Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Demo Discoveries - It Should Have Been a Tear Down.....

We've heard from folks that looked at the house before us that their builder said 'tear the house down'.  We dismissed that, figuring they just wanted to start fresh.  That's so much easier than tying into an existing house.


But as we’ve gotten into this project, we've realized maybe they were right.  

This house has a LOT of problems.  Many of them we knew when we got started, but others could only be discovered as we got into the demolition phase.  There were SO MANY issues hidden behind those walls.


So let’s look at some of the challenges we’ve found.


Remember the photo of the hip dormer on the back of the house?  Well it was built properly with the structural supports going down to the basement.  

But at some point in its history, someone decided to cut them off on the first floor and cantilever the house and the weight of the back porch roof on these wimpy little 2x4’s, spaced far apart.  The 2x4’s can’t handle the load and the 2nd floor is sagging.  

To make it even worse, on the other end of the dormer (which happens to be in the middle of the dining room), they couldn’t cantilever the load, so they used a deck joist hanger to carry all of that weight with the floor joists above!  (Note: modern computer models show this should be a steel I-beam carrying all of this load, not a couple of 2x6's with a joist hanger!)

That side of the house has sunk 4 inches and makes me squeamish when it bounces walking through the room.

At this point in the exploratory demo, we realized that the entire house needed to be gutted - there were just too many weird things that had us concerned.  This was NOT part of the original plan (I originally hoped we could live in the house during the reno, silly me) and certainly wasn't part of our budget.  But it's a good thing we did, because here is what else we found:

As we gutted the kitchen, we realized someone opened up a load bearing wall and posted up all the weight with a piece of BEAD BOARD!!!  How did this not fall down???  (the new 2x6's you see were added when we realized how poorly supported this was)

The other side of the kitchen has had so much water damage over the years that the studs flake away at the lightest touch.  

And even worse, the sill (that’s the big piece of wood that holds the house on the foundation) has rotted away completely on one entire side of the house.  It smells like compost when you start digging it out. And if you push against the wall, it sways back and forth. Yikes!

Many of the windows were installed without the typical ‘King and Jack’ studs which provide a robust system to hold the windows in place.  Instead, they cobbled together 2x4’s and have created a weak hinge condition - like this back wall that is starting to jackknife.  


About once a day we say ‘How is this house standing?’


Is there more?  Oh yeah.  

Much of the house was originally a cottage and doesn’t have sheathing – the wood skin that creates the exterior and ties the studs together.  The clapboards usually get installed on top of the sheathing. Instead, on our house, the clapboards are nailed directly on the studs.  And then they nailed cedar wood shakes on top of the clapboards.  This isn't providing a watertight seal and when we get a heavy rain – some areas of the house have water running into the interior wall cavities.  So we will need to remove the cedar shakes and clapboards to sheath the house.  That means we are tearing out the interior walls and the exterior walls, so we're just going to be left with studs. It's suddenly turned into a big job.  Yikes!


The electrical system is old, but we didn’t find any signs of knob and tube wiring….until we opened up the walls....and you guessed it, we found knob and tube.  Thankfully we already planned to completely rewire the house.


The basement was full of asbestos with all the heating duct joints wrapped in asbestos tape.  

Asbestos remediation in process

But when we opened the walls, we discovered that the upstairs heat ducts are completely wrapped in asbestos.  This asbestos remediation was 2X the cost of our typical job! 

And with every rain, we've had flooding in the basement.  That probably explains how the sills have rotted out.  We need to figure out how to manage that for the future.

So what does this all mean?  Is it worth doing all the work to fix the myriad of issues?  Wouldn't it just be cheaper and easier to start over and tear it down?  

Yes, that's probably the smart thing to do.  

But my husband is quick to point out we don’t always take the smart path. 😂  Why?  Because 1) We love old houses.  And particularly this one!  2) We still think a 125 year old house can be pretty fabulous when it’s all fixed up.  A newly built home can never have the depth of character and history that this one will have. And 3) Even a major renovation is far better from a sustainability perspective than tearing a house down and building a new one.  

And as one of our neighbors said the other day - this is a gift to the neighborhood we love.  The practical thing would be to tear the house down and build something else (which could be a huge house since the lot is so big).  Instead, we will painstakingly find all the issues and fix them (even though it's a far bigger job than we first anticipated). We're up for the challenge to honor the history and character of this soon-to-be wonderful home!  Just wish us luck - we may need it!!!



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  1. This is beyond belief but will be fascinating to see you guys tirn it into your dream cottage. Wishing you all the luck!

  2. This is beyond belief but will be fascinating to watch you turn it into your dream cottage. Fingers crossed for all the luck!,,

  3. I live in a converted cottage, too, and can appreciate all of what you’re going through. You’re honoring the history of the house as well as all who lived in it. They likely did the best they could with the resources they had at the time (scraps), which got it this far. But what you’re creating will stand proud for you and future homeowners for at least another hundred years if not two. It’s clear that you love the place. Thank you for sharing it’s past and present. It’s got a great future ahead!

  4. You are absolutely right about South Portlanders. A good crowd.

  5. We have a house like this also. Built in 1876 and lots of problems but also lots of character such as a hand hewn beam going the length of our master bedroom .
    Hang in there it will be worth it in the end!

  6. Feel your pain…building a garage addition in SoPo, we were hoping to tie it into the two story unheated addition at the back of the main house….instead, the whole wonky two story addition had to be completely rebuilt…it had no footings, nor posts,nor piers, nor concrete….just plonked down on the ground.

  7. Bless you for making this generous choice.


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