Wednesday, September 11, 2019

The Centennial Cottage

There she is, our newest project!!!  The Centennial Cottage - well actually, built in 1918, she's 101 years old.  And she's seen a lot of updates over the years.  The first update you can see right away - asbestos siding (ugh!  One of these days I'd like to do a project without asbestos remediation!).  And there are even more updates inside.

What do I love about this house?  It's the old real estate mantra - LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION!!!  Just half a block from the beach, it's on a nice sized lot with lots of privacy.  What?  Privacy close to the beach???  How can that be?  Most beach houses are so closely set,  you can practically pass a borrowed cup of sugar to your neighbor through the windows.

Well this lucky house is at the end of a dead end street with backyards from other houses surrounding it.  The views are so lovely!
Dining Room View
And it backs up to a condo association that has a huge meadow.  There are wildflowers, beautiful gardens - oh, and the beach!!
This deck looks out over the soon-to-be cute little shed and meadow - what a relaxing view for your morning cup of coffee!

And there is something about a gambrel roofline that makes my heart go a flutter.  It's such a New England element and when it's on a beach cottage, it's even better!

What else do I love?  The light!!  The living spaces in this house are flooded with sunlight and it's so light and bright!  That's something that we really can't fix, if a house has a lot of north facing windows or huge evergreen trees next to it, you'll never have a lot of light coming in - so it's a huge plus.

What don't I love?  Well, it's tiny.  814 square feet to be exact.  So everything is really tight inside.

And with all the updates over the years, they tore out every single bit of antique architectural interest.  Seriously, it's all drywall and knotty pine trim.  And ceiling fans..... there are a lot of ceiling fans.....
Living Room
Living Room - with an odd little cubby in the wall.....not sure why
Dining Room with Keyhole Opening to Kitchen (why???)
Oh, and a boob light in the dining room.
Kitchen Peek through keyhole opening
See, the kitchen doesn't have anything that looks like an old house, except maybe the hole we ripped in the ceiling to verify the joist spacing!!
And a 1960's newel post.
It's devoid of old house charm.  And I haven't quite figured out what to do about that.  Do we recreate it in antique style?  Or do I give it a more contemporary vibe, since I won't be destroying anything.
First floor bathroom
And then there's the tall person problem (and I am a tall person!).  This place must have had a lot of petite owners over the years.  Case in point, look at this shower!  John would have to do some sort of limbo move to wash his hair!

And the upstairs ceiling fans could scalp a tall person!

But wait, that's not all!  The staircase is a NIGHTMARE!!  The steps have a rise of 9" (typical is 7") and when you get to the top of the stairs, you have to do this weird 'twist and duck' motion so you don't hit your head and shoulder.  It's a challenge for those of us that are tall!  And then there's the whole issue of getting furniture upstairs.  We had lovely tenants living here over the summer and they had to leave their queen sized bed in the living room, because it couldn't make it up the stairs.

This whole hallway is a challenge!  Very narrow with a steep sloped ceiling.

Okay I lied, there is one antique item - this octagonal bathtub is pretty cool.  So there is one 'keeper' architectural element.  I've never seen one like this before and am curious if we'll find a date stamped on the bottom of it.

But as cool as that bathtub is, it's can't hide the fact that you have to walk through the bathroom to get to the bedroom.  Interesting design choice, don't you think?  
Bedroom #2 - you have to walk through the bathroom to get there!
And another ceiling fan!  
And then there is this tiny, tiny room.  The previous owners used it as a short term rental property and had a twin bed in here - tucked into the closet.  But not surprisingly, the City does not count this as a bedroom.  So it's sort of a closet room???

So what do you think?  I've spent the whole summer working on the plans, but I'm curious what your first thoughts are!

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Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Creating an Energy Efficient Old House

Polar Coaster Winter Ahead (photo: Farmers' Almanac)
With Labor Day behind us, it's time to start thinking about cooler temperatures, because in Maine, winter will be here soon.  And with the Farmer's Almanac promising a 'Polar Coaster'  and a 'wild ride' this winter, we will be testing all the energy efficiency work we did on our mid-century modern house.  This house was built before the oil embargo of the 1970's, so energy efficiency wasn't a priority!  It needed lots of updates.

Energy Audit - looking for issues during blower door test
How do you even start improving the efficiency of an old house?  Well there are some big ticket items you can do, but some simple DIY improvements can make a big improvement too.  And we started with an energy audit, that helped us identify areas to improve.  The audit showed us that we had a lot of air leaks, thanks to a blower door test that identified lots of areas to make improvements.

What did we do?  Well let's start with the big ticket items.  The biggest bang for your buck in insulating an old house, is to improve the insulation in the roof.  Since half of the house was 'stick built', meaning it used conventional lumber and framing practices, we focused on that roof first.  With our low slung, contemporary roof, we don't have a conventional attic.  So we drilled holes in all the different rafter bays and filled them with dense pack cellulose.  With our 2x12 construction, that gives us an R value of 42.
Dense pack cellulose is blown in through holes in a fabric membrane, to keep it in place
PLUS, we added a layer of foam insulation board over top of that, with a new rubber membrane roof above it.  That brings total roof insulation to 60.  That's a HUGE change from the crumpled R-19 insulation that we found when we opened up the ceilings.  
Foam insulation getting lifted up to roof
We also installed a high efficiency propane boiler, which runs at 95% efficiency!  The old boiler ran on oil and was original to the house.  It was held together with silicone and bailing wire, so it was time for an update.

We also replaced every single window, door and skylight with new, energy efficient versions.
The new 8x8' skylight replaced single pane glass that was siliconed to the roof rafters
And while the new units are important to improve efficiency, it's just as important to create a tight seal around every single window/door/skylightof, in our case with low expanding foam insulation (the stuff you buy in a can) to get an incredibly robust seal.  Why low expanding?  Because you don't want the foam to expand so much that it warps your door or window.

But even with these changes, we are still seeing high heating bills.  So we had our insulators come back and install foam insulation in the sills around the basement ceilings.  This might seem like a low payback project, but we immediately saw a 10% reduction in our heating bills!!  That's a big change for such a little job.  And it probably helped that we also installed foam insulation board on the basement walls.
Foam insulation applied to the sills in the basement ceiling made a huge difference in our heating bills

And since we were buying new appliances anyway, we made sure they were all Energy Star compliant.

But we also did a lot of simple DIY changes.  We switched to all LED lightbulbs, which use a minimal amount of electricity. And I went around the entire house with my infrared camera (available to attach to your cell phone and very easy to use) and a caulk gun and caulked every single little air pathway I could find.
Blue is cold..... see how there was a draft coming up from the floor?
Foam board against the slab foundation
We were also advised by our energy auditor to dig a trench around our slab foundation and insert foam insulation board.  He said this provides a thermal barrier between the concrete and the cold ground and was one of the biggest improvement actions we could take.  We obviously couldn't do this in a Maine winter, but finished this up over the summer and are anxious to see how much of a difference it makes.  

But of course the proof is in the pudding.  As you might remember, we did a Blower Door Test when we first started the project.  This essentially creates a giant vacuum in your house, so you can see how much air infiltration you have.  
I was VERY excited to see the improvement.  So excited, that Justin told me not to get my hopes up.  He typically only sees a 10% improvement in an old house of this size.  So as he hooked up the giant fan in the doorway, I waited with baited breath.
30% IMPROVEMENT!!!  Woo hoo!!
And guess what???  We saw a 30% improvement!!!  He was amazed, I was thrilled and we are hoping that will translate into some sweet heating bills this winter.  And it's important to note that while expensive things like new windows and doors help, it's the simple work of sealing up every possible crevice, to ensure no air is getting through that can make a huge difference.

Finally, we are working with our energy auditor to get credits back from Efficiency Maine.  In our state, which has some of the oldest housing stock in the country, there are lots of rebates to help you made your place more efficient.  So we will be getting a nice rebate check for some of the work we did.  

So come on Polar Coaster - we're ready for you!!!
January 2019

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Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Landscaping Time!

I should probably start by saying I love working in the garden.  For stress relief, nothing beats working outside to transform an overgrown yard.  And now that the summer is here, we've turned our attention to landscaping our Mid Century Modern project.
The starting point..... there's a house there somewhere, but it's hard to see from the street!
As you can see, it's ready for a refresh, but we have debated long and hard about how to approach it.  In general we want to:
1) Utilize what's there, where possible. We don't want to rip everything out and start with little 1 gallon shrubs
2) Revitalize the soil and plantings - there is so much shade that we needed a soil test to get started
3) Keep the mid-century feel as much as possible
4) Do as much of the work ourselves - aka: this won't be a quick project

Now I'm not an expert on mid-century landscape style.  But as I've done some research, I've found that it's typically done with bold, rectilinear plantings.  So that means lots of mass plantings of single species - just the opposite of your typical cottage garden!  I can see where that would work well in California, on a nice flat, square lot.  But here in Maine with our rock outcroppings and rugged landscape, we have to be a bit more creative.  We have over an acre of property with lots of different elevations, so it's a bit of a challenge.  And since we can't do everything at once, we decided to break the property into manageable projects.
There are huge faces of rock across the east side of the property-  look closely you get a peek of the house!
Rear Courtyard
With that in mind, we started on the areas right around the house.  First up -  the courtyard by the back kitchen door.  This is the entrance we use for groceries and also were the grill is, so it gets a lot of activity in the summer months.
Courtyard Before
It has this great circular garden area and a large patio space.  The light fixture didn't work anymore, but Richard did some repair and now it's a great accent!
We went up to Fernwood Nursery in Montville to look at some specialty shade plants.  Their nursery is renowned in Maine for their shade plant selection and we had a great time picking out some new plantings.  Don't they look great?  Astilbe, hosta, Brunnera and Stachys....creating a true green & white garden.

The gravel infill between the rocks isn't exactly the look we want!
On the other side of the house, we wanted to do some planting around the deck new deck.  We love how the granite thrusts up around the edges of the deck, but wanted to soften it with some greenery.
 The solution?  Steps of rock with ferns and ground cover filling in the spaces.

But the ferns really soften the hard edges!
The third area we focused on was the walkway to the front door - it was ready for some big updates.
Our starting point.  Steel front doors and overgrown plantings

BIG granite pavers for the front walkway!
With our bold new blue doors, we wanted an equally bold walkway.  After a lot of thought, we decided on granite pavers for the walkway.  They are rugged, in keeping with the exterior of the house and provide clean, simple rectangular lines to the front door.  They can also take a lot of winter abuse - so shoveling and salt/sand to keep them safe won't be a problem.

New doors, new walkway and new plantings

To accent them, I planted a combination of ornamental grasses and black-eyed susans to give some color and texture.
And look at the side by side difference!!  The new front doors, with the giant window above, provide a nice focal point as you meander up the new walkway.

Our starting point.....
New Doors, New Windows, New Walkway, New Landscaping..... and siding is coming soon!
I bought these fabulous fish a long time ago.  Somehow, they never looked quite right at our old house.  But I love them here!
 And as you walk out the front door, it looks pretty nice too!
Earlier this spring, I gave the giant rhododendrons a haircut, to bring them into scale with the front yard and to thicken them up.  It might take a couple of years to get them to the point I want them, but so far so good.....  The neighbors have commented that you can finally see the house from the road!  Of course this also highlights how badly the siding needs to be replaced - but we'll be doing that this fall.  Can't wait!
Before:  Overgrown shrubs, leaky bubble window, not-to-building-code deck
Now:  Work in Progress, but lots of updates!
Look closely and you can just barely see the house in the background.  Taking out some of the bushes and tree limbs has really helped with curb appeal.
Before..... there's a house back there somewhere!!
We've had a couple of sessions with tree cutters, to eliminate some ailing trees and get some more sunlight into the yard.

We've started figuring out how to get rain/melting snow away from the building.  We used river rock to help the natural drainage paths that exist in the mossy area under the giant oaks.  The first big rain was last week and it seems to be doing the trick!

Of course there is so much more to do!!!  We've tackled only a small portion of the property, but this will take multiple iterations.  Hopefully when the siding and landscape are complete, this place will start to look like new!

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