When we purchased our home in June, it was a residential two-flat – or in other words, it was a building with two apartments. However, there were three families that lived here, one on each of the two floors and in the basement. The basement, otherwise known as our home’s garden unit, was a fully liveable, inhabitable space; a space with two large bedrooms, a kitchen, bathroom and the building’s only washer and dryer. Regardless, it wasn’t recognized as a third unit by the city, and with our minds so set on just diving into the first and second floors – three cheers for a single family home! – we put the basement on the back burner, giving it little to no thought as we sledged our way through every room in the house.
But by mid-July, we thought, wait a minute. It was time to revisit that basement.
The thought had crossed our minds before, so we say again, this house has a garden unit! While we toyed with the idea of renting the garden (it was a discussion we had many times, not only to supplement our mortgage, but also to help fund the restoration of our 120-year-old-house), we knew it would need some work to make it feel warm and inviting. It has a tile floor (which isn’t our first choice), but the rooms were large (by city standards), and the ceiling height, windows, entrance and exit (both separate from “our” part of the house) were all up to city code.
At that time, the issue wasn’t so much the work to be done, rather, it was a matter of could we? We were told by our attorney at the closing table that our new home is zoned for no more than 2 residential units, and although we would eventually – technically – only have two units, a great place to confirm our suspicions would be a meeting with our alderman. (And yes, this means that the garden unit was formerly rented under the table, something that is not uncommon in Chicago.) This was music to ears for a couple of reasons, mainly because our alderman is awesome. He attends Tour de Fat every year (our favorite summer festival!) and has been a huge proponent of making our neighborhood an exciting place to live. But for this purpose, we know that he also holds an open floor for his ward every Monday night. Those that live in his ward (aka: us) can personally meet with him, ask questions, receive advice and have a sense of what to do next.
In our case, we told him that our hope was to reside within the first and second floor units as a duplex-up and maintain the garden unit as a rental apartment. (And as luck would have it, our alderman had parked his bicycle in his office, so there was no shortage of bike talk thrown in for good measure!) In addition, our ultimate goal was to restore the original character in our older home – a dream we’ve had for too many years to count. He not only enthusiastically supported our idea, but he proceeded to tell us, here’s what you do now:
ONE) Write a letter to the city zoning department, explaining our current situation and intent. Our alderman would provide an additional letter of support if needed (luckily, it wasn’t). TWO) After receiving their response, follow through with whatever is necessary – if anything – to complete the zoning requirements. THREE) Rent the garden unit.
But the actual breakdown went a little something like this:
ONE) Write a letter. TWO) Wait 30 days, then call the city and say to their answering service, we wrote you a letter; what’s next? THREE) Shriek with happiness when the city calls you back… and then asks you for floor plans. FOUR) Send them floor plans. Wait. FIVE) Call them again after another 30 days and say to their answering service, we sent you the requested plans; what’s next? SIX) Feel deflated when the city requests more information, misunderstanding your intent. SEVEN + EIGHT) Mail each other several more letters, re-explaining your intent – back and forth, back and forth. NINE) Hear the good news you’ve been waiting for: As long as you aren’t increasing the floor area of the building and maintaining no more than two residential units, your zoning is in good standing.
TEN) Scream with joy! Celebrate with a glass of wine.
The entire process took several months (and cost us $50), but we’re glad that we approached the situation through the proper channels and finally (finally!) received the news we’d been crossing our fingers (and toes, arms and legs) for. Some have told us that we were crazy to be overly thorough, but for peace of mind, it was absolutely worth it. (The alternative would have been to rent the unit without permission, then maybe get slapped with a hefty fine.)
Since receiving the good news, the last couple of weeks have been a garden-unit-cleaning-frenzy – and as you can imagine, it has seen its ups and downs. The renovation-and-clean-up related road bumps are to be expected (as with every stone we’ve turned over in this house), but our goal is not to fix things fast, but to do them right. Nights and weekends are spent in our demo clothes (it’s been disheartening to know that our estimation of how much work the basement needed was skewed), and while it’s hard to tell during times of frustration, we have come a long way.
And so, slowly – in-between the upstairs construction and every day life – we’re inching our way towards not only turning our house into a place we love, but hopefully creating an apartment for someone else to enjoy, too.
Water is a crazy thing. It’s simultaneously destructive, life-sustaining, and expensive. A week or so after moving into our new house, we were greeted by our friendly mail-lady who handed over to us a stack of grocery store flyers, junk mail from the previous tenants and a ginormous water bill. Like, $600 ginormous. The good news, however, was that the bill was only an estimate based off of the amount of floors, units, and prior tenants in our building – phew.
We immediately researched our options, wanting only to pay for the water that we actually use, and we signed up for the Chicago MeterSave program. In addition to saving money on our water bill (and even guaranteeing savings for seven years!), in Chicago, they’ll actually incentivize you to sign up by giving you a free rain barrel for participating. Score!
Along with the barrel itself (already drilled with spigots and bungs), the kit came with a short length of hose (that we didn’t end up using) and a flex-pipe to place at the end of our downspout for easy water direction.
While Kim tied up a few loose ends around our ghetto mansion, I ducked out to Home Depot and picked up a couple of retaining wall blocks to elevate the barrel off of the ground. We had to smash off the lip at the back of each block to get them to lay flat, but a few seconds with a claw hammer is all I needed.
The blocks were arranged into a circular pattern to support the barrel and lift it off of the ground for better water flow.
Upon digging around in a random mystery box in the garage, I found a short length of garden hose and this cool brass elbow fitting that help alleviate some pressure from the hose connections. This junction at the top of the barrel will act as an overflow valve, allowing excess water to be directed away from the foundation of the house, and eventually into a planter or flower bed.
In making some recent gutter repairs, I had intentionally re-routed a section of downspout toward the base of the back deck, knowing that the rain barrel would be arriving soon. My plan worked out, and the downspout was at a perfect length and height for the intake of the barrel. I attached the flexible extension with self-tapping sheet metal screws to give us a bit of adjustability in the flow.
While I was at it, I got ambitious and re-routed a second downspout into the barrel as well. This sucker will be full in no time! Here’s hoping that the garden hose will be enough to handle the overflow in a heavy downpour. (Update: We had a steady day of drizzle yesterday, and I’m happy to report that the barrel is completely full, and the hose did its job just fine! That didn’t take long.)
While I admit that this is not the most attractive project we’ve ever completed, it should be nice and functional when spring rolls around and we actually have some plants to water! We like things to look nice around here, but this is one of those occasions where function will (temporarily) beat form. (Although, the instructions did include a few tips on painting the big black blob in case we’d like to add a touch of color, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.)
As rain-barrel virgins, we’re open to some handy tips and tricks to keep this thing working. Anybody a seasoned rain-hoarder? Fill us in!
As we ride this wave of living under construction, by no means would we say hey, this isn’t so bad! (Truth be told, I could barely type those words without cringing.) Working from home throughout this process has been a challenge for me, and while I haven’t always been the most spirited half of this team lately (we go through phases where I’m up and Scott’s down and vice versa; we’re rarely on the same page), we’ve been mindful to mix in some fun with the not-so-fun. (Basement work tonight, salvage shops tomorrow, we say!) There’s not one clean surface in our entire home – at this point in the renovation game, it’s not a possibility – but as the contractors have been working on rebuilding our demolition (and taking on a little more demo themselves – among other things), it has been really (really, really!) exciting to watch the changes unfold.
Let’s break it down.
THE LIVING ROOM. You know that the ultimate goal is to turn our city two-flat into a single family home, and as a result, the first floor has seen some of the biggest changes – walls moving, doors vanishing… you know. Before we moved in, we were dealing with a sagging ceiling, a sort-of room partition without a proper support beam and a teensy bedroom (below, on the left) that seemed like more of an afterthought:
After we ripped out the ceiling, uncovered the room partition and the contractors installed an appropriate support beam (lifting our second floor more than 2″), they’ve since widened the doorway to the bedroom-turned-nook, eliminated the chimney, and have begun adding can lights (8 total) throughout the living/dining room. There’s still not an actual ceiling, but can you see it? (Squinting helps.)
THE NOOK. Speaking of that former-bedroom-turned-nook, the door and frame have been pulled out, and the opening has not only been widened to almost 4′, but it also got a 4″ added height boost! As reader Helena pointed out in this post, this will surely be the room where the kitties sleep, sun bathe and come out for their tuna dinners… and we’re okay with that.
But if you’re wondering about the actual intent, we imagine this room with a cozy chair, a cushy rug and our record collection – all of which I’m sure the girls will have no problem with. We’ll also be adding a door (we’re thinking of a barn door, although not necessarily rustic in design), which will sit on rails inside the nook room. The opening was widened with this in mind, although admittedly, it may be a little while before anything is installed.
THE ENTRYWAY. As it stands, you can still see right into the nook room from the entryway; this is the view when you first walk in. Now that our Great Door Hunt has been completed (hallelujah!), the contractors were able to frame out our coat closet to the appropriate height/width. We’ve since picked up our vintage door hardware, so soon enough, they’ll be able to notch out the space for the lock.
And if you look up and to the left, the remainder of our second floor coat closet has been ripped out, giving us at least 10″ of extra head room when walking up and down the steps. No amount of photos could show how huge of a difference that has made, but trust! Our foyer light has also been re-centered on the ceiling (since taking down all the walls and doors left it oddly misplaced), and in general, new switches and outlets are being added – at the proper height. Prior to this, our switches were literally in the middle of the wall, at eye level. (What?)
THE SECOND FLOOR LANDING. Up the stairs, we now have a framed out knee wall! We’re ridiculously excited about this, not only for the amount of light the hallway window brings into the studio, but the immense feeling of space we’ve gained. First, here’s how it looked two months ago:
Today, we’re ready for drywall! The light fixture in the first photo (below) will also get centered, but aside from our day of demolition and an hour for the contractors to install the framework, this landing is good to go. The half-wall comes in at 3′ tall, as a staircase banister is typically 36″ from the ground; we’ll add that in once drywall has been completed (and once we figure out what we actually want – starting from scratch is exciting and absolutely confusing all at once).
THE LAUNDRY ROOM. As mentioned in this post, we will officially be adding the laundry room off of our master bedroom – hooray! Originally we weren’t sure it was in the budget, but the contractor waiting game turned out to be more of a blessing in disguise. After pinching our pennies for an extra month, we decided to add it to the plans – and oh my goodness, I can’t tell you how weirdly thrilled we are! A whole room. For laundry! (Maybe we’ll actually do it now?) It’s simply a bare-studded wall, but pipes have been hooked up and plumbing is being run throughout… Ooh, it is on.
THE FRONT DOOR. It’s in! The insulation and siding is in waiting (obviously), but the door and handle have been in full swing (punny!) for several days. I’m itching to give it the royal blue treatment, but as the weather cools down, we’re just happy to have a drafty-free entryway. And – fingers crossed! – our transom window is on the delivery truck today. (Eee!)
Also? We’ve fest-ed up the patio with our pumpkins. Priorities, people. (Although as Scott would say, it’s like putting lipstick on a pig.)
As much as I try to tune out the bustle around me (headphones? Check!), there were rumblings of recreating the lost arch in our foyer opening this week (!). But if I hear the word drywall, I might lose it – coming soon? We’re hopeful. (There’s that spirited side!)
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