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!
With some slightly warmer weather and the addition of a new construction crew, we were able to get the remainder of the back concrete wall poured.
Our lot is fairly small and is very close to the road, so we had to get creative when maneuvering the chute so that the concrete could flow all the way to the back of the house. It turns out, the easiest way to do it was to have the chute go through the window and across the house. It also meant that the concrete truck had to be parked in the middle of the street (!). Thankfully the house isn’t on a main thoroughfare (by any stretch) but we did put a wrinkle in some morning commutes!
Thank you to our neighbors who let a concrete truck hang out in their driveway!
I was out of town for this momentous occasion and don’t have actual photos of the concrete chute running through the house or the completed concrete wall, but take my word for it that it is everything you’d imagine a concrete wall to be.
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 was originally built by Thomas Munsell in 1831. While I’m sure that Thomas had many interesting and enviable traits, the star of this story is his father, Jacob Munsell. You can read the story in its original form above, but if you need a modern day rendition, continue reading.
During the Revolutionary War, Jacob Munsell was a farmer who lived in East Windsor, CT. He would frequently deliver supplies to the Revolutionary Army just outside of Boston. One time, while near Cambridge, MA, he found himself on a rough, narrow road with a full cart of supplies. He found that two carriages were approaching him, both carrying American Army generals. The first officer told Munsell to “Get the hell out of the path!” Munsell said “No f’ing way! You move instead!”
The officer tried to force Munsell off the path to no avail. The second carriage approached Munsell and said “My friend, the road is bad and it is difficult for me to move over. Can you please let me through?”
Munsell, in as falsely obsequious tone as he could manage said “With all my heart sir, but I won’t be damned out of the path by any man.”
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.
Now we’ve come to the day when the cottage became a funhouse with the ability to give vertigo to any who entered. The floor that went from the center of the house towards the river was very tilted. Not quite to the point where you felt like you’d fall off the back of the house, but it certainly wasn’t a reassuring slant. As with the front of the house, we had to jack up the back wall so that the floor system could be rebuilt, raised up, and restored to a comfortably walkable angle.
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 proportions of the cottage are charming, but what makes the property special is its proximity to the river. Whenever we find ourselves questioning the intelligence of our decision to do this renovation, we always remind ourselves that we’d never be able to build on a site like this today. So, when it’s all said in done, we’ll be happy to have this view in the end.