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Sat Mar 14, 2015 at 06:00 AM PDT

SMHRB: Big Plans for Spring

by DrLori

This is the Saturday  Morning Home Repair Blog where the Dailykos community gets together to talk about all things construction and repair. Our genial and expert staff stand ready to aid you on your every problem. If we can't answer your question, it's probably just too weird,
Usually by this time of the year, we begin to see signs of life, things outside start to green up.  Instead, this morning we got this:  
Yep, signs of spring are everywhere.
So, because it's going to be a while before the planer goes out on the porch (since we can't use power equipment where it's stored), it's time for plans.

Today I want to outline our spring renovation plans, because we're definitely looking at Big Doings.  But we need help, as in your help--your wisdom and experience, to keep me from doing something profoundly dumb.

When we first got here, we were, to put it bluntly, broke.  Not flat broke, but pretty close.  We'd scraped up whatever we could, hunted under the couch cushions, emptied piggy banks, etc., just to buy the place, and it was in rough shape.  A lot of the original work involved just cleaning the place up, but there were some practical and structural issues.  

Imagine the shell of a house, essentially sound, but filthy and in need of new wiring and plumbing.  That what what we moved into.  A lot of stuff in the early days was stop-gap and now, that's what we're tackling.

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Thu Feb 19, 2015 at 05:53 AM PST

Bird Eyes

by DrLori

This is a true story.  The names are changed to keep the descendants from coming after me.

I've debated for years about the best way to write about what happened, and this is my first run at it.  It probably won't be the last, or the best, iteration.   But I'll try.  Because this was important, and I carry a load of guilt over it even though I thought I was doing the right thing.  I thought I was being kind, but I ended up being the purveyor of an intolerable cruelty.  And the event itself ripped away the last shards of religion from my life, and left me who I am today.

I guess the best way to do this is with the unvarnished version.  Names have been changed, but everything else is exactly the way it happened.

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Sat Jan 10, 2015 at 06:00 AM PST

SMHRB: Keeping It Warm

by DrLori

Welcome again to Saturday Morning Home Repair blogging, where we talk about fixing houses, the things in them that are supposed to work for us,  and fixing them up.  An ad hoc cadre of building professionals and gifted amateurs attempt to answer questions that arise from readers, and offer encouragement and advice for those inclined to do things for themselves, if they can.  We all do a lot of things, collectively, and can probably help out with insights from our vast experience.
   Or sometimes, we just gab.
You know how you can start out in one direction, but land up somewhere entirely different? Well, that happened to me this week with this diary, twice. At first, I wanted to update our progress in the warming room and winter kitchen with the Great Floor Stabilization Project. But Christmas got in the way and we didn't get done nearly what we thought we would.  So, while the floor is stable, on that front there’s not much more to report.

Then, I thought I would offer a few thoughts on remuddling, the art of really messing up your old house.  The term is a direct theft from the Old House Journal’s long-standing back page evidence that if you can’t be a shining example, you can serve as a horrible warning. It’s a rich topic, and one where we can all participate.

But then the weather intervened. And I’ve spent most of the past few days just trying to keep the house from freezing.

This led me to thinking about all the various strategies used to keep an old house warm (and I’m not talking about a midcentury modern house where you can upgrade the insulation and consider the job done—no, I’m talking about houses that were built before insulation was even an option, because mine is such a one.

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Welcome again to Saturday Morning Home Repair blogging, where we talk about fixing houses, the things in them that are supposed to work for us,  and fixing them up.  An ad hoc cadre of building professionals and gifted amateurs attempt to answer questions that arise from readers, and offer encouragement and advice for those inclined to do things for themselves, if they can.  We all do a lot of things, collectively, and can probably help out with insights from our vast experience.
  Or sometimes, we just gab.
When last I wrote, I had patched up the foundation in the back room in the basement, the winter kitchen, and just as I finished, I wandered into the front part of the basement in time to see this:
Front side of the basement wall.
Most of the basement of RiverBank is in pretty good shape, especially given the decades of neglect the house had been subjected to.  The entire basement is made of brick, every wall four layers, or wythes, thick.  Now, of course, when you see a wall like the one above, for me to write that the basement was in good shape is counter-intuitive.  But the damage is relatively limited, even though it looks awful.

The house is close to the Shenandoah River and the basement has been flooded a number of times.  At least once I think the water stood about four feet deep for a period of time (I'm guessing 1996, when we had a serious flood in November).  The soaked bricks froze and thawed, froze and thawed, and the softer ones spalled, lost their integrity and crumbled, flaked apart or outright disintegrated.

This was the other side of the wall.  Part of the problem was that the outer two wythes broke and fell, knocking the doorway casement out of place.  That by itself was unnerving, but even worse, the two inner wythes were broken and not in great shape, given that there's about thirty feet of brick wall bearing down on it.
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Good Morning!

The Saturday Morning Home Repair Blog (SMHRB) is where we gather to discuss the many and varied aspects of home repair.  Some here are trained professionals.  Some, talented DIYers. All are welcome.  Please feel encouraged to ask questions, share successes, lament sags, drips and cracks and, as always, share any advice that you have for the rest of us.
Here at RiverBank (aka Castle Dracula), we really don't do just-in-time repairs; we do holy crap it's about to collapse! repairs.  Case in point--the basement.

Years ago, I went through the basement with Lewis Caricofe, the master mason who took me on as his inept student, and asked him if there were anything there I'd have to pay attention to.  

He laughed.  "Not in your lifetime."

Sadly, Lewis was incorrect.  A series of flood/freeze cycles while the house was abandoned did more damage than anyone expected, and then there was an earthquake in 2011 that nobody expected.  At the time, I was working on repairing the kitchen fireplace, when suddenly the house jolted.  I looked up and saw the witch balls in the windows swaying, but not even a trace of soot falling in the chimney.

At the time I felt quite smug that the old house withstood the shock without damage.  Boy, was I an idiot.  

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Thu Oct 16, 2014 at 05:26 PM PDT

Who You Gonna Call?

by DrLori

It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that a person possessed of a house of a Certain Age must also possess at least one ghost.  And when that Certain Age is sufficiently antique, that house is certain to attract Ghostbusters.

It's counter-intuitive, really.  There isn't an acre of land anywhere habitable that hasn't seen war and/or death.  Every place is old; every place has seen its allotted share of joy and loss, of beginnings and endings, dreams fulfilled or dashed, of struggles involving great pitch and moment.  But, for some reason, we think only old buildings and designated battlefields are the appropriate environs of earthbound spirits.  Maybe it's the veneer of age, the patina, that puts us in the mindset where we look for the uncanny; maybe it's that we've watched too many horror films.

Seventy-four percent of Americans consider themselves religious.  Forty-five percent believe in ghosts (37% don't and 21% aren't sure), and eighteen percent say they've actually seen a ghost.  For just a moment, you deserve the chance to let that enormous cognitive dissonance sink in.  After all, one of the most important teachings of all faiths is that the dead are at rest, but at least a significant number of religious people want to think that yes, maybe the dead are at rest, but that's Uncle George watching over Aunt Mary and Cousin Eddie rattling the chains in the attic.

One of the reasons so many people think there may be something in the closet that isn't Narnia is because the human mind is suggestible.  We don't have to see something or experience it directly to make ourselves believe it's real.  We need just a hint, a suspicion and, for good or for ill, our brains fill in the gaps.  For every flash of genius or intuition, there are at least two thumps and a boggart in the dark.

Because I'm suggestible and know it, I don't put much credence in hauntings.  Almost everything I've seen I attribute to my overactive imagination.  Let's just say I've seen things I can't explain, but I've had more inexplicable experiences with ghostbusters than I ever have had with ghosts.

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Welcome again to Saturday Morning Home Repair blogging, where we talk about fixing houses, the things in them that are supposed to work for us,  and fixing them up.  An ad hoc cadre of building professionals and gifted amateurs attempt to answer questions that arise from readers, and offer encouragement and advice for those inclined to do things for themselves, if they can.  We all do a lot of things, collectively, and can probably help out with insights from our vast experience.
Or sometimes, we just gab.
A few weeks ago I introduced you all to our modest little fixer-upper, RiverBank.  Previously I wrote about fixing the kitchen fireplace and restoring the staircase, but in the way of introductions, I thought a few more photos might be in order about where we started with the house.  

We bought the house in late 1997.  The foundation had been flooded the previous year and all the bricks had spalled, and we knew that the only chance we had to save the house was to move in before cold weather and keep the basement dry and above freezing so it would all harden up before the walls came down.  We didn't close until October 15.  Although it was months before we would actually own the place, we worked every weekend and spare evening because we knew how tight our time window really was.

The original plan was to restore a couple of rooms before we moved in.  With one live electrical outlet in the basement, I was able to run an extension cord up to the main floor and hook up a hot plate.  The well was out in the yard.  I could heat one pan of water at a time and pour hot water and lysol into a pail for washing.  Not perfect, but it worked.  

Of course, the plan to restore a couple of rooms wasn't workable on one electrical outlet and a hot plate.  Then we went to painting a couple of rooms.  Then we adjusted our expectations again and agreed to clean a couple of rooms.  In the end we scraped up the mud where we were going to put the furniture, and moved in.  

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Welcome again to Saturday Morning Home Repair blogging, where we talk about fixing houses, the things in them that are supposed to work for us,  and fixing them up.  An ad hoc cadre of building professionals and gifted amateurs attempt to answer questions that arise from readers, and offer encouragement and advice for those inclined to do things for themselves, if they can.  We all do a lot of things, collectively, and can probably help out with insights from our vast experience.

Or sometimes, we just gab.  So grab a cup of coffee and come on in.

I have been remiss.  At least, I've been guilty of poor manners, in that I have not made proper introductions.  I've written a couple of times about bits and pieces of my house, without introducing the house appropriately.  Therefore, meet my own little slice of heaven, and what it looked like when we first met.

This is RiverBank.

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Or, The Saga of How the Mobile Home Met Its End.

Welcome again to Saturday Morning Home Repair blogging, where we talk about fixing houses, the things in them that are supposed to work for us, and fixing them up.  An ad hoc cadre of building professionals and gifted amateurs attempt to answer questions that arise from readers, and offer encouragement and advice for those inclined to do things for themselves, if they can.  We all do a lot of things, collectively, and can probably help out with insights from our vast experience.
Or sometimes, we just gab.
When we bought our farm in 1997, the parcel consisted of 41 acres in a half mile strip of riverbottom field between an old road and the Shenandoah River. It was part of an historic plantation, and happened to be the parcel that the plantation house sat on, and we set about restoring the house and land. Three years later we bought a 27 acre field across the road. This parcel was also long and skinny and stretch the other way between the old road in the main highway. So our property makes a huge L.

One of the reasons we bought the second field was because part of it is on a hill, and gives us about one acre of land that's out of the floodplain. It already had a well and we had a little extra cash, so we thought it would be sensible to put a new septic and grandfather a house site, since when we're old and finished with mucking about in old house stuff we'll have a nice modern passive solar to look forward to.

We thought that grandfathering the house site might prove fortuitous, given how often flood plain maps are redrawn and expanded.*  So we bought a secondhand mobile home thirdhand, a 1976 Criterion, 12’ x 60’, renovated at least once, and put it in place. At first we thought we were going to rent it out, but we were having trouble with our tenant house renters just then and didn't want to borrow more trouble, when a relative wanted to clean off her porch and asked us if she could store some of her things in it. Said relative is not quite a hoarder, but rather an assiduous collector of just about everything.

You can probably see where this is going. Yes, the mobile home became a storage unit.

At least, it became a storage unit until last year. That was when we realized that, given the economy, interest rates would probably never again be as low as they are now, and we decided to build our retirement house. It’s a small plan on a small footprint: three bedrooms, two baths, a great room and kitchen, all of it handicapped accessible. We drew it up ourselves, and were eager to get started. There was one thing standing in our way: the old mobile home.

The mobile home in October 2013
* See the Flood Disclaimer at the bottom of the diary.
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Welcome again to Saturday Morning Home Repair blogging, where we talk about fixing houses, the things in them that are supposed to work for us,  and fixing them up.  An ad hoc cadre of building professionals and gifted amateurs attempt to answer questions that arise from readers, and offer encouragement and advice for those inclined to do things for themselves, if they can.  We all do a lot of things, collectively, and can probably help out with insights from our vast experience.
Or sometimes, we just gab.
This is a tale of plans gone awry.

We know well that, when planning any renovation project, it’s wise to double the estimate and triple the timeframe, but we’ve gone past even that. By an exponential factor.

The shed was supposed to be finished by now.  Actually, it was supposed to be finished more than a year ago, one step in the long process that, were it to work perfectly, would make me a very happy homeowner but, circumstances being what they are, happiness—at least on the house restoration front—is one elusive beast, and I’ve taken to skulking around the yard shaking my head and muttering dark comments to myself.  I’ve begun to act like a madwoman.

Maybe I should start at the beginning, or some 16 years ago.

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Tue Feb 11, 2014 at 06:27 AM PST

Bringing the War Home: The Yellow Birds

by DrLori

The war tried to kill us in the spring.  As grass greened the plains of Nineveh and the weather warmed, we patrolled the low-slung hills beyond the cities and towns.  We moved over them and through the tall grass on faith, kneading paths into the windswept growth like pioneers.  While we slept, the war rubbed its thousand ribs against the ground in prayer.  When we pressed onward through exhaustion, its eyes were white and open in the dark.  While we ate, the war fasted, fed by its own deprivation.  It made love and gave birth and spread through fire.

Kevin Powers begins The Yellow Birds with this now-iconic passage. It’s an image, not of Iraqi insurgents, but of War itself, an implacable foe that thrives in privation and hardship.  Against an enemy that grinds up life in its gears, men lose their way, lose their sense of purpose.  Especially men who joined thinking they were following the path of heroes carved by ideals-driven forbearers and signposted by battles like Yorktown, Gettysburg, Normandy and Cho Sin, but find themselves instead in an absurdist drama, a dangerous purgatory with arbitrary rules, contradictory goals and deadly consequences.  Midway is a long way from the FOB at Al Tafar in 2004, where The Yellow Birds opens.

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Good morning and welcome to Saturday Morning Home Repair, where we talk about fixing houses, the things in them that are supposed to work for us,  and fixing them up.  An ad hoc cadre of building professionals and gifted amateurs attempt to answer questions that arise from readers, and offer encouragement and advice for those inclined to do things for themselves, if they can.  We all do a lot of things, collectively, and can probably help out with any problems you might have.  If you're having a problem, there's a good chance someone here has already experienced the same thing, and either solved it or figured out how to save you a couple of steps.
For almost fourteen years, we had the stairs from hell.  And it proved to be the hardest puzzle we've had to solve yet.  We circled it for years.  We managed to repoint brick and replaster walls, first repair the I-block tin roof and finally replace it with standing seam tin, rebuild fireplaces and chimneys, repair floors, but the staircase....  Oh, the staircase almost did us in.

The problem was that when we first bought the house, it wasn't all there.  We found a pile of slats (really plain balusters) in the upstairs closet, and the long curved gooseneck handrail had been broken off and was lying in an upstairs bedroom, along with another broken curve of black painted yellow pine.  One of the newel posts was missing, and much of what wasn't there we assumed had been burned in someone's fire.  And really, we had bigger troubles--the house was in pretty rough shape.

The upstairs landing.
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