Even though our trip to France is over and we don’t have another on the books, I’m still practicing my French with Duolingo so that when we do go back I’m closer to being fluent (and also because I just like learning languages). This past week, a new phrase I learned was pire en pire which means “worse and worse.” Wow, that’s kind of pessimistic, but I guess you’ve gotta learn the words for bad times as well as good. I had no idea it would be so prophetic as we began replacing our front porch.
We repaired our back deck four years ago, replacing rotting wood with composite decking after we discovered it had previously been built with untreated lumber that had, obviously, weathered very poorly. And we replaced Mom and Dad’s deck last summer in the same way (except without the mushy untreated lumber). We had known for a while that we were going to be replacing the rotting decking on our front porch with composite for a while, but because composite lumber is still pretty expensive, we had been saving up and putting it off as long as possible. The main traffic area of the porch was getting uncomfortably soft by this past spring, though, and in addition to hating how bad it looked (my complaints over the neighbors’ yards were feeling hypocritical), Kalen and I both had growing anxieties that we would find ourselves with a badly injured delivery person on our sidewalk. Eager to avoid lawsuits with USPS, UPS, FedEx, and/or Amazon, we decided it was time to get on with it. And as this would be our third time doing such a job, we felt we had it pretty well in hand. Easy peasy, right?
We placed an order for the composite boards at the beginning of June with the Blue Store, using the last of our refund from the Battle of Blue Oven (and then some), and although the boards we wanted weren’t in stock, we were assured they would be delivered the following week. But the delivery date came and went with no boards, and when I called for an update I was told they were backordered for some reason but should be in next week. Repeat. And repeat again. They weren’t anything special or funky. No one knew why they were backordered. But eventually they were delivered, right before my parents were scheduled to come help us with the work. Whew, crisis averted.
Now that we had materials and a crew, we began the work of tearing off the old boards. Unlike the previous two jobs, I knew that these decking boards were attached just with nails and that they should pry out with relative ease, especially in the numerous places where the boards were so damaged they were spongey. I had also discovered the previous year that there was a layer of older boards immediately below the decking we had been walking on for the seven years we’ve lived here. I suspected that the lower level of boards had rotting or missing sections (hence the questionable patch job), but hopefully the joists were mostly okay. Judging by the nails, they were even nicely spaced, close enough that the springy composite boards would still feel secure. The other section of the porch, the bottom of the L-shape, was a little bit more of a mystery. The decking boards ran perpendicular and we could see daylight between them. They might need a few more joists to support composite, but those boards largely seemed to be in better shape, and there didn’t seem to be any of the tongue and groove lower section.
But as we tore off the decking, we revealed much more damage than we anticipated. Several joists would have to be completely replaced. One beam crumbled away to the touch. The base of the columns needed much more than just repainting. Everywhere I looked it got worse and worse, pire en pire. We were going to have to buy quite a bit more lumber to make the porch secure and it was quickly turning into a longer job than I’d hoped.
We bought replacement joists and plenty of screws to secure them. We found replacement columns, PVC with a steel central support, that were exactly the height we needed to reach from our stone bases to the porch roof and were almost identical in style to the old ones. But to replace the corner post, we had to remove a section of the decorative metal trim surrounding the beams that run along the edge of the porch ceiling. We already knew that the metal was hiding large holes in the beams, but we were dismayed to find that the beam of the porch roof was particularly crumbly and largely rotted away, hardly resting on the support column at all. Pire en pire. We did our best to secure it for the meantime, making a note that we would need to find a contractor who could actually address this issue at some point in the future. But the new post was a good start. And the second post went even better, and wasn’t quite so scary where it met the rafters. Two posts replaced, a few joists replaced, and the day getting much, much warmer, we began cutting some composite boards to go in place. They snuggled in perfectly, and I zipped them in with hidden fasteners. With some visible progress and the threat of the porch roof collapsing in pushed to the back of my mind, I was feeling better.
And then a public works truck pulled up.
The guy got out of the truck and came up to where we were working, asking about the work we were doing. He looked and said, “You probably should have gotten a permit for this.” I told him I had called and was told I hadn’t needed one.
I had done a lot of prep work for this, especially after last year’s attempt to fix the rotting stairs and my hindsight that it was probably the kind of job that we needed a building permit for. In addition to getting pricing on different brands of boards and the lengths available, I did the responsible adult thing and called City Hall to ask if we needed a building permit for this job. They asked the extent of the work and I said, truthfully, that we were planning to remove rotting wood decking and replace it with composite. We weren’t going to change the footprint of the porch at all. When the guy on the phone asked if we were doing anything with the joists I truthfully said that it wasn’t part of the plan, but I omitted my suspicions that things that might need replaced, or that we might add some to the existing support. I reasoned that if they were fine with the existing mess, what business was it of theirs if we just added a little more support?
The inspector who had showed up scrutinizing our work told Dad, “Those new boards have to be treated. Doesn’t matter that they’re off the ground and under a covered roof and only next to composite.” Grumble, grumble, okay, guess we’re taking this back off and going back to the lumber yard.
“So just go in to City Hall, apply for your permit. Since you’re doing joists, we’ll have to inspect that before you cover it up with the decking,” he continued addressing Dad. Pire en pire.
“Hi, I’m the homeowner,” I said, already peeved at the delay, and even more so by the fact that I’d already told this guy that I had called City Hall and spoken with someone previously, what could a thirty(something) year old woman possibly know about home repair or building permits. “You need to tell me what needs to be done.”
I was dreading the delay that would result from having to wait for a permit, but thankfully, for building permits on projects by the homeowner, the permit is only $25 and is issued immediately, but it still meant that once we had the joists in, we had to get them inspected before we could resume laying the decking, which also meant I had to remove what I had already put down. Pire en pire. As the clerk handed me the permit, I also requested to be scheduled for a joist inspection for the following day so that we didn’t have to waste precious time waiting around for an inspector.
I also had to grapple with some paranoia because I’m pretty sure the city doesn’t have the resources to just have inspectors cruise around town looking for unpermitted work, which meant that someone must have reported us. Our city does use an app called See Click Fix where citizens can report things like overgrown grass and burnt-out street lights, but it didn’t show any reports against our property. I don’t know if it was the construction site down the street, or one of the immediate neighbors, or the mailman upset with lack of access to the mailbox. I don’t like feeling simmering, suspicious rage toward my community, but I was feeling it all the same.
I returned home with the permit about the same time that Mom and Dad returned from the Blue Store with replacement joists, this time in treated lumber, and we began the heartbreaking job of undoing almost all our work from the previous day and a half. But it took the rest of the day, and also meant that, if the inspector had to see the joists before we put the decking on, we couldn’t replace decking as we went along, meaning we quickly lost use of the front door. Pire en pire.
Luckily, demolition is a good outlet when you’re angry at the man and tangled in red tape and raging against the machine and all that good punk stuff, and we made record time ripping off rotting boards. We finished the long side of the L quickly and were eager to see what secrets lay beneath the bottom leg of the L, where the decking boards ran perpendicular to the ones we had been tearing off.
Presumably, when the decking changed direction, so should the joists, right? Wrong. Pire en pire. The joists continued running parallel to the street, even though the decking boards ran that direction as well in this section. So what was holding them up? A few random planks of the old, lower level of deck boards running perpendicular to the street supported the upper deck boards.
The only good discovery was that the joists, even though they weren’t going the direction we expected, really were pretty solid with almost no signs of rot. And they were spaced at the appropriate 16 inches. Unfortunately, because composite decking is expensive, I had carefully calculated how many boards I would need for the job, counting on directly replacing the visible, existing boards. I had worked hard to minimize waste, specifically ordering the 16-foot boards, which would easily transform into the 8-foot boards needed in this section. But now I didn’t need 26 8-foot boards. To run the boards perpendicular, I would need 16 13-foot boards. I can, obviously, turn a 16-foot board into a 13-foot board. But I can’t turn thirteen boards into sixteen boards. I was going to be 3 boards short of finishing my job, and who knows how long it would take to get three more boards in, plus the added cost of another delivery fee? Pire en pire. Even though I was bone tired and emotionally exhausted, I slept poorly that night, fretting over the lack of boards and the threat of the inspector judging our work.
The following morning, we were able to finish removing the last of the old decking, and satisfied that the joists were secure, we awaited the inspector’s approval to begin adding the decking. The forecast was calling for a high of 101 Fahrenheit, so we really wanted to get as much done in the morning as possible, and thankfully the inspector showed up by about 9:30.
He looked at the joists, now all either old, weathered hardwood boards or treated lumber and neatly spaced and firmly screwed in and said, “You need joist hangers.”
He hadn’t mentioned that the day before when he was looking at our joists and decided they were the wrong kind of wood. There were no hangers that day. So we had to go back to the store to get hangers. And nails. Because apparently if you use hangers, you can’t use screws, because the metal hanger will scratch through the coating and they will rust out because even the good screws are garbage (source: this inspector guy). This was becoming extra frustrating because even if we weren’t doing things how he thought they should be done, everything we were doing was vastly better than how it was before we started work on it. Several houses immediately around mine are full of garbage and are completely uncared for, but we were busting our asses in a heat advisory to try and make our house better and it felt like we were being punished for trying.
Like demolition, hammering nails is also a good outlet for anger.
The inspector did at least offer to come back by once we got the hangers in so that we could proceed with installing the decking as soon as possible, and I did appreciate that he came by to do that even when I suspected he was actually done working for the day.
While we were at the Blue Store getting joist hangers, I looked to see if there was even the remotest chance that there might be spare composite boards in my color, and lo, and behold, there were! They had the groove down the side, they were the right color. Was our luck finally turning around? Of course not. The boards were 12 feet long. I was replacing 25 boards that were 6 inches wide equalling drum roll…. 12 and a half feet.
We began reinstalling the decking the next morning, but Mom and Dad were going to have to go home for the weekend to take care of some other responsibilities and the porch was much further behind than I had anticipated it being at this point. The steps were again dismantled as we tinkered with the unfathomable math it would take to get them and their handrails up to code. I knew we hadn’t done the best job when we had tried to shore them up the year before, but I’d gotten used to the wonkiness in that time, and the week’s frustrations with the inspector paralyzed me with indecision, certain that anything we did would be deemed wrong and we’d have to rip it out and start all over again. While I was avoiding solving the problem of the steps, I remeasured the portion of the porch where our designs had to change, and by a beautiful miracle, the distance was 11 feet and 2 inches. The twelve-foot boards that the store inexplicably had in stock would be more than enough for us to finish the decking.
I would have liked to get more done while Mom and Dad were gone, but I think I really needed a break from worrying about it. I don’t know that I actually put it out of my mind, since we had to go up half-built steps every time we left the house all weekend, but the physical rest at least was more necessary than I realized at the time and when work resumed, I was at least a little refreshed. We had to replace one last column before we could finish putting in the decking, and we needed to finish the steps. We also had to cut and install some trim.
In going to change the final column, it was revealed to us (that is, we took down the metal trim and were unable to ignore) that the beam on this side of the porch was in even worse shape than the first one that had nearly derailed the whole process at the beginning, meaning that the urgency of finding someone to fix those structural issues increased a level or two, but the bottom of the column was in bad enough shape (i.e. squishy) that we thought it best to try and replace the post anyway. I also didn’t want to have three columns that were the same and one that didn’t match, and just have to store one more good one until we managed to find someone to fix the beam for us because we just cannot get contractors to call us back.
With the columns and decking in place and the roof successfully kept off our heads, it was time for the steps. They shouldn’t be that hard, steps. It should just be basic geometry, a little trigonometry at most, rectangles arranged into a triangle. And we only needed four steps, it’s not like it was thirty flights of steps. But it’s all got to be the same or you’ll trip on them (or worse, the pizza man will trip and then you’re never getting pizza delivered again).
And then the rails! Getting the angle cut on that definitely takes trig, and I liked trig; I did pretty well at it, but that was eighteen years ago! I know we all said SOH CAH TOA a lot but I don’t even remember what that means now. And the really frustrating part about all the figuring with any of this is that the math assumes all your lines are straight and your angles exact, but wood doesn’t work that way. Even composite lumber, which is manufactured, isn’t perfect (and we weren’t using that for the actual construction of the stairs anyway, just the treads). So if you calculate what angle to cut your hand rail, you should also easily be able to calculate the angle you have to cut into the tops of your spindles, but that only works if everything is actually, truly, perfectly level, and the things that are supposed to be parallel are parallel and the things that are meant to be perpendicular sit exactly at 90 degrees.
And speaking of spindles, our old ones just went from the hand rail directly into the step (except where they were rotted at the bottom and just swung freely an inch above the step), but there was only one spindle per step. But to be up to code, they have to be no further apart than four inches, apparently to keep little kids from either falling through or sticking their heads in and getting stuck like tiny little idiots. Pire en pire.
We had bought replacement spindles last year that we never put up, but we had bought just enough to replace what was already there, which meant that we were now several spindles short of creating a handrail that wasn’t a danger to all the children that hang out on my porch (if you’re new here, this sarcasm reads better when you know that we don’t have any kids, just a very large dog, and our porch is almost exclusively occupied by neighborhood cats looking for a quiet escape from the chaos of their own homes).
Achieving the new spindle spacing added extra math that was quickly avoided by adding a bottom rail to attach the spindles into, rather than risking any funny business with two and a third spindles on one step, but only one and two thirds spindle on another. This meant more angled cuts, though, that would be easy if we got our top and bottom rails parallel but that was even less likely than this post going viral overnight. I also thought it would be fun to get kind of cute spindles with a design carved into them, instead of plain rectangular ones like the porch railings had. They had a little ball carved into the center, and it would look weird if the balls didn’t descend regularly, or one sat higher than it should have (ba-dum ksh!)
I cleverly avoided using trig (which is good because I’m 100% sure that my graphic calculator is long lost) by just holding the spindles in place and marking where they were meant to be cut, and then using the same cut marks on all the other spindles so that everything was regularly spaced (and thankfully our top and bottom rails were close enough to parallel that this actually worked).
Aside from the stair spindles, the part of this project I’m most proud of is the trim that I worked out.
When we began planning this project, we knew we would have to find a solution for where the decking met the house. The porch had previously been decked with 2×6 boards, but composite decking is somewhat thinner, meaning a direct replacement would leave a new, open space between the top of the composite decking and the bottom edge of the siding. We toyed with the idea of putting in some kind of spacer to raise the composite decking up, but it didn’t seem practical. The bizarre choice to deck over decking, as had been made in the past, ended up working to our aesthetic advantage though. Most composite decking has a series of troughs formed into the back, I think to reduce weight. This gives the end of the boards a distinct look when viewed at a cut edge, and while I don’t particularly mind it, Kalen seems to hate it, and it seems to be generally agreed that it’s not the best look. The skirting boards on our deck came up flush with the top of the old, first layer of decking, and the 2×6’s had sat on top of that. When we removed both old layers of decking, our composite sat down in the place of the oldest layer, flush with the skirting and hiding the weird bumpy cross-sections.
This still left a space underneath the edge of the siding that was only slightly bigger than another piece of composite decking. I ordered two kinds of boards for this project: grooved and ungrooved. The grooved boards have a groove (shocking, I know!) down their length allowing the use of hidden fasteners in installation (I love these, and if you’re doing composite, you should definitely go for the hidden fasteners). The ungrooved boards have a smooth, squared edge, making them better for applications where you’ll see the side of the board like outer edges and stair treads. I got ungrooved boards for the stair treads and a few extra to rip into narrower strips to wedge between the decking and the siding. I hadn’t seen it done anywhere; like with so many of the issues in our house, it was a fairly unique problem, and how do you search for that anyway? But it turned out so much better than I expected and makes the porch look much more finished. (I still need to try and power wash off the old paint that’s on the siding though.)
The last piece of reassembly we had to tackle was putting the old railings back in place. We were a little worried about how these wood railings were going to attach to the new PVC columns when they had just been screwed into the old wooden columns. We didn’t want to have to buy a new expensive railing system, such as is often sold with composite decking and these types of columns. And our old railings were still in pretty good shape. Research about attaching the new railing systems to the columns showed that they were typically just screwed in, so we found some screws with fine threading and were relieved that they did the trick just fine.
We didn’t account for the inevitability that our new columns were not in the exact same position as the original ones had been though. Obviously we put them as close to the old ones as we could, but it wasn’t exactly the same. One of the front-facing railings was 102 inches long, and the other 103 inches long. By the happiest of accidents, in moving our posts, we still ended up with one side needing a 102 inch railing and the other a 103 inch railing, but they were switched from where they had originally been, and I only noticed because of a rust stain where we had accidentally left a box knife blade out after another job. Oops.
But then the big test. We had to have the inspector come back and give a final inspection. I didn’t know if I could handle it. We had worked so hard and it was clearly so much better than when we had started. It looked beautiful and we were all exhausted. If the inspector came and decided things weren’t how they were supposed to be, I was either going to end up in a crying heap on the floor or in jail. I just couldn’t take the porch apart again.
I put it off for a couple days, opting to get a little painting done, to make it look as good as possible (a benefit of reusing as much old wood as we could, not having to wait for fresh treated lumber to dry; the stair rails will have to remain natural for now), and screwing up the courage to call like working up to ripping off a band-aid or pulling a loose tooth. I did eventually call, and I got on the next day’s list for inspections, but I didn’t know what time the inspector would be by. He had called before when he was coming to inspect the joists.
He didn’t call this time; Pippin let me know he was here. He handed me a sticker with his initials and the date next to “Approved.” No tape measure, no level, no code book. He said it looked good.
And I agreed with him. I’m still exhausted from the work, but I’m so glad it’s finished. I want to replace the lattice too, but… not quite yet. And of course the beams holding up the porch roof will need attention sooner than later. But we did good work, and I’m proud of us. After all the pire en pire, it’s finally mieux.