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Frugal Happy: Drywall, Flooring and a Loft

Finish surfaces and details begin to emerge

Cutting, hanging and finishing gypsum drywall was an important step forward.

Editor’s Note: This post is one of a series by Chris Stratton and Wen Lee, a husband-and-wife team living in the Los Angeles area who are turning their 1963 suburban house into an all-electric, zero-net-energy home. They chronicle their attempts at a low-carbon, low-cost, and joyful lifestyle on their blog Frugal Happy. This post was written by Wen. All photos courtesy of the authors.

This is the second installment of our massive catch up to bring our posts up to the present(ish) date. While each of these topics deserves its own detailed post, we unfortunately don’t have time to do them all justice right now. Instead, here are some photos with brief text explanations. (For a link to the first part, see the list of previous posts at the bottom.)

Installing drywall

Hooray for finally putting up the finished surface so our walls actually look like walls! Each piece of drywall had to be carefully measured. My brother Bin and our friend Sang helped Chris cut and hang the drywall.

Given the vaulted nature of our common area, some angled cuts were necessary. After the sheets were hung, Chris used joint compound to patch the seams and screws. But because not all of the sheets were perfectly perpendicular to the floor or lined up flat with one another, Chris ended up mudding the entire wall surface with joint compound to smooth out the imperfections. This  is called a “skim coat” and was rather laborious and time-consuming.

A skim coat of drywall compounds smoothed out the imperfections.
Note all the holes in the drywall for electrical outlets, wire receptacles, and light switches (this is our kitchen). Each one had to be meticulously measured and cut out of the drywall.
A view of what will become the kitchen with its many switches and receptacles.

He then sanded the joint compound so it was nice and smooth, which was even more laborious and time-consuming, not to mention messy. Really experienced drywall installers generally do a good enough job hanging the sheets that they don’t need to mud the entire wall surface or sand it down so much. But, Chris is not experienced.

After several days of mudding and sanding, the fun part—painting the walls. Our friend Nikki joined in on the fun. It makes a huge difference—the room looks much cleaner and brighter. It’s actually starting to look like a room.

Sanded, painted and looking like a finished space.


Under our old and ugly brown carpet we found the home’s the original and beautiful oak floors. Chris wanted to uncover and refinish the floors, and return them to their original glory. First, he had to remove the decades-old, disgusting carpet and sweep the heck out of the floor.

Removing the old carpet and a thorough sweep were the first steps.
He then had to fill in a few spots that didn’t have any hardwood floor with new flooring. These were places where Chris had removed walls, closets, or (shown below) a fireplace.
Some parts of the floor had to be patched.

In order to smooth out the surface and make all the wood pieces a similar color, Chris used a floor sander to remove the stained, darker top layer of the original wood. He rented a square buff floor sander from Home Depot,  although in hindsight, he kind of wishes he had rented a drum sander.

A rented floor sander took off the top layer of wood.

He also used a hand-held power sander for the edges.

After the floor was sufficiently sanded, Chris applied two of coats of water-based polyurethane. It made the floor shiny and pretty, although it stunk up the house for a few days. (If we had shelled out more dollars, we could have purchased non-stinky, no-VOC floor finish, and we kind of wish we had.)
Chris applied a couple of coats of water-based polyurethane.

Lighting and a loft

Choosing the lighting for our renovated common area was fun but also very challenging. We had to decide where all the lights would go—and what kind of lights they would be—before the walls and ceiling could be finished. We really had to use our imaginations and try to look into the future.

All of the lights that we put in were LEDs, since they are the most energy-efficient bulbs on the market and have the longest lifespan. For the living room, we decided to put in two linear suspension lights.

These linear lights are LEDs.

The lights are dimmable as well as on a three-way switch, allowing us to turn them on and off from two different locations. This meant a huge gaggle of wires. Luckily, Chris thoughtfully color coated them so he didn’t get confused about which connected to what.

Chris also wanted lights that shine up as well as down in order to highlight our beautiful repurposed floorboard ceiling. But it turns out linear suspension lights that have both up-and-down lights are ridiculously expensive (like over $400 each).

Instead of buying those, Chris got linear lights that shine only downwards (which were more like $70 each) and then got separate small linear lights (about $80 each) that could sit on top of the other ones. He made some brackets to hold the lights together, and voila! DIY linear up-and-down lights for less than half the price.

This homemade light fixture was less than half the cost of one designed to broadcast light in two directions.

In the kitchen, Chris installed two modern, disc-shaped pendant lights which are also dimmable. Chris used a laser level to make sure the two fixtures  were lined up horizontally.


One of Chris’ most creative design ideas for the common area was to convert one section of the old attic into a loft, located right above the front entrance of the house.

Here’s Bin helping Chris install the plywood floors.

A small loft over the entryway was fashioned from part of the old attic.
Chris designed and built a staircase with alternating treads. He used a router to cut out the dadoes for the steps.
Chris used a jig to cut dadoes in the stair stringers with a router.

Our friend Lac was a big help in putting the stairs together.

Stair parts were a giant 3-D puzzle.
Here is the finished loft with staircase, complete with a new metal railing.

The loft is small and cozy; you can barely stand up in it. We envision it as  a reading nook, a place for a guest to sleep, or as a play area for children.

Use these links to read more posts by Chris Stratton and Wen Lee:


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