Weekend warriors: Breathing new life into our old home
MIDDLEBURY — Last summer, my husband Sam and I finally decided to jump in with both feet on the house we had been renting. We bought the house and began a process that could be compared to giving an 85-year-old a facelift.
It started with demolition on the half of the house that we had been renting to another tenant and hadn’t seen any major work for at least 50 years.
One weekend was spent with a jackhammer removing the crumbling central chimney, at least two others were spent prying off brittle plaster and exposing old wooden lath made from planks easily two and a half feet wide that had been split and stretched like an accordion to span the walls.
Each layer of smoked-stained, moldy wallpaper or plywood paneling we removed felt like the house was giving a thankful sigh of relief. Each truckload of material we brought to the transfer station felt like it was making room for a new vision for the home. We felt like we were giving our house another life.
That was at the beginning.
Soon though, the days started to shorten and temperatures started to drop. Our progress had been delayed by the discovery of a massive fire that had blazed through most of the house, rendering 12-inch-wide beams useless charcoal and wall and floor sheathing that had meant to keep things level and plum mere piles of soot. We were shocked at the damage and amazed that the structure wasn’t lost completely.
With the discovery of the fire as well as mold that had collected in the roof due to lack of ventilation, we chose to hire a team not just to
replacing the roofing material, but to fully rebuild the roof. The crew showed up in December, just as temperatures really started to fall.
We had stripped all of the plumbing from the half of the house where we had been working, leaving a bedroom upstairs and the living room, dining room, kitchen and bathroom as finished space downstairs. The “cold zone” was in between.
The crew was efficient and impressed us with their stamina, working in freezing temperatures on top of a roof while maintaining a smile. But it was brutal work and more than once they had to pause due to a major snow or ice storm that rendered the conditions unsafe for outdoor work. Meanwhile Sam and I would cross the cold zone with flashlights every day, wondering what possessed us to make such a decision.
On weekends, we warriors would bundle up and get our own tools out, making the progress we could to keep it all moving forward.
By mid-January, we had prepared the downstairs living room enough to install the new woodstove, which was a blessing due to the frigid weather that was threatening the pipes that we still had running through the house. Even blasting space heaters directly on the pipes in the basement, insulating the runs that we could inside and committing to writing over what felt like our life’s savings to the propane company, our interior walls could only pretend to operate as exterior walls so well and it was cold everywhere.
But nothing lasts forever and by the end of January we had a new roof and a heightened dormer off the west side of the house, making space for what would be a new bathroom and extra bedroom upstairs. We had newly installed sprayfoam on the roof and a woodstove working to keep the house above freezing. Sam and I nearly had a party on the first day where the thermometer reached up was into the single digits outside, but inside it was a balmy 39 degrees.
Most Vermonters wouldn’t consider December the right month for a roofing project, but on December 7, 2017 this was the view of the upstairs of my house. The construction crew rid our house of six layers of rotten, charred, partially disintegrated roofing that had been built up and patched over the years.
Independent photo/Christy Lynn
On a warm weekend we were able to install eight new windows upstairs, allowing western light into the new space and revealing again our hopeful vision for the end result.
What I’ve learned over the last decade of living with someone who is a designer/builder and project fiend is that construction projects are like roller coasters or long bike rides. There are moments of cruising downhill with no friction and only a gleeful feeling in the gut. Then there are the uphill slogs where it feels like every turn of the gear takes a Herculean effort. But perhaps most of the time it’s a long, flat, patience-testing journey that’s most challenging because of the stamina required to stay committed.
For the past 10 months, we have been living in a construction site, traveling between the more and less finished spaces of our house, making decision upon decision upon decision about how we are going to use and how we are going to finish each space.
Our tolerance for what a space needs to look like in order to be usable has plummeted, and we’ve spent many happy mornings by our beautiful new woodstove on a folding bench with singular focus on the one object in the room that’s finished, willingly ignoring the exposed framing and piles of sheetrock behind us waiting to be hung.
Slowly, sometimes begrudgingly, we work through the process. I’ve lost the naïve vision that one day I’ll come home to the vision of the house that Sam and I worked to imagine at the start of the project. Instead, I recognize that we’ll keep chipping away forever, building more functionality into each space before moving on to the next. Eventually, we’ll occupy these functional spaces and slowly we’ll put tools away and realize that we have time for other projects.
Hopefully, we’ll be sensible enough to have a party to celebrate that unceremonious moment.
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