There are a lot of constructive ways to deal with anxiety, but I have heard no one talk about construction as a coping tool.
Many articles discuss the sudden uptick in home renovations, but they attribute this to the fact that we’ve never been home so much before. It was only natural that we began to focus our attention on what we could do to improve where we live.
That is very reasonable. If it’s true.
For me, home improvement has been a way to exert some control in a world where I have none. This old farmhouse we bought four years ago became a three story fidget spinner, focusing my attention on something I could do actually do something about.
In the 1960s, a family bought this 1910 cross-gable Victorian and, at great expense, covered every single interior wall with paneling. Good, solid, tongue-in-groove wide plank wood. And then they dropped every ceiling.
My dream of vintage wallpaper and high ceilings died here, because I love this house and I have come to hate moving. This is home. But I had plans to make it better, at least. Someday. Instead, most of it was done this past winter.
I found myself in the happy financial position of being able to pay for it, so long as I stayed humble in my aspirations. And suddenly, our house was a construction zone. It kept me very occupied while Delaware County stumbled along with one of the lowest vaccination rates in the state.
It began shortly after Thanksgiving. The living room, a big, dark, wood-paneled space we never use, was going to lose part of its ceiling so a tub could be installed above it in the upstairs dressing room (that’s two projects, right there). So while part of the ceiling was out, why not rip out the whole thing and sheetrock the walls, too?
Within days, the ceiling was down and the wreckage that had been our living room was a dusty mess. It turned out that a lot of plumbing was running along part of that ceiling, but we loved the look of the exposed upper floor and its joists. So we created a two-level ceiling. Part of it was sheet rocked and hid the plumbing. The rest was left open. And it looked good. It’s actually a room I like now.
Because I was on a budget, I did the painting and staining. I painted the ceilings at night after the contractors left. The next night they left the new, wider trim on sawhorses in the garage and my assignment was to have it all stained for installation the next day. I was lucky that the nights weren’t too cold, and I was able to work with the garage doors open.
If you’ve never had contractors work on your house, it’s an experience I can only compare to having friends of your kids staying with you. They are friendly, they appreciate you, but they really wish you’d leave them alone. Each morning, the alarm went off at seven, the contractors arrived at eight, the plastic was taped up as though a serial killer was hard at work, and the hum of the compressor drowned out any possible conversation.
And then we got ready for the plumbers.
Our only upstairs bathroom was a textbook case of stupid design, courtesy those owners in the sixties. A small space was divided into two, and the latest in avocado tubs was installed in the dark alcove. We’d already ripped it apart (that story has been told in these pages before), but we’d sacrificed a tub for a large shower.
I found a five foot clawfoot tub online, and it proved to be in excellent shape. It sat in our garage for months. Now the contractors moved to what had been the guest room to get ready for its installation.
The biggest bedroom in the house, the guest room had paneled walls painted dusty green and a ceiling that looked like mushrooms were growing on it. I hated it. It did, however, have an alcove that was a perfect spot for a tub.
That required pulling up the threadbare wall to wall rug and the plywood underneath it, so the contractors could build a platform in the alcove on top of the original floors. The platform was reinforced to handle the extra weight, and the beams below were shored up as well.
But once that much floor was exposed, why not expose the rest? Why not, indeed? So they did. And they pulled down the mushroom ceiling, too. The plumbers arrived, and spent two days running pipe down the walls into the basement, and tying in to the existing drains.
The contractors were back downstairs, installing trim in the living room. There was now chaos both upstairs and downstairs. And I was busy painting every night.
I will pause here to mention we have pets. Boris, the cat, handled the upheaval by sleeping all day. Violet Wiggins, the dog, barked at everyone when they arrived each day, and looked worried the rest of the day. She was not enjoying herself. But the construction continued.
Two young fellows lugged the cast iron tub up the stairs and into place. The tub is positioned to give the bather (that’s me!) a view of the fields behind the house. A few days later, our new dressing/guest/tub room was finished, the furniture put back in place, and then guests arrived.
We celebrated Christmas, my granddaughters got to use the new tub, then the tree came down, and the workers returned to rip apart our bedroom.
This is the scary part of the story, reader. Because here is where we entered unknown territory. The room we sleep in is a small one, with huge windows in two directions. It had a dropped ceiling and big, fake beams.
“What if,” my partner speculated on night, “we pulled out the ceiling and went right up to the attic?”
I stared at the ceiling.
Above our heads, we knew, was a pair of windows surrounded by stained glass. And suddenly we were both determined to make those windows part of our bedroom. I honestly thought it was a maybe/someday kind of project, but it was a really alluring one.
Our contractor pronounced the idea “awesome,” “no big deal” to do, we moved into the other guest room, and the demolition began. The dropped ceiling came down. They shoveled the attic insulation out of the way. And then the attic floor came out.
I was in the kitchen, hearing it happen, and turned on the oven. I did not know stress baking was a thing, but it clearly is, because I did it. I made maple cookies while I waited to hear if I’d just made a massive mistake. Lots of maple cookies.
When they called me up to see, the wreckage on the floor was up to my ankles. But above me, those stained glass windows winked in the sunlight, and the room suddenly felt huge.
Another thing about construction: it always takes longer than you hope. That job was supposed to take no more than a week. It took almost three.
But when it was over, our bedroom was a sunny space with colored lights playing over the walls. And the old floors we exposed weren’t too bad. We moved back in after the contractors painted the ceiling (I was NOT going up there)and woke up to find the room is better than we’d even imagined. Totally worth it.
By the way, each demolition gave us a view of what this house had been before it was “renovated” in the sixties. Every single plaster ceiling was wallpapered. Unfortunately, it was destroyed by the nailers put in to support the acoustic tiles. So I got my vintage wallpaper. I just didn’t get to keep it.
I have heard people claiming that their old house ghosts got upset by construction. I think if we have ghosts, they’re pretty happy. Most of what we did just got us back to the basic structure of the house. Except for our bedroom, of course. That one definitely messed with things, but I’ve heard no objections from the spirit world.
The final big project was the hall. The sixties renovation had added a hall closet and turned it into a dark tunnel. We removed the closet, exposed the old floors, and replaced the rickety attic ladder with something that felt a lot more solid. We added a bookshelf over the picture window, a last minute decision that turned out to be perfect. Our upstairs hall is now a wide open space that even has a sitting area.
It was nearly February, and the house was almost put back together. The final touch involved reopening the floor grates that had been shut and allowing the heat to circulate in the house. The local architectural salvage place had two iron grates that were exactly the right size, and when they popped into place I swear I heard this old house sigh with contentment.
The contractors waved their goodbyes, I closed my checkbook, and realized that somehow we’d just accomplished a good 80% of the changes we’d hoped to someday make here.
And here’s where I realized this was about anxiety – we immediately began looking at the kitchen with speculative eye. That ceiling could come up. That counter could move. And that wall over there? French doors. To a greenhouse!
Perhaps therapy would be cheaper after all.