Thursday, June 11, 2015

where angels fear to tread

It's really not that things haven't been happening around here, it's just that they haven't been happening on MY schedule...  But finally, walls are all up, likely for the first time since the 40's.  That's a lot of decades to not have walls and ceilings (and to see blue sky though), it boggles one's mind really....

But since I'm still stressed out over the plastering, lets talk about what the plastering made possible, namely, attic insulation.  Believe it or not, we bought all our blown in insulation nearly five years ago when we first bought our house to get the 25% discount running at Lowe's and to beat that years tax rebate (an additional 30 percent I think?).  Installing it was not only dependent on ceilings, but also on new electrical, new roof, siding and gutter repair, as well as proper plumbing venting.  All those things have been done for years now, with over a hundred bags of cellulose and fiberglass taking up two full rooms of our third floor.

The space they took up made working on those rooms impossible, and to add insult to injury about 20 bags that were in front of windows exploded from the sun degrading the plastic bags, and a certain cat decided that all that fluff made an excellent litterbox before we discovered the issue.  

Knowing that the plastering would eventually get done I began working on the attic a month ago. Work that had already been completed included removing all the squirrel, raccoon and bird nests, insulating and sealing the third floor knee walls, and running/fixing some wiring.   The plan had been to do all this while it was still cold out, with the plastering delays the attic became my personal hell on earth.  Well over a century of household and Pittsburgh soot, soaring temps, cobwebs, rusty nails and tiny confined spaces made this one of the worst projects yet (second only to deconstructing the schoolhouse).

In the attic, first I stuffed unfaced batts into the stud bays so we didn't lose the blown in down the walls and ceiling slopes.  The knee walls that I had been able to close up were vented with Styrofoam baffles to connect them to the attic - keeping them as cold as possible in winter will hopefully help with ice dams.  The knee walls I didn't have access too (I didn't take down any plaster that could be saved) were kept cut off from the attic to cut down on chimney effect.  For those who are curious, we have an unvented slate roof.  We made no effort to seal the attic off from the exterior, so the whole house fan and small (watertight) gap between the flat widows walk and the rest of the roof provide more ventilation than we really need, but again, a cold roof helps with ice dams...  We also spray foamed all the wiring and plumbing penetrations.  We went ahead and screwed down boards to walk on, they'll be mostly useless since they'll be buried under more than a foot of insulation, but they at least make installing it easier.  Last but not least we built a platform around the attic hatch and surrounded it with an osb wall to hold back the drifts.  This will give us a place to sit on the way to accessing the roof hatch.  And last but not least, blown-in fiberglass (varying between R-38 and R-49)...

Still to do are cutting some additional batts to sit on the platform, and restoring and insulating the original beadboard attic hatch.  Now, if only I could fast forward to fall and winter to see how effective all this is.

Friday, May 8, 2015

a happy belated May Day

I had meant to post these shots on the first, but I failed.

In my head I can't even complete the phrase May Day without adding "is lei day in Hawaii."  I suppose my youth there has forever corrupted me.  It wasn't till I moved away for college that I learned that May Day has nothing to do with awkward little kids doing hula for their schools' May day production...

As part of the packet of mystery photos that were e-mailed to us last year by the Frick Archive, were these beautiful photos of our neighbor's spectacular home decked in garlands to celebrate May Day.  Now that I've gotten over the fact that the interiors weren't of our house I can appreciate these for how lovely and rare they truly are.

Happy May!

hey, look at us in the background!

Land of the flowers, of flow'ry bowers,
In her gay dress she appears
A sweet happy maid, may her dress never fade
As she carries this day through the years
Garlands of flowers ev'ry where
All of the colors in the rainbow
Maidens with blossoms in their hair
Flowers that mean we should be happy
Throwing aside our load of care, Oh!
May Day is Lei Day in Hawai`i
Lei Day is happy day out there.
Beaches of white shining sand
Where each one I see has a smile just for me
And has ready a welcoming hand
May Day is Lei Day in Hawai`i
Garlands of flowers ev'ry where
All of the colors in the rainbow
Maidens with blossoms in their hair
Flowers that mean we should be happy
Throwing aside our load of care, Oh!
May Day is Lei Day in Hawai`i
Lei Day is happy day out there.
May Day is Lei Day in Hawai`i
Land of green mountains, gardens and fountains

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

happy birthday to me

Actually my birthday was several days ago, but architectural pieces seem to be the gift that keeps on giving...

Before we left for Chicago a couple of weeks ago, a mantel showed up on craigslist.  While the lower section was quite plain, the overmantel was a spectacular aesthetic movement piece with a rainbow shaped beveled mirror, fretwork and floral carving.  My original overmantels were likely something similar (although ghost marks indicate they were substantially larger).  The price was far higher than anything I could afford, but I sent off my usual e-mail then put it out of mind.  After all, I had plans to hit all the salvage stores in Chicago and was hoping to find something to bring back.  Well, the salvage yards, while great, had nothing to offer me, so I was amazed when just a week later the owner of the mantel accepted my offer.

photo from craigslist
I was momentarily terrified when she said the mirrors would have to be replaced (I was certain they had been broken as the mantel was being removed, but luckily she just thought the foxing was undesirable.  Having to replicate that mirror would cost more than I paid for the mantel!

Not surprisingly, the house it came from was beautiful, and I'm more than a little sad that I'm responsible for making it less so (but if I didn't buy it, someone else would have I suppose).  The icing on the cake was that the majolica tile was falling off the wall, and she happily gave it all to us so she didn't have to pay her contractor to remove it.  We've attempted to salvage tile from a number of houses that were being demolished and have never had much luck - meanwhile, we were able to get 95% of these off intact with just a putty knife...

Now a disclaimer, I must have worn my camera out in Chicago because these pictures are terrible, but if I keep putting things off I swear I'll never post anything.

Despite the work remaining in the room, it's certainly a far cry from where it started...

listing photo

Friday, April 3, 2015

chim chiminey

well, hello...

Have you ever had a nightmare it which you're frantically trying to do something, but everything's moving in impossibly slow motion?  That's been the past few weeks here.  Slow.  As.  Sludge...

But there are people on my roof now, we saw the Decemberists a few nights ago, and the chimney is done.  Betcha didn't even know we were working on the chimney eh?  Well, we have been.  For months.

We're lucky enough to still have all five original chimneys, 4 on the main 1886 house, and one on the 1890's kitchen addition.  All were in danger of collapse when we bought the house, and we rebuilt the four main ones immediately because they tied into the slate roof work and flashing.  Not to mention had they collapsed they would have done major damage to the new roof and gutters.

The one on the end of the kitchen wing on the other hand was willfully ignored.  We weren't working on that section of roof yet, and other than someone parking under it, nothing would be harmed if it came down of its own accord.  Unfortunately, the spalling bricks impacted the plaster walls all the way down, but that damage was done long before we came into the picture.

the moss is a nice touch isn't it?  This is not what the inside of a chimney should look like!

So long story short, we met a new mason, he was willing to do our bidding (it's quite a bit harder than you'd think to find people willing to use the proper materials for restoration), and he didn't think we were strange for wanting to put our "collection" up top.  You see, when the top of this chimney had partially collapsed before we bought the house, it lost it's massive sandstone cap, which would have been very expensive to reproduce.  It was also the ugly stepsister to our other chimneys.  So, two house demolitions and one freecycle pickup later (all over the four plus years we've been here), and the forgotten chimney has a bit of eclectic British charm.

nicely bedded down in 4 inches of mortar

Perhaps the happiest part of all this is seeing yet more of my "clutter" get incorporated into the house and out of the way.  Unless you're in the enviable position of being Scrooge McDuck, the only way to tackle a massive project like this is to grab materials as you find them, even if it means storing them for years.  Yes, your friends and family may seek professional help for you (even though in this case I am a professional), but just remember, they're not the ones taking on an impossible project (I mean, if they truly cared they'd offer to pay right?).

Monday, March 2, 2015

the drip of despair

We've been on a roll getting stuff done around here, and the universe must have decided we had violated the two steps forward one step back rule.  Bam!  Roof leak!

When we redid the entire roof on the main house 4 years ago, there weren't many places it wasn't leaking (but because we started work in a very cold and snowy winter we had to do the electrical first, how's that for hilarious?).  Our roof was Buckingham (black and sparkly from it's quartz content) slate, which is perhaps the most desirable slate in North America. Instead of making repairs, the previous owners had been tarring the leaks for the past 60 years.  So we went from slates that should have been nearly 100% salvageable, to being able to save about 50%.

And why you ask are my black slates red?
Pollution from decades ago, this is Pittsburgh after all...

Your amateur slate lesson for the day:  A good slate like a Buckingham will last nearly indefinitely with proper care, and even a cheap slate that's installed well should last a century.  The steeper a roof, the longer the slates will last because water and dirt shed off well.  The materials that make up a slate roof will, in most cases, fail before the slates themselves do.  When that happens, the slates are carefully removed, gutters, valleys and flashing are repaired, and the slates relaid.  In this scenario, you may have to find a square or two to account for loss and rotted slates.  Doing this on a big house, even with copper everything, will cost about the same as a new shingle roof and last about a century.
But in our case, tar....  Tar is bad.  It is the destroyer of slates - it holds water and heats up, rotting the slate, and can't be removed.  And it doesn't even really stop leaks that well.  The slate was really the biggest hangup on us buying the house.  For what it would cost to properly restore the roof we could have finished the exterior.  That was an incredibly tough pill to swallow and we didn't feel we were up to the challenge.  If we didn't buy the house, not only would it not get a slate roof, it was facing demolition.  If someone else did save the house, they certainly weren't going to put slate back up.  The house had already lost so much, that losing it's slate would just be another nail in it's coffin.  And most of the other big homes had lost their slates - and it was an obvious loss.

We went with slate.  Or rather, mostly slate.

In every restoration there is room for compromise.  In this case, we did as much of the front of the roof in our original Buckingham slate as possible, putting enough aside to do just the front of the kitchen addition when that roof fails.  This is what passerbys see, and what we see coming home, so it was obviously the priority. 

everything that could be saved

I found some grey fishscale slates through salvage and we added a band detail to further stretch our original slates, while we used another cheap salvaged slate our slater had just taken off another house on the invisible roof angles. Lastly, there's ordinary shingles on the very back.   Why the non-matching slates you ask?  Well, our slate is the most expensive there is, and very little is still being mined (if at all, there's some debate over if what's being called Buckingham is the same stuff).  It was impossible to find anything that matched that wouldn't devour the rest of our make the house camp-able budget.  It's a big compromise, and actually something that still really bothers me.  I hope we're here long enough to re-slate the back of the roof - but realistically, it's the lowest priority on the list...

As usual though, I digress.  All that trouble, and there's a series of leaks on the back shingle section of the roof that appeared out of nowhere (not an ice dam which was my first thought).  Oddly enough, the only access to them from inside the house was supposed to get closed up this weekend, but our plasterer canceled.  So I guess that's a good thing?  Fixing whatever the problem is should happen on Wednesday, so details to follow I suppose...