Lessons learned refactoring my basement
Working on my basement led to many experiences that have taught me important lessons
February 02, 2018
This week was my companies internal engineering conference where employees from engineering, product management, design, and program management all attended to hear our peers give talks about topics ranging from programming paradigms to soft skills such as how to manage all that is required of you during the day. As part of this conference, there was a time period where anyone attending could present a lighting talk, a 5 minutes talk about anything they would like. I decided to give a lightning talk entitled “Lessons learned refactoring my basement”, where I presented several lessons I had learned over the course of remodeling my basement and how those lessons are applicable for any project that someone is undertaking. I only had 5 minutes and because of the crunch, I spoke very swiftly to make sure I got through all my slides so I thought I would write an article on these lessons but spend a little more time on each one.
When we started doing the demolition work on our living room, I didn’t have the right tools for the amount of work it required. The hammer I was using at the time was small and had a plastic handle, which worked fine for removing old trim and baseboard, but for anything else was insufficient. Within 5 minutes of starting to pull out 2x4s from the ceiling as well as drywall, the handle broke. We went to get a new hammer and this time got an all steel hammer as well as a crowbar which made the work much easier and much smoother.
Another tool I didn’t have was a Sawzall, but luckily my father did. He joined me in the demolition fun, which made removing the small wall and doors at the bottom of our stairs a breeze. Without it I wouldn’t have been able to remove the wall and doors into the room.
When you work on a project it’s important to take a step back and take an accounting of the tools you have to approach the problem. This can include both physical tools, but also your own knowledge. If you realize that you are lacking some tool or knowledge it’s important to try and obtain the necessary tools to ensure the project can proceed smoothly.
Our living room had many places where the ceiling was lowered to accommodate various plumbing and electrical work that went below the floor joists. We tried hard to either minimize these dropped ceilings or get rid of them altogether. There was one part that was especially bad where the ceiling almost had 4 different heights dropped out of the ceiling. During demolition, we tore all of these spots down to see what was underneath and what we could do about them. In one spot there was a p trap from a bathroom upstairs that extended below the floor joists. In another place, there was an air duct. Both of these were unavoidable, something had to be done for the ceiling to go around them. What was there initially was strange and didn’t look great. We made the decision to hide the pipes above the desk and the air duct by making an “extension” of the support beam through the basement. Both solutions either made these features disappear or covered them in a way that didn’t make them look out of place.
In other cases, we pulled the ceiling down only to find that the reason the ceiling was dropped, was that the electrical wire running to a light was run under the floor joist instead of through it. Another was a light that was placed under a return air duct instead of off to the side a few feet so it could be all the way up on the ceiling. We routed the wires through the floor joists and removed that light and replaced it with two recessed lights in front of our bookcases.
When working on a project that has been worked on by many other people, some initial reactions to some parts of the project may be similar, why was this done this way? If undocumented it’s hard to understand why someone would decide to do things a certain way. But after digging you will always find that there was a reason why a decision was made to do things that way. The important part is to be able to recognize whether or not the underlying problem can be fixed or not. Explore alternative ways to approach the problem that might lead to a solution that eliminates the problem. If it can’t be eliminated try to find a better way to fix the problem.
We had a closet in our living room that was built very poorly, with 2x4s on both the inside and outside of the drywall. It wasn’t framed properly and had many other issues. We decided to remove it and put in a built-in desk. Only I had no idea how to install cabinets or build a desk. For this I needed help. It was not something I could do on my own. Luckily my father, who teaches construction, was able to come and help.
We put quite a bit of wood in our basement, which meant filling nail holes, covering butt joints, caulking corners, and gaps, which all can be extremely tedious. It’s easy to give up when something becomes tedious. Luckily my wife was willing to help with all of these things which made things go faster.
Projects typically have many different aspects to them, it’s important to work with smart people who all mutually fill gaps in each other’s skills and knowledge. If you can’t do something, rest assured someone you are working with does know how and can fulfill that duty. When you work alone it’s easy to give up when things get boring or hard. Having more people work with you can alleviate some of those frustrations and push you to continue working.
I told my wife that I would have the room done before the end of the year, which drove me to work on it more than I had previously. Prior to this, I would work on it on Saturdays or just whenever I had some time and felt like doing it. I didn’t meet that deadline and thus it shifted to getting it done before her sister came to visit. With this deadline, it made it easier to schedule when things needed to be done which also resulted in knowing that before I stopped for a day, I had to get a certain amount of work done.
Setting deadlines can be difficult. As a project progresses it tends to become easier since there is less work to do, and you have an approximation of your velocity up to that point. But deadlines should be flexible. They should be reevaluated and revised based on current work. Sometimes, such as in my case, they can be motivators to get things done.
I wrote another article about this Do it for the Why so I will just say having a reason for why you are doing something can keep you going when things get tough.