Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Help Preservation LEED the Way!

Preservationists are well aware of the confusing disconnect between green building and historic preservation.  For some of us, this is a no-brainer: if you are reusing an existing building, that saves our natural resources, keeps building materials from the landfill, and often maintains some pretty significant environmental design principles like building orientation, wind breaks, energy efficient solid brick walls, and other features.  Unfortunately, many of those in the green building world see old buildings as the enemy that must be eradicated!  New technology is best!  Tear it down!  Build it new!  It can't possibly be energy efficient unless its new!

LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is an international building and construction rating system being used in many states and localities to develop green buildings.  In LEED's earliest forms, it gave very few points for building or material reuse unless the materials were bought elsewhere.  The National Trust for Historic Preservation has been diligently working with the U.S. Green Building Council to improve the LEED standards.  The most recent LEED draft is out with a comment period through January 14th.  Check out the National Trust's blog posting to learn more about how you can comment on the new standards.

A great project in our area that brings together historic preservation and LEED principles is the Blacksburg Motor Company building.  This 1920's Art Deco building was built as an automobile showroom and service station.  When Blacksburg needed more space for its Planning and Engineering Department, the Motor Company building next door was a good location.  After restoration and environmental remediation, the building has improved the streetscape while keeping the offices in the walkable downtown, a geothermal heat pump conditions the building, and many historic features of the building were maintained including the tin ceilings and large showroom windows.  The town received  state and federal historic tax credits while achieving a LEED Platinum rating for the building.

Make your voice heard and help preservation LEED the way with more great projects like the Blacksburg Motor Company building by commenting on the new LEED guidelines!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Feel their pane. SaveTheWindows!

Dear Friend,

Cast aside...Rejected...

Craving your attention as you look RIGHT THROUGH THEM!

What did beautiful, old windows ever do to deserve such heartless treatment?

As you read this, homeowners across America are ripping innocent, unsuspecting, character-rich, older and historic windows out of their homes; casting them aside for new models.

Their despair is clear. But the real tragedy is this: The sparkly allure of these new windows is short-lived. Most window manufacturers don't want homeowners to know it, but repairing old windows can actually be cheaper and more energy efficient in the long run. And, greener. 

Before you decide to replace your windows, get the facts. You have a choice.

For too long your windows have suffered in silence. It's time to heed their cries:

Watch SaveTheWindows today and then learn more about how you can save money while saving your windows:

You won't be sorry.
(Today's blog post courtesy of Preservation Nation.) 

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A Tale of an "Asbestos-Plagued" Home (not ours!)

One thing that really raises my preservationist hackles is when uninformed people make up reasons to tear down or otherwise ruin the character of an old building without consulting an expert.  By the time they've spouted off their opinion, all of the other uninformed people have formed a sympathetic opinion and it is too late for preservationists and experts to enter with the voice of reason.

 My latest hackle-raising had to do with an article in my hometown newspaper that described a house "plagued by asbestos."  Clearly that hits a hot button with most people.  Danger!  That stuff will kill you!  The article continues on about the "environmental problems" of this building and how "something has to be done" and that "the building is a hazard."  

Now, I don't really know anything about this building other than the photograph in the paper and the description in the article, but from what I do see and read, these guys are way off base!  Turns out the asbestos problems is that it has asbestos siding.  Now as far as asbestos problems go, this is one of the easiest to remedy.  Either leave the siding as is or take the dang siding off! 

Asbsestos siding was used from the 1920s through the 1970s and was made by adding asbestos into Portland cement and pressing it into a shingle shape and profile.  Essentially, it was the precursor of today's fiber cement board siding.  Because asbestos siding is durable and encapsulated in the cement, there is very little chance of the asbestos fiber coming free and floating through the air.  The danger comes from breathing the asbestos fibers.  According to the asbestos siding facts website, the siding can be safely removed by taking the precaution of wetting the siding so that no fibers will become airborne, wearing a respirator  and disposable clothing in case any fibers do become free, and disposing of the siding in double bagged and sealed trash bags.  The even more radical plan is to leave the siding be - unless it's damaged, it is not causing any harm, even if you touch it, and it will probably last longer than some of today's alternatives.

It sounds to me like the town really wants this property to augment the nearby playground and has found a way to use EPA funding to clean up an "environmental problem" rather than allowing someone to rehabilitate the property back into a single family home.  Of course tearing down this early 20th century house will change the character of the "center of town" where it is said to be located and, ironically, could cause the asbestos siding to become a n airborne hazard depending on how they choose to demolish the building.  Unfortunately, it's likely an uphill battle for preservationists and the voice of reason at this point.   

Monday, November 29, 2010

The French Doors - Oui Oui!

We have had a number of pleasant surprises in this house as we undo the work of previous owners in an effort to return the house to its former configuration.  Since the house had been turned into 3 apartments in the 1940s, some odd things happened - like the closing off of the foyer so that a bathroom could be placed there!  Access to the living room was probably closed off to the front door as well, since the front door probably accessed the upstairs apartment.  The exterior door in the living room accessed the apartment on the right side of the house and the exterior door into the former doctor's office accessed the third apartment on the left side of the house.

For those of you familiar with houses from the late 1800s and early 1900s, there was often a set of French doors separating what most of us use as a living room now from the main foyer.  The previous owners of our house had re-opened the doorway from the foyer to the living room, but only to the width of a single door.  It was obvious to us that there had been a wider doorway there.  There was a square indentation in the floor for the French door to lock one of the doors closed and the framing was new.  When we were at the stage of removing walls that didn't belong, we found that - yes, indeed! - the original opening was wide enough for French doors!

Unfortunately, though some of the trim and doors that had been removed had been stored in the basement by some forward thinking person (or pack rat!), we did not still have the French doors.  Fortunately, Black Dog Salvage is nearby.  Now, if you enjoy looking at treasures from old buildings, check out your nearest architectural salvage store.  It's great fun and you can find details you didn't even know you needed.  Fortunately for us, we found a great set of oak French doors that are stained the color of the rest of our woodwork.  My husband swears they might be our original doors.

Because we needed to build the oak door frame and had far more important tasks on our plate, these doors have been languishing in our doctor's office waiting room/library/dining room/office for far too long.  As part of The Great Rearrangement, it is finally time to install the doors.  As of Sunday afternoon, we have the stationary French door installed.  The little matters of some missing hinge pins and a need to rearrange the living room so that the other door has room to swing kept us from completing this task, but those are quick fixes that should happen this week.  The door looks great and really adds some class to our foyer!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Great Rearrangement

One sometimes huge disadvantage of living in the house that you are rehabilitating is the constant shuffle of furniture, etc. to work on rooms.  We have also inherited a lot of furniture since we moved into this house and, not having the proper place to set it up, we've got several rooms that look more like storage units than rooms of the house.   Complicating matters is the fact that we've changed the purpose of several rooms multiple times.  Fortunately, we had never actually finished these rooms so changing our minds hasn't had major consequences except for how to refer to the room that was to be the library, then the dining room, and now the office.

We have a lot of books, so having a library was a given.  We envisioned a darkish room with lots of wooden shelves built in and a cozy seating nook.  The former doctor's office  waiting room at the front of the house seemed perfect.  The leaded glass window added some elegance for the room.  We had it all planned, right down to the dark wood ceiling.  

We used the front half of the living room as a dining room.   This wasn't a perfect solution because it is a long ways from the kitchen, but the table fit there.  Then, we inherited a dining room suite and we realized that though we might not use it as such, the house really should have a formal dining room.  At this point, it isn't obvious which room was the original dining room in the house.  The rooms have been repurposed over the years so it is not immediately clear if our kitchen was the original kitchen.  If it was, there isn't a candidate for the dining room immediately contiguous.  Possibly, the room that will become the downstairs guest bedroom was the dining room, but by the time we got the house which had, by then, had 3 apartments carved out of it, that large room contained just a toilet and evidence of a tub and sink.  

We decided that the former doctor's office waiting room/library should be the dining room.  This wasn't a perfect solution and would still require carrying food down the hallway, but it would fit the inherited dining room suite.   We still have lots of books, so we still had a need for a library.  We also have an odd area with 5 doorways as you enter the house from the back porch.  There are too many travel lanes here to place much furniture, but we could fill the walls with bookshelves.  So that room has become our library and is mostly completed and filled with books.

Throughout this period, our working office with desks and computers has remained just off of the kitchen.  The more we thought about it and what in the world we were going to do with all that furniture, we realized that the office should become the dining room.   The kitchen is right there and the room is big enough and bright enough to withstand the heaviness of the furniture.  That means that the doctor's office waiting room/library/dining room would become the office.  

Now this, finally makes perfect sense!  The old doctor's office has its own exterior door and can be shut off from the rest of the house so as we move towards our goal of self-employment we could actually see clients here.  The room is large enough for our drawing tables, desks, and other office stuff with nice natural light and the leaded glass window for inspiration.  We spent Sunday working on this great rearrangement.  From a room packed to the gills with furniture and "stuff", there's now room to roll out a rug in the middle of the doctor's office waiting room/library/dining room/office floor.  Of course now we've got to paint so the room is office color instead of library color, but we're getting there!   

Monday, November 15, 2010

Check One Task Off the (Long) List!

Not to dwell on (or in!) the attic, but we finished the insulation!!  We'd like to think we did such a great job that the gas company will be paying us this year, but that's probably just a bit optimistic.  It is good to have a clean attic with clean and fluffy insulation to keep our heat in the house.  We've got our plywood laid out up there to store Christmas decorations and such, so we're already using the vast storage space that it is for now.

While we were up there, not only did we have the chance to remove the insulation, but also the old knob and tube wiring and other unused fixtures.  One of our first tasks before we ever moved into the house was to rewire.  So all of the old wiring had been cut, but at that time, the only access to the attic was through a very small hatch into a very dirty space so the knobs and tubes remained up there.  Another removal was what was probably the ballast tank for the radiator system.  It's still up there because it's too big to get down, but also because it's pretty cool with all of the rivets that hold it together.  It's a great design piece that we'll find some use for.

We were hoping to find a million dollars hidden in the attic.  No such luck, but we did find a few interesting things that we'll incorporate into a "museum" case in the wall when we finish the space.  Our most recent finds were an envelope postmarked December 1913 - the year the house was built and a christening dress.  The dress was in perfect shape, just dirty from being under the insulation.  It's nothing fancy, but does have some embroidery on the yoke.  I'm thinking we could come up with a gothic novel about how the dress found its way up there, but then I might get a little nervous when I hear normal creaks from above!

Monday, November 8, 2010

We've Got Bats in the Belfry!

Some people would say we have bats in the belfry for rehabilitating our old house, but those aren't the bats of which I speak.  Our sanity aside, the bat (I think just one) is in our attic.  

We spent the weekend on our ongoing task of replacing the old, dirty, blown-in fiberglass insulation in our attic.  Suited up against the dust and fiberglass pieces that can cause itchiness if touched and respiratory problems if inhaled, we have a system where one of us crawls into the depths of the attic corners and fills plastic kitty-litter containers with the insulation and hands it back to the other for disposal in a trash bag.  Once most of the insulation has been removed, a Shop Vac is used to get rid of the remaining pieces and accumulated dust.  We clean out as many of the cavities as we can before back and knees protest too much then fill smaller holes with spray insulation foam and the cavities with fiberglass bats (not flying bats!).  

There's a blog posting for another time about the environmental pros and cons of different types of insulation, but I'll be perfectly honest - we got a quote for spray foam and decided that we'd go with fiberglass for now.  Our attic space will one day be an amazing room.  It has a dormer for light and is essentially a big square space with high ceilings throughout most of it and plenty of place for storage where knee walls will be placed one day.  Today, however, it is just the attic and if we can improve the energy efficiency up there, that will lower our heating bills.  One day, when we turn that into a room in the house, we will want to spray foam the ceiling/roof and we can easily remove the fiberglass bats if we so choose.

We are almost done with replacing the attic insulation and I was admiring our work, thinking about what a great space the attic will be one day, mentally constructing the knees walls and all the storage they will provide, calculating how long it will take to finish the job, congratulating ourselves on not having signs of creatures in the attic, and measuring and cutting the insulation to be installed when...I thought I saw something.  Daylight savings time started on Sunday, so it was starting to get dark outside, though it was plenty light in the attic from our shop lights, so I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me.  

Then frrrrrrr...whiz...ack!  It was a bat.  Circling the center of the attic where I was cutting the insulation.  I was out of there so fast that I was halfway down the attic ladder when I realized that I ought to turn around or I'd end up on my face in the hallway!  My poor husband was still up there, stuck in the far corner of the attic and I stopped to think..."Gosh, I hope he isn't stuck back there!"  Well, down he came soon after and we abandoned ship for the night.  We'll wait for a sunny day to go back up and finish the insulation! 

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Saving the Viewsheds

I've gotten so that I look out the top of our windows to look over the unfortunate views that have developed from our house over time.  I imagine that if the Quonset hut (and all the junk behind it) were gone, we might have a great view of the New River.  From upstairs, I can see the  upper half of the mountains on either side, their colorful leaves in fall, the ice in winter, and the slow spread of spring green.  In our back yard, the cute little Victorian house is marred by the swath of power line scarring the mountain behind it.   

Historic preservation is not just about saving buildings. It's also about preserving land and viewsheds. For those unfamiliar with the term, a viewshed is what you see from a particular place. So it might be the familiar views of a historic Main Street or the untamed wilderness along stretches of a meandering river or the field and mountain views from a family homestead. 

Many of us take these views for granted until something changes.  Unfortunately, that something is usually something irreversible.  Tearing down the historic courthouse in downtown's central square.  Widening the highway and razing historic farmhouses or entire neighborhoods.  Placing a campground on the river's edge.  Building a WalMart on a Civil War battlefield or a McMansion on top of a scenic vista.   Developing a huge housing complex across the river from an 18th century plantation.  While oftentimes these changes are the result of greed, certainly nature has a hand in fires, floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, landslides, and hurricanes that can also drastically change viewsheds.  Nature can be forgiven though, while human hubris cannot.  

In our area, the New River Land Trust gives landowners who want to protect their property  from becoming the next big development or industrial site on the river the opportunity to donate a conservation easement.  With the conservation easement, the donor donates the rights to develop the land to a state agency or land trust in exchange for generous tax credits and deductions.  The landowner remains on the property and gets the peace of mind that the land won't be developed.  His neighbors and those who passively "use" the land by driving, hiking, or boating by receive the benefit of a preserved viewshed. 

Historic preservationists have a similar tool in preservation easements available through the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.  For buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places, a preservation easement protects the characteristics that made the building eligible for the National Register including architectural features, outbuildings, archaeological sites, historic landscaping, and open space.  The property is protected under the easement, though modernization that doesn't compromise the building is allowed.  The owner receives tax credits and continues to live on the property.  His neighbors and passersby continue to admire the building and its contribution to the historic character of the community.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


An advantage of buying an old house is that, usually, they come with mature landscapes.  So instead of the stark, treeless sea of green that often accompanies new construction, you get large shade trees, flowering bulbs, old varieties of roses, apple trees, and grapevines.  You gaze in wonder and admiration at the previous owners who had the foresight to plant crocuses, daffodils, and hyacinths that pop up their heads when it seems that winter will never end.    You pick some lilacs to bring some of the heady smell of spring inside.  You photograph the roses, irises, and lilies thinking they're the most beautiful ever.  You enjoy the cool shade of the maples and huge common hackberry tree that keep the house from getting to hot in summer. 

And then there's the vines.  Somebody planted vines everywhere.  They try to strangle the lilacs.  They climb up the side of the house.  The come up in the lawn.  What were the previous owners thinking?!?  There's English ivy, poison ivy, grapevines, and several unidentified varieties.  You can pull and pull on them, but their roots go to China and I'm pretty certain some of these vines thrive on being cut off.  We have other weeds too, but the vines are insidious.  I'm fighting them again this fall as I clear old growth from the flower gardens and find that the vines are again trying to strangle the lilacs.  They won't win.  Lilacs are one of my favorite flowers so I take it personally when anything tries to strangle them.  

Next spring, the vines are toast.  I'll be studying up on eco-friendly ways to kill them (now that seems like an oxymoron) this winter.  But if eco-friendly doesn't work?  I have no qualms about using Round-Up and getting rid of my nemeses for good as long as it doesn't kill  the "good" plants.  Did I mention that mature landscapes can also be a disadvantage of buying an old house? 

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Busy as a Squirrel in Fall

Scraping the trim to bare wood.
As happens every fall around here, we're busy finishing up projects before the weather gets cool.  That means painting the trim on the first floor of front of the house that was painstakingly scraped this summer.  Fortunately, the house is brick so the painting is minimal, but it's all pretty high off the ground.  And this is an old house, so of course, nothing is as easy as it seems.  There were some rotted boards that needed replacing and since our trim is not just plain old trim (there's crown molding and other details in it), replacing it wasn't always easy.  You can see from the pictures that some pretty nice lumber was used originally for the trim.  You can also see that we have 2 more stories of trim (and 4 more sides of the house!) to scrape to finish the exterior work.  Ah, to have more free time!
Painting the trim.

Before it gets any colder, we'll also be putting up some more new storm windows and finishing the attic insulation.  We've already made a huge dent in our energy costs with the insulation and new storm windows we've added so far, but there's always more you can do to an old house!

How we've addressed painting, scraping, insulation, and storm windows and how we might have done it greener are all topics for later postings, but the days are getting colder and we've got work to do!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Things Are Looking Up in Blacksburg

If you've driven around Blacksburg lately, you'll have noticed that there are several buildings jacked up.  Either the latest road construction is an elevated highway so people can avoid downtown traffic snarls or there's some pretty serious building rehabilitation going on.  Unfortunately for those of you tired of navigating Main Street's big dig, the latter is the case.  There are at least 3 historic buildings in the midst of some big changes.

The first, which has been sitting on pilings for a while, is the 1897 Alexander Black House on Draper Road.  This historic home of a descendant of the town's namesake was moved to make way for the Kent Square parking garage and is to be the home of the Blacksburg Museum when restoration is completed.  Some pretty serious changes are going to take place with this building to make it look as it did during it's hey day in the Victorian era.

If you've been observant as you drive down Main Street, you'll see that the former Taylor's Frames and Things building has recently been jacked up.  The story here is that the house needs a new foundation.  The town's Historic or Design Review Board saved the house from demolition.  When construction is completed, including the demolition of several unstable additions, the house will become the new Blacksburg Tavern restaurant.

The third house is on Progress Street.  This is a tiny little house with an even tinier little lot.  The owners want to make it a slightly larger little house and since there's not place for them to expand outward, they're expanding upward.  It looks a little strange today, with the porch swing inaccessible on what will one day be the second floor porch.  A great answer for a building site too small for many other choices.

We were fortunate: for all the other work we've needed to do on this house, the structure and foundation are strong and the house is large enough that we've not needed to  do anything with hydraulic jacks and cribbing.  We have joked that we could pay to pick up the house and move it to a new lot Blacksburg and make a killing when we sell it, but I don't foresee that happening anytime soon!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Did You Walk or Bike To School As a Kid?

There's an interesting poll at Preservation Nation's blog about community-centered schools.  Historically, schools were located within walking distance of most of the pupils.  This was especially true in the days of one-room school houses when people weren't as mobile as they are today.  Generally, though, schools were built in the centers of towns because the center of town was just that - the place where people came to shop, be entertained, do business, and go to school.  And, of course, the place where many people lived within walking distance.  Unfortunately, many towns are dying out, particularly here in Southwest Virginia where we've had main streets bypassed and industries closed.  

With school budgets as they are, there is certainly talk about closing or consolidating schools in many towns.  That was all the rage in the 1960s and seems to be the talk to solve budget woes again.  Unfortunately, that is often a death knell for communities hanging on by a thread.  The schools are often the center of the community with everyone, young and old, rallying around the high school football team on Friday night or attending other school functions. 

People want the newest and best for their children.  There's even a School Board member in these parts who said his goal is to build all new schools to get the kids out of the old ones in the district.   And, unfortunately, a lot of times, schools are targeted for closing just because they are old.  Often they are.  But you know what?  Many of these big brick schools built in the 1920s and 30s, can last centuries longer than many of the new schools being built today.  Many have big bright rooms with (gasp!) windows that open and close.  They were built with materials that have stood the test of thousands of students.  Engineers and developers can always skew the numbers in their favor, but the fact is that it is generally more economical to rehabilitate the old school and make it more energy efficient than it is to tear it down and build a new one. 

Check out Helping Johnny Walk To School for more information about the importance of community-centered schools.  And if you must close your school, repurpose the school as a community center or other function that takes advantage of the classrooms, auditorium, and gymnasium located in the center of your town rather than letting it fall to ruin.  You never know when it might be called back into educational use again due to, say, a gym collapse.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010


Ironic, isn't it, that we advocate saving historic wooden windows and AdSense gives you places to buy replacements.  Kind of indicative of the fights the historic preservation world faces everyday, but especially on the topic of saving windows!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Just Because You Saw It On TV Doesn't Mean You Should Do it

Okay, so that title applies to many of the reality, adventure, and stupid people trick shows out there today.  I'm specifically targeting the many DIY shows out there today.  We spent about 4 months working on our house before we had to move in because we'd sold our old house.  Once we moved in, and got the cable hooked up, things slowed down significantly.  We joke that we watch more DIY than we do now.  But, we're also far more qualified than lots of the yahoos out there pretending they know what they're doing.  Rather than being amused by their pratfalls, we get frustrated that people who don't even own a hammer are allowed on these shows!  Construction is dangerous, and can be deadly, if you haven't the slightest idea what you're doing!

There are some really great shows on PBS, HGTV, and DIY, like This Old House, Holmes on Homes, or some of the bathroom and kitchen renovation shows where there's a licensed contractor involved either doing the work or working right alongside the home owners.  Then there are some of the other shows like Renovation Realities where many of the home owners don't know up from down and should be licensed to use a sledgehammer.  And what's with the people who use an axe for demolition?  Unfortunately, on most of these shows, the couples seem to have rather precarious relationships that only get worse as they start blaming each other for everything that goes wrong.  There's no fun to be had here!  In fact, these shows should be precautionary tales to people with no experience who think renovation sounds like a good idea.  Don't do it!  Leave it to the professionals!

Or how about Family Renovation.  Why would anyone think it would be a good idea to remain in a house while major (adding a third floor!) renovations are taking place?  Let alone someone with 5 young kids?  Somehow they thought the contractor would just stay out of their way while they do as they please: waltzing around barefoot with staples, nails and other sharp objects on the lawn and in the house; breathing in dust and mold from construction and a flooded basement; wandering wherever they like oblivious of what's going on over their heads or being thrown into the dumpster beside them.   Most every episode of the show illustrates child endangerment.  On the part of the parents, not the contractor.  What were the parents thinking?  And how many people watch these shows and think it might be a good idea for them to do the same thing?

Do It Yourself renovations take time, money, knowledge, and guts.  You can get the knowledge by reading, watching TV, or working with an expert.   Know your limits.  If you don't have the knowledge (or the guts), don't do it!  Hire someone who does and take on other projects yourself.  For us, that meant not climbing on the steep roof, 3 stories up, to fix the shingles and repoint and flash the chimneys and hiring an HVAC professional to install our new boiler and some new radiators.  Expensive to hire professionals, but well worth it for our health and safety!

Friday, October 1, 2010

Saving Our Wooden Windows

A recent blog posting from Preservation Nation prompted me to talk about our  historic wooden windows today.  I may have mentioned that we have 42 windows in our house.  With the exception of the 2 basement windows, they are all the original 1-over-1 double hung, single pane, wooden windows.  These windows are generally 40" wide x 68" tall downstairs and 64" tall upstairs where the ceiling height is a foot lower.  There are exceptions, where there are 3 windows together and the center window is 33" wide, with 20" flanking windows.  Or the shorter window over the kitchen sink.  Or the 50" wide window with the 1' high top sash of leaded glass in the front of the house.  

As you can guess from the multitude and size of the windows,  even though most of the windows are unremarkable in style, they are a character defining feature of the house.  If you listen to the replacement window people, our windows are the enemy and must be replaced.  They are costing us thousands of dollars in heating bills  because of the heat flowing out through those single panes and must be replaced by double- 0r triple- glazed models, preferably those made of vinyl, because that's "green."  Let's see how industry spin meets reality by looking at our century-old wooden windows more closely:
  1. These windows are made of old growth wood.  Those growth rings are close together, leaving less room for moisture to get in and making them more resistant to bugs and rot.  The material these windows are made of is not available anymore.  Why would we willingly throw these long lasting windows (did I mention they are almost 100 years old and still going strong) in the landfill to replace them with something new made from a resource-intensive process?  Saving embodied energy is green.  Saving money gives you more green.
  2. Our window sashes are solid, they move well (except where they have been painted shut), and in most cases the ropes are still intact.  In some cases glass has cracked or is loose in the frame, but generally, the windows are in good shape.  These windows don't need to be replaced, but they do need to be reworked.  We have been taking them out one by one, reglazing them, and rehanging them with new ropes and insulated weight pockets.  It's a long process, but well worth it.
  3. Single panes don't cloud up.  The rope and weight mechanism is simple mechanically and pretty easy to fix if the rope breaks.  Did I mention that our windows are 100 years old?  The quality and longevity of some of the new windows seems a little suspect.  I personally know of several people who have had to replace windows that are 10-20 years old because they have clouded up between the layers of glass or the plastic and metal mechanisms have broken. 
  4. Our windows are plain, but character-defining.  Have you noticed that many houses never look the same after the windows have been replaced?  Either the character defining features (for instance the number of panes) in the previous windows have been removed, or the opening that the windows inhabit has been shrunk to accommodate the new vinyl window changing the trim and impact of the windows.    
  5. All of our windows have new storms.  Studies show that adding a storm window to a single pane window is just as energy efficient as a new window.  You get to keep your old, historic, character defining windows, spend less money than replacing them on a storm window, and still get the energy benefits.  And guess what, storm windows can have screens too so you can take advantage of all that natural ventilation in the summer that your windows provide.
  6. We've insulated our attic and walls and we've insulated and caulked around the windows.  Here's the stuff the window salesmen don't want you to know...more heat is lost through your uninsulated attic and walls than through your windows AND, here's the kicker, it takes, on average 240 years to recoup the cost of replacing your windows through energy savings.
So, if you replace your windows that are over 60 years old, you throw away embodied energy and old growth trees, you contribute to the growing landfill problem, you change the character of your historic house, and you spend a lot of money in your pursuit of being green.  You'd have saved more energy if you insulated your house better,  repaired and caulked around your old windows, and bought new storm windows.   Hmmm...seems obvious what the greener answer is here.   

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Preservation is Green: Example 1

For me, its a no-brainer to reuse old buildings.  I tend to be frugal by nature (and birth) and want to reuse everything: scraps of lumber and bubble wrap, leftover basket reed and yarn, paper...You name it, I'd rather try to reuse it than throw it out.  Old buildings have earned respect and deserve to be reused and not discarded like someone's trash:
  • They represent a vision.  The vision of the person or people who built the store, church, depot, theater, service station, school, or house.  The vision that they would be providing a service to the community or a home to raise a family.  The vision that they would be there for years to come as part of a town or neighborhood or farm.  
  • They contribute to a sense of place.  They are the main street shops, the leafy neighborhoods, and the center of the square. 
  • They incorporate green principles that have recently become new all over again.  Solid brick walls that act as insulators to the cold and wind and as a trombe wall letting the heat from the sunny day slowly work its way into the building at night when the heat is most needed.  Large windows to let in natural light and cooling breezes in summer.  Established deciduous trees shading the building during the heat of the summer or evergreens acting as a windbreak in winter. 
  • They're the embodiment of energy.  The energy taken to create the building materials and design and build the building.  The energy of the craftsmen who laid the brick  or carved the woodwork, creating the special details that are often absent today.
  • They are happily reconfigured.  The old school with its classrooms and large windows becomes artists studios.  The old depot becomes home to a museum or visitors' center.  The old church becomes a restaurant.  And the service station becomes...town offices? 
 The Town of Blacksburg finished their repurposing of the Blacksburg Motor Company building last year.  Many people looked at the old Doc Roberts building and thought they were crazy.  What on earth did anyone see there that was historic or worth saving?  For those of us who looked closely, we saw the Art Deco details, the large open spaces of the former automobile showroom, and the ideal location on Main Street next to the Municipal Building.  The site had environmental issues to clean up and who better than the Town to ensure it was properly cleaned up?

The Blacksburg Motor Company is now home to the Planning, Building, Engineering, and GIS departments for the town and recently was awarded Platinum LEED Certification.  While historic preservation and LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) have not always seen eye-to-eye on what qualifies for LEED points (the topic of another blog), the Blacksburg Motor Company project was successful in illustrating low impact development and green building principles including: a geothermal heat pump, carpeting of recycled materials, original tin ceilings, rain gardens, porous pavers, and alternative transportation.  Furthermore, the building is historically significant so the town could  reduce the final cost of construction by taking advantage of state and federal tax credits. 

Bravo, Blacksburg, for providing such a great example for Southwest Virginia to follow!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Adventures in Deck Building, Or How Not To Build A Deck

So not only have we been working on our house over these past years, but also my mother-in-law's 1950s ranch.  She has two brand spankin' new bathrooms and a laundry room accessible from inside the house thanks to her son, with some help from me.  A couple of weekends ago, it was time to replace the deck.  It had gotten a little bouncy in places and she's getting ready to have the house painted, so it was time.  The challenging part of this, was that we weren't replacing the whole deck, just the old part that lays between the ramp and newer section of deck built by the Volunteeer Services Program of Elder HomesThat meant that the new section of deck we were building had a well-defined area and height that we had to match up with. 

As we started to take the old section of deck apart, it became pretty clear why the deck was bouncy - fewer than half the floorboards were still attached to the joists.  That made pulling the floor up a breeze, but wasn't a very good indicator of the future safety of the deck.   The posts were still solidly placed in the ground, but they pretty easily broke off at deck level.  The joists were harder to remove because they had been tied into the joists of the house.  Now, this was no easy feat, considering the deck was a relatively new addition, completed 20 years or more after the house was built.  All of the boards used in the deck, which we think was last replaced in the late '80s or early '90s, were still solid.  It was the construction that was the problem.  And that leads us to:  

How NOT To Build A Deck:
  1. Use nails that will rust out!  Most all of the nails on the decking were gone, victims of weatherization.  That made the deck easy to remove, but not so safe. 
    THE FIX:
    Mechanically galvanized or stainless steel nails won't rust and won't react with the chemicals in the pressure-treated lumber typically used on decks.

  2. Notch the posts to accommodate the deck structure - the more the better!  All of the posts had been notched so that either half or 3/4 of the post was gone where the joists met the post.  That created a spot for water and bugs to get in, weakening the post.  So though the ground-rated pressure-treated posts were still all solid at ground level and firmly placed in concrete in the ground, they had to be replaced to make the new deck because they were easily broken off where the cuts had been made. 
    THE FIX:  Use lag bolts to bolt the joists to the posts, leaving both the joists and the posts completely intact.  Be sure to use galvanized or stainless steel bolts to keep the bolts from reacting with the wood or the weather and rusting out.  
  3. Remove the sill band so that the deck joists can attach with those in the crawlspace of the house!  Okay, so this explains all of the mice and insects they had been dealing with over the years.  There were just big gaping holes stuffed with insulation where there should have been a ledger board.  Also a great place for moisture to get into the house. 
    THE FIX: We removed the joists that had been nailed in place under the house, insulated the space, replaced the sill band, and added a ledger board.  All of this was screwed into place with lag bolts.  The joists were then attached to the ledger board with joist hangers. 
    Joist hangers are the typical way of attaching joists to ledger boards today.  They're galvanized metal pieces that fit around the base of the joist.  A whole host of nails are required to fasten these puppies, and all of that nailing has to be done with good old-fashioned brute strength, but it makes the deck more solid and longer lasting.
  4. Set the stair stringers directly in concrete!  These did not fair as well as the posts, because of the nature of them being 2x instead of 4x, the natural cuts in them that make them stringers, and the fact that they aren't made of ground-rated lumber.  Bugs and moisture got into the wood so they broke off at the ground level as soon as the steps were removed.
    THE FIX:  Set the stringers ON the concrete instead of IN the concrete.
  5. Make the railings climbable!  Okay, in defense of the first deck builders, these rules have changed over the years as building codes have changed and you should check the codes in your own area.
    THE FIX: In our area, if the deck is more than 3 feet off the ground, it needs railings and if it isn't more than 3 feet off the ground and has railings, the railings must comply with the building code.  We opted for the railings, though we didn't have to, because they would help the new section of deck tie in with existing sections better.  Rather than using 3 horizontal boards like was on the old deck (basically a ladder), we used vertical 1x2s set the width of a 2x4 apart.  This meets the regulation of not being able to pass a 4" ball (or a child's head) through the railings.
We finished the deck, with help, in 2 1/2 days.  If you are thinking of building a deck yourself, there are a lot of great resources out there.  Check out Family Handyman's website  or the books below for step-by-step instructions.


Tuesday, September 7, 2010

They Do Steeples Better Than Us

We just returned from a trip to New England where, yes, they do steeples better than in the South.  The steeples up there are tall and slim, reaching for the heavens and anchoring the towns where they sit.  Here, more often than not, the steeples are short, squat, and questionable as to whether the building might be better off without the appendage at all.  Don't believe me?  Check out this book The Steeples of Old New England: How the Yankees Reached for Heaven and see for yourself. 

Another thing that New England does better?  Appreciating and reusing old buildings.  Very seldom do you see an old house falling into ruin up there.  Whether in town or further in the country, the houses are often bigger with many attached buildings (known as Big House, Little House, Back House, Barn: The Connected Farm Buildings of New England).  Somehow, despite the complaints of high taxes and property values, people manage to keep the buildings presentable and often looking worthy of a spot in Better Homes and Gardens.  

What's the difference between New Englanders and those who live in our area?  Maybe its Yankee thrift.  The building is there, so it should be reused, not torn down or left to rot while the owner lives in a far less subtantial building next to it.  People aren't afraid to turn the barn into a house or studio, change the layout of the rooms, and celebrate the workmanship and quality of a house built prior to the Civil War.  They'll even move buildings rather than tear them down.  The attention to detail has created a market for craftsmen who can restore old windows, install clapboard siding, and duplicate old woodwork, a la This Old House.   All those beautiful buildings tug at the heartstrings and generate tourism dollars from people who  want to experience the ambiance of New England and feel the pull back to a simpler time. 

So what's happened here in Southwest Virginia?  There is a strong tie to one's "homeplace".   Unfortunately, the homeplace is often weeded up and falling to the ground.  No one has lived there since several generations ago and the family either hasn't been able to agree on who owns the property or can't afford to do anything with the house.  So everything collapses.  Some of us have surmised that this might be tied to the Appalachian way of life that has so been shaped by outsiders coming in and exploiting natural resources, creating a throw away existence for many.  Due to mining, lumbering, and industry, people are less bothered by the raping of the landscape, including collapsing homes and towns.  What would be completely unacceptable in New England becomes an every day occurrence experienced by generations of Appalachian dwellers.  

Sad, but a possible explanation as to why historic preservation is so much more difficult to sell in this area.  Not so sure that explains the steeples though...

Sunday, August 22, 2010

How hot is it?

This summer has been a true test for those of use who don't have air conditioning.  When the HVAC guy came to sell us a new furnace, he asked us about air conditioning.  We said no thanks.  He shook his head.  We had lived in the area for 5 years, in houses without air conditioning.  Even though we're in the south, we are in the mountains so the summers are usually only hot enough to warrant the respite for maybe 5 days a year.  Why spend the money, we reasoned, and have to accommodate all the new duct work in our old house?

I've never lived in a house with air conditioning.  I grew up in New England, where if it got hot enough to need it, you jumped in a lake or went to the beach.  You might consider a trip to the grocery store, movie theater, or mall to cool off in the less rural areas.  For me though, the artificial cooling made the heat that much worse and harder to tolerate.    

This summer has been one of the hottest on record.  Even in the mountains, it has been hot and humid.  Somewhat unbearably at times.  The cat has probably felt the brunt of it since she spends all day every day inside, stretched out, hoping for a cool breeze, whereas we spend 8 hours a day at work in air conditioning.

But, you know what? We have 42 windows.  We have large shade trees.  We have roof overhangs and high ceilings.  We have an old house.  It was built for life without air conditioning.  During the day, the windows and shades on the south and west sides remain closed to keep the heat and sunlight out.  Most thunderstorms come from that direction anyway, so that keeps the rain out too.  The north and east sides stay in the shade and out of the rain, so the windows stay open there.  The ceiling fans keep the air moving, so other than being a little stuffy, it stays cooler than outside.  When we get home, the sun is lower in the sky, so we open the rest of the windows, add some box fans to pull in the cooler evening air, and enjoy our life without air conditioning.

If you think we're crazy, you might check out the book Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World (and Finding New Ways to Get Through the Summer) by Stan Cox, another proponent of an air conditioning-free world, to learn about how air conditioning has changed the world, and not always for the better.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

So what is an American Four Square?

An American Four Square is one of the most ubiquitous housing styles in neighborhoods across the country.  Built from the late 1890s through the 1920s,  the 4 Square was a reaction to the highly decorated and expensive houses of the Victorian era.  Though not always considered Craftsman homes, 4 Squares adhere to the Craftsman philosophy of Gustav Stickley and he published plans for the houses in his magazine, "The Craftsman".  

"The central thought in all Craftsman activities is the simplification of life and a return to true democracy," said Gustav Stickley in 1911.  Coming from the age of gingerbreaded Victorians, turrets, multi-colored houses, and decoration for decorations sake, Stickley was reacting to the Victorian excess.  There was a return to nature and honesty in workmanship and materials.  Most importantly, this new simplicity equated to economy, creating comfortable new single family homes for the growing middle class.

The American 4 Square was the epitome of  simplicity, honesty, and economy.  The houses are usually a big, 2 story, square-ish block with a wide, hipped roof capped with a large dormer.  On each floor inside are often 4 square rooms, providing the American 4 Square name.  As boring as that may sound, there is lots of room for variety.  The houses weren't dependent on symmetry, so the floor plans could be quite varied with a side hall, center hall, or no hall at all.  One of the front rooms might have a bay window to break up the squareness of the facade.  The windows might be evenly spaced across the house, or might vary depending on the function of the room behind.  The types of windows varied from house to house, some with simple 1-over-1 windows, others with leaded glass, curves, or multiple lights.  Siding was made of natural materials such as wood shingles, stucco, clapboard, brick, or concrete, but varied depending on the availability of local materials and craftsman.

American 4 squares provided a lot of space for minimal effort in construction.   One feature of these houses is the porch running the full length of the front of the house.  The hipped roof with dormer provided the opportunity to expand, creating living space in the attic.  Most houses sat on a basement, providing a storage area and a place for the furnace.  The square shape also lent itself to additions, such as additional rooms or porches attached to the sides of the building.

Environmentally, the houses provided lots of natural light, ventilation, and cooling.  The many large windows in many of these houses make it possible to perform most daytime tasks without turning on a light.  The same windows provide natural ventilation in summer, often making it unnecessary to run air conditioning.  Deep roof overhangs and porches help to shade the windows from the harshest sun in summer, helping to cool the house while also providing protection so that windows may be left open during rain storms.  Today, many of these houses have large old trees shading them, providing additional summer cooling.

Gustav Stickley said, "A Craftsman house should stand for 100 years or more without requiring repairs."  American Four Squares have stood the test of time and are continuing to prove their worth in neighborhoods across the country.  We can learn much from the simplicity, honesty of materials, and solid construction that have certainly proven to be more sustainable than much of the construction of the latter half of the 20th century.