June 17, 2009

The Setback Setback

Once we had determined to move ahead with the bathroom addition, we contacted Jud, our contractor so that we could get on his schedule and wrap up the project "quickly." Having never had to deal with the town before, we assumed that permits would be a relatively painless process. After all, our house is quite modest by the standards of our area, one of the McMansion capitals of the United States, and we were increasing the footprint of the house only by a small amount. What problem could we possible have?

To build our proposed addition, we were required to comply not only with building regulations, but also with zoning guidelines. This is a good thing. Fairfield County, Connecticut, where we live, is famous for massive homes planted on postage sized lots. In many cases, these monstrosities were built after tearing down perfectly functional, often beautiful and sometimes historic residences that had previously occupied the land. Thus, we understand as well as anyone that growth needs to be controlled, and that buildings should be in keeping with the existing community norms in terms of style and size. We were acutely aware of this in our proposal, adding only modestly to the size of the house, and going to great lengths (and cost) to design an addition that was in keeping with the historic nature of our home and the surrounding neighborhood. As a result, I expected that we would breeze through the permit process, with nothing more challenging than the associated fees and the time spent negotiating City Hall. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Where we ran into trouble is with our town's setback regulation. For those of you who are lucky enough not to have ever heard the term, the setback is the distance from the front of the property line past which one is not permitted to build. The intent is to build a buffer so that buildings do not loom over the street - not a bad thing. In our case, there was a 40 foot setback regulation, meaning that construction was not permitted within 40 feet of the front property line.

Our challenge was that in the 18th century, homes tended to be built fairly close to the road, even in rural areas. As our survey revealed, about two-thirds of the space in our house is located within 40 feet of the property line.

While we understood the issue, our assumption was that we would have no trouble obtaining a variance to this requirement. As our proposed addition was located significantly behind the front of our house, we would not be encroaching on the property line any more than the house already did. Moreover, as our home was built 200 years before the regulation even existed, we assumed that there would be some sort of grandfather clause that would allow us to proceed. Wrong again.

Upon the initial submission of our application for a variance to the Planning and Zoning (P&Z) department, we were told that our addition was "never going to happen". Even worse, the individual to whom our proposal was assigned seemed to take significant joy in turning us down. We were informed that we had many other alternatives that would for putting the addition in a conforming location behind the setback line, and that, accordingly we should not even bother to appeal to the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA), because the P&Z representative would do everything in his power to block the addition. Not good.

Naively, my mind was blown by how this was playing out. We were two young, relatively affluent tax payers, who moved to a town notorious for less than stellar schools and services, and we were prepared to make a large investment that would pretty much ensure that we would stay in the house and town for a long, long time to come. In addition, the addition that we proposed would make the house habitable for a modern family, which was not the case when we moved in. Our intention was to ensure that our home would endure for another 200 years, and not be bulldozed by a future owner who valued the land and modern amenities more than the historic value of the property. This was a win-win situation, and our P&Z friend made it clear that we would be better off demolishing the 18th century structure and building anew. Arrgh. Bureaucracy and stupidity rear their ugly heads.

Undeterred by the feedback we received on our rejected application, we filed for a hearing with the ZBA. This was a big deal. In addition to meaning a lengthy delay (months and months due to a backlog of cases) to get an appeal hearing slot at the monthly ZBA meeting, it required detailed architectural drawings ($$), a lawyer ($$), and a massive investment of time and energy as I prepared our case. We needed to inform our neighbors of our proposal (certified letters to everyone!), get neighbors and preservation experts to write letters and speak on our behalf, review legal precedent with our lawyer, etc., etc.

I spent countless hours completing paperwork for the appeal application - an exercise in cutting and pasting to make everything fit on the forms. And this was old school, second grade-style cutting and pasting involving scissors and Elmer's products, not modern Microsoft cutting and pasting. Unbearable.

I also spent a lot of time familiarizing myself with the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation, which are the federally designed guidelines that are widely accepted as the benchmark for properly restoring or making changes to historic properties.

The major hurdle that we would have to overcome with the ZBA was P&Z's insistence that there were viable alternatives to our proposal. Our P&Z friend was only too happy to enumerate his grand alternative. His suggestion was that we locate a bathroom addition off the back of our house. In effect, he was suggesting that it was reasonable that the primary bathroom in the house require residents to enter the living room, go through a hallway, into the dining room, up a flight of stairs (to be located somewhere in our already very, very small dining room) into a new mater bathroom that was somehow magically suspended over the dining room (an early 19th century addition that could never handle the load of a second floor). Wow. Why didn't we think of that.

In total, we spent almost an entire year navigating this process, from the point of deciding to do the addition to the point of our Zoning Board of Appeals hearing.

Finally, we had our time in front of the ZBA. The P&Z representative perfunctorily reviewed our application for the board and indicated that there were clear alternatives to our proposal, and thus recommended that we be turned down. By this time, I was madder than hell, and not going to take it anymore. When our turn came, I walked the board through our proposal, why it was the only viable option, and why the alternative presented by P&Z was not only non-sensical, but also clearly contravened federally recommended guidelines for preserving and modifying historic structures such as out house. We then had supporting testimony from our neighbors, and from a representative of the Norwalk Preservation Trust. I then produced 20 sacks of mail, all addressed to Santa Claus. OK, everything happened but the last part.

The ZBA had many, many questions, but by this time I was pretty much in a fugue state of some sort, and was able to respond to their issues without any trouble.

I should take this opportunity to mention one funny thing. When we arrived at the meeting, we found that we would be the last case of the evening. We were all starving. Jenny, who despite being tiny, eats more food than anyone else I know, insisted that she could run out, pick up food and be back long before our turn came. Of course, the food took longer than expected to procure, the cases before us went fairly quickly, and Jenny didn't make it back until we were deep into our case. I might have been mad if we had lost.

Anyway, the ZBA cleared the room, deliberated for 10 minutes, and then brought us back in to unanimously approve our variance. Suck it, anonymous P&Z official!

Can you tell that the whole process still gets me angry?

So, in the end, we got our addition, as proposed. Rationality prevails!!

June 12, 2009

Pouring Money Down the Drain

When we purchased our house, the bathrooms were not high on our list of priorities. Compared to the facilities in our small apartments in New York City, they seemed positively spacious, and frankly, our attention was more focused on the 18th century elements of the house.

Once we actually moved into the house, however, it quickly became clear the the bathrooms would eventually need some attention. The master bath was located in a small shed-like addition located off the side of the house. It was small by modern standards, with a sink, toilet and combination tub/shower. There was a nicely sized linen closet, but the the decor featured an early-1980s low-end hardware store motif, including a large mirror surrounded by dressing-room style lights that screamed "A Chorus Line!". The real challenge, however, was the room's height. The doorway from our dressing room into the bathroom was very low, and the top corner of the door was crossed by a cased-in drain pipe from the second floor. Not cracking one's skull when maneuvering the single step down into the bathroom was a challenge. The low height in the bathroom had led to a shower head placement that was fine for Jenny, but that resulted in me being treated to a stream of water chest high. Not good for those if us who are not vertically challenged.

The second floor contained what I assume was the first plumbed bathroom added to the house. This small room was located on the western side of the house, tucked under the slope of the saltbox roofline. The condition when we moved in was appalling. Everything in the room had been painted over in a thick, sludgy brown paint that I can only assume was purchased as surplus from the military or some institution. There was nothing attractive about it, yet it covered the walls, ceiling, trim and exposed pipes. Even worse, the paint on the sloped ceiling had been applied over several alternating layers of paint and wallpaper. By the time we moved in, these strata of decoration were flaking and peeling all over the room. To us, it looked like one of the dark and disturbing settings for the movie "7". There were, however, a few interesting features, including an old, white pedestal sink, and a very short cast iron bathtub tucked back under the eaves of the room. One wall of the room also featured what looked like original 18th century horizontal paneling. The tongue-and-groove board had separated over the years, leaving large gaps that had been badly filled with a large amount of wood filler over the years, and there were just faint indications of the bead detail that ran down the edge of each board buried underneath 200+ years of paint.

With too many other items requiring immediate attention when we moved in in 2001, the bathrooms were left pretty much alone for some time. We did, have our contractor reroute the death pipe that crossed the doorway downstairs. Given the low ceiling and doorway height throughout the house, it did not take me long to intuitively move around the house cautiously and with a bit of a stoop. Having literally laid myself out on the floor several times with blows to the head, it became a matter of self-preservation. The bathroom door pipe, however, was too much. There was no way I was not going to severely injure myself in the middle of the night at some point if it was left in place. Happily, the plumbers were able to raise it up just enough to clear the doorway.

On the second floor, we gutted the decaying ceiling as part of the major ceiling and wall renovation that took place when we first moved in. This made the room much less creepy, but it was still not the most welcoming facility for our guests, who were the only people who really ever had to use that bathroom, anyway. Around 2004, I did begin to start stripping the brown paint off the paneling in the room. This took place in fits and spurts, whenever I had some free time and felt the need to make progress on something.

Also around 2004, we begin to see signs that all was not right in the master bathroom. The floor tile in the room had cracks in various places even when we moved in. Over the next two to three years, these cracks got worse, and the grout began to fail in several places resulting in loose tiles that would pop out of place. Having caulked the edge of the tub where it met the wall when we moved in, I eventually noticed something disturbing. The gap kept opening up more and more. I re-caulked, only to watch it open again. The problem was that the movement between tub and wall was vertical, not horizontal. So, either our house had hit a growth spurt, or the tub was sinking. Not good. Our worst fears were confirmed when I entered the bathroom one day and saw that a tile in the corner was missing. What was left in its place was a black hole. With a little help from a flashlight, it quickly became obvious that the floor in this corer was basically non-existent, rotted away by years and years of water damage (I forgot to mention that when we moved in, the space between the tub and walls had not been caulked). Obviously, the whole thing was going to need to be torn up and replaced.

From here, the real fun began. We knew that we wanted to re-do the entire bathroom, but that this would be a major project. A visit from Jud, our contractor, revealed that any renovation would be from the ground up - the foundation under the bathroom was in very bad shape, the floors were rotten, and the joists consisted of logs sitting on the ground. So, we began to plan a new bathroom addition. We would tear down the dilapidated structure, and start anew.

At first, we began to plan rebuilding within the existing footprint. Then, we started talking about re-doing the upstairs bathroom at the same time. This would, by the impeccable logic of everyone restoring old homes, save costs (by doubling the work). ??. Next, it occurred to us that by building up, we could add on to the very small second floor bathroom at the same time that we rebuilt the master bath.

Before too long, I had sketched out (below) a plan for a two story addition that would mimic the saltbox roofline of the main house. We would double the footprint of the master bath, giving us room to install both a large tub and a separate shower stall, and we would convert the window in the second floor bath into a door, creating a bathroom suite that would allow us to put in a shower on the second floor, and make the house suitable for guests and kids (one day). Sure, it was a much, much bigger undertaking than we had ever envisaged, but it would dramatically improve the quality of life in the house for us and womever comes after us.

We expected that the entire endeavor would take 6-12 months. Little did we know that it would take that much time just to get approval from the town for the project, and that it would be two full years before the project was completed.

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June 08, 2009

Around the House

Windows, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Warmth

I somehow forgot the last big project in phase 1 of our restoration - replacing the windows. Unfortunately, when we purchased the house in 2001, all of the original windows (possibly excepting the two attic windows) had already been replaced and the openings had probably been re-sized (bigger). What we were left with was a collection of early 20th century windows and a number of cheap modern windows that the people from whom we purchased the house had installed themselves. Typically, they achieved this installation without the use of insulation and without any real knowledge of how to properly install or trim out a window.

Thus, winter in the house meant an uninterrupted breeze emanating from the window casings in our bedroom and den, as air penetrated the vacant, uninsulated sash weight pockets on either side of the windows. Upstairs, the windows moved up and down only with great exertion and, again, afforded very little benefit in terms of efficiency and sound reduction.

On the coldest days of winter, even with our new boiler running at maximum overdrive, we found it impossible to raise the temperature in the house out of the low 60s. Too cold. So, we decided to bite the bullet and replace the windows. More than 20 windows, all of different (i.e custom - or as I like to call it, expensive) sizes. To reflect the age of the house, we wanted to go with 12 over 12 light patterns on the windows where possible, and 6 over 6 in the smaller windows. The window guy who was recommended to us steered us towards Lincoln windows. These are all wood, double paned, insulated windows that tilt in for cleaning. A nice product, although not the hand made custom 18th century sashes that I would have certainly preferred to use if money had not been a factor.

Installation took forever - far longer than it should have, and this should have been my first clue that something was wrong. The installers were nice and pleasant, but were all very young and had little experience. Sadly, so did we, otherwise I would have pitched a fit if it had occurred to me that installing a second sill above the original in order to make the windows fit was a lazy shortcut to avoid additional framing and trim work. Also, it looks stupid. After more than 220 years, nothing in our house is plumb or level, and the installation was a challenge for installers who were used to working with new construction or relatively young houses. Lesson learned the hard way - never, ever hire someone to work on an 18th century house who does not love old buildings and who has not had experience working on them.

In the end, the windows got installed, work well, and look OK from the inside. Unfortunately, the trimming on the outside was done very badly, to the point where we ended up with rotted sills on several windows within three years, and the aforementioned unconscionably ugly double sills everywhere. So far, we have had Jud, our contractor (who does know and love old house) re-trim the worst offending windows, and will have to have the rest done at some point as money permits.

I don't like to think about the windows, as I have no idea why I didn't see at the time how badly the work was being done. I'll chalk it up to the cost of being in over our heads on the project at the time. To Jenny's annoyance, I still obsess over the period-correct windows that we will have hand crafted and installed after winning the lottery. I have learned, however, that vocalizing this obsession really doesn't get me more than a threatening look from Jenny, so I try to focus on the fact that we can now get our house warm (ish) in the winter and that the 12 over 12 pattern at least gives everything a distinctive, sort-of-appropriate look. By the way, I should mention that yes, it is a pain to clean 24 small panes on each window. As a result I try to operate on the assumption that dirty windows are also period appropriate.

June 05, 2009

Return of the Prodigal Blogger

OK, once again it has been months and months since I updated the blog. But, here I am, so I will pick up the "power update" of the work that we did during the first few years in the house. After moving in to the house and finally obtaining luxurious amenities like heat and a water-tight roof, our contractor excavated around the patio off the back of the house, and poured a concrete lip to protect the sills (below grade). I can't recall why we didn't just drop the grade of the patio at that point (which we still need to do at some point), but I think it was just a matter of being cheaper and more expedient. Not good reasons, but what can you do?

The early years also saw lots more painting of rooms, but thankfully not any major structural issues. There were a few cool projects along the way. Jenny's favorite story about our house restoration was one of these.

In our second or third year in the house, I found myself with some free time in early December. Having been unhappy with the water-stained drywall that made up our living room ceiling, I had, for some time, speculated to Jenny that there might be some nice beams underneath, like the ones that were exposed in the den. Eventually, with speculation turning to obsession, I had to take a look, and secured Jenny's permission to open a small hole in the ceiling. As Jenny describes it, she returned to our house that day to find me elated that there were, indeed, beautiful beams in the ceiling. She also found my definition of small to be approximately 6'x6'. I maintain that that was the smallest hole that would let me get a good view given the dim lighting, but I don't think that Jenny bought my story. Anyway, the entire ceiling was down within a few hours.

While I maintain that the project was well worth it, I will concede that my timing was less than perfect. This all took place about a week before we were due to have 100 or so of our closest friends descend on the house for our annual Christmas party. Happily, Jud, our contractor, managed to squeeze in the time to sheetrock and skim coat between the beams, leaving is with a ceiling that, I believe, only enhanced the festivity of our party. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

Another key project during this time period was the restoration of our front door. The door is a beautiful, slightly squat, dutch door with eight raised panels. A beautiful hand wrought thumb latch was still in place, as were the original (I believe) strap hinges and pintles When we moved in, the door and its hardware were layered in paint, and the door had cracks in two of the panels that I could slide my hand through. Neither aesthetically pleasing, nor energy efficient. Despite the recommendation of one of my father-in-laws carpenters that we should toss it into a dumpster and buy a nice new aluminum door (Aaaaack!), we decided to have it restored to its original condition. After removing the door and having it stripped at a local establishment, we took the door to Paul Marlowe of Marlowe Restorations in Northford, CT. Paul disassembled the door, cleaned out two centuries of paint and dirt that were embedded around the panels, repaired the cracks with epoxy, and repaired a major splintered crack on one of the rails. The door was then reassembled and re-pegged. The door was primed and painted and I stripped and oiled all of the hardware (including the latch, which we left in place on the door as it was still attached by the original period nails, which we did not want to disturb). Hung back up, it looks amazing, and is a real focal point for the front of the house.

Other interior projects during this time included removing the mid-20th century built-ins in the living room to expose the original beaded wall behind it, and reglazing the old door at the back of our living room with 18th century glass panes purchased from Fairview Glass in Maryland.

Outside, we removed a large amount of rotting firewood from various locations around the property, created a perennial garden alongside the driveway and in a small area outside the dining room, and began the arduous process of reclaiming the property from overgrowth that had consumed much of the property in the preceding two decades. This entailed removing huge amounts of forsythia, poison ivy and vines that had grown unchecked under the not so watchful eye of the previous homeowners. By pushing back the forsythia in the backyard by about 40 feet, I was able to re-expose beautiful stone walls, and give some breathing room to the cherry and horse chestnut trees in the yard that had been largely obscured by the overgrowth. I also uncovered an old well of some sort about 15 feet from the back door. Although it was capped by concrete, there is a small plug that can be removed and inspection showed beautiful fieldstone masonry ringing the well form ground level down approximately eight feet. Definitely something that I want to explore at some point in search of artifacts.

For the most part, that is all of the work that made up Phase 1 of the restoration process, which was basically just an effort to stop the deterioration that appeared to have been taking place for the preceding 20 years, ensure that the house was structurally sound, and make the necessary upgrades to the systems that would let us live comfortably. In total, this took about four years, with the work occurring in fits and starts, as time, inspiration and money allowed. Hopefulyl, i will post an update on Phase 2, the bathroom addition, as well as some pictures in the near future.