This (Not Very) Old House: Part Two

The week  began in Virginia, skipped over to Ohio and jumped to  MontanaYesterday’s House Hopping with Preservationists post took us to Vermont where Jen introduced us to her pre-fab fabulous home. Today she shares what happens when a preservation wife and an energy guy renovate a house together. 

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By Jen Parsons

Energy Guy VS Home Built When Oil Was Cheap

While the technology of aircrafts and lightweight materials were all the rage in manufactured home construction in the post-war era, there are repercussions when it comes to living in the house in a modern environment. Energy Guy soon realized the framing of the manufactured part of our home was not your normal 2” x 6” stud-wall construction. The studs were, I’m not kidding here—1” x 3”. Our walls are half the thickness of the wall of your standard home. Now, that may mean little to someone who is not married to an Energy Guy, but think of what it means to him. Our walls are only half as deep as the walls on your normal stick-built house. No big deal, right? WRONG! Energy Guy is all about insulation! Energy Guy would make a home with R-1 zillion insulating value if he could, and our half-as-deep walls meant half as much insulation. I watched him fret about our skinny walls and their proximity to the outside of our house on winter nights, as he would drink beer, put one hand upon the wall, feel its coolness to the touch, and drop his head down to scowl.

Another important feature of note is the use of a product known as Beaver Board, a.k.a. paperboard. This roughly 1/4” thick wallboard is made entirely of compressed wood, and as such, is paper-like. When painted and attached to the wall, the normal onlooker would likely mistake it for a wall built of 3/8” drywall. An advantage in the manufactured home would be that Beaver Board is lightweight for shipping. However, disadvantages are as follows:

  • When removing wall paper from it, the Beaver Board tears.
  • When removing wooden door or window trim, Beaver Board tears.
  • When removing old picture-hangers, Beaver Board tears.
  • When hanging any new items to our wall, Beaver Board tears. You many only hang so much as a key holder where a stud is available.

Energy Guy does not approve of the insulating qualities of Beaver Board when compared to gypsum. Not only are the walls in our manufactured home too skinny for ample insulation, the wallboard is skinny as well. The solution, for the parts of the house where it was necessary to remove wallboard, was to replace it with gypsum sheetrock. While he is Energy Guy, I guess that makes me Thrifty Wife, because I did not allow him to rebuild out the entire house with gypsum sheetrock—just about 2/3 of it.

What’s to be Made of This?

They say you remodel until you mop your way out the door. We’ve done floor coverings in the bedrooms, a full bath remodel, addition of a half bath, but the big two for our quality of life were as follows:

1. Removal of the forced hot air oil heat.

The hot air heat was generated in the furnace in the laundry room, ducted through the attic, and forced downward through dinner-plate sized ceiling ducts (probably in a 1950s effort to drive Energy Guy of the future bonkers). This heating system was yanked and a modern, efficient natural gas boiler/hot water tank was installed, as well as the addition of solar collectors for our hot water needs. Radiant panel heaters replaced the ceiling dinner plate style forced hot air heaters. They are beautiful, and remind me of a modern take on accordion style radiators.

Original forced hot air heat vented through the ceiling.

Panel radiator.

2. Kitchen Remodel/Integration of the Trailer to the Double Wide

Did I mention the original owners were incredibly clean? They were also remarkably cheap. While tearing out the Styrofoam drop panel ceiling in the rear addition (a not-so-clever technique of hiding the damage from a failed roof many years ago), we also discovered that much of the addition was framed with scrap lumber—wooden pallets, to be exact. Our suspicions proved correct when we removed a board with a shipping address written on it in marker—it was from Shelburne (Vermont) Bakery! Needless to say, this made Energy Guy, a husband of superior building diligence, absolutely crazy.

The exciting beginning, as Energy Guy begins to unearth the truth.

So we reframed the whole back third of the house inside the existing envelope. The good news is that this allowed Energy Guy to add copious amounts of fiberglass insulation. The bad news is that, while conducting this out-of-pocket remodel on nights and weekends, our remodel had long reached its exasperation point, as I cooked dinners in my unheated, un-insulated garage well into Christmas season (we started in June).

A pregnant lady compelled to bake things in a garage in December is a sad, sad thing.

The house had long held a camp-like smell, musty and sneeze-inducing, especially after being shut for a weekend away. We were successful in finding the cause of that smell. A roof leak, probably the same one that caused the previous owners to install a drop ceiling, still existed and allowed water to pool at the intersection where the roof of the addition meets the garage. This meant framing existed within our walls with ant-farm quality carpenter ant tunnels.

Busy little jerks.

Sparing all the gory details of remodeling, we built new stud walls within the existing framing, installed vapor barriers, insulated to high heaven, installed outlets, air sealed, and all the other things you would expect out of a modern house built by a good boy scout like my Energy Guy.

What living in your remodel is really like. Here, the galley kitchen in the manufactured part of the house enters the 1980 addition.

Our goal to integrate the space of the older manufactured home into the rectangular addition was achieved by about a third of the original exterior wall which separated the two. A mini glue-lam allowed us to open up the space. We modernized by creating a large kitchen area, with a huge bar to eat at, and installing as many cabinets as the house could hold, since the house only had 3 small closets prior. Also, there are glorious electrical outlets every few feet, and nearly more lights in the house than you can stand.

The finished remodel.

Ultimately, we do have a home of Superior Quality. Ironically, the plaque was not all that wrong. Framing and materials within the original manufactured home were by far superior to those parts built by thrifty Vermonters in 1980. More remodeling has ensued, but those the tiny kitchen and the inferior heating system were the big two for us.

Preservation-wise, I did have qualms as more of our choices led us away from the era in which the home was built. Our layout is very current; with a kitchen that opens up into a living area via a bar, and the only original building material we utilized were new Formica countertops. However, when a home was manufactured to be put on a truck and installed quickly on location so that ordinary people could have an affordable home in a reasonable neighborhood, what sort of historic integrity must be maintained? We chose to honor the spirit of the efficiency and affordability of the home, while keeping with the idea that the National Home Corp rose out of what was considered a modern construction technique post-war. We used the most modern means of construction within our budget to make a house that can be lived in for another sixty years, if need be. Hopefully, that’s where Energy Guy and Preservation Wife found their compromise.

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Jen Parsons graduated from the University of Vermont with a Master’s degree in Historic Preservation and lives in the Green Mountain State. With a young child at home, she mostly preserves heirloom cookie recipes currently. She is sick of remodeling old houses, this being her third, and is looking forward to finally rehabilitating her 1966 Scotty Gaucho canned ham camper this summer…or building a tiny house. You never know.

Thank you Jen for sharing your remodel woes and successes. The house is looking great!

This wraps up the Preservation in Pink House Hopping with Preservationists tour. I hope you’ve enjoyed it. 

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17 thoughts on “This (Not Very) Old House: Part Two

  1. Jim says:

    While it’s great when a home like this is found in original condition, I also like to see these modified because that was part of the spirit of homes like these. People bought them because it was what they could afford, and as they had more money they adapted the house to their needs.

    I understand that 1800s log cabins were also adapted as owners had more money. I mean, who wants to live in a little bitty one-room log cabin? Here’s one example near my home that, unfortunately, is no more. http://blog.jimgrey.net/2010/09/13/gas-station-to-be-built-on-site-of-michigan-road-log-cabin/

  2. Karen Snyder says:

    Loved reading your renovation part 1 and 2. i live in a 1954 National Home. My kitchen came with the original youngstown metal cabinets which have not been replaced. Beaver board is a pain and if I had the funds I would wall board. Beaver board burns easily in a fire.
    I was surprised to hear that there is any insulation! I think some of my exterior walls have been redone for that reason. I have regular heat vents for forced air but my duct work has a smaller diameter making it even less efficient. It was what I could afford at the time and
    it is mine! Shadow molding and all. I have caulked up near the ceiling of the bathroom with no problem after 14 years so it is possible to fill in a bit. I think after all these years the house has settled and won’t be moving all that much. It will be standing long after I am gone. Especially the metal cabinets!

    • jenhallie says:

      Karen,
      You’re lucky to have Youngstown cabinets–what a coup! What color are they? I think we got the “Spartan” home–no such beauties.

      I was talking to a neighbor just this past weekend about the beaver board and “insulation.” They opened up their walls to find the insulation slumped down at the bottom of the bay, with nothing else in the entire wall! They decided their technique for dealing was a lot of insulation in the attic and some air sealing, and they felt happy with that.

      -Jen

  3. MerAngel says:

    This looks almost exactly like our house. My husbands Grandfather had built/parked on a slab on grade foundation in 1950. He also built on an addition to the back of the house sometime in the 60’s. When my mother-in-law and her sister had outgrown the tiny bedroom.

    I have been throwing around ideas for about a year now for some much needed renovations and a few things we just want to do. The shellacked doors and glass knobs are staying! I would like to find vent covers that can be shut off to fit the existing holes. I haven’t managed that one yet!

    Insulation? I was wondering if this house ‘ever’ had insulation! I think the walls are colder than the windows this time of year. That is definitely going to be addressed as soon as it warms back up. Yay another winter in the antarctic. ;( The HVAC has already been upgraded from the old oil system, twice now. This last time the heat exchanger cracked in January. Not a good thing! On the upside I got central air. The power company is going to hate me after this is done. To keep it about 70 in the house after the temps drop below 40 we have to keep the furnace on 80-82.

    I wanted to thank you for posting the blog about your home. It was nice to finally find one online. With an idea of what we are in for when we begin work.
    Hope you have a Great Holiday season!

    • jenhallie says:

      Where is your National Home?
      I hear you on the insulation factor. Fortunately, years later I barely remember Energy Efficiency Husband lugging roll after roll of fiberglass insulation up to the attic from Home Depot, and I do feel the sweet, sweet warmth of our nice little house. Please see my note above in Karen’s post about slumped insulation in the walls. The insulation that was there was only about 1/2″ thick, if I recall. Barely there.

      I never found a vent to cover the ceiling heat ducts, and I covered it with a piece of drywall and taped it with mesh tape and drywall putty. After that, however, I did an abysmal job matching the popcorn ceiling. Maybe you don’t have the popcorn effect (ours may have been done later), but it is a horrendous thing to try and match in any home. The best product came in a spray can, but it took many $6 cans to cover about 4 square feet (the product that comes in a bucket and is meant to be spread was just impossible for me to use well). I just hope people don’t look up and check out the ceiling too often!

      Good luck with your project. My husband wants me to tell you that the most important thing is to get the heating system out of the attic. Literally, it’s just throwing away heat out to the atmosphere–and that means throwing away the ductwork. We went with hot water and baseboard heat, which we fuel with Natural Gas, but could be fueled by oil.

      Good luck to you, brave one!
      Jen

      • Karen Snyder says:

        Hi Jen, When I moved into my house 18 years ago the whole kitchen….. walls, ceiling and cabinets were painted the same peach color. Yuck! Unfortunately my cabinets have had at least four colors of paint on them. I have painted them white but would prefer to do what several have done. strip and have painted at an auto body shop. There just isn’t the money for that so they now have five coats of paint with the top being white! The issue is the sink. It is just in rough shape. So at some point the original counter top will go so that I can accomodate a new sink. I have been to local house parts stores and have not found a sink that is any better shape. I am not sure it is worth re- glazing. The counter top with the rounded crome edging is a pain to clean. On to insulation! I think someone insulated the front wall of the house and put dry wall up when the windows were replaced. The back of the house has a 300 sq ft addition so that is insulated. The other sides? My guess is that the insulation has shrunk down as was said earlier. My neighbors did the pop-corn ceiling and the pop-corn started to come down. where the grooves are. Like the walls the ceiling panels are designed to move with changes in humidity. I have hardwood floor in the living room. My neighbors who are original owners said that it was an extra $75 to have hardwoods in each of the bedrooms! One positive is the cedar siding. It was dipped in a primer before it was put on the house. No pealing paint. Can’t say the same for the trim! Karen
        on the house. Very few places have pealed because of this. can’t say the same for the trim.

  4. Brooke says:

    Hi Jen,

    My (energy guy) husband and I recently bought a National Home in Concord, NH. He noticed the concrete slab the house sits on is not insulated. Does your home have a slab foundation? Did you add insulation to the floor during your renovations? Thanks for the blog posts!

    • Jen says:

      Hey Brooke,
      Glad to hear from a New Hampshirite, as I was grew up in Somersworth! Our home does, indeed, have a slab foundation. You know what that stinker of a husband did to me? I wanted to replace the walkway and gardens in the front of the house to jazz it up, so he said, “Hey, while you’re there, why don’t you dig down and put some foam against the slab.” So somehow I ended up digging 4 feet around the entire house that summer, and using construction adhesive to glue on 2″ pink foam sheets (behind me, the Energy Guy is saying that residential building code is 3″, but 2″ worked aesthetically for us). We built and bent skirting from flat metal to cover the foam and joined it under the siding.
      Inside, we used sheets of 5/8″ blue foam taped together at the joints with aluminum tape before we installed an engineered flooring product over it. 5/8″ allowed us to keep a good transition level with the other floors around the house that we hadn’t replaced yet.

      Good luck with your renovations! One tip: when we did exterior work, we kept sections of the aluminum siding (if you have that) because it seemed hard to locate something that matched, so as we needed pieces to fill in, we had them around as we changed window openings, etc.

      Best of luck to you!
      Jen

    • jenhallie says:

      Nope, just in the walls we needed to tear into anyway. It works fine. But when we did rip into walls, we added more insulation by building out the stud wall with 2 x 4s and using either sheet foam insulation or fiberglass rolls. I’ll tell you, you can really feel the difference in the rooms with more insulation. My bedroom has not been insulated more, but my daughter’s has. They are on the same heat zone and some winter mornings I find she has stripped off all her clothes in the night!

  5. ben says:

    I lived in one in Mooresvile Indiana in the 1970’s. It was on a slab too but the ductwork was also in the slab. The kitchen was configured for the washing machine; the dryer went in the garage.
    I have fond memories living there as a child. And the house is stil theer

  6. sdaven5191 says:

    Hello! I just got done reading with great interest, your two-part article on your National Home, and the trials and travails of remodeling something that was built originally in a factory for assembly elsewhere on a slab of concrete! My husband and I used to live in Lafayette, Indiana, where the original home plant was located. This was back in the late 70’s, and they were still cranking them out by the dozens on a daily basis! By then, though, their materials had changed significantly, and their designs considerably less “Spartan,” to quote you!
    Being the hometown of the home office and production facility, there certainly was not shortage of whole neighborhoods, streets, and in-fill lots full of their products. Wartime and Post-War expansion in industrial production ran rampant. With a major Alcoa Aluminum foundry, several farm product processing facilities such as Staley’s, which primarily processed corn, and many other smaller industrial production facilities provided a huge amount of war materiels, and Post-War consumer goods, as well as the basic “building block” and sub-assembly materials of Post-War prosperity, and likewise jobs. And of course, those workers needed housing! Lafayette was declared a critical needs area by the government during WWII, making it a priority location for approval of housing construction, and National Homes surely fit the bill in that regard! MANY developments of homes, very small, usually only two bedrooms, with much less grand features than even your own were assembled in the plant which was running a 24-7 schedule, and built in newly cleared areas, to house those badly needed workers and their families. They are easy to identify, as they are generally concentrated together, very boxy and rather plain, and always gave me the feeling that I would have had to step outside to change my mind, and that a well chosen doormat would make adequate living room wall-to-wall carpeting!
    We never lived in any of the houses, because we were in no position to buy at the time, and even though much nicer, newer models were certainly available, they were out of our price range even to rent, which many of those tiny ones had eventually become. However, we DID live in an apartment complex which was government subsidized, and they had a very unusual, boxy, square, “building block” appearance to them. Inside and out. They were all a dark brown, wood sided, all tile floors, upstairs and down, with two rooms on each floor for the townhouses, which we got. Ours was a two bedroom unit, as I was 8 months pregnant when we finally got called off the wait list! And the imminent new addition to the family qualified us for a two bedroom. I even took the apartment uncleaned and unpainted, in order to save us the expense of a damage deposit, and to get into it sooner! I spent the better part of 9 days – two weekends and the intervening week – shoveling out the trash that had been left behind, cleaning things which looked like they hadn’t been cleaned since the previous tenants had moved IN, and painting the walls, upstairs and down. My husband of course was there on both weekends doing all he could do, but since he had a full time job, I would take him there in the mornings, go work on the apartment during the day (WITH the A/C cranked all the way down, since it was June in the stifling hot Midwest) and pick him up after 5 when his work day ended. We moved in the second weekend, with most of the painting done, just some trim work left.
    During my time there cleaning and scrubbing, I discovered several things that you did about your house, particularly the way the walls and ceilings came together. I had not seen that before, and on one of my trips to the rental office, I enquired, just out of idle curiosity, about how it had been built. The leasing agent told me exactly what I had begun to suspect – that they were assembled from sub-assembly units, with enormous cranes, stacked up like building blocks! My suspicions had been arroused when looking at the floor plan diagrams they had posted on the walls of the office, where the two bedroom townhouses and the FOUR bedroom units looked identical on the upper floors! They had just stacked another two bedroom second floor unit on top of the first one, adding the two more needed bedrooms, and another bath. There were a few one and two bedroom “flats” on one level, but those were all taken, and mostly reserved anyway for handicapped and/or elderly people who couldn’t manage stairs. So, those were different, and some three bedroom units, where the third level floorplan was different, but the whole place was primarily the two bedroom townhouses like we hot. And the one unifying factor in all of them was that they had been built and assembled by National Homes! It had been a special, rather lucrative contract through the government and HUD most likely, to build them all about 15 years prior. So, we ended up living in a National Homes unit after all!
    Their production factory had originally been built up on a new bypass highway around Lafayette, but as bypasses are wont to do, they become major thoroughfares just lined with businesses up and down both sides! Their specially constructed tractor-trailer units were a common sight daily, especially first thing in the morning, leaving the plant through their own mid-block intersection with traffic lights, headed out to the State Highway which took them straight out to I65, a major Interstate running north-south, either north towards Chicago, or south to Indianapolis and points further south, or east-west on I70. It’s a grand location for shipping anything, because do many Interstates are close by for access.
    Anyway, that’s quite a bit of information for one message, I’m sure! But, just one more thing before I’m done. Archive.com has several pieces of literature, mostly house plan brochures from National Homes, that can be viewed for free. (Their whole site is free of course, in case you weren’t familiar with them.) Here is a link to a listing of documents they have on file there for your viewing pleasure!
    https://archive.org/search.php?query=publisher%3A“National+Homes”
    I did a search just for them as the publisher, and this is the list of items they showed me.
    YouTube also has some interesting video of them putting up houses in a new development, in case you haven’t seen it. I don’t have the link handy, but if you go there, just use National Homes as hour search parameter, and it should pop right up!
    OK! Now I’m done! Thanks for taking the time and putting all the effort into making your blog posts so interesting and informative! I know it takes time and effort to do so, and it’s much appreciated! Cheers!

  7. sdaven5191 says:

    I like to go back after posting a message, with links especially, and check to make sure they work. Unfortunately, the one above left out the
    “National+Homes” part, so it doesn’t actually take you where I had intended. I’m going to repost it, with some extra white space around it, to see if that helps. You will find it below this. In case that doesn’t help, just type National Homes into the search bar where it says “Publisher” and hit enter. That should do it, all else failing.

    https://archive.org/search.php?query=publisher%3A“National+Homes”

    • sdaven5191 says:

      Well, that didn’t help either. I don’t know why, but at least the alternative is available to find it! Sorry! Just add “National+Homes”
      to the query bar where it says “Publisher” at the top. They are quite interesting!

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