Building One Step at a Time

When I bought my 1912 house nine years ago, I was charmed by some of the touches from the original builder and added by the many hands who had worked on it over the years. High ceilings, built-in shelving, crown mouldings, and lots of windows really made it welcoming, bright, and functional.

But with a 100+ year old house comes a few challenges, too. Over the years, changing materials, techniques, and technologies meant that parts of the house were approaching the end of their serviceable life or hadn’t been the right application in the first place. Not to mention well-intentioned but unskilled home owners had installed or renovated various aspects with varying degrees of success over the year, with or without permits.  

This year, one component I knew was in need of replacement was the front entrance steps. Whoever had installed them had made the landing too small for code, and used the wrong materials for the treads, resulting in them cupping and wearing poorly. After last year’s tough winter they were really starting to show signs of disrepair with loose fasteners and I was worried about safety.  

With my stairs in the back of my mind, I was excited to see my friend Autumn post about her final project at BCIT for her first year carpentry apprenticeship.

A set of recently constructed wooden stairs with a textbook on the top stair.

I had been following along with Autumn’s progress at school quite closely. She’s a dear friend of mine – our kids have been in school together since kindergarten – and when she tentatively told me she was considering entering a trade traditionally populated only by men after a lifetime of low-paying jobs that made balancing the family books tough at times, I was thrilled she had the gumption to seek what she wanted. Autumn is resilient, if anything, and it felt like a perfect fit for her.

So her post about stairs was serendipitous. I’m fortunate that my spouse works in engineering and has a thorough understanding of the Code and was able to navigate the building permit process necessary. But I needed a builder and hadn’t really been able to decide where to start. I cheekily commented on her post.

a screen capture of a Facebook comment thread. A comment from Jen Arbo says "Have I got a deal for you this summer! What what we need to rebuild? Congrats" and the reply is from Autumn Compton and says "Maaayyyyyybbbeee?"

Autumn wasn’t entirely sure she was ready. The idea made her nervous, and she turned me down.

“It’s one thing to build a set of stairs when you had an instructor or a boss right there to guide you,” Autumn recalls. “It’s quite another to lead a project from start to finish with estimating, planning, materials, getting all the tools you need, and leading the project to completion. I wasn’t ready to take on that responsibility, and especially not for a friend. What would happen if I screwed it up?”

Nevertheless, She Persisted

But Autumn couldn’t get the idea of building these stairs out of her mind. She continued with her apprenticeship and gained experience and confidence in her skills. She connected with organizations dedicated to supporting women in trades and felt empowered to sign up for a conference with even more learning opportunities. She spent time on Facebook groups designed to connect women in trades to one another.

It was on the BC Women in Trades page that she met Martha, who had posted that she was looking for work and was a carpentry apprentice. Autumn connected Martha to her employer, and it wasn’t long before they were working together.

One day months later, Autumn mentioned my steps to Martha. The more they talked about it, the more they felt that they could do the work if they worked together. Autumn texted me and asked if I was still looking to replace the stairs.

I was. And I was thrilled to hear from her.

Plan the Work, Work the Plan

There are a lot of things about this project that made it a win-win. Having the drawings and permits out of the way meant Autumn and Martha could concentrate on the carpentry. We talked about finishing and options for railings and had a few site meetings to discuss expectations and process.

As the weekend we had picked approached, Autumn and Martha texted materials lists to us and we went shopping to have the materials ready and waiting. We sourced extra tools and rented what we lacked. My spouse and I did some prep work, explored to find out what was behind the enclosed part under the stairs, and began demolition.

The big day arrived and it was in the middle of a heat wave. We set up a tent for shade and got to work. Here’s the thing about renovating houses from 1912: there’s a lot of years in there for things to have been done in non-traditional and non-conforming ways. They discovered the ledger board holding the stairs to the house was rotten which required a bit more work to remove the cladding on the house to replace it.

A photo of two tradespeople working on a house. In the foreground, a carpenter measures a stringer to cut. In the background, a carpenter is inspecting a component of the house.

Martha and Autumn had to adapt their work as it progressed. They decided on a general plan and double checked their calculations. It took longer than they thought, but all along, Autumn and Martha approached their work with one thought in mind. “No matter what,” Autumn said, “I knew even if we made a mistake, we had the skills to fix it.”

A photo of a tradesperson. She is holding a skilsaw in one hand and sawing a piece of wood clamped to a sawhorse.

In the end, it took two weekends to finish the job, and I’m still waiting on the aluminum handrails to be manufactured and installed from another contractor, but I am 100% satisfied with my new front stairs. They are exactly what I hoped for – sturdy, well built, and beautiful. The bonus is that two incredible women added their touch to my house’s history.

A photo of two smiling female tradespeople sitting on a set of stairs in front of a house toasting the work they have completed.
3 years ago

1 Comment

  1. Great looking stairs, Jenn! My son is just about finished his carpentry apprenticeship too. He is doing jobs on his own as well, for kind people who are giving him a chance. It’s people like you who give these young apprentices hope that they can succeed. Well done!

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