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...