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Rebuilding the rear sections at Burns

Our “house doctor” – contractor Sonny Jacobs and his crew – returned at the end of the season to shore up the two rear sections of the house. The middle section is mainly the kitchen area. The rear section is a mud room. Four problems were covered in the engineer’s report (Joe Rosenstiel at Jensen/BRV in Rochester). In the rear corner of the middle section of the house, the foundation had deteriorated, the sill had rotted, the kitchen ceiling had a 4 inch sag, and the roof had a ‘saddleback’ due to snow loading over the years. The roofing was shot on both rear sections. Moreover, on the rear section, there was no overhang in the roof structure. With no way to throw rain water out, away from the house, it had gotten into the walls and done some damage.

Overall, it was pretty bad. I rely heavily on Sonny and Joe with jobs like this one. I highly recommend hiring an engineer for dealing with structural issues, as I’ve said before. It’s an expensive step, but it pays you back well in the long run.

Love the bright fall colors…

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The rear corner of the middle section had fallen 3 inches. Both sections had structural problems in the roofs.

Here are the specs for the job from the structural engineer’s report. Foundation items are nrs. 24 to 26; Roof items are nrs. 36 to 38 (click to view enlarged version) …

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Step 1 – Jack up house and remove foundation

One of the things I don’t like to find on old houses is the masonry parges. They are fine for a while, but once they begin to deteriorate, they tend to do more harm than good. The entire foundation was coated at one point. It has spalled away in most places, leaving a crevice for holding moisture and harboring insects. Both are big trouble. Someone also added a cement pavement, apart from the sidewalk, around the base of the foundation. This actually creates splashback from the roof once the gutter deteriorates, adding further to the moisture problems from the failed parge. Not good. So I want to try durable, steel gutters – made the ‘old-fashioned’ way, by soldering the joints – and see whether that reduces the problem of wetness around the foundation. How to handle the outflow from the downspouts is another issue ‘down the road’.

I checked with Sonny about using Type N ‘soft’ mortar for the foundation work, which they knew all about. Modern mortar is made from Portland, which is harder than the older, lime-based mortars used on houses before about 1900 or so. Type N is not lime, but it is formulated to perform like the older products. Fieldstone and old brick are alike, in that they both ‘move’ with temperature and moisture, more so than modern brick. So for those materials, you need a mortar that moves to a similar extent. Modern Portland mortars don’t move as much, and as a result, will cause the building material to chip around the edges. This is known as ‘spalling’ and ruins the work. With old houses, I always use Type N mortar just to be safe. It’s available most everywhere, but I buy it at Home Depot.

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The deteriorated foundation has been removed. Temporary shoring is in place. Notice the rotting sill above the shoring. Harold and Al are getting ready to build up the new masonry. The cement blocks were for the inside wall, where they would be hidden from view. This was done to stretch the limited supply of old stones.

Views from the cellar:

Two views, with and without the flash. My right brain thought the darker image was pretty cool, even though the flash gives you more detail.

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Foundation work is finished …

All that’s left is for me to replace the missing trimwork: corner boards and base. Notice the uneven gap at the inside corner of the siding? That’s due to raising the corner over the bad foundation. I may just replace the siding on that side with new cedar siding during the warm season next year. I get my siding and other specialty wood products from Matthews and Fields in Rochester (120 Stonewood Ave. in Greece, 585-663-0230, www.mflumber.com). Matthews and Fields is a family-operated business that’s been around for ages, and treats its regular customers like family.

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Step 2 – Remove ceiling joists

The inside work was next. I really wanted to save the old plaster ceiling, since there was so little original plasterwork left in the house. But besides the 4 inch sag in the middle, it was heavily damaged. Typical of the Victorian balloon frame houses in our neighborhood, this one used 2X4’s for joists in the unfinished attic spaces. In other projects, I’ve reinforced them by sistering new 2X4 stock made from micro-lam stock. It works pretty well, and it avoids changing the intention of the Victorian builders, but it’s expensive and must be ordered in advance. I didn’t want to hold up Sonny and his crew, so I ok’d 2X8’s for the new ceiling.

Do you notice something odd about the chimney? It ends at the first floor ceiling! There is another one in the front section of the house, over the parlor. This appears to be a way to economize on bricks, but it’s possible there were other reasons. In any event, this “floating chimney” thing caused major structural problems over a century and a quarter. Joe, the engineer, assumed I’d want them removed. Sonny thought I was nuts. Yes, I guess I am a little nuts, when it comes to retaining originality and authenticity in my houses. I am wary of this scenario with rehabs: “This is Washington’s hatchet – the only parts that were replaced were the handle and the head.” Even when you carefully replicate anything you must replace, you need to leave some things alone for authenticity’s sake, for if you replicate everything, even perfectly – what exactly is it that you have?

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Step 3 – Straighten walls and roof

With all the pushing and prodding on the structure that was going on, the contractor discovered a bow in the outside wall in the middle section, where the kitchen is. I came in one night to close up and found this system of jacks, posts and chain hoists. My house was in traction! Sonny really knows his business, and I never doubt him, so I just enjoyed snapping this cool shot of his work.

The vertical post, just beyond the image’s frame, is pushing up on a new cross-beam, which I believe is a pair of micro-lam 2X8’s, face-nailed. It supports the rafters halfway up the roof pitch. This was specified by the engineer as the way to push up that ‘saddleback’ sag in the roof. Sonny had to figure a way to apply pressure to the cross-beam to get it to actually raise the sag, too fixed to be done by hand. Taking care to position the post over a steel post in the cellar, he jacked the post to straighten the sagging roof. Crazy, huh? Oh, and I should mention that the crew hadn’t removed the plaster ceiling yet, so he had to make a small hole and thread the post up through it. That’s why he’s the house doctor!

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Here is a better shot of that micro-lam cross-beam that I took later during the roof work. The sunlight made an interesting pattern in the crawl space.

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Step 4 – Replace middle roof

Al and Harold working on repairs. Do you see the cut in the sheathing just shy of the cornice? That cornice was holding on by a wing and a prayer. I’m really big on keeping the original molding, so the guys replaced the cut-away parts with new wood, and then carefully reattached the cornice to the roof – as good as new. That’s Harold doing the work on the cornice.

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The structural repairs are done, the sheathing and felt are up. Ready for shingles. I like to use an architectural shingle sold by CertainTeed, from the Landmark series, called ‘Driftwood’ (www.certainteed.com). To me, it kind of resembles the wooden shingles originally on the house. They were still up there, by the way, under an inch or so of newer layers.

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Al carefully replacing that raking cornice …

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Sonny (on the truck) working Saturday with his weekend crew …

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Step 5 – Replace back roof

To create the overhang, the pre-existing rafters had to be replaced. The guys did a terrific job of straightening the ridge line and replicating the overhang on the other sections of the house. That rear section now blends smoothly with the rest of the house. To this old house guy, it was the crowning touch. When it was all done, Sonny and I just stood there for a while, gazing at it all. Unlike a lot of contractors, Sonny and his crew take real pride in their work.

That old deck, and the T-111 on the back side, are eventually going away.

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The final results

The porch, porch roof and main roof are still to be done, but they are all less urgent and can wait a little longer. If the weather holds, Sonny may come back to replace the tarp on the main roof with something a little more substantial, to hold us until the front roof gets done.

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This is our fourth house project in our neighborhood.

 view from sidewalk

This is the oldest house we’ve done so far.  It was built around 1875, when the neighborhood was still only a few houses encroaching on Irish-immigrant farms. The house is styled in a tidy, but unassuming vernacular that I tend to see more in the short side-streets in neighborhoods like ours. 

This house has needed more work than most.  There were serious structural and foundation problems, some layout issues, no working utilities at all, and the roof was a complete mess.  In addition, much of the wallboard had been gutted by a fire that was set by intruders while the house stood vacant before we bought it.  The updates made by a recent owner were suitable but amateurish, and now damaged by heat and smoke.  Everything had to be redone.

View into kitchen - before

Dining room doorways - before

After the fire, the city put the house on the list of structures to be demolished.  Nobody, the conventional thinking goes, would be willing to spend the $60,000 to fix the place.  Well, we’re not conventional.  We live in the neighborhood where we invest.  Some projects cost $20,000 or so, one cost us $70,000, not including countless labor hours we put in ourselves.  We don’t buy on an expected economic return, but on the strategic value to the community of restoring the house.  This thinking consistently puts us at odds with the city, strange is it seems.

The first step was to obtain a report from a structural engineer.  The report detailed the work that was needed to repair the deteriorated support system.  The engineer’s report becomes the controlling document for the project.  It is used by contractors to bid on the job, then do the work.  It is ultimately used by the building inspector to approve the job when completed.  I highly recommend not to skip this step when this type of work is needed.  It provides the homeowner with a roadmap, safeguards against shoddy or unscrupulous behavior, and is a virtual guarantee you’ll be taken seriously by the inspector.  It’s a win-win-win when you think about it.   We have always used Joe Rosenstiel with Jensen Engineering in Rochester.  Mr. L.C. (Sonny) Jacobs, aka the “House Doctor”, is our structural contractor. Sonny is an absolute artist with a 13 ton jack.

Engineer's Report Sheet1

We began rehabbing the house in earnest during the last week of December, 2009.  We spent $33,000 on 5 contractors over the next 100 days.  The challenge was to replicate the original interior, and make it feel like an old house as you moved through it.  The newly renovated look is not us. It should heat efficiently and offer modern amenities without seriously compromising the period aesthetics. 

Here is our progress over those 100 days…

cellar - view of structural work

The structural work came first.  Once the structure was made sound, the rest of the work would be a safe investment.  The existing makeshift and rotted piers have been replaced with new steel and concrete.  According to the engineering specs, each adjustable steel column is capable of bearing over 13,000 lbs. They are set on concrete footers 24x24x12 inches, bedded on undisturbed soil.  The center of the house had sagged an amazing 4 inches. Once Sonny had poured the footers and put in the columns, he was able to gradually push up the sagging floors by adjusting the height of the columns.  He then poured more concrete to cover the threading, which fixes the height of the posts permanently.

view into parlor - pre-existing wall

Next came the framing on the first floor.  The wall between the parlor and middle room had to be redone.  This was a modern wall, located where the original wall had been, but with a small opening for a modern door.  When this two-story house was converted into flats, the parlor was needed as a bedroom. Marks on the floor showed us where the original parlor door had been.  It was much more spacious, as you can see in the next image. 

Also, the pre-existing work prevented further sagging of the second floor, but did not repair it.  The sleepers nailed to the ceiling joists in the picture tell the story.  If you follow along the bottom edges, you can see they are wider and lower toward the wall, thinner and higher toward the center.  This had to be fixed before a serious investment could be justified.

view into parlor from dining rm

The new framing is complete.  A 2X10 micro-lam header now supports the 2nd floor, which includes the full weight of a chimney.  Yep, you read that right.  In this house, two chimneys were raised, one in the front for heat, the other in back for cooking.  They ended at the 2nd floor, with a hole to accept a duct rising from a stove on the first floor.  Which means the weight of the chimneys had to be borne to Earth by the framing over two floors.  Now you know why they sagged. 

So Joe and Sonny had to fix a problem that was built into the original house.  Here’s how they did it.  First is the two 2X10’s, face-nailed with a 1/2 inch spacer in between.  Notice in the right end of the wall, the last stud is a 4X4, double width.  The 4X4 is directly under the chimney.  Finally (you’ll have to take my word on this), Joe purposely located one of the steel poles in the basement such that it would be directly under the 4X4!  So now the weight of the chimney is borne properly to the ground.

Note the doorway has been restored to the exact original dimensions.  The front room has been deconverted from a bedroom back into a parlor.

Antique radiators from ReHouse

To heat the house, we bought antique radiators from ReHouse, an architectural salvage shop on East Main Street in Rochester.  At our request, they gave us free delivery due to the size of the purchase (9 units), which helped us a lot.  To that point, ReHouse had not been pressure testing their radiators, and a few of them leaked.  Owner Kathy offered to exchange them when they got more in stock, and they have since begun to test the units before sale.

New boiler installation

Modern high-efficiency heating system.  The boiler piping includes separate heating zones for 1st and 2nd floors and the hot water tank.  The supply and return lines to the radiators are modern PEX piping, which won’t freeze and can be run in the walls. The two zones allow the comfort level of each floor of the house to be independently controlled using separate digital programmable thermostats for maximum efficiency.

2nd floor bath rm - apartment era

The 2nd floor bathroom was actually on the stairway landing.  A small hallway was sealed off.  This is a good example of the downside of conversion, when  simple, honest spaces are cut up to fit more in.  The initial conversion occurred after 1928, according to a newspaper we found under a modern stud wall in the main stairwell. 

2nd floor bath rm - new location

The new bathroom on the 2nd floor, moved from the landing into a real room with better load bearing support.  Notice the cool old radiator we got at ReHouse.  Modern sink has been replaced with an antique pedestal sink from ReHouse.

2nd floor insulation

Plumbing and electrical roughing is complete.  A work crew installs R30 insulation with a vapor barrier before hanging the wall board.

Front room ready for wall board

Trim, plaster grounds and baseboard nailers are done, following the Victorian practice.  Insulation has been installed.  The parlor is ready for blue board.

parlor during plaster work

We had the blueboard installed like it was brown-coat plaster.  This is backwards from the established (modern) practice.  The trim is installed first, then the wallboard is put in to fit.  This made installation very challenging for the crew.  The blue coating allows application of finish plaster over the board – just like original.

detail of doorway 1

Detail of doorway showing replicated Victorian trim found in the house.  Blue board is installed flush with the trim.

detail of doorway 2

Image showing trim after finish plaster has been applied.  The excess plaster on the wood will be sanded away before painting.

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