Monday, December 5, 2011

Drainage again: dry well

Still haven't found the time to post pictures of the ditch project, but we've got it most of the way out to the street and - key - getting the water away from the foundation and basement. Quite successfully! Only one problem; one of the neighbors (one of the good ones who fixes houses instead of being the problem) came by and noted that the city doesn't actually allow you to route water onto the street.


This pipe effort was already due to the fact that the city doesn't allow you to use existing drainpipe (that drains into the sewers). Which is entirely understandable, as the city's sewer system is roughly the same age as the house itself, and a combined sewer, and during heavy rains, combined sewers are not a good thing. And they overflow into the Whitewater River anyway, and frankly, there's just too much E. coli there nowadays.

We can't just drain the water into the yard, because there simply isn't enough yard. So it's time, boys and girls, to explore the concept of the dry well. And you know, a small one with a plastic barrel is really not too hard. And as the ground still hasn't frozen, well, next week I'm going to put in a dry well down towards the street. There will still be an overflow into the street, but it will only be an issue in really heavy rain, and that's not a problem; the dry well will still buffer the flow.

More later.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Parlor doors

So the kids cleaned up the big house (well, did some cleaning) and decorated for Halloween. Part of that effort was to put a lamp down in the parlor and stack all the book boxes against the walls. And then we found the most fascinating cabinet-or-whatever (actually it might be the head of a bed, I can't tell) in the alley out back, and it fits oddly perfectly above the fireplace there, as you see here.

And right above the parlor is my office, and I have purchased my ventless heater, so I can route some gas to this fireplace, too - I just need a heater to put there. There are some gas logs, but I don't imagine they're going to do much.

Actually, I'm pretty sure this is the way this house was designed anyway - point heat where you actually needed it, with lots of gas fires. It's certainly the way the Robinson house on 15th was designed, the in-laws of E.B.Swayne, who built my house.

The only problem is that there are no parlor doors. So I need some parlor doors, clearly, and I'm not sure how to solve that quickly and easily; I'd really kind of like to have a heated library this winter. I'm going to go ahead and put a proper gas stove there, and it will certainly make a huge difference, but it's still going to be drafty. Pictured to the left is an example I found on Google; I think maybe it demonstrates my oddity that I look at this picture and marvel at the salvageability of the house pictured, but still - it does illustrate how parlor doors work.

Longer-term plans, by the way: we will be leaving for Europe for at least a year this spring/early summer, and we will put The House on the market - but our compromise is that we'll put it on the market for $40K. As it's tremendously unlikely to sell at that price, that means it's win-win for me - either I get to keep my house until I'm emotionally ready to move on (which means I'll have another interesting house somewhere else), or I have a large enough profit from it that I'll still feel good about myself.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Drainage again

I was shocked to realized that I had taken no pictures of the marathon ditch-digging session I engaged in during last week's steady rain. Everybody laughed - they laughed - but nobody could withstand the withering force of my logic: if it's already raining when you dig your drainage ditches, the water will show you its level without any work at all on your part.

So this drainage ditch is on the north side of the big house, where most of my downspouts are (by design). It drains to the northeast corner of the property onto the street, over a wall that I'll have to protect with a trough of some kind. And it's not deep enough; it's probably around 8" deep, but this page recommends digging your trench 12" to 14" deep for 4" drainage lines.

I've also violated the recommendation of that page by including one right angle - but logistically there's just no way to avoid it. I'm going to put in a cleanout there just to be safe.

Anyway, given my recent success in getting all the wet dirt out of the basement, it was immensely satisfying to know just how much water would not be seeping in through the walls. (Not that seepage is a major problem - but seriously, if the downspouts discharge against the foundation, you're just asking for trouble.)

I'll slap in a picture later. ... I've said that before, haven't I?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The basement

I borrowed my dad's pickup and paid a guy from the neighborhood $150 to shovel out all the rotten stucco on the floor of the basement in the big house. He carried it all up the steps in 5-gallon buckets and it took him only two days to produce the pile you see here.

It took me and my son about two hours at my dad's farm with shovels and rakes and implements of destruction to push all that dirt into a gully (there was already a pile of garbage at the bottom of it, and rather than bring that pile up, we figured we'd just put our pile with it).

Anyway, for the first time since we bought it, the air in the big house actually smells pretty good now. That rotten stucco had a lot of earthy mold smell to it, and I had hoped it would make a difference to remove it, but essentially it seems to have entirely eliminated the smell, which I hadn't really dared hope for.

So what's stucco, you ask? Turns out that stucco and plaster and mortar are all pretty much the same thing, which surprised me. Anyway, the basement walls are stacked limestone that had had stucco on it, but the utter lack of drainage for so many years put most of it on the floor. Now that it's gone, I'd really rather put some back; that's the point of having the gutters, after all.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Making windows

OK, so I know how to make brick. I can cut beams and joists. How do you make windows? Haha, Mr. Google, is there nothing you can't tell me? Here's a nice link, [taken from a house blog not unlike my own: post 1 and post 2] the short answer being pretty much what I expected: with a table saw, a router, a mortiser, and a tenon jig. I'll bet you could fake the mortise-and-tenon stuff without specialized tools, too.

In addition to the longer-term pipe dream of building my own 19th century house from scratch, though, I had the epiphany that these 4'x8' classic double-hung windows that have such a poor R value could easily be fixed the same way Hungarians do it in older buildings (and this is surely the same in older buildings elsewhere in Europe) - simply provide a second layer of casement windows on the interior of the window. In fact, with a bar 5 or 6 feet from the bottom of the window, you could have a tilting horizontal casement window at the top that could let in a nice breeze without scattering your papers on the floor and being proof against minor rain, while still leaving the larger bottom part for opening in full when you want to lean out.

I've tried to find a picture of these interior casement windows, with no luck. I don't even have any that I took myself. Just picture it in your mind, and trust me: it would be the perfect modification for the windows in this house.

Friday, October 14, 2011


I've been thinking hard about just what it is that I find attractive about Richmond's brick houses. Because it's specifically the brick ones that reach out and grab my heart and make me love them. I like some of the gingerbread on a nice big wood frame Victorian, but it doesn't really get me in the same way.

And you know, I don't care about modern brick structures either - bank buildings or what have you. It's slowly dawned on me that there's something about the 19th-century brick houses here quite specifically. And it's not just architecture, either. There are little single-story boxes built in the 19th century that I look at, walking past, and think, oh, how charming.

I finally figured it out.

The bricks I like were handmade.

That's it. That's the whole reason I like them - they're irregular. So I figured I'd find out how to make them. After all, I might end up marooned in the Caribbean and have to build a brick Italianate house myself, from scratch. I know it's technically possible. I just need to find out how.

So there's a guy in Delphi, Indiana who makes bricks and blogs about it. Colonial Williamsburg actually fires a batch of bricks every year. When it comes to laying brick, moreover, here's a fantastic overview. Richmond masons seem to have adhered to a Liverpool bond (correction: nope, it's an American common bond). I can take a picture of the carriage house that illustrates it if you're interested. I worked out the necessity for bonding just from observing the interior and exterior of the carriage house last month, finally struck by the epiphany that there were rows of bricks through the wall to hold the layers together.

That same site has a nice 19th century scan about brickmaking.

So this blog may eventually morph from restoration of a Richmond brick house to construction of a replica in Puerto Rico. There's no way to know! Update: here's a link to a preservation document from St. Thomas, not terribly far from Ponce. (If you take the ferry to Culeibra, which is a Puerto Rican island, you can see the Virgin Islands from it - it's often called the "Spanish Virgin Island".)

The bricks in the picture are on the south wall of the ballroom. My heart skips a beat just looking at that picture. Seriously. I'm done for in terms of loving these bricks.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Plaster downstairs in the carriage house

So I've been intimating for some time that the plaster on the walls downstairs in the carriage house has some water damage. Here's a little indication of how much damage I mean: this is on the northeast corner next to where I replaced the termite-eaten door. [from last year]It's easy getting the rotten plaster off - but you'd better be wearing a mask, because the dust it releases is nasty in many different ways. I've found that it makes me cough for a day, but then makes me truly ill for about three, by which I mean feeling feverish and having troubles with depression. Clearly there's things in it that Just Aren't Good For You.

Anyway, after knocking all that off about two weeks ago, last week I knocked off the rotten plaster in the southeast corner, the so-called "closet" (because it naturally should be a closet). Problem there is that on the east side of the south wall, that was all the plaster. I suspect this is because of the gutter downspout they routed across the face of the wall to the alley [original post from 2009]- I think that leaked and dissolved first the mortar on the outside, then (as night follows day) the plaster on the entire inside of the wall. Probably took it ten years. Note, by the way, the steel rail still hanging there; I'd bent the last bolt holding it on last year and gave up in disgust; this year, not tired by having my arms above my head for the previous five bolts, this one came out pretty easily.

This is probably most of the plaster I'll have to remove. There's a little at the bottom of the wall behind the washer and dryer, but that's it. The north wall was more protected, it appears.

So tonight I got started on replacing the plaster. Here's the amount of plaster added after two episodes of Star Trek Voyager (thanks, Paramount and Netflix!). You can't see it well here, but the base coat is about a quarter-inch thick in most places; there are places where the bricks project a little more where the base coat is only an eighth of an inch or so.

The amount I got done looks kind of pathetic, but I'm getting quicker as I go, and it was tricky maneuvering the plaster trowel in the corner, so I think the rest of the wall will go faster than this makes it look.

But worst case, Voyager has a lot of episodes.

Anyway, I'm pretty pleased with how this is coming out. The resulting base coat is pretty bumpy because I'm really not very skillful applying it yet. I'm going to try a top coat and see if I can't do a little better with that, but I'm not going to be all broken up if it's not perfect. The rest of the plaster down here is pretty sad, having been modified and patched a lot over the last century. This base coat's already about as good as the rest of it. So this is great practice!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

More houses in Hungary

A half-hour search on for houses requiring renovation with 5 rooms or more turned up about ten houses I consider "interesting", in parts of town with decent infrastructure, and all really quite affordable. The most expensive is about $80K.

Maybe it's going to be cool, having to go to Europe.

OK, house in Hungary

Still haven't found a really rockin house in Budapest, but this one is close to Kecskemét, so I'm getting closer. Built in 1907. Has a freaking name, a name that is written on it. So history-wise it wins. I give you the Juliána-lak: price, a mere 5.8 million forint, something like $30K.

Do want!

(Update: the town it's in, Nagykörõs, is where my wife's maternal grandfather was from - I knew I'd heard of it somehow, but had no idea how. Anyway, she's got some cousins there. She's not sure whether that's good or bad, but does clearly remember the place being a dump when she visited as a child - but then she's from Budapest, so nearly everything in the world is a dump.)

Sunday, September 18, 2011

House in Germany

I think I have a house problem. This house is currently available for a mere 14.2 million Hungarian forint (about $70K), in Jöhstadt, Germany. It's 12 rooms, needs work, 5000 square feet or thereabouts, and I freaking want it so bad.

But no, I gotta look for stuff in Budapest. All the good stuff is taken there. (Not entirely true; prices are way down this year. I'm hoping we can find something interesting - if nothing else, we may be able to buy my wife's old family home if we can persuade the current owner to do a deal.)

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Wiremold on-wall wire channel

Wiremold makes a nice, attractive line of surface-mount channels and boxes for adding wire to existing masonry structure, and so in preparation for a couple of different projects of this nature, I bought some.

Let me just state for the record that Wiremold's documentation is some of the worst I have ever seen in my life, and their Website was obviously built by moderately-trained monkeys in the 1990s. Their online catalog plays paper noises when you turn pages. No, seriously. And there's no entry at all on their site for the "On-Wall" line, even though they went to the trouble of registering the trademark. In fact, their entire site consists of an undifferentiated bucket of PDFs with some kind of AJAX-y search-ish functionality in a side bar, and the results it returns are essentially useless.

I finally found the only published instructions for how to use their channel system on page 11 of 17 of a sales brochure for home products, consisting of a single 2x3" box with four blurry pictures. It's like living in a Douglas Adams book.

So anyway, lousy documentation, pretty nifty series of products. I'm going to use them in a couple of places, like the lights I'm putting on the back staircase in the big house. (Yes, I actually started doing something in the big house this year. Amazing, ain't it?)

Monday, August 1, 2011

Aromatic hydrocarbon outgassing

OK, so as you may know, the Midwest has basically been baked for about a month now under a heat wave like few others in history. Here's the unexpected consequence: even though the carriage house is air conditioned (with four small window air conditioners, which do a surprisingly fantastic job for only about $100 a month), the heat and humidity is still steaming out all manner of aromatic hydrocarbons.

That apartment was built in 1945/1946, so the only aromatic hydrocarbon worth talking about is the redolent odor of sixty years of stale tobacco smoke.

Now, I have to tell you, tobacco smoke only adsorbs to a certain range of surfaces, and the plaster walls are not among those surfaces - except inside the interior walls, which are an early form of plasterboard on wooden studs, with plaster on top. So there was a certain amount of stench wafting from all the outlets, particularly the old-construction boxes I installed myself (because they had more gap around them). Caulk, some ozone treatment, and a judicious amount of urethane foam and a free hand with the Zinsser 1-2-3 primer (which, I believe I have stated before, I love like life itself) solved most of that, although the effort is still ongoing. Which is good, because, for example, painting the bathroom cabinet was on my mighty list for the carriage house [a brief aside here: some items on that list are checked off! But I've been too busy to write.].

Once the outlets were solved, we noticed that all the cracks behind trim around the windows and doors stank (bare wood inside). The shelves in the hall closet stank.

But the place that only started outgassing yesterday (that I noticed) is the fridge nook.

So - and this is really disgusting - I'm sitting here working, and the ice cubes in my Coke taste like cigarettes.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Local history blog

I've been careful never to mention where The House actually is, but this local history blog by Dan Tate is too fine not to post. We're in Richmond, Indiana. So there.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Gentlemen, start your engines

It's 204 miles to Chicago, I got eight days, no cigarettes, the sun just came up, and I can't find my sunglasses.

Hit it.

(I like jet lag because it makes me a morning person for a few weeks. I got up at a lazy 3:30 AM this morning and felt well-rested and refreshed. I should just keep moving westwards by a couple of time zones every couple of weeks and I'd be the most productive person in the world.)

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Why not move to Massachusetts?

Besides the fact that I have trouble spelling it, anyway. You're guaranteed health insurance, and the daughter wants to go to MIT. So pick a town off the map and do a search for low prices, and ... voila. Older than The House, has a tower, Colonial-style 4-bedroom. $22,500.

Of course, the economy there is no better than here. But still....

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Plaster work

So I thought I'd share some of my plaster work with you. I'm getting less bad at it, especially when I'm just doing the base coat (ha). Anyway, recall that we just put the gutters on the carriage house - as I mentioned in a comment on the last post, the lack of gutters caused rain to soak the east wall, and result after six weeks of freaking downpour (ask the folks along the Mississippi about the results of that) was a pervasive moldy, musty smell.

One culprit is pictured here.

Over the last 130 years, parts of the east wall have migrated about half an inch further east, resulting in a crack along the side of the stairway and damaging the plaster adjacent to the joists. The result is that air from between the layers of brick, redolent with 130 years of wet spiderwebs and other organic debris, can escape into the interior of the house. At the extreme upper right, you see part of the ductwork that had been nailed between two joists; the problem with this is that the last time the upstairs apartment was renovated, they clearly forgot that there was a register there, and left it covered with linoleum without cutting and replacing the register.

No, the top of the stairs is not a good place for that.

And this last week, the inevitable finally happened: an innocent bystander put their foot through it. Once it was open, the smell from the aforementioned joist flaws wafted up through the register hole... I'd been working on this all week, actually, trying to locate the mold smell and get it under control. The large area of exposed brick you see in the picture up there was after I took a hammer to the loose plaster.

And here you see it after I'd applied the base coat. Isn't that much nicer? Anyway, this picture also shows the wire coming in for the security light. My goal was to put a switch on the inside so I could turn that off without a ladder - so that little arched area was still open. And after all the rain, it didn't smell so hot, either.

The answer was clearly to replace the wooden insert (which I cleverly saved - although it took a 15-minute search to find it, since I'd taken it out about a year and a half ago).

Here's the result - I wasn't sure how best to anchor the wooden insert, so I toenailed it with finishing nails, then drove in a couple of shims at the top to really hold it in place. It seems to have made it solid enough.

I also stuck in some fiberglass insulation. After I get back to Menard's I'll squirt in some foam, too (the fiberglass didn't really get down into the corners at all).

So. My first real post in months. Didn't that feel good?

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Storm coming

I can't wait to see my new carriage house gutters in action!

State of the carriage house

I just took a spin around the carriage house and listed everything I thought needed done.

Upstairs and stairwell:
  • Door trim - Bondo, caulk, paint
  • Paint door, some caulk needed
  • Remount banister, paint
  • Paint stairs and entry door
  • Quarter-round next to stairs
  • Walls in stairwell, upper hall, kitchen - plaster, paint
  • Register in hall
  • Top coat on window #2 trim
  • Hall floor - new linoleum, quarter-round
  • Kitchen window
  • Fridge nook floor
  • Cabinet door and bottom in kitchen
  • Cabinets - patch with Bondo and paint
  • Yellow tile on wall: remove, scrape glue, paint
  • Attic access: insulate, paint
  • Bathroom sink drain
  • Medicine cabinet
  • Blue tile: remove, scrape glue, paint
  • Paint entire bathroom
  • Recaulk tub
  • Realign and finish faucet
  • Paint interior of closet
  • Floor: new linoleum, quarter-round
  • Reglaze hall cabinet
  • Front room: three places still require plaster patching, paint touch-up
  • Paint doors in front room and hall (strip old paint, primer, paint)
  • Closet nook: remove rotten plaster, replaster, paint, do something with floor
  • Remove remaining track on S wall, finish sealing and paint above old S door
  • Plaster at top of old S door
  • Remove drywall ceiling, insulation on north end of ceiling
  • SW window: insulated board, a little more plaster.
  • Replace S window (with screen)
  • Screen on W window
  • Finish trimming carpet
  • 1x2"trim on W wall. Caulk, paint.
  • N wall - plaster, paint
  • E window - finish wiring of outdoor and indoor outlets, lots of plaster, paint
  • Wire lights, 2 outlets on E wall, some baseboard heaters in the family area.
  • Dehumidifer stand and laundry corner shelving, with outlet
  • Light above laundry corner, switch on shelving.
  • Paint floor in concrete area
  • Drop ceiling in entire downstairs
  • Scrape and paint eaves. (How to get up to them?)
  • E wall - concrete under threshold, caulk, paint door and trim, paint threshold
  • Caulk and paint middle door frame (top coat)
  • Install security light (box already in place)
  • Mortar in foundation
  • Caulk under and around window, top coat of paint
  • N - fix light
  • Outhouse roof trim - replace, paint
  • W - tuck-point base
  • Mortar, caulk, paint old carriage door frame
  • 1x4" trim on S end of carriage door frame
  • Trim window, paint upstairs window
  • Mortar at base on SW
  • S wall - mortar, caulk, paint
  • Finish patching of sill of SW window
  • Drive: concrete patch, paint
  • Dig small drainage pipe for (new!) gutter downspout
I figure that's, what? Two or three days' work?

Seriously, though, I'm going to get as far as I can on this between June 22nd and July 1, when I'll have the place entirely to myself. Then I can put tarps down, move furniture into other rooms, and so on. I'm going to do some of the more cosmetic work during this time; bigger items probably won't get addressed at all (although the remainder of the summer is supposed to be House Time, too).

I don't even have the heart to post a similar list for the big house - but if that list were actually completed, I'd have a fully renovated carriage house on my hands, and it is doable. It truly doesn't need more than this right now - oh, sure, there are things that would be nice if I wanted to sink more money and time into them. But they're not necessary.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Happy Easter!

Still not dead yet. I am coming out of hibernation, though. So there should be more building, and more posting, soon.

Saturday, April 9, 2011


Hello, Gentle Reader! We had record rainfall last Monday, and some water made it into the basement, and so once again my thoughts turn to drainage.

Those of you who have been reading for a while will remember the lakes on the south side of the house, and since installation of the gutters last summer, those lakes are gone. The only problem being that they all go through downspouts on the north side of the house, and those downspouts - while they certainly do a better job than no gutters at all on the south - require proper drainage.

Which I knew.

But the drought last year meant that everything downstairs got bone-dry, and things were doing rather well - until roughly 1.5 Great Lakes fell on us in two hours last week. A quarter-inch of water along the north wall of the basement and a pervasive musty smell throughout are hard to ignore.

So that's one of my top tasks for the coming weeks. AskTheBuilder has a good rundown of what I'm going to do. I'll update this post with a sketch later.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011


So the sun keeps poking out, and the crocuses are thinking quite seriously about popping up, and slowly my metabolism revs back up to something approaching human. I have done work on The House recently, really I have - but I'm incapable of normal levels of prolixity when it gets so dark. I pine for the Caribee, I guess.

When we lived down there, I'd stick my head in the ice machine to feel less homesick. Now, I buy full-spectrum light bulbs and search the real estate ads for foreclosures. Puerto Ricans are optimists when it comes to real estate, though. Prices are never going to fall to the precipitous depths of the Rust Belt.

I haven't even posted my glazing article! Rest assured, Gentle Reader, you're not forgotten. The glazing, and the Purple Room, and soon it will be warm enough for me to resume outdoor maintenance - glazing and caulking and mortar.

Oh, my.

Sunday, January 23, 2011


Found in a mouse nest under the kitchen sink in the carriage house:


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Write us for free booklet on use and care of fine silver.


Saturday, January 8, 2011

Not the House again

This time of year, I always think about Puerto Rico - I'm just not sure why, unless it's, you know, the sixty degrees difference in temperature.

This is a foreclosed house available right now in a neighborhood I know in Ponce. Seven bedrooms (yes, seven!) and it needs "cariño", which I'm good at. Of course, foreclosures in PR aren't cheap like they are up here, but this house is still a steal at $110K. It's tempting. Real tempting.

Back here at The House, I've got the furnace in the big house running and am still here. We keep the carriage house at toasty Puerto Rican temperatures - and I'm still finding and correcting the occasional hole over there - but I'm keeping the big house a lot colder than that, probably something around 60 through most of the house. It's still expensive; missing ductwork in the basement means that not a lot of heat is getting upstairs.

I've got to brick up one basement window, repair around two others, and the ex-window under the porch I'm just going to make an insulated access panel for, because, hey, maybe I'll need to get under the porch one day. Who knows? I'd hate to have bricked it up if that were to happen.

Anyway - happy new year! Either the paying work will taper off and I'll get back to building and posting, or it won't and I'll buy the house pictured above. I'll keep you posted.