Charm, Character and Romano Cheese

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Morris-Butler house porch

5 Sources of Problems When Remodeling Your Old House

by Christopher Wright

“For, indeed, the greatest glory of a building is not in its stones, not in its gold. Its glory is in its Age, and in that deep sense of voicefulness, of stern watching, of mysterious sympathy, nay, even of approval or condemnation, which we feel in walls that have long been washed by the passing waves of humanity.”
John Ruskin,

The Morris-Butler House, c1885

Can you remember the first time you walked into an old house as a kid? The sound of squeaky doors, the groan of the floors as you walked from room to room and, of course, the smell… that peculiar odor unique to houses with old furnaces, drafty windows and dusty cupboards.

The charm and character of an old house is the sum of all its effects on our senses – above and beyond the appeal of its architecture and design. If you know what to look for, such houses can tell you a lot about those who’ve lived and worked in them.

The first old house I can remember was my great-grandmother’s. Her family came to Indianapolis from Sicily in the 1890s and lived in the “Little Italy” section of town on Merrill Street. I remember the hard candy she’d slip my sister and me, and the fun we had exploring all of the nooks and crannies of her basement, closets and attic. The house was often filled with the heavenly aroma of home-cooked Italian delights, and the closets smelled like Romano cheese–and probably still do.

Since then, I’ve had the pleasure of exploring and working in dozens of old homes–in historic neighborhoods throughout the Midwest. While each presents its own unique challenges–there are issues I see over and over again that anyone who owns an older house should keep in mind when thinking about a renovation.

In the planning stage, I tell all prospective clients to expect the unexpected. Plaster and lathe can cover a multitude of sins, especially in a house that’s undergone a number of renovations over its lifetime. However carefully they were originally built, years of sun, wind and rain, lack of maintenance, and the hands of unskilled ‘handyman’ contractors have often taken their toll. For that reason, it’s extremely important to include contingencies in your budget to address unforeseen problems if and when they’re found.

If you know what to look for, you can often predict such problems and minimize the surprise factor that can send budgets and frustrations soaring. When tearing into a space to renovate, also look into using the opportunity to improve the structure and mechanicals of adjacent spaces while things are open – you’ll save yourself a lot of money and headaches in the long run.

5 Sources of Problems When Remodeling Your Old House:

  1. Structural issues
    • Original structure not sound or became unsound from shoddy updates
    • Cut/notched structural members from improper mechanical updates
    • Attic/bonus spaces finished without adding sufficient support
    • Cracked/deteriorating foundations
  2. Electrical Issues
    • Deteriorating and unsafe wiring, fuse panels, etc.
    • Improper tie-ins and updates
    • Undersized electrical systems, insufficient for modern appliances/use
  3. Plumbing Issues
    • Older sewer lines clogged/collapsed
    • Improper tie-ins and updates to original drains and supplies
    • Corrosion and deterioration of older piping materials
  4. Heating and Cooling Issues
    • Lack of comfort from older systems and poor ductwork
    • Improper ducting of exhaust gases
    • Inadequate or non existent insulation
  5. Mother Nature – Sun, Wind, Water and Bugs
    • Water – the archenemy of all things man-made
    • Bugs – damage can often be hidden by plaster and masonry
    • Improper maintenance of roof and exterior paint
    • Lack of proper flashings at chimneys, windows and roof intersections
    • Erosion and poor grade next to foundations
    • High water tables around foundations with little or no perimeter drainage
    • Lack of maintenance and back-ups to sump pits and pumps

With all of their unique challenges, old houses have a distinctive quality that can be seen and felt. I agree with Ruskin’s sentiment: There’s a special resonance in “walls that have long been washed by the passing waves of humanity.” With proper planning, craftsmanship and attention to detail, your old home can be updated and its unique character preserved–while your comfort, enjoyment and safety are improved for years to come.

Guest post by Christopher Wright of WrightWorks, LLC, www.wrightworks.net

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