Six Years Later – Part 1

When we first bought Tett House, we had big plans to renovate and restore it.

As someone who studied Visual Design and Interior Decorating, I couldn’t wait to get started! I love old houses, and it was my dream to one day live in one and make it my own. Tett House, in its relaxed and somewhat shabby elegance, seemed like the perfect fit. Our goal was to retain and repair the home’s original features and add modern conveniences to improve it, but not compromise its integrity or ambience. We knew it would probably be a lifelong project, especially given that we are not DIY-ers and could not do the work ourselves.

Photo by Trevor Connell Photography

If you’ve been following this blog, you already know our story: the day we got the key to Tett House, we discovered that someone had vandalized the well. Since we knew no one in the area, it was likely done out of spite directed at the previous owners, who had not been (*ahem*) popular locally. It was a hugely stressful and expensive problem to correct, and delayed our moving in by almost two months. A year later, the new septic system which had been improperly completed (again – thank you, former owners) backed up onto our property, resulting in Stressful & Expensive Experience No. 2, pun very much intended.

As you can imagine, our interior renovation budget was completely drained. We could not make any of the exciting updates we’d planned, necessary or aesthetic. It was a bitter blow..

Consequently, for the last six years, we’ve been living in a house that has some raw, unfinished spaces and rooms that don’t function as well as we need them to. Among other challenges, this has made Tett House hard to organize and difficult to clean. We still have damaged sections of original hardwood floor, stacked storage bins, patched walls. Sometimes I can accept this for what it is; at other times, it drives me crazy.

This year, after six years in the house, we were finally able to start on some updates!

The room we needed to renovate the most was our main floor washroom. Tett House has two washrooms, one up, one down. The upstairs bath is just that… it’s a sweet Bed & Breakfast-style bathroom, with a toilet, sink, and tub. It’s totally charming and was newly updated when we moved in, so we didn’t need to renovate it. But… it has no shower.

Our only shower was in the downstairs washroom, which badly needed an overhaul. The tile was cracking and there were pieces missing. The baseboards were falling off. The vanity was old and cheap and smelled funny, with cupboard doors that sagged crookedly on their hinges. A hideous light fixture, bargain-basement washroom accessories, and dubiously plumbed toilet were the icing on this very ugly urinal cake. But the biggest problem was the shower – our only one, remember. It was an iron-stained enclosure that felt like a dark cave, and was impossible to keep clean. Trevor, who is 6’4″, couldn’t even fit in it. The water from the shower head hit him right at chest-level, and he had to stoop and bend like a pretzel to use it.

He’s been doing that for six years, my friends. SIX YEARS.

The main floor washroom had some redeeming features however: 1) It was a good-sized space with a high ceiling, so there was some flexibility in layout and design, and, 2) It had an original built-in corner cabinet, which adds warmth and a nice architectural detail. (Because the room used to be adjoined with the dining room, we believe it was once a library or office, which would account for the woodwork.)

Our plan was to install a spacious walk-in shower, with no curb or curtain, on one side of the washroom, and a new toilet and vanity on the other. These two zones would be separated by a large piece of shower glass with black grid. The idea was for the space to somehow feel like both a spa AND a powder room. We had no clue if it was going to work.

This was one of our inspiration photos, even though our bathroom space was a lot different in size, shape, and appearance:

Photo: Adam Albright, as featured on bhg.com

I was nervous about starting this washroom reno, even though I knew whatever we ended up with was going to be WAY better than what we had. Like every project we’ve tackled so far at Tett House, though, it wasn’t without its surprises. Anyone who’s read this blog knows how many “unsexy” reno’s and repairs we’ve done… there are no glamorous “Before & After” pics of a new water filtration system or septic drain field. *le sigh* You can read my salty “Renovation Reveal” for more.

SURPRISE #1: The washroom was built on top of a broken old cistern in the cellar. Before we could even begin the demo, we had to install additional support in the basement and shore up the main floor of the house. Turns out, there was a reason that old tile was cracking and breaking. Our contractor opened the floor up, repaired beams, added joists, and in some cases removed and repositioned stones in the foundation. He basically rebuilt the entire corner of the house.

SURPRISE #2: The crumbling tile had been laid on top of the original hardwood floor, not stuck down. Unfortunately, there was old water damage on a large section of the hardwood, so we couldn’t restore it. But we kept all the pieces for future projects!

SURPRISE #3: Three years ago, we discovered flying squirrels in our house and spent the winter of 2020 (humanely) evicting them. Now, as our contractor ripped out the walls down to the lath and plaster, he found the nest in the wall where they had been living. It was fully 3 ft. high. Beside it was a slightly smaller inactive mouse nest, and it may be presumed both families lived happily side by side until their human landlords kicked them out. (Hey, Disney, call me for the film rights to this super cute story. We could use a cool million.) The contractor said you could tell the difference in housing because flying squirrels import their building products whereas the mice use local materials. Evidently, when we had Tett House insulated, the spray foam guys missed a section.

We were not prepared for how long this renovation would take. I think our original expectation was around six weeks. Seems reasonable, right? The demolition began in earnest on April 12. We had one working washroom upstairs, and from that point on, we all took turns bathing in the freestanding tub. I didn’t mind it, but for my tree of a husband, and growing teenage son, it was a tight fit.

We ended up doing that for over three months.

Our renovation unfolds in Part 2, coming soon!

The Safe House

It will soon be three years since we moved into Tett House.

The first two were fraught with stress and unexpected challenges. Not only were we adjusting to a new home, new jobs, and new people in a new place, but things kept going wrong and the repairs were adding up. We were constantly on edge, waiting for the next unwelcome surprise. Early on, I realized that I had become afraid of the house I’d initially fallen in love with, and it took us a long time to feel safe and comfortable in our new lives.

But even the toughest times slowly make their way into the past. One by one, we tackled projects, and they were no longer major, urgent repairs, but little upgrades we wanted to do.

Last summer, with delight, I fitted out the screened in porch as a bright, fresh gathering space with rocking chairs, an alfresco dining table, and a vintage daybed, which I talked about in my last post.

I also picked a couple of new nightstands and bedside lamps. Little pieces, big impact!

We finally got around to cleaning out and painting the room we had earmarked for Trevor’s office.


During.

Colour: Beau Green by Benjamin Moore. I love the depth and contrast with the cinnamon-toned wood. The office isn’t quite finished yet, but at least it’s functional!

We wallpapered a feature wall in the Front Hall and loved it.

I even started painting the old grates, but this is still an ongoing project. The paint is fairly noxious and I can only do one or two at a time. What a difference, though!

My favourite thing this winter has been our brand new wood stove! Our propane furnace – which is also new – heats really well, but we wanted to cut down on fuel costs. Thanks to the removal of several large, dead trees on the property, we had a carriage house full of wood to burn, so there truly is no great loss without some small gain. Jim from Rideau Valley Hearth & Home installed a brand new Jøtul F500 for us and it’s a beauty.

I love that it looks as if it has been there, always. When you’re working with an old house, it’s so important to honour and not compromise the historical character. We try to find a balance between new and old.

We had to completely reconfigure our living room to accommodate the wood stove, but it was worth it! We’ve enjoyed many cozy nights around the fire this past winter.

We hosted a reunion of first cousins in September and a big family Thanksgiving dinner in October. Together with our improvement projects, these served to re-establish my original connection with the house, which has been growing stronger ever since. One day, I woke up realizing that Tett House had finally become my home and I didn’t need to be afraid of it anymore. I could embrace it, with open arms. I gave myself over to that feeling, and frankly, it’s the only place I ever really want to be now.

And it’s a good thing, too. Who could have foretold that the Spring of 2020 would bring with it a pandemic that meant we couldn’t leave our house even if we wanted to?

With the advent of the Coronavirus, the house I’d gotten used to fearing, suddenly became our safe place. Its aloofness and remote location made self-isolation easy, and we feel quite independent. We can go outside and wander our six acres of trees with no chance of encountering others or compromising anyone’s health, including our own.

Our family was at low-risk for COVID-19, but we sequestered ourselves in mid-March, willingly and gratefully. Since then, we’ve found solace and boundless inspiration in the beautiful natural landscape that surrounds us.


We miss our friends and family, but the deer enjoy the view, too, and have been keeping us company… while respecting social distancing recommendations, of course!

Life may have suddenly slowed down, and the Great Pause of the world is upon us, but every day at Tett House still brings something new: budding trees, flowers poking up out of the ground, and even snow! Trevor captured this bit of mid-April magic and made a short video out of it, just because he’s awesome that way.

I feel as if Tett House is rewarding us now, for all the blood, sweat, and tears we put into the property early on. This stately Victorian lady is taking us under her wing and offering shelter, a safe haven. Even when the news is scary and things are uncertain, we feel protected and comforted.

When we first moved in, I joked to Trevor about wanting the house to be a place where we could “survive a Zombie Apocalypse.”

Please don’t let there be any zombies!

To read the story of our move to Tett House from the beginning click here.



Summer at Tett House

It’s been quite a while since my last post (January 1st.)

At the time, I was feeling discouraged and overwhelmed and very blue… a deep, full-bodied azure, as a matter of fact. I didn’t feel much like writing.

I plugged away as gamely as I could through the grey, cheerless months of January, February, and March. There were multiple changes in our lives and many distractions – some positive, some not. The long, dark winter slowly, slowly seeped into a short, cold spring. I felt like I, and everyone around me, was desperate for some sunshine.

I don’t know if there’s anything better than summer in Eastern Ontario, with its scattering of lakes on the Rideau System, and majestic pines and wildflowers growing out of the bedrock of the Canadian Shield. Tett House sits perched on one of these imposing rocky cliffs, with water and trees on every side. Living here, I feel as if we are at the very heart of every season as it passes.

And summer is one of the best.

In summer, the lilacs come out,

and the deer visit.

The time for sunset bonfires and ‘smores begins,

and I start making homemade iced tea with fresh mint and lemon.

When the storm windows come off in late spring, and we open the French doors to the porch, Tett House comes alive.

When I fell in love with this place, I fell hard, and its large screened-in porch is largely responsible for that. That porch is what made me realize this was more than just a real estate crush… this was a long-term commitment territory.

When we first saw it, the porch was sort of a leftover postscript to the rest of the house, but it had a lot of potential. The previous owners left some boring, Golden Girls-style wicker out there and I wasn’t having any of it. I had a vision of something cozier and maybe kind of old-fashioned, but in the best sense. I wanted to create a space that you escape to with a book, or a glass of wine, where you gather with friends and listen to music.

When we first moved in, the porch became a place to put a few pieces of stray furniture. It was the only place of calm in our stormy move, when everything was in chaos. Our cat liked it, too.

Decorating the porch was a bit of a challenge because it’s not enclosed, only screened-in. This meant that any furniture we put out there had to be resilient and able to withstand changes in the weather. It also had to suit the age and style of the home… a modern “outdoor living room” set from Home Depot wasn’t going to cut it.

My first stroke of luck was acquiring a pair of vintage rocking chairs from a friend who was moving and could no longer use them. They were a little worn and a little chipped and they were exactly what I was looking for.

Next, I found the perfect round pedestal table online and some very affordable indoor/outdoor rattan chairs from IKEA.

It was really starting to come together, but I still didn’t have my pièce de résistance. I needed a cozy reading corner… someplace I could curl up with a good book or fall asleep on a lazy day. The final piece of the puzzle was equal parts Kijiji and thrift shop, where I picked up a secondhand daybed and handmade quilt and bedding, respectively.

The porch is my favourite room in the house, of course, although it’s not even really a room. It’s that magical place where you can be both inside and outside at the same time. It’s a place for dreaming, for reading, for dining, and – since the daybed was set up – for napping.

The floor is slanted to an alarming degree. Things get damp in there, when it rains. There are sometimes ants, and once I interrupted a snacking squirrel, but when the weather is fine, it’s the only place I want to be in the world.

To read the story of our move to Tett House from the beginning click here.

Finding Tett House, Part 10 – Renovation Reveal

By the time we moved into Tett House – two months later than expected – a LOT of work had been done on the home. It was a mess; but it was also finally functional according to modern standards, and had been brought up to current safety and building codes.

When you move into an interesting and kind of spooky old house that needs renovating, people express a lot of curiosity. Friends and family want to “see what you’ve done to the place,” and it’s a little like being on one of those homeowner shows on HGTV. Everybody wants to see the big reveal. And I get it, because *I* want to see the big reveal!  But there’s nothing aesthetically satisfying or dramatic about working on stuff like wiring and hot water tanks. There’s no “feel-good” moment after someone pours diesel down your well.

As a visual designer, Tett House was going to be my pet project. I had big plans, and a big imagination… unfortunately, due to the clean-up and repair of our vandalized well, and then a costly septic issue, we weren’t exactly left with a big budget. I also didn’t anticipate the anxiety hangover I experienced following that stressful time. After all the major repairs and expenses, I’m not ashamed to say I took a good long break and focused on unpacking, one box at a time. It moved forward at a pace you might expect.

I’ve made peace with the fact that my decorating goals are going to take longer than I’d hoped to achieve. Like, it’s a year later, and I’m only just picking paint colours now. But for everyone who’s been curious to see “Before & After” shots… here they are. The un-sexiest (and most realistic) home renovation reveal ever!

RE-WIRING:  Before

Every room in the house had its walls and floors ripped open like this.

I had so many misgivings about a lighting fixture this size.

RE-WIRING:  After.

Check out that smokin’ hot new electrical panel. OK, maybe “smokin’ hot” isn’t the best way to describe updated wiring, but you get where I’m going with this.

INSULATION:

Every exterior wall was drilled with holes from the inside and filled with spray foam insulation. Then the holes had to be patched.

Two worlds collide:  when foam insulation leaks out of your new exterior junction box.

We insulated the crawl space, too. I don’t remember how much we paid the contractor to go down there, but I feel like it wasn’t enough.

FURNACE: Before

The old oil furnace had seen better days, although the tank was fairly new.  We removed them both…

     

… and replaced them with a shiny new propane furnace with air conditioning. Those ducts are to die for.

Removing the oil tank created so much more living space!

Thanks to whomever vandalized our well, we also had to get a new hot water tank. Can you tell the difference? Neither can I.  #everygirlsdream

        

FLOOR REPAIR:  Before

OK, this was kind of a cool project. We had an old stovepipe hole that needed to be repaired. Not that looking down into the basement at our new furnace wasn’t an uplifting experience, we just didn’t want our son or our cat unexpectedly falling into a pit.

FLOOR REPAIR:  After

Our carpenter was a magician who found old boards under the stairs and used them to patch the hole.

*Flooring Footnote:  The hardwood throughout the house remains pretty raw. Although the original boards are strong and in good condition, the finish is in rough shape. Most of our floors look like this, or worse. Full disclosure:  sometimes I’m into it, sometimes not.

WATER SYSTEM:  Before

Somehow, we inherited the bad karma of the home’s former owners, and lonely and vulnerable, our water source was a target for the disenchanted.

WATER SYSTEM:  After

This baby is on lock-down…

… and our water now comes from the lake, with an elaborate new filtration system, and I never, ever, ever want to talk about that experience ever again. (You can read about it here.)

           

BACKYARD & SEPTIC DRAIN-FIELD:  Before

Our backyard is very simple – gently sloping grass, lots of trees, and one heck of a view. After moving in, one of the few things we were able to enjoy early on was this pretty little fire pit my husband built from a kit.

We spent quite a few afternoons and evenings enjoying a beverage or five with a beautiful sunset.

This year in early spring, sewage started flooding our backyard. We discovered the previous owners of the house had not adequately updated the septic system (nor gotten a permit for the existing tank) and our yard had to be excavated for a new drain field. These were good times.

Hooray! No more pee water in our backyard.

BACKYARD & SEPTIC DRAIN-FIELD:  After

The yard has been re-graded nicely, but the newly seeded grass came back as mostly clover… Of the four-leaf variety, I’m hoping.

And this is our fire pit. It’s still dismantled and the grass unmown because my husband threw his back out, so back off, haters.

Well, there you have it:  a series of the most uninspiring but absolutely necessary renovations you could ever expect to see. But, I will say this…

Our house is warm and dry in the winter, and cool on the hottest days of summer.

All lighting and appliances run safely on properly grounded outlets and junction boxes, and we have a generator for emergencies.

Our water is clean and safe to drink.

And boon of all boons, our backyard no longer smells like poop.

We’re still working hard to make Tett House our home. I’ve already established some cosy nooks and corners, going from this:

to this:

And this:

to this:

From the moment I saw it, I knew Tett House was my forever home. Every step we take is an adventure, and every new project, a gift.

We are grateful to the following local businesses and contractors for their tireless efforts and support. We truly had the best, kindest, and hardest working people on our team:

McNichols Electrical & Plumbing

Erica Grey (XCG Consulting Environmental Engineers)

Scott Blair & team (Scott Blair Contracting)

WC Gas Works

Levac Propane

Comfort Zone Insulation

Thompson’s Septic & Gravel

(To start our story at the beginning, click here for Part 1.)