To the best of my memory, I have lived in 23 different places. We moved a lot when I was a kid, as my father was in the foreign service; until I was in my forties, my grad school dorm room was the place I had lived the longest. Although my family built a house when I was in high school, I had never had the chance to design my own living space, so buying and renovating 133 Brooklyn Street was exciting both for that reason as well as because it was helping to build an intentional community.
Buying the house
The first step was buying the house. It had been foreclosed upon, and was offered for sale in a HUD auction; this means that, with the help of a HUD-certified broker (Mike Nuvallie, in this case), you submit a bid, blind, and wait to see what happens. In my case, it was especially "blind"; I had no opportunity to go inside the house before submitting the bid. I had been able to walk around the outside, look at the Google satellite view, and download information from the North Adams assessor's office. The location was crucial: at the top of Brooklyn Street, adjacent to houses owned by other community members. Vinyl siding; 1,500 square feet; slate and asphalt roof; 0.4 acres; a large deck; an above ground pool in the back. That was pretty much all I knew.
I was pre-approved for a loan from the local bank. So, despite poor timing for the auction (it's unpredictable when a house will go up on the HUD website, so you have to keep watching, and Mike was on vacation when it happened), we got the bid package together (lots of forms and a check) and submitted it. Then it was time to wait. Aaagh! The bid was not accepted. But all was not lost; as the bid was just below the minimum that was acceptable, and we were the only bidder, we were invited to bid again. So, up went the bid, and it was accepted. For $75,000 (including broker's fees) I had a house! I still hadn't been inside, though. What could I see? A large side deck that needed work, a back porch roof that had been "fixed" by contractors hired by HUD, a front facade with a sagging porch roof and failed concrete deck, and a view south to Mt. Greylock ...
The next step was to get it inspected. Yes, this is out of order. Normally you get a house inspected before you make an offer on it. But such are the vagaries of timing and HUD houses, and my commitment to the BSNA vision meant that I was going to buy it anyway, but I wanted to know how much work was needed. Neil Segala came highly recommended, and it turned out with good reason. Not only did he do a thorough inspection, but he explained everything as he went, so I learned a lot as well. The first thing that hit you when you went in the house was the "HUD house smell". I don't have the olfactory skills to discern all of the constituents, but the bouquet included elements of damp, mold, antifreeze, and cat. Not encouraging. Overall, though, things were not as bad as I had feared; although it was built in 1870, the foundation was generally in good shape (though there were signs of periodic water infiltration into the basement), the structure was sound, and the roof was in good shape. Neil was intrigued by the stages of construction in the basement; the front, two-story part of the house has a stone foundation, and the back, the "west wing" as we decided to call it, is concrete. The concrete floor in the back had failed (engineer-speak for cracked and no longer in one piece) and rang hollow when you jumped up and down on it. The far end of the west wing did not have joists but beams that looked like various sizes of tree trunks. Overall, though, I felt encouraged - it seemed like something that could be worked with.
Next came working out the finances of renovation and closing on the house. The purchase price was no problem, with the pre-approval; the trick was to figure out how much renovations would cost and arrange financing for them as well. On to the contractor! David Moresi has an excellent reputation, and had already given advice on the group's future plans, so I asked him to take on the renovations. He went over the house, I drew up some plans, and he put together an estimate. I submitted all this to the bank. All looked good. Then they sent an assessor over to the house, and he sent in a value, after the improvements, that would be less than the cost of the house plus the cost of the renovation - and the bank would only issue a mortgage for 80% of the value of the home after improvements. After some head-scratching, I decided to take out a loan backed by the equity in my existing home for the remainder of the financing. Then came closing, which went smoothly, but felt, as always, like a conjurer's trick - lots of paper moved around, lots of signing, some anxiety about all of the papers you are signing and the debt you are taking on as the shuffling of piles papers increasingly reminds you of three-card monte.
Planning the renovation
Now it was time to wait, and wait, and wait. The trouble with using a contractor who has a good reputation and with wanting to get going just as the economy starts to recover is that the contractor has a backlog of work. My brothers came to visit and inspect the house at various times during the summer; it was amusing to see how anyone involved with any aspect of construction (engineers, contractors, inspectors, carpenters) had exactly the same reaction to the work done on the back porch roof by the HUD contractors. First the head tilts back, then an expression of rueful disappointment bordering on disgust appears, followed by a slight rolling of the eyes, a couple of head shakes, and finally by the statement "I don't know what they were thinking". Even I can see what's wrong - pieces of wood that don't attach to other pieces, not a straight line anywhere. In addition the metal flashing connecting the main roof to the porch roof was poorly fastened to low-quality plywood. It came loose and started flapping in the wind, making an eerie but loud sound when the wind blew. I finally went up there and nailed it down myself. I am not confident standing on a pitched roof, so had to sit to do the work. Did you know that it's possible to burn your butt through your clothes by sitting on asphalt shingles on a sunny summer day?
It's also fun to watch all the professionals do the same things in the same places. Each one of them jumped up and down on the failed concrete in the west end of the basement, and each one of them went upstairs and jumped up and down on the bedroom floor over the failed concrete. I wish I had taken videos!
My daughter Maria was living in Seattle, and naturally had some questions about the viability of the project. She is a geologist, so I sent her some pictures of rocks on the property. The dolomite blocks in the foundation, naturally, plus the piece of veined bedrock (?) sticking up in the back yard, and the stones that make up the firepit. And of course if they are pictures for a geologist, there has to be a scale - my pen. This piqued her interest, and after seeing the rocks, she decided the property had redeeming features. She and Shane, her boyfriend, will do a more extensive examination later.
As the summer ended it became time to finalize the layout for the renovation. Dave had advised me to do a complete gut renovation, which meant tearing out pretty much everything but would allow us to deal with all structural and utility issues we knew of or thought might exist in a 140-year-old house. This allowed for some reconfiguration of walls and layout as well. The west wing was the biggest issue; it seemed to be all corridors and cramped spaces, and didn't take full advantage of the views from the deck. You walked through a galley kitchen to reach a hallway on the north side leading to two cramped bathrooms, a laundry area, and a bedroom. The only plumbing in the house served this area. I wanted to keep most of these functions, but since we would be changing the smallest upstairs bedroom into a bathroom, some space was freed up for a larger kitchen and bathroom in the west wing. After watching people I love deal with the effects of stairs and aging on liveability, I also wanted to make this part of the house accessible - not in the full ADA sense, but to be easily navigable for a person using a walker and also manageable in a wheel chair. So all doorways had to be at least 32 inches wide, and there had to be space in the bathroom and the kitchen to maneuver. This is the plan we came up with (the thick gray lines show the old wall configuration):
By moving the traffic pattern to the south side of the west wing we got a lot of natural light into the kitchen and hallway. Some space was freed up by removing a chimney that didn't serve a useful purpose. The bedroom sadly had to get narrower to allow for the bathroom and kitchen, and a closet shortened it as well. But the windows and light will make up for that when I can no longer handle stairs and move into that room, and I plan to put in some built-in storage along the north wall around the head of a bed.
The front of the house still had the original layout, which is common to several other houses on the street built at the same time. The front door opened to 1) a stairway going up to the second floor and 2) a hallway between the stairs and outside wall that led to the dining room. To get to the living room, you then needed to do a U-turn and head back to the front of the house. A small bedroom was tucked between the kitchen and living room. At first I wanted to move the stairs south so they would be against the outside wall of the house. It seemed to me that this would give the living room four more feet of width, and make it the first room you entered. But Dave said "Well, you could do that ..." and then explained that it would be very expensive and that, because of the thickness of the stone foundation below and headroom above, I could only gain about two feet, so I gave up on that idea.
I still wanted to enter the living room first and to reclaim the hallway for living space, so I came up with the idea of having the stairs open to the living room instead of the hallway, using the part of the hallway closest to the entrance for a coat closet, and making the rest of it into a reading nook accessed from the dining room. I have a lot of books (understatement), so when my brother Reid came up with an idea for claiming an additional 4 inches out of the stairway wall for built-in bookshelves, the nook was a go. The study grew a bit when load-bearing wall issues came up, and then got a closet claimed mostly from space where a second chimney was taken out (the modern gas boiler doesn't need a chimney).
The upstairs configuration didn't change very much. Removing the chimney gave a bit more space. The smallest bedroom became a bathroom. The middle-sized bedroom got a new window and the closet was moved to provide a nicer space and serve as a barrier to noise from the bathroom. A storage closet had run from the bathroom along the stairs next to the outside wall of the house, and I had thought of keeping it. However, Dave had a wonderful suggestion: put in a waist-high wall next to the stairs, and it becomes an open mini-loft space which could be used for play or, in a pinch, an extra sleeping space for guests.
Months had passed, but now things seemed to be moving. We now knew how the water got into the basement (along the north wall, during and after a heavy rain) and with help from Robert, the humidity was under control. No further damage had occurred to the unoccupied building, thanks to the watchful eyes of neighbors on the street. It was time for the next step!
There wasn't much I wanted to save from the house, but I thought the old pine floors were nice looking and that it would be good to preserve them. This meant removing them, board by board, from the downstairs front area of the house; the idea was to get enough good boards to floor the upstairs, minus the bathroom which would be tile. So I went at it. I read about how to do it on the internet, and then got better advice from my brother Greig. Basically the method involved wooden wedges that I drove under the leading edge, a Sawzall to slip under that edge and get through the nails, and a pry bar to ease the boards loose from each other. Let's just say I got better at this with time, lots of time, and by the end I was pretty good at it. I carefully stacked the salvaged boards on the back porch and covered them with a tarp.
In a gut renovation, everything gets torn out, except the basic structure of the house. The first things to go were the chimneys. Right around Thanksgiving, the tops were taken off and the roofs filled in where they had been. A dumpster appeared in the driveway, and began to fill up. Floors, ceilings, and walls were pulled apart, and the debris came out of the house. Some of the original plaster and lath walls, drywall, plus several layers of floor and three separate layers of ceilings in the west wing. That part of the house had seemed very cramped by the low ceilings, but now with the original ceiling height restored, it felt like a different space altogether. And the house itself took a deep breath; as more and more of the decades of accretions came out, the joists and beams tried to resume their original lines and straighten out. I had asked Dave whether we'd be able to do much to even out the floors by jacking things up in the basement, and he hadn't held out much hope. The house was, after all, built in 1870, things settle, and pushing them around can upset the building's balance. But now, as the house straightened up on its own, he thought we could give it an additional nudge. Even before bringing the basement supports up to code, the house had straightened enough that the basement stairs were "floating" - the bottom of the stairway was nearly an inch off the floor, lifted up as the house responded to the removal of weight. More and more came out, until we were down to the bare bones - the load-bearing walls in the interior, floors, and joists. These two pictures were taken from the same vantage point at different points in the process (you can see Alan in the doorway to what will be his room if you look hard at the first one):
The downstairs also opened up a lot; some of the original plaster and lath was left in the wall around the staircase until the new header was put in.
Over the years, some interesting things had happened to the house's structure as successive owners made "improvements". Here are a couple of examples that showed up - an interesting way to frame a window, and shall we say an unthinking way to make room for something (Who knows what? The sawed-off 2 x 4, which was part of the end wall of the main block, was enclosed in wallboard on either side.)
Once the bare bones of the house were exposed, it was clear that some things needed to be done. We wanted this renovation to outlast Alan, and he is only nineteen... so taking care of any structural issues was very important. Dave had anticipated several things we would need to do, such as replacing the posts in the basement that support the central beams as well as the footings for those supports. There were some hanging joists next to the stairwell, and we knew the beams and joists in the west wing would need attention. Dealing with the issues in the front part of the house was relatively straightforward, although when Scott started breaking up the concrete floor so he could dig new footings, he discovered that exactly where he needed to dig each hole were several large rocks that had been placed there when the foundation was constructed and now needed to be dug out. A pain, but it got done.
What we hadn't known was that there were some rot issues in the far west wall of the house. That is not a weight-bearing wall, but nevertheless, it had gotten wet and rotten enough over the years that you could pull the wood apart with your finger and thumb. So it had to be dealt with. Another issue was that removing all of the floors in the west wing had uncovered the fact that the structure was not, shall we say, unitary. There were at least three different pieces of the structure, with different levels and orientations of plankings, and different support systems underneath (or lack of support systems, where joists had been sawed away to make way for plumbing...). So the far west wall in the walk-out portion of the basement needed to be replaced. Upon removing the back wall, we found that the foundation it was built on was essentially a collection of loose rocks; their rounded shapes made it clear they had been taken from a streambed. Removing all of that exposed the large hollow under the concrete floor at the west end of the basement; somehow the rubble, gravel, and dirt that had been there had been washed away over the years. All of these clues pointing to moving water were not reassuring. Where had all the water come from and gone? Would it happen again?
It was Maria who found the answer. Her work as an environmental consultant had made her very familiar with the types of archival materials that could provide information about the history of land and property use. She found a series of maps that had been produced in the early 1900s for fire insurance purposes - where was there water that could be used to put out a fire. Things started fitting together: the streambed rocks, erosion under the back part of the basement, stories of enormous floods and washouts on Brooklyn Street in 1948, the sound of rushing water from the grating down the street... Brooklyn Street got its name because of a brook. Wheeler Brook used to run through the yards of half the houses on the street, including 133. In fact, after it ran past the west end of the house, it looped around and crossed the road, ran between two houses, and then wove its way down the east side of the street. After the major flood of 1948-9 a large culvert system was built, and now the brook disappears under a driveway at the top of the street, to emerge only for three short stretches on its way down to the Hoosic River (you can see a slight difference in the grass over the culvert in the google image at the top of this page). It seems likely that the western foundation wall was built or reconstructed with rocks from the brook, and that the flood washed out material from underneath that end of the basement floor. The good news was that the brook is now safely confined. The bad news, of course, was that damage dating back more than 60 years needed to be addressed.
The first step was to demolish and remove the entire lower-level back wall. Actually, this wasn't the first step; before that back wall could be demolished, the upper part of the back wall needed to be supported. Chris installed a central beam running the length of the basement, and Scott put in footings to support it. Then Chris replaced the old tree boles, poles, and hanging joists with new joists, giving the main floor of the west wing proper support. Next came removing the back wall, the old foundation wall (actually not too hard, as it was made up of fairly loose round river rocks), and the adjacent cement floor (again, there was vacant space underneath it, so not as hard as it might have been). Digging the footing; not a fun job. Then came the problem of pouring the new foundation wall during the coldest winter in a couple of decades. Fortunately, there was a two-day thaw in January, and the window of opportunity was seized! Scott suggested that I place a penny in the cement of that foundation wall, so I searched through the change in the car's cupholder and found three pennies: 1990 (Maria's birth year), 1994 (Alan's birth year), and 2013 (when renovations began). They are now embedded in the top of the foundation, mostly covered by the new back wall.
At pretty much the same time all this was happening, I received a phone call from my insurance company. Getting insurance for a house that is being renovated while you are not living in it is both fraught and expensive, and since I had originally gotten a six-month policy, it had to be renewed. After things went through, the insurance company came back with a statement that the pool (which was both frozen and covered) had to be secured behind a fence... But I didn't want to put a lot of money into a fence when it wouldn't be required once I was living in the house. So I had to put in a fence myself. I had metal t-stakes from my father's old garden, and if I could get them into the ground I could fence off the pool. But the ground was frozen hard. I thought about this a fair bit for a couple of days, and then had the insight that frozen ground is sort of like masonry, and perhaps I could drill holes to put the stakes in. At the local hardware store rental area, I discovered a thing called a "Hilty", which is a large power tool that hammers and drills at the same time. It made lovely holes in the frozen ground, and I hammered the stakes into the holes with big rocks. I then put up fencing on those stakes, took a picture, and e-mailed it to the insurance company. Voila!
Back to the structure of the west wing... Now that the structural issues in the basement had been addressed, there was the problem of the floor. It was not in good shape - holes, multiple levels, pretty much cobbled together. Dave told me afterwards he hadn't been sure how well it would come out, but there is no doubt that Chris performed wonders with it. The subflooring that we ended up with was both strong, and, given the age of the house and the structural problems in the west wing basement, remarkably level. A comparison of the before and after pictures shows what an accomplishment this was:
The final area to be dealt with was the west wing attic. At some point, when the price is right, there will be solar panels on the west wing roof (it gets a remarkable 89% of available sunlight). So I wanted to make sure that the roof structure was able to support solar panels. This meant "sistering" in two-by-sixes to strengthen the existing two-by-four rafters. The complication was that, while this was going on, we had a conversation about the ceiling insulation and whether the attic would be used for storage. There are tradeoffs, of course: the amount of insulation that would fit under the attic floor was limited by the width of the joists, which was 6 inches. Since I wanted to use blown-in cellulose as the insulation above the ceilings, this wouldn't give as much insulation as I wanted. So it looked like we'd have to take out the existing attic floor, build up the joists, and put in another floor. Then Chris said something that made me think again about using the attic for storage... once people put things up in the attic, those things tend to stay there indefinitely. Plus, I remembered, I am not used to having a basement that can be used for storage, so there actually is a fair bit of storage in the house without using the attic. So I decided to ditch the idea of having attic storage. However, in order to get the full amount of insulation in, the existing attic flooring would still have to come out - a job everyone was very happy to leave to me. Once I worked out the best way to do it (hint: cut it into manageable pieces before trying to pry it loose and get it down a ladder), it went fairly smoothly, though it was a very dirty job - cleaning up myself and the nice new west wing subflooring afterwards was a major undertaking!