Gneiss House

Low-pressure home metamorphism


Living and dining room redesign

I have painted the final two rooms of the house, at long last! These were the last ones because they are my most heavily used living spaces, so it was more disruptive to paint them. There were also a lot of walls to do, so it took three separate painting sessions. The changes here (some of which are also listed here) include: refinished hardwood floors, new base shoe molding, two rugs from Overstock, a cherry dining table and chairs from craigslist, a hand-built tv stand, shelving from Ikea, an old, sturdy sewing table converted to fishtank stand, restored coffee table and end tables from yard sales, prints mostly from art.com (Brain Salt!), lamps from Bed, Bath and Beyond, and a nice, hand-me-down couch set donated by family. The living room is in a yellow and blue color scheme, and the dining room in warmer yellows and browns. I also replaced the old, grandmothery light covers on the dining room ceiling fan with cleaner-looking new ones from Home Depot (a little change that you don’t notice much but that makes a big difference in atmosphere). Before and after pictures below!

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Listing photo, looking into the dining room from the kitchen (living room to the right).

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Listing photo, looking from the living room into the dining room.

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Looking towards the back of the house from inside the dining room.

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Looking back towards the living room from the dining room.

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Full dining room view.

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Another full dining room view, slightly different angle.

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Listing photo of the living room, looking from the front door area towards the stairs and coat closet.

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Listing photo of the living room, looking from the stairs into the room.

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List photo of the living room, looking from the stairs towards the front door.

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List photo of the living room, looking from the dining room towards the front of the house.

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Panorama view of the living room, from the front door.

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Normal view of the living room from the front door.

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Living room, from the stairs towards the front door.

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Living room, from the stairs into the room.

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And one last view, from the dining room towards the front of the room.

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Killing the lawn

Last summer I worked hard to relandscape the side yard of my corner property. I left the rest of the yard space untouched until this year, and now it is warm enough to start my attack. But the first step, unfortunately, is raining death down on all those plants so I can start over.

There are multiple reasons to get rid of turf grass lawns on a property like mine:

  1. Turf is very appropriate in spaces used for playing sports and games, but no one does that on my property, and even if they wanted to, it’s the wrong shape: steeply sloped around the sides, broken up by sidewalks and concrete pathways, too small overall. Sadly, I will not be hosting croquet parties.
  2. Turf grass does a poor long-term job of holding steep slopes in place, and I have some of those.
  3. Maintaining a turf lawn in the way widely considered aesthetically desirable requires monocultures or close to it, which are relatively ecologically sterile and require a lot of fertilizer and selective herbicide applications to maintain an even, neat-looking space that stays green for as many months of the year as possible.
  4. Multispecies lawns that include the broadleaf plants now widely considered weeds (like clover) were considered desirable until the development of selective herbicides. Those plants reduced the need for fertilizers because they fixed nutrients in the soil. They also created uneven, clumpy lawns that required at least as much mowing to be kept reasonably neat, though, so just sticking to a mixed lawn like mine is still a labor and resource-intensive option.
  5. Keeping the grass green and preventing grass dormancy and/or death requires at times a great deal of water, particularly in arid and semi-arid climates and during summer droughts. The grass thatch and dense, shallow root systems also prevent proper drainage of water into the soil, producing excess runoff during storms and reducing the efficiency of watering. While this is aided by letting the lawn get taller, because it allows the grass to develop deeper, healthier root systems and absorb the water into the soil slightly better, it’s still overall a problem even with deeper roots.
  6. Even those of us who let our lawns get taller and more mixed have to mow them once a week or maybe biweekly to avoid angry neighbors, potential HOA or township citations and fines in some places, and in general the development of a genuine hayfield, which most of us don’t really want and defeats the ostensible purpose of having a lawn anyway (i.e. to have something that looks nice and is walkable). The mowing and edging typically are done with power tools, which means a great deal of unnecessary electricity/fuel consumption and corresponding CO2 production. While there are other elements of yard maintenance that are likewise difficult to do without power tools (e.g., trimming very difficult hedges, especially if you have a day job and limited time), those jobs are infrequent (a few times per year) and relatively quick, so they don’t use much power. Expending the energy to mow your entire property weekly, or even biweekly, when you don’t even need turf is, frankly, grossly environmentally irresponsible. I instead chose to use a reel push mower and hand-pushed edger for the past year to compensate, and this unnecessary lawn was honestly just not worth all that hard physical labor.

Summary: the lawn is not worth how much work, energy, water, and money it requires for basic maintenance. There are much, much better choices than clipped grass fields for covering the ground, choices that I find more aesthetically pleasing and that require fewer energy resources, relatively little water, and much less work to maintain. But first, the turf has to go.

There are multiple ways to kill a lawn. I extensively researched recommended methods: solarization, the “lasagna” smothering method of layering paper or cardboard and mulch, physical removal of sod, and broad spectrum herbicide applications. Unfortunately, my lawn contained an exciting mixture of: cold-season grasses, warm-season grasses (including bermudagrass for sure, and possibly old zoysia grass), and various clumpy weeds and broadleaf plants. (There was no moment in its growth when it looked even vaguely attractive, except for immediately after mowing, so I would probably have wanted to kill it and start fresh even if I just wanted better turf.) The smothering method is widely reported to have poor success rates in lawns that contain large quantities of warm season grasses, which accounted for about 2/3 of my lawn plants. The solarization method only works if the area gets intense sun, and too much of my lawn was in part shade for that to be successful. Physical removal by tilling or cutting and rolling away sod is tempting, but it fails to remove a lot of dormant grass roots and typically brings dormant weeds to the surface, creating a weedy and generally not-dead space that you then have to kill, so while it can help it doesn’t work well all by itself.

This left my least favorite option: herbicides. After a lot of research, I concluded that the long-term environmental and ecological benefits of replacing the lawn really did outweigh the short-term consequences of using herbicides one time, as long as I was extremely careful about my application method.

The other conclusion I reached was that despite the strong negative feelings of some of my very nice and caring and environmentally-minded friends (however pseudoscientific some of those feelings often seem to be when it comes to GMOs), and despite my personal reservations about their unethical business practices, I was probably not going to find a better product for this purpose than one by Monsanto. By “better” I mean more affordable, more controllably and reliably produced, and personally safer to prepare and apply. My only remaining reservation was really about giving even my miniscule financial support to an ethically questionable company. I do, however, think that my $8.45 contribution and one-time use is a fraction of a fraction of a drop in the buckets of both their profits and the global applications of their products (though admittedly, some of that profit comes from me whenever I buy almost anything at a supermarket. Yet another reason to have a vegetable garden!).*

So, from one environmentalist to another, here is how to conservatively apply an herbicide to your lawn so you can kill it and move on to more pleasant pastures, as safely as possible and with as little impact as possible.

  1. Wait until your grass is as happy and healthy as it’s going to get. Wait until it’s well out of dormancy, let it go unmowed for at least a couple weeks, wait for seedheads to form, and either water or wait for a good healthy rain followed by some warm days. You want healthy, leafy, seedy grass and weeds.
  2. Wait until the weather forecast indicates no rain is expected for several days. You won’t want it to wash off your plants before they have a chance to absorb it, and you also probably don’t want to dump an active herbicide into the local water drainage if it is likely to interact with any plants in the drainage system before being diluted up to ineffectiveness. The product needs to be fixed to a surface (i.e. inside plants) by the time it rains so there is little to no runoff impact.
  3. Choose a day with low winds. You don’t want the herbicide mobilized as a mist, because then it’s more likely to touch desirable plants and hurt them, or end up in ineffective places from which it can be washed off later, like pavement.
  4. Prepare the herbicide in the potency and quantity recommended, in a sealable spray container for safe and easy application. I used this product because it is a premeasured dry granule, which means it’s easy to handle safely. I also used this 1-gallon sprayer tank. Read the directions and precautions for whatever products you choose to try, and follow them carefully. I also made an effort to notify my adjacent neighbor that I would be killing the lawn, and to assure him I would aim to leave a 6-12″ buffer zone between our properties in case of stray spray.
  5. This herbicide works by interrupting certain cell and amino bonding activities in plants, disrupting their metabolism (so it’s not like you’re spraying acid all over your lawn–this is a plant poison that works in a very specific and rather slow way). These are biochemical reactions unique to plants, so it is no more than an irritant to animals and insects. It will, however, affect any plant that absorbs the product, and plants only absorb it through direct contact with their leaves, after which it takes 1-2 weeks to reach the roots and kill the whole plant. Use plastic bags or other guards to protect any plants you care about. I covered my new little jasmine vines with plastic bags during the application to keep them safe.
  6. Avoiding application to hard, paved surfaces, and the leaves of any desirable plants, spray the herbicide over the lawn so all plants are visibly wetted but not dripping. Proper density of application means you won’t need to apply it over and over in the future to finish the job, and also that you won’t create runoff of the product: it will basically all be absorbed by the plants and not go anywhere else.
  7. Post a small sign or two at the boundaries of your property announcing that the lawn has been treated, so anyone with pets or children knows to use caution and can avoid touching anything irritating. Remove the signs after the next rain storm.
  8. Wait for everything to be good and dead, typically after 1-2 weeks, and then do a pretty thorough but relatively shallow tilling to remove dead material and break up root systems. Typical recommendations for this step are to use a heavy duty metal rake or dethatching rake to remove the dead material and dig up the surface of the lawn a bit; it helps to then go back with a hoe or shovel and get out some of the grass roots. Unfortunately, I found this step to be such backbreaking physical labor that I was unable to do it as effectively as I had hoped. Even just pulling out grass roots also brought up dormant weed bulbs, and avoiding that consequence was the whole reason I had avoided power tillers. So this is the stage at which I mixed my methods: I rented a small rototiller and used it to shallowly till most of the yard. I still had to hand-till parts of the steeper slopes and around sign posts and the sidewalk edge, but the rototiller was really a lifesaver for getting the job done, and I recommend it if you are working with very much surface area. It was still difficult work, even with the tiny rototiller I used (the only rental available that was safe for solo operation, and also a good choice since it did not till too deep). This step took me basically a full week of daily work, plus a lot of painkillers for my back and arms.
  9. Wait for the plants to begin recovering, and then look for new grass, weed sprouts, and other green growth. Depending on how effective your first application was and how many dormant plants you surfaced, the new growth might be widespread. Kill all new and surviving growth, either by manually pulling them (if regrowth is limited) or possibly retreating with a second round of herbicide (if pervasive). Because my regrowth was overall pretty limited and I had time constraints made difficult by travel plans and impending bad weather, I opted for manual removal in the second round. The weeding required was extensive but not strenuous.
  10. Loosen the soil enough for planting. Possibly add some topsoil and/or fertilizer to return nutrients to the soil (I only used fertilizer). Replant!

* That’s my only comment on the company. I don’t want to moderate that debate on this blog and will delete comments trying to stir up an argument.

Some photos of the process:

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Looking out at the front yard from the front porch, a few minutes after the first herbicide application. I put down some marker paint on the right to make it easy to avoid spraying my neighbor’s lawn.

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Front yard, seen from across the street immediately after the first herbicide treatment.

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Sidewalk strip and slope along the side yard, also immediately after application.

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One week later. Most of the grass had died but it had not yet affected all the plant roots.

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Also one week later.

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Front yard after one week.

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After removing dead grass and lightly tilling the whole yard.

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Front yard after tilling. Most of the grass you can see is detached, dead grass that I left as straw.

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After tilling, we had a heavy rain storm that exposed the weed bulbs that had been brought to the surface. This made it really easy for me to go around and pick them up (though there were a LOT of them).

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Immediately after the heavy rain, dormant weeds exposed by tilling sprouted. The densest patches looked like this, but across most of the yard it was much more sparse. It was time consuming but very easy to just pluck these out by hand.


Master bedroom redesign

With a fresh coat of paint, some nice prints from art.com, and a couple purple throw pillows, the master bedroom is also ready for its before and after photos! The changes to the space (some of which I documented previously) are: refinished hardwood floors, new base shoe molding that I cut and installed, a modular recycled-materials area rug from Flor, a Dunhill queen bed frame purchased in good shape from craigslist, very affordable sheets I found by combing Amazon, and both lamps and the one tasteful duvet and pillow sham set that I could find close to my color scheme, marked down on clearance at Bed, Bath, and Beyond.

Before photo of the master bedroom (from the house listing), with that pervasive mint green carpet.

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After: Panoramic #1.

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After: Panoramic #2.

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After: Normal photo of painted wall and sunny window. Cat for scale.

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After: Far wall and window to front yard.


Office redesign

I also finished my office! This is technically the third bedroom, but like with all the local houses built on this model, it’s too small unless you have a baby in a tiny crib who needs no other furniture. But it makes a cute little office.

Changes wrought (including some documented previously) are: fresh paint on the walls (I combined two different colors to achieve this almost-periwinkle, because they didn’t have quite what I wanted), once again the refinished hardwood flooring and new base shoe molding, a rug from Overstock, a loveseat and desk I was lucky enough to find in great shape at some yard sales more than five years ago, a new brown slipcover for the loveseat, curtains and lamp on clearance from Bed, Bath, and Beyond, T. Rex, and one of my most prized possessions: the original Nightmare Before Christmas movie poster I bought with my saved-up babysitting money when I was 13.

Before photo, from the listing.

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After: Panoramic #1

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After: Panoramic #2

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After: Normal photo. This is a small room so yo can’t see much, but T-rex says hello.

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After: Other side of the room.


Guest bedroom redesign

With warmer weather and open windows, I’ve been catching up on painting jobs. I’ve now finished my redesign of the guest bedroom, including furniture and decorations, paint, floors, and molding. Here is the before view:

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(from the listing)

And after:

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The panorama view makes it look bigger than it really is, but you can see more of the room this way!

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Red wall!

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Panorama-less view


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Basement Floor, Part 2

After my last post, I continued restoring my basement floor by adding a polyurethane topcoat. I used the leftover polyurethane from refinishing my hardwood floors (Zar Ultra Max brand), but I was significantly less concerned with a perfect appearance this time. The floor is already uneven and this is more for safety and utility than aesthetics. I didn’t end up using a pole applicator because the applicator cloths are meant for smooth floors and would snag on the rough areas, so instead I just used a big paintbrush and went to town. I applied the coat more liberally than I would have with a hardwood floor (since with hardwood, you want it to look very even with no milky areas or big droplets, so you want really thin, even coats), so I wouldn’t have to do more than one topcoat layer. I missed a few spots and had to go back and touch them up, but overall it was a quick job (if a little hard on my back and knees).

Due to my geology teaching profession, I may have also come into a few sets of lightly-used, vinyl orthomimid and small theropod trackways…

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(Tip: If you want to do this with any kind of floor decals, map out and lay down the decals before applying the topcoat. Then they won’t rip or peel up, no matter how much traffic the floor receives, and cleaning will be easy.)


Restoring a basement floor

My house has an unfinished basement. I use it almost every day to walk out the back door to my driveway, and slightly less often for laundry, major projects at my fabulous new workbench that I built all by myself, and storage of basementy things. I keep the cats’ food and litter down there and they can access it with a pet door.

I really like having a basement, but it had some problems when I acquired the house. Some of them are low priority problems, like the plaster walls are getting a little crumbly and need some fresh paint in a few places, and the wiring in the ceiling down there is a little haphazard (but not dangerous). The appliances are old but do their jobs reasonably well.

The high priority problem has been the floor, which has 1950s-era checkerboard black and gray tile. Typically that tile had asbestos in the adhesive lining, and while mine has never been tested it was a good bet that they were asbestos-bearing. The tile wasn’t friable (breaking under the pressure I can exert with my fingers), but in some areas the tiles had broken off and been removed by the previous owner. It seemed likely that over time, more tiles would break, because the jagged edges were exposed and nothing was protecting them. The tiles were uneven and the floor contour was gently buckled in places, suggesting the tile was going to continue to fragment.

Asbestos removal is not something I particularly want to do in my home: disturbing the fibers is the best way to get them airborne and increase acute exposure, and the price of that kind of remediation effort would be extremely high. But I also wanted to slow the process of tile loss and prevent the backing from being exposed. In the meantime, I was nervous about ever sweeping or cleaning in the basement, even in areas where the tile appeared intact, because I didn’t know if there were fibers that had been mobilized in the past and that resided between the tiles. I really didn’t want to have to mop the floor every time the cats made a mess with their litter (wetting a surface is the best way to keep asbestos fibers out of the air, so wet cleaning was really my safest option).

After some helpful internet research about how to restore a floor with breaking asbestos-lined tile, I settled on the following approach:

  1. Remove all my stuff that could be reasonably removed from the floor. The work bench is too big and heavy to be removed, so I ended up moving it out from the wall slightly to access the wall edge, and doing the final step (painting) in two stages;
  2. Move cat accoutrements upstairs and lock cats out of the basement. They were not too bright about this and kept trying to get into the basement to see what was going on down there;
  3. Wet-clean the entire surface as well as I could, understanding that this is an unfinished basement, so it may never be perfect (and indeed, it was not);
  4. Apply a latex primer to the exposed concrete (or concrete + adhesive) surfaces and the edges of broken tiles;
  5. Use a premixed floor patch filler to fill minor holes and patch the smallest broken and/or exposed tile edges;
  6. Apply a self-leveling underlayment cement layer to all exposed concrete and broken surfaces to fill all gaps; ImageImageImageImage
  7. Paint the entire floor (tile and cement alike) with an epoxy masonry paint to seal up all potential dust from tile edges. The masonry paint was recommended by hardware store employees over standard basement floor paint because they predicted it was likely to bond better with the mixed underlying floor materials (the old vinyl tiles vs. new concrete underlayment). I cut in with a brush at the wall (thickly to fill all the grooves), and then I applied as a thick single coat to the rest of the floor with a semi-rough to rough roller on a pole for easy application from a standing position.

ImageImageImageThis turned out to be a pretty easy job that I could do over the course of just three or four days, including a weekend and a couple weeknights after work. In the end I did not scarify the tile surfaces to scratch them up to accept the paint better, because they were already pretty rough and I don’t want to damage asbestos-bearing tile any more than necessary. If that means the paint needs to be touched up sometimes, so be it–it’s easy to apply and I have plenty left over for that.

The texture of the masonry paint is softer and less glossy than a typical floor paint, but it seems strong. If the softer texture becomes a problem, I plan to topcoat it with polyurethane (and I still have a lot of polyurethane left from the hardwood floor restoration project, so I’ll just need a new applicator brush pad. And to remove the cats for another couple days). Overall, it is safer and also a big aesthetic improvement!

ETA: After a couple days of walking on it, I’ve decided in favor of the poly topcoat. I’ll update with the final result sometime next week…