Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Renovation Realities and the Too Clever Squirrels

We've renovated many old houses over the years and have a pretty good idea what it entails.  But with a house that was built in the 70's, we assumed it wouldn't have some of the challenges that we usually see.  After all, in comparison with the early 1900's houses we usually tackle, this one is practically new!

But we were wrong.

And the biggest issue?


This property is a squirrel paradise.  The giant oak trees that are all around the house drop thousands of acorns.  Heck, we even have an oak tree growing through the deck, with its trunk going through the porch roof.

Squirrel latrine between the studs
And they obviously see this house as their home.  We have found squirrel nests, squirrel 'highways' full of acorns running across the interior of the house, squirrel damage in many walls and major damage to the electrical system.  We've opened up bay after bay to discover squirrel tunnels in the insulation.  When we pull out all the stinky, wet fiberglass, we find a similar mess.

Case in point, this is an exterior wall of the house.  They've chewed the insulation completely off of the wires,  chewed new openings and left behind piles of acorn husks.  As a result of the damage, we've had to rewire the entire house.  Ugh!!  

And the squirrel urine smell is pervasive.  We've tried a variety of remedies, but have resigned ourselves to having to tear out the walls and sheathing to eliminate the odor.  This was not part of our original scope of work, but it has to be done.
The squirrels chew right through the wall studs
What are we doing to solve the problem?  We started a squirrel relocation program right after we bought the house, but they've proven amazingly hard to trap.  Countless mornings, I'd arrive at the job site to find the trap sprung, the peanut butter gone, but no squirrel.  Seriously, they're the Harry Houdini of the squirrel world (and their friends Chip & Dale the chipmunks are pretty agile as well).

And as luck would have it, we've captured a couple of raccoons (or maybe just one that got caught twice!).  I didn't relocate the raccoon, since he wasn't living in the house.  But now that he's developed a taste for Hannaford peanut butter, he'll come up to the house, flip the traps upside down and then scoop the peanut butter out with his little hands.  Smart!!!  And makes me CRAZY!!!

Hardware cloth across areas that show squirrel penetration
And since we know we can't ever catch all the squirrels (the local news has been full of stories about the explosion of the squirrel population this year), we're trying to squirrel proof the building as much as possible.  That includes lining exterior portions of the building with aluminum flashing and hardware cloth.  We're hoping that will keep them out.

'Don't want to scare you'......never a good start to a text....
Oh, and where there isn't squirrel damage, we have rot.  One day I got this message from my electrician.

We dashed over to the house to see the bad news for ourselves.  He had discovered the top plate, which should be made up of 2 2x4's stacked together, had almost completely rotted away.  In turn, that rot had impacted the rafter tails, resulting in a major structural challenge. (we had noticed the ceiling bowed in that area, but now we understood why!)

Top plate has disappeared and lower plate is seriously compromised
This used to be 2 2x4's stacked on top of one another.  Now it's just sawdust and rotted rafter tails

Here's what the wood looks like when it has dry rot due to water damage.  If you touch it, it disintegrates into dust.  Sobering indeed!

The solution?  Tear out the ceiling and 'sister' new rafters next to the old ones, while jacking up the rafters to add new top plates.
New top plates and 'sistered' rafters (attached to the old rafters, running the length of the roof) to carry the roof load

And that wasn't all.  I dearly love the round 'bubble' window, that gives so much character to the front of the house.  It's a dramatic focal point!  The owners told us they added it, when they discovered you couldn't see cars pulling up in the driveway - it lets you peek around the corner to see who's coming!  But our electrician noticed water coming in through the electrical outlet directly below it during a rainstorm.  When we opened up the wall to investigate it - well, you guessed it, everything was totally rotted away.  The sheathing was gone and only the tar paper was still in place!  (more about the bubble window later - I'm still trying to figure out how to retain it as an architectural feature).
The sheathing has completely rotted away under the bubble window - leaving just the tar paper!

We also called Justin Pizzolato of Maine Green Energy Audit to do a 'blower door' test to see how energy efficient the house was.  To do this, you close up all the doors and windows and put a giant fan (aka blower door) in the front door.  It sounds like an aircraft engine as it starts up and creates a huge vacuum throughout the house.  If the house is really tight, you can build up quite a bit of negative pressure.  If it's leaky, you'll see and feel air movement (cobwebs start blowing around in corners!).  The absolute minimum to do the test is  50 pascals and in our case, we barely reached it with 48.5.  So we obviously have some work to do to seal this place up!  We could see cobwebs moving up in the skylights.  And we could feel lots of air coming in around doors and windows.

We also used an infra red camera, to see where the insulation needs to be improved.  To make this house truly energy efficient, it needs a lot of changes.  So we will be replacing all the windows, doors and skylights, as well as adding insulation throughout the building envelope.  And we will be replacing the original heating system.  This is obviously a huge investment, but we're thankful that Efficiency Maine offers rebates on some of our investment, to encourage us to be more energy efficient!

Add that to all the usual updates - new bathrooms, new kitchen, new roof and this has turned into a major project.  Stay tuned, there's a lot more to come!!

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  1. Whoa. I can barely read this, let alone imagine fixing everything. Slows the project down, but at least you have people you trust to repair the damage!Debby

  2. I'm just seeing lots and lots of dollar signs! But I know it will be a stunning home when you are done.

  3. Oh Laurel! Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, Happy Birthday, Happy Anniversary for the next 10 years! I know you have a contingency budget BUT this is the equivalent of building a new house the most expensive way possible! If anyone is up to it it's you!


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