The never-ending renovation, and what I learned… so far


I live in an old stone house which was built between 1839 and 1849. In the 1970’s, an addition was added on, extending the original house with a large family room, extra bedrooms, a rec room, and two extra bathrooms. Over the past three weeks during my vacation, we’ve been working on upgrading the dated interior. This included:

  1. Updating two bathrooms. These were stripped to bare walls and redone. The demolition had been done before the vacation, so all that was left was to repair floors, install tiled flooring, new tub, shower, vanity, toilets, and associated fixtures. Plumbing is not my favorite thing, and my plumber, like me, was on vacation, so I ended up doing it. The pipes are circa 1970, and waste pipes are all copper or cast iron. None of the sizes seemed to match the modern brass or PVC / ABS pipes so that created some adaptation problems.
  2. Removing old carpet, and installing hardwood flooring in my home office. Rehanging the doors, and cleaning up the baseboards, adding quarter round at the perimeter of the floor, and cleaning up the office of old papers and files – a great opportunity to purge. With this vacation project done, I now have NO carpet anywhere in the house. It is all wood floor! I love it.
  3. Upgrading all the telephone wiring. It was old and mouse eaten and made noise. I have a neighbor who does data wiring for a living so I had him come in and update all the voice and data wiring to Cat-5E and run additional lines from the newer part of the house to the old stone house so that I could connect a second wireless router. The two-foot thick stone wall between the addition and the original house made wifi connectivity a bit flaky. It was time to deal with it once and for all.
  4. Laundry room – new baseboards, trim, and a brand new set of cupboards for storage.
  5. Finishing the ceilings in the rec room and laundry room, new lighting, crown mouldings, and paint.

The rec room doubled as a staging area. I placed old bed sheets and plywood on the pool table, making a large and sturdy work bench. I had tools everywhere. On top of having rooms torn apart, we also had some extra furniture at the house – being stored for family. We could hardly move around the house without bumping into things. I am surprised we didn’t kill each other.

At work, I have led some large projects, involving hundreds of people on multiple continents. The reno has become my largest personal project and it is by far more exhausting than anything I’ve done professionally, at least until I figured out I was going at it wrong. Keep in mind that this renovation and home improvement exercise is the second one I have undertaken, and this one has been running for 8 years, with improvements done little by little, year over year. I have contracted out some of the work, but a good part of it, I have done myself.  My first project was a 12 year-long restoration and upgrading of a house in the city of Ottawa. This was my first house, built in 1902, in the neighborhood of Westboro. In this marathon, every wall, floor, staircase, and piece of infrastructure was updated. Wiring was upgraded from knob and tube to meet the existing electrical code. The service was upgraded from a 60 amp to a 200 amp panel. All the old galvanized plumbing was replaced with copper. Lath and plaster walls were preserved and repaired, but where we had to fish wire and update plumbing, we ended up replacing the lath and plaster with drywall (sheetrock). The basement floor was lowered so that we could have more headroom. This involved a jack-hammer and buckets to carry out the busted up concrete. The forced air oil furnace was replaced with a high efficiency natural gas unit. All the duct work was upgraded. Central air was put in. All the windows and doors were replaced. The sun room off the back of the house was jacked up and new supports were installed underneath. The swimming pool was repaired. I installed a solar pool heating system, and interlocking patio around the perimeter of the pool and a deck. All the original trim in the house was stripped down to its original wood and refinished. I did most of this work myself.

The farmhouse where I live now is my second major project. In all, I have spent 20 years restoring old houses. I have learned a lot. And I have learned that I have a lot to learn. I am a master at accumulating inventory and technical debt on my personal projects. I fail to clean up, I put things where I can’t find them, and have too many things on the go at any one time. It is a Lean waste nightmare. But I am trying… So this time, I used a Kanban board, and took time out for clean-up and breaks. (I’ll call this mental and physical re-factoring and planning time as well as daily retrospectives.) I focused on sustainable pace. I became fanatical about what I would or would not do, including choosing carefully, what to start or stop doing to avoid multitasking. The breaks were vital. I work mostly by myself, so when it comes to staying motivated and focused, it is all up to me to do it. I would often work well past the time I was alert and clear-headed and make mistakes.

When the hardwood flooring was going in, I made the mistake of working past my alert stage and fired some nails in part way with the pneumatic nailer and made bad cuts. These were costly mistakes in terms of wasted time. The material wastes were the odd ruined floor board. But the time it took to remove a badly installed board or a misfired t-nail was dramatic. So I started taking more frequent breaks and stopping at the first signs of fatigue. The next morning I was better for the rest, and made up any lost effort from the previous day. When I stopped early, I used the time to clean up and do a retrospective on the day, and plan the next day with my Product Owner, (my wife).

The plumbing was another example. I made repeated trips to the plumbing supplier because I failed to get extra parts “just in case” which I ended up needing anyway.  I was thinking about efficiency of cost rather than time. I paid dearly until late in the game I simply started buying two of just about everything that I thought I could screw up and after the work was done, returned what I didn’t need. What drove me to that decision was welding together some PVC drain pipe which hardened before I could twist a 90 degree coupling in place to align vertically with its mate on an adjoining pipe. The air was blue while I got back in my pick-up truck and drove the 10 kms into town for spare parts. I burned an hour when I should have had the spare part and made the change in ten minutes. Lesson learned. TTM was more important than local efficiency.

What I enjoy doing most is finish carpentry. This is when the hard work starts to pay off. It is the time you can put the aesthetic into place–the little details that give your house its look and feel. Finishing exposes every flaw in framing and drywall. If things are not square, even, smooth, the finish work becomes harder and more time consuming. I have regretted cutting corners in earlier stages of building most when I get to finishing. I should know better. So this time, I paid extra attention to the infrastructure work and did the finish work as I went a long and made adjustments if I needed to .(Vertical slicing). In one case, I ripped out completed drywall and started over, realizing that the finish work would take more time than starting over. Waste? Yes. But I also saved overall time. After all, I had three weeks.  Waste $10 worth of drywall or spend an extra day on finishing. It was a no-brainer. I was shortening feedback loops.

Over the years I have invested in good tools. The first few drills I purchased were cheap. A drill is a drill after all. Right? Why spend several hundred on one drill when I can get one for $49? I burned out two drills in 6 months. So I sprang for a quality tool. I bought a Craftsman 14.4 v cordless which lasted 10 years. I also got it for half price, $150, which was a bargain. The next drills I bought have all been Makitas. I love the weight and balance, good for my smaller hands, and I have yet to kill one. I have two cordless drills, and three corded ones. Total cost is around $1200. Why five? Well, they all get used. And each has a specific purpose. Having the right tool in place when you need it saves HOURS of grief. One of my drills is a double handled low-torque 1/2 inch beast that will power a one inch auger through a stack of 2×10’s without straining. Renos on old houses need that kind of power. And I rent whatever I will not use more frequently than once a quarter. (OK, I know you’re thinking it… I AM a tool junkie!)

I like good quality hand tools. The best money spent on hand tools has been a nicely weighted set of hammers, and good hand planes. If you are swinging a hammer for hours, weight and comfort matter a lot. Hand planes are seriously useful, and a good one saves you hours of effort. I have a variety of them made by Footprint, Stanley, and Lee Valley Tools. The Lee Valley planes are like Mazeratis–gorgeous tools that work beautifully. I even sprang for A2 tool steel blades so that they don’t need to be sharpened as often. These all save time time, reduce fatigue, and make work a pleasure.

For cutting, I have a large table saw (Delta Uni-Saw which has a cast iron top and 220v 3 hp motor), a Laguna 16 inch band saw (a 220v beast that can cut veneer from logs), a circular saw, a compound miter saw, a flush cut electric saw, and a variety of hand saws. Again, each tool has a specific use, and they get used a lot. I had cheaper saws once upon a time, and you know what? It took twice the time to cut things properly. By the way, I still have all my fingers. And yes, I wired my workshop to accommodate 220v tools. They use less energy, run smoother, and don’t overstress your tools or you.

I have been gradually accumulating the right tools and methods over 20 years. So I have learned the following:

  1. Make a plan for the day (15 minutes), and review it several times a day (during your breaks). It always changes. Like when you rip out a wall and discover something that you didn’t anticipate.
  2. Invest in good tools, ones that reduce fatigue and increase speed and accuracy.
  3. Run something to completion in small slices rather than trying to do one task all the way through, like framing three rooms. Do one at a time if you can.(Reduce your WIP.)  This is true for old house renos and when I am capable of doing all the tasks from demolition to framing to finishing. This obviously implies…
  4. Become multi-skilled. Learn to do more than one thing, even if you are not the best, learn enough to get it done if you need to , or to be able to understand what issues you have to deal with when you bring in a pro. It really helps for example if you can talk in the same language as your plumber. (Or be able to do his job because he is on vacation!)
  5. Stop and reflect. Learn. Why did this go better than that? What can I do better next time? What should I stop doing?
  6. Pace yourself. Mistakes are dangerous and costly.
  7. Buy more materials than you need. You can always return what you don’t use or use it on a future project. What you get in return is flexibility, margin for error, and saved time.
  8. Clean-up and stay organized. (I struggle with this one, but getting better at it.)
  9. Maintain your tools. Nothing is more irritating than wanting to cut out a mortise for a door latch and your 1″ chisel is dull.
  10. Take pride in your work. You have to live with the result, or live in it.
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5 thoughts on “The never-ending renovation, and what I learned… so far

  1. Hi Raj! I never pegged you to be a tool junkie, but some great insight came out of your projects. Thank you for sharing.

    I certainly hope we can work together again soon.

    Namaste,
    Donna Marguglio

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