My wife and I have been looking at real estate a fair bit over the past few months. This seems like a good time to buy, with the post-bubble real estate market in the US essentially on life support, but so far our search has been quite uninspiring. The houses we have looked at, regardless of when they were built (and finding 150-year old houses is nothing unusual around here), are pretty much crap. The reasons they are crap, besides the fact that I’m perhaps picky in what I consider ‘well-made’, boils down to a cluster of factors, but by far the two most significant are the cap and boots. The fundamentals of good architecture are cap (the roof) and boots (the foundation) – if these parts are not done properly, the rest of the building, no matter how swank or delightfully detailed, will not stand the test of time and stresses of the environment.And chances are, frankly, if the builder did not fuss over the roof and foundation detailing, it is not likely the rest of the house was fussed over either. If the owners of the house neglected maintenance over the years, these troubles only compound.
Invariably old houses around here have problematic foundations. The common foundation arrangement you will see in pre-1900 residences around here is one which consists of a hole dug in the soil at least 48″ down, with the walls of the pit lined with dry-laid granite fieldstone slabs turned on edge, or stacked. While I think stone is a fabulous foundation material in certain situations, what you see in house foundations here with the fieldstones is essentially a damp pit lined with the stones. More than a few basements I’ve looked in are flooded to some degree when it rains. The flooding of course tends to lead to the lower few inches of the household furnace and boiler rusting sooner than even the manufacturers might have hoped. Groundwater is high in some areas, sometimes the houses are build on sloped ground, gutters are in poor repair or are non-existent, and it is often the case that the original foundation back fill has settled thus leaving the perimeter of the house with a sunken ring in which water likes to sit. The water coming into the basement/crawl space in turn produces surface condensation, leading to mildew, fungi, and musty odors, and an unhealthful environment for its occupants. Such continuous moisture can cause deterioration of the foundation mortar, floor joists, beams, supports, sub flooring, insulation, and electrical-mechanical systems. As the foundation settles, the walls buckle, roofs torque, doors and windows cease to function smoothly, etc. I can well understand why Frank Lloyd Wright railed against foundations in his day. It is actually the case that such dry-laid stone walls were often expected to be leaky and provision was made for water passing through the wall to continue across a sloped (dirt) floor and out of the basement or crawl space. A house I used to live in nearby had a river in the basement during much of the year.
Another type of foundation that is pretty common in Massachusetts and surrounding areas, especially in houses built from about 1900~1950, are foundations consisting of brick or concrete mortared units. These are terrible! The same problems with water coming into the basement, except that the mortar makes up a much larger constituent of the the wall. Mortar cracks and degrades over time, and those cracks allow more moisture in which further degrades the wall. With fieldstone, it may be the case that only one of the rocks has settled, affecting a 3~4 feet of wall, however the bricks or concrete mortared units can develop zig-zagging cracks that can extend for long distances and the wall can easily buckle. Some types of bricks degrade and erode over time as well. A common combination is to have a stone wall in the ground, possibly mortared, with a brick foundation laid on top, and these brick courses are the ones visible above ground.
Foundations problems are extremely common here. My in-laws have a basement which has flooded more times than they care to admit. A common solution is for people to dig/cut a hole in the floor and install a sump pump to take the water outside. Admittedly a band-aid solution, but one which makes the house habitable.
Part and parcel of the crap foundations are the minimal distances these foundations project above the soil – 6~10 inches is fairly common. That means the wooden superstructure is too close to the ground, and degrades more quickly. Rotten mudsills and decaying clapboards are all together too common a sight on many buildings. In the winter, the snow piles up so as to bury the bottom foot of the wall structure, and in the spring means the lower portion of the wall stays a bit damper than it would otherwise. Sadly, this lesson seems not to have been learned, as a lot of newer buildings I see going up have a minimal foundation projection above grade. Well, at least the vinyl siding won’t rot.
A lot of the timber-framed structures in this neck of the woods have what is called a common rafter roof. This is one of the simplest forms of roof, in which the ‘A’ -shape of the roof consists of little more than a pair of sloped rafters which meet one another at the ridge. The ridge may or may not have a ridge board, typically a 1 x 6 or similar. some of these roofs have been ‘improved’ by the addition of ‘collar ties’, a horizontal piece fitted to connect together an opposed pair of rafters a few feet down from the ridge. The problem with the ‘collar ties’ is that they are completely misconceived – not ties at all, but struts. Ties resist tension loads, while struts resist compression loads, and until one gets down fairly close to the wall plate in a common rafter roof, the loading from the rafters is one of sagging, which is a compression load. Anyway, these common rafter roof transmits its load down to the wall plates, creating a spreading force. This spreading force eventually resolves over time by pushing the wall plates outward, more so in the middle of the wall run than at the corners where the adjacent wall restrains movement, and causing the wall plate beams to be rolled over slightly. As the walls are spread outward, the rafters also sink down a bit, which in time obtains the classic look of such a roof: a sagged ridge-line. Compounding all of this is the subsiding foundation, with the result a wall plate bowed outward and bowed downward. Some call it ‘charming’ or ‘rustic’, but I tend to think, ‘lousy framing method’.
Many of the buildings have minimal eaves. There are several reasons why this has come to be the case, outside the scope of this post. Suffice to say that minimal eaves mean that the weather lashes the walls of the building more severely than otherwise, leading to a greater amount of moisture traveling down the walls, This in turn leads to more water getting down around the foundation, more rapid degrade of wall cladding, window and door sills and casing, and more opportunities for moisture to get in behind the wall’s outer surface. Those buildings that do have an eave of some sort often had minimal insulation and lacked a vapor barrier above the conditioned space, which leads to the roof deck getting warmed in the winter, melting the snow above, which leads to ice-damming at the eaves. The ice builds and can cause damage to the edge of the roof and it’s covering, which in turn allows the weather in. Attempts to break up the ice dams often lead to damage of the roofing material, which then allows water in. Damaged shingles on the bottom 2~3 feet of roof surface mean water getting in and likely running down the inside of the walls. The house next door suffers extensively from this issue:
Slate roofs often have suffered many indignities over the years, accelerating their demise. Commonly seen are repairs involving roofing cement, or the major no-no of re-laying the roof using electroplated nails instead of hot-dipped galvanized or copper, which means the fasteners rust away prematurely and the shingles come loose.
If the roof has gutters then the ice-damming issue can compound, often leading to great masses of ice, and in the attempts to break up the ice, damage to the gutters. Other houses lack gutters and have minimal eaves, so when it rains, well, it’s welcome to mini-Niagara especially where roof valleys are located.
Many older houses here which are built on an ‘L’-plan invariably locate the front door to the house at the inside corner of the ‘L’. I find this puzzling, since the inside corner of the ‘L’ is immediately below a large roof valley. In the winter masses of snow tend to follow that chute downhill, causing extra large snow piling right at the front door. In the warmer months, ‘Niagara’ is emerging right next to the door as well. Welcome to my humble abode – bring your boots and an umbrella ’cause we don’t have one.
There’s a lot to like about older homes in certain ways, the materials were generally of better quality, the moldings were more interesting, the stairways grander, and so forth. But in terms of an architecture made to work in a cold and wet climate such as we have here in New England, what the frack were they thinking? These older houses have damp basements, damp walls, ice-dam prone roofs, and leak heat like a sieve from every pore. They smell moldy, more often than not. Many houses are heated by fuel oil, which is diesel by another name some have winter heating bills exceeding $1000/month. When you get down to looking at all this housing stock, and I’ve looked at hundreds of buildings, while a few might have the mythical ‘good bones’, just dealing with the foundation and roof issues properly (and not in another hack-job stop-gap mode or repair) is daunting – and very expensive. Some houses may be worth the investment, if that was all that was wrong with them. There are other factors at play too, and I’ll look at some of those in the next post.
Thanks for coming by the Carpentry Way.