Warning: Renovating your house can damage your health

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Removing plaster from the ceiling involves yanking it down onto your head, until you are calf-deep in broken plaster. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

Removing plaster from the ceiling involves yanking it down onto your head, until you are calf-deep in broken plaster. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

When my wife and I looked at a house a few years ago with a real estate agent, we noticed the hideous floor-to-ceiling mirror wall in the living room, the oddly tiny bathroom, and the troubling slope of the kitchen floor.

I was thinking: We can tinker with this. Knock down a wall here. Shore up the floor there. Demolish and expand the bathroom.

My wife got scared the house was going to require endless weekends of renovation. She took the real estate agent aside and asked if he had something more modern that would not steal her husband. The agent said we were never going to find a better deal for a house on a block this good. So we did it. We bought it.

The first thing I did was tear up the kitchen flooring. There was a lot of it. Over the years, previous owners had decided to keep putting down new linoleum without taking off the old. There were six layers of flooring. When I got down to the bottom, I discovered a much worse problem: The kitchen did not have a foundation underneath, just stacks of loose bricks in the dirt. The reason the back corner sloped downward was the lack of anything underneath it.

OK. So we decided the whole back end of the house had to be demolished, a concrete foundation poured, and then a new kitchen built on top. Pretty major. Contractors were hired: concrete guys, then carpenters, then plumbing, electrical, tile, drywall, the whole thing. In an attempt to control the rebuild, and maybe save some money, I decided not to hire a single project manager but wrangle all the contractors myself.

Dumb idea. Juggling contractors is a full-time job, not one to take on while holding down a nine-to-five. I felt irritable. Always waiting for the next disaster. About midway through the project, my wife and I decided to take a few days to go to the Jersey Shore, a much-needed vacation. Instead, I was in our motel room, wrangling contractors and putting out fires. My wife didn’t get to have much of her husband that vacation. And I came back just as stressed out as when I had left.

Dirty, suffocating, and hazardous, removing plaster from the walls and ceiling is ultimately a demoralizing job. Peter Crimmins in the midst of destroying the house he had just bought, from within. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

In between contractors, I decided that since the house was an empty husk, it would be prudent to tear out all of the old plaster — crumbling for over a century — and replace it with drywall.

Removing plaster is a terrible, demoralizing job. You punch a hole in the wall with a hammer, slide a pry bar into the hole, and wrench the plaster off its wooden slats. It comes off in great boulders of plaster with a thick cloud of dust. Do that over and over and over  — the ceiling, too — until there is rubble about a foot deep on the floor. Then shovel literally tons of broken plaster into trash bags and haul them into a U-Haul box truck outside. The work is choking, backbreaking. However much plaster you carry out, there is always that much more plaster yet to be bagged.

The stress of it wore at me. I couldn’t sleep at night. I wasn’t eating very much, either. People at work started asking if I was OK.

This was the summer. It was hot. I would take a break from shoveling plaster and go to the corner deli for a sandwich and soda, I was skinny, I was dirty, and I always had a broken look in my eyes. The lady working behind the counter followed me around the store, worried that I was going to steal something.

That summer, I had a regular checkup with my dermatologist. As I took my clothes off for the doctor to inspect my skin, he gasped. I had tiny cuts all over my body from wrestling literally tons of broken plaster out of the house, along with old lumber spiked with rusty nails.

During this time, my dentist recommended I wear a mouthpiece while sleeping. I had started to grind my jaw at night, to the point that my teeth started to crack.

In tearing the house apart, I noticed weird things the previous owners did. Inside one of the walls was a door. It used to be a doorway to the side alley, but at some point it was sealed. Rather than remove the door, they just sealed it inside the wall.

A previous owner decided to seal over a doorway to the side alley. They left the old door in the wall cavity. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

There was also porn hidden under the floorboards — some magazines and videotapes from the late 1980s — and, curiously, a Philadelphia Flyers playoff season program from 1985, when they lost the Stanley Cup to the Edmonton Oilers.  Somebody thought it best to file that with the porn stash.

Now, I’m rebuilding, and I’m making my own strange decisions. As I repaired some sloppy brickwork on the interior chimney, I thought, let’s have some fun with this. I ordered some handmade, glazed clay tile depicting a bunny and a bear. They’re embedded in the brick face, side by side.

Before and After: Scraping off the plaster finish to expose a brick chimney, also revealed a sloppy masonry repair. After cleaning the exposed chimney, mismatched bricks were replaced and whimsical tiles added, depicting a private joke. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

If ever we sell this house, the next owner is going to wonder why a bunny and a bear are laid into the chimney. It’s a private joke between my wife and me. I don’t think I could explain it. I’m not sure if I fully understand it myself. But it’s our joke, and this is our house. We’re going to burn ourselves into it, for better or worse.

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