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.