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The Diary of Our New House Project

November, 2005


Another month. How far will we get this month? It seems to us that Winter is getting close and still there is scaffolding all around the outside of the house. Pretty soon we will need a heating system. But before that, we need windows and working electricity. This month should see the finishing of the plaster, starting of the floors, the building of the kachelofen (tile fireplace), some plumbing, and lots of decisions on paints, surfaces, and styles. Let's see what happens.

November 4-6 Weekend

On Friday the 4th, a gas truck arrived and delivered 3997 liters (over 1,000 gallons) of natural gas. This is expensive progress. Gas prices in Germany are controlled, but they are controlled at a price connected to oil prices and we are at record oil prices. Hopefully, this will last for a year. I still don't understand why we needed such a huge tank.



On Saturday, we find our first window: the french doors in the kitchen. This IS progress, but the balance of the window story wasn't as positive. About half our windows needed to have heavier outer glass to keep down the noise from the street, but Mr. Loehr, the window contractor, just discovered that the glass company supplied regular glass. Nine or ten windows have to be re-ordered and rebuilt. Since windows are a "critical path" for our project, this is a bad development. Hopefully, the weather gods will continue to smile.


Most of our Saturday would be spent worrying about colors. First, we took some painted panels and checked the outside colors. In America, these would be far too bright and gaudy, but in Germany we conclude that even this isn't quite enough and we would ask for it to be "hotter". The inside colors were "almost right". All this means more discussion for Marianne and Axel. (John has professed no talent for color, so he mostly stays out of the colorful discussions.)



After a house check, we met with Axel to go over the week's progress and to start the weekend's ordering. The goal for the day was to end up with afinal selection of all the tile, no small feat. We have a kitchen and two bathrooms to finalize. In the last month, we've re-decided the bathrooms more than once and now it's getting close to real decision time.



Inside the store, we put together the wall color and the three tiles for the kitchen. It looks pretty darn good. These will be final.


Bath progress is hard. The bathroom on the ground floor, called "John's bathroom", gets decided reasonably quickly. This may be due to John's standard position on color and tile and such things: "Whatever". Marianne's bath migrates from white and blue to green and something. I'm not sure if a final decision has beenmade, but the ball was nudged along.


After this, it was over to OBI to order the tub. For our U.S. readers, OBI is our Home Deport, a bit smaller but the same ugly orange everywhere. At least this was our final plumbing selection so we considered the day successful: closer on outside color; finish color and tiles for two rooms and closer on a third. We may finish yet.


Sunday morning, we just sort of wandered in the house. We hung a couple boxes on the entrance wall to check sizes for sconces. Normally, such modeling actually helps and I suppose it did this day too, but we still didn't feel much closer for light selection, since the conclusion was that either size might be OK. It is actually quite difficult to really remember the house when we are in the store and vise versa. Oh well, we need to make progress somehow.


Upstairs, Marianne checked out the banister hand rail. You CAN see the hand rail can't you? Think imagination.


Downstairs, we put together the floor samples. The wood floor will be light oak with dark oak outline. The terrazzo entry hall will be a reddish outer zone and a multi-color inner field - separated by the alternating black and white squares. We're told this is a pretty typical pattern for a baroque house from our area.


November 11-13, Another Week, Another Weekend


This was another house-centered weekend. Marianne had Friday off for Veteran's Day and, since this definitely is not a German holiday, she joined Axel at the house for a series of design decisions. It's amazing how much time all this takes. They met with Mr. Berlenz, the terrazzo man and worked through the details of just how this stone floor will be laid out in our entry and ground-floor bathroom. The details of where the border starts and stops is surprisingly tricky, since our old house has a few nooks and crannies and terrazzo, once hardened, is not very forgiving.

They also saw more of the plaster going in, including under the now-reinforced old stairs. Originally, the plaster was spread over reeds, but nowadays the wire mesh is easier to work with and less prone to damage by mice. This whole process is pretty amazing compared to modern U.S. "stick" construction. We also discovered a long crack in one of our nice plaster walls, the downside of real plaster over real old walls. We were cautioned that plaster will not be perfect, but this particular failure seemed way too premature.

Outside, the main stucco was getting finished. The frames around the windows will be a different material, but that process has to wait for our windows to get done. Mr. Loehr has had problems getting our windows finished. First, the wrong glass was used and now the hardware hasn't shown up yet. We didn't want this delay, since winter is coming and the windows and stucco really need to be finished.

However, when the stucco is finally finished, we will have already selected the colors - another decision for the day. The main walls will be a salmon color, with the window trims and other details in a gray-taupe shade. Meanwhile, the window frames are an off-white. By American standards, this is pretty colorful, but the old photos we have show that there were actually even more colors outside, with the ground floor and the upper story quite different.




We started the day with just a quick stop at the house and found the electrician there as well as the plaster & stucco guys. It is quite unusual for work to proceed on Saturday, but we're all a bit worried about getting the place closed up and heated before the cold weather hits.

After this stop, we went to IKEA, one of my least favorite places. This was the IKEA in Fuerth, just outside of Nuremberg and it's the largest IKEA in Germany. Oh boy. We got there almost at their 9:30 opening and stayed until noon. Most of the time was spent looking and taking notes and I saturated about half way through. I can only "what if" for a limited period. We did manage to buy a few lights that we will use temporarily, until we find perfect ones (= maybe forever),

We returned from the shopping and made an afternoon inspection. All the workers were gone, but there was visible progress. First, we now had some lights! They are just bare bulbs, but it's a clear step forward. The outside stucco is looking pretty good too, even if there is still a good amount of window trim left to rebuild.

The view from the living room is looking more and more finished. At least, that's what WE think. The new lighting system isn't fancy, but it's the best lighting this place has seen in decades!
Outside, from a distance, the stucco on the walls look pretty good. Up close, it's easy to see there is still considerable work. The back view looks particularly good to us. We can almost smell the barbeque. Almost.  


After the house inspection, we met with the carpenter, Mr. Sporlein. We had not seen much of his work so far and, frankly, we were a bit worried. He will be responsible for a great deal of the character of our project, and, despite getting positive feelings every time we talked, we needed to see some work product. He said he'd show us some of the restorations he'd started on and we could talk about the other details he will be responsible for.

First, the restorations. We were blown away with what we saw.

The 18th Century front door had been completely disassembled. The front side was laid out on a work bench, bare and showing both its age and its character. The plan is to mount the door front on a new door, giving us modern security and the original look. I don't think this is doable by your normal village carpenter in America but here in Sambach, Mr. Sporlein seemed completely comfortable, as if 200-year-old doors were an every day job.
Meanwhile, the back door, the oldest in the house according to the monument protection authority, had cleaned up far better than expected. The plan is to have this as a sliding door between the kitchen and main house, it's original location when it served as the back door of the original house. The old lock still functions - almost. The key is stuck in the other side but this too is fixable, or so we are told.
All the other doors are in equally good shape. The pair for the bedrooms look almost new, except for the hand-wrought hinges and the old locks. The biggest problem will be that we have more doors than doorways! The ground floor remodel opened up the rooms and a few of the doorways disappeared. Oh well, they will all be saved, just in case.
The old window shutters were also in far better shape than we had hoped. These shutters may be 150 years old, yet they were solid and completely serviceable. The ground floor shutters are solid oak while those upstairs are louvered pine, but aged pine is almost as hard as oak. Mr Sporlein said they had so much paint on them that, when it was cleaned off, it was like removing a heavy winter coat.

After this tour of restorations, we spent another hour going over plans and sketches for floors, doors, heater covers, stairways, banisters, handrails, and kitchen cabinets. At times I shudder at the cost implications of all this, but then I recognize that we are far too far into this to have cold feet now. We have to start playing the Lottery.



This was mostly a day of rest. Marianne would have to return "home" to her farm in the state of Hessia, so she could start another work week at her Giessen school. The three-day weekend had passed too quickly. (again)

But, first, we had a morning appointment with Herr and Frau Werner, the people who had sold us our house. They had not seen it since before our worked started and we wondered what they might think of the changes we had made in a house that had been in their family for eight generations. They liked it. I suppose we were relieved at that, but we knew they would. Herr Werner did comment that he thought the late Uncle Theo, who had lived here alone for 30 years, would need a road map to find his way around.

Beyond the house tour, we chatted about family. The Werner family had invited us to a barbeque last summer, when Marianne's mom was visiting. Now we could say that we would return the invitation when Marianne's mom returns next year (at age 86!). It feels good to be inviting people over, even if it's still months away.


Earlier, Herr Werner had delivered an old picture of our house, from the mid-sixties, if I remember right. It showed a charming winter scene, one which we wouldn't mind repeating on a weekend, but we have too much driving every other day of the week. Over our Sunday coffee, we learned a couple of family house tales. The best one was the story of when the barn roof fell down. It seems that there had been a family dispute over the use of the barn, but, at some point, the plan had been for the uncle to move into the hayloft, after it was made as comfortable as the house. (No running water or sewer or heat -- not hard to match) Well, the roof construction wasn't done too well and, one day, an American fighter jet zoomed overhead, shook the place, and the roof collapsed into the front yard!

(From another source, we had heard that the roof was weak because the uncle had removed bits and pieces of wood timbers in order to burn them in the fireplace.)

How true is all this? Everything seems rumor and legend, but it's a good story and I will re-tell it over and over I'm sure.

Mornings, November 14-18

Almost every morning I stop by the "baustelle" (building place), just to see who's there and what's happening. Sometimes, there is one contractor, sometimes more, but virtually never is the place empty. Overall, we have to say that Axel our architect/job-boss is doing an excellent job keeping things moving. Of course, with winter almost here, it seems like a race to get work done enough so that our place looks more like a little castle than a baustelle.

Lately, on my morning visit, I almost always see the plaster and stucco guys adding another coat of something to somewhere. By this Wednesday, the last of our rough stone walls had disappeared behind plaster, both on the living room side and in the kitchen. As we make progress like this, part of me misses the old "character", but only a small part. Mostly, I look forward to finishing.

Not infrequently, I see something and mumble "Now what?" Why do we need another stack of concrete blocks? What have we forgotten?

(Later, Axel explains these were for the bathroom walls. Oh, yeah, I knew that.)

By Thursday, the kitchen and shower room were getting prepped for floor heating. The floors were covered with giant tiles, black plastic covering styrofoam insulation.

By Friday, the heating pipes had been woven through the black plastic nubbies.

Weekend, November 19 and 20

Our weekends are blending. On Friday, Marianne drives down from Giessen and we plan Saturday. On Saturday, we inspect the house, drive to Axel's Bamberg office and then shop. It seems like this has been going on forever, at least several times in a row anyway. This weekend was not different. The inspection was good, with Marianne seeing plenty of progress for the week. The meeting with Axel was a normal mix of bad news, good news. The bad news, as usual, dealt mostly with costs but the good news was that things are moving along well. The Saturday shopping went particularly well, with final decisions on bathroom paint and the purchase of a dozen light fixtures.

The highlight of the Saturday morning inspection was the start of the new hall floor. The terrazzo border had been placed and the promise was for a complete floor here by next Tuesday! We had never driven our car into the "hof" and when we delivered the lights to our storage room, we noted that the hof is too small for both cars. The gas tank just took up too much room. We bought a big lamp for the hof, but it looked OK at the front door too. Now we have to return to the store but that will have to wait for after the next weekend.


Next weekend would be different because it would be Thanksgiving weekend and Marianne and I would take the long weekend to travel up north.

November 22, Ofen and Terrazzo


This was my last day before the Thanksgiving weekend and there were things happening in my morning "inspection". Axel was there, very early, getting things on a good path. (Is that why he's laughing?) Mr. Sonneberger, the "meister" for the kachelofen had arrived and was going to be starting his three-day job. He would reconstruct our old tile fireplace, which was to become the centerpiece of the living room. It would be disappointing that I would have to wait until after the weekend to see the results, but I had faith that the combination of antique tiles and experienced craftsman would make things turn out right.

The other skilled work going on was installation of the terrazzo floor. Mr Berlenz did the red border yesterday and today was filling in the center field. First, he used his electronic scale to measure small stones of various colors. It was interesting that, when they were sitting in buckets, the stones looked pretty much the same but up close each had it's own hue and texture. After the ingredients were precisely measured, Mr. Berlenz stirred it all up in what looked like a giant food processor. After mixing, the slurry looked even less interesting, kind of like the results of kids playing in mud. We look forward to when the floor surface gets ground and polished and the craftsmanship shows through.


After he left the workers, Axel shifted from job-boss back to architect and gave us a drawing of the current plans for the front of the house.

Wednesday, November 23 , Kachelofen in Progress

This was the Wednesday before our Thanksgiving weekend. Yesterday, Mr. Sonneberger started the kachelofen and I stopped by early to see how far he had gotten.

The first third had been built on Tuesday. The beginning was encouraging: the size matched the spot and the look seemed "old", as it should be. The firebox for our "oven" is not too big. The idea is to create as big a fire as this small space will handle and let it heat up all the tile blocks surrounding the fire. If things work well, the heat will last for many hours. On the floor, I could see the remaining parts of this tile puzzle. The layers above the firebox would be connected with an internal labyrinth for the hot gases for the path to the chimney. In this way, most of the energy gets deposited in the tiles and fed back into the room over time.
  I stopped by at lunchtime, on my way north for the (U.S.) holiday weekend to see how Mr. Sonneberger has been doing. He had finished the top of the lower part of the kachelofen and it was looking great.  

Monday, November 28 , Check In

Marianne and I had gone away to the cold north coast of Germany for the Thanksgiving weekend so I was anxious to see all the progress in my five-day absence.

The kachelofen turned out wonderfully. Axel said it looked like it had been there forever (just as we had intended.) We presumed it would function as well as it looked!


The construction had moved along as well. The "estrich" in the kitchen had been poured. This is a layer of concrete-like material that forms the base for tiles. Our German-English dictionary translates it as "screed", but I'm not sue I've ever heard it called that. Anybody out there know a better translation for "estrich"??

November 30, End-of-the-month Check

Before the month ended, I did one more look around. Nothing special, but we've found that, in hindsight, it's fun to see just what all happens each month.

The entrance was looking good with unfinished terrazzo under foot and the tile fireplace blocking the plain white chimney.

From the other direction, the living room looked a bit better, with less and less construction to be done.

With the floor closer to it's planned elevation, the kitchen felt more comfortable. Of course, the fancy lighting helped.


Upstairs, the hole in the ceiling was still there. The story is that we still need to vent the moisture from all the plaster walls and the floor "estrech".

The bedrooms were closer to done, with just a few details such as floors, window sills, lights, and electrical finishing.


So, not too bad a month -- but another month none the less. We hope for only two or three more.

2005 House Story


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