Monday, April 2, 2012

What is the Old School House?

(Part of my new morning writing regimen.)

Since the title of this blog implies (correctly) that I'm posting form an old school house, I thought that now is a good time to tell of the trials and tribulations of the former Franklin Township Schoolhouse. It's a tale of DIY and contractor work gone bad, and how we came to realize it.

The place is a former one-room schoolhouse built in 1875 and converted to a dwelling sometime in the late fifties.  The front door was removed and the entrance put on the side and a deck ran from the front porch along the side and wrapping around the back where it was over a small garage. Around 2003 a two floor addition was put on the back above this garage on the exact footprint of the old deck. The kitchen and dining room are in the old basement half below grade (house is on a gentle slope). Although we noticed some quirkiness and poor decisions, we noted no major problems and our fairly useless house inspector found none. We liked the large amount of space and the potential for us to do what we wanted and we liked the kitchen.

After we began painting prior to moving in is when I started to find things that were more than just quirks. Instead these were the result of poor workmanship and cost-cutting by former owners and hired contractors. First off, the addition was constrained to fit the footprint of the former back deck, instead going out two feet more. As a result the stairs cut into the space of the first-floor bedrooms.  The door between the old and new halves was the old back exterior door and still had the exterior metal threshold.  This door also still had the old exterior lock and it would have been possible for one to be locked into the addition with no way out.  Doors fit poorly, insulation was poorly installed and there were leaks around the chimney and the two exhaust/stack pipes that did not have pipe collars. Remember this is new construction.  In the old part, I discovered taht the first floor ceiling had been lowered and the old ceiling was still there!  The former wrap around deck had been reduced to a stub allowing access to the side (main) door. This isolated the front porch, which had been stripped of planking, exposing crumbling concrete. This attractive porch served no real purpose in this configuration. 

Then there was the front master bathroom.

The layout in the art deco style bathroom was terrible. There was a deep tub, but it was too short for tall folks like us. When you sat on the toilet your knee hit the tub.  Because there is an entirely new floor and plumbing no one can claim that reason for this shitty layout is that they had to fit the existing bathroom plumbing. Again, this was new work, done as part of the overall renovation in ’01-’03. Now for the fun stuff.  As it turns out this tub is just off the centerline, over an alcove in the dining room below.  We noted a dip in the ceiling of this alcove, but no one from the initial house inspector to an engineer though this was anything other than old sagging in a 130 year-old building. We would find out otherwise.  

Last winter Sara Beth was expecting and began to regularly use the deep tub for well-needed soaks.  The unusually heavy snows that winter also loaded the structure.  We suddenly noticed in late February ’11 that cracks had developed in newly painted areas in the living room and a crack opened up from the corner of a door-frame next to the tub. Turns out there were old cracks that had been spackled over. Our house inspector missed this.  The entire structure of the old brick school house has since sagged inwards at the peak, pulling away from the addition which has moved as well. The amounts are tiny, but in a house they matter.
An engineer we hired suspected that the center-line supporting wall in the basement needed to be re-done and wanted to temporarily support it while digging out the footing and putting in new wall.  A Maryland contractor from a firm that did restorations suggested putting in second wall alongside the existing one, but never gave us an estimate.  A second contractor came in, blathered about his plan, but never called back.  Finally we found someone my brother-in-law knows.  He suspected the problem lay in the alcove in the dining room under the tub. I opened the walls and discovered that the joists were not continuous and there were two supporting centerline walls, the alcove had been created by removing part of one, beneath the tub! 

Now we knew the problem, and the process of correcting decades of mistakes ranging from weird layouts to compromised structural integrity could begin.  

Next: what I found in the walls.

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