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A friend asked for a picture of the view from my writing corner in the dining room, which looks out onto the patio, which is a story above the ground and looks out over the West Fork valley (not that you can see the river for the trees). Photographs don’t really capture the feeling, or the way the mirror on the dining room wall opposite the French doors pulls the view into the room.
The birds are at eye-level.
And one of the even better view from the upstairs bathroom, which is actually three stories up.
The day we packed to move from Austin, New Year’s two years ago, we went to Lowe’s for some packing materials, and these cyclamen were there, 99 cents each, meant for bedding plants for winter color in Austin, where it never (well, hardly ever) freezes. They reminded me of miniature geraniums, and the geraniums on the windowsills in the Scandinavian country style I was thinking of for the new old house. Our house does not have generous windowsills, and they were just the right size. They traveled north in the cab of the moving van.
They bloomed cheerily until about June, in the terra-cotta-colored plastic pots they came in. The warm sun come summer didn’t suit them, and they looked decidedly unhappy until about November, when they perked right up and began blooming. Eventually I found the red-glazed miniature planters they live in now, and here they are, in their third winter, brightening up the kitchen against a background of the bare maple and snowy spruces.
The crystal chandelier in the dining room is one of those things, like the hot tub at our old house, that I would never have bought, but since it’s there, needs to be kept up. This weekend I spent a morning taking down all the prisms, soaking them in ammonia, polishing them, and putting them back up. I had never cleaned them, and from the amount of crud on the glass, they hadn’t been cleaned for years before we bought the house.
A month or so ago, I had looked at the little doodads around the screws holding up the large mirror in the dining room, which appeared to be brass, and decided to try polishing them. They “cleaned up real nice” – they seem to be silver, and look ever so much better. I found that the little wires connecting the prisms were silver, too. Polishing each one was way more than I wanted to tackle, but the ammonia took off a good bit of the tarnish. Before, besides the dull glass, the whole shebang was dotted and striped with black where the wires attached. Putting them back up, I also figured out that they had been replaced backwards at some point – the flat sides of the prisms were out, which also meant the attachment points showed. Now the wires are on the inside and the sparkly sides of the prisms are out, which made as much difference as removing the crud.
The spots on the walls, the mirror doodads, and the dull chandelier were not things you would consciously notice. It was not as if anyone would walk in and say “Oh my! Look at that filthy chandelier!” But the effect of all the little dingy bits adds up. There must be a life lesson here somewhere.
I spent almost two years thinking about how to insulate. There was no insulation as far as we could tell, except under the floor in the den. The second floor is really a finished attic, with no access to the space above, although there is a half-sized door (because of a chimney in the wall) to the space above the den, which has dormer windows and a finished floor, but is vented to the outside. Despite that, once Robert had sealed at the bottom of the baseboards and we had sealed the light switches and outlets, the house was not drafty, and actually used less heat per square foot than our house in Austin, which had been weatherized in the 90s, before we bought it. When we had the roof done last spring, I asked about insulation board. The roofer took a look at the upstairs, and said “You have plenty of space above the ceiling – why don’t you just cut access and lay or blow insulation?” As it turned out, they had to lay plywood anyway because of the condition of the roof deck, which helped with air sealing.
I spent a lot of time looking at the roof and the upstairs, and decided that a hole could be cut in one of the bedroom closets. out of sight. Robert found a carpenter who came one Sunday afternoon with his wife (a reading specialist who turned out to have lived for a while on Schoolhouse Hill in Spencer, where I grew up), and took a look. We agreed he would cut and frame the access, at an hourly rate, and we would go from there. Handily, he was able to come not too long after the furnace was done. He brought his son, and in less than an hour he had cut a neat hole in the ceiling. There was plenty of space above the ceiling, and a clear shot to the ceiling space in the dormers and sides. So off they went to get insulation, and in less than six hours they had blown insulation into the dormers, laid bats in the flat areas, framed out the access hole, and made a cover for it.
Robert had volunteered to insulate the crawlspace, which is under the front of the living room and the parlor. He spent a weeks’ worth of afternoons dealing with joists that were all different widths apart, insulation falling off the heating ducts, and working around a chimney base and wiring running through the space. But it is done, and the floor above it is now about as warm as the floor over the basement.
He spent several more afternoons in the tiny attic area over the kitchen, hauling out things that have been stashed there by past owners and insulating. Finally, we realized that the giant hole in the ceiling of the maid’s bathroom in the basement, ripped out when the previous owners redid the kitchen and never fixed, was creating a giant chimney effect. Last winter the room stayed just at freezing, and probably contributed to the coolness of the kitchen above it. He spent an afternoon duct-taping plastic over it, as a temporary fix, since the entire room will have to be redone eventually. The space under the sink, which was freezing last winter, is now in the forties.
Our gas usage for the first six weeks of this season looks like it is down 16% per degree day from last year, the combined effects of the new furnace and the insulation, and 26% from our first year. So the sealing and turning the thermostat down saved about 12%, and the new furnace and insulation another 14% (or more – we didn’t finish the insulating and sealing until after the heating season started.) It also puts our heating and cooling use at about half the US average.
Next year we will look at replacing windows (or adding storm windows) and insulating the basement walls that aren’t underground. I think we still have some major air leaks in the cracked plaster upstairs; redoing the walls and ceilings in the bedrooms up there is another major project for next year.
The house came with ancient and huge twin furnaces, plus a defunct humidifier and twin water air filters. We had someone come to give us an estimate on replacing them, who really just wanted to replace the units with the same. I thought they were way too big – it is a large house, but not that large. More than one person who looked at it said “We usually see these in churches, not houses.” It took up most of a large room in the basement.
We researched and discussed geothermal, which is expensive, but would cut way down on our carbon footprint. The blower burned out on one the first winter, and was replaced within a few days. We asked about an estimate on replacement, and never got one. Last January, the blower on the other unit went, in one of the coldest weeks of the year. We called our home warranty company, who sent yet another firm to fix it. The blower was gone, but they cleaned it and said it needed to be replaced rather than repaired. Weeks later, after they and we had had many separate discussions with the home warranty people, it was clear they had stopped returning our calls. One Friday they called and said they would be out on Monday to give us a final estimate, after I had expressed some dismay about the number they gave on the phone. We’re still not sure which Monday they meant.
By then it was March, and we had learned that the remaining furnace could heat the house, although if the daytime side, which was heated by the defunct furnace and where the thermostat lived, was warm enough, the bedroom side was unbearably hot. I bought more long underwear on sale.
Fortunately, Clarksburg has more than three heating and cooling companies, and Robert found three more to come and give us estimates in June. We thought that gave us some chance of having it warm by winter. We gave up on the geothermal when the first well driller we talked to made it seem as if drilling wells in town was impracticable if not impossible. One company sent a very nice young man who took lots of notes. I photographed the floor plans and emailed them and pictures of the duct work. Weeks later, we got major brochures and detailed estimates for many options, all of which included major reworking of the ducts. Another company sent two very knowledgeable men, who had lots of good suggestions. Unfortunately, when we asked for a written estimate, they brought us back a one-line bid, no detail. Finally, we got an estimate that was just right; good detail, good ideas, and a reasonable price, less than a third of the first estimate in March. And one Monday only a week or two later they said they could start the next day, and did.
So we have the highest-efficiency furnace available, with a two-speed blower, a variable-speed fan, and a high-efficiency filter. We didn’t replace the air-conditioner, since it is newer and we hardly ever use it. (We had 27 days over 90 this summer, when less than half-a dozen is usual, but found that the house stays at least 10 degrees cooler than outside. Since we kept the air-conditioning in Texas set at 80, we were quite happy without it most days here.)
The new furnace just purrs softly most of the time it is on, which isn’t much, so far. I ran the number on our gas use for the first year we were here, and the second, which just ended, and found that the air-sealing, the programmable thermostat, and the new patio door alone seem to have lowered it about 12% per degree day in the second year over the first. The new furnace should save another 10%. Next up, insulation.
After my friend Ruth and her husband were here in June, I went upstairs to confirm that the floor in the bath was really as bad as I remembered. Only guests and our children use it; I had been avoiding it because it was so ugly. But I had dreaded ripping the whole thing out. I decided the floor, at least, had to be fixed before we had more company. Whatever was under the fake-pebble tile, broken and crunching when it was stepped on and impossible to clean, must be an improvement. I pried a piece up. Underneath that was asphalt tile cement, but beneath that was clearly old linoleum tile, black and white checks just like the den, but half-size.
I always feel so professional in my knee pads, even if I’m barefoot.
Discovering how to remove the adhesive was fairly easy – coat with Goo Gone, scrub to dissolve, add dishwasher detergent, straight, scrub to dissolve, add water to dilute all that, mop up. It is straightforward, messy, and time-consuming. It seems to have taken forever, but apparently it was only two days, because company arrived two days after this picture was taken, and the floor was done.
Unfortunately, once the floor was stripped, the cracked plaster and peeling woodwork looked grim. Oh, yes – that was the part that took forever. The woodwork had 8 coats of paint – about one a decade – and clearly needed to be stripped, not just sanded. All the corners and edges of the plaster were cracked, and a strip across the middle. So I patched or stripped until I couldn’t stand it, and then went downstairs to research 18th century land grants. Robert eventually took over the stripping. While the furnace was being installed, I stripped. When the carpenter came to give us an estimate on opening the ceiling an installing, I was stripping. When he came back weeks later, I was finally painting. Robert installed new lights to replace the commercial flourescent strips (really) on either side of the mirror. We had more company coming, and finished just in time.
At some point in the summer, after redoing the den floor, the upstairs bath, the furnace, the insulation, I decided on a new strategy to keep us moving forward on the house: eliminating some small irritant every day. We haven’t been very faithful, but Robert especially has gotten a lot done. Robert put down up molding in the den, missing, we guess, since the carpet was put down decades ago, and needed since we took the carpet up. We used a flat strip of pine to match the paneling, rather than shoe molding, and were delighted to find copper finishing nails for it, to match the decorative large-headed nails in the paneling. He replaced the rusted and ripped screen in the door from the den to the patio.
We finally, using Clarksburg Freecycle, got the blue area rug we inherited with the house, and the moving boxes, carried away, although giving things away directly turned out to be almost as much trouble as hauling them off to Goodwill. Robert and Hilde, who had asked for work to do while she was here, moved the extremely sturdy, and heavy, workbench from the dungeon to the finished area of the basement, so Robert now has a place to work comfortably. At some point I tested a dozen more solvents on the remaining glue from the awful wallpaper border I removed in the living room, and found that fabric softener actually worked well enough to be able scrape it off – with a metal scraper. During that, I tried a bit of cleaner on the dining room wallpaper, and discovered it wasn’t stained, just filthy. We have replaced the rusted, broken, nearly non-existent drain covers in the garage, the driveway, and the basement. We gathered up the flat stone pavers and made a landing for the west side of the front steps. One afternoon we devoted to removing all the remaining nails and picture hangers (more than a dozen, in odd places, in the den paneling alone.)
There is still much to do, large projects as well as small, but more and more we are restoring the house and making it ours. We still haven’t gotten the T-shirts that say “What were they thinking?” so almost every time we get into a project and discover some oddity, we still have to say it.
At the bottom of our garden is a retaining wall and a line of trees, mostly Norway spruces and hemlocks. The inspector took so many pictures I asked him if there was a problem with them, but he said no, he just wanted us to know they were there.
Last spring when I started cleaning up the vines and weeds at the steps at the end of the retaining wall, I realized there was a stone landing at the bottom. Then that it was a stone path, laid with bluestone pavers, about 3 feet by 6, trimmed to fit the curve of the wall, all hidden under a couple of inches of dirt and needles.
I spent several afternoons clearing it off with a hoe, up to the last spruce, where it seemed to end, although there were what seemed to be stepping stones that had slid out of place beyond that. This spring, we cleared out at the far end, below the garage, and there were more large stones. Poking around the “stepping stones,” we found they were large stones, half buried, although not as nice as the ones at the beginning. The large chunks of gravel all along turned out to be broken cinder block. From the paint, we decided were the broken blocks from the time a car hit the garage and knocked the car in it through the back wall. We have heard various versions of this from neighbors and tradesmen. There are probably a dozen wheelbarrow loads of those to haul off, and we have no idea what we will do with them.
One day, we gathered up a large copper pipe to use as a roller, a pick mattock, hoe, shovel, and broom, to see if we could shift the slipped stones back into place. It was surprisingly easier than we had feared once we got the hang of it (easy for me to say, since Robert does the heavy lifting – only one or two so far have been small enough for me to move). We have leveled another 20 or 30 feet, with more than that to go. It is a task to do in the shade when it is warm and sunny, two or three stones in an afternoon. Eventually we will plant ground cover along the wall side, and plantings under the trees on the downhill side.
The garbage can was sitting beside the back porch when we moved in, definitely unlovely. The area behind the hemlocks at the side of the house was a mess. Last spring, in the process of trying to get something else done, we discovered the old garbage area, cleaned it up, and built a compost pile. We got a huge recycle bin and a small garbage bin, but this spring our service provided everyone with a new garbage bin (no recycle). We couldn’t fill it in a month.
This new area isn’t visible from the street, the house, the back porch or the rest of the yard; just a glimpse from the path to the back gate (where the bins are hauled for pickup.)