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. 

Cold Weather Coming! Insulation!?

Who else is getting chilly in the Northeast? Maybe it’s chilly in the Midwest, too? And the Northwest? Certainly you southerners are still enjoying the summer sun’s warm rays with a few lovely, blustery fall days. My memory could be skewed, but I am fairly certain that October was still very warm in the North Carolina Sandhills.

Normally, I wouldn’t mind this chill, except right now we are lacking heat in our house. (Thanks again, Irene.) We’re working on it with insurance, so hopefully it will be warm again soon. Fortunately, as new homeowners, we have a never-ending list of projects to do, which means there is enough reason to move constantly and keep warm. My favorite task is painting. I love painting! We’ll talk paint colors again soon.

Before fun aesthetic matters like paint colors, let’s get back to insulation issues. I was relieved to hear that I am not crazy after my rant against spray foam insulation. See the comments by Maria and Henrietta.

As I’ve mentioned, this year’s winter will be for observing how our lack of insulation affects our 1928 house. The attic is insulated, so all will be okay this year. Next year we’ll decide what we’re missing. Between now and spring I would like to acquire more knowledge about insulation. Colleagues and friends know my stance on insulation (at least insulation in my house), and I’d like to have more credible answers – rather than just some knowledge combined with gut instincts – for when they ask me questions about their house. While I’ve never claimed to be an expert, people know that I care about historic structures. There is no use in caring and not applying preservation know-how or learning it.

Step One: Acquire References.

My list of references from reliable sources includes:

(1) Issues: Weatherization from the National Trust for Historic Preservation (with special note to insulation)

(2) Technical Preservation Services: Weather from the National Park Service

(3) Energy Costs in an Old House from Historic New England

(4) Q&A from Old House Online (Old House Journal)

(5) Q&A from Historic HomeWorks (John Leeke)

What have you found helpful? What can you add?

Step Two: Read & Comprehend. That is a project for winter.

As smaller measures this year, we’re making sure to close the storm windows and add insulated curtains. If necessary, maybe we’ll tackle weather stripping. However, I really do not expect the house to be especially cold. It’s a good house and I have faith in it.

If Someone Offered Free Vinyl Siding

Note: This is going to get a bit lengthy, but if you are interested in my ongoing battle with insulation decisions, read on.

Last week, we had a free post flood assessment offered courtesy of Efficiency Vermont. The organization has really stepped up to help those affected by the flood throughout Vermont. Though I signed up beforehand, I heard more about the post flood assessment at the Button Up Vermont Workshop, and was under the impression that the assessment would address all sorts of flood related problems: moisture, mold, air sealing, insulation, etc. Although insulation wasn’t on my list of post-flood worries, I was eager to talk to someone about mold and cleaning my house and to hear about other energy efficiency measures for future reference.

I need to note that the contractor who visited my house was a subcontractor of – not an employee of – Efficiency Vermont.

Upon the contractor’s arrival, I summarized the flood damage and events for him, but what he really wanted to see was the basement. After I explained the water levels and what we did to clean the basement, etc., he looked around and asked if I would be opposed to spray foam.

SPRAY FOAM?  As if I wanted to talk about spray foam. However, I gave the contractor the benefit of the doubt and said that I am opposed to spray foam, but if he could convince me of the merits of spray foam, then I’d consider. This was a matter of understanding the product, not questioning his professional abilities. He didn’t have a great answer for me, but we talked about air flow and the space in between the first floor joists. (For reference, there is absolutely no insulation in my basement.) He said my basement was perfect for foam because it could be hidden and there wasn’t really an aesthetic to ruin; it’s not like I had a dry laid stone foundation. Aesthetics is only one part of my concerns.

The contractor mentioned that normally putting spray foam in a basement like mine – just between the joists, above the concrete foundation – would be about $1500. Hmm, that sounded like a good chunk of savings. I considered it a bit more, with caution. I said I had to talk to my husband about it. When I couldn’t reach him, I called my father-in-law, who seemed to be in favor of it. However, I was still not convinced (because I’m difficult like that).

In the meantime, the contractor said he would do a blower-door test. That was neat! If you’re wondering, our house is completely average for air leakage. While this was going on, I was frantically reading about spray foam online and harassing a few preservation colleagues for their opinions (thanks, Jen). Nothing I read about spray foam was beneficial to historic buildings. Nothing. Yikes! For starters, here is a paper from Historic New England.

Why so frantic? Well, it seemed like a decision that I had to make that day. Admittedly, I did not ask outright, but that seemed to be the case. Back to discussions with the contractor. He had said that either you insulate everything or nothing at all; you can’t insulate half your house if the other half is not insulated. I brought that up, figuring that my walls did not have insulation. Why should I insulate the basement, I asked? No good answer. He also told me that spray foam isn’t reversible. And he never mentioned anything about a vapor barrier.

Finally, Vinny and I had a chance to talk. I told him that something about spray foam just made me nervous (well, lots of things) even if it’s just in a few spots. I didn’t want to regret doing something later. The only thing that sounded good about this offer was that it would be absolutely free to us. Vinny, agreeing with my hesitation, said to me,  “If someone came around and offered free vinyl siding and installation, would you take it?”  Without skipping a beat I scoffed and said, “No.”  He replied, “There’s your answer.”

Good point. Doing something to my house just because it’s free, when it’s something that neither one of us feels comfortable with or has researched enough, would be a ridiculous decision. My main conclusion was that the 83-year-old house does not have any problems, but I change the air flow, it’s quite possibly asking for problems. Right? Why ruin a good thing and fix something that doesn’t need to be fixed? Before we decided on the amount of heat loss and cost and understand how this house works through winter, we shouldn’t mess with the system.

However, this particular contractor was focused purely on air sealing. To his credit, he did talk buildings with me and gave me much to think about. He looked in the attic and checked out the insulation there (currently 6″ of cellulose that possibly doesn’t extend to the eaves – yes, I am aware that it needs to be addressed). He was patient with me and didn’t give me a hard time when I sort of said okay for spray foam and then nevermind. Perhaps it was my own mistake, but I was not under the impression that this assessment would only be about air sealing. After all, you can’t air seal your basement and not consider the effects on or what is needed for the rest of the house.

If someone such as myself who is so vehemently opposed to spray foam (in my own house anyway) could waver a bit by the temptation of free work and materials, then surely I was not ready to make such an important decision without any warning ahead of time. I hate to think that others made rash decisions for their own buildings.

This is not meant to sound like a rant, but more to explain why I was probably the worst candidate for this type of flood “assessment.” I am grateful for Efficiency Vermont’s assistance to flood victims across the state and think overall they’re doing a great job. However, their sub-contractors on this job should be better informed.

The most beneficial part of the “assessment” was realizing just how much I need to study before making decisions about insulation. It was a good reality check for me as a new homeowner to think carefully through every major project.  But for now, I’m holding true to my anti-spray foam and air sealing, especially because the drafts of my historic house are no worse than a normal house less than half its age.

We can discuss other types of insulation after I read some more material. This graduate thesis by Sarah Elizabeth Welniak, Energy Efficiency in Historic Buildings, seems like a good place to start. What else do you recommend?

Button Up Vermont Workshop

Last week I attended a Button Up Vermont workshop, hosted by Efficiency Vermont, geared toward those affected by the recent Irene flooding.  Efficiency Vermont is an organization committed to teaching Vermonters how to reduce energy costs, choose more sustainable energy sources and to increase the use of local energy. Many flood victims are forced to rebuild portions or all of their homes, choose new heating systems, choose new insulation, buy new appliances and much more; therefore, Efficiency Vermont is aiming to guide people to energy efficient choices.

The workshop announcement sparked my interest for three reasons. (1) Since the workshop was geared towards post flood recovery, it would discuss cleanup such as mold and moisture concerns, which is currently one of my main concerns. (2) We do need to buy a new heating system, and we are trying to decide between oil or wood pellets or both. (3) Also, I was curious to hear what they would say about windows and historic materials. Would they advocate replacement or maintaining what is existing?

To my delight, one of the first things the presenters discussed was mold and moisture. Fun, right? Much of it was geared toward wood and fabric, not concrete. But, I think here is where I solidified my idea to scrub the basement walls. More on that particular endeavor another time. It was generally helpful in the sense that it made me feel better as we had done many of the right things so far. And, it was a good reminder of what we still needed to accomplish. Many people had questions about dirt floor basements or mold on furniture.

Regarding heating systems, it is something I know little about (first time homeowner here!) so I appreciate any discussion on the different systems. Efficiency Vermont offers rebates and incentives to buy certain systems (that goes for appliances, too).

Now, about windows. I am relieved and proud to hear that Efficiency Vermont said that new windows are not worth it; the payback required for the ridiculously expensive windows is much too long. Hooray! That was exciting for me, a historic window lover.

The main part of the workshop (it was more like a lecture, than a workshop) was the discussion about insulation, specifically spray foam insulation. Yuck. I do not like any of it, partially because I have a hard time believing that it’s not toxic in some way (off gases?) and partially because I think it’s ugly. All insulation is generally hideous looking, but something about spray foam creeps me out. Am I crazy? Anyway, while I know energy efficiency is related to insulation, I tend to care less about wall insulation because I want my house to breathe. So if that means a drafty house, I am okay with it. (I know, I expect a lot of disagreement here.) I was disappointed by the emphasis on this insulation, but a lot of people do have to replace the insulation on their first floors, so the discussions were appropriate for the setting.

Overall, I’m glad I attended the workshop. After all, maintenance is preservation and preservation is maintenance, right? Has anyone else been to something similar? What did you think?

How You Know You’re Living in an Old House

Plaster and lath in the closet, covered by gypsum board and now filled with insulation.

Plaster and lath in the closet, covered by gypsum board and now filled with insulation.

Note to pet owners: be sure to cover the exposed wall with gypsum board so the nosy cats do not jump into the fiberglass insulation. But, make sure you can remove the board so you can show off the plaster and lath (even though it’s mostly lath now).