Saturday, September 27, 2014

Paver Project

Occasionally, one likes to exit ones home and step upon ground that is not mushy or wet or dusty, or that makes ones shoes track said mush or wetness or dust across ones home should one forget to remove one's shoes upon entering said house.

In other words: we've gotta do something about our lack of walkways.

For a house bounded tightly on two sides by a paved street, our exterior doors are  remarkably far from pavement. The back door requires you to trudge across grass (although that'll hopefully change once we get our act together and do the backyard already) that is often sloppy wet for days after a rain storm. The front door is the same, although the grass and weeds are patchy enough that it's more of a mud puddle. Exit 2-B was out the front door and to the left, jumping off the porch across the "side yard" into the street, but we just purposefully transplanted some big-ass plants to that spot to discourage people (read: us) from doing that. So it looks like we're gonna focus on the front walk.

We'd been holding back from putting pavers in mainly because Abby is frightened that the French drain I put in wasn't good enough. I'm only slightly offended by the notion... But not enough to overcome the knowledge that a poorly-done drain with pavers on top would be that much harder (and more expensive) to fix. So I was willing to wait.

After a few rainstorms with the new drain, most of the moisture was gone, but a big pit kept on forming right in front of the door-- the aforementioned mush. I realized, however, that the pit was forming because of a tiny hole in the (new) gutter, which was digging out the fresh, soft dirt underneath every time it rained, so regardless of the presence of the drain directly underneath, the water just pooled immediately. I was confident that with the pavers placed right there, a hole couldn't be drip-dug, and the water would disperse. Really, I was confident...

So we budgeted a whole day for the project. Saturday morning I ripped up the grass and weeds, and while Abby went to Home Depot to get a load of supplies, I dug. I was supposed to dig an 8-inch trough between the lines she had set; instead, it was more like a foot, so... We had to buy a lot more supplies. Five more trips to Home Depot later (not counting the truckload I had brought home Friday) we had 90 bags of paver base (which is basically crushed brick), 20 or so bags of sand, and 180 brick pavers-- small ones 9 lbs, large ones 14 lbs.

The project progressed pretty well, but not quite as quickly as we had hoped. All of Saturday (and all of Sunday) later, we were about 75% done. Midweek, maybe 90%. Abby did some sweeping of sand into the crevices a few times-- and still has to do some more-- but we're finally done, about ten days later. We actually got a lot of help from the kids-- especially Lola, who was tickled that  this crazy project meant she wouldn't have to trudge her bike through the mud to put it on the porch anymore. Isaac wasn't too thrilled about helping in ways that weren't "exciting," but we even got the attention of neighborhood kids, who helped lay some of the final bricks.

Where the kids really helped was in getting rid of some of the large dirt-and-rock pile I had created by digging (too deep). It was about three cubic meters of fill, and I figured I'd try to get rid of it on Craigslist before I paid someone to remove it. We had two bites immediately, and the kids helped shovel the stuff pretty enthusiastically into one of their trucks. Impressive! We've got about a third of the total pile left, and I'm kind of hoping I can wish it away...

But guess what? I was right about the French drain and the drip-digging: big storm came, and no water accumulating anywhere :)

We spent this weekend looking for some more vegetation, and lucked into two big junipers courtesy of our neighbors Cathy and Brian, who wanted to get rid of them. (Hope they survive the transplant.)

Regardless, look whose house is actually connected to the road now!
Digging up the mud.
Leveling off the mud

Pouring gravel for a runoff
Setting out paver base
Sand on top
And of course it starts to rain...

Buying pavers at Home Depot
My helper getting pavers out of Ganzo

Paying out the pavers

USING the pavers!
Voila! The finished product!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Art of the Possible

Back when I graduated from college, my friend Sheri gave me a book of good quotations.  One of those quotations was from Otto von Bismarck, but I always attribute it to Antonio Banderas because, importantly, he sang it in Evita.  "Politics: the Art of the Possible."

"Besides Che and Puss, name another role of mine you enjoyed."
I usually write in this blog about the stuff we're doing to the house, or trying to do.  Today, I write about stuff we're doing to the neighborhood-- or trying to do, at least.  You see, the U.S. Congress has turned politics from Antonio Banderas's "Art of the Possible" into En Vogue's "Never Gonna Get It."  And that's how my neighborhood has seemed for the past month or so.  Yes, folks, we have re-entered THE H.O.A. ZONE!

(And let me say that, unlike most of my writing/speaking/living, I'm going to try to be fair, even-handed, and respectful of "the other side" in this one... not the least of which because many people with whom I am otherwise perfectly friendly are very much on "the other side.")

Something you may have picked up over the course of this blog is that our neighborhood is populated mostly by older people-- many of whom are older women.  Abby likes to say nothing bad will ever happen to our kids because we have a neighborhood of displaced grandmothers all around us.  But if you look closely, lurking in the shadows, you will find them.  And by "them," I mean "families with kids."  A few months back, Abby and I were approached to see if we could be informal census takers, to find out how many kids were in the community, how old they were, and what they do for fun.  Part yenta, part sentry, we set out over the Interwebs to count our compadres con familias when, amazingly, we discovered there were at least sixty-some kids here.  Craziness!  

But why the census?  And what does this have to do with Antonio Banderas?  Well, you see, there's nowhere to play here.  There's a playground about a half-mile down a steep and winding path through Rock Creek Park, and there's a playground a bit more than a half-mile across a train bridge.  But there's nothing kids can actually do without supervision, apart from going in the Glen.  And that means there's nowhere for them to congregate, which is how come we've lived here for over a year and the kids know no neighbor under sixty.  There's one group of families who live over on Hume Drive, which is around the corner and through the tunnel, who all congregate in the street behind their garages.  But that makeshift play spot is about it.  In a neighborhood surrounded by parkland, there's no play space.

The neighborhood had the opportunity to designate such missing play space, which is why the issue came up now, since a builder had agreed to finance all or part of it if certain concessions were made on the zoning for his project.  (For those of you who know, it's the building with the columns right out our kitchen window, and it'd be fantastic if it were finally developed.)  For a community with a homeowners' association, getting a five-digit check offered to you is not something that comes around every day, but this is where things get murky.

All of a sudden, our little utopian Pleasantville turned-- and quick-- into Wisteria Lane.  People were sending nasty emails and nastier letters, all the while smiling and continuing a perfectly charming outward appearance.  The NIMBYism was actually pretty amazing, seeing it from inside, and we were half-asked and half-offered to give our opinion-- as a cohort of families-- to the situation.  So I asked those grown-ups who belonged to the sixty-some kids to get together for a playdate, to meet each other, to show our progeny the potential in the neighborhood, and to talk about the issue at hand.  Wisteria Lane?  Now we're talking CSI: Miami.

Because as we met, someone (it was a bearded fellow, which made it all the more mysterious) began taking our pictures.  And afterwards some of our conversation was related back to the homeowners' association.  Sorry, not conversation: PLOTTING!  Turns out, the spot where we met was not the Ireland Trail, but the second coming of the Rosslyn parking garage, and I was Deep Throat himself.  (Or was I William Wallace?  I'm mixing way too many movies here...)  Either way: BEARDY GUY!

Now time for an aside.  I don't particularly want a playground in the neighborhood.  I think playgrounds can be a bit ugly, and I know that all it takes is one evening with some dumbass high schoolers and the whole thing will get tagged and/or broken.  Heck, my brother-in-law peed down a slide in North Carolina when he was in high school (Hi Nathan!) and I think of that pretty much every time I go to a park with the kids.  That said, we were up against a group of our own neighbors who didn't just want to vote against a play space, but wanted the very discussion of it to be a non-starter.  In a neighborhood that I'm pretty sure is about 90% very lefty Democrat, we had a loud cohort of what ten miles further south would be veritable Tea Partiers.  And that ain't cool.

So a meeting was called, and I was ready to lead the way.  Only problem is I had plans I couldn't get out of: it was Election Day and I had volunteered to work the polls for 15 hours.  So I enlisted my trusty sidekick.  Um, MY TRUSTY SIDEKICK.  Ah, there she is: Abby.  Abby allowed me to call together our descomisados, have a pizza play date right outside the meeting, and encourage as many of those parents as possible to attend, when otherwise they might never have thought or known to come, given it was a Tuesday evening-- a time most amenable to most working suburban parents of small children.  And I say she "allowed" me because while I arranged, she led.  I made it to the tail end of the meeting, with "our side" smiling and shaking hands, and Hillary-- er-- Abby talking up a bunch of the neighborhood leadership.  She did an awesome job, bunches of parents showed up, our point was made, CIVILITY HAPPENED.

And now we can DISCUSS having a play area.  It doesn't have to be a playground, and in fact, like I said, I hope it's not.  I personally am in favor of a flat, open, grassy area surrounded by trees and bushes where kids can know to congregate, and their parents can send them without fear of having to chase balls into the street or fall off a cliff or get hit by a bus.  But I'm willing to listen to what others have to say too, because I learned from Antonio Banderas that Politics is the Art of the Possible.  Sorry, Otto.
"Für mich Weine nicht, Argentinien." 

Friday, May 16, 2014

Handing Abby the Hose

Aftermath of SEVEN hours of
digging up the grass on the
side of the house by the roots.
(Isaac, at right, is NOT peeing...)

And so the landscaping begins. Or at least thinking about it. Last month it was the French drain, which I think is fine, but Abby insists is still not draining correctly; I'm not convinced, and plan on running the hose in that corner for a while to see what happens. Then two weeks ago I spent a whole Sunday while the fam was at the National Science Fair digging up the grass on the strip between the house and the road-- about 35 feet long, 2 feet wide, roots and all-- so we can put actual plantings in there. Then I sowed in six bags of clay breaker, which pretty much disappeared into the clay, meaning I probably need at least four or five more bags...  And I'm planning on doing the same this weekend around front, hopefully tweaking whatever Abby feels needs tweaking with the French drain in the process.

But the big work is the backyard now. We had talked with Lee, the guy who did the windmill and the chalet and the pagoda (and who should've done our house...) About helping us with the backyard, but his quote ended up being a bit more than we wanted to spend-- although probably totally fair-- so it looks like we're going to try this thing ourselves.

We've been putting it off, though, because we're master procrastinators-- our children have proven to have learned well from us. (One of the reasons Lee was so attractive to us was that he represented a swift kick in our own pants, timing-wise.) We thought at first that we had to wait for a Landscape Committee meeting to get our first approvals, but were then told it's the Architectural Review Board, which is a different beast because there are no deadlines-- a procrastinator's dream/nightmare. We'll get there, though, because we desperately want that patio.

Last weekend, we had a party. An honest-to-goodness party, not celebrating a kid's birthday, not for a holiday. A just-because party. With 15 people. And grilled vegetables. It was awesome to be a real adult again, and it would only have been better had we had a patio. So there's our procrastinator's impetus: do this already, and there's a prize at the end; a prize of adulthood.

So yesterday, I handed Abby the hose.

(Alone, that is quite an interesting sentence.)

Never mind the hose; I know what it means
when Abby gets that look on her face.
There are all sorts of cogs a-churnin'...
Anyhow, I handed her the hose to use as a planning tool, to lay it out to demarcate where she wants the edge of the patio to be. She spent a few minutes smoothing out kinks, but --true to form-- knew right off the bat the size and shape she wanted: slightly oblong, bubbling out from the side of the house, but not far enough to encroach on any of the trees. (Can't touch those historic yews!) That was easy, but deciding how to alleviate the elevation problem won't be. There is a change in elevation of 28 inches between the back-door stoop and the sidewalk, so there are all sorts of questions: where do the steps go? how many are there? will they even let us do this?

Hoping this won't be too big of an area
for the Architectural Review Board
(and the State) to approve.
Hopefully, the last question will be answered in the affirmative. Our backyard is pristine and natural, but it is also completely uneven and unusable. My grill sits in the most even part of the yard, and it is neither level from side to side nor from front to back. Burgers and dogs in the back right corner-- the highest-- get blackened, while those in the front left stay rare. And we can't blame the grill; it's new, and doing its job as best as possible. I feel we should be able to create a livable space in the backyard that will accommodate a level grill, a few pieces of furniture, and space for our trash cans. Is that too much to ask?

I met one member of the Architectural Review Board (Kellie, a blog reader, and a fine, upstanding citizen if I may say so myself...) at a residents' meeting last night, and she didn't balk at my idea of a front-yard flagpole (which I have ALWAYS wanted, along with a circular driveway), and I think the patio is much less intrusive. So there's hope. But remember: after the Board, there's the State. And we all remember how that process can be. (See: 2011)

So for now, I do what I know I can do. Amending the soil on three sides. Planting shrubs and bulbs and some big grass on the side. Encouraging my hostas, four of which have survived the awful soil to peek out into the so-far full-sun locations they inhabit (and probably hating me, because their cousins at the old house-- in the shade-- are already huge and about to bloom). Attacking weeds with a shovel. And making sure Abby's happy with the French drain. (What is it they say about a happy wife and a happy life? Oh, I forget...)

As an added bonus, look at this thing I found while digging.
They were all over the place. Anyone have any ideas?

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

French That Drain!

Back at our old house, we completely redid our backyard from practically a concrete slab into a really nice, green area split between a mix of plants and pavers-- hardscape and softscape, if you will.  Back then, Abby did all the planning, and the two of us did it ourselves, with the help of my cousin Andy.  (His wife, Maggie, also helped, by keeping our at-the-time two kids combined outta the way.)  In the six years since, Abby's French drain has done just fine, so we're looking to emulate it six miles north.  
Andy and Abby working in our old backyard in 2008.
The incomplete French drain is under the black fabric at left.
We attempted to have one put in during construction-- and the contractors volunteered to do so-- and we thought they had done so.  But water kept pooling at the northeast corner of our house, and we had to dig to find out that it was because the original perforated pipe they had laid was surrounded by nothing but clay.  So a perforated pipe, meant to drain water from the soil, was surrounded by clay, nature's best impermeable surface.  Argh.  So last weekend, I took it upon myself to pull the old "French drain" out and put a new French drain in.

(As an aside, did you know the French drain is not French?  It's actually named for Henry French, as in "French's drain."  Not only that, but Mr. French, of French drain fame, is actually the father of Daniel French, of Lincoln Memorial fame.  Hmm... Son gets the back of the penny and the fiver, but dad does all the work unmucking everyone's yards; doesn't seem fair, does it?  But I digress...) (What did we ever do without Wikipedia?)

So rather than explaining what I did, since it all worked out pretty well, I've attached a pictorial to show you that, yes, I actually did this myself.  (With oversight help at times from Abby, and with some big muscle-work by Lola, who insisted on pouring about 75% of the dirt and rocks.)  Enjoy!

First off, digging up the old pipe and removing it.
See how there's nothing but clay all around it?  Yeah, not good.

The full 30-foot length of the original pipe had to be excavated.
Isaac gave me moral support.

After removing the original pipe, I laid about 450 pounds of marble chips on the bottom.

I'm not being vain or wasteful by putting the white marble chips in.
They have to be three-quarters of an inch around for it to work,
and these ones were the cheapest Home Depot had, at three bucks a bag.
This is the NE corner of the house, where the pipe feeds through the wall to the backyard.

All spread out.
The rocks serve as a reservoir for built up water.
When the water gets more than a couple inches high,
it permeates through the holes in the bottom of the pipe.

And here's the new pipe!
Once the water's in it, the slight incline towards the wall propels the water
out of the front yard and into the back yard.
(We'll do that one another time.)

Next comes fabric, which we use to cover the pipe and stones
so any roots from plants on the surface don't muck up the system underneath.
The fabric is water-permeable, of course.

And then comes about 750 pounds of gravel.
The gravel, being smaller, allows water through while sifting out everything else.
The water can then go through the fabric, down to the stones, then into the pipe.
Oh, and the gravel also holds the fabric down on extremely windy days...

Might I add that Lola helped with the process starting at the gravel?
Here, she helped put large rocks on top of the blowing fabric
so we could head to the next step: soil.

Lola insisted not only on cutting all the soil bags open,
but also on pouring almost all the bags in.
12 bags, each with one cubit foot of soil.
Again, I didn't need to get Miracle Gro,
it's just that there was a crazy sale at Home Depot,
and at two bucks a bag, it was cheaper than plain ol' dirt.

First we put some of the old dirt into the hole to cover up the fabric.
We took the big place-holder rocks out each time,
since the weight of the dirt was now enough.

Then we filled the rest of the hole in with new dirt, and that was it!
Not a bad project if I may say so myself.  And it rained for pretty much 48 straight hours after we did it, with only minimal puddling, so all is well.  Next step in the front yard is putting a lot more dirt in, so that we can grade the water to run away from the house and get rid of the step you have to take onto the front porch.  I'm going to attempt to remove some of the clay as well, replacing it with regular dirt, after our horrible experience with our front yard at the old house, where tree after tree died at about two years of age, once its roots hit the solid clay beneath the topsoil.  Hopefully, by the end of the summer (or earlier!!) this will be a happy green spot for us (and all of our neighbors) to enjoy-- and will help them all forget about the crazy construction that's been going on here nonstop since 2011!

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Spring Awakening

It's been awhile since I last posted, but in the meantime, we've been settling into the place pretty well. We're actually coming up on a year in the house, which is ridiculous when I think about it. More ridiculous, of course, is the fact that we have weathered our first winter in Forest Glen with a rather deficient heating situation. I've posted about this before, and since then, there has been very little movement on the issue. We went through the coldest winter in Metro DC in several years, and definitely felt it... downstairs.

The number of times we called, emailed, and texted our contractors is laughable.  Rory, the one who actually gets things done when you need, is now nowhere to be found. Instead, we are left with Mark, who always seems to have somewhere else to be, someone else who needs something, or an ailment of some sort. You know the guy in your office whose grandma died seven or eight times over the last year or two? That's him. Who knows? Maybe he just has a big (ill?) family. But I'm to the point with health issues that I just nod and zone out until they're done being discussed.

What does the Postal Service saw about
snow, sleet, dark of night?
Yeah, they all stop our contractors
from making their appointed rounds...
A few weeks back, we finally managed to set a time for Mark to come out, but there was a "snowstorm." Then, he had to cancel at the last minute for another appointment, which I actually was glad about, since it was pretty warm out that day, and I wanted him to experience the downstairs cold first-hand. Finally, our schedules meshed last week, and he came out. I was relieved that he seemed stumped by the issue of no wind at all coming out of our downstairs vents... But not really, since I'm pretty positive it's because he turned them off when he came back in February when I was out of town and Abby called him for help. He came by two days ago and fiddled with stuff again; presumably, he flipped the switch and redirected the heat downstairs again. Tonight, regardless of the temperature, I'm gonna force the heat to go on, and see if we can feel more than a trickle in the downstairs bathroom. You know, the one that was supposed to relieve my bathroom from the kids' mess, but instead sits pretty much unused because of its frigid temps.

Apart from the heat, Mark finally got Francisco to come over and install the hot-water tap they had to uninstall before our inspection last year. Since then, I've grown semi-fond of our disposal-- Abby still doesn't trust it-- so I wanted both installed. Plumbers off of ServiceMagic quoted us more than $600 (or was it $800?) to do the job, but Mark had said $250 way back when. It went in this week... But not without $150 being added to the bill. Oh, and it's plugged into the same outlet as the disposal, which means we have to unplug the disposal until we want to use it, then remember to unplug it and flip the switch back on afterwards. Ahh, the joys of getting "everything you want" in a house you renovate, amirite?

Speaking of getting everything you want, we got to check out the Swiss Chalet (not the restaurant, sadly) the other night when Lee invited us over. That's right: an honest-to-goodness cocktail party on a Friday night! (The kids were also invited, and played great with his.). Best of all, it was the first night of actual warmth, which meant we went without jackets, and the doors (and windows, I think) were left open. (This at the end of a week that started with a snow day, no less.)

The Chalet now
The Chalet is amazing. For those of you who don't know, it's the house that interested us in the neighborhood in the first place, back in February 2011. But the work was just too extensive (and expensive) for us to handle. Lee, however, has handled it *very* well, and has it on the market now, in case anyone's looking for a place with a genuine wine grotto, beautiful modern finishes, and a super-cool master bedroom suite with cathedral ceilings. My silly-favorite part of the place actually is the door: it's a substantial wood entry door split in half, so you can open just the top if you like, when the weather warrants. You know, maybe set a pie on it to cool or something. Mmm, pie. I showed my parents around in there today during the open house, and they loved it-- although it's got too many stairs for them, which is understandable.  But in my estimation, it's a masterpiece.

The next month has a bunch of stuff coming, not the least of which will be the expected arrival of our state historical tax credit, which will make us feel momentarily rich-- that is, until we remember we already spent that money, and we need to put it back in the mortgage... And of course, I will be able to start outdoor stuff in earnest.  Sure, the deer ate all of my vegetation that didn't die on its own before winter set in, but that was just a test.  In the meantime, I'm planning out the greenspace around my house, and hoping I'll be able to do so in a nice, warm family room, without the need for a heavy blanket, and with the kids' ratty toothbrushes and gunked-up toothpaste tube messing up their own, newly warmed bathroom, and not mine!  (Hope springs eternal, right?)