Salvage and Pre-Demolition Weekend

October 8th, 2007 by Peter Schmelzer


This weekend we began the careful removal of parts of the home we want to reuse. The 1905 portion of the home had some trim that is still beautiful and some that was less comely. With the help of visiting relatives, we pried and pulled the boards from the wall, leaving the nails in the trim. Then we pulled the nails out from the back side, to minimize splitting.


For the most part, our efforts were successful. Most of the trim came off without cracking, but we did suffer a few casualties. Next we’ll strip the trim and verify how much will be reusable. The idea is to use it in the master bedroom, if possible.

The screen porch had barn siding on the walls, which added a lot of character, so we saved that too. Our arms and backs are aching this morning, but we are satisfied that we are reusing what we can. Yet to be salvaged are items we would like to keep in place until the last minute: sink, toilet, light fixtures and doors.

Our power, telephone and cable wires will be buried underground as part of the project, so we have also been removing the concrete edging that separates the rock mulch from the lawn to allow a clear trench. We intend to remove all the rock, which is backbreaking work, so we can insulate the basement wall exterior. I suppose we are about 25% done now.

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Architecture that doesn’t show off…

October 4th, 2007 by Peter Schmelzer

Buildings have personalities. The can be welcoming or standoffish, humble or self-aggrandizing, one of many other human mannerisms.

As a kid, I remember noticing that some people work hard at looking their best, rather being their best. A past co-worker was quoted as saying “If it looks good, it is good” in reference to architecture. Both of these stand in my memory as points of self-definition by disagreement.

Our values tend toward honesty of expression in architecture; our design typically leans toward architecture that doesn’t show off. If it’s not a million-dollar house, it should not try to be a million dollar house. Instead, it should be a house that serves its users well, looks good, and fits. That’s why I was happy to find this slide show by Witold Rybczynski. Check it out. It speaks our language.

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Constraints, Constraints!

October 3rd, 2007 by Peter Schmelzer

Thank God for limits!

It may sound strange, but constraints actually help fuel our design engines. They limit the possibilities from uncountable to manageable.

As we started thinking about remodeling, the first thought was to add on to the back of the house. The lot has some area, the trees would easily allow it, and it seemed like the best value-per-dollar way to go. At least it seemed so until we hit the drawing boards.

The 1905 house is a story and a half with a simple gable roof running east-west. The 1967 addition is likewise a story and a half, but its ridge runs north-south out from the north side of the 1905 house, and it has a lower pitch with eaves that do not align with the 1905 house. The screen porch is a shed roof off the back of the house. We came up with several options that successfully worked with the existing roof lines in practical terms, but none that really fit the house and the neighborhood. Nor did they fit the budget (dormers, stick-framing remodeling, and high ceilings add up quickly!) Finally, it became clear that the minimal addition to the rear was not going to work. The roofline constraints were too much.

So we embarked on a different route, which favored adding up instead of out. By removing the second floor walls, ceiling and roof, we gave ourselves a conceptual blank slate. With only minimally expanding our footprint (about 80 square feet) and building on top our our screened porch (which has full frost footings), we developed a plan that well-exceeded our expectations. The second floor could go from two bedrooms and one bathroom to four bedrooms and two bathrooms.

The site constraints made this design possible after the rooflines forced a direction change. With limited ability to expand to the sides and rear, up became the only viable option, then it opened more possibilities.

Building a new roof meant we could pick our pitch. 12:12 works well for solar panels at our latitude, and attic storage was needed, so we opted for attic storage trusses and a 45-degree roof slope. We developed a traditional-looking roof plan that will fit the neighborhood nicely, recede away from our maple trees, accommodate future solar panels, and make room for storage and mechanical space. The height is within zoning ordinance requirements and it raises our future solar domestic hot water panels away from much of the adjacent tree shading. In fact, we will receive direct sun all year from 10:00 pm to 2:00pm, when the sun is most productive.

Our new heating system will tie into the future solar panels. We have opted for a high-velocity air handler tied to a natural gas boiler. Highly efficient, this system will allow us to route ducts to and from each area of the house to provide even air distribution to the whole house. By locating it in the insulated attic, the solar water heat will be right there to attach to the system. So, when we are not using water heated by the sun, it can be used to heat the house. The boiler will also serve as our primary domestic water heater until the solar system fits our cashflow.

So, the constraints of the site and existing building helped us come up a plan that is more affordable and meets our sustainability goals even better.

I’m still going to try to find a way to fit the solar hot water system into the budget….

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Some Background on our Project

October 3rd, 2007 by Peter Schmelzer

Here is some background from my perspective to bring you up to speed on our thinking regarding this project, which will follow in subsequent posts. Also, I think it may be interesting to note the differences and similarities in our thought patterns and design thinking, and how we work together to solve challenges.

We have lived in this house for almost nine years. Our youngest child is now 8. We are blessed with two sons, a daughter and a three bedroom house. As the kids approach the teens, their space needs have grown with them. The two boys have been successfully sharing a room, but their sleep patterns and tidiness habits have diverged in recent years.

A home office is needed for the sorting of mail, organization of school work, paying bills and keeping up with our personal filing. At times, the space will serve as a second VIVUS office; for example, when a child is home sick from school. Such a space will free up vast quantities of kitchen countertop for its intended purpose. (That could use some work, but will have to wait for another time…)

When I visited my parents a couple of months ago, I was shocked to find out they pay about half as much as we do for energy costs. Yes, there are only two of them, but their house is twice the size of ours and lies further north! This steeled our resolve to improve the energy efficiency of our house. Since then, I’ve cut holes in the walls to find about 1″ of insulation in the walls; definitely room for improvement. We’ve had ice dams each year that we’ve lived here, too, that are both irksome and damaging. More room for improvement.

Several rooms of our house have been calling for remodeling for some time: the upstairs bathroom, the stairway, and the upper hall. Each of these spaces has a 5-foot kneewall, meaning that the ceiling height at the outside wall is 5’0″, from which it slopes up to a flat ceiling at about 8’0″. I stand about 6’2″ tall, so that makes a two-foot area next to the walls unusable for me; no shower, no toilet, no mirror, no way.

Then there were the squirrels, stupefied by chewing on the lead flashing of our plumbing vents. I don’t know why, but they chewed a hole in each of the flashings, letting rain into our attic. Adding this to previous leaks through the years, the gypsum board ceiling was starting to sag, showing its supporting nails like innie belly buttons. We patched the roof with a growing sense of applying band-aids when surgery was necessary.

Our windows are single-pane double-hungs with combination storms. Few of them lock because they don’t close properly. I suspect that is from when the foundation was replaced in the late 60’s; something must have gone awry. Needless to say, they don’t seal well unless caulked shut for the winter, which we have done for the past few years. Really saves on the heating bill, I must say, but I wonder how I’m supposed to follow the instructions on the removable caulk. It tells me to seal all the windows while using the caulk in a well-ventilated space.

And, our heating system is nearing the end of its life. The supply and return ductwork do not meet current standards, nor do they properly heat nor cool the place. At 20 years of service, the furnace gave up the ghost this spring as the heating season ended, now sporting a cracked heat exchanger which renders it unusable for heating. Cheaper to replace the unit than to repair it.

So, like most older homes (this one is half 1905 and half 1967) we have some liabilities to clean up. However, the house has many assests as well. The foundation is concrete block and in good shape (although completely uninsulated). The structure is sound and straight. We have remodeled the kitchen and dining room already and we like them. Our lot is in a great location and features mature trees, significant limestone retaining walls, lots of plantings, and it sports a two-car garage, which is somewhat rare in town. We like our neighborhood and have developed friendships that would be tough to leave behind.

Now the time is right. The house needs attention. We have developed a design we can agree upon. The bank will give us a loan. And the project appears to be in our budget ballpark. Stay tuned.

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Diary of a Remodeling Project: Beginning the Design Work

October 3rd, 2007 by Mary Schmelzer

We began the design work for our own home the way we begin remodels and additions for our clients: on-site measuring and 3-D computer modeling of the existing structure. Once we had the information entered, we could easily sketch over the printouts and try out different elements: roof pitches and sizes, window sizes and placements, and what an addition would look like in 3D. There is no better substitute than 3D for being able to picture the possibilities.

After many of our own iterations, we decided on a plan that would give us the additional spaces and features we want:

All bedrooms on the second floor
Master suite
Remodeled second floor bath
New windows and siding
3-season porch converted to 4-season living space
Better daylighting
More efficient heating and cooling
Opportunity to use solar powered water heat

As it is for everyone, the wish list is always bigger than the budget. It’s always a good idea to prioritize (perhaps each person in the family) to get a good understanding of which elements are the “deal breakers” (not worth doing the project if not included). Since everyone in the family is affected, it’s good to have input and support. After the “deal breakers” are included, work down the list to see how many other items can be fit in.

The design work then becomes a puzzle to creatively fit in as many wishes as possible.

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Diary of a Remodeling Project

October 1st, 2007 by Mary Schmelzer

We are starting a new blog topic about our own remodeling project. Follow along and see the twists and turns we are sure to encounter on the way to a new, improved home! Feel free to send questions or comments on the “diary.”

Diary of a Remodeling Project: Should we Stay or Go?

After several years of wishing and dreaming, months of designing, and weeks of planning, we are going to begin a substantial remodeling project on our own house. Please keep checking in because we intend to blog on many different topics—all which can educate anyone who is planning their own project.

We wanted to start our project in the way many of our clients start theirs: research. Last year we began with touring a few homes in our area that were in the price range we thought we would reach after we invested in our remodel. We soon learned these things:

1. We really like our lot, our neighborhood and our town
2. We enjoy the proximity we have to school, church and friends
3. Most of the other houses in our price range also needed major rejuvenations or didn’t have the basic amenities we want
4. Moving is not inexpensive: relocation, moving of possessions and the stress really add up
5. We have a great rate on our remaining mortgage and most likely wouldn’t be able to get equivalent financing
6. Kids don’t like major upheavals and uncertainty.

So, we decided to modify our home. At least we knew who to use for the design work!

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