When modern builders meet old houses
February 16, 2019 2:49 PM   Subscribe

Peter Ward is a surveyor who specialises in very old houses, watch him explain the problems that arise when modern builders try to 'fix' the external timber frame of a Grade 2 listed old house. At the other extreme discover a time capsule house from the 1600's that's barely been touched for centuries.
posted by Lanark (16 comments total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
This is so cool. When I worked for an organization that provided grant money for historic building restorations in small communities we continually had to tell people not to pressure wash 200 year old brick. There was always a local contractor who had provided an estimate for repairs using modern techniques that were just wildly off the mark for the older materials and construction. Everyone was acting in good faith but it’s crazy tricky.
posted by putzface_dickman at 3:39 PM on February 16, 2019 [2 favorites]

Very cool! (Though I feel particularly seasick after the camera work in that 1600s house video...)
posted by penguin pie at 4:40 PM on February 16, 2019

Pete needs to invest himself in a laser scanner. I do laser scanning day in and day out, and we sometimes get requests from historical societies for old things.

Several years ago we got a job scanning a historical brickworks. It was one of the last remaining ones in Minnesota, right along the river. I scanned it inside and out. I think it was 1830-40's? Anyway that was pretty cool, it was one of the only surviving ones around. A year later it too collapsed. But I have a perfect digital record of it. You can 3D print it, you could rebuild it to look like it once was if you wanted to. I have a perfect record of all of it in 3D points.
posted by sanka at 6:19 PM on February 16, 2019 [11 favorites]

I lived in a fieldstone foundation house that my Father-in-Law caused a huge amount of damage by “fixing” the basement without understanding that fieldstone foundations cannot be insulated and dry-walled over. Old house technology is so facinating.
posted by saucysault at 6:49 PM on February 16, 2019

Thanks for this, I love videos like the time capsule one (although I must admit the videography had me expecting it to be a surprise scare). Here's a great collection by Mattias Berger describing the renovation of his 600 year old listed home in Ulm, Germany (among lots of other interesting stuff).
posted by Poldo at 6:52 PM on February 16, 2019 [3 favorites]

Ah, I am the son of someone who would, indeed, use silicone caulk and cement to fix a half-timbered house. To whit, the house I grew up in was built in the 1880s, fieldstone basement, lovely moldings and plaster work everywhere, oak floors, a garage that had been intended to house horses and carriages, wall lights were converted from gas, with the wires (tube and ceramic where exposed) running through the old gas pipes, an old coal-burning furnace that had been converted to town gas. When we moved in in 1972 (I was 5), it was pretty clear that the last renovations had been done in the 19-teens, when they'd installed electric power.

So, of course, Dad put in linoleum and wall-to-wall acrylic shag on all the floors. He painted over the fieldstone basement walls, which immediately peeled off and made the basement damp and moldy. He tore off the hand-forged hinges holding the enormous solid redwood garage doors (2" thick!) and installed particle-board rollups. He painted white semi-gloss acrylic over the lovely patinas on the mahogany interior doors, and slapped more semi-gloss on all the radiators. He ripped off the ivy from the chimney and front retaining wall, killed it dead with a variety of herbicides, and planted grass everywhere that it would grow. He dug out all the Edwardian landscaping, terraces made of rocks (the house was on an ancient moraine, so there were a lot of rocks), a huge and made to-last stone-and-cement bar-b-que grill, and pretty much anything else he could get his hands on and made more lawn. Then he had to dig a french drain, because the new lawn didn't absorb water as well as the old rocky terraces, and so whenever it rained a new creek ran through the garage and into the basement until the drain was working.

It wasn't all destruction, of course. He ripped out the old wiring (actually a good thing, nobody likes their house burning down), cut holes in the baseboard moldings and installed actual wall sockets in every room in multiple locations. All those rocks he dug out of yard became rock walls, enough to circle a 3/4 acre of land, though he didn't know to dig out a foundation to prevent frost heaves so they all fell down. He reinforced the floors with jacks and beams so they stopped sagging, and completely rebuilt the first floor bathroom (just a loo and a sink) after the crawlspace he'd dug out got so cold the plumbing froze. He patched up a lot of the external shingles that had split or had knots in them with silicone and acrylic caulks and painted them a nice flat green acrylic, then a couple of years later replaced many of them when they turned to rot and dust as per the first link. He added insulation to the walls, storm windows over the old leaky single-pane windows, and replaced the vicious attack attic staircase.

But then he started taking out trees, so that his beloved lawn would actually have some light to grow in, and that attracted notice. Deep in the paperwork he had signed for the title transfer was a notice of an encumbrance -- the house was considered an important architectural example of a particular style of colonial, and had been listed. The tree, an oak at least 3' across and a hundred feet tall, was protected. The lath-and plaster replaced by drywall had been protected. The garage doors, long ago broken up and burned for firewood, had been protected, the windows should have been repaired, not covered over with modern storm windows, and the old converted gas lights he'd thrown out for some nice modern fluorescents and a few hardware store specials had been considered to be a major architectural loss.

There was talk of fines and other punishment, but ultimately the authorities were legally unwilling to push the issue or even insist he reverse the damage, just that he keep it from getting worse. This resulted in some amusing things, such as Dad having to get very expensive, very precisely colored stain for the exterior shingles when we scraped off the flat green acrylic, replaced the too-modern galvanized nails used to hold on the new cedar shingles with the original style copper nails, and when later selling the house the title transfer included listing all the unapproved changes he had made and making sure the new owners knew that if they wanted to change anything on the list, they'd have to go to the commission and either apply for a variance, or replace it with how it had been originally.
posted by Blackanvil at 8:30 PM on February 16, 2019 [25 favorites]

Living in a place where structures built before 1950 are OLD, these were neat to see. I really wanted to see the companion video of the repairs after the timber frame inspection, though -- how on earth do you replace a rotten rough-cut sill beam that has brickwork resting directly on it?

The time capsule one was weird -- the awful wallpaper downstairs is just an aesthetic choice by someone, but who lives a life where you can just leave two entire stories of your house basically empty over centuries? Again, I wanted the follow-on video showing (hopefully!) a sensitive and careful restoration/repair approach to those rooms.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:34 PM on February 16, 2019 [3 favorites]

sanka -- hey, cool! I used to work on an archaeological project and we had a faro arm -- we did a mix of scanning and 3-d point recording. I still get a bit warm and fuzzy when I see the black and white points up in places, knowing that it's being scanned.

I loved the time capsule house. I really loved the chintz of the lower levels, but like Dip Flash, I'm kind of marveling at a house that was presumably continually lived in, but just....no one felt any need to change things on two floors, with a very few exceptions. I would love to know what went into to absolutely no one, for centuries, even painting the walls.
posted by kalimac at 10:06 PM on February 16, 2019 [5 favorites]

Interesting as hell. Thanks for posting.
posted by Doohickie at 10:16 PM on February 16, 2019

The time capsule house was incredible. I love his low-key, awed delivery. I lived in a late 1700s farmhouse in southern Ohio when I was in grade school. I remember going up in the attic and seeing the hand-hewn timbers with mud and horsehair chinking.
posted by not_the_water at 10:43 PM on February 16, 2019 [2 favorites]

If you live in an old house, English Heritage has basic guidance on looking after it on its website, and a series of books on practical building conservation. Just in case you're reading this in a 16th century house and worrying.
posted by Vortisaur at 1:22 AM on February 17, 2019 [2 favorites]

I really loved the chintz of the lower levels, but like Dip Flash, I'm kind of marveling at a house that was presumably continually lived in, but just....no one felt any need to change things on two floors, with a very few exceptions. I would love to know what went into to absolutely no one, for centuries, even painting the walls.

I would strongly suspect that this is (or has been) a tied cottage. My guess for the history would be that it was built as a primary residence for a well-off family (those tiny rooms in the attic being for servants). It then was superseded by a different primary residence, and became a tied cottage for farm labourers. It then wouldn't be the case that there was no need to change anything, but that there was both no money and no permission to change anything. As families get smaller and the number of farm labourers decreases in the 20th century, the house is not fully occupied, and people don't use the upstairs both becuase they don't need the space and it's bloody cold and draughty. The decoration and upkeep downstairs point to ongoing poverty of the occupants. It's in the interests of the owners to keep it weatherproof (hence the horrible windows, probably replacing ones where the leading was starting to disintegrate), but no more.
posted by Vortisaur at 1:38 AM on February 17, 2019 [5 favorites]

Just in case you're reading this in a 16th century house and worrying.

Thankfully not. Just a creaky terrace built in 1788. Half of it fell down in 1789, but I'm sure it's OK. And anyway, the view's been much better since the landslides in 1881 when all the houses lower down the hill fell down and got replaced by a park.
posted by ambrosen at 2:20 AM on February 17, 2019 [2 favorites]

I am involved in an effort to conserve and reconstruct a carriage barn from the late 1800’s. A carriage barn is unique in that they’re small barns usually found in a city or town, in the backyard.

They would typically be used to house a horse or two, would have feed boxes and a hayloft, and have a bay in which you kept a carriage.

When the auto came along, these were often converted to garages, and the horse stalls and feed boxes removed to stick a car in there.

With our barn, those elements weren’t taken out, because of its location on the lot. Instead, the owners just tacked a lean-to to the side of the barn as a garage, and ignored the stuff in the barn proper. Meaning that we have an intact, well preserved carriage barn very much as it was in 1890. And it’s in great shape - the roof had been replaced regularly and the beams and wood are in great shape.

So: I can totally relate to his excitement at finding this, only times ten because if it’s age. What a great experience.
posted by disclaimer at 1:02 PM on February 17, 2019 [2 favorites]

I can't decide if this makes me feel better or worse about my house built in 1957 in terms of how well things are holding up.
posted by TwoStride at 1:32 PM on February 17, 2019

sanka - very cool!

Are you able to share what file formats that you use (or at least describe what that the data that is captures with the 3D scanning)? How many terrabytes of memory did that all require?

Did your team also take high resolution videography/ photography so they can skin the 3D repros?
posted by porpoise at 10:13 PM on February 19, 2019

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