Dust of All Stripes – Or, Building A House

Demolition dust, concrete dust, wood dust, drywall dust, fine wood dust, painting dust, tile dust, grout dust – bags of it! – dirt dust, soil dust, stone dust, marble dust in your closet, paint dust, and at the end of it, even more dust.

After framing, before rough-ins. After a full weekend of sweeping and cleaning. Still dusty.

This is the story of building a house. It is not glamorous. It is dusty. Every step of the way is a filthy, dusty step. 

I cringe to complain about building a house, because to build a house is to choose a huge, indulgent luxury. We are incredibly fortunate to have built a house. We chose to build a house. We put ourselves into this lucky situation. 

But it was dusty. It was dirty. At times it was awful. 

When your perfectly-acceptable home is torn down, there is a lot of dust. Thankfully we didn’t have any lead or asbestos dust, since our 1924-developer-built house was built after lead paint was prevalent and before the rise of asbestos. But damn. Tearing down a house produces a lot of dust. Matt wanted to buy a reciprocating saw and get in there with our demo team, but I couldn’t do much more than sit in the car and sob. Why were we tearing down this perfectly good, very leaky, too small, one bathroom house? Why did we think we could — should — build something better? I thought taking a hammer to the plaster walls would make me feel energized. It didn’t. It just made me dusty. It turned my snot black. Did I mention “snot dust?” It’s when all the awful things you’re putting into the world by building a home go straight into your nose, turning your snot black and making your head feel like mush. 

After your home is torn down, cowboys with big diggers and cigarettes will roll in to excavate. They will produce an enormous amount of dirt dust. This is okay, because at this point there is nothing that resembles a home anymore, just a giant hole that looks like a money pit and the canyon in your stomach that was carved out sometime between signing the construction loan and seeing the first sledgehammer start on the house.

Future sawdust. Also known as “joist delivery one of two.”

But the excavation guys quickly hand it over to the concrete guys. And these men will do two things: Give you the first sight of your new home, and produce an extraordinary amount of very fine, very silty, very gray dust that will get absolutely everywhere. It will continue to permeate your nose and your nightmares for months. 

After the concrete work and the weeks of inspections and litany of incoherent tests that go along with foundation work (at one point an inspector literally took three cores out of our foundation and then took them to a lab where someone put varying tens of tons of weight on them until they cracked; another test involved a ball and whether the ball bounced on the core), you’ll be ready for framers. The framers are their own breed of cowboy. Our lead framer is named Angel and he has a great team working for him. They showed up every morning at 6:45 to strategize their day and smoke a few cigarettes before getting to work. I’m sure our neighbors loved them. I loved them because they built me temporary stairs after seeing me leap one too many times into our house over a man-made canyon. I loved them also because they framed our future. Each day you could see a little more of what we were creating. There’s the bathroom! There’s my closet! Is this hallway too narrow? Whoa, is that fireplace really that big? 

Of course, though, these guys produce an inordinate amount of dust. They used four truckloads of wood of all types to frame our four-story home. And I swear to you, they must have had a couple boards they just sawed up for the sheer sake of making sawdust. I think sometimes they equated dust with progress. The number of bags of sawdust I swept up and took to our dumpster prompted me at one point to ask Matt, “Do you think there’s a farm or an auto body shop that wants this dust? Can we sell this sawdust?” I got a hard no on that, by the way. 

After the framers finish, you think, “Wow. We have a house!” There will be windows and floors, and it feels like a home. There won’t be plumbing, or power, or probably even stairs between the floors. But still. It will have a shape. You start picturing your life there. This was when I started measuring for couches. This, by the way, was too soon to measure for couches. 

Because after the framers come a load of very boring tasks ensue — although a lot of them are pretty dust-free, which is great. The plumbers and electricians do all their rough-ins. All the stuff that lives behind your walls gets installed at this magic moment. So each day you check on the progress, and you understand not a damn thing that got done. But you’re promised it is all very important. And can I get that check for $8,000 now?

Finally the rough-in work is done, and you pass another barrage of inspections, and you’re ready for insulation. If you’re having insulation sprayed in, this will be a blessedly quick step. But boy oh boy, it will be messy. You know those beautiful windows you love to look out of, imagining what it will be like to stare out the back window at a swing set? Well, they’re going to look like hell pretty soon. Because the spray foam goes everywhere. Rather than locusts, you’ll have little teeny tiny hard white droplets coating all the things you find dear in the world. The mess is biblical. The spray foam guys wear full-on Hazmat suits that live in the back of their trucks, they never go inside their own homes in these coated monstrosities. Alas, when they leave, you’ll have a house that’s a heck of a lot more sound and weather-proof.

After the horsemen of the insulation depart, you’re ready for drywall. These guys aren’t cowboys, they’re more like circus actors. Really. They are all expert stiltwalkers.

This is our “it’s fine we don’t have a roof or a house, we have these great temporary stairs” attempt at a family picture.

They also magically produce dust just by appearing at your home. 

Drywall dust is the most insidious of the dusts. It is a fine, white silt and it gets everywhere. Ever walk by a construction site, look at it, and find yourself dusty? They must be doing drywall. Because it’s the dust that goes just everywhere. 

And drywall has a mind-boggling number of steps, all of them dusty. The boards themselves are made of dust particulates. Every screw that goes into them produces a cloud of dust. Then they get taped together with what looks like clay but is really just wet future-dust. Then they get sanded. Then they get mudded again. Then they get sanded again. And again. And each time you sweep, there’s some reason to sand again. 

And by the way, the drywall step isn’t done when you have all your walls. Because for the next forever of your project, someone will realize they covered something up they shouldn’t have and they’ll say, “Oh, we’ll just cut a hole and patch it.” As if patching it is easy. As if that patch won’t produce another pound of dust to haunt your dreams. 

Remember, by this point all your ductwork is in (the HVAC guys worked alongside the plumbers and electricians during the rough-in phase). So all these types of dust? They find their way into your ducting, and your little friends the dust particles will lie in wait for you to move in. They want to see how your fixtures look. They want to have a glass of wine with you when you think you’re finished with construction. 

When the drywall guys leave, you feel like you’re in the homestretch of being dust-free. You really have a house – there are walls! Electrical outlets! A toilet might even work! You think, “Is it squatting if it’s my own house?” (It is, by the way. At least according to the District of Columbia Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs). 

Then begins a series of craftsmen, all of whom bring special skills and unique types of dust. The tile guys will lay tile straighter and faster than those YouTube DIY tile video yoohoos do when they’re in “Fast forward” mode. The carpenter will hang 45 interior doors in the same amount of time it takes you to show him where all the doors go. Another carpenter will spin through trimwork faster than you can buy the wood.

You will blink, because there is so much dust. Tile dust. Grout dust. Wood dust. Sanding dust. PVC dust. A little more drywall dust. Nonstop dust of all stripes. 

At some point in here, the flooring guys will come in to lay your hardwood floors. They laid 2,000 square foot of wood floors in less than two days. The dust they produced lasted two months. 

Pro-tip: The only way to deal with hardwood floor dust is to use a leaf-blower. Just blow the hell out of the dust. Open every window, sweep every floor, then come in with a super strong leaf blower and blow, blow, blow. Then repeat this step. Two or three times. Because your painters need to get in there, and nothing is worse for paint than dust. 

Painters though, produce a lot of their own dust. They sand invisible spots down, insisting there was an imperfection. They drip teeny tiny amounts of paint that have to be sanded up, more dust. They see dust in the paint, so they sand it and paint again for a smoother finish. The dust might be out of the paint, but it sure isn’t out of your house. 

At some point during this finishing stage, you might think, “I can do some of this!” You’ll have a slab of marble, perhaps, that is just a little too big to be your shower bench. So your husband will suggest you cut it yourselves, using the tile saw your neighbors lent you. You’ll manhandle this marble slab through the tile saw, which you’ve thoughtfully set up in your master closet, and you’ll feel so victorious when this super heavy piece of expensive stone is cut down to size – by you! And then you’ll realize that tile saws blow dust in every direction. Your entire closet will be coated in marble dust. It will linger through three hands-and-knees scrubbings. 

Somehow you haven’t choked to death on all the dust or the anxiety, and moving day arrives. Finally! You’ve survived the dust, your belongings are under your roof, you’ve won! 

No. No you haven’t. The dust in the ductwork? Still lingering. The floor dust? Still little tiny particles are lodged between your floorboards, and somehow they’ll be jiggled just perfectly to come out when you least expect it. The shelf in your master closet? The back of it has a thick layer of marble dust you missed in all your wipe-downs. 

Oh? And everything you had in storage? Well at least the dust from construction is explainable.

One dust free living room. So beautiful.


Alicia Amling View All →

Recovering journalist who discovered a life outside of news leaves you time for things like getting angry, cooking and traveling. Plus, hopefully, writing. I’m a wife, dog mom and Washingtonian.

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