The Firehouse Chronicles – Episode 13

This post is the next in a series of posts I have dubbed “The Firehouse Chronicles.” See all episodes.

Overnight, during one of Jim’s late night pushes, the bright red PEX (hot water tubing used for radiant heat floors) is laid and we are ready to fill the trenches with cement. My poor Prius is packed with 800 lbs of cement, loaded by a large Home Depot guy who is quick to let me know how strong he is. I am happy to step aside and watch him heft the 60 lb bags into the car. I rent a cement mixer and another guy manages to set it on top of the cement bags. The Prius limps to the fire station.

Jim mixes the cement and shovels it into the trenches while I smooth the surface, spanking it with my hand until a satisfying sheen of water rises to the top like the froth in a Starbucks.

Jim testing out toilet placement

Next, Jim carefully frames out the new bathroom, taking care not to bolt through the new PEX. We set the toilet in place to figure out where to locate the wall. We find a couple of doors taken from an old school at Second Use, (a store that sells salvaged items) which match with the era of the firehouse and build the framing around them.

Many more evenings of framing and threading red PEX tubing through the new framing pass until one night Jim has the water for the floors hooked up and gives me the honor of turning the valve that will fill them with water to pressure test them.

Turning on radiant floor system for the first time.

The stables room is still too rough to lay tile, so we decide to take the extra step of adding a layer of self-leveling cement to the floor. More trips to Home Depot and another cement mixer rental later, we spend one evening in a companionable mode of Jim mixing and me spreading the cement and by the end, it looks like a skating rink floor.

Floor tile selection is the next step and is relatively painless. Jim and I seem to have a fairly compatible ability to choose finishings. I tend to want to keep things simple, and he keeps me from wandering too often into the expensive aisles, which I am prone to do. I seem to be adept at selecting the most expensive item in any store I walk into. We decide on a large, 12” x 24” dark gray porcelain tile that is relatively inexpensive, necessary given the huge expanse that will need to be covered. I make multiple trips in my hardy little Prius to pick up 1000 pounds worth of tile at a time. The poor car groans under the weight and continues to groan, even without the tile, whenever it comes to a stop. I hope that Prius abuse is not punishable by law.

A friend tells me about a guy she’s had to help her reno her kitchen and I send him an email. Kevin shows up and seems enthralled by our project and not deterred by what must look to an outsider like a maniacal worksite of projects in various states of completion.

A few days later, Kevin is hard at work in the hall laying the huge tiles which frees Jim up to tackle the puzzle of reworking the mechanicals in the hayloft room. The array of black ABS tubes and white electrical wires hanging off the wall seems daunting. The first task is building a new portion of attic flooring to cover a missing span a gap of about 3 feet to reach the roofline (hard to explain). When the floor is framed in, we haul the post that we removed from the new downstairs bathroom and Jim cuts a corner out of it to be used as a facade in the new ceiling created in the hayloft room. Jim planes it down and then together, using a couple of rachet straps, we hoist it into place.

Slowly, wire by wire, pipe by pipe, Jim arrives at a schematic for relocating each wire and pipe within the new wall and ceiling. I take on the grueling task of removing old nails and screws from the framing, handing tools up to Jim as he’s perched on the ladder, running around the house hunting down tools that have incredible migratory powers, buying fast food lunches and calming frayed tempers.

Beam in place.

As the days pass, the hall is soon completely tiled, but we begin to realize that the thin set has not been adequately wiped away before it has dried and so it becomes my task to chip out the plastic spacers that are now cemented in place in order to clear the way for the grout. I experiment with a variety of tools but eventually settle on a box cutter to cut away the plastic spacers and a grinder to saw away the pillows of thin set that poke up between the tiles. I acquire bouquets of bruises on my knees.

Once the tile is finished being laid, Kevin helps to hand the drywall in the hayloft room and then Jim frames in the triangular hole between the attic and the hayloft room. Each step is a small victory, but the exhaustion is creeping up on Jim and I worry. The contrast in our work styles is evident in the late nights he puts in, while I beg off and head home to make dinner for the lone teenager. I’m in a constant state of mom guilt in my neglect of him and rationalize that I am providing him with his independence. He is barely going to school, checked out in a state of severe Senoiritis, and I am an annoyance with my nagging him to go to school each morning. 

I’m a pendulum swinging between two guys and two homes, trying to support each, to cut concrete by day and still be home to make dinner each night. To nag about school, and calm an overly tired and aching man on a ladder while maintaining some semblance of sanity.

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