Building your own courtyard

The podium with the two chairs on which Heads of State listen to the national anthems during welcoming ceremonies are seen in the courtyard of the Chancellery in Berlin, prior to the first visit of Moldova’s Prime Minister, on July 16, 2019. JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Today, we plan our courtyard.

Why a Courtyard? Because it’s the next best thing to constructing a moat, which would be fantastic. However, the challenge of keeping water in the moat to a consistent level, possible mechanical issues with the drawbridge, and the permit process, will in all likelihood be problematic.

As a result, we’ll be constructing the second-most-awesome type of residential appendage on the list of “things that make for a great home,” that being a courtyard.

What does one do in a courtyard that can’t be accomplished on a backyard deck, or front porch?

Why— holding court of course, reading poetry, or simply relaxing in this enclosed and serene space.

And, it’s the term “enclosed” that really defines a courtyard, and what gives it its inherent value, compared to the free for all, open atmosphere of a deck or porch.

Now, you may ask yourself, “Does my home really require a courtyard?”

To which I would answer, survival will most likely be achieved without one. However, would your home benefit from an extra bathroom in the master bedroom? Or, physical fitness area? Or, computer room? Or, any kind of more personal, designated space in the home?

Perhaps yes.

Now, if your home is surrounded with regular perimeter fencing, could this enclosed area be somewhat defined as a courtyard? No, that’s simply referred to as a backyard with fencing, which would otherwise qualify practically any area as a courtyard.

A courtyard most often occupies its own area, essentially creating a space within a space, and by definition has a clear separation from the outside world regarding its level of privacy and its contents.

Basically, the walls surrounding your courtyard should be at least six feet high, and be made of stone, or a heavy duty type wooden fence panel where the fencing planks are tightly installed against one another. Outsiders should not be able to peek into your courtyard, or easily view it from the exterior.

Part of the grandeur or mystery of the courtyard is being able to open the gate to a new area, or private space not commonly viewed by the passerby.

The floor of your courtyard should be of interlocking brick, slabs of rock and pea stone, or decorative concrete patio slabs. The courtyard should be free of the mechanical noise created by lawn mowers and whipper snippers, so no grass.

What does one put in a courtyard? All of your favorite things.

Traditionally, and if space permits, there will be a centrepiece. This can be anything from a raised stone planter box with a flowering tree, to a traditional concrete well, a fixture that served many a medieval courtyard. Or, if you’re of Greek or Italian heritage, the statuettes of half-dressed ladies collecting water by the shoreline is always a crowd pleaser.

Are courtyards, due to the stone flooring, and desire for serenity, to be considered no-child zones? Quite the opposite. Although the courtyard serves well as a place to read or write, it should also be considered a safe zone. Simple child’s play is to be encouraged, with an errant soccer ball breaking a cherubs arm, or decapitating one of the statuettes, only increasing its value.

The balance of the space can be filled with benches, lounge chairs, and a raised, bar type of table for enjoying a beverage or playing checkers.

With four walls of either stone or wood, and a patio slab floor, what goes overhead? Traditionally, nothing but clear sky, with the walls themselves providing some shade.

However, in order to make the space a little more useable in our climate zone, you may want to consider covering a portion of the courtyard space with a SunLouver pergola, a unit where the roof louvers are adjustable, adapting to both sun and rain.

Where to build your courtyard? Front-lawn courtyards can be a little ominous, but it still presents a great spot. Otherwise, choose any area in close proximity to the home.

Good building.

As published by the Standard-Freeholder
Handyman's Hints Standard-Freeholder Cornwall Ontario by Chris Emard

Stay out of the sun

I was always intrigued by the Trivial Pursuit question, “Where are the most expensive seats found at the Plaza Mexico, the world’s largest bull fighting ring?”

You may have guessed the best seats in the house would be located near the cantina, providing guests with much-needed hydration. Or, in close proximity to the washroom facilities, VIP lounge, or sombrero and sunglasses sales booths. With the best seats usually placing guests closer to the action, you may have also guessed the most privileged seating to be ringside, where the splattering of blood and mud across your face and clothing would warmly embrace you as part of the spectacle.

Regardless of all those possibilities, the answer was “in the shade.”

So, in mid-afternoon, full-sun, 110 F Mexico heat, where do those sports enthusiasts with a few extra pesos want to be? Not in a hospital suffering from heat stroke.

Which, brings us to today’s topic of avoiding dehydration, wrinkly skin, and any number of serious medical conditions, by enjoying a sunny day from the safe confines of a shaded porch or backyard deck.

Now, Cornwall and area’s sun may not have near the impact of a Mexican sun, but even in our climate, sunburn and the resulting skin damage can result after only 15 minutes of full sun exposure.

So, with many a backyard deck to be constructed this summer, strategizing on how you plan on enjoying the warm weather, while avoiding the sun, will be best brainstormed while your deck concept is still on paper.

The best-case scenario would have your deck plan include some type of permanent roof structure.

Table umbrellas and self-standing umbrella structures are good between the hours of 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., when the angle of the sun’s rays are practically streaming from directly overhead.

Otherwise, and as the sun shifts from its high-noon position, umbrellas tend to shade everything except the people seated underneath them. Now, you could simply move the seating to where the shade is, or risk lower-back strain, and a few extra scratches on your new composite decking, by tugging the 50- to 70-pound umbrella base into a new position every 30 minutes— but that would hardly be practical.

Retractable awnings? A good option on a smaller scale, but because the unit attaches to the home, you will be somewhat limited size-wise. Weaknesses to a retractable awning? The “retractable” means moving parts, which take time to engage and close, with the possibility of mechanical failure always looming. Furthermore, awnings aren’t snow resistant, if the plans are to shelter your hot tub for winter use. And, they’re deathly afraid of a strong wind – perhaps not to the same degree as a deck umbrella, which will simply take flight and land somewhere in the united counties – but winds can seriously damage an awning nevertheless.

So, with no concerns regarding having to close things up, retract things back, or shift things around, homeowners should consider a permanent-shade type of structure. Essentially, this will require either extending the roof, similar to a carport or extended garage type of construction, or erecting the latest in deck shading, that being a pergola with operating louvers.

The bonus to a roof extension is the chance of rain or snow making its way through to the deck drops to zero, with lighting being provided by a series of skylights, or a string of electrical fixtures. Plus, a permanent roof extension allows you the freedom of leaving the cushioned furniture as is, saving you the task of having to constantly remove and reinstall cushions at the first sign of rain, a real pain in the butt over time, even with deck boxes.

If you’re thinking a more simple structure than a roof extension is more in line with your budget, then consider the “Sun Louver” pergola, an aluminum product where the louvers can tip downward, offering shade or protection from the rain.

Next week, further sun-avoiding strategies.

Good building.

As published by the Standard-Freeholder
Handyman's Hints Standard-Freeholder Cornwall Ontario by Chris Emard

Getting ready to play with fire

A backyard fire pit burns in Edmonton, Alta., on Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014. FILE PHOTO

Today we investigate the possibility of operating an open backyard fire pit.

Now, you’re probably wondering, why put all this thought into what’s essentially going to be a campfire in the backyard for the kiddies to enjoy roasting marshmallows, and a hub where the adults can dismiss their supervisory roles while solving life’s issues over a few light ales?

Because, just like we need signs that say, “Speed Limit 100 km/h,” “Don’t Walk on the Grass,” or “Don’t reach into cage to touch gorillas,” relying on the element of common sense when it comes to human behaviour has proven to be unsuccessful.

So, like everything else, including the operation of a backyard fire pit, you’re going to have to get a permit, and follow the rules.

What’s the consequence to not wanting to follow what is basically a pretty lenient set of restrictions? Well— nobody’s going to tear your arm out of its socket and hand it back to you after gnawing on the forearm proves distasteful, but the monetary fine will certainly put a damper on your evening. Plus, restrictions and regulations may vary from city to county.

So, be sure to check with your local fire department regarding the safe operation of an open fire pit, and its bylaws.

The first step to backyard burning, other than operating a simple gas or charcoal barbecue, is to contact your local fire services office, and to request an open air burn permit application. The permit (for Cornwall and area) is going to cost you $100, which will be valid for three years. So, a pretty cheap application fee considering the fine for hosting an illegal burn is about $200 per infraction.

Essentially, the permit application is going to insist on a few conditions.

First, your fire pit will have to be located somewhere on your property that’s at least 20 feet from the property line, and any combustible structure. Trees and bushes, although obviously combustible, that encroach the 20-foot barrier, won’t necessarily sink this project. Unless of course, and upon inspection, the fire inspector deems you’re locating of the fire pit under an overhanging tree limb, is a site choice that needs reconsideration.

However, if you can’t strategize a fire pit location that keeps your flame at least 20 feet from your neighbour, or 20 feet from your home, or the extension you added to the deck, then you might as well shelve this initiative.

Next condition, your fire pit cannot be something that by definition, or sight, is homemade. So, the collecting or rocks to form a circle, a longtime tradition that created many a fond memory of outdoor camp adventures, which unfortunately and conversely led to even more forest fires, is not permitted.

Nor is the always classy, oil drum cut in half, which within a year usually rusts out at the bottom, then topples over, spilling hot embers onto the shoes of those unsuspecting marshmallow roasters not prepared for a quick retreat.

As a result, getting permit approval will require you procuring an official steel fire bowl, or approved stone type of outdoor fire pit or cooking grill.

Once you’ve solved the location issue and chosen an approved fire-pit unit, it’s pretty well clear sailing from this point.

Other conditions to burning will include having a readily available means to extinguish the fire in case of emergency. A simple garden hose will qualify as an extinguisher, providing that when Uncle Fred’s pant leg becomes engulfed in flames, and people are panicking, engaging the hose doesn’t mean having to first search for it in the darkness of the back shed.

Finally, part of the fire pit requirement is to notify your neighbours of your intention to openly burn, which can be a delicate subject to broach if existing relationships aren’t so great. So, be sure to get along with your neighbours, don’t ever blow smoke their way, and as a foolproof method to keeping the peace, invite them over for the first burning.

Good building.

As published by the Standard-Freeholder
Handyman's Hints Standard-Freeholder Cornwall Ontario by Chris Emard

Something for the birds

Lorenzo Sivilotti,left, hammers in a nail as Andrew Millson keeps an eye on the progress of the bird house they were building in a Grade 7 outdoor education program Thurs., Dec. 2, 2010 at King’s Town School on Rideau Street in Kingston, Ont. The class has been building birdhouses to be put around their school and on farm property north of Kingston. MICHAEL LEATHE WHIG STANDARD/POSTMEDIA NETWORK

Today we’re going to be introducing a young person to the world of carpentry by constructing a bird house.

A bird house is an excellent first-time project because it’s carpentry 101, involving the assembly of four walls, a floor, the angling (or not) of a couple of panels to form the roof, along with a hole for an entry point. It’s essentially a simple process, involving a few concepts and some basic principles of assembly.

Plus, this first crack at carpentry carries with it a huge margin of error and forgiveness. You’ll never hear the birds complain the new condo you’ve provided for them is a little drafty, nor will passersby stop to comment on the workmanship.

“Did you happen to see the crappy looking birdhouse that little Jack fellow has hanging from the oak in his front lawn?” one neighbour asks the other.

“I know” the other neighbour replies, “the hole is off centre, and that perch couldn’t support a chickadee, let alone a nuthatch. Why that kid must have been on a Halloween sugar high when he put that thing together.”

That’s a conversation that’s not likely to occur.Plus, this first bird house may lead to other, more complicated assemblies, further honing their skills to the point where that addition or sunroom you’ve always wanted might get completed before they enter high school.

Or, this first litmus test of carpentry skill could demonstrate a serious lack of aptitude, whereby their inaugural attempt at nailing a few panels together ends up resembling some wooden contraption that’s been run over by an 18-wheeler. Or, the concept of a box is lost on them, with each angled assembly resulting in a series of bookends, a relatively obsolete item in our computer age.

If that’s the case, then it may be time to redirect the child to the less-stressful task of having to become a professional hockey player.

Regardless of how simple a birdhouse project is, it’s still going to require a shop filled with about $10,000 worth of equipment to effectively get this home for our feathered friends constructed within a few hours. So, if you’re existing shop isn’t so complete, consider borrowing, renting, or if this is something you hope to dabble in more yourself, buying the necessary tools for the job.

Please don’t attempt to make this project a teaching session based on the integrity and historical significance of the hand saw, performing the cutting tasks old school, with a few callouses the bonus to the child gaining this construction knowledge. Using a hand saw as a teaching tool would only make sense if next weekend’s parent/child life skills session was survivor related, and involved heading into the forest with a sling shot with the goal of bagging a few squirrels to cook for lunch.

Our computer and cellphone age have helped develop modern-day kids with attention spans that last about eight-to-10 seconds per moment. So, handing them a tool that’ll demand their precise attention for the 90 seconds required to saw through a plank of six-inch pine would be ludicrous.

Either they’ll end up cutting themselves 15-to-20 seconds into the procedure, or leave the cut half way through in order to check their cellphones for activity. If there’s a hand saw hanging in the shop, save it for arts and crafts day, whereby you and the young lad, or lass, could jointly paint a charming winter scene on the rusted blade, then hang this magnificent piece of folk art over the fireplace, or big-screen TV.

Very important— before any cutting or assembly begins, first review the function, proper use, and safe handling of each power tool. Novice woodworkers shouldn’t necessarily fear a power tool, but they must be taught that keeping their fingers long-term means showing the tool ultimate respect, and staying absolutely focused, for the duration of the cut.

So, draw or research a bird house plan with your young person and get building.

As published by the Standard-Freeholder
Handyman's Hints Standard-Freeholder Cornwall Ontario by Chris Emard

Shed the lean-to; built yours to last

Garden shed exterior in Spring, for gardening and outdoor lifestyles. Not Released EDWARDSAMUELCORNWALL / GETTY IMAGES/ISTOCKPHOTO

Today we finalize the plan for what will be your 10’x10’ backyard shed.

Even though this shed will not be subject to the scrutiny of a building inspector, due to it covering an area less than 105 square feet, and thereby not requiring a building permit, we’re not building a dog house.

In other words, we’ve eliminated the babysitter, and any professional advice an inspector could bring to the project, but this shed is going to be a whole lot more than just a few sheets of plywood tacked together.

Now, and after completing this fine shed, should you decide on a late night of carousing and mischief as a means to celebrate the construction of the project, inevitably bringing shame upon your once proud family, the fact this shed now provides you with a quiet space for somber thought, essentially defined as having landed yourself in the doghouse, should in no way be a reflection on the overall integrity of this structure.

First, decide on what type of platform your shed is going to rest on.

A concrete pad is best, but obviously quite permanent, and time consuming to construct, whereby a wooden platform can be assembled within a few hours.

Prepare the platform site by staking out the 10’x10’ space, then remove the grass and dig down about four inches. Next, fill the bed with four to six inches of compacted three-quarter-inch gravel. Now you’re set to either build a 2×6 form, then pour a 4-6 inch concrete slab overtop, or frame a platform using 2×6 lumber and three-quarter-inch treated plywood.

The pros to a wooden base is that it’s an easy build, while being strong and lightweight enough to make this shed somewhat movable. The pros to a concrete base is that it’s of course rock-solid, is there for the long-term, and can handle whatever weighty items you choose to park on it.

Furthermore, 100 square feet of platform will require anywhere from 80 to 100 bags of pre-mixed concrete, making the task of mixing an excellent occasion to initiate a couple of teenagers into the responsibilities of manhood.

As stated last week, the key to this shed being truly functional will be the inclusion of a roll-up, or sectional garage door. Essentially, that’s all you need as a point of entry.

Now, if the idea of a square building with one sectional door seems too commercial for you, then you can certainly make your shed look a little more homey, by adding a single entrance door and a couple of small windows.

Walls? Plan on framing your shed with 2×4 lumber, not 2x3s, and certainly not 2×2 lumber. When the big bad wolf threatens to huff and puff, we don’t want our shed blowing away, or developing a lean, should you happen to bump it with your riding mower.

Plus, walls remain square, while doors and windows tend to operate more smoothly when things are framed with 2×4 lumber.

Next, plan on ordering engineered trusses. Cost- and time-wise, there’s little to save by attempting to re-invent the wheel, so to say, by designing some lean-to type of roof system, or by figuring out the angles needed to arrive at a 4/12-pitchzaed truss.

The roof is a key component to any building, no matter what the size.

As a result, you need an engineered roof that’s designed to handling snow loads, thereby protecting what’s inside the shed, which at times will be you, as well as your precious tools. Plus, your roofline should look perfectly smooth and even, which is what you’ll get with a proper engineered truss.

Siding? Choose something that will complement what’s on your home. Smart panel, readily available in 4×8 sheets, is a good choice because it’s an outdoor, woodgrain panel that installs easily, looks attractive, and can be painted, so the colour choices are unlimited.

Otherwise, vinyl or composite sidings always look good, and offer the homeowner a variety of decorative stone, horizontal, or board-and-batten textures.

Good building.

As published by the Standard-Freeholder
Handyman's Hints Standard-Freeholder Cornwall Ontario by Chris Emard

Building better backyard storage

Julie Oliver/Ottawa Citizen/Postmedia Network JULIE OLIVER/OTTAWA CITIZEN

The backyard shed is one of those projects that, similar to a backyard deck, every do-it-yourselfer should attempt once.

The assembly is pretty straightforward and allows the qualified homeowner the opportunity to dabble into a few areas of construction, such as siding and roofing, that they most likely wouldn’t have encountered in their previous decking project.

Bonus to building your own shed? One, everybody needs more storage space. Two, this wooden structure will be far superior to one of those plastic or aluminum jobs that assemble quickly, look pretty, then tend to crumple up and fly away with the first strong gust of wind.

Not that our wooden structure can’t be stylish, with perhaps a window flower box and a few gingerbread moldings along the roofline to soften things up a bit.

However, our 2×4 framing will provide us with rock-solid construction, allowing us to more efficiently divide the interior of our shed into shelving, pegboard, and if required, a few heavy duty hooks and brackets as well.

First, understand we are building a shed, which is somewhat defined as a structure equal to, or less than 10 square metres (about 105 square feet) in area. Any structure larger than 10 square meters falls into the category of garage, or warehouse, which will require a building permit, and preferably the hiring of a professional contractor.

So, look to build something in the 8’x12’ or 10’x10’ range. If you run out of room, which always happens, either build something bigger next season, or build a second shed.

Actually, a homeowner can have up to three accessory buildings. Check your local zoning bylaw, which will spell out how many you can have for your home.

Now, creating this type of shantytown decorum in your backyard could draw the ire of your upscale neighbors. Regardless, they’ll certainly understand your desire for more storage space, and hopefully accept the general construction opinion that the value of gardening and green space is grossly overrated.

As always, start with a plan.

Restrictions? Besides the 10-square-metre floor space confine, the only other shed bylaw restrictions are those relating to spacing within your lot, and building height.

Essentially, your shed will need to be distanced at least 0.8 metres (2.62 feet) from your property line.

So, know the exact location of your property lines. Otherwise, you could end up having to share your wall of rakes and shovels with your neighbour.

Plus, don’t attempt to maximize your 10-square-metre shed footprint limit, by building this structure three stories high, somewhat adopting a Dr. Seuss type of house plan.

Maximum shed height is five metres (16 feet), providing more than adequate room for a cathedral ceiling, or the very classy turret, should you have chosen a medieval theme for this structure.

As mentioned above, your best bet – and before starting this shed project – is to check with your building permit office regarding the local zoning and building regulations. They’re not the same in every city and township.

Things to consider? Your entrance will be key. A wide single door, or double doors are good, but a roll-up or sectional garage door is far better. It all has to do with convenience and accessibility.

When I’ve got yard work to do on a Saturday, my first task is to open our garage door. I don’t necessarily like opening the garage door for the same reason we don’t usually open all our closet doors when guests come over to visit. Essentially, you’ve got to have quite the organized and neat garage in order to proudly put it on display for the neighbourhood to pass comment on as they walk or bike on by your home.

However, when requiring access to a tool or garden hose, I’d rather walk through a nine-foot opening, than push through a three-foot swinging door.

As a result, and regardless of our garage’s state of messiness, the garage door stays open for the duration of the task. So, make sure to squeeze both a single entrance door, and garage type door (available in 4’, 5’, and 6 ft. convenient shed widths) into your shed plan.

Next week, more shed tips.

Good building.

As published by the Standard-Freeholder
Handyman's Hints Standard-Freeholder Cornwall Ontario by Chris Emard

Raised gardens

A raised garden bed can be much easier on the back and knees. Postmedia Network

With spring in the air, the strategy of the raised garden bed will no doubt be the subject of discussion amongst those homeowners looking to grow their own prized tomatoes and zucchinis.

The raison d’être, or the “why’s” to building a raised garden bed, which is essentially a bunch of ground poured into a raised frame, lies primarily in the simple fact this structure raises, or elevates, the planted vegetables to a more accommodating height, thereby alleviating the knee joint and lower back pain normally associated with the task of gardening.

Psychologically, the raised garden bed, or box, is a good value because it makes gardening easier, with the good results rewarding the homeowner with sense of purpose and accomplishment.

Physically, the raised garden box delivers all of the health benefits associated with a person simply being outdoors, thereby allowing them to enjoy a little sunshine, while participating in a relatively light duty activity at their own pace.

Money wise? Well… and depending of course on several factors relating to the manor of construction, and the types of materials used, the ROI (return on investment) on the average raised garden box is not stellar. Essentially, you’d be better off putting your disposable income into a travelling petting zoo, the local Ponzi scheme, or a series of honor system, unmanned lemonade stand franchises. However, the pride associated with growing your own fresh vegetables usually outweighs the fact your cherry tomatoes are probably going to cost you about a buck a piece to produce.

If you’ve never built a raised garden box before, go small, making this first build something in the 4’ X 4’ or max 4’ X 8’ size. If this is your second or third build, then you’re obviously familiar with the process, and realize it’s probably time to go big, incorporating a screened-in, removable cage over a more permanent, beefier type of raised box made of 6 X 6 timbers. However, with this being your first attempt at a box, let’s not break the bank on this project, and perhaps choose a plan that’ll have you investing about an afternoon of your time.

A raised garden box could be made out of a number of products, including concrete blocks, stacked stones, or the very classy choices, and definitely worthy of front lawn display, old bathtub on legs, or tractor tire. Otherwise, 2” X 8” lumber is probably your best choice, due to it being lightweight, with a pretty easy assembly strategy. If this raised garden is to be something totally experimental, due to you being unsure of where to place it on your lot, your commitment to watering, or the fact you might be adding a deck or installing a pool in its place next summer, and all you might need is a couple of seasons out of this structure, go with spruce boards. If this is to be a longer term project, or more permanent structure, then cedar or BC fir would be the better choice. Although treated lumber would seem a logical choice, since the arsenic element in the treatment process has been replaced with a stronger copper content, which has been deemed an environmentally friendlier alternative by the powers that be, I would suggest avoiding the use of any chemically sealed or infused product around food. Retired railway ties would also be a poor option. Theoretically, treated lumber could be painted, or sealed from the ground with a plastic membrane, but why risk the chance of contaminating the soil.

Using 4” x 4” lumber for the corners, and pieces of 2” x 4” lumber every few feet along the perimeter, create a frame by stacking 2” x 8” planks, 2 boards high. Using 2” x 8” lumber, create a triangular seat in every corner, which will also provide strength to the structure. This plan provides you with about 15 inches of raised bed, a good start. Any higher will require a lot more ground, and a doubling up of the framework.

Good building.

As published by the Standard-Freeholder
Handyman's Hints Standard-Freeholder Cornwall Ontario by Chris Emard