In preparation for the actual renovation work, we needed to get a few things ready in the house. Technically, we could have paid the builders to do the work, but it's not exactly skilled labour so we decided to save some money and sacrifice our weekend to do some of the work ourselves. We were lucky to have one of Adam's older brothers, Sean, to help us and supervise a bit, as he had professional experience as well as plenty of tools. In hindsight, he saved our bacon and we would have been pretty helpless without him and the work could have stretched out a lot longer than a single Saturday (so thanks Sean!).

Panorama - Post Demolition

The main piece of work was to remove the particle board floors and have a look in the subfloor area of the house, after we had pulled out the carpet. We did this for several reasons:

  1. The pre-purchase building inspection found evidence of termites. We needed to make sure the floor joists and bearers were not infested and in reasonably good condition.
  2. It would be a bit easier to do the damp course and make sure all the electrical wiring was sound.
  3. It would allow us to plaster the walls all the way down to the floor level.
  4. We needed to make sure all the joists were plumb and level for a nice, even floor.

The Tools

We primarily used crowbars & a heavy duty hammer for most of the demolition. We needed to borrow a ladder (thanks, Manuel & Gabi!) to get the highest level of stuff off the walls and knock down the cornices. As soon as we started up the circular saw (see below), we realised that all three of us desperately needed some ear muffs and Adam wore a face mask to keep from inhaling the worst of the sawdust.

Screwdrivers, clippers, and electrical tape helped us to make sure all the wiring was safely taken care of.

My dad had told me to make sure to get gloves. We didn't get gloves, but we should have. Fortunately I escaped with only a couple of splinters.

The Process

Before we could get to the floor, we had to rip out everything else we didn't need first. First we had to turn off the power and pull off all the power points and switches, since they were embedded in the skirting board and architraves. Then the wood panelling and all the trim had to come off the walls. The cornices came off the ceiling next. Adam and Sean did most of the heavy lifting while Andrea cleared away all the wreckage and piled it in the back, made coffee & drinks runs, and trips to the hardware store when we realised we needed something we didn't have. When we got to the floors we hit a bit of a speed bump; not only were the particle board sheets nailed down to the joists, they were glued as well.

Adam & Power Tool

So we taped up all the electrical wiring for safety, turned the power back on, and plugged in Sean's circular saw. Adam cut the floor into pieces in between the joists and then a good stomping broke them free into small pieces. After we got through both bedrooms and half of the two front living areas, we managed to use the attic ladder to lever the rest of the floor off— the saw was fast, but it was also noisy and kicked up chemical laden particle board sawdust into the air. Bleach.

What We Found

After the dust settled, we did find a few things hiding under the timber panelling & the floors, but nothing too dire.

  • Further evidence of termites, but no apparent current activity.
  • Original hardwood joists had been flipped over to provide a more even surface after the house's last renovation
  • A lot of nails & glued on bits of particle board still remaining in the joists.
  • The joists are currently parallel to the way we want to lay the floorboards; they need to be perpendicular.
  • Some lost mortar and patched in bricks in the study (apparently there had been some loosened bricks when the house next door had been renovated).
  • The join between the front part of the house and the kitchen had accumulated a lot of silt & leaves; it's clearly been leaking and accumulating debris.
  • Water damage in the particle board adjacent to the bathroom.
Rubbish Pile

Conclusions and Next Steps

Stripped Study

In most houses, the conditions underlying the surface are hard to detect without pulling everything apart. In our case, since most of the walls were raw brick, we didn't have as many surprises under the surface, since there was less surface to begin with. That said, there were still a few things we needed to clear out of the way to really understand the current condition of the house. Being able to get under the floor was key to assessing the house's current state and figuring out what to do next in order to do things right.

With the walls, since most of them were uncovered, we had at least some good idea of what state the walls were in. When we removed the timber panelling, we thankfully didn't find any nasty surprising hiding underneath, apart from some left over lime-based paint which will need some cleaning/preparation for rendering. A quick chat with the renderer should reveal the best approach, although more hard work anticipated here.

We knew from the previous owner that when he first bought the house 14 years ago, he discovered termite activity (he could hear them chewing at night!). At that point, they used arsenic to eliminate the termites. The use of arsenic is supposed to be effective for the next hundred years; although due to its more negative aspects arsenic is no longer used as a household pesticide. We think it's safe to conclude (pending of course a second pest inspection) that the termite damage we found in the walls and joists was from that original termite activity and the arsenic treatment seems to have stopped any new active nests from forming. Since the joists were good dense hard wood the termites didn't get very far; it was really only the worst in the timber wall panelling that we were completely removing anyway or in areas of the house that we plan to tackle later (kitchen & bathroom). Our next step is to have a second pest inspection conducted to ensure that there are no termites currently in the house and follow any advice from the inspector.

While we knew pretty clearly the extend of the rising damp, the demolition revealed a few more sources of damp that will need to be dealt with. Given that many of the houses in Sydney are brick, damp problems are one of the biggest issues for most home renovators here. The damp course that will be installed starting next week will keep moisture from coming up into the walls from the ground level. Now we need to have a look at the pretty dire leak in the join between the two roofs, as well as make sure the bathroom is fully sealed and doesn't continue to leak into the study. This will make sure that the rendering stays in place, prevents further issues for termites and mold, and keeps our timber floorboards in good conditioned.

Our main decision with the floor now centers on the joists. While they are largely in reasonable condition, they would need the nails removed from one of the sides. They'd need to be rotated 90 degrees and resized to correctly support our timber floorboards (which should fortunately remove most of the termite damage), and they'd need to be squared up and leveled. We may save ourselves in the long run by getting new joists and re-using the old ones for other needed materials in the house. We'll have to check with our carpenter (once we decide on one) to see what advice he'll offer on this issue.