Tubs and Ladders

“So, like, the guy tells me that he wants me to re-caulk his tub. It looks pretty good to me, so I ask him why. Get this: He says that every time the shower runs, water pours into the basement – two floors down. So I tell him, ‘That’s not the caulking.’ I have to cut into the drywall in a bunch of places before I find the leak. Turns out, to get at it, the tub has to come out completely. Which is a two-person job.”

I might have messed up some of the details: I wasn’t listening carefully. My excuse? It wasn’t my leak: The plumber fixing a minor problem in *my* house was just making conversation about another job site–and, maybe, making me feel better about my own. I still got enough to get the gist: A not-uncommon point of failure (a leaky pipe) was going to be a bugger to fix because of how we install plumbing and the associated appliances.

Now, the unspoken design consensus is that our houses look better with the pipes hidden behind smoothly drywalled walls, and it’s hard to argue the point. It’s also true that pipes don’t leak every day or even every year. Or even ever, for some folks. But when a pipe does leak, unless it’s, like, under a sink where you can see what’s what and reach out and smack it, it’s a mess. Hard to notice before there’s other damage, sometimes; tricky to pinpoint, often; tough to repair, almost always.

The next week, lying on a bed/plank at the physiotherapist’s office (the hardness assessment varying with how much my hip is hurting), I see a water-stained tile in the ceiling. It’s not the first time: The building is not new, nor was it Class A rental space even when it was new. I’ve happened to be there when they came to fix a leak in the ceiling, and it went pretty snappily:

  • Climb the ladder
  • Pop the ceiling tile out
  • Shine a flashlight around to find the leak
  • Take out any other ceiling tiles necessary to get under the right spot
  • Balance on the top of the ladder for as long as it takes to fix said leak
  • Pop the ceiling tiles back in place when the repair is finished, replacing the stained one

And just like that, they’re done. I’m not saying I could do it–especially that part about balancing on top of the step-ladder–but compared to residential repairs, it looks quick and easy. Why is that?

Unlike your average house, a lot of commercial space is designed to be maintained, even to be majorly reconfigured from one tenant to the next. Track-and-tile ceilings, not drywall. Removable wall panels with snap-on covers that hide the joints, not drywall that has to be cut out, cut to fit, reinstalled, mudded, sanded, and painted. Individually replaceable floor tiles, not sheet linoleum. Standard lighting fixtures with standard bulbs in them, not lighting tailored to every room with one-off bulbs. Off-the-shelf neutral paint for easy touch-ups, not custom tints.

I likely can’t find a house with exposed pipes in case of leaks, but it got me to thinking: What would a maintainable life look like?

It would look capable, armed with the skills and knowledge to handle all the basics by myself, if that came to be necessary for any reason. Planning/cooking meals. Cleaning house. Paying bills. Planning travel. Replacing fluorescent tubes. Resetting a router. Stopping a toilet from running. Meeting new neighbours. Contracting for snow removal and for any other task beyond my capabilities. Maintaining a car. Buying a car. Figuring out a new car. Trouble-shooting Netflix problems. Staying on the technology train.

It would look connected, enriched by as many family members, friends, colleagues, and neighbours as possible. Getting help or solace or both in times of trouble, halving the burden. Sharing interests and pastimes in good times, doubling the pleasure. Taking me out of my own head.

It would look broad, anchored by enough varied interests that new ones can take up the slack if circumstances derail an old one, even temporarily.

It would look open, willing to try new things. And new people.

It would look simple, able to be satisfied with non-exotic everything. Food. Clothing. Decor. Entertainment. Travel.

It would look resilient, able to handle external shocks: financial, physical, emotional. Minimal debt. A good base level of fitness. Some practice in being grateful for what is, rather than being resentful about what is not, in case I ever really need to use such a capacity.

I don’t need a score of 100% even if that were possible (and it isn’t). I can just focus on the areas where I can add a degree of maintainability for the least effort. I can just keep an eye on what will happen when my life inevitably springs a leak of some sort. Will I have to take the tub out completely to get at the source of the problem? Or will I be able to get away with finding someone willing to balance on top of that ladder?


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6 Responses to Tubs and Ladders

  1. Your meditation on repairs makes me feel much better about the ceiling going up in the basement of my late sister’s house, which our oldest son and his youngest son are preparing for sale. He explained that he was intending to screw to the rafters 4’x4′ sheets of plywood, which he would finish with primer and paint. I objected that the finished result was not going to look like the taped and plastered drywall fastened to the 2″x4″s screwed into the concrete block walls. His rationale was precisely yours: anyone who happened to want to change the wiring or water pipes that run through those spaces could access them very easily. There is no foreseeable reason for having to access the foundations in the same way. I am beginning to think of other applications for the same principle. I live in a century farmhouse that was electrified in 1941. Our first renovations revealed some primitive fixtures and solutions to bringing light and electrical energy into its lathe-and plastered rooms, such as a single light fixture near the door and wires running beside woodwork where you could see them. Our upgrading is covered with the drywall that is going to make the coming renovations a fuss and nuisance. I shall take your insights into my plans for the next renewal!

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna – 🙂 And this kind of accessibility can be a selling point, too, you’d think. There’s some trade-off against the sleek appearance we’ve come to expect, but maybe our aesthetic sense would adapt over time. Maybe we’d learn to see the beauty in obvious maintainability.

  2. Ian says:

    Great ideas. And interesting. Thoughts. I’ve had to cut into ceilings and drywall at least three times in recent years, replacing the missing drywall with clip-in plastic panels.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Ian – Many thanks. I didn’t know about clip-in plastic panels but they sound eminently practical.

  3. barbara carlson says:

    “clip-in plastic panels” — another way humans are being groomed for robots to fix things.
    I am currently involved in switching our (defunct) 1971 Admiral stove from our first condo with the working one in our second, conjoined condo. Found out the 1971 Admiral (in use since 1972 when the condo complex was built) is “hard-wired into the mains” — whatever that means! But sounds impressive. Back when things had “heft”. But can you think of anything dumber?* The electrical guy will have to cut into drywall, etc.

    So, in fifty years building stuff has def. gotten more sensible. But there is a pleasant sense of wonder for me in finding out NOW the stove has no plug! It would be like finding out Tom Cruise is dyslexic and can’t read, so has to have someone read him his lines out loud so he can memorize them.

    *Yes. In France you have to take your gas-fitted stove with you when you move. I know that factoid is many decades old, but still… to think that is sensible at any time.
    And is moving day in Quebec still all on one day??

    Take heart, as you have discovered, there are hundreds of little “laws” one can be happily unaware of and be just fine.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Barbara – That is interesting – a hard-wired stove. Now I wonder about the stoves I grew up with. The first such shock to my system was the fact that dryers needed a special plug receptacle to be installed. That dates to 1972. The things you don’t know about until you have to handle them yourself!

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