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This Mold House redux: That rocky end of the road

NolaVie editor Renee Peck wrote This Mold House for The Times-Picayune for four years after Hurricane Katrina. She is reposting a number of her favorite columns in conjunction with the 10th anniversary of the storm. This article originally was published in The Times-Picayune InsideOut section on Aug. 19, 2006.
"You have a four-way there," Travis said over the phone. "You need to get into a three-way."

Before you get the wrong idea here, Travis, a telephone tech-line responder for Lutron, was tutoring me in the fine details of wiring light boxes.

Now, wiring light boxes is not something I've ever aspired to (even with its intriguing vocabulary).

Nor have I ever yearned to insert baffles into recessed ceiling cans or install self-locking handles on interior doors. I am the DIY designee in the family, but only by default. Stewart doesn't know a molly bolt from a toggle bolt (after reading this, he asked what DIY stands for). And my label-savvy girls, who can spot a fake Fendi at a hundred yards, don't know Black and Decker from Bosch.

However, we recently learned a universal construction truth in post-Katrina New Orleans: If the first 95 percent of reconstruction -- from mold removal to crown molding -- takes 10 months, then the final 5 percent will take 10 years.

"How's the house coming?" people ask.

"It will never, ever be finished," I reply, looking at electrical outlets missing wall plates, nicks in the wall awaiting spackling, door frames crying for final paint touch-ups and the occasional stretch of floorboard missing its shoe molding.

We have beautiful chestnut floors, gleaming uba tuba-granite counters, a stunning tiled guest-room shower and new sod taking root on the front lawn. Our "new" house has walls, floors, high-speed Internet and running water.

But it will never be finished. Carpenters, roofers, plumbers, electricians and painters have moved on to bigger projects, and needier employers. Don't get me wrong -- those homeowners need them more, and I know this sounds like petty carping to those behind us in the process.

But it resonates out in reconstruction land.

One colleague, nearing her own home's completion, calls it "The Death Zone."

"It's like climbing Mount Everest, and you finally reach that elevation near the summit called the Death Zone, where there's no oxygen and everything dies," she explains.

Weekend before last, I went to Home Depot and asked for those little round metal rims that fit over the edges of recessed lighting cans. They're called baffles, they cost about $6 each and I stood on a ladder and installed 17 of them.

And last weekend, tired of opening doors by pulling on the hole where a handle should go, I went to Lowe's and bought brass interior thumb-lock door knobs and installed several of them. I've been to the Ace Rockery hardware store on Canal Boulevard half a dozen times looking for certain-sized wall screws or touch-up materials.

I've been drilling holes for cabinet hardware and installing drawer handles on the new bath vanity. Wall plates, door stoppers, toilet-paper holders.

"Where did all the handymen go?" Stewart wondered the other day in a sort of neo-child-of-the-'60s way. "Someone ought to start a 5 Percent Company. They'd come in and finish all those last little chores left hanging."

And I'd be their first customer.

DIMMER ABCs FOR DIMWITS (LIKE ME)

Brian Armitage, our electrician, worked miracles with the wiring. Overly enthusiastic gutters had pulled the boxes out of the walls, and Brian spent hours matching the appropriate wires to the right overhead fixtures. In the process, it never occurred to us to request dimmers.

"You know, I think I can do that," I replied, cocky from multiple baffle management.

I sat down with an assortment of the latest Lutron high-design dimmers, available in 20 soft satin colors. There's an elegant thin-profile tap switch and a Diva designer dimmer that matches your paddle switches. The company makes infrared preset lighting controls that remember your favorite light levels, the way a radio can be preset to your favorite stations. There's also a dimmer that you can tap to change the light level, and one with a remote control, so that you can turn on an indoor light from your car.

Without going into embarrassing detail (like forgetting to turn off the breaker and getting shocked as a result, or that panicked call to Travis when my box emerged with too many wires), suffice it to say that most anyone with a DIY101 background can install dimmers.

Here are some dimmer basics from Lutron:

  • Dimmers that control light from both ends of a hallway are called multi-location dimmers.
  • Accessory dimmers can spotlight an artwork, while dimmers on cabinet lighting can add texture to a room without distracting.
  • Lamp dimmers are my kind of tool: You simply plug in a table or floor lamp and adjust the brightness for reading or romance.
  • If there is only one switch, use a single-pole dimmer to dim a light from one location.
  • If there is more than one switch location, you will need a three-way dimmer for the three-way switch.
  • New "smart" dimmers have advanced features; they allow you to tap once to fade lights up or down and tap twice to turn lights to full power. LEDs show light level, and rocker controls can be used to change levels.
  • In addition to the old-fashioned rotary dimmers, there now are gliders and toggles that can adjust light levels.

Renee Peck is editor of NolaVie. Email her at [email protected]