18 January 2011

Construction Recap: The Fireplace and Built-In Cabinets

Looking back at our construction pictures, I realize that my posts during that time were organized chronologically, not thematically. I pretty much just wrote about whatever happened (or didn't happen) each day. As a result, we skipped over certain explanations and information that might have been helpful. Case in point: the fireplace.

The plans that we used as a starting point had a fireplace and cabinets in the great room, and that's one of the few interior features we didn't change. Well, not much. We did change the shape of the hearth (it was rounded in the original plans), and we wanted the hearth to be flush with the floor. (Since the living area is pretty compact, the flush hearth gives us more flexibility with use of space.) In order to get the hearth flush with the top of the wood floor, the foundation had to be recessed to accommodate a mortar bed and the hearth itself. As soon as the foundation was poured, we could, therefore, see where the fireplace was going to go (toward the top left of this picture):

Placing the hearth recess had to be a tricky process ("measure twice, pour once"), but that couldn't have been nearly as hard as deciding on a location for the in-floor outlet, which you can see to the right of the hearth recess in the picture above. Trying to figure out where the furniture is going to go -- so you can be sure the outlet will be covered -- is next to impossible while the "house" is nothing but a pile of dirt, plastic sheeting, and rebar.

In the picture below, the house is fully framed, the fireplace unit is in, and you can see the outlet in the floor at the bottom right. So far, so good.

While the framing was going on, we were busily working with the cabinet maker to work out the final details on our cabinets. (Going into the housebuilding process, we had assumed that we would use stock cabinetry, but our designer explained that "Texas doesn't have unions," by which she meant that these things cost a lot less than they do in some other areas. However, we still paid as much for the cabinets as we paid for the most expensive car we've ever owned.) It was nice to be able to figure out room sizes, locations of appliances, etc., and then make cabinets to fit, with whatever features we wanted. It was also nice to be able to match the wood finish to our coffee table, since the coffee table would be in close proximity to the fireplace cabinets and the fireplace cabinets would be within sight of the kitchen cabinets. (The bathroom and mudroom cabinets would be made of lower-grade materials and would be painted the same shade of off-white as the interior trim.) On the day I took my boss over to see the house, after the drywall was up, textured, and primed, I was thrilled to find that the cabinets had arrived a day or two early:

Since the fireplace stone would go in after the cabinets were installed, the cabinet size was determined from the plans (and perhaps a bit of rough double-checking on-site), and a gap of several inches (the depth of the stone) was left between the drywall and the cabinetry:

As nice as it was to be able to dictate every detail of our cabinetry, we found working with our particular cabinet shop representative frustrating at times. When we first started discussing the fireplace cabinets, we explained that we wanted typical base cabinets with shallower bookshelves on top. His interpretation of our vision had both parts flush in the front, with a false back on the bookshelves so they would only be half as deep. We had to step in and set him straight...on something that seemed really straightforward to us and shouldn't have been new or unusual to the cabinet guy.

Because we had the cabinet makers finish the stained cabinets before delivering and installing them, they were in their final, finished state before the interior painting took place. Sheets of plastic protected them from the painters' spray guns.

And then it was finally time for the stone to go on the fireplace.

We opted for a mortarless look on the fireplace, unlike the exterior with its typical mortar lines.

We love the mortarless look, but the cost to do it everywhere would have been prohibitive, so we limited it to the fireplace. (I didn't think the upcharge -- about $750, I think -- was worth it for the fireplace, but Steve insisted, and as the stone went up, I realized he was so right.)

The big shock for us when the fireplace was finished was that it was so much bigger than it appeared when we were looking at the drywall skeleton. The stone added about six inches on each side, and that extra foot made a significant difference when we first saw the finished product. It looked HUGE! Now that we're used to it, it's definitely a major focal point, but I no longer worry that it's too big for the space. We love it.

However, there were a couple of miscommunications regarding the fireplace. When we said that we wanted the hearth to be flush with the floor, our builder took that to mean that it would be within an inch or so of the floor. No, we wanted to be able to put a chair right in front of it if the need arose without the legs wobbling. We cleared that one up before the stone slab was cut, which was lucky because the recess in the foundation wasn't deep enough to accommodate the typical slab thickness, so we had to go with a shallower slab, and there was a risk that it would crack in transit or during installation. (We were warned that a new piece might have to be cut into thirds if the first slab broke.) Fortunately, the installation went smoothly.

The other miscommunication was more significant, and we didn't catch it in time. We were all in agreement that the fireplace would be gas and would be controlled by a switch (like a light switch). We didn't know that there were two kinds of gas, switch-controlled fireplaces. There is the kind with an electronic ignition, where you flip the switch and fire comes from nowhere, and then there is the kind that has a pilot light that stays on all the time, and the switch turns on the gas to light the logs from the pilot light. We assumed that there would be fire when the switch was turned on, and no fire when the switch was turned off, so I was shocked to arrive after the fireplace installation was complete and find fire -- albeit just a small flame -- in my empty house. A pilot light a few inches above the floor, visible from virtually anywhere in the room and accessible to any toddler who can pull open the glass doors, seems so dangerous that it shouldn't be legal, but apparently it is, and no one thought to mention it to us or ask if we wanted to upgrade to the electronic ignition version. (Um, yes, please -- whatever the cost.) I immediately turned the pilot light off that day, and that's how it has stayed since May. We haven't had the occasion to light the fireplace yet, but when we do, we'll turn the gas on and light it the old-fashioned way, then turn the gas back off when we're finished. We asked about switching out the unit for the kind we expected to go in, but it was virtually impossible by that point.

The things that went wrong (or almost went wrong) with the fireplace, along with the things that went right (too many to count), underscore the importance of hiring the best builder you can find. So much of the construction process boils down to one chance to get it right -- or huge cost to correct errors -- and having an experienced, detail-oriented, conscientious builder can make the difference between a wonderful home and a pile of problems.

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