Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Preservation, Renovation, New Construction: It's All About the Cat

At every critique, one of our architecture professors, Mike O'Brien, used to ask, "where will the cat sleep?"  Now, if you think about it, that's a pretty valid question.  Cats, long known for their innate design aesthetic, will naturally migrate towards the sunniest, warmest, and quietest spot in the house.  That spot will be the favorite location for human inhabitants as well.

In our house, we have several favorite cat spots that center around the windows and radiators.  On the first floor, the living room radiator is the perfect spot in the winter.  It warms from the bottom up while providing a nice view of the outside world.  Afternoon sunbeams just add to the ambiance of the spot.  In summer, the same location is great for window hunting and catching a cool mountain breeze.  Upstairs, we have a similar spot on a window seat with a radiator nearby for winter warmth and no direct sun for summer cooling.  The best place for the cat to sleep is in the sitting room which has 6 windows and sunbeams throughout the day, but we keep that to ourselves so that our house plants have a chance to grow and thrive without nibbled leaves.

Our latest construction project in our house is all about the cat as well.  At least that's what we tell her.  Really it's for us.  We've had plans for a first floor bathroom for a while, but haven't gotten to it.  After some knee problems last fall, it became clear that had to rise on our priority list when it became painful for several months to climb the stairs.  Since we are creating the bathroom in a space that wasn't originally a separate room, there is no radiator there.  It will be a full bathroom with separate tub and shower adjacent to a downstairs bedroom when completed, but will probably be used most often as a downstairs powder room  and will gain most of it's heat from the surrounding rooms.  However, when it is used for bathing or particularly cold out, the bathroom will need it's own heat so our plan had always been to install a ceramic tile floor with radiant heating underneath.

For a ceramic tile installation, the radiant heat mesh is installed over the cement board.  The directions and accompanying video are very specific about keeping the area where the mesh will be installed clean and being very careful about not cutting or stapling through the wiring!  A small trench is dug in the cement board to hide the wiring at the end of the mesh where it goes into the wall to connect to electricity and the thermostat.  (While it took 10 minutes max in the DIY video to lay the mesh, hot glue and staple it to the underlayment, cut the trench, wire it up, and test it after every step, it took somewhat longer than that.)  Tile is then laid as normal, being careful to not scrape your trowel too hard across the mesh (or get your foot stuck in it!)  Then, voila! A radiant floor!  One thing we found is that larger tiles would have been a better idea over the radiant section of the floor.  Because you need a relatively thick layer of mortar to cover the mesh and hold the tiles in place, there was a lot of oozing in the small tiles which meant a huge amount of clean up to get the spaces between the tiles clean for grouting.    

As you can see above, the radiant section of the floor has black square tiles set into the field of white octagonal tiles.  To the left in the photo is where the shower will be.  Directly in front is where the sink will be, the tub will be to the right of the sink, under the window, and the toilet will be to the bottom right.  The photo is taken from the door into the bedroom.  The floor still needs to be grouted and we need to insulate under the floor from the crawlspace below to complete the flooring project and get to the wainscoting and fixtures.  

No word from the cat yet on what she thinks of this project to warm her tootsies in winter and cool her tummy in summer.  But remember, design that's good for the cat is good for her humans!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

When Preservation by Neglect Becomes Demolition by Neglect

I'm sure some of you thought I had lost my mind advocating preservation by neglect in my last post.  There is a fine line between preservation by neglect and demolition by neglect.  A building that has been mothballed, or closed up with a tight roof and closed windows, locked doors, and a solid foundation, will remain a viable part of the streetscape through years of neglect.  However, the minute the roof starts to leak, the windows are broken, or the doors are kicked in, demolition by neglect sets in.  The building's demise is heartbreaking to watch and is often the result of an equally sad situation such as bankruptcy or death of the owner or crime in the neighborhood.  The final result is often a mandate from the municipality that the neglected building be demolished because it is hazardous to passerby.  

Unfortunately, demolition by neglect can be used by unscrupulous developers and home owners to circumvent historic district architectural review boards (ARB).  Examples abound of developers wanting to tear down a historic building to replace it with a McMansion or commercial behemoth that does not fit into the architectural guidelines.  Rather than work with the ARB, the developer will sometimes ignore their ruling and remove architectural features from the building such as siding or windows and then leave the building in that state where the weather will begin the demolition process.  A high profile example of this situation is happening in Waterford, Virginia  where the Simms' House was caught up in such a maelstrom that began in 1996, resulted in the demolition of the neglected and structurally compromised house in 2006, and continues today as a fight over what can be built on the lot.

In our area, a rather public case of demolition by neglect is culminating with the razing of the old Blacksburg Middle School (Renee Kuhlmann's morning commute in yesterday's PreservationNation post).  Due to budgetary issues, Montgomery County didn't maintain the building.  Roof leaks ruined the gym floor and caused severe mold problems.  While many saw the building as a potential community center, the County saw it as a cash cow with its location on Main Street at the southern gateway to downtown and its acres of athletic fields.  Ironically, the lack of maintenance quite possibly cost the County additional money when the Blacksburg High School gym collapsed last year, causing a scramble to rehouse high school and then middle school students.  After much consternation, middle schoolers are commuting to neighboring Christiansburg to attend their old Middle School which had been maintained. and asbestos is being removed from the neglected old Blacksburg Middle School in preparation for its upcoming demolition.   The County will have its cash cow, while middle school students will remain in Christiansburg until a new high school is built.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Preservation by Neglect is Sometimes the Right Answer

Since it has been 3 weeks since I have updated this blog, one could say that the title pertains to the blog itself.  The blog has definitely been neglected, but through that neglect, the previous postings have been preserved.  They have stayed here on this website, in exactly the same order that they were written in with the last posting being what you see when you first visit the blog.  As time goes on, the postings may look the same, but they've started to erode the site a bit.  You, the reader have come back to the blog, seen that it hasn't been updated in a while, and your interest in the site begins to wane.  Though since the blog is still here in cyberspace, you keep checking it, holding out hope that it will be updated soon.  In the world of the Internet, 3 weeks without a blog update is like the long-empty and neglected 100-year-old farmhouse whose windows are starting to sag, but that you keep hoping someone will come along and restore.

The reason for the lack of blog posts also relates to preservation by neglect.  I have 2 books coming out in the Spring, both of which required proofing, indexing, and other final details in December.  The first book is Giles County (Then and Now) from Arcadia Publishing and due out in March.  For this book, I located historic photographs of Giles County, Virginia then found the locations where the photographs were originally taken and made contemporary photographs with my trusty digital SLR camera.  This was a fun, and surprisingly difficult, project as some places are completely gone today or there are trees blocking the views.  Those places that were easiest to find, of course, were the ones that haven't changed much over time, a few because they had been neglected entirely, most because they had been maintained or restored throughout the years.   

The second book is Lost Communities of Virginia from Albemarle Books, distributed by the University of Virginia Press, and due out in May.  The book features 30 communities from throughout Virginia that were once thriving, but now show the traces of their once booming pasts.  The stories of the communities are told through historical information, contemporary photographs, community maps, and interviews with long-time residents.  To be considered for the book, communities had to retain buildings and some visible community center.  In many cases, one or more of the "downtown" buildings remain only due to preservation by neglect.  If these communities hadn't been so remote, their commercial districts would have been maintained by existing businesses, restored and reused for new purposes, or demolished to make room for the "newest and best".  Instead, one can imagine what it would have been like to get off the train at the depot or visit the company store on Saturday night with the coal miners and their families or to stay at the tavern while in town on courthouse business.  

While I certainly don't advocate preservation by neglect and prefer actual preservation, I'd rather the neglected buildings remain than be demolished.  Particularly in downtown areas, there is a constant reminder of the past, the building's important contribution to the streetscape, and what could be if the building were restored.  If you tear down every empty building, then what?  There are the environmental issues of hauling all that refuse to the landfill.  There's the question of what to do with all that empty space, especially in a small town. And, most importantly, there's a loss of character and a sense of place.  At least with the buildings remaining, there's hope.  Hope that they'll be restored.  Hope that downtown can be revitalized.  Hope that the community's uniqueness and pride can be retained.