Monday, February 28, 2011

A Credo for Do It Yourself Shows

We watch a fair amount of DIY shows (some would probably say too many), and here's the thing: there are a lot of yahoos out there that take these shows as gospel.  They don't have a clue about how to actually do anything, but they see it on TV and think they can do it too.  If for no reason other than that, it is the responsibility of all DIY shows to do it right:
  • Be a good example.  If you don't work safely and responsibly, how can you expect your viewers to do so?
  • Don't mock the homeowner who got himself in too deep.  You are the expert.  That's why you have the show.  Mocking that one homeowner makes other homeowners feel like they shouldn't ask questions which leads them to more trouble.
  • Use the safety gear you hate.  The safety glasses?  They make you look like a total geek.  The mask?  It hides your luscious lips.  The gloves? They make you seem oh so much less manly.  The ear plugs? What?  USE THEM!  ALWAYS!  If you don't, your viewers won't.  And then you can feel responsible for the lost eyesight from the spraying tile saw, the inhaled fiberglass insulation causing an asthma attack, the mangled fingers during demolition, and the deaf ear from the jack hammer.  Pretend OSHA is looking over your shoulder.  For your newby viewers' sakes.
  • Use the right tool for the project.  No axes for demolition please. That just gives me the heeby jeebies.
  • Get a building permit.  This part is often not shown on DIY shows so many homeowners don't even know they need a building permit for the work they are doing.  That can cause all kinds of problems when the cease and desist orders start flying. 
  • Work with the building inspectors and historic district commissions instead of indicating that they are just there to derail your project.  Building inspectors and historic district commissions are there for a reason: your safety and the integrity of your home and the neighborhood.  Often they will work with you.  If you ask.  Not if you try to power your own idea of code through and expect them to accept it.  Having a good working relationship from the beginning is far better than an adversarial one that begins three quarters of the way through the project.  Make your viewers aware there are building codes and there might be other covenants on the property before the inspectors strike.
  • Salvage what you can.  In our new greener world, don't replace all of the windows, and doors, throw out the old fixtures, wood paneling and trim, or destroy the radiators.  If you really can't reuse them in your project, bring them to an architectural salvage yard or a ReStore.  Someone else can often reuse these things and keep them out of the landfill.  But only if you don't throw sledge hammers at them or shatter them in the dumpster.
  • Make it clear that if you don't have experience, you shouldn't do it at home.  There are certain jobs that should be left to the pros.  There's been a lot of DIY wiring going on on shows lately that makes me cringe.  People are shocking themselves and laughing it off.  They could die.  They could burn their houses down.  If you don't know what you are doing with something as potentially dangerous as electrical wiring, hire an expert!
  • Don't glorify the yahoos who shouldn't be doing it at home by giving them their own shows, it just encourages more yahoos.  'Nuff said.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Introducing...the Westview Project

We are by no means finished with our own house, but sometimes, a deal comes along that is just too good to pass up.  Our dream has long been to rehab old houses that need TLC and make them warm, comfy, and livable for a new generation.  We were browsing through the real estate section early this year and found such a house just two blocks away in our small town.  The house was a HUD foreclosure with a price tag less than the cost of a new car for about 2,700 square feet of livable space.  How could we possibly pass that up?  

The house is in decent shape considering it was built in the early 1900s, turned into 3 apartments in the 1940s (hmmm, sounds like our house), and hasn't been loved in a long time.  It's a frame house that currently has 6 bedrooms and 1 bathroom on 3 floors.  It's solid and has great hardwood floors, but needs a new roof, new HVAC, new wiring, new plumbing, insulation, storm windows, a couple more bathrooms, and some curb appeal

We're a little unsure if the house has a real style other than vernacular.   Several of the features appear to be Craftsman-like: the clipped gable, the dormer, the 3 over 1 windows, and the details of the front and side entrances.  But there aren't any Craftsman-like details inside.  The trim is just straight, squared-edge pieces of wood.  There aren't any wood wainscoting or built-ins.  It's just really simple and basic inside.  That gives us a lot of leeway for upgrading utilities, making it more energy efficient, and creating a more modern layout.

We started work on it today, gutting the third floor attic rooms.  It is a beautiful sunny space with 3 windows in the dormer and 5 more on the sides.  We removed the trim, wiring, and old wall board in there (some of which was made down the road in Gold Bond).  We envision this space as a master bedroom or a studio or a playroom space depending on the needs of it's new family.  We'll put a master bathroom up there and the eaves are high enough to make great closet space.  Dreaming and demoing - the best way to start a new project.      

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Restoration, Rehabilitation, and Insulation

The Secretary of the Interior is pretty clear about the differences between restoration and rehabilitation of historic properties. Restoration "focuses on the retention of materials from the most significant time in a property's history, while permitting the removal of materials from other periods" while Rehabilitation "emphasizes the retention and repair of historic materials, but more latitude is provided for replacement because it is assumed the property is more deteriorated prior to work." In addition, the historical importance, physical condition, proposed use, and code requirements should be taken into consideration when choosing a treatment for the building.

In the area where we live, economics have never been such that large, showy houses were built.  Because we are relatively isolated, most building occurred in the late 1800s and early 1900s, with a building boom in the 1940s related to growing industry.  Most of the houses here reflect the blue collar nature of the jobs available and are simple, vernacular homes with some bungalows and American four squares thrown in.  Taken together, the houses create an interesting, varied, and historic streetscape, but very few places in the county have been nominated for the National Register.

Our house was built by the town doctor and is one of the more majestic-looking in our town.  Yet despite the exterior, the interior is very simple and plain.  Most, but not all of the trim and doors are oak, but the trim is basic and easily replicable (or findable at the salvage yard).  Our house doesn't have the Craftsman details and built-ins popular in many houses of the time.  There is just one shallow fireplace with a very simple mantle.  The walls are plaster, but not in great shape.  And our house, as were many other larger homes in the area, was broken up into apartments during the building boom of the 1940s.

For us, the lack of Craftsman details and poor plaster is a blessing in disguise.  It means that we don't feel obligated to restore the house back to the time when the details were new.  We can really do what we please inside the house to make it livable without concern for fancy woodwork, because we just don't have it.  That said, we have removed traces of the apartments, found where the original doorways were and generally restored the spaces to what they were when the house was built.  We are fortunate to have most of the original doors and trim and have been able to find replacements where the originals were lost.

Most importantly though, because we aren't restoring the house, but instead are rehabilitating it, we could insulate it without feeling (much) guilt for replacing the plaster exterior walls with sheetrock.  Now we certainly recognize that many of you are frowning at us for doing that.  However, we live in a climate with strong winds and cold winter weather and it makes more sense to reduce our heating bills with insulation than to keep and patch plain 1913 plaster walls.  Were this house older, if it were in a different climate, if the walls were more significant due to plaster details or wainscoting or other trim, or if the exterior were wood so that it could be insulated from outside, we would have considered other alternatives.  But, for our own comfort and the continuing use of this house, this was the right rehabilitation plan for this house.

Monday, February 7, 2011

When Does Restoration Go Too Far?

We've watched American Restoration on the History Channel a few times.  The premise is that someone brings their old rusty treasure to the American Restoration shop and for a (pretty steep) fee, get a bright, shiny restored treasure in return.  Due to my museum and preservation background, I'm on the fence about what I think of this show.  On the one hand, most of the objects brought in are in such a decayed state that they are unlikely to be used or displayed as is.  On the other hand, when the objects are restored, their original finish, details, and parts are often lost.  Are these really the same objects anymore?  Does it matter?

An extreme restoration example is the USS Constitution, also known as Old Ironsides.  This ship was launched in 1797 and has remained commissioned ever since.  Now think about that for a moment.  This wooden-hulled ship has been in the water for 213 years.  Do you think any ship could really stay afloat 213 years without some work being done?  What about the ropes and sails?  Seems like they would rot in the elements, yet the ship sails periodically.  Today it is estimated that through the ship's many repairs and restorations, only 10-15% of the original ship remains.  The rest of the wood, rope, sail, copper, cast iron, and other materials have been replaced.  The ship is still accepted to be the USS Constitution, but if 85-90% of the materials are new, is it still the USS Constitution?  Does it matter?

What about a Ford Model A found in a barn, unused for 40 years.  All of the parts and the paint are as they were from the factory.  Someone comes in, gets the engine running, buys reproduction tires for it, drives it away, and uses it as it was meant to be.  Contrast this with the automobile connoisseur who takes the same Model A to a restorer, gets a shiny new paint job, a factory perfect engine, whitewall tires, loads it in his car carrier, and wins prizes for its perfection, but never, ever drives it.  Or the hotrod fan who takes the same Model A, chops down the frame, replace the engine, brightly paints it with a flame job, and can drive the car on the interstate.  Are these all really the same Model A anymore?  If the vehicle is still being used, rather than rotting away in the barn, does it matter?

In a museum or at auction, an object is usually worth more if it is in it's original state.  Strip down and refinish that Chippendale chest or replace the glass in that Tiffany lamp shade and it loses value both for the museum visitor and the collector.  These aren't the same objects anymore.  And it does matter.

We tend to be more tolerant of changes to buildings or hold them to a different  standard.  Perhaps it's their longevity.  Roofs have to be replaced, plumbing and electricity added or upgraded, and walls and exteriors painted.  We still consider the building to be the same building despite these changes.  Fix a rotted sill, add a portico to the front or a wing to the side, and it is still the same building.  Lost details may be replaced, old paint scraped to make a smooth surface for new paint,  floors sanded and refinished, and reproduction wallpaper added.  Perhaps because a building is more of a living being, it matters less that the original finishes have been lost as long as the building looks the same. 

So what about the objects they restore on American Restoration?  Is that okay?  I'm still not sure.  But maybe it doesn't matter as long as the owners are happy with their newly restored objects.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Baby It's Cold Outside: Choosing a New Heating System

We bought our house in January 2003.  We had the luxury of working on the house before we moved into it so things like heat were less of a priority than they would have been otherwise.  However, this was one of the coldest Januarys in recent memory, or so it seemed to us.  The temperature remained below freezing for weeks, unusual here in Southwest Virginia.  If we were going to work on the house comfortably, one of the first things on our agenda was to start the boiler.  

We had the natural gas turned on thinking it couldn't be that hard to light the furnace.  We knew from looking at it that it was old and probably a gas guzzler, but the previous owners had used it, so it must work.  Right?  Wrong.  Since the house had been empty for a bit, the gas company stuck around to see if there were any leaks when the furnace started.  Well, we tried and couldn't figure out how to light the thing.  The gas company representative tried for a half hour or so and couldn't get the thing started.  At that point, we decided that heat was over-rated.  We had been told the radiators were drained (apparently  mostly, but not completely, but that's another story) and we wouldn't be living there so we decided to go heatless.  In the dead of winter. 

The old, and I do mean old, boiler was cast iron and had once burned coal and later oil before it's metamorphosis to natural gas burner.  We knew we wanted to keep the radiators in the house and would continue using natural gas.  We also knew that with our climate, mountain breezes, and 42 windows, air conditioning wouldn't be necessary.  That meant a new efficient natural gas boiler was in order. Despite the heating contractor's insistence that we needed air conditioning, our choice was a Buderus boiler with programmable thermostat and an on-board hot water heater.

Things to think about when buying a new heating system:
  1. Make sure the company you buy it from knows how to service it.  We've had several occasions where we've known more about the service than the technicians and have had to tell them how they broke it.  Or  how to restart it. 
  2. Consider zoning the system.  Our second floor is always hotter than the first during heating season.  If we had zoned the system, we could turn the heat down upstairs or up downstairs.  As it is, downstairs holds steady at the temperature on the thermostat while upstairs is summery.
  3. If your system adjusts to the outside air temperature like ours does, be sure to put the sensor on the north side of the house.  Our sensor was originally next to the gas meter on the west side of the house.  In the afternoon sun.  Against a brick wall radiating heat well into the evening.  Unless it was a rainy day, we were cold.  The sensor thought it was much warmer out than it was, so the boiler either didn't think it was necessary to come on or would provide very little heat. 
  4. Programmable thermostats are the way to go.  We tend to be very predictable people and we want to be warm when we're up and about.  The thermostat is programmed for the heat to be higher in the morning when we get up, lower during the day when we're working around the house or out and about, and higher in the evening when we're more likely to be sitting.  Our house holds heat well during the time that the heat is lower and absorbs sun during the day, so the extremes aren't significant.
  5. Insulate, insulate, insulate!  It doesn't matter how efficient your heating system is if your house is drafty.  Insulate your walls, attic, and crawl spaces.  Put weatherstripping around your windows and doors and add storms.  
  6. If you have the option of having your boiler provide your hot water, do it.  Our water is always hot, never runs out, and can be used by more than one person at once.  The boiler keeps a few gallons of water hot year-round, then kicks on to provide unlimited hot water for showers, washing, and kitchen use for minimal cost.