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Life in the Trenches
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Kingston Whig-Standard. Nov 22, 1997

By John Thomas

There’s no substitute for starting at the bottom. As Harry Belafonte used to say, “House built on a good foundation, it will last, oh yes!”
Life in the trenches as a working carpenter teaches you design problems from the bottom up and teaches you that what a carpenter does, and what a designer does cannot be separated.
Consider, for instance, jacking up the kitchen floor of an old stone house. On the surface, this might not appear to have anything to do with design. But consider the process.  These floor joists and floorboards have gradually settled into a bow that may have taken 100 years to reach.
The na�ve response might be, ”if we put enough pressure on it, it’s bound to straighten out.”  But an old floor system isn’t like a new board that will spring back into place once the pressure is off. These joists and floorboards have reached a stable curve over the long years of settling and they don’t want to straighten out. What can happen when you start jacking is that instead of straightening out, the whole floor wants to rise as a curved unit.
  Say you’re designing a renovation for this room. If you assume that the floor will respond to jacking and become flat (flat and level are two different things) you might design something with ceramic tiles. This might require plywood over the existing floor, But, in fact,  if the jacking doesn’t work, you might have to take up the subfloor and rebuild the joists flat to get an adequate base for tiles. Ceramic tiles, especially large ones, require a strong and flat base.
  If, on the other hand, you realized that the floor was probably not going to respond to jacking, you might take a completely different approach. Assuming you didn’t want to get into the expense of changing the floor joists and subfloor, and you didn’t care about flat, you might either sand the existing floor boards or cover the whole thing with �” plywood and linoleum or carpet.
  But, of course, linoleum is a very different finish than ceramic tile. Linoleum with underlay might require 5/16” while ceramic tile with underlay might require 1”-2”. If you’re planning door heights and stair levels, these are things you need to know upfront.  And if these are decisions you’ve made on certain assumptions – that the floor would straighten out, for example, you might be in for some costly changes which could have, perhaps, been avoided at the start by a designer who understood the process.
Everything is connected. To think that interior design is not intimately related to framing carpentry is to misunderstand the process. That’s why the carpenters sometimes roll their eyes when some superbrilliant design idea is put forth with no understanding of the complications or subsequent costs involved.
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