Gutting the bathroom

The bathroom where it all started.
The bathroom where it all started.

[UPDATE MARCH 2016: since this post was written, Leanne and I have entered into a contract dispute with Ridgewater Homes. For more details, click here.]

The advice we heard about what to do when you move into a “fixer upper” was master bedroom first (so you can wake up in comfort and not despair) then the kitchen and then the bathroom. After that the other rooms can follow.

When we got to the bathroom we hit a few snags including the foundation under one wall, carpenter ants and building permits. This led us on a meandering path which resulted in putting a much larger upfront investment into the whole house to ensure a long life of comfort and sustainability in our Forever House.

In the lead-up to the house lift and excavation, I tried to prepare for the renovation as much as I could. I was certain that a) it would be difficult to get back into the house while it rested on Nickel Bros.’ cribbing and b) Ridgewater, our contractor, would want to work quickly from that moment forward. I did not want to slow them down and I did not want them doing work that I could do as unskilled labour. We just can’t afford to pay professionals to do simple demolition.

The bathroom as it is
The bathroom as it is

I also wanted to preserve intact any of the cedar shiplap and tongue-in-groove boards that make up the walls we could so that we can reuse them. That kind of careful deconstruction takes time and when you’re paying a contractor, time is money. Better we should do this stuff ourselves.

One of the projects I assigned myself was gutting the bathroom.

Step one was to document all of the priceless artwork which covered the walls. Since 2011 when we knew these walls would one day be demolished, we have encouraged the kids, family and friends to make their mark. As time wore on the canvas expanded to include almost all surfaces.

It’s not easy to keep pieces of drywall intact when you remove them, but I did my best. Perhaps one day we will create an art gallery of rescued pieces in the new basement somewhere.

swollen corner 3The sink and its cabinet came out and I was reminded never to put anything made of particle or composite board into the bathroom. One day one of the cats caused a minor flood and the cabinet swelled up and was ruined. I have already bought a solid wood dresser from craigslist in which I’m going to cut two holes for new sinks. The sink you see above will be mounted on a small cabinet that that has been in the house for decades and put in the new upstairs bathroom.

Next, the toilet came out. That was another long-standing issue. The floor under the toilet was so rotten that it would make a squishing sound when you sat down.

Someone had cut a piece of plywood to fit under the footprint of the toilet as a stop-gap measure. Meanwhile, the wood beneath it continued to rot.

It leaves me wondering how long it would have been till someone sat down and fell through the floor.

Next was the clawfoot tub. A coveted item that looks luxuriously deep but only fills up to the overflow drain and wicks heat away from the water so your bath gets cold quickly. In my humble opinion this is another example of how our modern lives have been improved by innovation and science but we still harken back to a romanticized ideal of when things were not as good.

It was a bit of a mystery how the cupboard was constructed but it turned out it was a set of shelves which had been slid on top of another box containing the bottom drawer. With a neighbour’s help we fumbled it out of there.


Under the hastily installed linoleum, we began to see more evidence of rot and carpenter ants.

Behind the drywall was the original bathroom wall surface which probably dates back to the thirties when the sanitary sewer came to Hammond and the rear addition was added. There was a layer of simple wallpaper over a thin layer of cedar tongue-in-groove which was virtually impossible to remove without breaking the tongues. Cedar is rot and insect resistant but very brittle.

The drywall hid a recess which must have been an inset medicine cabinet just like the one we still use in the little yellow house next door.

Under that was the three-quarter-inch-thick shiplap planks which overlap each other.

In the corner, the tiny master bedroom closet juts into the bathroom. The plan is to expand that closet so the closet walls could be removed.

The plan
The plan

The boards tend to splinter when you pry them so I used a reciprocating saw to cut the nails as best I could.

You can see the drain pipe for the sink and the vent pipe going up to the roof.

Leanne breaking out of the closet.

Here is the view from the bedroom through the closet door.

Under the shiplap is the studs and the space between the studs was filled with half-pound, open-celled spray-foam insulation in 2008. You can see that they were not successful at getting all the way to the corners and sometimes there are large gaps. One of the carpenters who work for Ridgewater was not impressed by this, but I think we have to be a little forgiving.

This is an old house made of brittle wood and each cavity was a different size. There were a few places where the foam broke through the interior walls because they tried to fill a cavity too full, so naturally they were cautious. If you happen to know that your exterior walls are not insulated, spray foam is an option and your result will probably be much more successful than ours.

Of course, if you’ve got the stomach and the long-term vision, ripping off the entire exterior of your house and puffing out the walls with several extra inches of insulation like the first Now House did will pay for itself in less time than you think. That’s something we can’t do with our heritage house.

Here is the opposite wall under the shiplap.

These three photos are teasers for my next post about carpenter ants. On the left you can see a well-used groove which I like to call an ant super-highway. On the right, on the floor of the cavity between the bathroom and the pantry is an inch-and-a-half of sawdust. Next week I will show you what happens when you expose an active ant nest, complete with video.

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James Rowley

James lives in Maple Ridge, BC, Canada with his amazing partner, Leanne Koehn, and their two amazing kids in their beautiful house. He studied Science and English Literature at the University of British Columbia where he met Leanne. He also studied acting for a while at Studio 58 in Vancouver. He works as a teacher of English and curriculum writer for new Canadians.

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