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.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

the butler's pantry

As I mentioned last week, part of what's filling up the trash bags in the entry is the butler's pantry.  While it's not a small space, it has been a cluttered catch all since we've lived here.  First it housed all of our moving boxes and both cats while the house was in its dangerous uninhabitable stage, and it has morphed into storage of our salvaged built-ins, tools, vacuums etc...  Not pretty.  Not useful...

Oddly the only picture I could find -
note the presence of the rad, and the damn boarded window

Now while I would never harm an original space or floor plan, there was abundant evidence that nothing about the space was original.  We know the space itself was added along with the kitchen wing before 1895.  One wall was old plaster board with a skim coat of plaster, and there were shadow marks and cut moldings in both the hallway and kitchen from where doorways used to exist.

It's possible/likely that those two doorways once led to servant's stairs - a theory supported somewhat by framing and the odd seam in the floor, but nothing definitive.  Once the kitchen doorway was decommissioned and closed the space almost certainly housed an icebox - as evidenced by the extensive rot in that section of floor and nowhere else.  After we reopened the doorway there was room for our fridge to sit in the space (although we still need to frame in the back where it protrudes into the pantry).

Before we bought the house.
Note the "inspirational" kitchen photo taped to the built-in.
my nostrils are obviously photoworthy

You can see the original dark green paint revealed after scraping layers of paint and 60's vinyl shelf liner off the walls, on the left you can see the new fridge peeking out.  

The demo stalled after doing what was necessary for fitting in a fridge (two years ago), but the house was so clean and orderly after the holidays, I had to do something to cope!  So I took down the offending hallway wall...


 The demo was straightforward, and I was lucky enough to find these wallpaper fragments in the debris between the walls, dating to when the original plaster in the pantry was demoed.  Please folks, do your own demo, and take the time to go through the debris, it's worth it...

While the doorway was exactly where I expected it to be (on the left), the rest of the framing had me befuddled. 

The walls were doubled, and there were what seemed to be arbitrary pieces of wood tacked on here and there, with some horizontal pieces thrown in for good measure.  The reused framing lumber (identified by the existence of plaster lines where there shouldn't be) further confused the matter.  I did eventually figure it out though, the answer?  Pocket door...  At some point this wall was built with scrap lumber, and a homemade track and stop.  The soft-close stop was what really had me confused - it consisted of a short angled chunk of wood with an old floorboard tacked to it.  The floorboard had just enough length to bend when something hit it.  

Naturally this throws a wrench in my plans, so further work is on hold until we figure out if this monstrosity stays or goes...