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Building Built-in Bookcases from Billys, the Bridge

After part one of installing the Billy built-ins, here’s the next section.

In this part, I assembled all the remaining Billy bookcases and header extender units. After that I had to:

  • Shim the bookcases to be level
  • Anchored the main bookcases to the wall
  • Secured all the bookcases together
  • Added blocking on the top and sides of the bookcases so that I could then add the trim I needed to “build them in”

Tools for this section:

  • Impact driver for screws
  • Clamps for holding the bookcases tight
  • Mitre saw
  • 2′ Level

Materials for this section:

  • 2 2×3 x 8′ lumber (about $3 each)
  • Scraps of 2×4 for blocking
  • Pre-cut wood shims for leveling.
  • 1-1/4″ Particle board screws
  • 1-1/2″ Wood screws

I started with the centre bookcase and worked my way outwards. I shimmed the bases of the bookcases to level them vertically, and then attached them to the wall. I affixed the “L-bracket” that Ikea provides to the wall and then to the top of the bookcase. I did it in this order so that I could attach directly to a stud in the wall, and the studs are not necessarily in the middle of each bookcase. I also anchored the bookcase before adding the extender units. Once the extender unit was on, there was only about 3″ of space between the ceiling and the extender, so it was difficult to get a screwdriver and drive the screw into the wall. The extender is designed to slip over the L-bracket when installed, and one can’t see the L-bracket unless one is on a ladder, so it works out.

Once the centre book case was attached, I leveled the one next to it, clamped it to the centre bookcase, and attached it to the wall, repeating the process over the remaining 4 bookcases. I also used particle board screws to hold each bookcase to its neighbour.


Once that was done, the bookcases looked like this. I had about 3″ of clearance on the top, and about 3 1/2″ on each side.


At this point, I inserted blocking around the gaps. I will be attaching 5/8″ MDF boards in various widths to the blocking to “build in” the bookcases. For the top, I got lucky and it was almost exactly a 2 1/2″ gap. I bought a 2×3″ lumber and ran it across the top.

For the sides, I was out by about 1/2″. The left side was a 3 1/2″ gap, and the right side was a 2 1/2″ gap (should have been 3″ on both sides). Not sure exactly where I made the mistake. I don’t think the walls are out — Tom the contractor was pretty precise.

I blocked the left side with scraps of 2×4″, and the right side with scraps of 2×3″


Trimming and painting to follow in part 3.

Building Built-in Bookcases from Billys, the Beginning

After building the Pax closet organizer, I wanted to try my hand at a set of built in book cases. There are a number of how-to’s on the web, and this is a pretty common idea:

I planned to put my bookcases in our guest room and completely fill the wall opposite the door. The guide that I followed most was from Storefront Life. Our wall is 164″ across, and has 1/2″ baseboard and 1/2″ trim, giving me 162″ of free wall space. Unlike some of the other built-ins “how-to”s, I did not want to cut the baseboard, mostly since Tom the contractor did such a nice job of it. Instead I elected to build a base to lift the bookcases above the baseboard.

Each Billy is 31.5″ wide, so I fit 5 units into the 164″ space, with about 6.5″ of space that I would have to shim. Some blogs attempt to evenly spread the space between all of the Billy units, which would give me about an inch per joint between bookcases to shim. Instead I elected to keep the book cases tight together and shim about 3″ at the each wall. I’ll return to this point in a later update.

Tools for this section:

  • Impact driver for screws
  • Hammer for attaching the back of the bookcase to the Billys
  • Mitre saw
  • wood glue

Materials for this section:

A quick note: Billys are all MDF, and very heavy. It took a ton of effort to get them onto and off of the roof of my car. Consider delivery if you are getting more than a couple of units.

The first step was to build a base on which the bookcases would sit. The Billys have a notch in the back so that they can go over trim and sit flush against the wall. Unfortunately that notch is only about 2″ tall, and our baseboard is 5″ tall. So to get the bookcases flush against the wall, I had to build a base at least 3″ tall.

I simply built a base of 2×4’s on end to give the clearance. Here you can see the base with a side of the bookcase held up to show the notch clearing the baseboard.



I put cross pieces of 2×4 in the base where the sides of the bookcases would rest. And the box from the Billys made a great pad to prevent the floors from getting scratched up.


The next step was to build the Billy bookcases. They are straightforward to build. I used extra wood glue on the dowels for strength.


It was critical to get the centre bookcase done correctly, for two reasons:

  • I wanted it centred on the wall so that the side shims would be the same width
  • There are two plugs (one outlet, one cable/phone jack) that have to be cut out of the back of the centre bookcase to be usable.

I spent a lot of time transferring the measurements from the wall to the back of the bookcase to get the location of the outlets correct.


All I can say is “Measure about 100 times, cut once.” More on that in a later post.

After the first one was done and in place, I built the extender unit to see what it would look like in place


That was enough for the first weekend. More in Part 2.

Installing a Pax Wardrobe

The major parts of our renovation are finished, but we continue to work on little details around the house. Plus there are items that I want to complete in a DIY fashion so I feel like I built something in the house.

In the previous incarnation of our master bedroom, the closet was far too small, to the point where I kept my clothes in our son’s bedroom. The new master closet is quite large (not walk-in size), but it needed a bit more to make it functional. I installed some Ikea Pax units to organize the space.

The first constraint is that there is a fun “trap door” that passes from our son’s closet into our closet, and we couldn’t block that off with the boxes of the Pax system.


Secret path

This constraint meant I would have to customize the left-hand part of the closet

I elected to:

  • center a 40” wide unit in the middle of the closet. This unit will have a half-height clothes rail for shirts, etc, and pull out drawers below
  • the right hand side would be a 20” wide unit. It too will have a half-height clothes rail, and then shelves and a shoe rack.
  • the left hand side would be a full height clothes rail and not block the “secret door”

The Pax units are about 24” deep. Our closet is about 36” deep. Fortunately, our awesome contractor Tom offset the pot lights in the closet to the front, so that in this case the pot lights are not blocked by the Pax boxes.

One note: The Pax units are very heavy and awkward to lift. I had difficulty getting all the parts on the roof of my Subaru, and I like to think that I’m not a weak dude. Consider getting delivery if you’re going to install these.

I built the two boxes outside the closet.

Main box outside the closet

One thing I didn’t account for is that the Pax units are taller than the door. I realised this, of course, but didn’t think it through in terms of angling the units up and under the door header. Lots of swearing later, I got the first box in place. You may want to construct the box inside the closet to avoid this problem.

First box in place

The next issue I had is that I didn’t want to change the baseboard and trim. Some DIY Ikea Hack projects (e.g. ) will use a Dremel to cut the baseboard. Instead I shimmed the side and the back of the Pax units when attaching them to the wall to account for the 1” of space that the trim takes up. I used 1×2 MDF trim and slide it in place to hide the gaps.

Shim the back wall

Shims on the side of the wall

It also helps to break out the level at this point.


The Pax have cool hidden levelling feet that are good for getting everything square. And screwing it to the wall helps.

I did the same with the large box, and then screwed them together with particle board screws.

The next issue was the fact that the boxes don’t go all the way to the ceiling (if they did, I never would have got them into the closet!) I elected to build a bulkhead on top of the Pax using some 2x2s.





I then covered the front of the bulkhead with a ripped piece of painted MDF from Home Depot, and the bottom of the left side with an extra Pax shelf I bought and cut to size.
Left side shelf

Finally on the left side I built a shelf rail at the same height as the top shelf on the main Pax units and added the clothes rail at the same height.

I finished off the Pax units with the drawers and accessories.




I’m pretty happy with the way it worked out, and it’s given us a lot more storage that can be hidden behind closed doors. I think it cost a fraction of what a custom closet builder would have charged, and the result isn’t too shabby. It took about 2 weekends to complete. And it’s good practice for my next DIY Ikea Hack — installing built-in Billy bookcases.

Levelling the floor

Slightly out-of-order post here. I wanted to go back and talk about how Tom leveled our floors.

As with most renovations of older homes, we found that the structure of the house had taken a bit of a beating with renovations that had occurred over the last 60 years. In addition, in that time, the back of the house had settled at a faster rate than the front of the house, which meant that the second floor sloped by 2 inches over the span of the house. Fortunately Tom had a plan to fix both of these issues.

Tom’s crew ripped up all of the subfloor to get a better look at the structure of the floor. The floor was built with 2×8 floor joists, which now would be considered below code. However, the wood used in the past had a tighter grain as is usually considered stronger than current floor joists.

Old floor joists

Old floor joists

The much bigger problem is that the joists had been weakened by being notched to allow for plumbing and gas. In the photos, you can see some joists have had half of their material cut out! Not only is it dangerous, it leads to really bouncy and squeaky floors.

Tom fixed that problem by sistering 2×10 joints to the existing 2×8 joists. That basically doubles the strength of the floor and provides a level surface for both the second floor and the ceiling of the first floor.

Structural issues

Structural issues

But the really cool thing is that it also allowed Tom to level out the 2 inch sag from the front to the back of the house. At the front of the house (where the floor was high), the top of the new 2×10 is aligned with the top of the existing 2×8 joists, and the extra 2×10 material pokes out at the bottom. At the back of the house (where the floor had sunk by 2 inches), the bottom of the new 2×10 is flush with the bottom of the of existing 2×8, and the extra 2×10 material pokes up. So although the 2x8s have a slope, the 2x10s do not, and our floor and ceiling are level.

In this photo at the front of the house, (sorry, out of focus), you can see the tops of the new 2x10s aligned with the tops of the existing joists.

The tops of the joists are level.

The tops of the joists are level.

At the back of the house, you can see the 2×10’s rising above the existing 2x8s. This way, the entire floor is levelled. Also, at the back of the house, the joists tie into the steel beam that opens up the back of the house. Also visible in this photo is the fact that Tom found it faster just to rebuild the entire back wall of our house!

bottom level

Bottom of joists are level.

Keeping the Hot Side Hot

The insulation of the house was lacking, to say the least. After the previous owners had expanded into the attic, there was no insulation on the roof at all, and the only insulation on the exterior walls was some foam board added under the siding when the siding was bolted onto the house in the 80s.

Because we kept the third floor as usable space, we planned to use spray foam to insulate the roof. You can see in the following shots that we insulated the A-Frame part of the third floor using spray foam.

Not shown are the dormers, but they also have spray foam, so that the roof is entirely sealed with spray foam insulation to the correct R level for the roof. This is a huge improvement over the previous setup.

We also wanted to use spray foam in all the walls, and we were on budget to do so. Spray foam provides a tighter seal for the envelope of the house, and reduces drafts. However, we ran afoul of the building code.

Older houses in Toronto are built much closer to the property line than is allowed for new construction. The buildings are grandfathered into the rules, but you still need to meet fire code ratings on walls that are too close to the property line (and thus close to your neighbours). The North/South exterior walls are too close to our neighbours, and hence we have to use fire-rated insulation in those walls. The spray foam doesn’t cut it, and so we had to use Roxul and vapour barrier. As well, those north/south walls will have to have 5/8″ fire-rated drywall instead of the standard 1/2″.

The south wall can be seen in this photo. The bulk of the insulation is spray foam, where allowed, and the empty areas are to be filled with Roxul and vapour barrier.

The East/West walls, since they are not near to the neighbours, can be filled with spray foam, like the east wall of the kitchen.

And the west wall in the basement. This also has the advantage that the hot water for the radiators can be run in this exterior wall because it’s correctly insulated.

Overall, I’m pretty happy with the insulation. I would have preferred spray foam through-out, but some of the cost savings with Roxul allowed us to add interior sound insulation in the inside walls. Cindy had felt that the house had been “echo”-y, so anything to improve the density of the house is good.

In The Walls

I’ve been trying to update the blog with all the details of the renovation. The problem is that I take lots of photos, but Tom and his crew are working so quickly that I don’t get a blog post up in time, and they’ve already moved on!

Here I will show some of the items that are put into the walls before the insulation and drywall go up. They have to plan to get the electrical, plumbing and heat recovery ventilation system installed and in the correct place before the walls can be sealed up. I’ll write a blog post about the insulation next, because we had some issues with the building code in terms of what types of insulation we were allowed to use.

Most of the electrical on the interior walls is pretty straightforward. Sam our designer worked with Jon and the electricians to come up with a lighting plan and a plan for the layout of plugs and switches. For the interior walls, they are just run to boxes. For example, here’s a plug on the knee wall on the third floor. The insulation will be placed on the sloped roof behind the knee wall.

For plugs and switches on exterior walls, the boxes have to be surrounded by plastic enclosures. This is to allow the vapour barrier to be tied to the plastic to minimize air leaks and drafts in the house.

The plumber put in all the feeds for our showers, which have pretty cool regulators built in. This is all done with copper, but then fed from the basement with PEX tubing. This is the head for the master ensuite.

And the feeds for the master vanity.

And a similar setup for the shower in the main bathroom.

On the interior wall of the main bathroom, we’ve centre mounted the taps for the tub. This allows us to sit in the tub looking out the window without seeing the taps at our feet, and also makes sure that the plumbing isn’t on an exterior wall. The red tubing is PEX tubing that feeds the radiators on the third floor.

In the main bathroom, we do have plumbing on the exterior wall. Jon built out a false wall with the plumbing so that the main existing exterior wall can be insulated behind and vapour-barrier-ed.

On the third floor bathroom, we have boxes for two light switches and the fan, and a box for the GFCI plug. The metal tube is the return for the heat recovery unit.

It was impressive to see the plumber and electrician get all the details right inside the walls. The level of planning is pretty impressive.

New Steel

We decided to go “above and beyond” with the roof for the new house.

The standard roofing material in Toronto is a 25 year asphalt shingle applied to the roof, possibly with ice-and-water shielding tar paper underneath the shingles. The shingles can last up to 25 years, but with wind damage, one may have to make repairs as soon as 10 years. Furthermore, the shingles are in direct contact with the roof, making a conductive heat connection to the house. This connection makes it harder to heat and cool the house.

Paul our architect recommended a different approach. He prefers a metal “galvalume” roof, which has the following profile:

The ridges mean that the roof is not thermally connected to the house, and allows for air flow to vent excess heat before it gets into the house. Paul also prefers the natural metal color as it has high solar reflectivity.

We went with Paul’s recommendations, because we agreed with his reasons:

  • The roof lasts for 50 years. It’s basically set it and forget it. We plan to never deal with the roof again.
  • The house is thermally disconnected from the roof.
  • The roof provides solar reflectivity
  • This should reduce the cooling costs of the house — when combined with the improved insulation, our cooling costs should be half of what they were before the renovation.

Paul recommended we go with New Steel Roofers from Hamilton, and they came in and did an awesome job.

They started by strapping the roof on top of the ice and water shield that Tom’s crew had placed over the entire roof surface (we had ice-and-water shield on the whole roof, even though I believe it’s only required 1 metre from the edge of the roof).

Roof strapping

They then installed the grooved Galvalume roof on top of the strapping. The roof is screwed in with lug bolts driven through the high part of the ridge.

More of the metal roof

Metal roof from the third floor window

The majority of the roof (on the gently-sloped part of the dormers and the A-Frame in the rear of the house) is done in the natural Galvalume color, for increased solar reflectivity.

More of the metal roof

In the front 1/4 of the house, that is visible from the street, we used the black metal roof. Although this is less “enviro” we thought we should keep the look of the streetscape consistent with our neighbours and the black trim details. Also visible in this shot is the Iron Grey “Hardie Board” siding that we used on the dormers. I think it looks great.

The roof from the street, along with the Hardie board

I’m looking forward to seeing the aerial shot on Google Maps with our new roof. It should be pretty distinct from the air.

The metal roof is also a great surface to install solar panels on top of, if we ever get around to that side project.

Finally, there’s the issue of the cost. This roof was about 50% more expensive ($5K more) than an asphalt roof. However, with the doubled lifespan of the roof and the reduced energy costs over the lifetime of the roof, we think we’re coming out ahead.


Let the Sun Shine In

Paul the architect decided to big up the size of all the windows in the house, and it’s really made a huge difference.

The house already got quite a bit of sun, based on its east-west orientation, but by making the windows that much larger, we’re going to get that much more light. We had to change some of the locations of windows to facilitate our new layout.

We elected to go with Marvin “Integrity” windows throughout the house, except for the main sliding door at the back. The Marvin’s look great and Tom the contractor says they perform very well. Cindy chose a black trim, and we’re already getting compliments on how good it looks.

At the front of the house, we had to move the window up to allow for the kitchen cabinets to get in under the window. The window will sit just above the kitchen sink.

Front window re-bricked

The brick masons did a great job of changing the size of the opening, and matching the colour of the brick to what was already there. Even so, we will have to paint the brick when it’s all said and done.

Still at the front of the house, we kept the triangle shaped windows that we had on the third floor, and the same bay window shape that we had in our bedroom. We replaced all the windows.

Third floor front window

At the back, the windows are in roughly the same locations, but they are much larger and more symmetric. In the bathroom, it really opens up the space, and we think it looks better from the alley behind our house.

Back windows

Also, with the dormers, we were able to add four small windows that bring in a lot of light to the third floor and to the stairwell between the second and third floor. Very happy with those windows. We thought about doing a hip roof here, but I think Paul was right, and the windows are better.

Finally in the back at the main floor, we put in a monster 16′ sliding glass door. We originally planned on two french doors, but Cindy saw this bad-boy in a magazine, and we thought it was fantastic. It required some tricky dealings (we had to add a steel “spaceframe” around it), but totally worth it.

Back windows.

This is the only window in the house that is not Marvin. It’s a Loewen, because Loewen makes a thin-profile patio door in this size, whereas Marvin only makes a french-patio style door, with thicker rails and styles.

The show piece


Tom’s guys, led by foreman Jon, have been hard at work beefing up the structure of the house. We knew that we would have to add some heft to the house, because our plan calls for opening up the main living space in the back, and the span of the second floor would be too big to do without a beam in the middle of the house.

That means steel!

Furthermore, we are adding dormers to the third floor, to get more usable living space up there. The space was used previously as an office, but we found out during the demo that when the previous owners expanded into the third floor, they didn’t add enough support to bring it up to code. So Jon and the guys revamped the entire third floor to modernize it.

We’ve gained a lot of new space up there.

The last piece of the puzzle is the big 16′ wide glass sliding doors that we are putting on the back of the house, to replace two sets of french doors that were there originally. Given the large amount of glass, we have to provide a way to prevent the shear force of the side walls from deforming the back wall. Tom and our engineer Ken created a “spaceframe” that will encompass the glass doors and provide the structural rigidity to prevent shearing of the back wall. Sweet.

And after framing the second floor opening, with space for the windows on the second floor.



Tom and his crew have started removing material from the inside of our house, and it’s quite a revealing process (see what I did there?) They say it’s going to take about three weeks, but they’ve already managed a lot of work in one. Amazing what four dedicated guys with crowbars can do.

When we were there on the weekend, they had done most of the work in the attic, and then moved on to the two main floors.

Half of the main floor has been removed, and some of the ceiling has been taken down. In the above, you can see they’ve removed the radiators (the blue patches on the wall) so that the rads can be reused once all the work in the walls is complete.

In the following, you can see that the support beam under the second floor joists wasn’t really up to the task, and the joists were beginning to sag a bit. Where the short 2×8 is, you can see the joists starting to flex away from each other. That’s why our plaster was cracking. This is all going to be beefed up.

On the second floor, they’ve worked through our bedrooms and what will be the master ensuite. Very excited.

Finally, we are reclaiming the space on the attic balcony and making it back into a room. So they’ve removed the decking and are preparing it to be “reclaimed” space.

Seeing the house in this state confirmed our suspicions about what was going on underneath, and we’re happy we elected to do it all in one go. Even though there are some issues in the house, the basic bones are still good and we’re happy that we can get the solid house we want without having to change the shape or characteristics of the house.