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Pretty ordinary #011: Snowmageddon 2014

I was all geared up to write a meaty post this afternoon, but it’s cold, it’s snowing, and the Olympics are on. I made it outside long enough to shovel the slushy piles from our front steps and porches and got some good shots of the house bedecked in white.

colonial house in snow

Beautiful as it is, I’m done with polar vortices and snowflake-induced hysteria. Bring on spring!

Meet Joyce

countertop dishwasher

Joyce is a countertop dishwasher that I gifted to my lovely wife for Christmas. We named the blessed machine after our pre-marital counselor because it serves in the same capacity: prevention of marital discord.

Due to my ongoing upper respiratory distress and recent travels, progress on the kitchen has slowed to a crawl. Even so, our dishes have never been cleaner, at least as long as we’ve lived in Hillsborough. Despite her diminutive proportions, Joyce cleans as well as any full-size dishwasher I’ve ever owned.

small dishwasher interior

It’s as if a normal under-counter dishwasher was squashed to 1/3 of its size. Just like a fancy full-size machine, Joyce has a stainless steel interior, separate racks for plates and cups, a silverware carrier, and an automatic detergent dispenser. Perhaps the biggest indicator that it’s not a full-size model (aside from the obvious fact that it holds fewer dishes) is that it must be hooked to the kitchen faucet for water.

dishwasher faucet connection

It’s a minor inconvenience for the automation of a task that’s universally loathed in our household. Now, if I could figure out how to extract my sinuses and run them through Joyce on the pot rinse cycle, we might be able to make tracks to the day when we can wash dishes AND use the sink at the same time.

Our haunted house

We’re told that our house is home to two ghosts. The first is that of Jane Hayes, a young girl who died of consumption in 1850. She’s a typical ghost, ethereal and wispy, able to float through walls. The second specter is odd: a cat’s body with the head of a man. The story goes that the face belongs to William Hayes, a physician who kept his offices in The Ordinary House in the 1920s, and who believed that humans were reincarnated in the form of animals. We’ve not yet had the pleasure to meet either of these apparitions, but I’m soundly convinced that we’re haunted by a third ghost, one who is bound and determined to keep us from having functional heating and air-conditioning. After last year’s boiler breakdown and this month’s furnace failure , I hoped that we might be free of HVAC woes for a few years, at least.

But recently, while doing some remedial framing work in the kitchen, I yanked out a piece of wall insulation and was surprised to feel a sudden whoosh of air. I watched as some sawdust on the floor was sucked into a void in the wall. A bit of poking around with a flashlight was all it took to discover the problem.

When crafting return air ducts, particularly in old houses, HVAC contractors will often “pan” joists. That is, they line the voids between framing members with sheet metal to create boxes that collect return air and direct it back to the furnace. The return for the downstairs HVAC systems begins as a sheet metal box above the floor, transitions to a panned joist cavity in the crawlspace which in turn connects to a duct leading to the furnace.

Our HVAC installation technicians probably didn’t stop to think that there’s nothing normal about the way The Ordinary House was built when panning our joists. In contemporary wood construction, the floor structure ends at a rim joist. The floor cavity is separated from the wall framing by subfloor and a 2×4 wall plate, like this:

normal return

In our new kitchen, the walls are partially “balloon” framed, meaning the wall studs are continuous from the foundation up to the ceiling – there’s no subfloor or wall plate to separate the wall cavity from the floor framing. So, for the past year, our HVAC return air has been pulled from the wall vent in the living room, where it’s supposed to, and from the INSIDE OF THE WALL through filthy fiberglass insulation.  To complicate matters, our siding sits directly on the wall studs rather than on top of plywood sheathing. Tiny gaps in the siding placed under negative pressure would have admitted freezing outside air to the return duct in the winter and hot, muggy air in the summer. This means, of course, that the system was working overtime to heat and cool the air. Fortunately, the filter is located at the furnace, so at the very least, the air was being cleaned.

busted return

I’ve filled the gap between the wall and floor framing with wood blocking and plenty of duct sealing mastic and spray foam so I can be certain that the return air is being pulled only from the living room, not the inside of our walls or through the siding.

As the snowflakes fall outside, I hope that I might have finally exorcised our HVAC ghost.

The human-head cat ghost, on the other hand, is welcome anytime.

Polar Vortex: 1, Fancy Furnace: 0

Walking to the back door in the 14 degree chill the other night, I was thinking about how thankful I am to have heat this winter. But climbing the stairs to the bedroom, I noticed that the temperature was dropping with each step. “Strange,” I thought, since the upstairs is usually warmer than the downstairs. The thermostat read 64, though it was set for 68. It’s a good thing we don’t have a “For Sale” sign in the house because I might have nailed it to the door, packed my bags, and hopped the next flight to Las Cabos.

Even without investigating, I had a hunch what the problem might be. High efficiency furnaces wring extra BTUs out of their exhaust air in a secondary heat exchanger. This cools the exhaust to the point that moisture condenses out of it. As a result, our furnace drips condensate year-round. Problem is, if the condensate line freezes, which it’s apt to do when it’s *9* outside, the furnace shuts itself off – at the exact moment you need it most.

condensate ice

The condensate line for the upstairs furnace runs down the side of the house in a fake downspout. Picture this: me, outside in the dark Arctic chill, on my back in a pool of ice, aiming Weezie’s hair dryer at the bottom of the hopelessly plugged condensate line. I promise I’m not as dumb as I look.

frozen condensate

It was an exercise in futility. We slept the coldest night of the year without heat for the second year running. It wasn’t too bad since the warm air from downstairs found its way up to us, keeping the temperature from dipping below the upper 50s.

Fortunately, the fickle North Carolina weather saved us by thawing out the condensate line enough for the furnace to spring back to life the next evening.

The weather man tells me it’s going to be 70 this weekend. And that, folks, is why I live in North Carolina.

Ignorance is bliss

There’s a point in every renovation project when you must face the unexpected. I knew it was too good to be true when the pest control man who inspected the Ordinary House before closing pointed to a few termite-eaten boards in the library and announced, “That’s it.” A 250 year old wood house in the muggy South and that’s it, huh? Dealing with the financial strain of buying the house, I was content to believe the guy, even though my left brain was screaming, “This joker’s on the pipe!”

So, I wasn’t altogether surprised when I demolished the walls of the kitchen-to-be and discovered some suspiciously crumbly wood. Since termites don’t leave telltale signs of their presence on the surface of the timbers they’re eating, I tapped the post a few times, listening for a hollow sound.


I poked the wood with my finger – it plunged right in. Then I grabbed a corner of the post with my fist and watched as it disintegrated into powder. 

Crap. Termites.

A few gentle taps with my hammer was all it took to reduce the post to a pile of dirty cellulose. After a few moments of abject terror, with visions of collapsing houses playing in my mind’s eye, I evaluated the damage. The good news: the infestation is no longer active and was largely isolated to a diagonal brace that was only structurally critical when the existing kitchen was a freestanding structure. The bad news: in addition to the brace, the little buggers got into the back of the siding boards behind it.

termites in siding

I’m not known for my unbridled optimism, but after years of architectural training and practice, I’m conditioned to turning construction’s inevitable lemons into lemonade.

The solution to the termite damage is is to completely remove it and put in a window that’s already on our list of “someday” projects. Though the trio of windows in the kitchen-to-be admit a decent amount of light, they’re east-facing which means the room gets limited light late in the afternoon and into the evening. The termite damage is on the west wall in a spot we’d already identified as window-worthy. In addition to late-day light, an opening in this spot will give us views to the backyard.

backyard window

Didn’t realize our backyard had a Rhode Island sea view, did you? It’ll be a trick to figure out where to locate the window. That white beam in the picture continues across the wall on the other side of the post; it’s actually the ceiling beam of the kitchen, down the stairs on the other side of the door. A transom window above the beam might keep the main window from feeling awkwardly low. Clearly, I’ve got some design studies to do.

The main reason we didn’t include the window in our original plans was that I wanted to pull a building permit quickly so that we could get the kitchen project underway. Since we’re smack in the middle of the Hillsborough historic district, any change that impacts the outside of our house requires the approval of the Historic District Commission, of which I’m now a member (I hear the boos – don’t hate the player, hate the game). HDC approval requires additional documentation to be submitted in advance of a monthly meeting, and approval must be granted before a permit can be issued. Fortunately, with a building permit already in hand, I can continue working on the the kitchen interior while I prepare for the next HDC meeting.

My elementary school art teacher used to say, “mess up, fix up” as a way to encourage us to recognize the hidden opportunities in mistakes we made while working on our noodle art. Who knew I’d be putting that lesson into practice 25 years later while restoring a house?

Happy New Year!

O Tannenbaum

My flu recovery schedule was a tad ambitious. I fully intended to finish up the demolition of the kitchen walls last weekend, but lingering fatigue kept me sidelined from any heavy-duty house work. It’s frustrating to sit idle after finally managing some significant headway a few weeks ago. Once the demo phase is done, the floodgates can open and the fun part – building – can begin.

Compounding the weekend’s discontent, I was forced to bid farewell to some old friends, my trusty, crusty work shoes:

work shoes

Weezie begged me for months to put these old kicks out to pasture. Sure, they’d seen better days, but to borrow a phrase from my dad, I felt like they were just getting broken in. Never mind that the soles were falling off and that the heels looks like they’d been shoved in a leaf shredder, they were still perfectly serviceable foot protection. Weezie bought me these shoes four or five years ago. They were lightweight, comfortable, waterproof and served me reliably for all manner of house projects. I value longevity in all forms, which explains my love of old houses, and my reluctance to give up these shabby shoes. Their condition didn’t embarrass me; it was a point of pride. Isn’t it funny how quickly you progress from the young man who can’t imagine wearing unstylish shoes to the thirty-something who shamelessly mows the lawn in shorts and black dress socks?

Speaking of shoes, Louis is always looking for an opportunity to chew on them. To minimize dirt in the house, we remove our shoes at the door. When we aren’t looking, Louis will grab them, sprint to the corner of the yard, and chew them into oblivion.  After losing several pairs of slippers, a pair of dress flats and an expensive pair of medical clogs to Louis’ mischief, we decided we needed a permanent fix. Now, we safely store our footwear in this:

storage bench

shoe storage

It’s a teak storage bench from Signature Hardware. We searched for weeks for a piece of outdoor furniture that would prove durable outdoors that wasn’t plastic. Though pricey, this piece should stand up to sun and moisture and will weather to a nice silver-gray color over time.

By the end of the weekend, we mustered enough holiday enthusiasm to make our way to the tree lot to pick our 2013 Tannenbaum. We found a Butterball tree, squat and pudgy around the middle. Our parents gave us ornaments every year growing up, so we actually have enough flair to put together a respectable tree.


My ornament from last year has an image of The Ordinary House, a reminder of our first Christmas in our new home.


Thankfully, this year nobody had to wear a parka while decorating the tree.

Update: no update

Note to self – get a flu shot next year. Last Thursday, a tickle in my throat in the morning progressed to a feverish fugue by nightfall. It was four days until I felt like half a human being again. I’ve been lucky to dodge the influenza bullet for several years without benefit of a shot, but this was a convincing reminder of how unpleasant an illness it is. Needless to say, the kitchen remains in exactly the same condition I left it week before last. With a few more nights of rest, I hope to tackle demolition of the walls this weekend.

In preparation, I bought a new toy. Meet the unfortunately named VacMaster:


I’ve owned several loud, bulky shop vacuums over the years. Some sucked harder than others (read that however you prefer), but none was particularly satisfactory. They all had a tendency to tip over and dump their contents, and to spit dust into their exhaust, defeating the purpose of vacuuming in the first place. After learning how filthy a very old house can be while I was demolishing the kitchen ceiling, I decided an upgrade was necessary.

The new vac is small, but VERY powerful. It’s relatively quiet, has a long hose and cord, and wheels designed to give it plenty of stability. Most importantly, the tool is fully HEPA rated by the EPA. The entire unit is certified to filter 99.97% of particles down to 0.3 microns. Translated, this means that the exhaust air of this vacuum is cleaner than normal room air. I can safely vacuum nearly anything, from piles of mouse poo to lead paint chips to plaster dust with confidence that they’re completely contained within the filter bag and won’t be spread any further.  It was a several hundred dollar investment, but one that will pay off in peace of mind as I continue to work on The Ordinary House.

Kitchen progress update #02: Demo, continued

To celebrate Thanksgiving in typical Weezie and Reid fashion, she worked and I worked on the house. In one uninterrupted ten hour span, I pulled down not one, but two existing ceilings.  The first layer was drywall and came down quickly. The second layer was bead board wood. Since tongue and groove planks are nearly impossible to salvage intact, I hesitated to pull it down. But they had to go for a number of reasons:

  • We’re having the plumbing for the upstairs bathrooms, both situated above the kitchen-to-be, replaced with modern pipes that will (hopefully) ensure that we never have to think about them again. We’ve been informed that the existing pipes leaked at least once in the past. I’d prefer no repeat performances above our new kitchen.
  •  While we’re at it, we’re going to pitch those new drain pipes to the other side of the room, where we can conceal a new waste line behind the refrigerator. The beam at the top of the walls is about 8 inches tall and 4 inches thick. When the Ordinary House got its first bathroom, the plumbers were wise enough not to run their pipes through this beam, hence the cast iron drain that snakes down the outside of the house. I couldn’t live with myself if I renovated this house and allowed it to stay.
  • The wood ceiling had already been butchered in several places in order to gain access to leaky plumbing.
  • Past plumbing leaks resulted in a few rotten patches in the wood planks.
  • The ceiling framing is lumpy and droopy and this can’t be corrected without access to the framing.

If you’ve never demolished an old house ceiling, you can’t begin to appreciate the level of filth that lies above it. Of course there’s dust – not normal household dust, mind you, but a fine dark dust with the same consistency and tendency to float as talcum powder. In addition there’s mouse poo, mouse nests, dead insects, paint chips, nails, old wires, chunks of wood, piles of insulation…you get the picture. When you’re pulling these things down from above, there’s no way to avoid them falling directly on top of you.

above ceiling

The ceiling(s) concealed a mishmash of components typical of a very old house: abandoned knob & tube wiring, new Romex wiring, copper water pipes, PEX water pipes, galvanized water pipes, cast iron waste pipes, PVC waste pipes, lead waste pipes, galvanized waste pipes, new plywood subfloor, original tongue and groove wood floors without subfloor, hand hewn beams, sawn beams, and engineered wood beams. It reflects the history of construction for the period that this portion of the house has been standing. The great news is that the structure is sound and should last another hundred years with no trouble.

It was a lousy way to spend the holiday, but I’m very thankful to have one of the kitchen project’s dirtiest and longest days behind me.

Kitchen progress update #01: Demo

The Ordinary House kitchen project is officially underway. Two weeks ago, I had a 15 yard dumpster delivered. Since then, I’ve been doing some minor demolition and architectural reconnaissance to find out what’s behind these old walls.

For the record, I hate – no, loathe – demolition, and I recognize that this puts me in a minority. Watch a few minutes of HGTV and you’re guaranteed to see a sledgehammer-wielding homeowner practically giddy with delight as he pulverizes every intact surface of his home. Cabinets on the wall? Never mind that they’re easily demounted by backing out a couple of screws, Captain D.I.Y. would rather DESTROY them, reducing the boxes to a pile of splintered wood.

My approach to demo is methodical and might be better described as deconstruction than demolition. This method minimizes mess and collateral damage to surfaces that will remain, but it slows the process to a snail’s pace. I didn’t have any idea how much of the existing dining room would have to go before I started poking around. The unfortunate answer is: most of it. The first few days of demo have revealed a good amount of work that is best described as jackleg. A good result can only be achieved by stripping away the accumulated layers of shoddy workmanship and beginning anew. All told, the demolition process will take 4-6 weekends to complete.

kitchen demo

The good news is that the underlying structure I’ve uncovered is solid as a brick sh*thouse, with apologies for my French. Records indicate that this wing of the house was added in the 1870s, but the wood posts I revealed are indicative of a much earlier structure.  They range from 4″-6″ wide and look similar to the framing in the 1750s portion of the house.

old studs

Based on this, I’m certain that the dining room wing was a separate, older building moved to the site and tacked onto the back of the original home. The framing in the attic is more like what you’d expect for a home built in the late 1870s: smaller dimension sawn lumber. So it seems that the second floor and roof were added over the dining room. And we know that the kitchen was yet another independent structure. So, between the original house, the library, the dining room, the kitchen and the master suite, our house is actually an amalgamation of FIVE houses, which goes a long way toward explaining its quirky layout.

Other things I’ve learned:

We have a mouse.

We’ve been aware of his presence because of the “leavings” he scatters across our countertops at night. But I didn’t expect him to boldly skitter across the hole that I was examining with my flashlight. I swallowed a girlish scream, but nearly jumped out of my skin and used some four letter words that I won’t repeat here. Later, it became apparent that we’ve HAD mice, because I found several of his ancestors in balls of insulation behind the walls.

mouse skeleton

Time to buy some traps.

The dining room was once green, then purple.

A crumbling plaster wall behind the old built-in buffet reveals the original paint colors.

green purple

The heart pine floors are going to be beautiful.

I’ve never loved the russet-colored stain on the floors, so I couldn’t resist hand sanding a small patch of one old plank to get a look at the underlying honey-colored wood.

sanded heart pine

I don’t need any more color than that.

The dining room was last renovated in 1950.

I discovered strips of newspaper beneath the baseboards that are dated February 24, 1950.

february 24, 1950

In ’50, you could get a “lastex” girdle for $3.99:


a “super-duper” Gene Autry cowboy shirt for $2.98:

cowboy shirt

and if you suffered from constipation, particularly the “clogging, transient kind”, you could count on Dr. Edwards’ Olive Tablets:


I look forward to leaving a similar memento for the builder who renovates our kitchen in 60 or 70 years time.

Pretty ordinary #010

In a remote corner of our yard, there’s an unassuming little tree that’s towered over by its neighbors. Most of the year it sits overlooked, blending into the lush green surroundings.

But, after a few friendly nudges from Jack Frost, the tree’s leaves turn a rich ruby hue, revealing it as a Japanese Maple. For the past several weeks, it’s taken center stage as the trees around it drop their leaves and go dormant for the winter.

japanese maple