The renovation of our old house in Massachusetts covered a 3 year
period. The house was built in 1762 by a sea captain. In the
ensuing years, it became a tavern, a shoe shop and a poor farm, before my
grandfather purchased the home sometime in the late 1920's.
In 1983, my father and I began the renovation by jacking up the house
and lifting it off the loose stone foundation. There had only been a
dirt floor root cellar under the house where my grandfather stored his
potatoes and squash that he grew in his garden. Over the years, the
moisture from the ground had rotted most of the sills, joists and floor
boards on the first floor. In fact, there was a big hole in the
living room where my aunt had fallen through the floor, into the root
The first order of business was to enlarge the old root cellar into a
full basement. Over a two year period, the remaining soil was
removed from under the house. We soon found out why there hadn't
been a full cellar in the first place. The ground was hard packed
clay that could only be removed by hand with a pickaxe. In addition,
there was a huge boulder along with numerous rocks embedded in the
clay. It was backbreaking, tedious work that we performed on
weekends and evenings after work.
Finally, we got to the point where we could pour footings on the three
walls that needed them and began constructing a stone and mortar
foundation, using many of the stones that we pulled out of the ground plus
those from the old foundation. Later we poured a concrete floor and
shored up one of the chimney bases which had been built on top of the
boulder that we had to remove. The other chimney had been built upon
a large brick vault that had a curved ceiling for support. We
surmised that there had once been a full cooking hearth and chimney
located above this vault rather than the single flue chimney that was
After the basement was completed, we began constructing an entirely new
sub-floor with new sills, girders and joists as none of the original floor
could be salvaged. The house was a post and beam construction and
for the most part the posts and beams were in good condition.
However, all the studs that had been resting on the sills were rotted to
some degree. While the house was still jacked up, we removed all of
the remaining floor, built the new floor on the foundation and then
lowered the house onto the new floor, securing all the posts to the
floor. In the end, the house ended up about two feet higher than it
began, as can be seen in the pictures.
The next problem was how to deal with the rotted studs in the first
floor walls. First we removed the cement shingle siding on the
house. Underneath, we found clapboards that were in very poor
condition, most of them split and some of them rotted, none of it
salvageable. We decided that the best approach from a time, labor
and cost standpoint was to reframe the exterior of the house. We did
this on a room by room, wall by wall basis by removing all the old plaster
and lathing, then taking a chain saw and cutting out the exterior wall
along the posts and beams and pushing it out of the house where it was cut
up and hauled to the dump. We then reframed the resulting space
using conventional framing techniques, and re-sheathed it. The
strength of the post and beam construction allowed us to do it in this
manner. We repeated this process in each of the rooms of the
house. At the end of each day, the house was always enclosed as a
new wall had replaced an old wall.
After this process was completed and the exterior was completely reframed,
we began working on the interior. The plaster had been in poor
condition and given the problems with the studs, it was an easy decision
to gut each of the rooms and remove the remaining old plaster and lathing.
Since the walls were now open, we got the plumber and the electrician in
to do their thing. The house never had running water as my
grandparents had used an old well with a rope, pulley and pail to supply
their water. The outhouse was located out behind the garage.
Only two rooms had ever been wired, dating back to the 50's.
We had a 200 amp service installed and wired all the rooms. For
heat, we had a forced hot water boiler system fired by an oil burner
installed. We ran two heating zones, one for each floor and
installed the copper piping for the baseboard radiators. We created an
upstairs full bath at the top of the stairs on the second floor in what
had been a storage room that was the perfect size and location for a
bathroom. On the first floor, we converted a closet
into a half bath. After the plumbing and wiring was roughed in, we
began the process of installing drywall.
The renovation process allowed us to combine two small rooms into a
large living room/dining room that proved to be a great room for
entertaining guests or to relax in. We decided to use
drywall for ease of installation and cost considerations so we began to
cut board and screw it onto the new exterior wall studs and on the old
interior wall studs and ceilings.
Among the features of the house that we were able to retain were the
flooring and doors on the second floor, the front hall stairway and
closet, and the unique brick oven in the kitchen. We also decided to
leave the posts exposed in each of the rooms. When we had the house
jacked up, we had taken both chimneys down as they were unlined and in
poor condition. Now we had them rebuilt, one which would be left
exposed in the new living room/dining area where we would install a cast
iron wood stove. In addition, we were able to retain the roof.
It had been reshingled only 10 years prior and the shingles had held up
very well to that point.
New windows and exterior doors were installed throughout the house in
the same size and location as what existed previously. The only
exception was the installation of French doors in the dining room that
opened out onto a deck that I later built in the rear of the house.
Outside, we began installing red cedar clapboards and the trim.
Later, after the clapboards had a year to dry out, we stained the house
the light gray that you see in the photos.
Once the drywall was installed, we began the process of taping, pasting
and sanding joint compound. Had this been a one room renovation, we
would have done this ourselves. In fact, I did complete the
kitchen. But it took so long due to my lack of technique, that we
decided to have a crew come in and complete the taping, pasting and
sanding process for the rest of the house. They also primed each of
the rooms as part of the job. So this along with the electrical,
plumbing, masonry and concrete work, were the only tasks that we farmed out to
contractors, completing everything else ourselves.
After the drywall contractors left, we began painting each of the rooms
and completed the finish carpentry. Bathroom fixtures were installed and
we began work on the kitchen. We installed the cabinets that we
picked out and built a tiled countertop. The sink was installed and
a ceramic tile floor was put down in the kitchen work area.
The upstairs master bedroom had the only floor original to the house,
having the old wide floor boards that old houses were known for.
Some of the boards exceeded 24" in width. We lightly
sanded this floor, stained and put three coats of polyurethane on
it. The remaining upstairs floors had been remodeled sometime in the
early 1900's and had narrower floor boards. We also sanded and
polyurethaned these floors to their natural blond color. On the
first floor, we installed pine shiplap boards in varying widths from
8" to 12" wide. We used old style cut nails to fasten them
to the subfloor, except in the kitchen. There we drilled and
countersunk screw holes, screwed the floor down and used wooden plugs to
fill the hole. We sanded all these floors and polyurethaned them.
To finish out the renovation, we installed our kitchen appliances and
completed the installation of the electrical outlets and fixtures.
At this point we were able to move in our furniture and family. We
lived in the home for 10 years until we decided to sell it and move to
Maine, where we have undertaken the renovation of our current house.
Thankfully, although there is much work to be done, the house is in much
better shape than our former house.
Taking a break from some demolition work on
our current home.