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. 

This (Not Very) Old House: Part One

The House Hopping with Preservationists tour began in Virginia, continued to Ohio and jumped across the Midwest to the Great Plains and Montana. Now, we’re headed back to Vermont for a two-part post about a compromise between the historic features of a 1950 prefabricated ranch house and its incredible lack of energy efficiency. Today Jen talks about the history of her pre-fab “fabulous” house.

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By Jen Parsons

It is tricky business for someone trained in Historic Preservation to be married to an Energy Guy. It gets even trickier when remodeling your own house, while you live in it. Fortunately for us, our 1950 ranch had so little architectural flair to begin with, we joke that when the manufactured parts arrived on a truck and were plopped into assembly, the model name of our home was probably the “Spartan.”

A Home of Superior Permanent Construction

Though it is our home, we are but a number, a single item in the manufactured home series. We are number 31, 521. The most interesting feature of the home included this plaque, which hung in the laundry room (an alcove off the kitchen in the center of the home that also included the hot water heater). The National Homes Corporation of Lafayette, Indiana built the home, and the serial number is stamped in the bottom right corner.

House number 31,521.

With access to the University Library while a graduate student at UVM in Historic Preservation, I only found the following tidbits of information regarding the National Homes Corp.

From “A History of Prefabrication,” by Alfred Bruce and Harold Sandbank, Published by the J.B. Pierce Foundation, 1945:

National Homes Corp., Lafayette, Ind., began production for sale in 1940, and had sold 816 units for private use prior to 1942. During the past year, they produced 2,665 units for public war housing projects, and 102 units for private projects. Their Lafayette plant is working at its maximum capacity of 750 houses per month, which it sends out over a distance of 300 miles. At present, their unfilled orders amount to 2,872 units. The houses are prefabricated in panels on an assembly line, and grouped into four types: two 2-bedroom types selling for $2,000 and $2,400, and two 3 bedroom types, priced at $2400 and $3600. Their plans for post-war distribution are not final, but they are emphatic as to their intention to prefabricate after the war. For the postwar period, they envisage certain changes in construction, design, and distribution, but precise data are not yet ready for publication.

The Exterior of the National Homes Company of Lafayette, Ind. Home, ca. 1945. From "A History of Prefabrication."

Assembly of a National Homes Company home. Judging from the window placement on the front façade and the side façade, this is probably the same model home as ours. From "A History of Prefabrication."

Assembly line of interior panels at the National Homes Company. From "A History of Prefabrication."

Interior wall panel construction. From "A History of Prefabrication."

A larger version of the above images from "A History of Prefabrication."

Our Pre-fab Fabulous Home: The Trailer on the Double-Wide

Our single level, two-bedroom, one bath, 800 square foot manufactured ranch plunked down and rested on its slab in a new post-war suburban development of quarter-acre lots in 1950. As such, one of the cool things about the neighborhood is that the trees are older, taller, and occasionally quite lovely. Quite often, I find new suburban developments rendered more barren and obtrusive by the lack of old growth around them. I call this phenomenon: “House in a field.”

Convenience, proximity and price led us to our little ranch. Without an inherent love for the style, I believe we actually uttered the phrase, “The construction is so basic. It should be easy to fix.” When you remark of “ease” when tackling a home improvement project, you might as well just dig a hole in your backyard and shovel your money into it. It would take less time and cost just as much.

The house had only one prior owner: a man who had met a German woman when he enlisted during the Korean War; he brought her home, and made her his bride. This worked well to our advantage: the German woman was a precision cleaner. Neighbors tell of her vacuuming her driveway of excess dirt.

From appearances, the house remained largely unchanged since the 1950s: the kitchen was laid out galley style. With only four plywood cabinets, a sink, a GE stove, and gold-flecked Formica countertops, the limitations were evident for modern use. The kitchen also suffered from an utter lack of electrical outlets (only one; we chose to plug in the refrigerator and the coffee maker, alternating coffee for toast occasionally). Ceiling mounted light fixtures were also lacking, thereby requiring us to use precious electrical outlets for lamps. These failings signaled that not too much futzing had transpired in the home.

Making pizza in my four square feet of counter space, original cabinets, and ca. 1980 electric stove.

Around 1980, a shed roof addition extended both gable ends toward the rear of the house and formed a long, narrow rectangular room with brown carpet and wood-paneled walls. We fondly called this “The Trailer on the Double Wide.” This added another 350 square feet or so of questionably useful space to the main block of the house, and was accessible through an opening punched out where the rear exterior wall of the original kitchen had been. More brown carpet had covered the floors of the bedrooms, with blue carpet covering the living room, while the kitchen and bath received a reprieve with VAT and vinyl tile, respectively.

Vinyl Asbestos Tile (VAT) remained under the carpet in most living spaces. Darn the “Spartan” model—our neighbors had hardwood.

As for any architectural flair of Post War building styles, features were quite Spartan as well. The two panel interior doors are old growth Douglas fir with lovely, tight grains for the stiles and rails, and plywood panels. Clear glass doorknobs and brass hinges complemented these doors. Varnish has darkened the doors over time, yet they still remain lovely.

Varnished doors and glass doorknobs.

A concave shadow molding and V-joints join the walls to each other and the walls to ceiling. The long pieces of molding were nailed to the wall with a plaster cast joint in each corner where the wall molding and ceiling moldings meet on two sides. The plaque explains this joint as allowing for expansion/contraction of a home, resulting in crack-proof walls. While this sounds unusual, we have to keep in mind now that many people were still quite used to having cracked plaster walls, and this was a home of the future, with newer, lighter modular materials.

The wood molding joins together in a plaster V-joint.

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So, how do the Preservation Student & the Energy Guy work together in this pre-fab house? Stay tuned for part two. 

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Jen Parsons graduated from the University of Vermont with a Masters 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.

Looks and Feels Like Fall

Warren Village, VT.

The faintest feelings of fall surprised me in early September: crisper mountain air, rustling of the leaves, cooler temperatures. Before long, the pumpkins, hay bales and apple festivals were everywhere. Now that October is here, and we’ve had a string of chilly days, fall is here to stay (until this weekend’s respite).

Brandon Village, VT.

Need some fall activities? Check out your local town website for harvest  festivals, pumpkin picking, apple picking and the last of this season’s outdoor concerts. It seems as though everyone in Vermont is soaking up the last bit of outdoor weather possible.

Need some preservation fall events? Lucky for you – fall always seems to be the prime calendar spot for conferences and workshops. The National Trust for Historic Preservation conference is at the end of October in Buffalo, NY. Check with your State Historic Preservation Office to find out about your state’s HP conference. While national conferences are fun and bigger, the state conferences may be more beneficial to you in terms of networking and relevance. Preservation Directory and PreserveNet do a good job about keeping up to date with events and conferences. Energy efficiency workshops are everywhere. Preservation Directory’s list is long and diverse right now – check it out! It is also the season for fall walking tours, ghost walks and open houses. What do you have planned?

As for me – it’s a good season for running on back roads, hopefully painting some of the rooms in my house and enjoying the foliage.

Do you have a local event or open house that you’d like to mention here? Send a picture and a brief summary – show your community pride! Show off what your organization has accomplished. Or do you have a good shot of what fall looks and feels like in your town? Send it my way. I’d love to include mini features throughout the season.

Save the Windows

Historic windows are being massacred across the nation. They are the scapegoat for energy efficiency problems. Windows are the first to go. The media and the vinyl replacement window business seem to scheme together to get the general public to believe that vinyl double pane or triple pane windows will solve homeowners’ problems and save them a bundle. Rather than considering other solutions and analyzing whether or not replacement windows achieve their claims, beautiful, character defining windows are ripped from their frames and tossed to the curb.

A building that loses its historic windows loses so much of its character. Architectural styles are very much defined by window type: shape, frame, number of panes, type of glass, inset depth, and how the sash operates. The typical single pane replacement windows just destroy a building’s image. Interested in understanding why? Read “Repair or Replace, a Visual Look at the Impacts” — a colorful, image-filled, 18 page booklet put together by the NTHP. Want to learn about window styles and architectural styles? Read “Window Types – A Residential Field Guide” — a beautiful, colorful, helpful guide put together by the NTHP that will take you through window vocabulary and the uniqueness of each style

As a preservationist, I know I am not alone when I say that the windows suffering as the scapegoats makes me furious. The National Trust for Historic Preservation is continuing their stance on the benefits of historic windows with their new Save the Windows site — http://www.savethewindows.org. Why? Historic buildings are losing to new windows at an alarming rate and the amount of misinformation being shared is ridiculous relating to energy savings, sustainability, and historic preservation.

Quite often, WINDOWS ARE NOT THE CAUSE OR SOLUTION TO YOUR ENERGY PROBLEMS.

First of all, heat escapes through the roof. Is the roof insulated? What is in the attic?

Second of all, why would everyone believe all of the made up or likely altered statistics about windows spouted by the commercial industry selling vinyl replacement windows? Well, if you ask the industry, of course the new windows are better. It’s corporate America, people. What do you think they are going to say?

Third, new windows are NOT GREEN. Read this from the National Trust:

Tearing out historic windows for replacements wastes embodied energy – the energy required to extract the raw materials, transport them, make them into a new product, ship the product, and install it. What’s more, when we keep our existing windows, we avoid all the negative environmental impacts associated with the manufacture of new windows. For example, the manufacturing of some windows produces toxic byproducts. And, the new wood that manufacturers use today can’t begin to match the quality of old growth wood in older windows.

And here’s the kicker. New windows will often have a life span of just 10 to 20 years. Historic and older windows, when properly maintained, can last for many more decades. Furthermore, studies have shown that with proper weatherization and use of a good storm window, older windows can be made nearly as energy efficient as new windows – even in severe climates such as the Northeast.

Fourth, new windows are only maintenance free in that YOU CANNOT MAINTAIN THEM. They will have to be replaced, not repaired. From the National Trust:

Vinyl, aluminum, fiberglass, and composite windows are manufactured as a unit and are maintenance-free only because, in most instances, the components cannot be repaired. When a part fails, or the insulated glass seal breaks, the entire unit must be replaced. By comparison, older wood windows are composed of interlocking parts made from natural materials, and any part can be repaired or replaced.

Fifth, new windows will NOT SAVE YOU MONEY. Again, from the National Trust:

Window manufacturers are quick to tell you that their products will save you money. While replacement windows could save you about $50 a month on your heating or cooling bills, those savings come after you spend $12,000, on average, for replacement windows for the typical home. So if you heat or cool your home, say, six months a year, the savings are about $300 annually. At that rate, it would take 40 years to recoup in energy savings the amount of money spent on the new windows! And, by that time, your replacement windows will have needed replacing!

Did you see that — new windows will take 40 years to earn their keep. 40 YEARS!! There are so many things wrong with that. Are you even going to live in your house for 40 years? The savings only come after you’ve spent a ton of money on windows. And what happened to those old windows? They are sitting in a landfill, right? Well then you’ve used twice the energy: from the embodied energy of the existing windows and the resources required to manufacture new windows. And those new windows are likely off-gassing chemicals that you do not want floating around your house and in your lungs.

Do not believe everything (or dare I say anything) you read from new manufacturers.

How can you help? Share the information about the many, many benefits of keeping historic windows (financial! environmentally! historically!) by visiting Save the Windows, sharing it on twitter, on facebook, sending emails to your friends and family, sending a quick note to your senators, and by talking about historic windows!

Learn what you can do to keep your windows, save your money, and improve your energy efficiency. Start here: TEN REASONS TO REPAIR YOUR OLD WINDOWS.

Be green, be thoughtful, be respectful – save the windows! Love the windows!

Historic Windows

It’s that time of year; the temperature drops at night, your house feels drafty, and around mid-October the heat turns on (unless you’re way down south). You wonder why your house is so cold and how you can make it warmer. Everywhere you read about new energy efficient windows and you consider replacing your windows.

Before you replace those historic wood windows, STOP! Your house is not losing its heat through windows; but rather, mainly through the roof and uninsulated walls. Keep those historic beauties in their frames! And if you have windows with real muntins and individual window panes, then you definitely have something worthwhile. The cost of replacing your historic window could take 100 years to make up for its cost.

Don’t believe me? Check out the Historic Windows Resource Page from Preservation North Carolina, and pay special attention to the NCPTT Testing the Energy Performance of Wood Windows in Cold Climates report and the replacement cost calculator from Historic Omaha. Note that it will take 41 years for the windows to pay for themselves!

Okay and aside from cost, we have to recognize the aesthetic value of historic windows and the historic value of these windows. Once removed, it is a part of the building that is gone forever. Windows are a very important part of architectural style. Take a look at this brief slideshow from the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota titled, “Historic Wood Windows: Why They Matter and How to Save Them.” Lastly, for a thorough review of why to retain and maintain historic windows, answers to your questions, window vocabulary, and resources, see the National Trust’s Window Tip Sheet. For repair information see Preservation Brief 9: The Repair of Historic Wood Windows from the NPS.

Do your research before believing the gimmicks of “energy efficient” window manufacturers and sellers. After all, they WANT you to replace your windows.