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Pruning hydrangeas in winter

By on February 23, 2015


A couple of weeks ago, I decided that the weather was perfect to do some gardening. So I put on my snow boots and winter coat, grabbed a shovel and some pruning shears, and went outside for my annual Annabelle hydrangea pruning.

Pruning Hydrangeas in Winter | Rather Square

Yes, I probably should have pruned our Annabelle hydrangea bushes last fall (like I did the first time with great success). But in the first few months of adjusting to life with Baby T, garden maintenance wasn’t really at the forefront of our minds, so the hydrangeas were left on their own as fall turned into winter.

Pruning Hydrangeas in Winter | Rather Square

I’ve read that Annabelle hydrangeas can be pruned anytime between autumn and early spring (check out this site and these guidelines and this blog post) because they bloom on new wood. So I decided to put it to the ultimate test and try pruning them in the dead of winter this year. You know, in the snow and ice and freezing cold. That’s not crazy, right?

Pruning Hydrangeas in Winter | Rather Square

Pruning Hydrangeas in Winter | Rather Square

Pruning Hydrangeas in Winter | Rather Square

Before starting to prune, I had to dig the bushes out a bit since they were buried in a huge snowdrift. I wanted to cut down the branches to about 18 inches from the ground, so I used a small shovel to clear snow from the areas I wanted to prune. I tried not to damage the branches, but I did end up scraping a few of them and exposed the green insides.

Pruning Hydrangeas in Winter | Rather Square

Pruning Hydrangeas in Winter | Rather Square

Pruning Hydrangeas in Winter | Rather Square

When I had shoveled enough to be able to see what I had to work with, I started trimming. Some of the branches were still bent down and buried under the snow, so I pulled these out to prune them. And I completely trimmed off the few sections where I had scraped the stems with the shovel.

Pruning Hydrangeas in Winter | Rather Square

Pruning Hydrangeas in Winter | Rather Square

Once I pruned everything down to about 18 inches, I collected all the trimmed branches and put them in a yard bag for pickup later on in spring.

Pruning Hydrangeas in Winter | Rather Square

Pruning Hydrangeas in Winter | Rather Square

Pruning Hydrangeas in Winter | Rather Square

We’ve had a cold and snowy February here in the Midwest, so when things warm up and melt a little, I’ll check if any stray stems were hiding under the snow.

Pruning Hydrangeas in Winter | Rather Square

Pruning Hydrangeas in Winter | Rather Square

Hopefully this won’t be another pruning fail like the smoke tree (which we still haven’t fixed yet, by the way!). Is there such a thing as having a white thumb (instead of a green or black one) for gardening in winter? If this risky landscaping move works, I’m going to declare winter gardening (and #whitethumb) a new trend.

Cross your fingers (again) that I haven’t killed our gorgeous Annabelle hydrangea. What do you think – will Annabelle survive?

February 23, 2015

[ 12 ]

Balance, value, and our goals for 2015

By on February 16, 2015


John and I have finally nailed down (pun intended!) our house project plans for 2015, and we’re excited to share them! Our challenge this year: How to get the most value from our small budget and limited free time.

How to get the most value from a small budget and limited free time | Rather Square

We’re starting out the year with a very limited house project budget, mainly for two reasons. First of all, we need to continue funneling cash into our emergency fund (since it was nearly drained to pay for the new furnace last year), and build it back up to a comfortable level so that we’re again prepared for unexpected disasters. Secondly, we’re still catching up financially after the unpaid maternity leave I took last year from my day job after Baby T was born. Since we’re committed to staying as debt-free as possible, this means that we need to be smart about how we spend on home improvement and DIY projects.

So we did a bit of informal cost-benefit analysis, and our first priority will be projects that improve our home’s functionality and safety. But we’re also adding some fun design projects to our list, things we can DIY at a minimal cost but that will have a big impact. Finally, we’ll need to fit these projects into our already-busy daily life and family responsibilities, so we’re trying to be as flexible as possible with our expectations and timeframes. It’s all about balance and keeping an eye on the big picture.

Without further ado, here are our goals and plans for 2015!


GOAL: Get an energy audit
WHEN: Before spring

Choosing a New Furnace for an Old House | Rather Square

Attic Insulation | Rather Square

We talked about scheduling an energy audit last year, but then didn’t follow through in favor of other projects. Now we’re finally planning to set up an audit next month so that we can get a clear overall picture of our home’s energy efficiency. Our new furnace was a big step in the right direction, and hopefully the results of the audit will help us make smart decisions going forward.

Our energy audit will cost about $100, but it’s a good investment and a valuable resource. Knowledge is power.


GOAL: Finish Toddler E’s bedroom
WHEN: Late winter/early spring

Toddler Girl Bedroom | Rather Square

Toddler Bedroom Owl Art | Rather Square

We’re so close to finishing the toddler’s big-girl room! The big remaining task is to hang some art on her walls. She’s already got these fun owl prints, and we’ll be looking for a few more affordable pieces to fill out the room (and then figure out how to hang them on the plaster walls – a question that applies to our whole house). Finally, we’re going to add shelving and a light to her closet.

The cost of completing this room will be pretty minimal, and Toddler E is excited to have her very own special space (which makes us all happy).


GOAL: Finish Baby T’s nursery
WHEN: Spring/early summer

How to Paint Fabric Drawers | Rather Square

Updating Curtains in a Nursery | Rather Square

The nursery too is nearly done, but there are a few important changes and additions we need to make. When we first bought the house, this room was used for storage and we painted the walls a blue-gray color. But now that we’ve re-designed this room as Baby T’s nursery, I’m realizing that a warmer paint tone would better tie the other design elements (like the rug, furniture and accessories) together. Also, the curtains we originally chose are too flimsy and short, and we need to find some more substantial panels to block light while Baby T sleeps. And then once the walls are repainted, we want to get (or make) some unique artwork to hang in here. Finally, we’ll add a shelf and lighting to the closet.

Finishing the nursery will cost a little more than the toddler’s room (we’ll need to purchase paint, curtain material and artwork), but I think we can be really creative here to get the most value for our budget.


GOAL: Clean up the front yard landscaping
WHEN: Summer

Front Yard Landscaping | Rather Square

Late Summer Landscaping | Rather Square

We’re not planning to take on any big landscaping projects this year, but there are a few smaller things we can do to tidy up the front of the house that will hopefully improve its curb appeal. First, we’d like to have the stumps of the yew shrubs removed. When John cut the yews down last summer, he left these in place since they weren’t something we wanted to try removing on our own. So this summer, we’ll hire someone to dig out the roots properly (to us, it’s a good value for the cost). We also want to add some more grass seed, take out our half-dead rosebushes, and transplant some of our backyard garden to the front. Our thumbs aren’t always green, but at least moving around the plants we already have is free!

This project will probably run us anywhere from $100 to $300 (root removal, grass seed, mulch and other basic landscaping upkeep materials), but aside from the root removal, we’ll be keeping costs down by doing this work ourselves.


GOAL: Refresh the front porch
WHEN: Summer

Front Porch | Rather Square

Front Porch Mailbox | Rather Square

There are a few front porch DIY projects that we’ve been meaning to do since we moved in, and this summer is a great time to finally get these underway. First, we want to repaint the hunter green steps and porch floor with a new color, and also add some traction to the steps since they get really slippery in the winter. While we’re at it, we want to replace the old brassy exterior light fixture, the rusty purple mailbox, and maybe even repaint the outer screen door.

All of this would improve both the front porch’s function (making it safer during snowy and rainy weather) and its visual aesthetics (hunter green and purple are not our favorite colors!). So these improvements should be a good investment and a good value.


GOAL: Repair and paint the back deck
WHEN: Summer

Back Deck | Rather Square

Back Deck Stairs | Rather Square

We use our back deck every morning as we leave the house for school and work. The wood is mostly in good shape, but it’s weathered and there are some areas that need reinforcement and/or rebuilding (like the wood on the bottom step in the above photo that just fell off soon after we moved in). So our first task is to repair any instabilities and make sure the structure is solid. After that, John wants to clean and paint the deck with a product like Deckover to both protect the wood and give it a slightly-rough, non-slip surface so it’s safer to walk on in the winter.

We’d love to build a bigger, better deck sometime in the future, but for now our goal is to make the existing deck stronger and safer. These fixes are relatively inexpensive and will go a long way toward extending its life and usefulness.


That takes us through the next six months or so, but as we found out last year, a lot can change in that time. So right now we don’t want to make any concrete plans beyond the end of this summer – instead, we’d like to see how things go with these initial projects, and then go from there. Since our lives and needs are always evolving, it’s better to keep our plans flexible. (And who knows – maybe we’ll win the lottery next month, and this carefully-budget-conscious list will suddenly get a lot bigger and shinier…!)

What are your goals for 2015 (home improvement and otherwise)?

February 16, 2015

[ 2 ]

Choosing a new furnace for an old house

By on February 4, 2015


While we’re finalizing our project plans for 2015, we thought we’d post an update to our dramatic furnace breakdown story from last winter. Spoiler alert: It’s got a happy ending!

Choosing a New Furnace for an Old House | Rather Square

In case you missed it, here’s a quick background. When we bought our house in the spring of 2013, the home inspector noted the advanced age and condition of our 25-year-old furnace, and recommended we replace it as soon as possible. Since we were taking on so many other updates to the house at that time, we opted to see if the furnace could get through at least one more winter. Well, one freezing polar vortex night last February, it drew its last shuddering breath and died. So we left this story off last time as we were getting estimates for a new heating and cooling system.

The Night our Furnace Died | Rather Square

Despite the immediacy of the situation, John met with multiple HVAC specialists to get a clear long-term view of what would work best for our house. Since we knew this would be a big purchase, we wanted to make the most informed decision possible. John ended up being really impressed with one particular installer who walked around the entire house with him and inspected the layout of the rooms, our insulation (or lack thereof) situation, and our overall energy needs. He then gave us a system recommendation – including size, power, and efficiency rating – based on these findings. His attention to detail helped us feel pretty confident about going forward, so we went ahead and signed a contract with him.

Then, over the next few days, the old furnace was removed…

Choosing a New Furnace for an Old House | Rather Square

…and the new one – an American Standard two-stage high efficiency model - was installed. It’s 97% energy efficient and uses a variable speed fan for the two stages. Not only does this help deliver consistent heating with fewer temperature swings, but it means it’s much quieter than our old furnace.

Choosing a New Furnace for an Old House | Rather Square

In addition, the installers re-routed the exhaust pipes – previously, the exhaust vented out alongside the walkway we use every day and it was damaging the exterior stucco, so we had them move the pipe outlets to the other side of the house. They drilled through the outside wall and put an unobtrusive cover over the pipe openings that blends into the color of our stucco.

New Furnace, Old House | Rather Square

They also carefully detached our whole-house humidifier from the old furnace (which we had originally installed ourselves) and re-connected it to the new one.

New Furnace, Old House | Rather Square

Our new HVAC system includes an air conditioner as well. It’s an American Standard multi-stage model, with a rating of up to 18 SEER (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio) which means it’s incredibly energy efficient. As you can see, we put Toddler E in charge of supervising its delivery.

New Furnace, Old House | Rather Square

New Furnace, Old House | Rather Square

It was installed along with the furnace in February, but we had to wait for warmer weather before it could be fully charged. So the HVAC guys came back later in the spring to do that and get it operational in time for summer.

New Furnace, Old House | Rather Square

Once the new furnace was up and running, we were so happy to have a warm, livable house again! With our often-extreme Midwest winters and summers, a functioning heating and cooling system is not optional – it’s a necessity. So even though our bank account was several thousand dollars lighter after this unexpected expense, we felt that the money was well spent. And even more glad that we’d had enough in our emergency fund to pay for it without going into debt. Plus, we received $1,000 in energy efficiency rebates from our utility companies toward this purchase – quite a nice bonus!

Choosing a New Furnace for an Old House | Rather Square

So, now that we’ve had our new HVAC system for almost a year, how has it held up through the long drawn-out end of last winter, our pretty typical Chicago summer, and now halfway through this not-as-freezing-as-last-year-but-still-pretty-cold winter?

We’re happy to report that it’s been working really well! During cold weather, it’s nice and toasty inside our house, and in hot weather we’re cool as cucumbers.

Choosing a New Furnace for an Old House | Rather Square

The temperature inside our home feels great, but we’ve been able to go even further and gather some hard data to support this. John’s been programming our Ecobee smart thermostat to better customize our heating and cooling cycles, and this allows us to easily track how the new energy-efficient furnace responds to our old drafty house. It’s interesting to see the two stages and their usage patterns during outside temperature fluctuations. The furnace runs at the lower speed most of the time (therefore saving us energy and money) and only kicks into high gear during extreme temperature spikes.

Choosing a New Furnace for an Old House | Rather Square

And we can also see if anything seems off. Recently John noticed that the house wasn’t as warm as it should be, compared to how he had programmed the thermostat’s settings. He called our service contractor and was able to show him actual quantifiable data to help figure out the problem. Luckily, it turned out that all we needed was a new filter – an easy $30 fix.

Choosing a New Furnace for an Old House | Rather Square

We love our new furnace. And we’ve definitely noticed improvements in our utility costs – for example, our gas bill from last month was $100 less than the same month a year ago (when we still had our old furnace). Yay!

Choosing a New Furnace for an Old House | Rather Square

But… this fancy piece of machinery doesn’t entirely solve all our home’s energy efficiency issues. In our choice of HVAC system, we also had to consider the way our house holds all the heating and cooling that the furnace and air conditioner generate. We’re still dealing with largely un-insulated exterior walls, some old windows and doors, and an attic with deteriorated insulation that probably isn’t working very well… all of which allows a lot of our carefully heated and cooled air to escape to the outside. Even though our new furnace is sized properly for our home, it’s only part of our overall energy strategy, and it won’t work up to its full potential until we address the other things on our list.

Attic Insulation | Rather Square

We touched on some ideas briefly in our Insulation and Icicles post, but it’s a complicated process with both short-term and long-term fixes (and costs!) that we haven’t quite worked out yet. Our next step is to explore how to get more insulation in the exterior walls. But for now, we’re grateful to have our new furnace to keep us warm during these long cold days of winter.

New Furnace, Old House | Rather Square

If you’re interested in learning more about tax credits, rebates and other financial incentives for upgrading your home’s energy systems, check out Energy.gov to see what programs are available in your state and nationwide.

How has your home held up to the freezing winter temperatures of recent years?

P.S. This is our milestone 100th post on Rather Square! Can you believe it? We can’t – my typing fingers get tired just thinking about it. But seriously, we’re excited to have come this far. Here’s to the next 100 posts!

Links may contain affiliates.

February 4, 2015

[ 4 ]

A 2014 report card: Did we accomplish our goals?

By on January 22, 2015


Now that we’ve gone through our entire house (inside and out) to assess our progress so far, let’s take a quick look back at the project goals we set for ourselves last year. It’s report card time… did we accomplish everything we planned to do in 2014?


Goal: Save money in 2014 for a kitchen renovation in 2015
Grade: D

Our overall plan at the beginning of 2014 was to take on only cost-efficient projects so that we could save up for a big kitchen renovation the following year. But within the first couple months after setting this goal, we ended up spending much of our savings account instead of adding to it – the exact opposite of what we planned.

First, we had to upgrade our refrigerator. Even though we got a good deal by going with a previous-year model, it was still an expense we hadn’t planned on. We shifted the existing countertops to make room for the new fridge and John hooked up the water line himself.

Installing our New Refrigerator | Rather Square

And then shortly after that, we faced another – and much larger – unexpected expense. Our 25-year-old furnace broke down one very cold night, and we ended up draining the rest of our savings to replace it. Luckily, we had the cash to pay for this very necessary system to keep our home safely livable (read more about the benefits of having an emergency fund for your home).

Old Furnace, New Furnace | Rather Square

But using most of our remaining savings for this emergency situation meant that we no longer had it to put toward a kitchen renovation. So we’re starting at the bottom again and slowly saving our dollars again. Looks like the kitchen renovation will have to wait at least another year…


Goal: Redesign and set up our home office
Grade: C

Another big goal we had for 2014 was to turn our office space into a functional and well-designed room to work at home. Well, this goal got derailed as well, when life shifted other projects to the forefront.

We did get a good start in the office by organizing some furniture, sorting and purging old paperwork, finding some baskets and bins for storage, and creating a moodboard of our vision for this space.

Designing our Home Office | Rather Square

Home Office Paper Shredding | Rather Square

We really wanted to have this room done by the end of 2014, but that didn’t happen. The home office design project was put on hold while we moved our focus to preparing for a new life event: the arrival of Baby T!

Our New Life Addition | Rather Square

We’re still not sure when the office will be finished – it may end up being broken down into multiple smaller updates instead of the all-in-one renovation we had originally planned.


Goal: Transform the spare bedroom into a nursery
Grade: A-

Halfway through 2014, we revisited our original project plans for the year. It was clear that we needed to re-align our priorities to accommodate the new baby, so we fast-tracked the transformation of our spare bedroom into a nursery. And with a lot of determination and hard work, we made it happen!

Moodboard for Nursery | Rather Square

How to Paint Fabric Drawers | Rather Square

We did so much to this room and we still need to show you the reveal, but the only thing missing is artwork (hence the almost-perfect grade of A-). We also discovered that the curtains we chose for this room don’t block light very well (which is imperative for nap time), so we need to change those out. But for the most part, we accomplished our goals for this room project!


Goal: Update the toddler’s bedroom into a big-girl space
Grade: A-

We had to transition some of the toddler’s existing furniture into the new nursery, so we wanted to go ahead and give her bedroom a refreshed big-girl look. She needed a new bed and dresser, curtains, a ceiling fan, and more – and we were able to accomplish all this before the end of the summer.

Moodboard for Toddler's Bedroom | Rather Square

Toddler Girl Bedroom | Rather Square

This room needs artwork as well (another A-), but otherwise it’s complete! Toddler E loves her new bed (we got a toddler bed frame from Ikea that converts into a twin bed). We also customized a basic wooden dresser for her with some paint and stain, a DIY project we’ll be posting about soon. And John even painted the inside of her closet. Overall, we’re giving ourselves a pat on the back for this project!


Goal: Refresh the bathroom on a budget
Grade: A-

We set out to make some budget upgrades to our main bathroom last summer, wanting to use our DIY skills to improve the functionality and aesthetics of this space while saving up for a major renovation down the road. Our hope was to have this project completed by the end of the year. And we’re calling it a success – we’ve finished almost everything on our to-do list!

Our Budget Bathroom Update | Let There be Light (Part 2) | Rather Square

Installing a Bathroom Faucet | Rather Square

We painted, upgraded the lighting and faucet, and did some quick updates to the cabinet hardware, window treatments and more. The one thing we didn’t end up tackling was the chipped-paint cabinets – we’re still deciding if we should touch them up or replace them altogether. But for the most part, we accomplished this goal!


So our 2014 report card looks like this: D, C, A-, A-, A-. More successes than failures, right? Even though we didn’t do very well on our save-up-for-a new-kitchen goal, or our create-a-kickass-home-office goal, I’m not too disappointed. Both of these goals fell to the wayside in favor of more urgent needs – keeping our home warm and designing fun kid bedrooms.

Right now we’re finalizing our 2015 goals (will the kitchen and/or office make it back on the list?), and we’ll share those soon! What about you – what’s on your home-improvement list this year?

January 22, 2015

[ 6 ]

State of the House: Downstairs, outside and more

By on January 15, 2015


We’re almost done reviewing all the progress (and um, lack of progress) we’ve made on our home so far, before jumping into our project ideas for 2015. In our last two posts we looked at the first floor and second floor, so now let’s head into the basement and then outside to see what’s left on our home improvement to-do list.


Basement

Basement Woodworking Studio | Rather Square

Basement Woodworking Studio | Rather Square

Completed!

Still to do…

General thoughts:

When we bought our house, the basement was divided into a semi-finished room (used by the former owners as a music rehearsal space) and an unfinished utility area. We haven’t done much to the utility area except upgrade the laundry machines, but John spent some time last year remodeling the other room to be his woodworking studio (pictured above). We definitely owe you a couple of posts on that project! The rest of the basement will be a long-term, small-sections-at-a-time renovation.


Exterior

Repairing Stucco | Rather Square

Built-In Window Boxes | Rather Square

Completed!

Still to do…

General thoughts:

Here we’ve got some small projects we can tackle easily (like upgrading the rusty battered mailbox) and huge ones that we’ll have to save up for (like repainting the entire exterior). The front and back entrances of the house are both somewhat dilapidated and will need attention soon – we’ll probably repaint and reinforce them as a short-term fix and then totally rebuild them down the road.


Garage

Garage, Before | Rather Square

Completed!

Still to do…

General thoughts:

The garage was built around the same time as our house, so it’s almost a century old. While the structure itself is solid and the roof was replaced by the previous owner, our home inspection noted that the original foundation has become very unstable over time. There are huge heaving cracks in the concrete floor caused by water damage that are getting worse every year. So, inspired by an episode of Rehab Addict, we got an estimate last year to lift up the garage structure, remove the old foundation, and repour a new one. It’s much more cost-effective than building a whole new garage, especially since the current walls and roof are still in good condition. Now that we have a quote, we’re hoping we can get these garage issues addressed before the foundation deteriorates much further.


Landscaping

Front Yard Landscaping | Rather Square

Annabelle Hydrangea | Rather Square

Completed!

Still to do…

General thoughts:

Our home’s previous owner spent a lot of thought and energy on the landscaping around the property. But while the ornamental garden, bushes and trees are beautiful, we don’t have enough time or resources to maintain them on the extensive level they require. So we’ve started redesigning the landscaping to better fit our interests and needs. The most dramatic transformation so far has been when John cut down our yews last summer, and we want to continue reimagining this front yard space with more inviting curb appeal.


Energy systems

Installing a Thermostat | Rather Square

Old Furnace, New Furnace | Rather Square

Completed!

Still to do…

General thoughts:

Even though our old house has a brand-new furnace, air conditioner, whole-house humidifier, and smart thermostat, it’s still woefully under-insulated, so we lose a lot of heat and energy through the outside walls and attic. We’ve gotten some preliminary estimates to add modern insulation that seem reasonable, but we need to save some bucks for that substantial project.


Whew, it feels like we’ve got enough work on our to-do list to last the next million years! Now we just need to decide what should be given top priority to complete by the end of this year.

What project(s) do you think we should work on first? What’s on your home improvement to-do list this year? Let us know in the comments!

Missed our recap of the first and second floors? Check those out here:
State of the House: First floor
State of the House: Second floor

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January 15, 2015