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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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