Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Upholstered Radiator Seats

Every Christmas, I feel like there are some people who are really easy to shop for and others that are impossible. For the easy people, I always end up going overboard simply because I know that they will like the gift - even though maybe it's excessive and unnecessary and I should spend the time on the more difficult people. This is an example of me ignoring my better judgment by wasting time on a totally excessive gift.

wally on our bedroom radiator

So - our house is heated by radiators. Once they come on sometime in the fall, the cats can reliably be found on top or near them, practically all day long until spring rolls around. I've draped some towels and bits of fabric on the radiators for extra padding, but it seems like they're still pretty uncomfortable. As my Christmas gift to the cats, I decided to make an upholstered seat to rest on top of one of their favorite radiators in the dining room. It could also serve as extra seating for humans, but that's not my primary goal here.

Wally on some fabric scraps on the dining room radiator

Step 1. Gather Materials
Since this is a gift for cats at a pricey time of year, my goal is to use as many leftovers and existing materials as possible. So I start in the wood pile and find a 1"x8" that's exactly long enough for the radiator to serve as the top, and some 1"x2"s to serve as the sides. I have spare fabric that used to be the curtains in the old office that will work perfectly, so it just gets washed (ironically, to reduce the cat hair). For the padding, I turn to Amazon and buy some 1" upholstery foam and batting and silicone oven pads/trivets.

Step 2. Assemble Frame and Top
First, I cut the 1x8 down to be just slightly longer than the radiator's widest points. Then I cut 2 1"x2"s to be the same length as the top, and 2 1"x2"s to span the distance from the outside of the 1"x2"s and the board. Then, using wood glue and some wood screws, I screw it together so that the 1"x2"s cap the board and are flush on top. They will prevent the board from sliding around on the radiator. This will all be covered, so ugliness isn't important.

cutting down the boards

test fitting on the radiator - everything fits

Step 3. Upholster
I cut down the foam pad to the same measurement as the frame and glue it down. (Note - you're generally supposed to use spray upholstery glue, but I didn't want to buy any. Instead, I used an old glue stick). I wrapped the pad in a thin layer of the batting, which is just meant to smooth out the pokey edges of the pad and stapled it down. Then I draped it in the fabric, flipped it over, and started stapling like crazy. The hardest part of this part was keeping Wally away - as fabric on the floor is basically his favorite thing.

1" pad on top of the board

wrapping in batting (find the cat in this picture)

batting all stapled down

fabric stapled down

Step 4. Heat proof
Once I was all finished with the fabric, I flipped it upside down and stapled on two silicone oven mit things. The goal here is both to reduce the risk of a fire by preventing the wood and fabric from resting on the hot radiator all the time (they don't get that hot, but it seems like a good safety precaution), and to prevent the box from sliding around on or rocking on the radiator every time Wally jumps on it.
an oven pad getting stapled to the underside of the bench

Step 5. Enjoy
After everything was finished, I placed it up on the radiator and set Wally up on it. He was a little uneasy at first, and then seemed to get the hang of it.  I think the first Christmas gift of the year is a hit. This was totally an unnecessary project, but it only took a couple hours and like $20 - so I'm pretty satisfied with it.

check out the nice corners

Wally takes a nap

Friday, December 18, 2015

Our New Back Steps

So, a little over a month ago I posted the intro to our back steps project. Short summary - they were falling apart and becoming really dangerous, so we decided to have someone replace them.

the old stairs are crumbly and uneven

Step 1 - Find a Contractor
Finding a contractor to do the work is always so much harder than it seems like it should be. We used Angie's List and Yelp to find a few well-reviewed companies that either were welding companies that would build metal steps or were general contractors that would build wooden steps. We probably called or emailed 20 companies. Of them, maybe 5 actually came see the steps and walk through the project. Of them, only 2 actually submitted quotes. We picked the cheaper one.

Step 2 - Pick a Design
None of the general contractors got back to us, so our only option was to build metal stairs, which were our preference anyway. Our original goal was to have cast iron steps, which are really common in older parts of DC and look really stately. We discovered quickly that we couldn't afford cast iron (roughly $10,000-$20,000),  but could do cheaper steel stairs. The company we picked could build a basic option which was pretty industrial, or a fancy option which was a little more ornamental and meant to look kind of like the cast iron steps we really wanted. We went back and forth on it - but ultimately decided that we needed the fancy option.

a random house in DC with nice cast-iron stairs

Step 3 - Demo the Old Stairs
One of the other things we debated was doing the demolition ourselves to save some money. Thankfully, we opted not to do this, and instead came home one day to find the entire cement and brick block removed. They also hauled away all the debris, which is really hard for us to do. I think we could've rented a jackhammer and sledge hammer and done this ourselves, but it would've been back breaking, and then we would've had to haul the debris to the landfill, probably in a couple of loads, which would've taken forever and destroyed our car. So, I'm ok with paying for them to do it.

huge chunks of cement that i didn't have to breakup

Step 4 - Install the Prebuilt Stairs
They built the steps in their workshop in advance, and then just plopped them in place after the demo was done.

new stairs are installed but not finished

Step 5 - Add Finishing Touches
Then, after some rainy weather (apparently you can't weld in the rain), they came back to finish up. It turned out that the cement block wasnt solid, but had a little brick wall under it, flush with the house. They originally left it for security reasons, but we decided to have it removed so that more light could get to the basement window. After demo, they added the new security bars for safety. Then they added the ornamental final touches to make the fancy stairs, and then gave them a quick paint job.

all done!

view from the top: a nice landing to step out onto

close up of the fancy bits

more fancy bits

new bars under the stairs- let lots of light into the basement window

view from the side: lots of new storage space for something

closeup of the cement under the steps: needs patching

I am so excited about these guys. I know that fancy back steps aren't really the top of anyone's dream list, but I am just so happy with this project. The old ones were getting so dangerous and hard to use, these are just infinitely easier to use and feel so much safer.  I'm glad we opted to fancy it up a bit - these aren't original cast iron stairs, but they don't look like an obviously modern and industrial add-on to the house. We still need to patch the cement under the steps, but that can wait until spring.

We have generally tried to balance house projects that are functional with house projects that are aesthetic, so I feel like now's the time for a pretty project to counter this entirely functional one.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

31 Miles in 31 Days - Results

So, at the beginning of the month I boldly laid out my plans to run 31 miles in 31 days. The plan was not to kill myself with a super intense, boot camp-esque approach to rocket myself into shape; rather, the goal was just to try to consistently run a couple miles every few days in order to start getting used to running again and begin to get back into shape.

Since I picked 31 miles as a reasonable and achievable number, it should be no surprise that I successfully met my goal. Well- actually, I am kind of surprised. I usually don't quite achieve my running goals and tend to wimp out of a couple runs or trim a few miles off of every training plan. (See this post on my failed training for the last marathon.) This time I did it - I ran 3 miles a day, for 2 or 3 days a week, consistently all month long for a grand total of 31 miles. (Technically, it was a grand total of 30.6 miles, but we round in this family.)

compared to the dotted line (which represents running 1 mile per day), I was pretty close.

The first thing I noticed was that every day it got a little easier to get started. There are so many really small hurdles to getting started, but I managed to eliminate them one-by-one. I started out each week by putting appointments to run on my calendar, and then scheduling other things around those appointments. When the reminders popped up, it was easier to just get up and go - knowing that I had given myself enough time to run, shower, and get back to my desk. Each time I ran, I would realize that I'd forgotten to bring something - glasses, headphones, whatever - and then I would remember to bring in the missing item the next day. So slowly over the course of the month, I eventually had all the gear I needed, where I needed it. Eliminating little hurdles made it easier to just get out the door and get started.

Then I noticed I was getting faster and stronger, so running was less miserable. The first time I ran, I allowed myself to go as slow as I needed to finish the 3 mile loop. Then, every day after that, I tried to walk a little less and finish a little sooner than the time before. When I could easily run past a spot where I previously needed to stop and walk - it was an awesome boost of confidence (even if I just stopped to walk a little further down the road). Sure enough, my total time to complete the distance started dropping as I walked less and less - going from an average of almost 16-minute miles down to 13-minute miles. (I'm still really slow, but that's a huge improvement). I also managed to throw in 2 yoga classes during the month, which I assumes helps with strength and flexibility and whatnot. Over the month, I also noticed that I got less winded climbing stairs and doing other exercise - which means I'm getting stronger too.

the more I ran- the faster I got. 

While the goal was really just to get moving, and hopefully to get a bit faster - I also kind of hoped to lose some weight while I was at it. Sure enough, as I covered more mileage and got faster, I started losing weight too. I'm down 3 pounds since the beginning of the month, and my pants seem to fit better. I'm also down 2% body fat, which seems like a good thing.

I still have a long way to get to get back into shape - but I'm pretty happy with my results. Clearly, setting concrete goals for myself that are both ambitious and achievable works for me. 1 month was the perfect timeline - long enough to create a new habit and see results, but short enough to stay motivated.

So, new goals for November:

  • Run 40 miles (10 miles per week)
  • Focus on speed, try to get to 11.5 minutes per mile
  • Go to at least one weights/yoga class per week

So - the question everyone is asking - what is my current running spirit animal? Well, I'm not quite a gazelle yet, but I'm no hungry hungry hippo either. After much consideration - I think my current spirit animal is a city bus. I can pick up some speed and have some power, but I never get moving all that fast and have to make several stops. Fingers crossed - maybe I'll be a greyhound or even a chinatown bus someday!!

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Introducing the Back Stairs

There is a small set of stairs that lead from the backyard to the back of the house. They are the only way to get out of the house to the backyard and garage, so we use them pretty often. They appear to be made of concrete, covered with bricks, and we assume they are pretty old, but not original.

the stairs by the back door

So- when we first moved into the house nearly 3 years ago, the stairs were ok, but slightly uneven. The bottom two stairs were shorter than the rest, making it a little difficult to walk up without tripping- but it wasn't a huge problem.

Then, during the Big Renovation of 2014, we closed in the back porch in order to extend the back of the house and add the mudroom and halfbath. In that process, they installed the new back door at the top of the stairs so that the floor would be level with the kitchen, which meant lifting it up a bit. So now the top stair was much taller than the middle stairs, which were still taller than the bottom two stairs. This made for a huge tripping hazard.

during the renovation, the top stair is raised

note the unevenness of the stairs

It also meant that there was not a platform at the top of the stairs - you had to step up and inside in one move. Most housing codes require that there is a platform at the top of the steps because it makes things so much easier and safer. It's a pain to get up the steps and through the door in one move- but it's downright dangerous to try to go down and out in one step-- particularly when the first step is a huge one.

no platform- just a huge step down

So, on top of the unevenness of the steps and fact that there is no platform at the top - things got worse over the last two winters. Water was able to get behind and under the bricks and then freeze in the winter- breaking them loose. Now, when you step onto a stair, the bricks rock underneath you and seem to be falling off in big chunks.

big chunks of the stairs are loose

All of this was annoying but liveable, until the kid arrived. [It is amazing how much he has changed everything about my life so far.] So,  I mentioned before that we are in a nanny share, which means that every other week we take our son to the other family's house. On the mornings that I have to take him to their house - I have to get the diaper bag, the bottle bag, him and his car seat outside - (all this weighs at least 1000 pounds and makes me much wider than the door). For extra fun - he's often asleep, so I have to do this quietly and smoothly. Plus, Wally (the small, annoying cat) really wants to go outside but isn't allowed to, so he tries to take this opportunity to dash out between my feet when I open the door- so I have to move quickly.

more bricks coming loose

Are you getting a sense of the impending disaster and utter chaos that is my morning? I have not yet tripped or dropped the boy - but I feel certain that it will happen soon. With another winter coming, I'm afraid the last few bricks will come loose- making this absolutely terrifyingly dangerous. Plus, adding coats and gloves to me, plus ice on the steps just makes this a guaranteed accident waiting to happen. Replacing the stairs was previously a really low priority on the to-do list, but it suddenly catapulted itself to number 1. So- we're redoing the stairs.

danger danger!

We really don't want this to be a DIY project, so we're in the process of getting bids from the professionals. We would love to make an iron staircase, which are really common on the fronts of DC homes from the same era - but way too expensive. Instead, we're hoping for a metal staircase, which wouldn't need any upkeep - or possibly a wooden one if metal is too expensive. Stay tuned.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Fall Yard Update

The time has come to clear away the summer annuals and prep the yard for the fall and winter. First, a quick look at what happened over the summer:

1. Hawthorns (yay!)
I had to put in three new shrubs this spring to replace the gardenias that died last winter. The new ones did great and are stronger and healthier than when they were planted. They even bloomed a little.  Clearly a good choice!

the new hawthorns

2. Perennials (boo.)
I planted a few perennials this year that I got cheap from Home Depot, a little later in the spring. None of them did well (maybe it was too late, or too hot, or they just didn't start healthy), but they almost all seem to still be alive. I moved them around in hopes that they'll do better next year if they get a chance to root over the winter.

new perennials looking crappy

3. Vine thing
We built a small trellis this spring and planted a vine thing (the name is totally escaping me right now), which did great. I'm really hoping it comes back next year and continues to fill in along the fence.

vine thing is blooming well in early summer

and keeps growing but stops blooming in late summer

4. Kitchen Garden
As usual, the kitchen garden did great, until it turned into a mess and became disappointing. Two tomato plants completely overwhelmed their little cages and toppled over onto the ground. We hung a string trellis for beans to climb up, but it was taken over by viney weeds, so we never got any beans. There were some eggplants and peppers, but they mostly weren't very impressive. Plan for next year- fewer plants and bigger cages-- less is more.

kitchen garden is overgrown and ugly. 

5. Annuals and Herbs
It was definitely a hot and dry summer, and I didn't do a great job at watering things- so the smallest plants fared pretty poorly this year. The annuals in the quarter-circle and herbs in pots looked great in the beginning of the summer, and then slowly died off as the weather got hotter and drier. Begonias and basil did okay, perhaps they are just heartier and better at the dry weather. Note for next year- buy more hearty stuff (or learn to water the yard).

a field of alyssum and petunias in the quarter circle in early summer

begonias and hostas in early summer

6. Fall Stuff
After clearing away all the dead annuals, I put in the usual mix of pansies and mums for the fall and winter. Then, I finally used a gift certificate from Burpee that I got last Christmas to order some new perennials. I'm hoping that by planting them this fall, they'll have a better chance of rooting and doing well next year.

pansies under the redbud tree

pansies from another angle

new perennials with mums

mums and perennials from a  different angle

mums from prior years still doing well and ready to bloom

7. Fire Pit!
Lastly, we broke down and bought a firepit. We had been talking about it for a while, and decided that since we're definitely staying home more now that there's a bambino- we should have more things to enjoy and entertain in the house. Hopefully it'll help us enjoy the backyard a bit more, since we kind of avoided it all summer due to the heat. Sadly - as soon as we finally decided which one we wanted and ordered it, we found out it was backordered til november.

The Success Stories
For some extra context, let's take a look at how far the yard has come so far just as a reminder that everything I plant doesn't always die. We initially landscaped the yard about 2.5 years ago, prepping it to host our big rehearsal dinner. Each summer and winter since, I've lost some of the original shrubs, but others have rooted, gotten stronger, and grown a lot bigger. Here are some of the success stories of the yard:


closeup of the abelias- been blooming for like 2 months now


arbor vitae

and there's this guy 
(I planted snapdragons last summer, and this summer they started popping up everywhere. I tried to move them to a pot, but then they died. So when this guy sprouted in a crack by the garage door, I left him alone, and he did amazingly well. Kind of drives me crazy when all the annuals I planted died.)