07 March 2008

Home Improvement

When blogging first took off, I thought "what's the big deal?" The Web, and the text-based Internet before it, has always been about self-expression. But static web pages, the kind that most of us are capable of pulling together, weren't made for timely and fast-changing topics. They're cumbersome to update, and it's hard and time-consuming to achieve a readable balance of words and images. They're slow and fixed, like book or magazine publishing, compared with the broadcast news of blogging. If you're reading this, you know all that already.

It occured to me recently that I've made a point of documenting major home improvement projects since before the World Wide
Web was a gleam in Tim Berners-Lee's eye. Blogging and home remodeling; now there's a match made in heaven. You've got narrative, photos, currency and interactive feedback, all in one easy-to-use package. It wasn't always that way.

In 1990, Jerry and I started a topic on The WELL, one of the earliest online communities, called "Diary of a Remodel: It'll Be So Nice When It's Finished." We were planning to add a third storey, a master bedroom and bath, to our house in the Berkeley hills.The host of the WELL's Design conference, who happened to be a contractor, suggested documenting the process. This was before the dawn of the graphical Web; the Internet was a pure text environment. There was no way to include pictures with our story, no place to even store digital images in a user-friendly format. Digital cameras? Forget it; JPEGs didn't exist. So we wrote, day by day, a vivid, detailed, often emotional, and increasingly lengthy account. We described our progress from the day we filed for the building permit, through framing, trimwork, painting (oh, the painting!) and finally, the addition-warming party.

It wasn't just our narrative, though; it was an ongoing conversation with other WELL members, several of them architects, contractors and builders. Stewart Brand, one of the movers behind the Whole Earth Catalog and a founder of The WELL, was working on his book How Buildings Learn, and took an interest in our project. From beginning to end, dozens of people gave us useful suggestions and the benefit of their varied experience -- when, for instance, we were left roofless during a Thanksgiving storm, or came home from a trip to find a set of custom-built windows installed upside down, or simply needed to decide whether to put two or three finish coats on the hardwood floors. When the job was done, we invited everybody who'd participated to the party. A couple of dozen people showed up whom we'd never met face-to-face, but felt we knew very well. Vice-versa too, I'm sure. I still miss that teal-tiled bathroom, and the view of San Francisco Bay, especially from the shower.

[Aside: I went looking for a copy of the original WELL topic. It's no longer archived there, apparently. But I found a 3-1/2" disk -- remember those? -- labeled "Remodel" in a shoebox on a closet shelf. Classic. Luckily we still own a computer with a floppy (actually stiffy) drive. Amazingly, I remembered the ancient incantations:
dir a:
copy a: *.* f: (where my flash drive resides)

Now it's here if you want to read it. ]

Fast forward fifteen years. We're in Portland. Toward the end of 2005, we began a guestroom remodeling project. I put up a series of jpegs, one page for each week of the project's duration. Unlike the earlier WELL topic, it was short on specifics -- nothing more than captions, in fact -- a photo album rather than a journal. Had I been blogging at that point -- in retrospect I wish I had been, because '05 was quite a year -- it would have been an ideal medium. Though it wasn't nearly as dramatic or drawn-out an experience, I could have indulged in all the detail that made our WELL topic such a compelling read -- or so folks said -- with pictures.

Jer reminded me that I also uploaded photos of our hardwood floor installation at Sea Ranch, but damned if I can remember where I put them; maybe on my long-abandoned Fotolog account, or somewhere on jereva.com that I subsequently trashed.
Anyway, here we are. Yesterday we had new vinyl windows installed throughout the house. All but two of the old ones -- the living room and kitchen picture windows -- were single-glazed, with dingy, pitted aluminum frames and, of course, screens and storms that we had to swap every spring and fall and find room to store the rest of the year. The guys from DayStar was awesome; they worked amazingly quickly, and obviously knew what they were doing. They'd estimated two days to do the job; except for one special-order garden window that hasn't yet arrived, they did it in one. That included fabricating a couple of new frames and a special arrangement for the cat door. What a difference, and not just aesthetically; both Jer and I noticed last night that the thermal gradient between upstairs and down was almost non-existent. Usually the downstairs, with windows on three sides, is noticeably cooler.

Once our checkbook recovers a bit, the next project will be a backyard deck, with hot tub. The tub was delivered last week. That involved some emergency gardening; I had to dig up and then
replant my Portland Marathon Commemorative Conifer, which has grown to a majestic two feet in height, lest it be crushed by the juggernaut as it rolled into the yard. I apologized like crazy and am hoping it survives.

The tub was a floor model at George Morlan Plumbing; we got a good deal on it, which is why it's here so far in advance of the deck itself. But we think we have a deck contractor (jeez, I hope so; we've interviewed four) and, with any luck, work will begin before the end of the month. You know I'll blog about that, too.


Mary said...

Reva, you are really on to something here. A quick google search reveals nothing at all like your latest blog and photos. Could be your life's next work!

druid said...

I missed the Well topic on the San Antonio (Avenue? Boulevard?) remodeling. I was a member at the time, but hadn't figured out what to do with my membership. I do remember the Sea Ranch and Portland basement projects. I look forward to following this one, and to soaking in that gorgeous hot tub!