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.