This post is the first in a series to keep our family and friends updated about the back yard renovation project we're doing this year.

  • This post, Back Yard Project: Phase 1, covers groundbreaking in March through a work stoppage in mid-June because we had to wait for custom windows and doors to arrive.
  • See Back Yard Project: Phase 2 for updates starting in late July when the windows and doors arrived and work resumed.

The Back Story

When we moved into this house, the back yard was an eyesore. It had been neglected for a long time, and it showed. It had overgrown bushes that scraped the sides of the truck if we pulled into the driveway, a rotting wooden fence that you could push over with one hand, an old concrete driveway that was cracked and crumbling, a dangerously dilapidated stairway – you get the idea.

This was the first photo I took of the back of our house, three weeks after moving in. I had removed all of the bushes and a small tree by then, and had hauled away multiple truckloads of trash.

After cleaning up the yard a bit, we were thinking that we just needed to get it fenced for the dogs and replace the old stairway, and that would be good enough.

We found a fencing company in Helena that served Butte, and called them up. A guy came by and took some measurements and said he'd send us a quote. After a couple of weeks I called and asked how the quote was going, and he said they wouldn't be able to take the job, because of the dense mass of concrete and and roots (from the bushes I had removed) all across the back.

So we called a tree service to grind out all the roots. They were nice, but after a couple days of trying they said that they couldn't finish the job because the concrete was damaging their stump grinding equipment.

While all of that was going on, we realized that we needed more than just a fence. We had a safety issue to resolve as well. Our bedroom is the highest window on the left in the photo above, and the one and only stairway leading up to that floor is at the far opposite end of the house. In the event of a fire near the stairway, we'd have to come out that window and go down a rope ladder over 20 feet to pavement. With three big dogs!

We clearly needed a stairway to the master bedroom. But the parlor, directly below the bedroom, is our favorite room in the house, with gorgeous woodwork all around. Taking a chunk out of that room for a stairway wasn't acceptable to us, so we decided we needed outdoor stairs instead. And if we were going to go to the trouble to put in an outdoor stairway, might as well put in a deck halfway down as well, right?

The project had grown considerably in scope now, but we were in good hands because we met Tracy of TLC Contracting and she helped us plan how to deal with all the changes. After all the false starts, it was nice to be dealing with a pro! Tracy recommended an architect (who we had already met, coincidentally – a neighbor down the block), and we worked with him over last summer to define the expanded project.

A drawing of the final project. There are a few details missing and a few things have changed slightly since, but this is the essence of it: a sunroom off the master bedroom with stairs down to ground level, a deck connecting the parlor and the kitchen nook, a new driveway, and a fenced dog area. In addition, there will be a fence around all of this, with an electric gate for the driveway.

Finalizing the plans with the architect and a structural engineer took us into the fall, too late to get the project finished before the Butte winter set in, so we made plans to start construction in the spring and Tracy's crew set up a temporary fence to get us through the winter.

A final "before" photo, two days before the project began. That area in the foreground is an old ice rink. The dogs enjoyed having a slab of ice to play on over the winter, but it was in poor shape and we need the space for other things, so it has been demolished.

March 24: groundbreaking

The end of the ice rink.
The dogs were excited to have the entire back yard turned into a big excavation project.

March 26-30: concrete footings

Next was excavating holes for the "bigfoot" concrete footings for the support posts. The dogs loved having big holes to play in for a few days, then the concrete was poured and the holes were filled in.

March 28: removal of the back stairs

March 29: lumber delivery

An awesome bit of good luck: we had locked in our lumber pricing before the big lumber cost inflation of 2021 that stalled many other projects.

March 31: posts erected

April 1: installing the beams

These beams are amazing chunks of wood, to a layperson like me. They're laminated Glulam X-Beams.

April 7: decking joists

April 12: deck flooring

Late the night of April 12, I decided to have the first drink on our new deck. I had to climb up with a ladder, and there were no railings, but it was fun to start getting a feel for what it's going to be like to spend summer evenings out here, looking across Butte and the Summit Valley to the Highlands.

April 13: rebuilding the back porch

After completing the 2nd floor decking, they turned their attention to the back porch. We're planning to replace the flimsy walls with real (insulated) walls and extend the kitchen nook out there, but they found that the floor wasn't level because of some rotting joists. So they're ripping out the floor there, too, and replacing it with a new sturdy, level floor.

A surprise recovered from between joists in the old back porch floor: a big hornets' nest!

April 19: stair runners

After a warm spring weekend, a cold front blew in last night and left an inch of snow on the project. The crew showed up early and got to work, and by the end of the day there were stair runners to the deck and the snow had melted.

April 20: finishing the bottom stairs

They left a fence around the bottom of the stairs, but Nancy dug under it and I walked out in the back yard to see her enjoying the view from the deck. With no railings!

April 26: new garage door, top floor covered

Over the last few days, they've cut the hole into the garage for the new side door. They've also put down the base on the top floor (including the floor of the sunroom and a small porch area at the top of the stairs), and have started cutting into the siding outside the bedroom.

The full moon as seen from the deck, the night of April 26, 2021

May 5: enclosed sunroom

Cutting into the roof and related work has proceeded slowly but surely for the last week, and the sunroom now has a floor, walls and a roof overhead. Next they'll get the roofing finished (need to replace some of the existing roofing as well), and then the second floor of stairs up to the sunroom.

May 13: top stairs done

We spent  long weekend in Seattle for Mother's Day, and when we returned the stairs were finished all the way up to the sun room. We immediately went out and walked up there, of course.

This means our fire escape from the bedroom is now in place, one of the key goals of the project. A door and railings will be nice, of course, but right now we could climb out the window into the sunroom and walk down sturdy stairs all the way to ground level if we needed to.

May 19: railings done

With the railings done, it feels safe to walk around on the deck and it's starting to look more like the final plans.

May 20: snow

We got 4 inches this morning. Most of it melted during the day. More is forecast for tonight, tomorrow, and Sunday.

June 4: The Doors!

We lost a few days due to the late May snow and freezing weather, but they got back to work after the Memorial Day weekend and this week three doors were installed: the new door into the garage, and the two doors in the sunroom (one external and one leading into our bedroom).

The new door into the garage. The old door was covered by the new stairs, and for the last 6 weeks we've had to squeeze under a landing to get in and out of the garage.
Ron and Roger installing the door between the bedroom and the new sunroom.
The door between the sunroom and the top of the stairs. This door enables us to give the dogs run of the stairs without them getting to that window opening on the right - it's 25 feet down to the ground there, and we're still waiting on the windows to arrive.
view from the sunroom

June 11: new door into the garage

The door from Megan's office into the garage will be a big quality of life improvement, especially in the winter. We keep the dog food in freezers in the garage, and last winter we had to go outside to get to it. When it's -18F in the morning and the dogs are hungry, that's not ideal.

They had to cut through the concrete wall to install the door, and per building codes it's a fire-resistant door that's thicker and heavier than the others. But it's all done now.

June 12: pigeons

Two pigeons have decided to build a nest in the sunroom, since it has no windows yet. The carpenters and I have chased them off many times, but they keep coming back to continue their project. The windows are supposed to arrive next Wednesday, so we should be able to get things sealed up after that.

There were two Robins building nests under the kitchen nook a few weeks ago, but they took a hint and abandoned that location to go build their nest somewhere with less construction activity.

June 13: arson?!

Well, this was something unexpected. On Sunday 6/13, I was home with the dogs and Megan was in Seattle. I spent much of the day out on the deck, with the dogs in the yard. Then it got pretty hot in the afternoon, up near 90 degrees, so we all went inside.

I decided to run a couple of errands while the dogs slept inside. I was gone about an hour, and when I got back I looked up and saw a plume of smoke coming from behind our house!

I raced through the house to see the source of the smoke, and was relieved to see this view from the deck. The house itself wasn't on fire! I ran down to the laundry room and filled a 5-gallon bucket with water multiple times to dowse the flames.

That's a pallet of ceramic tile, the tile that Megan ordered for the floor in the kitchen and nook, and it had been sitting there for three weeks. It was wrapped in plastic and sitting on a sturdy wooden crate, all of which had burned to a crisp.

At first I thought that the heat of the direct sunlight had somehow started the top of the plastic on fire, and it had burned down to the pallet. But there were pieces of cardboard on top that hadn't burned at all, and it's very hard to get fire to burn in a downward direction, as anyone who's ever built a campfire knows. Things just didn't add up.

Closeup of the charred pallet under the tile. That's a 4x4, and it burned so hot it's just charcoal now. And note the tiles that have shattered from the heat.

So I called the police the next morning to report a suspicious fire. They came out, and they called the fire department. Two firemen then spent some time looking closely at the details.

We'll probably never know exactly what happened, but here are the things we do know:

  • The firemen are sure the fire started in the wood of the pallet, underneath the tile. They showed how the flames had gone up from there in between the stacks of tile and started the cardboard on top burning. The cardboard burned near those openings, but the cardboard didn't sustain the flames, so that's why there were pieces of unburned cardboard on top.
  • In order to start the wood pallet on fire, they felt some sort of accelerant (e.g., gasoline) had to be involved. There's little circulation or oxygen underneath and the tile is very heavy. They pointed out that if you used a lighter without any accelerant, it would be difficult to start the pallet on fire, and even if you did, it would likely burn out quickly without spreading to all of the rest of the pallet.
  • There was a temporary chain link fence around the yard, with no openings, and it was still like that after I found the fire. So if a person came in, they moved the fence and then moved it back after they left.

Very bizarre! The cop asked if we have any enemies we know of, of course, and I assured them we don't. A teenager doing a prank? Who knows.

After receiving the fire department's report, we filed an insurance claim which Farmers turned around in a matter of hours, and we re-ordered a replacement batch of tile. I also put up multiple security cameras around the back yard, so if anything suspicious ever happens again we'll have video of the scene from multiple angles. I doubt we'll ever know what happened, but hopefully it was a one-time event!

July 3: a 1-month delay

After the excitement of the mysterious tile fire, the project has had a delay because we're waiting on the custom windows to arrive for the sunroom and expanded kitchen nook, as well as a custom door for between the deck and parlor. We need those items to finish the carpentry work, and then it will be time to pour concrete for the driveway and retaining wall, erect the fence, and finish up some other details.

The current ETA for the windows is late July, so until then the work crew is on another job. That means we have an enclosed back yard during the day, which is nice for the dogs, although it's the temp fence so we have to keep an eye on things. (Nancy could dig out pretty quickly if she decided to.) And we have the deck to enjoy for now, although we don't yet have a door into the parlor. A steam radiator pipe needs to be moved for that doorway, and we're also waiting on the plumber who will handle that.

After things get moving again later in the month, we're now hoping to see the project wrapped up some time in August or September.

During the construction delay, we've started enjoying the deck.

For updates on the project's progress after the delay for custom windows and doors, see Back Yard Project: Phase 2.