Thursday, March 29, 2007


Grout comes in many colors. Who knew? Who cares?

Because I am on spring break I am being lazy and recycling an oldie but a goodie. Apologies to those who have already seen this one.

JZ March 29, 2007

We live in a very old neighborhood. Not old by European standards but old by American standards—most of the homes were built in the 1940s. The homes are charming and quaint by which I mean old and small. Until we put on our addition, we had one closet on the entire first floor to house the dozens of coats needed by a family of five to survive the vagaries of Chicago weather. We had a powder room that was so small (how small was it, you ask?) that I could literally wash my hands while using the toilet. I wouldn’t advise that though, it’s definitely putting the horse before the cart, if you know what I mean.

All the homes in my neighborhood are spatially-challenged. But because our neighborhood is also in a great town with friendly people and good schools and conveniently close to the city of Chicago, no one wants to move out to a farther suburb just to get a bigger house. So we all stay put but we all add on eventually. Everyone on my block has either added on, is adding on, or has the plans to add on.

Recently, it was our turn to add on. It had been our turn to add on for some time but little things like a job loss, and 9/11, and a health issue too depressing to even make a joke about had gotten in the way—but finally we were over all those minor hurdles and ready to add on. I was ready. I had done my research. I had heard all the horror stories—, how contractors and subcontractors can let you down in a million different ways, how living through the chaos and dust can drive a mother with young children mad and lastly about how the decisions you have to make while doing an addition can become overwhelming and in the end you may not make the best decisions.I had even heard several versions of the “white by default” horror story.

Though there are different variations, the story is the same. The homeowner, completely exhausted after picking out tile, countertops, doorknobs, and paint chips reaches a point in the process when she screams at the builder, “White, white, just make it white!” and inevitably there is one room, (hopefully the laundry room) that is strangely bereft of personality when a remodeling project is done. Now you know why. But I was sure this would not happen to me.

First of all, I do not now, nor have I ever had a white wall or white floor. I am all about the color. So no, I was not worried I could ever sink so low as to fall back on white.I was also not worried about the contractor stories I’d heard because I had Michael, the perfect contractor, and I knew in my heart he would never let me down.As for the issues that arise from trying to live in a house that is under major reconstruction—well, I was also not worried because I am like a pioneer, I welcome the challenge to live with no modern conveniences. I was prepared to wash dishes in the laundry tub and cook on a hot plate. No problem. Lastly, I was not concerned about any of this because despite all evidence to the contrary, I labor under the delusion that I am not subject to the same laws of the universe that everyone else is.

Things started out great. I had been right about Michael. He was indeed the perfect contactor: polite, professional, smart, and incredibly organized. He had his crew in every day including Saturdays and most Sundays. The project moved at a dizzying pace. He was honest, nice to the kids and a masterful negotiator with sub-contractors and suppliers alike. He brought a sort of zen-like balance into the chaos of the reconstruction. He remained calm in the face of inept electricians or slightly less than dependable dry-wallers. I didn’t have to worry about a single thing because Michael took care of everything. He was also hot. So I had that going for me.

Things went great for four weeks. Then they broke down the wall between the old house and new construction. I lasted two days before I fled with my children to my parents’ apartment in the city. I have no idea why I thought I could live in the house with all that concrete dust and asbestos flying around and no kitchen. I don’t even like to camp. So I was wrong about that one.

But as for the third concern, that I would cave under the pressure of making decisions—well I was right about that . In the first four weeks I picked out, purchased, and had delivered all the plumbing fixtures, two vanities, kitchen cabinets, four kinds of countertops, light fixtures for two bathrooms and the kitchen, and all new kitchen appliances. I was more than a little bit smug.

Then I went on vacation.When I got back I met Michael, my builder and life-coach, in the front yard to review the progress.“You need a painter in there. Today. Oh, and you need all the tile by tomorrow,” then he strode away confident that I could deliver the goods.

I headed out to the tile store. Now let me tell you that of all the bad places the builder will send you (and he will send you to many) the tile store is by far the worst. That is because there are eleventy billion different sizes, colors, shapes, textures, and materials to choose from in a tile store and not one human being salesperson willing to help you even the tiniest bit in making your decision. If you are a contractor and already know what you’re doing they will help you but if you are a mere homeowner with three cranky kids they will avoid you like an ebola virus carrier.

I was reduced to asking my five-year-old daughter for help with questions like, “Do you think this tile has too much orange in it to go with the countertop I picked out?” (Of course I hadn’t thought to bring paint chips or other samples to help me with this) and, “Is my shower too small to handle tile this large?”“It looks pretty, Mommy,” she said to everything I showed her, which was more helpful than my other two offspring who were hurling tile samples at each other out of boredom saying, “This is the worst! It’s more boring than the wallpaper store!”

Somehow, despite all of this, I managed to pick out the tile for two bathrooms, two showers, a mudroom, laundry room, and a sunroom in just two trips. In between, I was on my cell phone trying to find a reputable house painter who could start tomorrow, which is only slightly harder than you might imagine it to be. Finally, I strong-armed one into loaning me his nephew for a few days.

I met with Michael to tell him how I’d done. I was triumphant and a little cocky.

“Okay, that’s good," he was proud of his pupil but like all good masters needed to push me, "Now what color grout did you choose for each room?”

“Grout? It comes in colors?” I said weakly. “You mean like cream or white?”

“No, no. There are over thirty different colors to choose from. Didn’t you check that out at the tile store?”

“Oh for God’s sake, Michael! Who cares?” I shouted, panic rising in my voice. “Just make it all WHITE! WHITE! WHITE!”

Michael blinked and was quiet a moment. “You don’t really mean that,” he said quietly in a voice reserved for children and lunatics. “Grout color can make or break a room.”

“Please, Michael,” I whimpered, all dignity having left me, “Please don’t make me go back to the tile store. I don’t know what I did in a former life to deserve being sent there in the first place but I’m sorry for it, truly I am.”

Michael is not new to this business. He knows a broken homeowner when he sees one. He sighed and went out to his truck to rummage around a moment, coming back with an out-dated grout chart. He took me quietly through each room helping me choose the grout color he clearly knew I needed (“Now this color won’t show the dirt,” in the mudroom, and “This will bring out the warm tones in the tile,” in the sunroom.)

It was a pivotal moment in the project. My self-delusion was over and there was no turning back. I knew, and Michael knew, that despite my good intentions, that if it weren’t for him, I’d have white grout.

So if you’re thinking of adding on to your house my advice is to plan ahead. Go through the magazines and cut out things you like. Make notes of colors you like in other people’s houses. Visit home stores and jot down the names of fixtures and tile you like. Start a notebook and keep track of all your notes and pictures. After you’ve done that, throw it all away and call Michael. You’ll be glad you did.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this - it's quite timely for us! Sharon