Follow up on 67 Gray Street Remodel


I recently returned to follow up on 67 Gray Street remodel to photograph the results.  There were a number of talented finishers that all helped to make this design become a very nice home.

Dining room Before


Dining room After


dinning2   dinning4      dinning3   porchview   ceiling2

Ceiling with old beams, new pine ceiling and drywall soffits

Kitchen Before


Kitchen After

kitchen3  kitchen2   kitchen

Living room Before

fireplace   2ndfront

Living  room After

fireplace    livingroom2


New Hall and staircase

 hall    stair2nd  stair                       stair-3rd

New 3rd Floor Office and Bedroom



Historic remodeling needs a new crew

Well a new crew came to help…blacky the cat,

Carlos from Manhattan, and Tucker too.  These photos are a testimony of much work, not all fun, but hell its a job that is finally cleaning up. I love to bore people with images of insulation…about as boring as installing it…just ask Emily and Carlos they love to insulate…its insulting.

ripped into the back of the beast

Well today was the day that we would find out what was under the floor, and yes hopefully not a beating heart. The lads were on hand, Silas, Parker.
Emily assisting in all areas of demolition removal, and screaming when the bees attacked from under the floor.
And Jon managing and assessing all grim findings… which there were a number of. The never-ending hearth of bricks that eventually led to a harvest of field stone. The chimney of solid dirt, and mystery cylinders. And the normal pipes of all sizes, wires galore, and dirt, insulation dust (itchy stuff) and dirt, more dirt, oh nails old rusty nails, and dirt.
We cut up the
floor, pried it up, threw it out, and what did we find, a hole of dirt, strange framing method, and dirt. So what we do now we will see. I am going to sleep on it myself, one should never mix a day of demolition with design thoughts, the two need to be separated by at least one nights rest. Next blog on 67 GreySt

On Old Plaster, can I save it ?

Here is a really exciting topic! Old buildings and old plaster. Everyone wants to save the plaster because it is so damn much work to remove it. Is this a wise choice? Well, there are number of things to be taken into account about old plaster. For one, old buildings (when I say old I am talking 100 plus years) didn’t have insulation for many many years, this is a problem to the plaster.
The plaster in a building in New England with no insulation is doomed. Over years and years moisture builds up in the wall cavities due to the extreme temperature difference between the indoors and outdoors. This causes the condensation point to occur inside the cavity… what this means is the lath nails rust away over time.
A lath nail is a very small diameter cut nail with no corrosion resistance, it is the weak point. Once the nail rusts through the lath is essentially detached from the wall studs. What happens next is that the movement of the building (these old building do move, foundation issues, and improper loading cause deflection and uplift) flexes the plaster wall. Over time cracks begin to show, from this point on the plaster is doomed. After years of movement the lath nails are rusted through and the lath is essentially detached from the studs. The only thing holding it there is the hooking action of the plaster. When the Plaster is troweled onto the gaped lath it smears through the gaps and blobs to the inside of the wall cavity creating a hook which once hardened holds the plaster in place, kind of like Velcro.
The lath itself is rough sawn so it assists in grabbing the plaster too. Once the lathe is detached and the heaving and settling of the building work on it the ‘hooks’ of plaster shear off (partly due to the moisture inside the wall cavity causing the plaster to become soft and punky); once this occurs the plaster begins to fall off the walls.
Well I know some Mr fix it will say that you can use a washer headed screw to hold this ailing plaster on, its a short term fix.
Especially when it comes to ceilings, gravity works on the plaster and literally the ceiling falls in, and I mean large chunks of heavy plaster, a real headache. So what most Mr fix it types do next is to patch the bad spots with drywall, or they drywall over the plaster to cover it and to hold it on. All of this type of remedying the ailing plaster is even more of a blight to the ‘old building’….it is adding more dead weight to the structure, and most of these structures were under built in load bearing design. The floors were often over spanned or the distance the joists run from wall to wall or beam was too far for the depth of the joist. Most old buildings used square joists because the economy of milling beams is such that you can get more squares out of a round log than taller boards.
Taller is better in joists and beams when you talk floor deflection as long as there is blocking to hold the joists upright. Getting a bit off the subject here, back to the plaster, so more dead weight is added and now the building is groaning under the weight. This is very bad for the structures beams and joists.
Because the old builders didn’t have metal joist hangers like we use today, they notched the beams and joists together as a form of joinery, sometimes a mortise and tenon connection, they thought this was superior workmanship but as we can see in old buildings it was a mistake to notch. The notches reduce the total effective height of the joist or beam and under years of loading splits will occur in the timber beam at the notches. So the modern re-modeler that is too lazy to make a mess and clean it up that plaster removal causes adds more layers of remodel weight to a structure already ailing in load carrying capacity.
This is so chronic in old homes that it is not unusual to peal 6 or 7 layers of wood paneling, drywall, more paneling, wall paper, then plaster and lathe. In the end no builder is willing to take down the layers to the start because its just hell. It is time consuming, it is dirty, it is dangerous, and it is expensive. And after days of work the wood frame is revealed…only to show sagging beams, cracked joists at notched ends, settled and sagged floors, etc… Also once you peal all this off and clean up the mess you will usually have to bring everything up to modern code. And if not mandated to do this by municipal building codes the builder will usually suggest a complete modernization because it is so much work to do this plaster removal you should bite the bullet and really fix the building .
This will include a full redo of the wiring, insulating meaning furring the walls out to accommodate reasonable priced insulation, and creating a consistent stud layout that will accommodate drywall (16″ or
24″ on center stud spacing).

So in a nutshell if you want to buy a building with old plaster that shows cracking, you might want to reconsider …this is a very expensive proposition.

And if you do buy such a building and think a quick cover up with a skim coat of plaster is going to do the trick, well it wont last, the building will most likely be energy inefficient in that it still misses proper insulation, and worse a chunk of ceiling plaster might fall on your head as you freeze to death in your bed on a cold blustery winter night.

How about new construction? Why not spend your money where it can go towards building what you really want rather than demolition and reconstruction of what most likely is at the end of it’s life cycle anyway.

Turn around Point, move ahead six spaces

67 Gray Street has reached the apex of its trajectory. No longer is it rocketing into the dumpster bin by bin, but now its soaring to new levels of energy efficiency after 170 years of chilling and overheating it’s victims within.

One hundred and seventy years “this old house” held itself up even after careless and incompetent men had removed main bearing columns, cut away floor joists, and notched joists without thought or hesitation.

The post and beam structure itself has its own set of issues that over time can be seen as workings of gravity against wood, mortise and tenon, and live loading.

This old house is seeing a top down approach, the third floor, then the 2nd floor, then the first…etc. At this point we have remedied structural issues like over spanned rafters, lack of structural ties, off center loading of beams and columns.

Further… we have insulated the roof up to a R-38, we have remedied head height problems in door heights and ceiling heights. The electrical contractor is in the process of rewiring the whole place.
The plumber is re-plumbing the building to modern codes (meaning no metal pipes, but a lot of them due to venting all fixtures!).

Perhaps one of the biggest turnarounds is that the windows have been decided upon…yes! Michael Morrill has decided to hire Northstar woodworking to build them. A little bit of background, Steven Morrill, Jon and Michael’s brother is a co-partner of Northstar, so its keeping the work and money ‘in the family’. The Historic folks we hope will be happy about this too. Its keeping the window manufacturing in the area and if that is not Historically important than what is?

Like with all things that really matter in this world there must be patience, diligence, hardships, trials, and then more patience….In the end you build something that is worthy, better then previous, and hopefully with new vision as to how it could be better for us all then previous iterations had proven not.

Although we are not near done by any stretch, we are closer. And that’s just going to have to be the new motto for those of us who work on ‘This old ____’n House’ .

You cant turn 170 years of History around in a day, reiterate…a month….or two, or three…

In the meantime Emily, Jon, and Mark all wait for some new help …and they are coming (Silas, and friend) this week brought by Mike….Yeay! Bring the boys we have plenty of work…and no shortage of dust to vacuum. Next blog Here

‘Grizzly Discoveries’ a reality show about Historicism

Historicism or Hystericalism

Well a couple weeks into the project and we have come up with a new reality show.  Either ‘This old house’ or ‘Grizzly Discoveries’.  Jon and I joke about it pretty much every day…what grizzly discovery awaits for us today?The first grizzly discovery occurred when we talked with the liaison for the Historic preservation board. She said that we would have to save the front two chimneys, and replace windows with comparable looking 6 X 6 pane double-hungs.

First of all the chimneys are what I call ‘done’. They are bent over; precariously leaning over the house and for how long will they stay this way?I guess they have been precariously leaning for some time.So rebuilding them will have to wait…budget will hopefully make it through modernization of utilities, heating, electric, insulation, plumbing, and windows alone might blow the budget.


Now the windows, what a situation, the existing windows are the originals, 170 years old, and no amount of putty and paint is going to get them to go any longer. The Historical folks believe that these old windows are just great and that the preference for them would be that we just suffered with these decaying portholes of yore.But reality is they are an energy sieve. On researching new windows with external mullions and similar sill profiles lead to a very expensive window. Of course the Historic folks want it their way, but I would argue that ‘their way’ is rather contrived…Let me explain…the reason mullions exist is not just an aesthetic discussion, that they look nice this way, but more that it was the technology of the time. The 6 X 6 configuration has a lot to do with the availability of glass at the time…thicker glass, more expense, and thinner glass cheaper…so the mullions reduce the size of each pane so that the pane can be thin and cheap. These windows were what I would call the ‘contractors model’ of the time…they were never great, well made windows…they were cheap…so now we have to replace them with expensive, fake mullioned replicas of technology inefficient and obsolete.

The simulation ‘old’ windows are not to be clad with vinyl even though every surface in Portland Maine is covered with it.
They must have fake mullions that make cleaning difficult.They must be twice as expensive as a decent more honest double hung window with no mullions.

Grizzly discovery of the day….on removing plaster around one window in the front corner of the building leads us to find no insulation anywhere and ‘K’ bracing in the corners.

This means that there would be very little good in pumping the wall cavity full of insulation…the cellulose would never make it into all the voids, the K brace is in the way.
So this we began the long, dusty grimy process of plaster and lathe removal…Two, three, four days later and three dumpsters…we are still removing the stuff.
In the
end though we will have insulated walls with the proper thickness to make insulation affordable (insulation cost has a lot to do with thickness…to get R value it takes space or it takes expensively thin ‘space age’ insulation).  In the end the walls will have new windows in them, and the heaters wont have to run full tilt throwing ridiculous amounts of energy into ‘This old House’.

Grizzly discovery of the day….the forced air heating system was installed by a guy the wore a #2 hard hat and a size XXL jump suit.He took out main support columns in order to run his inefficient duct work…found this Grizzly discovery while examining the slumping floor system.Remedy. …remove crappy heating system and replace columns.Actually the place had not one but two heating systems…Force air ran the first floor, and a boiler ran the second floor…both oil burning monsters…efficiency was not in the vocabulary of heating men of this time.

Today we will drain the water from the system in the basement, get the sawzall out and remove miles of copper pipe…none of it insulated which we are glad of …could be worse …it could have been insulated with asbestos.More later….See next blog Here