In our first post about our vestibule renovation, we covered the ins and outs of the project that transformed the walls, ceiling, and molding from a dingy and lumpy mess into a small space we could work with. Though this was a major step in the right direction, it was only the first step in a much larger project.

To complete this entire project, we will also need to lay a new tile floor, replace the inner doors with a new front door, replace the outer door with new double doors, either replace the outer transom glass with leaded glass or add numbers, and attempt to make the inner transom operable with salvaged hardware. Based on these requirements, the next step that we opted to tackle seemed the "easiest" of the choices and involved the replacement of the shoddily installed marble floor that had previously adorned the space.

During the course of working on the tiny 3'x3' space, we removed the cracked and uneven marble floor that had been laid in the 1980s. The person who did the work did a horrible job putting it in place, which made our job of marble tile removal very easy. We were able to pop the tiles up with the prybar, sometimes by hand, but at most with a single tap or two of the hammer. Once the tiles were up, we scraped off the top layer of concrete that had not adhered to the original concrete put into place when the house was built. There was no isolation membrane, no bonding agent, nothing. It was the one aspect of this part of the project that was a piece of cake.

Once all of the tile was up, we discovered a drain in the center of the floor. This drain leads to a small copper pipe that runs out of the front of the concrete just above the stairs. The original configuration of the front door and vestibule most likely consisted of an inner locking door with either double doors on the exterior that stayed open most of the time, or no exterior doors at all. This meant that the vestibule area was often exposed to the elements, such as rain and snow. When the rain or show would end up in the vestibule, the small drain in the floor would take the water from the floor and remove it to the exterior of the home. You can see the small outlet hole pretty clearly in this photo.

Since our home was a very modest home when it was built in 1886, and was most likely a spec home, the builder attempted to save on cost wherever possible. It is most plausible that the original floor was simply concrete, no stone or tile over it, just a thick piece of concrete that was sloped pretty significantly towards the drain. But this old concrete look just didn't fly for us. Sure we want to maintain the historical integrity of the house, but we also want to give the house the upgrades it deserves. This was one of the opportunities we've had to provide that little bit of "house bling" that I'm sure it's longed for over the last 125 years.

Walking around Old Town and neighborhoods in D.C., Wendy and I spent many nights looking at the various choices of flooring in other vestibules. We saw ceramic tile, wood, concrete, stone, epoxy, paint, and even *gasp* carpeting. As we would compare thoughts on what we saw, we easily came to the conclusion that we both wanted a natural stone tile in a small format with variable sizes. In other words, we were bigger fans of mosaic stone than anything else. We also felt this would be the most accurate to the period of the house, and also a bit more timeless for the home's future.

Wendy started shopping around on the various usual suspects of tile websites. Ann Sacks, Waterworks, The Tile Shop, Dal Tile, Amazon, and the list goes on. The main thing we were looking for was inspiration in pattern and color. Places like Waterworks are so expensive that we use the inspiration we derive from browsing to buy something almost identical for about 80%-90% less.

Every few days tile samples would arrive in the mail. Carrera hex, basket weave, mini bricks, and more would show up in various stone types. The more we received, the easier the choice became. Wendy and I gravitated away from the simple gray and white of carrera marble (thinking it would show the dirt too easily), and towards a warmer stone with bolder accents. Finally, while shopping online at The Tile Shop, Wendy came across the perfect tile for our project. It was a natural stone/limestone basket weave with tiny square black accents.

With the flooring selected, we drove over to The Tile Shop to take a look and place our order. As with many mosaics, this stone came in 1'x1' sheets that are ready for install. With our "massive" space, we needed only about 10 sq.ft of sheets, so we didn't mind selecting a stone that was slightly more expensive. Our order of 10 sq.ft of stone, minus the "Mention Young House Love" 10% off coupon, came to right around $100. Not too shabby. The stone was ordered and its scheduled arrival was about two weeks off, so I got to work on the prep for the floor.

I mentioned that the old concrete floor was severely sloped towards the drain in the middle. Since we planned on having the eventual exterior doors closed, we didn't need access to the drain, so we decided to level the floor out. I covered the drain with a little bit of masking tape and mixed up a somewhat loose batch of concrete (bottom) and slightly modified thinset (top) for floor prep.

In this case, the modified thinset acts as a bonding agent between the old concrete and the new. This is what wasn't there with the old stuff that I easily scraped up. Once a thin layer of thinset was down, I was able to start filling in the void with the sand and portland concrete mixture.

The end result isn't the prettiest thing in the world, but it would work. I didn't want to add any unnecessary height to the floor, because we don't want to replace the old original wood threshold. Add to the mix that the floor is not level from the left to right, so we couldn't use a self leveling concrete or it would have been everywhere. So I ended up using a board as a screed, assuming the two sides were my level points, then floating the concrete into the area and working its "cream" up to the surface. Once we had a decently level surface, we needed to let it cure for a few days, then lay down an isolation membrane for the stone. 

An isolation membrane is important for tile or stone installs. It allows the substrate beneath the membrane to move a bit without transferring that movement up through the tiles. This keeps the grout, or worse, the tile or stone, from cracking due to seasonal or settling movement. Since we had a desire for as little additional height as possible, we opted to use the NobleSeal TS waterproofing membrane. It is so thin that it only adds about 1/16" to the finished height of the floor.

First I cut the NobleSeal to the correct size for the area. Then I mixed up another batch of the slightly modified thinset, spread it with a 1/8" V notch trowel over the cured concrete surface, embedded the NobleSeal sheet into the thinset, and rolled out any air bubbles or excess thinset to make the surface as smooth as I could.

Once I was done, I noticed a pretty significant high spot in the membrane. Since this isn't a water tight application, I was able to cut out that spot, scrape down the concrete a bit, then apply a bit more thinset and embed the patch I had removed. That is what you see in the top right of the photo above.

With the isolation membrane installed and beginning to cure, we received word that our tile was ready for us at the store. We went out and picked up our massive order of tile (there was one box), and got to work. Since these stone tiles come as sheets, it is best to lay out all of the tile in their proper interlocking position before you put them in with thinset.

This is a long and tedious process when you have a small space or a space that requires a lot of cuts, especially angled cuts. 

Wouldn't you know it, this "room" is full of odd angles and needed a LOT of cuts. You can see from the photo above, the entire wall on the right was a slow and gradual angle that required quite a bit of persistence and patience on the wet saw.

Once we had the whole layout complete, which took about two days of working in the evenings, we were finally able to move forward on the actual tile install. I went back down to the basement, mixed up another batch of thinset, and once again got to work with my V notch trowel.

Since we had taken so much time to properly measure and pre-cut all of the stone, it went in relatively easily over the course of about an hour. Also of note, the little blue things all over the place are my "TileSpikes." I love these things because they allow so much flexibility over standard spacers. Sadly, the company that used to supply them stopped making them recently, so you can't find them anymore. So now I just keep washing and reusing the few bags I still have.

All of the tile was set, so we just had to wait a couple of days for the thinset to set up, then we could move on to grouting. But then the project really slowed down.

We were working on this in the middle of winter, and we had gotten lucky with a few days warm enough to do this tpe of temperature-sensitive work. Since this was right inside of the front door, the cold easily found its way in past the uninsulated door. We ended up having to wait until nearly Spring before we got our next break.

During that wait, we found a local stone supplier that gave us a good deal on a black granite threshold. As soon as the weather warmed a bit, we installed the threshold following the same steps as the floor. I had to hack the bottom of the door off in order to make room for it, which happened to be at about 9:30 pm one evening. One of our neighbors actually marched over to our house to yell at me for making too much noise. Luckily it was our friend KP, so I just gave her a bit of a hard time in return.

Since we had a break in the weather, we decided to quickly move ahead with grouting. Wendy chose an unsanded Mapei beige grout for this project. We had to use the unsanded due to the 1/16" grout lines. We looked into using an epoxy grout on this project (we used it with great success in our bathroom), but opted for normal grout because the epoxy didn't have the right color choices.

Using the techniques I learned from my tireless research on the John Bridge tile and stone forums over the years, grouting was a snap. It was such a snap, that I don't have any in progress photos. Come to think of it, I think it was less of a snap and more of an, "I was up until about 2:00 am working on it because we had good weather and Wendy went to bed so I just wanted to finish the project." But you can see from the finished product that it looks pretty darn good.

The last thing I had to take care of was sealing the stone, for which I used the trusty DuPont Stonetech Professional Advanced Grout Sealer. It sprays on, stinks up the joint, then wipes off leaving a protected surface. One word of advice on this sealer, have some good rags available because you need to really buff the area to get any residue off. This tells me that it works well, but you need to be persistent in the cleaning to get a nice shine.

Step two of our major project had concluded with excellent results. We love the way the floor looks and often receive rave reviews from visitors. It has a classic look with a slightly more contemporary feel. Perfect for what we were going for. The reason Wendy selected this one as our final choice too was also based on the colors. It works well with our exterior paint color, our living room/entryway color, and the black is a nice reference to our exterior stairs and cast iron urns.

Here is one more shot that shows the black threshold under the exterior door. We have a bit of painting left on the jamb once we replace the door.

With that aspect wrapped up, we would be able to turn our attention to one of the more fun elements of the project, turning the transom window into a truly operable transom with salvaged hardware. Stay tuned for that post early next week.

Until then, let's see where we stand on our overall project checklist:

  1. Renovate the space, walls, ceiling, molding, strip, patch, paint
  2. Install new tile floor
  3. Purchase antique mail slot
  4. Replace interior doors with stripped and fitted salvaged door 
  5. Replace exterior door with salvaged door after stripping and replacing glass panes
  6. Make interior transom window operational
  7. Replace exterior transom window with either leaded glass or painted house numbers (we're not sure on this step yet)
So far so good.

Have you ever tiled or had to work in a space as small as this one? I felt like I was tiling a Smurf's house. Please share your small space renovation stories.

Comments 3


Judith Katzq
8/19/2013 at 4:55 PM
I love the tile you used in the vestibule - I live in a 1880s Capitol Hill home adn I am looking to do a similar kind of tile -- do you have any more information on the specific name and color of the tile you used -- I am thinking of ordering the same and this would make it so much easier.
thanks Judith
Hi, Judith! Good luck on the work. We love Capitol Hill, and especially pre-1890 Capitol Hill. We picked our tile up from The Tile Shop down at Landmark. I think the name has changed since we bought ours, but I'm pretty sure this is what we used. (
Judith Katz
8/21/2013 at 9:05 PM
thanks Alex! this is great. Many thanks for your speedy response. Hope all is well
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