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Walls of stone

A few weeks ago we had our first “snowfall”. Slushy white flakes fell from the sky for several hours one morning, prompting hordes of North Carolinians to run to the nearest grocery store to buy a month’s supply of milk, bread, and toilet paper.

I took the white stuff as a sign from God that I should probably go ahead and start insulating the kitchen walls already. Lucky for me, Lowe’s had called several days earlier to report that the insulation that I ordered was available for pickup.

At the store, the clerk asked me if I thought I could fit the entire order in my car. I responded with a confident “yes” just as his coworker turned the corner with a forklift carrying a pallet of insulation the size of a Manhattan studio apartment. Fast forward several minutes and we were both leaning hard on the third bag of insulation, trying desperately to shoehorn it into the front passenger seat. We were eventually successful, but I dropped my earlier swagger and muttered: “See ya in an hour.”

After a few trips back-and-forth to the store, the insulation was all chez Highley.

rock wool bags

So, what was so special about this insulation order? Lowe’s carries the pink stuff, right?

I didn’t use the pink stuff. I used what I strongly believe is the most underrated insulation product available today: rock wool.

I hate fiberglass insulation. It’s ferociously itchy, casts off clouds of glass fibers if you even look at it the wrong way, and is extremely difficult to install well. I also hate foam insulation. Mark my words, the same guys that show up on job sites in moon suits today to chip out asbestos and lead paint will still be showing up twenty years from now to remove spray foam insulation once everyone realizes it causes you to grow a third eye.

I’d never had the opportunity to use rock wool before, but I’m now a card-carrying advocate for the stuff. Here are a few reasons why it beats the pants off its closest competitor, fiberglass:

Rock wool has a shape.

Rock wool batts are blocks of material with a definite shape that retain their dimensions even when handled. Fiberglass batts are flimsy, floppy, and amorphous and require all sorts of banjo work to keep them from sagging during installation and long after. Rock wool is lightly friction fit between studs and stays where you put it without any additional support.

rock wool shape

Rock wool is water resistant.

Pour water on rock wool and it’ll puddle on top. Sure, if you turn a fire hose on it, it’ll eventually get wet, but incidental water rolls right off it. And like sheep’s wool, even when it’s wet, it still insulates. In a house without sheathing like ours, where it’s inevitable that water will occasionally work its way into the walls, this characteristic gives me peace of mind. Fiberglass insulation turns into a mold farm when it gets wet and loses nearly all its insulation value.

rock wool water

Rock wool is fire resistant.

Have a gas fireplace? You know those little tufts of material that are piled below the logs to imitate glowing coals? That’s rock wool. The stuff is made of – you guessed it – rock, so it simply doesn’t burn even at temperatures that would reduce fiberglass to puddles of molten glass. I sincerely hope that we never put this characteristic to the test in our house, but there’s comfort in knowing that the insulation might at least slow down a fire, heaven forbid.

Rock wool is easy to install.

Because rock wool batts have a definite form and are somewhat stiff, you can cut them very precisely with a bread knife. When you encounter obstacles like electrical outlets, you can actually cut recesses that fit snugly around them directly into the insulation. As you can imagine, there’s not one regular stud bay in our entire house, so the ease of cutting and shaping the batts to odd configurations made a good insulation job easier to achieve. I also found rock wool to be surprisingly non-itchy; I installed it over two days in a short sleeve shirt with no gloves and experienced no discomfort.

rock wool cut

Rock wool absorbs sound.

Because it’s so dense, rock wool is a very effective at acoustical isolation. The leading distributor of rock wool in the States, Roxul, markets a separate line of products solely intended for sound absorption. We installed it in the walls of the powder room that adjoins the kitchen to preclude any awkward Thanksgiving dinner moments. I noticed an immediate deadening of sound in the kitchen after the rock wool went in. The same density that makes rock wool an effective sound barrier also makes it more resistant to airflow than fiberglass batts which have a tendency to act like oversized air filters.

rock wool batt

Of course all these advantages come with a small price premium. Rock wool runs about 50% more than fiberglass insulation, but significantly less than foam, dense pack cellulose, or any of the other exotic insulation products available. For me, that’s a reasonable price to pay for what I firmly believe to be a superior product. This won’t be my last time packing the car full of the stuff.

Overdoing it

A word of advice: never celebrate the one-year anniversary of a one-room renovation project, no matter how ambitious it is. I’m ashamed to say that we recently blew threw that milestone after life did its very best to sap my enthusiasm. But recent weeks have played witness to some honest-to-goodness forward movement. I’ll share details in posts to follow, but among other things we’ve recently passed framing, plumbing, mechanical, and electrical rough-in inspections, re-insulated the walls, purchased appliances, ordered cabinets, and started to install wall and ceiling surfaces.

Even under the best of circumstances, though, I’m a slow designer and builder. I’ve accused myself of overdoing things in this forum before, and now I’m going to show you how that plays out, and why the most mundane tasks take me days to complete.

A couple weekends ago, it was finally time to install a cap for the duct to the new hood vent. Here’s how the last guy to renovate our house did it:

old vent

Nice, huh? Cut a hole through the siding, slap a vent cap over it and get back to the serious business of drinking beer. To this day, this vent leaks voluminous quantities of outside air and is no doubt a bug superhighway in the warmer months.

I knew I could do better.  A lot better.

First, the nerve-wracking portion of the project: I cut a hole in the house:

hole in house

I want to be clear that I was NOT drunk when I cut the hole. But, I’m pretty sure the guy who installed the siding on this side of our house was. The hole and the window are both dead level. The siding is anything but. I could have skewed the hole, but I figure we’ll put new (level) siding on this side of the house someday.

Here’s a closer look at the hole. You can see the old white oak framing, the siding directly on the studs, and the blown-in cellulose insulation, undoubtedly the itchiest and dirtiest material known to man.

hole up close

Next, I primed the edges of the exposed siding to seal them against moisture.

primed edges

Without sheathing, there’s nothing to attach a vent to, so I framed a supporting structure just behind the siding.

back framing

With a sturdy frame in place, I flashed the opening. An aluminum drip flashing protrudes over the siding at the bottom of the opening, flexible flashing tape wraps over this flashing and up the sides of the framing. The tape extends underneath another aluminum drip edge at the top of the opening. Working from bottom to top like this establishes a continuous path for water to drain down.

flashing

After flashing, I built a custom wood frame to support the vent and trim out the siding. The frame has a cap with a tapered top and a drip kerf on its bottom side. The frame has thick wood sides that mimic the nearby window trim. I primed it on every surface and put it in place with stainless steel screws.

frame

With the frame firmly affixed, it was finally time to install the vent cap. I ordered a copper cap with a damper and a bird screen. Yes, I could have bought a flimsy galvanized vent at the home center for significantly less money, but this one will last a bazillion years and look good doing it. I put a thick bead of caulk along the top and sides of the rear of the cap, but not along the bottom to allow any incidental water to drain. The cap was screwed in place with brass screws.

caulk vent

installed vent

After caulking the gap between the wood frame and the siding, I applied two coats of paint. I think it looks pretty good and it’ll keep looking better as it weathers from orange to brown to verdigris.

complete

And that’s how I translate a job that took the last guy a couple hours into a weekend-long project.

It’s a tupelo, honey.

We got a tree.

tupelo

I can hear the naysayers mumbling, “Where I come from, we call that a twig, not a tree.”

But, as they say, the best time to plant a tree is fifty years ago, and the second best time is now.

After ridding our side yard of the “decorative” stump that loomed over the lawn, we began a protracted search for a replacement tree.  As I do, I developed a long list of mandatory criteria that no tree could ever meet. It needed to live a long time, it needed to look good year round (but especially in the fall), it should be large, but not too large, and it needed to be happy in the heat of central North Carolina summers. We considered and rejected nearly every sort of tree commonly available at the local nursery: crabapple (too messy), maple (too common), cherry (too ephemeral), hawthorn (too thorny), dogwood (too slow-growing), redbud (too short-lived), oak (too big).

At an impasse, we decided to defer our selection until spring, giving us time to brainstorm new options. But, a chance encounter with one of our neighbors, an amateur tree buff, resulted in an unexpectedly perfect suggestion: a tupelo tree. Now, as far as I knew, Tupelo was just a town in Mississippi. Turns out it’s a type of tree too, alternately known as a black gum. And, in case you’re wondering, tupelo honey is honey made by bees collecting nectar from tupelo trees. As I read more about the tree, the more of my requirements it met.

It’s native, growing naturally from Canada to Mexico.

It’s big, but not too big, maxing out at 60 – 80 feet tall and 25 – 35 feet wide.

It has a tidy growth habit with a straight trunk and branches that emerge at ninety degrees from it.

It’s drought-tolerant once established, and can tolerate a range of soil types.

It’s long-lived, averaging 250 years, but specimens 600 years or older have been identified.

And, best of all, tupelos have spectacular bright red fall color, similar to a red maple.

The tree might not look like much now, but in a few decades, I’ m confident our tupelo will be a familiar fixture in our corner of Hillsborough.

What a difference a ray makes

At long last, after a lazy summer and a slow fall, I’ve managed to find some honest-to-God momentum on our kitchen project. Last weekend it was time for one of the most transformative changes yet, the addition of a window in the west wall facing the backyard.  Other than bathrooms, the kitchen-to-be was the only place in the house that didn’t get light from more than one direction. So, after discovering old termite damage in the wall during demolition, we decided to remove the affected siding and framing and replace it with a window.

Here’s what we started with:

before window installation

You can see the termite tunnels across the back of the siding, and the ghost of a diagonal brace that I literally swept away when it crumbled to the touch.  This portion of the kitchen is hand-hewn post and beam construction, like the main portion of the house.  I suspect that it was a separate structure, perhaps a kitchen house, that was dragged to the site and incorporated as a portion of the north wing of the Ordinary House.  It appears to be a similar vintage too, dating to the mid-to-late 1700s.

As I’ve made clear in the past, there’s absolutely nothing plumb or level in our house. The post on the left side of the picture above was once plumb, presumably.  Now, however, it’s got so much lean to it that I had to make large tapered shims that went from 2 1/2″ wide down to nothing over the course of 5′-0″ in order to create a plumb opening.

I ordered a wood double-hung window from a local supplier. Since this is likely to be the only window we add to this house, I splurged on a double-hung from one of my favorite window manufacturers, Loewen. Hailing from Canada, Loewen builds beautiful windows with straight grain Douglas Fir. They have nice historically accurate details: tall bottom rails, skinny muntins, and an option for a thick exterior sill. I also ordered the window with preinstalled casings to match the adjacent windows.

The window arrived several weeks ago, and I waited for a good opportunity to stick it in. When the weather report for the weekend looked favorable, I called in reinforcements in the form of my uncle, an experienced and talented carpenter. We began early in the morning by cutting the hole for the window.  It was a nerve-wracking moment knowing that the house would be wide open to the elements until the window was in place.

window during

And despite the wonkiness of the house, it only took about 6 hours of measuring, cutting, shimming, leveling and screwing to finesse the window into place. Because the siding of the house sits directly on the studs, and not on sheathing, we had to pay extra attention to waterproofing details and achieving a tight fit. In the end, we were left with this: a beautiful window that looks very much at home, almost as if it has been there all along.

window after

window after outside

The vibe in the room has been completely altered. The visual connection to the backyard and the additional light make it a far more pleasant place to be. And now I spend a lot of time staring out a portion of the wall that I spent many months avoiding.

after window 2

Happy Halloween 2014

With a few minutes to go before 8 o’ clock, we’ve already been visited by two groups of trick-or-treaters. One more and we’ll set a new Halloween record for the Ordinary House. Last year’s meager showing confirmed what we learned in 2012: we’re a low-yield, off-the-beaten-path street, and our house is bypassed by all the ghouls, ghosts, and Elsas wandering in search of a sugar high. We’re no less prepared though, with plenty of candy on hand and a fat jack-o-lantern glowing on the porch. After a pop culture themed pumpkin last Halloween, this year we opted for a more cultured, high brow design. I call it the Mona Lantern:

mona lisa pumpkin

I thought is was a pretty good likeness of Leonardo’s chef d’oeuvre until a trick-or-treater asked, “Is that Jesus?”

Oh well. Happy Halloween.

Marking the spot

Permit me one more sad dad post and I’ll return this blog to its regular schedule of updates (and apologies for lack of updates) on the progress of projects at the Ordinary House.

We spread my dad’s ashes this spring and summer in various places that were meaningful to him. We wanted to have one place we could return to visit, and it was important to me that the presence of his remains be marked in a permanent way. I conjured up a series of overwrought grave markers, heavily laden with symbolism before realizing that simplest solution was probably the best in this case.

I retrieved a piece of leftover Carrara marble from our shed, once a toilet partition at the Wolfpack Club in Raleigh. When my dad renovated that building several years ago, he helped me salvage the stone slabs which I turned into beautiful kitchen countertops at our house in Chapel Hill.  True story, and awesome conversation starter.

chapel hill kitchen

With nothing more than a pencil, an old ball-peen hammer (my dad’s), and a stone chisel that I ordered on the Interwebs, I set to work tracing out the letters F-R-A-N-K on the stone. I started chipping away at the slab with the chisel, tentatively at first, and with increasing force as I got the hang of how the marble split.  The serifs in the ‘F’ were a bit ragged, but the letter looked respectable so I carried on.

grave marker tools

By the time I got to ‘K’ two days later I was pretty proud of how things turned out.  The serifs were crisp and the edges of the letters clean. I stamped dad’s full name and dates in an aluminum bar and attached it to the stone as a finishing touch. I think he would have loved it.

marker placement

The marker and the ashes sit in a peaceful clearing of mountain laurel on my uncle’s land in the mountains of southwest Virginia, not far from where my dad was born.

frank highley

My uncle reports that the marker has been shifted to a different position every time he’s visited it.  We figure either a bear has been rummaging around or else my dad, ever the teaser, is messing with us one last time.

Destumpification

When we took ownership of the Ordinary House, among other things, we inherited a very impressive stump. A remnant of a huge elm tree, the stump was a full ten feet tall and topped by a bushy vine which seemed to be the only thing keeping it from rotting to pieces. I’m told that this pairing was intentional yard ornament.  Knowing this, I’m willing to consider that it might have looked good once, but more recently it looked like H-E-double hockey sticks. Worse, the stump was situated directly in the line of sight of cars paused at the stop sign across the street. Everybody who’s driven by our house in recent years was probably as perplexed as we were about this peculiar vegetative arrangement. Not to mention the stump was directly outside the window of our kitchen-to-be.

elm stump

This year when Weezie asked me what I wanted for my birthday the answer was obvious: make that damn stump go away. Several weeks ago a local tree service made quick work of its removal.  There’s a clear view of the east side of the house for the first time in decades.

The unfortunate outcome of cutting down a tall stump is that you’re left with a short stump. But a quick call to the stump grinding man made sure that all evidence of the old elm tree was removed once and for all. It’s one of those easy changes that makes an outsize impact and leaves you wondering why you didn’t do it earlier.

ground stump

The corner of the yard deserves an ornamental tree, so our next challenge will be to make sure we get the right one.  Any suggestions?

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