Demolition and Excavation: The 12-Year Kitchen

Hazmat suits protect lead abatement specialists during demolition

When you own a house built in 1920, you have lead—it’s in the solder on old pipes, and in the paint on old walls.  When you have kids, you worry about lead—exposure can affect their learning, their breathing, their health.  We do what we can, by filtering the water that comes out of those old pipes and by keeping intact layers of today’s lead-free paint over the old stuff. But when you start knocking down walls, you’re changing the equation.

So the first step of building our new kitchen would be testing for lead in the old one. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires the test, even though our house was almost guaranteed to fail it. And it did, of course. Interior and exterior walls all had lead-based paint on them, under a few decades’ worth of safer paint. That meant hiring an EPA-certified lead-safe demolition company instead of a bunch of guys with sledgehammers. (Ka-ching! Before we’d even started, we had the first $5,000 upcharge in our contract.)

negative air pressure machine
Every inch of the old extension, every inch of old floor and walls and ceiling, every window casing, and every inch of exterior shingling that might be disturbed during the construction had to be removed by hand by guys in hazmat suits, then wrapped up in thick plastic sheeting and placed on a truck for carting. It all took place behind more thick sheets of plastic that completely sealed off the kitchen from the rest of the house, with an air-sucking reverse-pressure machine running at full speed to keep any leaded dust from leaking out of the work space. It was extremely dramatic, to say the least.

But for drama, nothing beat the day the excavator arrived. That little dotted line on the plan, the one that showed a new foundation two feet out from the old one, did not prepare us for what excavation would mean. Our five-year-old Bob the Builder fan was excited, though: “Mom, come look! Scoop is in our yard!” About 24 feet of our cedar picket fence had to come down to allow Scoop his access, and it turns out he’s a heavy guy who leaves deep tracks. Even though the ground was still frozen I could tell that section of our lawn and garden was in for an unhappy spring.

The backhoe excavating for the new foundation

The hole required for the new foundation was much bigger and deeper than I’d anticipated. We weren’t getting a full basement under the extension, just a crawl space, but the new foundation walls went down as deep  as the basement floor.  (In fact, the foundation guy offered us a full basement for a $3,000 upcharge, but we declined—we didn’t need more basement space, hadn’t planned on it, and it was way too early in the job to add more costs.) It took longer, too—Scoop was in our yard for the better part of three weeks. It didn’t help that it was March – rainy, muddy March, with too many days that were just too wet for foundation work.

The plans had indicated that the crawl space needed an access point—there would be plumbing, electrical, and insulation work in there—and (surprise!) there was not enough room for that on the outside of the house. It had to be cut through the existing foundation wall, connecting the basement to the crawl space. I had to admit it was better from a security standpoint—whoever goes in to the crawl space should be someone I know about and let in the house!—but it was a horrible, messy development.  You haven’t lived until you’ve seen the dust kicked up by a jackhammer going through a two-foot-thick foundation wall. We’d covered everything in the basement as best we could with plastic, but we knew at this point we’d lost control of things on the lower level.

Access to the crawl space is through an opening jackhammered through the foundation wall

Before the job had started, we’d carefully boxed up and numbered the contents of the kitchen to store downstairs for the duration. Then Keith discovered that the electrical line that powers our garage door opener ran right through where the new foundation would go—so before excavation began we’d had an electrician in to relocate it. (See what I mean about Keith? There’s no way he’d ever find an electrical line the day of excavation—he’s always thinking ahead.) Of course that line ran out of the house from the basement, directly above the wall where we’d stacked all the boxes, so the electrician had to move them all. (Now they were all shoved randomly to the middle of the basement floor—out of numerical order!)  And now two other storage shelves had been moved for the jackhammering, their formerly tidy contents also in complete disarray. Not only was the basement now in a state of chaos,  everything was covered with a thick layer of dust. It will take us years to find everything again.

But we had begun, and we were on our way!

Next: Hidden land mines, hidden works of art

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