So my last post terrified a few people. That post’s after pictures showed my demolition debris under control, though certainly not gone. I’ve been chipping away at it slowly. I’m also finalizing how to deal with the roof, insulation, electrical, and chimney work. There’s not much to see this update. You may be discouraged. I am too, but I’m inching towards that wonderful phase when everything starts to come together. In the meantime, I’ve regained my bearings and figured out how to move forward. I figure that means this is a good time to answer a few frequently asked questions. After that I have a couple photos to show you of a bit of house history, scary old house problems, and half-assed solutions that I ripped out. If you don’t feel like reading skip to the bottom.
Q: After all this, why didn’t you just knock the house down?
A: Haha. Believe it or not, it’s still costing me less. I’ve dealt with some complications dealing with old materials, and it may have been easier to rip out more and start with a clean slate, but I didn’t want to trash everything. Old houses are built out of dense, old growth wood that is not available today at any price. Bring in a wrecking ball, or start an insurance fire, and you’re not going to end up with something as solid as you started with. Then there’s the woodwork. I have two different styles, but they’re both unusual and I have great old flooring. On the outside, I have all the original marble lintels and window sills. More important than this, my house is narrow, only 14 feet wide. That includes fireproof walls on the property lines, so the living space is only about 13. My stairway and upstairs hall are each about 26 inches wide, or 10 inches narrower than what code requires. Redo them, and you’re legally required to take away 20 precious inches of living space from the dining area, the bathroom, and three closets. That double sink in my bathroom, say goodbye. My upstairs hall is cramped, and it doesn’t meet code, but that non-conforming wall is worth its weight in gold.
Q: Why did you rip all that plaster and stuff out? Couldn’t some of it have stayed in?
A: Probably. But my living room ceiling was three layers thick. There was poorly installed drywall exposed, and original plaster. In between were 12×12 ceiling tiles that remind me of Sunday school classroms, stapled onto wood furring strips. This took a couple inches away from my ceiling height, and I hit my head going up the stairs a few times, so every inch matters. The visible layer of drywall was uneven, and if you pushed on it, it would flex and you’d see little dimples over every nail holding it in because the ceiling tiles underneath are soft. Then the original plaster had some really old water damage (which probably explains the old ceiling tiles), nail holes from the drop ceiling all over it, holes cut in it from all the renovations since the ceiling tiles went in around 1965, and old wallpaper that I’d have to strip off. It was the plaster that made the worst debris, but restoring it would have been a lot of trouble, and covering over it would not maximize head clearance around my stairway. Then, I have some amazing old growth random width pine subflooring upstairs. This was never meant to be a high end floor, but by today’s standards it’s special. Only problem is there are some really bad creaks, so now I can glue plywood to the bottom of it where it creaks, and that will hold things together enough to quiet it down. Also, all this made the electrical work easier. In the kitchen, I’m going to leave the ceiling joists exposed to take advantage of the interesting, handmade materials that went into my old house, and this required ripping out the severely water damaged plaster in there, along with the drywall covering it. In the back bedroom, I tore the ceilings out partly to raise the ceilings.
Q: You’re starting things here and there and making quite a mess. Why don’t you go through the house room by room?
A: My house is over 100 years old. The plumbing that came with the house was rusting away, and the wiring was obsolete. Recent work was done incorrectly, and some of it was spliced into the old wiring without even putting the splices in boxes! I carried pieces of the original cast iron waste pipe out of the house to give it to scrap metal scavengers (an honest, low-wage line of work for which I have a lot of repect) and when I broke the larger segments, they flaked apart. I stand by my decision to get the utilities running through my house into excellent working order; they were at the end of their life cycles. Yes, it was more than I bargained for, but this is not the place to nickel and dime the budget. Then there were the small bedrooms and the tiny, 12 inch deep closets. Turning 3 bedrooms into 2 is going to be a huge improvement, and after I’ve gone through all the expense and aggravation of replacing the plumbing and wiring, it was worth the extra expense to move things around. My next steps are roofing and insulation. Even though the house has had a few water issues in the past, including a leak in the bathroom some 50 years ago and some moisture around a few windows, there wasn’t any mold or anything because the house is extremely drafty. I have to skip around yet again because I want to bring in a professional who will do the insulation right. I don’t want to create moisture problems so I want it all done by professionals who know what they’re doing. And this means doing the whole house at once.
Now my big expenses for this house were the plumbing, the wiring, the roof, and the insulation. The last of these has very generous financing available through the PGW EnergySense program. I was worried for a while because I had previously been enrolled in EnergyWorks, which expires in September, but now that the gas company took over the program, I’m not going to lose my low interest loan. That means that to a point, I can relax now. I need to fix my chimney and roof, and level the floor in the extremely crooked back bedroom before the insulation can happen. I’m hoping to reinstall the old pine flooring in that back bedroom, so I’m going to be coaxing it out very carefully. This doesn’t mean I’ll succeed, but I’ll let you know how it goes.
In this photo you can see the floor that needs to go from below. The floorboards run parallel to the joists in this part of the house, which means that those little strips of wood are what’s holding the floor up. It’s a bit creakier and bouncier than in the rest of the house. Then you can see that the floor is cut out where the bathroom used to be, but that there’s water damage beyond it. If I can save this floor, I have to cut it down to remove the damaged parts, buy some more that matches, and then re-lay it over a plywood subfloor. I can get old flooring that’s a good match.
A closeup of my old pine flooring, with some old newspaper stuck to it. A previous owner nailed thin oak strip flooring onto these pine planks, and now I’m planning to trash the oak to use the pine. The newspapers give a clue about the age of the oak. The pine is original to the house, cira 1905.
And to end on a good note, a photo for the workmanship wall of shame. I took out the radiator under this window, and you can see here that the plaster behind it was damaged. Instead of repairing or replacing it, the “contractors” who fixed up the place screwed new drywall right over the awesome but beat up old woodwork. My next door neighbor said that the previous owner never brought in a legitimate contractor but hired crackheads to save money. Things like this make me believe him. This is also why I’m having reproduction woodwork made instead of trying to save what came with the house.