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Notebook: Stories worth sharing

When undertaking a project as significant -- and, at times, overwhelming -- as our renovation, you soon appreciate that the images you likely will cherish most are those that easily become short anecdotes you want to share with others.

When undertaking a project as significant -- and, at times, overwhelming -- as our renovation, you soon appreciate that the images you likely will cherish most are those that easily become short anecdotes you want to share with others.

Here are a few of ours.


Early in the renovation, I arrived at the house to see how things were proceeding. We were at the stage after the old walls and ceilings had been torn down. As usual, I asked Travis Henschel – the journeyman carpenter working on our project for Rannala Construction – how things were going. I commented on how suddenly the ceiling in the kitchen seemed higher.

He told me that, earlier in the week, he had measured the heights of the ceilings in the house and noticed that, in the kitchen, where a previous addition had been connected to the original house, the beams were sagging substantially. In one corner, it was off by about an inch and, in the middle, by 2 1/2 inches.

"Any time there's that much sagging, it's a problem," Travis said. "I checked out the structure underneath and it looked fine. So, I thought it was probably normal settling of the wood or maybe [renovators for the previous owners] had set up a few things at the wrong heights."

Being an ingenious young guy who has encountered this kind of problem before, Travis knew how to solve the problem. He had gone to his old Toyota pickup to get just the right tool.

"I happen to have a 1.5-ton jack for my truck. So, I just made a makeshift post and put it in between a beam in the ceiling and my jack. Then I just jacked it up until it was at the right height and level. Then I supported it with the real post. It worked out," he said.

And, yes he has done this before.

"It's not an uncommon thing to run into an older house that has sagging [beam] issues. If the problem isn't structurally based – if it's not the foundation that's causing the problems – then you're fine to [level it with a truck jack].”


One morning at 8:30, the phone in our temporary apartment rang. I could see by the caller display that it was our neighbour, who wouldn't normally call at that hour.

"Hi," said Gord. "Just thought I should let you know that there's an alarm going off at your house and no one's there."

He had had the television on, but noticed some background noise that wasn't coming from the set.

"I could hear this 'beep, beep, beep' in the background. So, I turned down the television and I could still hear it. I thought: 'What the heck is that?' "

He realized that it was coming from outside. He looked out the window and said he thought it was coming from our garage.

Hmm, I wondered if the contractor had set up an alarm to protect the tools he has on-site.

Normally, Travis is at the house by 8 a.m. But he had mentioned that the painters would be in the house that day to prime the walls. Maybe the painters were out getting supplies.

I tried to phone Dave, our contractor, but got voicemail. Then I phoned Travis on his cellphone. He was at the company's shop in Langford, trimming our hardwood flooring so that the new boards match the existing ones in size.

"An alarm? That's weird," Travis said. Then the penny dropped.

"You know, I threw an old smoke alarm in the bin the other day."

As we were talking on my cellphone, the apartment phone rang again. It was our neighbour Gord, who had narrowed down the location of the alarm ringing to the garbage bin.

"I just hope someone going by doesn't call the fire department because they hear the alarm," said Gord, noting there was no smoke coming from the bin.

Travis, who was still on the other line, was surprised. "I didn't think that alarm was still active. I'll call Dave and let him know. That alarm should be near the top of the bin because I just threw it in there."

Lesson learned: If you're ever disposing of an old smoke alarm, first, remove the batteries.


We've started calling another one of our neighbours "the neighbourhood site supervisor."

"Terry comes over to check on me about once a week," Travis said, chuckling because he enjoys the visits.

We've jokingly suggested that Travis hand Terry a broom when he comes over so that he can pitch in. But Travis says Terry is helpful. "He built his house [across the street], probably almost 10 years ago now.  So he’s been telling me about the construction around his house and how it relates to the issues we’re having here. And he really knows his stuff in the trades. He’s been around for a while."

Terry ran a large mechanical services company in Victoria for 29 years. The company worked on all manner of industrial process piping and heating and cooling systems. "I'm a pipefitter by trade," Terry said. "When I started my company, we pretty well did everything in the piping field – from apartments to pulp mills to mines and pipelines."

Over the years, Terry got to know a lot about the local construction industry and the people who work in it. So, he was curious about our relatively young  contractor, Dave Rannala. "I'd never seen him around [Victoria sites] before, so I was interested in what he was about," Terry told me this week.

One day in December, when Terry was driving into his driveway and I was coming out of mine, we stopped for a brief conversation. He told me he had been over to the house to closely question Dave. "I'm sure he probably thought you'd sent me to check him out," Terry laughed.

"When I sat and talked to Dave, he told me about his cabinet shop," Terry said. In the Langford shop, the contractor and his staff build the cabinetry and mouldings for their projects. In our case, he has also found maple floor boards to match the existing floors in our house, but the planks are too wide, so he's cutting them down to size. Terry thought the shop sounded impressive. "I made a few inquiries and, apparently, his cabinet shop is second to none."

Terry pronounced Dave to be "one of the good ones." He was surprised at how much of the renovation work Dave and Travis did themselves -- and did well. Most contractors he knows, Terry said, can do one kind of job on their projects and tend to subcontract out the rest.

"When guys take apprenticeships, some of them only do concrete work and form work. Some guys only do framing and other guys do finish carpentry. With Dave and his company – young Travis, there – they do everything. I asked Travis, 'What do you do?' and he said, 'I can do it all.' I went over the other day and he was making the flooring on site."

On our project, Dave has subcontracted out some of the work – electrical, plumbing and installing the heat-recovery ventilator. Terry has been impressed by the quality of the subcontractors, too.  He ran into Brad early in the project, on our municipal election day:  "See ya got John from a couple of streets over doing your electrical – good man, he knows what he's doing."  And, of course, Terry was right.

"Good news travels slow," he told me this week. "Bad news travels like wildfire, especially in a town the size of Victoria. If you screw up, everybody's going to know about it -- within 24 hours."

And that sort of thing cuts the other way. Until November, we knew Terry simply as a neighbour – and as the grandfather of one of our daughter Caitlin's schoolmates.  Then we started meeting people in the construction trades.  Once they learned Terry was our neighbour, it became obvious that – years after his retirement – he remains a highly respected member of their community.  Good news travels slow indeed.


One day, just before we started the project, our 17-year-old daughter Caitlin was describing the changes we had planned to a friend. After Caitlin finished, her friend said, "You're doing a lot of work. Sounds like it's going to be really nice."

"Are you kidding?" Caitlin replied. "You should see our interior designer and our contractor. If the reno looks half as good as they do, it'll be great."

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