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...

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

that smell...

I had all but forgotten that distinct smell that goes along with replastering.  While the curing plaster has it's own delicious scent (the scent of progress and victory could never be called bad could it?) there's also the residual scents of demolition.  Musty rotted wood, urine soaked soaked squirrel nests, even the old plaster has a smell.  Of course, overlaid on top of those is the sweet smell of fabric softener if I've been stripping wallpaper.  All that, and there's no possible way of opening a window in this cold...

That somewhat dizzying potpourri is worth it though if that's what getting walls requires.

The butler's pantry is about half done, all that's left is patching the old holes.  You can see just how many types of plaster we have going on - three coat will go back on the lathe where possible, blue board and wire lathe are used in spots where there's no wood lathe left, or where he'll have to taper the plaster to blend two different surfaces.  Not to mention the veneer coat on the new surfaces.

It's a process that tries my patience, as part as our heavily negotiated price, the work is getting done on weekends and on some evenings.  While this was our choice, it still manages to drive me slightly nuts.

Upstairs, my to-do list is complete.  The only wallpaper remaining is on the ceiling of the big bedroom.  Since the plaster is in hideous shape, the ceiling and slanted walls will be laminated with blue board and veneer plaster, the fantastic ceiling papers can stay to enthrall a future owner.  While they appear strikingly modern, they are the first and second layers of about 15 total, so I have no doubt they date to about 1886 and 1911 respectively (first and second owners).  While I doubt it'll ever be in my budget to have these reproduced as wallpaper, I'm hoping to have a stencil made - time I have plenty of.

A lot of people ask why laminate instead of just demoing everything fully, and there are a few reasons (as much as I'd like to preserve every fraction of an inch height wise).  First off, the existing plaster is about an inch thicker than the half inch blue board, this would leave a difficult to patch gap where the walls meet the ceilings .  Secondly, our joists and studs are only a few steps removed from being trees, wonderful for holding the house up, terrible if you're looking for a flat surface - the plaster and lathe hides these inconsistencies, blue board secured directly to the joists would not.  The fix for this is to strike a level line around the rooms and screw level nailers into the joists - costly, time consuming, and likely taking away that inch of height you were fighting to preserve.  Lastly, while veneer plaster looks and feels nice, it still has that hollowness that drywall has, securing it against the plaster walls makes it nearly indistinguishable from the original.  Oh, and one more thing, I don't need a hundred more trash bags to deal with - we're already two months out with our current collection (between ours and our neighbors houses we can get rid of about 6-8 a week - Pittsburgh doesn't have a dump).

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

two years

Two years seems awfully long for something I started on a whim, but yes, I've been writing this blog for two years and we've been chained to this house for over four years now.  I still can't manage to keep up with what's going on here, let alone everything we worked on before I started writing (most of that was just me running around screaming looking for the next leak, but whatever).

That said, I feel like I owe you the truth.  I've done a terrible thing.  I actually HIRED someone to do work I'm perfectly capable of doing myself.  I'm ashamed.  And overjoyed.  The last of the destroyed rooms (and then some) will be done in the next month or so by our lovely plasterer (I'll admit, I let him do the staircase ceiling two years ago).  

most of the plaster under that wallpaper was missing or rotted out

That plastic sheet was one of many water funneling
devices designed to get water down the stairs
50's (?) era plaster board that had never even been finished,
which illustrates how long our house has been derelict
These include the two biggest bedrooms on the third floor, the recently opened up butler's pantry, and maybe the back of the laundry room if we have enough materials left over.  The reality is that I taught myself how to do three coat and veneer plaster when we bought the house, and I did all of the work on the first and second floors.  We lied to the bank and told them the third floor was "just attic," and convinced them not to force us to finish it before closing out the 203k loan we were required to have to get a mortgage.  There was simply not enough time or money to have done the work up here in the 9 month time frame the bank gave us.  

Three years later, the thought of doing two more destroyed rooms brings me near tears, and while I did a bunch of smaller plastering jobs on the third floor over the past year, I haven't been able to bring myself to start in those rooms.  So our house has been wide open, bags of insulation for the attic have filled up two rooms since the first winter we've lived here (you can't blow in insulation when you have no ceilings as I keep having to remind people), my white cat is brown from sleeping in the sooty eave spaces and our house is an uncleanable dust bowl.  

In addition to not having to do the plastering myself, lets face it, not having to carry 27 sheets of blueboard and many 50 pound bags of plaster up to the third floor is worth paying for.  Even better, I'm not the one that will be cleaning plaster buckets in arctic temperatures.  

I'll be scraping the last of the wallpaper, washing the walls we're patching, and doing the last bits of demo, insulating and adding nailers over the next few days while the plasterer finishes up the butler's pantry.  Too bad we didn't have this all done a few weeks ago before the sub-zero temps moved in.  Better late than never I suppose.  It just means I'll be spending the first weeks of good weather insulating a pitch black attic instead of playing in the dirt and sunshine.  

Monday, February 2, 2015

the wall goes...

It took a week to decide, but the butler's pantry wall eventually came down...

wide open spaces now

We took the time to find a door that would fit the opening, and tested various pocket door rollers, but time had mangled the whole thing too much for it to function as it was built.  If there had been more indications that it was original to the space we would have reframed the pocket door track with modern hardware, but everything looked suspicious.

As it turns out, we were right, the track contraption was put together with shiny wire nails, not the iron square nails that should have been there.  There was also lathe on the adjoining wall (behind where the wall we demoed met it), so all in all, no guilt.  I'm sure something would have been in this spot originally, but it likely would have been the door to the stairs going down to the coal room, not a fully walled off hallway.  If anyone's interested in a floor plan I'd be glad to draw one up...

The next step in the process is plastering the holes and closing the space back up.  Doing this means we finally need to finish the framing around the fridge.  The fridge sits in the space that was likely the doorway to the back stairs that went up to the second floor of the addition (which would probably have been maids rooms).  In honor of the occasion we bought a new framing nailer, and since we can never catch a break, my beloved 3 year old Hitachi compressor sprung a leak halfway through.  We're only a few boards from finishing, so we'll just finish it off with screws while the compressor gets repaired.  And if you're wondering why the framing is done oddly, well, that's what happens when you change your mind halfway through about the design and don't want to go out in the snow for more lumber!

A few miscellaneous notes about the space we've uncovered:

-  The door from the dining room into the (once) hallway was the spot of the original door to the porch/conservatory.  Above the existing door you can see where the original sandstone lintel was removed to be used for one of the added windows elsewhere on the house.

-  The butler's pantry was closed off to be used as a child's bedroom, at least it seems that way from the pink paint and puppy stickers we keep finding.

-  This floor was originally grained like the current entry, then had linoleum put down (it currently has awful teal carpet, the last piece in the house).  We will likely re-grain and stencil it for the time being, but we also know of a big kitchen with original 1895 linoleum we may be able to salvage at some point in the future.
-  The wall between the butler's pantry and the kitchen was never fully demoed.  They only took down and re-plastered (on board) the plaster that was above the baseboard.  So when we removed that section of trim (which was out an inch from the existing wall), we found more of the same shiny dark green paint that was original to the kitchen.

-  As we suspected, the yard side of the addition is at least partially brick, while the front is wood framed.  If someone could explain this to me I would really appreciate it, because I've never seen anything like it.
-  We can see the 7 wires that belonged to the kitchen annunciator and a tin speaking tube, where they go, nobody knows...

The annunciator wires are the thin black
ones in the center of the picture

Those are all the updates I can think of at the moment.  Next stop, plaster.