by Ken Terzian
You may have read the wonderful article by Marge Elfin about the restoration of the Owl’s Nest. And now you may be inspired to take on your own renovation project. As someone who was intimately involved in the renovation of my own home and others, there are the unexpected challenges. But these are greatly outweighed by the rewards. Here are some tips I have learned along the way.
What to save?Memories and artifacts preserved from the past are the benefits of a well planned and executed restoration. When completing a project on my 1925 home on a sunny spring day, three women were standing on the sidewalk gazing at the front and chatting. I met them and learned that their father had lived in my house when he was young, and that his father had built the home. They were nostalgic about past stories in the neighborhood. From portions of the original house, that I had restored, they were able to reconnect to their past. We later exchanged photos and original construction drawings from his files.
As an alternative to a throw away or tear down strategy, saving something old may preserve character, craft from a prior time, a piece of history to be preserved and cherished. Your home may have strong foundations and framing, and crafted finishes from time past may be worth saving. Opportunities for reuse of valuable building materials may be considered as well. Resources such as Community Forklift and The Loading Dock take and sell salvaged materials.
Plan for the unexpected
My dad always told me, “Proper prior planning pays.” Many of the needs for renovation lie beyond the finished surfaces. Selective demolition is often a useful way to uncover hidden surprises. Contingency dollars should be allocated to address “unforeseen conditions.” Adding a factor of 5-10% to your budget is not uncommon. There will be many decisions along the way as change is inevitable in the building and renovation process.
What about the envelope?
Many older homes have “good bones,” but thin skin. Houses of the past often do not have thermal insulation. Adding insulation to the attic or walls is the most effective way to increase energy efficiency, if there are spaces or cavities in the construction. Check out this U.S. Department of Energy web site: Energy.gov/energysaver/articles/types-insulation.
Other improvements on a home’s exterior envelope may include window replacement. Many varieties, styles, and materials are available on the market, and many replacement options preserve the existing window frame and trim simplifying the task and cost. Older windows are typically single panes of glass, often in drafty frames. Storm windows may improve this condition; however they don’t provide the energy efficiency that a window replacement offers, with double-paned insulated argon-filled glass.
Should mechanical, plumbing, electrical systems be replaced?
Consider changing mechanical, plumbing, and electrical systems for more efficient, reliable, and safer systems. Appliances and mechanical equipment are continually reengineered for improvements in energy efficiency and convenience. The basics of energy efficiency are outlined here, along with useful links.
Check your water pressure. Galvanized steel plumbing lines may have corroded to the point where the pipe size is reduced and water pressure lost. Are leaks from pipe deterioration occurring? Service lines from the street may be lead and for safety reasons timely for replacement. DC Water has been implementing lead service line replacements in public space, but incoming lines on private property are an individual homeowner’s responsibility. Most building professionals and plumbers can identify whether the incoming line is lead, galvanized steel, or copper.
Electrical wiring is commonly made of aluminum or copper. While these metals last well beyond many lifetimes of use, their insulation on an older home often becomes brittle and can deteriorate to the point of losing its insulation value. Often, wiring in older homes is ungrounded and not able to accommodate today’s three prong appliance cords. An electrician can determine if older wiring can be properly grounded or if replacement is due.
What health or safety concerns need to be addressed?
Are there materials with asbestos or lead that should be safely removed? Are there moisture problems that have led to mold growth? Inexpensive tests can be conducted to identify these issues and plans for managing safe removal or containment can be reasonably included in any new work. While do-it-yourself test kits are available in hardware stores and on-line, I recommend that this work be performed by licensed professionals.
Testing for radon is easy and recommended to verify that that naturally occurring gas is below dangerous levels within a homes interior. If radon is detected above the action level, simple systems using a fan and piping into the ground can bring these levels down. Free radon test kits are available from the DC government.
Ready for the challenge of a home renovation? The process can be a lot of fun, and when surprises occur as they inevitably will, take them in stride. You may discover a treasure buried amongst those old bones.