollen and misshapen, or in weird dimensions or colors, and cost a lot. But 3″ x 6″ white rectangles are still on the shelf if you look hard enough. They cost pennies.

We bought this sink a decade ago, and it’s lain unused in our closet, waiting for our bathroom remodel. We bought it because we needed a new toilet right away, and Home Depot sold packages of fixtures at rock-bottom prices back then. No one was ever going to buy or build a house after the Great Recession, remember?

Anyway, our kids were going to use this bathroom and we figured what the hell, we’d rather give it to them than have it ourselves. Everyone should have children to discover this strange desire to love others more than themselves. The only stronger love I know of is between a tween girl and an iPhone.

The bathroom’s small, but it’s not cramped. There’s no storage under a pedestal sink, so I buried a niche in the wall to hold sundries. My spare heir executed the paint by numbers on the wall. It’s interesting, but when he paints a paint by numbers painting, it has a style. His style. I’ve never seen that achieved before. Anyway, it’s good to have something from your own selves on display in your house. You can’t purchase “Homey” at the store, homie.

It’s pretty bright in there, even though there’s no window within hand-grenade distance. And now, with a second bathroom in the house, we can demolish the original one, because it’s a horror.

So, is it a good bathroom? Well, it helped win the Physics Prize for the spare heir, which helped him graduate as the Valedictorian of his charter school, which entitled him to a free ride at the state college, where he’s currently on the President’s list.

Admit it. That’s a pretty good bathroom.

Patches, I’m Depending On You, Son

So yesterday, we wrapped up the new bathroom project. But what about the leftover room next door? We carved the bathroom footprint out of the useless corner of a weirdly-shaped attic room. What sort of mess did we make of the rest of it?

This is what the room looked like before. The windows were a total loss. They didn’t operate, they leaked, had broken panes, and generally sucked pond water. I salvaged the sashes out of them, and we used them to make windows for our laundry room last year. I suppose I’ll bore you with that saga some other time. But the kindly neighbor who gave us some used vinyl windows that were heading for the dump included a couple of shorter ones. If I raised the sill, they’d do fine. I raised the sill.

Another neighbor was cleaning out his garage, and had some pine boards he was discarding. They never touched the ground before I intercepted them. I made the entire window frame, sill, and apron out of them. Thanks Rich!

I built an access door and frame to get into the crawlspace between the new bathroom walls and the old attic kneewalls. It’s handy because you can go in and inspect the plumbing from behind the wall any old time you feel like it. That’s especially handy when I’m the plumber.

The ceiling was a disasterpiece. The yellow color you see is the original coat of calsomine paint from 1901. Calsomine paint isn’t. It’s a form of whitewash. It’s always water soluble, like paste, no matter how long it’s been on the plaster. That’s why paint applied over it always peels. Someone painted over it, it peeled, and they smushed some textured goo over that to try to stem the peeling tile, and it came off in chunks from time to time. I gave up trying to restore it pretty quick. There was no way I wanted to demolish the ceiling, though. The attic proper is above this ceiling, and it’s filled with blown in insulation, bat guano, squirrel dandruff, and other unpleasantness. I wasn’t going to invite that to rain down on my head. So we knocked off the high spots in the textured coatings, and covered the ceiling with sheets of drywall.

There was a curve in the ceiling over the windows, and I had to score the back of the drywall into a series of facets to bend it around. Many people say that I’m halfway around the bend myself, so work like that comes naturally to me, I guess. Other than that, I depended on patches to repair the lath and plaster walls. The trim is made from lumberyard pine, with the knots mostly cut out. We replace the plain, square blocks in the corners of the door frames with a built-up header that’s slightly more modern, if you consider the Depression recent history.

We did manage to fish in some outlets. They weren’t easy. We ran the wire for the one you see on the left up and over the door frame from the one on the right. We put a switch outside the room in the hall that controls the overhead light.

I had a five-gallon pail of paint I mixed from odds and ends of leftover wall paint. They all added up to a medium blue, so I dumped in some raw sienna and raw umber pigment to get an acceptable green. The floor was beyond refinishing. It had been painted more times than a stripper’s toenails. I squirted the same raw sienna pigment into a quart of alkyd primer and painted the floor with it. The wood work is White Dove from Benjamin Moore. The room was wired for cable (internet) and a data line. There’s a four-gang plug there, too, which is quite a step up from the complete lack of electricity this room formerly enjoyed. The room is big enough to be a small bedroom, and it has a big closet, but we don’t need another bedroom. The room makes a good office, but it’s currently what we call a Snug for the ugly roomer that lives upstairs and looks like me when I was in high school. There’s a TV screen and some rocking chairs and a plant we’re currently killing.

I guess, now we’re going to have to fix the bathroom downstairs.

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Tag: adding a bathroom

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