In order to pay for the house and renovation costs, we had to take out a construction loan. As many of you are likely aware, an appraisal is part of the loan application process. The bank wants to make sure that its money is being spent wisely, so an appraiser comes out to assess the “as is” value of your property, and then they take your construction plans into consideration to come up with a value for the home when everything is said and done.
If you’ve taken the first floor “before” tour, you’ve seen the bathroom and “fish” room (named for it’s whimsical wallpaper). We didn’t think much of them at first, but as demolition progressed, the rooms increasingly appeared to belong to an entirely separate structure.
Clue #1: There was an interior window between the kitchen and bathroom. Interior windows are relatively common today, especially favored by city landlords trying to bring light to “bedrooms” in the middle of an apartment, but those windows were not normal elements of 19th century architecture.
Clue #2: One of the windows on the second floor was partially cut off by the fish room’s roof. It could have been a function of sloppy planning, but again, not a normal architectural element.
Clue #3: During demolition, we found a six inch gap between the kitchen and bathroom walls. Within that gap were clapboards (typically found on a building’s exterior).
After some digging through town records, we found that a small schoolhouse servicing the Whitmore Mills community (North Sunderland) had existed on the lot just south of the cottage. Our hunch is that when the school was no longer needed for the neighborhood, the owners of the cottage hauled it over to their property and gave themselves an instant addition.
We demo’d the wall separating the bathroom and fish room (visible here), but then we faced a dilemma. Our options were to work within the existing schoolhouse structure and its confines (walls out of square, floors 6 inches below the ones that had just been framed in) or to demo the whole thing and start from the foundation up. We were torn: should we try to work within the confines and “stay true” to the house (but create more work for the contractor) or do you make life easier for all involved, start from scratch, and lose some integrity.
After some back and forth (and a little heartbreak for my dad), we decided to completely demo the schoolhouse and start from scratch. For the small amount of character that we would have retained by keeping the original structure intact, it would have been a lot of effort. The character will make its way back in other ways, and we’ll still keep the original scale of the structure (just with a much higher ceiling).
If you thought she looked ugly before, it’s only getting worse from here!
With a new concrete wall in place to support the back of the house, work began to replace the rear floor system.
Above you can see what the floors looked like once upon a time. Please note the distinct slope of the floors from the upper right of the image down to the lower left. Even if the boards were in great shape themselves, the wonkiness would have been nearly impossible to overcome.
What would probably have taken my entire family a whole weekend to demo with crowbars, our construction crew handled in a day. If I’ve learned nothing else from this renovation process it’s that hand saws make light work of demo. No need to be delicate about it with a crowbar!
The crawlspace underneath the back half of the cottage is filled with a fine, powdery dirt. After a few minutes of messing around down there, you come out looking like you got a spray tan of silt.
After the floor system was removed, we shoveled and raked the dirt to form a (somewhat) level surface that could more easily and efficiently accommodate an insulation membrane later on in the process. We also spent a good portion of the time removing smallish rocks. Nothing like letting your perfectionist tendencies manifest themselves in a place that will literally never see the light of day.
Thank you to my family, but particularly my brother and sister-in-law, who spent a good chunk of their weekend raking dirt and doing demo without complaint. It takes a village!
Next up, shiny new floor joists for the back of the house!
Though winter prevented work from progressing on the concrete footings, it couldn’t stop us from continuing our demolition work.
As a native New Englander, I’m familiar with the cold and consider myself to be relatively unintimidated by it. That said, for most of my life, my concerns about cold extended to my body. How do I stay warm? What kind of boots should I wear so that my toes won’t freeze off? How many pairs of long underwear is too many?
When you own a house though, and that house is currently open to the elements and is in more ways a rundown shack than a real house, cold temperatures become a larger concern. See, the thing with having a newly poured concrete floor in a basement that is not heated, in near zero-degree temperatures is that it’s problematic.
Since the house wasn’t heated, moisture in the ground permeated the basement walls/floor, froze, and then caused small cracks in the new cement floor. A few cracks aren’t the end of the world, but if left for too long, the cracking and freezing could have caused real damage.
Without the means to close up the house (please note that many walls were cut open a few feet above their sills), we had to get a propane heater to blow heat into the basement, warm up those walls and the ground around them so that the moisture would leave us alone.
Over the course of the next few days, our conversations frequently turned to the basement and how we could keep it warm. There were frequent calls to hardware stores to see if they had propane tanks of the appropriate size in stock, lots of trips down to the house to “check on the basement’s temperature” like it was a sick child, and covered the hole to the basement with blankets of tarp and large sheets of blue insulation.
All of this is a long way of saying, if your basement is freezing cold (and has been for awhile), beware of cracks in your concrete floor! We’ll continue to take on water in the basement after strong storms until we can get a curtain drain installed across the front of the house, so it will be a spring of getting friendly with the Shop Vac! Hopefully we don’t run into further cracking though now that we know how to properly baby the basement.
The cottage’s rear foundation was as astonishing as it was nerve-wracking. It’s amazing to consider that for 187 years it held up a structure. It’s terrifying because it was essentially a pile of rocks placed haphazardly next to each other that would crumble a little if you looked at it the wrong way. I kid, but it was fragile at best. In order to bring the building back to a stable place (physically and emotionally), the old foundation had to go, and new concrete had to come in.
Like most cape-style homes, the cottage originally had a central brick chimney and a fireplace in the front room. We love the idea of having a working fireplace and tried many different floor configurations to see if we could make it work, but the location of the chimney created a lot of limitations as we thought through how we want the home to work. Location challenges aside, the chimney was also in really rough shape. Some of the bricks were gorgeous (and in fact have been salvaged for later use), but there was severe cracking and general instability.
When you install a new sill, you’re going to need to install new floor joists. And when you have to install new floor joists, you first need to completely remove the old floor. Then while you’re at it, you need to take the opportunity to pour a new concrete floor in the basement. This is beginning to sound like that book “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie,” but just like that book, construction projects create the domino effect that when something happens, a string of others must follow.
The original flooring from the front two rooms was in fairly good condition, so the removal process was done carefully so we’ll be able to reuse some (hopefully most) of it in the the house once everything is put back together.
The thing about old houses is that sometimes they contain hazardous materials. Asbestos, lead, you get the picture. In our case, we had the pleasure of vermiculite insulation. Vermiculite insulation was frequently used in older homes because it was a naturally occurring material and according to Green Building Advisors, “vermiculite is a mineral that when heated, expands like popcorn. It’s lightweight, fire-resistant, and odorless; [and has an R-Value of 2].” What’s not to love, right? Well, the challenge is that it often contains asbestos which is linked to cancer. Bummer. Thankfully, we knew about this issue beforehand and were able to negotiate with the seller and take advantage of some grants available in Massachusetts for vermiculite abatement, so it wasn’t a dollar sign surprise.
After 187 years of sitting on the same sills and foundation, the cottage had started to get quite comfortable with her surroundings. Sinking into it here, restraining herself and staying level over there. She and gravity were getting friendly. With all of that settling in going on, you can imagine the impact that it had on the floors and overall structural integrity of the building. That’s a long way of saying, she was really wonky and it felt like a funhouse in there when walking around.