Laying the ground rules…

Hi all,

I know it’s been ages since my last post and we’ve gone so far beyond the last few photos in terms of what is now finished, but I’m not going to apologise as usual for my tardiness. It’s been a crazy few months. We’re just about keeping our heads above water with the house, work, The Belgian’s 8-date tour of Belgium, trying to see family, side projects, and, and, and… Finding time to post photos is a luxury!
So! Here’s a short post with some updates that we made in May and June!
The main wall structure was in place, with the huge long trois pieces en filade divided into two separate rooms and the floorboards roughly sanded. We had taken the door that opened from the kitchen into the dark back room, to put in the middle, so now that open wall in the kitchen had to be sealed, but not before we filled it with pipes and built the structure for the hanging toilet on the opposite side.

Kitchen wall sealed

The small window on top came from the back room

Kitchen plastered

And plastered!

But there was the unusable back room to divide into two spaces – a bathroom and the sleeping section of a kids room. Before doing this we had to put down the false floor in that back room. This was for a few reasons – firstly, all of the plumbing would now go across that floor, and the granito over concrete made it impossible to dig in that space for underfloor pipes. We were forced to lay the pipes on top of the floor. Secondly, we wanted decent insulation in the whole house, and we wouldn’t have had that with the existing granito & concrete.

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False floor in

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SuperJo laying the insulation with The Belgian

So, with my awesome father-in-law and his family, we put down joists to raise the floor by about 15cm. The heating pipes, bathroom discharge pipes and the wiring all snaked between these joists and out under the wooden floor. Then we piled in more of that fluffy insulation and finished off with the soft card and MDF boards. As soon as the division wall went into the back room, we could finally see our mad plans come to light. And they worked!! We have a reasonable sized bathroom (2metres x 3.5 metres) and the back sleeping area is a cosy little nook for the future kids.

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Snaking pipes! Before floors or walls went in!

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Same view in the opposite direction after!

The kitchen floor had to wait until we got the (awkward, see last post!) units in. They were really messy. The walls are not at right angles (of course, that would be way too easy!) so we had to choose which wall to line them with! And then my uncle-in-law cut the worktop to measure so it would fit in, and included the pipes in the casing.

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Basic structure finally in!

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Manipulating the units!

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One of many calls to my Mum-in-law to assure her he was alive and well!

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Finished floor taken late at night!

When it went in my father-in-law (I’ll now start referring to him as SuperJo!) and I got to work on the floor. SuperJo and I started together but it was pretty late in the day and we were only halfway through when he had to take the road home. When he left I was staring the floor, and was so frustrated to not finish the same day. So I sucked all my courage and got cracking on finishing it myself. I cut the first board wrong and started to panic! SuperJo was going to kill me for wasting a board and we got them on discount in a leftovers shop so there are no more left when these are gone!! But I tried again and got it right, wahey! I finished the whole floor on my own and was super proud of myself! I’m actually loving all of the physical work – using a jigsaw on my own for the first time, punching the boards into place with my now-permanently bruised fist – there’s something so satisfying about it all! Photos of the finished product above!
The energy levels were still pretty good at that stage, but we were tiring easily. Even SuperJo who has boundless energy supplies was starting to flag a little. I have to hand it to everyone who helped us, they’re an extraordinary bunch of people. We’re spoiled to be surrounded by great friends and family here in Brussels, and lots of support in Ireland too. Already my family have made trips over to do work for us on the house, and I’m overwhelmed with all of this incredible support. We still manage to have a life in and around Brussels thanks to all of this support!

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Shep on his holidays all this time. He’s only delighted.

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This guy was singing Irish songs on La Feile Bride in Place de Jeu du Balle. Sweet!

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Can’t resist buying some of the smaller features already – these guys will go in the bathroom!

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Beautiful light through our (filthy!) new bedroom windows.

Next post won’t take so long, I promise!!
a x
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It’s all about structure

Hi everyone,

I’m so sorry about the huge gap in posts. At the end of April we moved into the apartment and since then we’ve had no internet access of our own. I had set up an appointment for installation in April, but as with everything else in the house it wasn’t straightforward. The internet company had to open up the sidewalk to lay cables, needing permission from the town hall, blah blah blah! So, today we finally have internet at home! The first thing I did was put on the radio. Sigh, the relief!! I *love* the radio! BBC4, Newstalk, Nostalgie, La Premiere, Today fm it’s all good!

We’ve had a spell of good weather in the last few weeks, and when I’m not inside listening to the radio you will find me here in the garden. I’ll have to do a whole separate post on the garden. Every week it changes and reveals itself to us, slowly, slowly. I’m absolutely in love.

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Anyway, enough excuses. So, in the meantime we did a lot of work! The house is now habitable but I won’t post all of that here. First up, the structure!

We started on the partition in the long room. This will eventually form a library wall, and creates a separate room which will be the master bedroom. One of our worker bees came up with the brilliant idea of taking a stained glass door out of the wall we were sealing and using that to form the main part of the partition wall. It was such a perfect idea, and seemed so obvious when we talked about it.

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The room seemed really dark when the partition went up and I started to worry about the lack of light in the main room. Luckily, we had extra eyes on hand that weekend to reassure us that we made the right decision. My sister Maria and her fiance Adrian arrived and were all kitted out in work gear on arrival!

We got one chilly but glorious day over the weekend and decided to take down the out-of-control plants that were blocking our path in the garden. We managed to get all of it down and put a cable running electricity down to the bottom of the garden! Thanks guys!

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The next day we went out to the salvage yard again (apparently it’s not salvation yard… sorry Adrian!) to pick up the tiles. Unfortunately, the weather turned for the worst and we got absolutely soaked. I couldn’t even take out my phone to take photos, it was really pouring down! But we got the tiles and they are gorgeous!!

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We brought them home and the following weekend laid them out in a pattern to see what works and what doesn’t. They’re not all perfect but we have enough to make something special! We’ve decided to complete the room with poured concrete instead of more tiles. It’s another experiment cooked up in our wild imaginations, so we have our fingers crossed that it will actually work out! I’ll let you know! I’m hoping my Dad will help me lay the tiles when they come at the end of next month (thanks Dad!!).

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When we got back the partition wall was in place and it worked out so much better than I had hoped! The bedroom is a good size for a main room and the living room still has enough space to make it a full size living room. You can see in the photos a weird size space between the middle arch and the new partition. We’re going to turn that into a small cosy evening nook – somewhere to watch movies, read a book under a lamp and maybe write a blog post! We’ve started to keep an eye out for furniture that will complete that space. A fold out bed couch and a cosy armchair for me. Let’s see what we can find.

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So it works!! We still weren’t in at this point as we had a delay with the… well everything really! But we’re in now. The first night was so exciting and I took some incredible photos of the place at night. But that’s a story for another day…

a x

Getting somewhere…

We’re moving onto some exciting things this week! To the untrained eye I understand that these photos below may look like The Belgian and my Father-in-law opening and closing a door. Repeatedly. Ad nauseum. But those of you who have been through any sort of home renovation know that it’s the small things that count. A door where there was never before a door. A door where there were iron bars hidden in the wall! A door where there were slabs of granite impeding progress!! And what a beautiful door it is!

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This is our first real before and after picture, way before the place is really finished. But I think it’s about time for a little before and after, don’t you?!

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You can see on the left photo, where there is no door beside the radiator. And now check it out, the super pretty door looks like it’s always been there! The radiator has been taken out for the moment because of the floorboards but we’ll put it back shortly to have the full effect. My Uncle-in-law and cousin are amazing, I have to say. They take out the door and I fret over fitting it back in and having to take a little bit off it to fit back in and how will that affect the old wood and will it work, and, and, and. I’m always met with “Ouaaai, ca va” and lo and behold, “Ouaaai, ca va”!

Another fun part this week was finally getting around to thinking about the fine details! A friend of mine in Brussels recently did some renovation on a turn of the century house too and she had some great tips for resources. One of them was a huge salvation yard owned by the Gouthier family in La Louviere. The website is woeful but the yard is anything but. It’s a treasure trove for anyone interested in ceramic and cement tiles from the 1920s/1930s and earlier even. The Belgian and I made a trip out there on a Saturday morning and spent a good hour pottering about. After trying to piece together enough tiles to cover the floor in the winter garden we decided to come back on another day with more hands and a bigger car! Now my dreams are full of tile patterns and green rooms.

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The only problem is that the yard is total chaos. So you might find 20 tiles of one pattern in one pile, and then search for 10 minutes to find 50 in another pile, and so on. That’s a lot of fun until you calculate you need 400 tiles to fill the space, at which point the game is a little less amusing! We’ll go back soon with reinforcements!

Another great tip from The Belgian’s friends was Giovanni Carrelage in Lennik. (I know, right – Lennik? Where!?) We are sincerely trying to reuse as much as possible and to renovate using reclaimed materials but it’s not going to be feasible in the whole house. For the floor in the bathroom and kitchen we need something neat, but our budget is really tight. Enter Giovanni Carrelage! They look pretty flash on their website and the showroom is pretty typical but out the back they have a warehouse full of end of season left overs. This was perfect for us as neither the bathroom and kitchen are more than 6m squared. We managed to find giant black tiles for the bathroom, and fake floorboards for the kitchen, for less than €200, which I thought was pretty good! Surprisingly we had plenty of choice and in fact found exactly what we were looking for. Awesome tip!

And lastly, I told you at the beginning there would be a touch of Sweden about the place… Apparently we have a weird kitchen. The window has a big impact on the height of the counter and it’s not “within standards”. We checked a few independent kitchen places and also asked The Belgian’s uncle about tailor making one, but the options were so far out of our budget it was madness. So we took a deep breath and went to IKEA one Saturday morning. I am not joking when I tell you we spent three hours there to order a kitchen. Three hours of our lives that we will never get back… We had a very helpful girl. We explained the issue and she actually found us a pretty cool solution! So we packed the car full of flat pack boxes and trotted home to sort it out. At this point there was still a little sanding left to do on the floor boards so we started building in the small bedroom at the back of the house to avoid the new kitchen getting completely covered in dust. Once more, we called in the cavalry to assist and this time it was my lovely friend Amy who responded to the call. She’s a star – not only is she keeping Shep alive and entertained at home with her partner (sorry, fiance!!) John, but she can also read an IKEA manual!

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Phew! So it was another big week and we’re even more excited than ever! There is now electricity in all rooms (light goes on, light goes off; light goes on, light goes off. I could do this all day, folks), the gas pipes are hooked up and the water is on! The next step is to connect everything, and then I’m in! I don’t care if we have no radiators, or hot water until the end of April, I camped every summer of my youth! (Thanks Mam and Dad Ryan!!) I. Can’t. Wait.

I also encountered this guy while out shopping for a finish for the floor boards. Shep would be so jealous!

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More soon!

a x

 

A March Update (in April!)

We’ve been so busy on the house that there’s been hardly any time to post! It has moved so fast in the last three weeks, it’s just amazing! When I last left you we were putting down insulation and getting ready to put back the floorboards. We spent a week tiptoeing from joint to joint, trying not to fall down through our downstairs neighbour’s ceiling!! That would not be a fun way to start our relationship…

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Once the floorboards were back in place it was time to give them the first heavy sanding. The paint job is so old and so caked in, it took Joseph three days to get it all off. But look how pretty they are!!! We’ll do another fine sanding job and then will coat them with varnish to seal them and warm up the colour a little. I’m in love with these floorboards! I’m so glad we went to the trouble of keeping them.

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Once they were back down we could start again on the heavy work, such as tidying up the holes we made for doors and creating proper frames. We also started putting in the partition in the large back room to make a bathroom and a smaller second bedroom. I was really anxious about this bit. I drew all of the plans myself and I’m no architect, so I was worried we’d find the bathroom was really poky, or that the kids room was impossibly small for anything bigger than a 6 month old baby! But in fact, it works. Somehow, the weird tall doorway makes a fun second room, with a separate play area and a cosy sleeping space that now has natural light. Phew!

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Here’s a tough memory for the Ryan family – how many of you remember scraping the wallpaper off Nanny’s kitchen in Holycross during the summers? Wet arms and sticky wallpaper that would come off in tiny pieces!! Well, that’s how we’ve been spending the last few weeks! It’s driving me bananas! There’s an awesome French verb in Belgium for this kind of work – chipoter. It translates literally as “pick at” but can mean a million things in French. I continued to chipote at the wallpaper for a few weeks now, as did Joseph and The Belgian.

R2D2 was on site to help out

R2D2 was on site to help out

Somewhere in the middle of the process of making the holes neat, and plastering over the bumps, my mother-in-law Agnes came up with the a sweet phrase – “plastering a house is like putting on a new dress.” She said this to me over the phone before I saw the finished plaster job, and she was dead right. I nearly cried when I saw how lovely it looked! Sooooo smooth!!

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Unfortunately, just as things were beginning to heat up for the work as we reached the end of our contract for our old apartment and had to move out. It was total chaos. We had amazing support from family and friends and moved all of our stuff over two weekends. A lot of it is in boxes, in storage for a few months but the furniture was too big so we had to make space for it in the new place. It was a little tough because the work is still going on all around, but we had little choice…

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So we have a pile of furniture, covered by plastic sheets in the middle of the mess! Happily, the plants stayed where they were for the moment, as my generous colleague offered to look after them for a while when they took over our old place. And Shep the monster is ensconced in his holiday home, so he won’t trouble us for a few weeks! This would all be way too much for him, the silly thing… We settled down in a friend’s basement and are camping out there for a few weeks, until such time as we can get into the new place. We’re really grateful to friends for hosting us indefinitely, it’s a real luxury. But I’m so impatient. Seriously impatient. It’s so exciting, I just want to be there all the time and it’s frustrating going home to somewhere else when we have a house almost ready!! But soon… Here are a few miscellaneous pics from the last few weeks!

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Soon…

a x

Getting my hands dirty

I had no idea how much fun it would be to punch a hold in a wall, using a sledgehammer. Well that’s not true, I had an inkling, but the sheer satisfaction was really surprising. I’m learning a lot about myself in this renovation process, in fact! I *love* building things and heavy physical work! We’ve had to do some serious deconstruction before the actual renovation can begin and most of this was done by my father-in-law, with me and The Belgian on the weekday afternoons, and his team of experts on the weekends.

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Francis, Jean & Joseph

André, Léon, Olivier, The Belgian, Joseph

André, Léon, Olivier, The Belgian & Joseph

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Joseph (having his gaufre!) & Joseph R

And just in case you didn’t believe it, here’s one of me!

Checking the plans and revising as we go...

Checking the plans and revising as we go…

We’ve done some serious work at this stage. We knocked in two doors, which was no easy feat. Joseph was halfway through the first one when we discovered that these awesome 1920 houses were built using granite in both exterior and interior walls! He broke two machines trying to get through a huge slab of granite, about 1.5m length by 40cm deep. It was crazy but he finally did so! We also discovered some hidden surprises in the walls, such as old rusting iron pipes that were not so easily displaced.

Granite around the edge of an interior room

Granite around the edge of an interior room

Following the discovery of the iron pipes!

Following the discovery of the iron pipes!

Fair play to Joseph, he’s a demon once he starts on a project. That granite was coming out, regardless! We managed to get it out eventually and it will be used in other places in the garden. My cousin-in-law will also reuse some of it in his building work – he’s a master carpenter and is building his own workshop at the moment in the southeast of Belgium!

The next big stage was to take up the beautiful hardwood floors, insulate the floor and then replace the hardwood. Sounds simple, right?! Don’t be fooled… It was far from simple. The boards have been in place a very long time. Almost 100 years! They were very reluctant to come up and the noise they made as we pried them up individually was some sort of primordial scream. It was horrific! I wore headphones for most of this work. We did half of the uncovering one weekend with the full team, and Joseph and I finished together during the week. This is another thing I discovered during the work – when left on our own to do a job, my father-in-law and I work exceptionally well together! I love my husband’s family but this is a new level of closeness that I think we’re all really enjoying. It’s very reassuring, given that we’ve bought a house now and are planning to stick around for a while!

Pot for nails! Joseph estimated an average of 22 nails per board. Phew!

Pot for nails! Joseph estimated an average of 22 nails per board. Phew!

The next stage was putting down insulation. After a little research Joseph suggested we go with a cellulose, recycled paper insulation. We looked into the prices and it was well within budget, so we went for it. I helped him lay it, and it was fun putting it in! (Apart from the terrifying occasions when one of us tripped and struggled to find balance before going through the downstairs neighbour’s ceiling!) Once in it acts like jelly. When I was padding in around the edges, some words appeared in the recycled bits. Never whole words but little bits on tiny pieces of paper. I love this! This idea that we are always walking on words, that the foundation of our home is grounded in words. It’s just beautiful. It made me think of the last two lines of Yeats’ Cloths of Heaven.

“I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”

In our case it’s words, not dreams that are spread under our feet, and not those of a lover, but of the entire world…

Mixing the recycled paper to fluff it up!

Mixing the recycled paper to fluff it up!

Insulation down!

Insulation down!

We put a layer of really soft cardboard over the joints, and then the sad floorboards went back in place. They’re so hardy! We tore a few trying to take them out, but when they went back down, they looked as good as new. For the moment the place no longer resembles an apartment, but I’m hoping that now the floors are going back down, it can start looking like our eventual home…

a x

Aisling in Wonderland

On the first Friday after we got the keys, I spent the day in the house taking down all of the old fittings with my Belgian father-in-law and protecting the original features with the Friday team. But on Saturday, well, the sun came out and wild horses couldn’t have kept me out of the garden! There’s a lot of work to do out there. Part of updating the electricity on the house is that we have to put down rods in the garden to earth it. That involves digging a trench on our path and pushing 2m copper rods into the ground. On top of that, the existing garden has to be divided into two plots, ours and the downstairs neighbours. There were a few large bushes in the path, one the size of a tree, so we had to take them out. This is already quite a lot of work before I start clearing all the junk left by the former owners in the cabins at the back. The cabins themselves are in a terrible state. They are falling down and dangerous.

Once all of this work is done, then the real fun starts.

Draft Garden Plan

This is my draft garden plan (please excuse the quality of the image, I finished this at night) and I’ve been putting together a Pinterest board with ideas, but the overarching idea is to eventually create an Alice in Wonderland-style space, with riotous colours and small surprises. I want tall flower banks and hidings spaces under hanging vines, fairy homes in trees a birdhouses galore! There will also be a kitchen garden with veg to feed us and perhaps even a few chickens! We’re both vegetarian, so the chickens will be for eggs rather than eating. The Belgian abhorrs the idea of killing an animal and although I’m not so put off by the idea if it’s for my own consumption, I am really afraid of birds!! I got chased by a goose only just this weekend! Seriously, what is it with agressive birds?! So I don’t think I could bring myself to catch the chicken to kill it! I could ask my grandmother to come on a visit. I have memories of her killing and preparing chickens on their small household farm when we were children. She’s a very practical woman. Not at all afraid of birds…

The sheds at the bottom of the garden are so full of junk, it’s going to take a long time to clean that up.

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All of this will take years to put together, but I’m very much looking forward to it. Honestly, I knew that I really liked the idea of having my own garden, but I had no idea how much. I don’t mind telling you that there were moments on Saturday when I just stood looking around and listening to birds and dogs, no traffic, no street noise, with tears in my eyes. I was so absolutely, blissfully happy. The feeling was even better for being so unexpected! I love the physicality of it, the smell of the earth, the open sky, the roughness of the bark on my hands, everything…

Garden before

Garden before

Tree cleared from path

Tree cleared from path

Looking very bare

Breaking down the rough wood

Breaking down the rough wood

During the last week, while tearing down walls inside the house to make doors, I kept some of the beautiful red bricks from the walls to work use to build a garden path. I had a quick read about building a good garden path and I think it should be manageable on my own after the teams have finished the main work on the house.

Red brick

Red brick

Later in the year, or perhaps even early next year, I’ll ask my Dad to come over from Ireland to help me build a green house. I’ve been dreaming about this green house ever since I was a small girl and spent time with my grandmother in her geranium and tomato-filled greenhouse. Even today the smell of tomatoes on the vine in the supermarket transports me immediately back to that warm place in the sun with my grandmother pottering about with compost and seedlings. My father has built a few over the years, including one from recycled old windows. I’ve been keeping all of the glass that we don’t use in the house and all of the windows from my neighbour’s renovations for that purpose.

Before all of this though, we have to first make the apartment liveable… We’ve been working so hard but there’s still so much to do. Phew! We both realised this week, that had we known before we started the sheer volume of work and unknowns involved, we’re not sure we would have started! Lucky we didn’t know then!!

a x

Keep the originals

I’ve said before that the apartment is in a house built in the 1920s/30s. We won’t have the exact year until we receive the deeds of the house and we’re currently waiting on them to go through the legal name change following our signing. The house was updated a number of times, but the reason we decided it was for us, was that the original features survived each renovation. They really are exquisite.

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Look at this woman! Have you ever seen anything so majestic in your life?! Sitting side saddle in a full riding gown, with a hunting bird on your arm… Amazing… This is one of the images found in two different doorways. The imqges in the door between the main room and what will be the breakfast room is just as breathtaking.

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Even the plain glass panes have angled edges, giving them an extra beauty.

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There are also some unusual images that I mentioned previously, and a number of cameo profiles of women. Some of these were hidden by previous renovations so we’re taking them out and giving them pride of place in the new house. In the above photo you can also see the high ceilings – they’re typical of Brussels houses but they can be tricky to heat. We love the feeling of openness and space so we’re going to counteract the height with extra tall radiators and soft furnishings. We will also insulate the floor and hope that our upstairs neighbour might one day do the same to his floor/our ceiling.

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This is a very small feature, it almost goes unnoticed. Lots of the Belgian townhouses still have these old boot scrapers by the front doors. In some of the less attentive renovations they’ve been filled in, but ours is still there, sitting in beautiful Brussels’ granite.

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Look at this beauty! It’s all one piece – a cast iron radiator with a built-in cupboard on top, lined with little metal shelves. We think it was probably for keeping dishes warm during dinner as the room in which it sits was the most likely dining room. It’s functional and beautiful. I’ll be keeping my socks in it during winter!

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The house number is painted onto the front of the house, but not in regular paint. It looks almost burned on. I love the art deco numbering. It annouces the these of the house before we even step inside the front door! Just glorious!!

a x

The Programme

I’ve been a little vague on what exact work we need to do on the house until now, which is a little silly for a renovation blog… I did make a small list on the first post but I’ve just been so caught up in the concept and planning stage, it took a while for it to become a concrete project (pun intended, woka woka!!) that I could develop on what needed to be done.

The house is laid out in a pretty standard 1920s-30s Brussels style – there’s the one long room called “trois pieces en filade” (lit. three rooms in a row) and smaller rooms off that main room. This was practical in the 1930s when the family would spend all their time together in one room and the servants would work in the small side rooms, preparing food, etc. It’s not so useful today when the whole family uses all rooms and we don’t have servants to prepare our dinner out sight of our sensibilities! Our challenge is to reimagine the space for a modern family, without losing the beauty of the original features.

To that end, the following is the work we have to do in no chronological order.

  1. Divide the long main room in two parts, to create a second bedroom, which will be the master bedroom. We have to do this without completely destroying the light in the room and without losing the openness created by the high ceiling. We had thought about building a library wall and inserting windows into it but that would involve a lot of manhours that are outside our budget. We came across a magic solution after the first day with the team – one of the interior doors that is no longer necessary in it’s current position can be moved to the library and we build around it. Winner! We maintain the symmetry with the double doors in the main room, and keep the light flowing through, while providing privacy for the master bed.  The doors with surrounding library will be built inside the arch if you’re looking at that huge bay window you can see in the photo below. The space between the library wall and the arch will be a cosy small sitting room. The gorgeous chimney will be in our master bed. We’re still wondering how to use it in the room but no doubt my highly creative Belgian will come up with something.

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2. Redesign the three smaller side rooms which currently form a tiny kitchen, an even tinier bathroom and a large, dark back bedroom with no opening to the outside, only one interior window to the bathroom – that last one is weird. We decided to split the large back bedroom and form an interior larger bathroom, and knock through the wall under that interior window to the existing bathroom to create one long kids bedroom, which will have a window to the outside. (This is hard to explain without looking at the plans but it does make sense. As I said previously, I’m not very fond about putting the plans on the internet, of which all burglars in Brussels could take advantage!) We will knock a door through from the main room to the bathroom – at the moment it opens into the kitchen which is a little weird and creates the issue of no full wall in the kitchen.

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Tiny kitchen

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Teeny tiny bathroom

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Useless second entrance door. There are doors everywhere…

weird window to bathroom

Weird interior window to bathroom

3. The tiny kitchen will remain a tiny kitchen but, as mentioned above, we’ll seal a wall with an unnecessary interior door (the door is one with the stained glass images and will move to the library wall) to create one full wall at least. At the moment it doesn’t have even one full wall – impossible for shelving or large pieces of furniture. The kitchen then needs to be updated. We have to put in a hob and hood, oven and storage. We’d like to put up beautiful new tiles, but that will have to wait until we have refilled our savings pot…

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The current kitchen counter. Gross…

4. Redo all of the electrical and heating systems in the house. Both haven’t been updated since the 1970s, which is not up to modern health and safety standards. This includes all plugs, light switches, ceiling lights and connected appliances. At the same time we need to redo the heating. When we bought it there was one heater for the whole building. We need to divide it to one boiler that will serve only our apartment and connect all of the radiators and hot taps to the boiler. These two are pretty big items. They’re highly technical and we’re very grateful to have the advice of a friend of my father-in-law to help us with this.

5. There’s also garden work to be done to prepare the space before we move. As I mentioned before, at the moment there is one giant garden which is to be divided between the two apartments that have access to the garden. We get the further part of the garden (the sunnier part!!!) which means we have to build a pathway down the side of the garden where there are currently a lot of trees and bushes. We will have to put in a dividing fence between our section and the neighbour’s section.

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Those are the main points of the renovation. It’s hard work for professional renovators, exceptionally hard for us amateurs. But I’m ready for it!!

a x

The “before”

We got the keys!!!!

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Finally, after reams of paper and bottles of ink spent on signatures, we finally got the keys of our new house! I’m so excited, I can’t even… I know we’re so lucky and that we are now in a small percentage of the world’s population that can own their own property and that it’s a pipe dream for many people. I had conversations with friends over the last few years about alternative living solutions. There are a few new ways of thinking about property and ownership; ways which would take control away from Big Finance and put it back in the hands of individuals. It’s not easy to find these alternatives. A quick google search of “alternatives to home ownership” brings up results about alternative financing or articles favouring renting over buying. But the alternatives do exist. Friends have invested in co-buy properties, or in community spaces. I feel like that’s a big risk because you’re very tied to the people with whom you buy. And although I’m a social person, there are moments when I need the balance of a private space to ground myself. But I like these ideas a lot.

After that we’ve looked at alternative banks and lending societies. Honestly, this is a route we could have gone down, even if it were just to make sure that our money was being invested in places we approve. We decided not to, or rather the decision was made for us, because it was so tough to do all of the work with a bank we already knew, and the idea of doing all of that from scratch with a new contact was really too much right now. We had so much personal stuff that was going on at the same moment. I know that I will probably regret this when the next sustainable investment report on our bank is released. But there’s only so much we can control at one moment.

Having said all that, now that the papers are signed, I’m so excited. I was already excited about having our own place that we could work on and make into our little nest, but I had no idea exactly how excited I would be once we got the keys. On Friday the heavies arrived and we started on the real work. I could hardly breathe opening the door for the first time! It was a verrrrry early start, Shep did not appreciate being woken up at 5am to get ready to head out.

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When we designed the plans for renovation, we had no idea how much work it would actually be. We guessed it was quite a bit but even at that we grossly underestimated!! It’s a *lot* of work! As we started tearing doors out of their frames and peeling back layers of floor covering, I started to realise what was involved. In addition, neither of us are architects, so we made a lot of plans without technical knowledge. Most of them are workable but there are parts that are unfeasible in reality. So we’re discovering a lot as we go, and learning a lot! The plans change daily as we come across major stumbling blocks, which is very unsettling but we have a very flexible team so it’s manageable. We’re learning so much, such as you can’t just cut out an existing pipe that we won’t use again and cover it. Apparently, that will lots of trouble later with humidity and damp… Who knew?! Professional architects probably know, but we didn’t! We have to dig into the concrete and take out the entire pipe! So we’re learning quickly. Fortunately our team are incredible and in fact they’re happy to do the planning with us as we go.

We got into the house at 6:30am on Friday and started protecting the original features before the hammers and crowbars came out. There are the most incredible stained-glass windows in all the interior doors, depicting the strangest scenes. Check them out below. Men smoking pipes, drinking and gambling, and ladies riding horses with hawks!

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Then my father-in-law and his awesome Day 1 team took screwdrivers to the doors to take them all out of their frames, again for protection, and put panels over the glass. I cringed with each blow to the frames but the house is so sturdy. Everyone who’s done any work on it so far (there is more work going on in other apartments) has said as much. It’s so strong and will hold us for years I hope…

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Those above photos are from the estate agent site. The bathroom and kitchen are so much smaller than they look here. The kitchen is less than 6m squared!

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Here are a few of the before shots. Don’t hold your breath waiting for the after shots. They’ll be fabulous but will be a while coming! In the meantime, I’ve pinned a lot of ideas to my boards in Pinterest to keep track of ideas. And I’ll post a lot of in-progress shots too!

a x

Resources

As we’re trying to do most of the work ourselves, we have to be smart about the resources we use. In addition to the large collection of beautiful 70s pieces that my husband has been collecting for years, we’ve been searching hard to find unusual or beautiful pieces.

I hit the ground running in Brussels this week to check out the most obvious locations. First stop is Les Petits Rien main shop on Rue Américaine. I *love* this shop! I’ve found so many treasures; some awesome fabrics, handy kitchen items and fancy notepaper there since I arrived in Brussels five years ago. Another shop on the same lines is l’Armée du Salut (Salvation Army for you anglophones!) second hand shop near Place Sainte Catherine in town. It’s a little out of my way, so I don’t go there too often, but I’ve found some great pieces there. Their furniture is sometimes wonderful and sooooo cheap!

In the line of second hand shops, one of the biggest enterprises in Belgium is Troc International. You can find some major pieces of furniture here, and good quality household appliances to boot. They have branches everywhere in Belgium and the quality of the stock really varies from store to store. Check out these beautiful pieces I found last Saturday after a rainy trek to Troc in Etterbeek.

 

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Beeeautiful 1950s pieces

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Awesome apple crates for €12 a pieces

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This set of drawers is really special.

The last place to look for specific pieces was Rue Blaes and Rue Haute in Brussels. These streets lead off from Place du Jeu de Balle in the Marolles neighbourhood and are lined door to door with antique shops. You have to be careful though, if you are antique hunting for the first time – some of these shops stock “fintage” pieces. Fake vintage. It looks old school but it’s been remade using crappy contemporary materials and not the quality materials of older pieces. The streets are definitely worth browsing though, along with the market.

Once I did some ground work in Brussels, I went home to start sifting through online resources. The two main places I’m checking regularly are 2ememain and recently discovered Kapaza. Facebook also has some great second hand groups for people living in Brussels. There is a lot of new stuff going for very cheap because expats only stay for a few years in this constantly changing city, and when they leave they typically do a quick sale to get rid of major pieces of furniture.

We’re also looking for warehouse style shops selling end-of-stock products. We’ve seen some beautiful handmade tiles going for next to nothing because there are only a few left. We’ll be snapping them up!

So, I’m on a constant browse of second hand Belgium! It’s fun, but a little bewildering at times, raising questions such as “Why would they photograph that bath with no lights on in the room?!” and “Is it madness to arrange my entire bathroom around the most beautiful tap I’ve ever seen?!” (I tried to find the link to show you all but alas the most beautiful tap has been sold.) I’ve also taken to carrying a tape measure in my pocket at all times, weighing me down somewhat.

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How creepy are these Pinocchio dolls I found in Troc. Buy all six of them for an extra creepy effect!

What are your second hand search tips in Belgium? They’re most welcome and we’ll be on the hunt for another few months yet!

a x