“This Old House” book

I just finished reading “This Old House,” the companion book to their first their first project in 1980. Everything we’re doing, they did the same thing 25 years ago–nothing has changed!  Except the cost, of course. And the scope:

This Old House
Bob Vila with Jane Davison
Speedwell Forge B&B
Dawn Darlington with Gregg Hesling
House 1860s Victorian 1760 Colonial, plus six 18thcentury outbuildings
Size 3-stories including finished attic; approx. 1,500 square feet 3-stories including finished attic; 5,000 square feet in mansion; 3,000 square feet in outbuildings
History Bought and sold numerous times; converted into a medical office, then into apartments, then back to a house Sold once in 245 years; east wing added in 1795; last renovated in 1870s.
Roof Mansard roof with asphalt shingles, rotted eaves; replaced with asphalt shingles and wooden gutters Mansion had gabled slate roof, replaced with slate and copper gutters;
Summer Kitchen replaced standing-seam metal roof with slate and copper gutters; eaves were rotted;
Workshop replaced asphalt roof with slate and copper gutters, some of the rafters were rotted
Exterior Clapboard siding; required scraping and painting;
Rotted front porch that was demolished and rebuilt
Stone building that needed to be repointed;
Front porch scraped and repainted;
Rotted back back that was demolished and will be rebuilt
Windows 24 windows, all two-over-two, needed to be repainted 46 windows in the mansion plus 16 on the outbuildings; generally eight-over-two or six-over-two; needed to be disassembled, stripped, repaired, rebuilt, reglazed, and repainted
Land Quarter-acre flat lot; removed a few old trees and added sod and foundation plantings 120 acres, sloped lot, need to create a swale around the house for drainage; removed six dumpsters of trash from the property (so far)
Garage Brick garage Have to resurface the quarter-mile driveway and add additional parking areas; Can’t replace the roof on the 6-bay tractor shed because of local stormwater ordinances
Fireplaces One, with restored marble mantle Seven, four with full-length wooden mantlepieces
Floors Restored wood veneer flooring Restored solid wood flooring; replaced flooring in Summer Kitchen
Walls & Ceilings Replaced sagging plaster ceilings with blueboard and plaster Gutted attic, cut out water-damaged sections on all floors; replaced with blueboard and plaster
Electric 30-amp service converted to 200-amps; hooked to city service 30-amp service converted to 400-amps; installed new transformer; hid meter on back of the privy
Plumbing Replaced one and a half baths with two and a half baths; hooked up to city water and sewage Replaced three and a half baths with six and a half baths; drilled a new well; built the world’s biggest septic system
Kitchen Replaced existing kitchen cupboards and counters Built a new 4′ x 8′ island to house all modern appliances; restored Dawn’s grandparents 1950s-era stove; had a new floor-to-ceiling cupboard built to match existing and hide refrigerator
Heat Replaced an oil-burning steam boiler with a gas-fired hot water boiler Replaced an oil-burning steam boiler with a new propane-fired steam boiler and added a propane-fired hot water boiler, plus two heat pumps for the outbuildings
Cooling N/A Added a “split-system” in basement and attic; ran ducts to first and second floors; hid compressors in the first floor of the workshop
Other Demolished mud room None.
Cost Purchased for $17,000; budgeted $30,000 for restoration; spent $80,000 (that’s in 1980 dollars) Inherited; budgeted $200,000 for restoration; spent a lot more than that (and we’re only half-way through)
Timeframe 3 months 15 months

If you get a chance to pick up the “This Old House” book, I highly recommend it, if only to see Bob Vila in a plaid shirt installing orange plastic laminate counters. (They didn’t need put a copyright date on the book; that picture said it all.)



The project is now moving so quickly, I can’t keep up. The septic guys are building the sand mounds, digging the trenches, and burying the tanks; the air conditioning guy is running ductwork and installing cooling lines; one carpenter is fixing the roof on the summer kitchen, while the other one is prepping the radiators; the electricians are hooking up the junction box; the mason is repointing the stone walls; Brian is finishing the basement in the workshop; and Dawn is trying to stay on top of it all!

When Brian first approached Henry about doing the mansion, Henry said we were too far away. Then somehow Brian tricked him into visiting, and as soon as he saw the stonework he agreed to do the work. I think that's the mark of a true craftsman.

When Brian first approached Henry about doing the mansion, Henry said we were too far away. Then somehow Brian tricked him into visiting, and as soon as he saw the stonework he agreed to do the work. I think that’s the mark of a true craftsman.

The only person who isn’t there is the heating guy, who is probably the most crucial person right now. We have been assured he will be there next week and will have enough time to run all the plumbing to the radiators by the end of October. We’ll see.

Henry Hollenbeck, along with Brian and Rodney, are “repointing” the mansion. This means blowing out all the old loose mortar (the stuff that holds the stones together) and applying new mortar. The trick is to match the mortar to the stone — if the mortar is too hard (like portland cement), then during a freeze-thaw cycle the mortar destroys the surrounding stone!

Needless to say, the last person who patched the walls used portland cement. Fortunately, it doesn’t look like too much damage was done, and Henry is going to pull all that out. He is also trying to match the color of the new mortar to the old, and also “tool” (shape) it like the original mortar, so when he’s done patching we won’t be able to tell old from new. (That’s the plan, at least.)


Electric fireplaces

Dawn met with Rich of Fireplace Supply Wholesalers today, and the crew gave her grief for installing electric fireplaces. She told them that if they want to contribute to the project, then they can have an opinion.

We were initially skeptical as well, but when we went to Rich’s showroom and saw them in action, the electrics looked better than the gas fireplaces! Plus they’re economical, non-polluting, safe, and, best of all, they don’t give off heat. If that seems strange, remember this is a B&B — in the middle of summer, guests can lay in their air-conditioned room and enjoy a fire. How cool is that?

The two cottages will have gas fireplaces, but for a purely practical reason: They’re using heat pumps, and during the dead of winter they may need supplemental heat. In the summer kitchen, we’re putting the fireplace downstairs; we aren’t sure if we’re going to put anything upstairs, because of the room layout.

Unfortunately, the electrics don’t make noise. There is a pine cone you can buy that crackles, but I’m not sure how far I’m willing to go with these fake fireplaces.


An apology

dawn in the mirror

Dawn’s vanity
(Get it? Vanity mirror? Dawn photographing herself? Oh, forget it.)

I should apologize for this journal; it certainly isn’t what I started out to write. I imagined great tales of exploration and learning, with some entertaining or even harrowing passages thrown in. Instead, it’s a 12-month gripe session on what we’ve been through dealing with the local bureaucrats, which has nothing at all to do with the restoring the house.

I let the bastards wear me down.

So my first question is, why didn’t I see any of this on This Old House? Norm Abrahms (and Bob Vila before him) come to the job site, review what needs to be done, and do it. They never spend four months standing around waiting to find out if they need to install sprinklers because some local official can’t tell the difference between a house and a hotel. They never get written up for not having a building permit six months after they were given a building permit. They never say, “Well, we were going to restore this house here, but the local yahoos told us we have to move a hill, widen the road, install a second basement door, build a new septic system the size of Rhode Island, create stormwater detention, and repave the parking area, and our remaining budget is $46 so instead we’re going to take the crew for hamburgers and forget this crap.” You never see that.

So if I seem bitter and angry, it’s because I’m frustrated (and bitter and angry) about everything that we’ve had to do that’s not about the house. We didn’t come to town to provide full employment; we actually want to accomplish something. Yet every week we just get more grief. And they always smile and tell us we’re doing a great thing here just before they tell us to install an exit sign in front of the 250-year-old door. Hard to believe that for 250 years, people have had to figure out that the front door is actually an exit without a sign posted in front of it; how did they possibly manage?

So my point, before I got all hot-headed again, was to stop focusing on the negatives, and to get back to the restoration. Amazing things have happened over the past six months, but I’ve been completely distracted by the side show circus. So please let me know if my vitriol spills over (you should have seen what I wrote about the code inspectors the other day…) and I will endeavor to make this what I had hoped it would be: informative, engaging, and fun.



Four months ago, it was furniture. Three months ago, exterior colors. Two months ago, bathroom fixtures. Last month, interior colors. Today, it’s lighting. The sheer number of choices involved in this project is just staggering, and we still have three kitchens to go.

And of course no decision is ever final — at every stage of the project it gets reviewed and discussed anew. We intentionally try to limit our choices just for our own sanity — for example, we’ve ruled out any bronze or brass fixtures because this was an ironmaster’s mansion. Even then, the number of chandeliers, pendants, sconces, and table lamps in iron is in the thousands.

Fortunately, Dawn and I have pretty similar tastes. Unfortunately, we don’t trust anyone else. Otherwise we’d just turn this over to an interior designer and be done with it. Instead, we both spend many, many hours combing the Internet looking for the right fixtures at reasonable prices. Did I mention we needed 15 chandeliers?

To compound the problem, period-appropriate lighting is kind of boring. Back then, indoor lighting meant one thing: candles. (You could burn whale blubber, but I’m not going there.) So chandeliers were just candle holders, which is hardly inspiring. (And the elaborate wrought-iron chandeliers just look like giant spiders to me.)


Our first fight

Dawn and I had our first big fight over the restoration. We’ve gone for two years designing, researching, discussing, meeting, hiring, and spending most of our time and resources on this project, and we’ve had plenty of disagreements but never a serious argument, until today.

And what was this major conflict about? Was it a significant cost? A primary design element? Was it our whole conceptual perception of the future of the property? No, it was over the bathroom exhaust fans.

I had pointed out that we should not rely on our guests to turn on the exhaust fan while bathing, but we needed to vent that moisture or we would have problems with the paint and plaster. I found some exhaust fans that were triggered by humidity, and wanted to order them.

Dawn pointed out that people often wanted bathroom fans for…uh…other reasons…that had nothing to do with humidity. So she did her own research and decided that the best solution was a motion detector that would turn on the exhaust fan when you entered the bath, and leave it on for 15 minutes after you left.

Now, we’re both reasonable people and usually have reasonable discussions, but when she suggested a motion detector, with a blinking red light, in a guest bathroom, at what we’re hoping to be an elegant bed and breakfast, there was no discussion: I said no. Absolutely, positively, unequivocally not happening

Now, Dawn is not used to being told no. She is just one of those people that you can’t refuse. And it’s not just me: She has this power over everyone, even complete strangers. There’s just something about her, some combination of innocence, vulnerability, and intimidation, that you can immediately tell making her happy is in your best interest. So my “no” brought out some pretty primal responses. She even threatened divorce, three weeks before we’re getting married.

After she realized that I wasn’t going to bend on this issue, she pointed out that I was 3,000 miles away and in no position to dictate what she could or couldn’t do. I acknowledged that, and told her that I would be happy to remove them when I moved out there. She told me I wasn’t moving out there. And so the conversation went, split across a half-dozen phone calls during the day. She even sent a mass email to everyone, asking if they would be freaked out by a motion detector in the bathroom. She said that 90% of the respondents did not have a problem with it, and I pointed out that a 10% complaint rate would put us out of business in a year.

So here’s where we left it: I ordered humidity controllers that can be used in conjunction with a switch to control the exhaust fan, and had them shipped to her. She told me the controllers were ugly and she was not installing them. But we both agreed that we loved each other, so I guess there was some resolution.

She also clarified that she wouldn’t divorce me, she would just bury me in the back yard.


Speedwell Forge Triathlon

The YMCA triathlon came through yesterday, and I didn’t even know about it until it was all over. Hopefully it wasn’t marred by controversy, like the year the police commissioner refused to provide traffic control because the YMCA had a reading program that included Harry Potter. (Nope, not making that up.) Next year I hope to do something to support the triathlon, and get in a little marketing as well. (Bottled water comes to mind, given all the springs we have under the mansion.)

I would like to extend an apology to any of the participants who were almost run over by a blue Subaru Legacy — Dawn was not having a good day. She is really under pressure to get the windows finished before winter, but with all the subcontractors there now she has to spend most of her day dealing with them. So she spends all weekend working on the windows by herself, and you know what they say about “all work and no play.”

I, on the other hand, had a pretty good day. I revised the cost estimates and the restoration costs are down considerably, mostly thanks to Dawn. We’ve also had fantastic luck — except for the summer kitchen roof, we’ve had no major problems, nothing worse than expected, and everyone on the project has been friendly, hard-working, and conscientious. I know I shouldn’t talk about this because it might jinx us, but we’re approaching the halfway point and I’m quite happy with the progress.

Of course, we’re still way over our original (and totally unrealistic) budget. I’m not happy we have to sell our house in LA, but I realized today that in the 10 years we’ve owned our home, its value has increased by 350%, which is an extraordinary amount. And the increase in value is almost exactly (within 2%) of what we need to finish the restoration! That’s an extraordinary coincidence.

While I was in this euphoric mood, I was also reminded what a remarkable person Dawn is. Not many people could give up their lifestyle and deal with such a massive project like she has. In fact, I think I’m much more stressed than she is. But what I think is really amazing is that when the last nail is driven and this project is over, Dawn will just move on. After fourteen months of directing a crew of a dozen people, she will go get an office job and nobody will ever guess what she just accomplished. And when we start welcoming guests at our B&B, people will think she’s done it all her life. She really is remarkable, and I’m very lucky to be marrying her.



Adam Moyer came by “for a few hours” to drill the lines for the air conditioning. As I’ve mentioned, we’re putting the compressors into workshop, so we need a pipe from the workshop into the basement and the summer kitchen. We can’t dig a trench because its right under the 200-year-old sycamore trees, and we don’t want to mess with those roots. So Adam said he could use an auger to bore holes underground. We didn’t know what an auger was, but it sounded simple enough.

auger - Brings new meaning to "getting screwed"

Brings new meaning to “getting screwed”

Well, it turns out an auger is just a big screw, as you can see in the photo. They dig a four-foot deep hole to start, then drop the auger in and turn it on. After it goes so far, they add another “segment” and keep going. The only problem, we found out, is that you really can’t control where it goes. Worse, the only way you can find out is by digging another hole!

So Adam and his crew started to drill a line under the summer kitchen. Dawn took some video but it was slow work and she got bored and went and did something else. When she came back, she said Adam looked pretty guilty. Apparently, the auger had started at four feet deep, but it dug itself up and instead of going under the summer kitchen, it came up right in the middle! Besides chewing a large hole in her brand new vapor barrier, it also broke some of the old mortar floor supports. Fortunately these are just nuisances, but Dawn pointed out that if it had hit the other floor support, the stairs might have collapsed! They finished digging that line by hand.

Next they went to drill into the workshop. After half an hour, the auger still hadn’t come through, and nobody was sure why. Dawn, who has a knack for stating the obvious when it escapes everyone else, told them to dig a hole and go look for it. They found two things: 1) the screw head had broken, and 2) the auger had again headed for the surface, starting at four feet and ending at one foot deep. It’s a good thing the head had broken, or we would have had a big hole in the wrong place!

So they went to extract the auger when the whole thing jumped, slamming Adam’s hand against the stone wall and ripping off his fingernail! He seemed to take it in stride, bandaging it up, but he casually mentioned he would probably stop by the emergency room on the way home. I get the feeling they know him well there.

So instead of a few hours, Adam spent the entire day at the farm, didn’t finish the work, and has a mashed finger for his troubles. The moral of the story, I guess, is that when a contractor makes it sound easy, it probably isn’t (which is why you hired the contractor in the first place).


This Old House

Apparently, This Old House is distributed geographically, because everyone in Lancaster has the new issue, but nobody in LA does. Even our building code inspector saw the article before me, and that’s how he found out we had started work without a permit! (I guess he doesn’t read this journal.) So he came by today and issued a citation, and then issued the permit. (This is the third time I thought we had a building permit, only to be told that I don’t, so I’m taking this one with a large grain of salt.)

While the inspector was there, Dawn walked him through the house to find out exactly what we needed. There are two doors in the foyer — front and back — but we only need one exit sign, which prompted an argument between Dawn and me. If we put it by the back door, I said, it will be the first thing people see when they walk in; if it is by the front door, it will be above them and out of sight. Dawn said if we put it by the front door, people will see it every time they come down the stairs, which will be a lot more often than they come in the front door. We both have valid points, but I think I may win this one, because of what happened earlier today:

As I mentioned last week, we need to make a swale around the house for drainage, but there are some trees in the way. I wanted to cut down the trees and terrace the area; Dawn wanted to build a retaining wall right next to the house and save the trees. David Christian, our engineer and future landscape architect, came out today and sided with Dawn. As Dawn taunted me with “nyah nyah nyah,” I said, “Okay, you win this one, but I get the next one.” I didn’t realize how soon I would be calling in that marker.

Addendum: Dawn agreed with me about putting the exit sign by the front door, and then she read this entry! So I didn’t actually have to call the marker, but I just lost it anyway…


PPL strikes again

I don’t know if the local electric company is incompetent, negligent, or just abusive.

Digging a trench for the new transformer

Digging a trench for the new transformer

As I’ve mentioned before, the farm has a “center pole” where the meter is located, which is perfect — it’s far enough away that it doesn’t detract from the mansion, and close enough to be easily trenched. When we told PPL we needed to upgrade the electric, though, they told us we needed to put the meter on the mansion. Then they showed up with a 4-foot by 3-foot meter panel! After much discussion (during which we learned they don’t even read the meters anymore), they agreed to put the meter panel on the back of the privy, so at least it was out of sight. Then PPL decided to install another pole, with a transformer, right in the back yard! Again after much discussion — and $1,100 — they agreed to put the transformer in the ground, but we had to dig a 39″ trench for it.

Dawn had the “one call” people (which turned out to be a PPL employee) come out to mark the electric lines, and she hired an excavator to dig the trench, which was exactly 39″ deep. Last Thursday a PPL rep came by, unannounced, to drop off some equipment, and she told us the trench was too deep, and they would be back in two weeks.

The excavator was getting ready to go on vacation, but Dawn wanted to take care of this right away, so she got him to come over early Friday morning to backfill the trench. It was so early that Dawn wasn’t even awake. Then PPL showed up, two weeks early, to install the transformer.

According to them — although no one had mentioned it before — Dawn was supposed to have hand-dug another hole nearby. Since the excavator was there and Dawn was not, the PPL guys asked him to dig it with the back-hoe. The excavator is a nice guy so he agreed to this favor. Besides, it was 30″ from the orange line, so there was no danger in hitting the electrical main.

Needless to say, they hit the electrical main. Fortunately they just nicked the cable, they didn’t actually cut through it, and all that needed to happen was to wrap it with some electric tape. But PPL had at least six supervisors over to look at it, and then announced, “It’s not our fault.”

They also brought the “one call” person who had marked the electric main and he, too, said it wasn’t his fault, because the dig was 12 days after his visit, and they only “guarantee” it for 10. That’s right, even though his line was clearly visible, and the electric main hasn’t moved in 30+ years, he wasn’t responsible for his line being 30″ off because we were 2 days late.

On the following Tuesday, Dawn caught another PPL rep sneaking onto the property — even though the main was already wrapped and back under three feet of dirt — and she asked what the status was. He announced, with an air that clearly indicated we should be grateful, that PPL was not going to charge us for the damage done to the electric main.

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