When they can't stand the plaster dust anymore, Peter and Patsy Chick take their soap and towels and visit good friends with a luxury they hope to have someday - a shower. The Chicks, like many other Washington couples who "camp out at home" while they are remodeling their houses, sleep and eat in a tiny 10'x10' second-floor bedroom with a mattress resting on a board supported by four cans of paint.
Bob and Christiane Graham awoke one night in the two finished rooms of their 11-room house in Shaw to the cold realities of a leaky roof dripping rain right on their pillows.
Another ambitious couple spent six months heating soup on a hot plate and eating out of a refrigerator so small that a guest mistook it for a microwave oven.
Sitting for her own child and three other nursery school children on the top floor of a "house in progress," Alpine Bird went into premature labor and delivered a little girl as she waited for neigbors to get help. When the ambulance finally arrived to take mother and child to the hospital, they couldn't get the stretcher down the stairs or through the hallways because of the boxes of paint and plaster littering the way.
Sarah Redmund (not her real name) remembers bending over an old clawfoot bathtub washing dishes while she was eight months pregnant because she and her husband didn't have a kitchen sink. Like a number of other couples who have through the stresses and strains of living in plaster dust for several years while camping out at home, Sarah's marriage broke up before the renovation was cmplete.
Why do people subject themselves to intolerable living conditions for months and years at a time? The primary motivation is economic - if you're willing to contribute blood, sweat and tears, your home may well be worth more in the end than you could have ever paid at the outset.
For most of those who've tried it, the price in dollars and personal costs has been much higher than first imagined. Some have gone on to do it again - others paid dearly with marriages, children with lead poisoning and other costs too painful to relive.
Matt and Solveig McCulloch have spent their 15 married years camping out in houses on Capitol Hill, rehabing them and moving up to the next challenge. In the process, they have managed to hang on to three of the four houses with a market value of close to three-quarters of a million dollars. Sarah Redmund and her husband paid $35,000 for a house in 1971 and poured between $35,000 and $40,000 into it. Today the house would probably sell for close to $150,000. Bob and Christiane Graham purchased their Shaw rooming house for $23,000 in 1976 and have put in about $35,000 or $40,000. The house has been appraised at $130,000.
These urban adventurers share a vision of a living environment to which they hope to become accustomed. Because their bank accounts don't equal their vision, they contribute their time and energy along with every available cent to building that vision into something that they could not otherwise afford. Some insist on doing all the work themselves; others combine their efforts with more skilled subcontractors. In order to transform their pig's ear of a house into a silk purse, they knock out walls, live without plumbing or heat and endure a host of substandard living conditions.
Who belongs to this new breed of in-house campers?
No one would endure such hardships for the money alone. The majority of this growing breed live in places like Capitol Hill, Shaw, Adams-Morgan and Mt. Pleasant. Scattered adventurers can be found in Old Town, Alexandria; Waterford, Va; and older sections of Rockville. The majority are college-educated white-collar workaholics in thei 30s who spend their work week buried under a mountain of papers, shuttling in and out meetings and answering a host of pressing telephone calls. Few have done much with their hands before embarking on their first (and sometimes their last) major renovation job. "I think there is a certain pride in taking on that kind of challenge," says a veteran of three major camping out at home experiences. "There is a pride in building something together as a couple and the challenge of creating something as big as a house."
While the same money might have purchased a nice little brick box in the suburbs, this group prefers architecture with a little more character and the lifestyle afforded them by living in town. "I must admit though," says Sarah Redmund, "when the toilet and the bathtub backed up and flooded the bedroom with raw sewage every time we had a bad rainstorm, I was ready to trade all that character for a nice boring house in the suburbs."
"There's satisfaction in living in a house as you renovate," counters another veteran of three years of "work in progress." "You understand the architecture - the arrangement of spaces better. And when you've done something, you really have a sense of accomplishment." This same satisfaction of making something from nothing, coupled with tales of unbelievable living conditions makes one wonder if part of the motivation for suffering such hardships isn't "beat me harder - it feels so good when you stop."
Some at-home campers have done it once never to embark on such an adventure again. For others, it has become a way of life.
Virtually every adventurous couple attempting the remaking of an old house from the outside in begins by ripping out walls, rewiring, replacing or altering the plumbing. The result is a constant layer of plaster dust, walls lined with paint cans, stacks of two-by-fours in corners and Sheetrock stacked in hallways and extra bedrooms.
When they renovated a New York City brownstone several years back, Peter and Patsy Chick went 18 months without a kitchen. "We were selected at random by the Census Bureau for an in-depth study," recalls architect Peter Chick, "I'm sure we were thrown out of the computer when they saw our address and incomes and the fact that we had no kitchen for a year and a half."
Visitors to the Chicks' Washington home in progress found that the only toilet in the house was in a cold, unheated corner of the first floor. When a guest commented that it didn't seem to be flushing, Chick replied casually, "Oh, the plumber must have shut off the water, but it doesn't matter - the toilet just empties into a bucket in the basement right now anyway."
Despite what seems to be a relaxed attitude towards such inconveniences, two of the most popular contractors for those who camp at home are the locksmith and the exterminator. Bob and Christiane Graham recall clearing out mountains of old clothing, food and other debris, as do most of the others who have taken on the challenge of a house in rundown condition. Like many others, bars went up on doors and windows along with deadbolt locks before the Grahams moved in. It seems it's adventure enough to try and make a "handyman's special" into a castle without having to worry about uninvited guests.
While their labor might be freely donated, materials must be purchased, usually on an as-needed basis. Leaky roofs and basements, uphill sewage lines, inadequate wiring and plumbing all require large outlays of funds for materials or contractors for more skilled work. "It's fun until 'want-to's become 'have-to's,'" says Alpine Bird, who has survived three camping-out experiences.
In order to cope with a totally disorganized, plasterladen living environment, most of those who camp out at home try to preserve or restore one or more rooms as a kind of refuge from the rubble. "I just couldn't sleep in all that trash," recalls Christiane Graham, who with her husband, finished two third-floor rooms so that the plaster dust and debris would settle below them.
Another couple renovating a home in Alexandria used a hallway for a kitchen, eating soup heated on a hot plate and a lot of cold food on paper plates. When a visiting friend was informed that what she thought was a microwave oven was in fact a refrigerator, her first question was, "What do you do, go to the store every 20 minutes to get food?"
Having a sense of humor in the midst of what appears to be endless upheaval is crucial. Alpine Bird tells a story of having a refrigerator delivered by the back steps of her home only to find that while the refrigerator rested precariously on the threshold of the kitchen, the delivery man seemed to have disappeared with a thud. He had fallen through the rotted back steps. Fortunately, for all concerned, he was unhurt.
In the midst of a steady stream of electricians, plumbers and masons, Eveline and Dan Basil (not their real names) recall stopping all plastering and painting to build a whelping box for their very pregnant hound in their soon to be elegant living room. The hound gave forth with four pups and the living room served as a nursery until they were weaned. Signs tacked up all over the doors warned visiting workmen of the necesity of keeping the dogs inside their large playroom.
When Bart and Linda Barnes went to settlement on their former Capitol Hill rooming house some 9 1/2 years ago, the previous owners casually mentioned that they had not been able to reach one of their tenants to tell him of the sale of the house. So later that day, the Barnes and their three children moved in while the tenant continued to live in one room. "I think he kept hoping we would go away," recalls Linda Barnes, "But we finally found him a place and after a few weeks , he moved out."
Patsy Chick recalls that although the vision of an icicle hanging from the faucet in their only working bathroom wasn't funny at the time, it didn't take too long before she and her husband could laugh about it.
The pressures of never-ending work, expenses, living in plaster dust without the kind of amenities most of us have learned to take for granted would put a strain on any marriage.
Most couples who appear to have solved the problems of working together divide responsibilities according to skill. Some refuse to work in the same room, others thrive on the sharing of tasks.
"We enjoy doing these things as a couple," says Solveig McCulloch, "some of the best times we've had have been listening to music and working on the wiring or the plumbing together." The McCulloch's seem to thrive on camping out as a way of life. They have been doing it ever since they were married 15 years ago. In that time, they have produced three children and four houses. For relaxation, the family spends its vacation time building a new house from scratch at Bryce Mountain. "I can't imagine how our lives would be if we weren't always working on something," says McCulloch. "We just don't know how to relax, I guess-I don't know, you feel anxious when you're not doing anything."
For others, the experience has not been a happy one. While a house cannot he blamed for ruining a marrage, it offen creates situations which exacerbate the problems within that relationship. When one person feels like relaxing and the other feels compelled to work-it's hard not to feel guilty or angry. Financial pressures are a problem in many marriages, but for those camping out, they sometimes become unbearable.
"You get to the point where you feel trapped by the house," says one now-divorced renovator. "You don't have enough money to finish it, and if you don't stick with it you'll never be able to sell it for what you've poured into it. So the house starts to run you instead of you running the house."
No matter how well-prepared people feel they are for the challenge, it always seems to take twice as much time and money as imagined. Differences of opinion over the nest step to take, over the need for order, a way of organizing the work or of cleanliness can easily escalate into serious, irreconcilable problems.
"You learned a lot about yourself and about each other when you tackle a major renovation together," says Eveline Basil.
Broken marriages are not the only costs incurred as a house is transformed into a home. Solveig McCulloch remembers one of her children falling from the second floor to the first because the railing had been removed. Another child raced out the back door of the house in a rage one day onto an uncompleted deck and fell onto a brick patio one full story below. Miraculously, both survived without major problems.
Not much was popularly known about lead poisoning 9 1/2 years ago when Bart and Linda Barnes moved into their Capitol Hill home. When one of their 2-year-old twins was hospitalized for the flu, routine tests uncovered a high lead level in one child's blood stream. Both boys were routinely tested after that. One child eventually had to be hospitalized to endure 60 injections over a five-day period as treatment. The Barnes then moved out of the house into an apartment for two months while they stripped all the woodwork in the house, the radiators and the balustrade going up three flights.
Lead poisoning may be an extreme example of the risks involved in roughing it at home. Clearly, anyone with dust allergies can forget about rehab work or live on antihistamines for the duration. The experience exposes everyone to an array of health hazards unknown to the normal homeowner.
Sarah Redmund recalls the anxiety she felt going through pregnancy while camping out at home. "Every month, when I visited my gynecologist, I would bring him a long list as if he were my confessor, 'I inhaled paint remover in a closed room three times, I sanded joint compound for three days, I inhaled plaster dust every day for the past month . . .' " She was relieved when she had a perfectly normal girl but then began worrying again when she found herself hanging fiberglass insulation and nursing the child while covered with a residue of fiberglass. Fortunately, the child seems to have survived unscarred, as have the children of many others who camped out with their parents.
For those who survive their first camping out experience, the idea of doing it again is either a prospect to look forward to or shun forever.
"I'll be damned if I'll ever lug a two-by-four," says one renovator.
"The first time you do something it takes three to four times as long as a professional," says Bob Graham. "You're on the low end of a learning curve. The frestrating thing is that when you finally get proficient at one skill, you need to learn another. If you have a chance to do it again, it's not as difficult." Graham has shifted from work as a home energy conservation consultant to working as a general contractor renovating other people's homes.
For others, there seems to be a feeling that it's worth it only until you've managed to camp out and trade up into your dream house. The cashflow problems caused by second mortgages and short term loans for supplies sometimes discourage people from trying it again.
Few of those interviewed paid more than $95,000 for their homes before renovation and many paid far less. One industrious couple managed to complete two full renovations and make enough of a profit to purchase what became their dream house for $185,000 plus $50,000 worth of materials and work by subcontractors along with their own labors. Although they wouldn't shy from another renovation experience, they seem content with a 12-room home of impressive dimensions and are devoting time now to the final decorative touches.
After starting all over again for the third time and enduring the hardships of camping out for a year, one District couple threw in the Towel when the ceiling in the room they had been concentrating on fell in. They moved back to an apartment in one of the houses they had camped out in and renovated. At this writing, they were getting the final pemits and hiring subcontractors to do most of the work on their third home.
As the back-to-the-city movement gains momentum and interest continues to build in places like Shaw, Logan Circle, upper 15th Street and Mt. Pleasant, renovation has become the name of the game. With the price of housing continuing to rise, more and more Washingtonians may find themselves camping out at home. CAPTION: Illustration, No caption, By Robert Soule