07 July 2010

It takes courage to destroy

It seems a contradiction but one of the high points of our renovation has been demolition.

One end of our house had two flights of stairs. One flight travelled from the ground floor to the second floor. These stairs were of concrete and tile construction but were dangerously narrow and steep. They also blocked out considerable light, making the laundry damp and the wall between the laundry and the kitchen mouldy. The other flight travelled from the second floor to the attic. These stairs were made of brittle and borer-eaten wood that wobbled and threatened to crumble under foot.

I used to dread going into the laundry to wash our clothes. Instead I would stand for long minutes rolling my eyes around the walls, the ceilings and the floors, thinking of ways I could improve that end of the house.

One day it came to me. If we removed those two flights of stairs we could insert an atrium or a light well in the two-storey high space that was left. This would provide light, warmth and circulating air for the entire area in two levels of the house.

It was quite simply a wild but brilliant idea. I embraced it with both arms and secretly nurtured it until it was a fully developed concept.

Then I told Stu.

Unfortunately, he was rather tentative about my foray into architecture and design. He failed to reach the same level of enthusiasm, which could have something to do with the fact that he does the work whereas I just dream it up...

So it was with great joy that I heard him mention a while later that my idea had some merit.

A few weeks after that, when our levels of courage were running high, Stu took to the upper stairs with a saw, a cold chisel and a hammer. He carefully took the ceiling out (so that we could re-use the wooden tongue and groove panels), then he cut the stairs and pulled each end out of the walls easily.

We had not bargained on the layers of dust that had impregnated the old wood. As we waited for the dust to subside, we coughed and spluttered our way through a conversation on our progress. We wondered if a section of some of the steps should be retained as shelves jutting out of the wall. Since I was keen to retain some of the history of the house, we decided to keep the best specimens and re-visit this decision once the entire demolition had been completed.

The next morning, it seemed that our enthusiasm woke us early. We dived out of bed and gulped a quick breakfast before heading, belching and burping, towards the house.

The lower stairs proved to be harder to demolish as they had several layers of construction materials on them. As we uncovered the layers one at a time, we found ceramic tiles, then cement, then plaster, then slate. It seemed that the top layer had only recently been added but that the original layer had been there for some time. In the cavities in the walls where we pulled the original slate steps out, we found several sheets of a magazine dated 1950. These sheets were treated with the care afforded to Tutankhamen and have now been framed for hanging in the atrium when it is finished.

While Stu demolished, I swept and shovelled countless loads of rubble into our wheelbarrow and out to our rubble pile.

As with the upper stairs, we retained sections of some of the steps for further design consideration.

Finally, a few days later when the lower stairs were gone, we stood in our sweat and the dust and watched the light rush in. It seemed to rush around the dark corners and lick the cold damp stone on its way. I thought I could almost see the furry white spores of mould desiccate and drop off the walls.

We then turned out attention to two other walls that annoyed us at the base of the new atrium. The previous owners had installed these walls in order to make a hallway from which to access the bathroom and laundry. But now that we'd effectively created a new hallway via our atrium we could remove these walls in order to enlarge the bathroom.

Since it was too late in the day to start on them, we decided to look at them again in the morning and make a final decision after a good sleep.

That night my tired and twisted mind worked against me until I believed that the stairs that we'd removed had been holding up the entire house. In the wee small hours of the morning I tossed and turned in wretched agony as I watched our dream home crumble to the ground, caving in at exactly the place where we'd removed the stairs. I woke exhausted and adamant that we should refrain from doing any more demolition.

By lunchtime, Stu had calmed me down enough to explain that the walls now under our consideration for demolition were not load bearing. I remembered Horace's words of wisdom ('In times of stress be bold and valiant'') then hid in the rustico, covering my ears lest I hear the thud of falling stones while Stu hammered and destroyed.

It is now almost two months since we finished our demolition work and that end of the house has a wonderfully happy, healthy and spacious feel to it.

It hasn't fallen down.

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