Monday, October 27, 2008


I'm trying really, really hard to keep a lid on Mr. Bitterman, but there's only so much I can do.

Are you part of the Nobama camp? Or maybe the McPain camp? The closer we get to the election, the more politicized everything becomes.

I found this article online. Henry or no Henry, the article will engender some sort of reaction.

Saturday, October 25, 2008


I didn't marry my wife for the bread that she bakes.

But I could have.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Money Matters

The bills have started rolling in for some of the work. The roof is done now, so their bill came this week. The gutter guy sent us a partial bill for the work he's done so far. We also finally got the bill from the heating guys for the draining, flushing and refilling of the radiators. I don't think I blogged about it, but they also put in a vent for our dryer, so that was on the bill too.

I've been thinking a lot about my spending habits over the last few months; how I spend money, where I spend money and how I think about money. I got to thinking about it quite awhile back after I had read an article talking about how Carnegie Mellon used brain scans to show how we decide whether to buy something or not (the study of neuroeconomics). The traditional view of economics says that we must decide if the value of the trade is worth more than the future value of what is being given up. Should I trade my chicken (which will give me eggs tomorrow) for several loaves of bread (which can feed me now). It turns out we focus more on the value of the trade at the very moment of potential exchange. In other words, our current needs and desires tend to outweigh our future concerns. Eggs be damned. Give me the bread. I'm hungry now.

I couldn't find the original source material, but here is a good summary. I'm sure a bit of googling will turn up more information.

Anyway back to where I was going. I used to think that I was extremely good with money, that I was thrifty. But when I thought about the amounts of money I've spent in my life and how I've spent it, I realized that this just isn't true. It's taken me some time to figure out what my relationship with money is.

I hate the act of spending money. In other words, for me, giving up money is stressful. What gets me in trouble is that for whatever reason, I've lost (or never had) a sense of the value of money. It causes me almost as much discomfort to spend $25 or $25,000. Spending $10,000 once is less stressful to me than spending $1,000 ten times or even five times. It's why I will pick quality, or the long-term solution almost every time. It also means I have a tendency to spend more, in the hopes that paying out more money now will mean I won't have to spend money later.

Obviously, this is not always the case. Sometimes the best solution is the cheap and fast one. It's a lesson I need to learn.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Politics and The Emperor's New Clothes

On Friday one of my co-workers shared this story about her 10 year-old boy.

Boy: Mom, I need a fake ID.
Mom: Why do you need a fake ID?
Boy: I want to vote.
Mom: You need to be 18 to vote.
Boy: I know. That's why I need a fake ID. I can vote. I mean, what do you need to do? Just write an essay on who you want to vote for?
Mom: Umm, no. You just go into the booth and fill in the circle next to the person you want to vote for. Like a multiple choice test.
Boy: That's it? No wonder we get such idiots in office.

The wisdom of youth.

Friday, October 17, 2008

A Parable from Mr. Bitterman

Two brothers were married to two different women. One day the younger brother came to the older brother and complained about his wife.

"Every week my wife comes to me asking for money. She spends it on furniture for the house, clothes and education for the kids, groceries and gifts for herself. She donates money to the poor and to the church. The problem is that some of the money she spends foolishly and she's spending more than I make. What should I do?"

"Little brother, you need to tell your wife that she cannot spend more money than you make, that she is reducing you to a pauper. Look at my wife. I give her very little money and yet we live in a nice house, with nice furniture. Our children are well educated, we have nice clothes and good food to eat. We go on vacations and donate to the church. Little brother, take control of your wife and your finances."

What the older brother didn't know was that his wife was supporting their lifestyle by using credit. Every day she ran to the mailbox to intercept overdue bills and notices from debt collectors. His family was in just as much debt as his little brother's.

Which wife would you rather be married to?

Now think about who you are going to vote for.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Scratch, Scratch, Scratch, Thump...Silence

Life at the House of 42 Doors sometimes takes some unusual turns. I often find myself thinking, "I never expected that."

We are replacing the siding on the external walls of the dormers. The original siding was painted cedar shake. I doubt it was originally painted. More than likely, it was left natural and allowed to gray. In any case, we are replacing it with painted cedar shakes. The color is the same as what we inherited and happens to be what I really like.

For all of the work we're having done, we're trying to paint everything on the ground, before it gets attached to the house twenty plus feet above the ground. This includes the cedar shakes. That means each of the 460 cedar shakes need to be painted before they are affixed to the house. We are painting both sides of each shake, although strictly speaking, we wouldn't have to. The paint just provides one more layer of protection from the moisture. We also don't need to paint the very end as that part will be tucked under the layers of shake above. It also gives a place to hang onto while painting the rest of the cedar shake.

The problem is where do you find room to lay out 460 cedar shakes for painting? A bit difficult. Unitl my brilliant wife suggested hanging them on the laundry line. It turns out to be an excellent solution, so long as it isn't overly windy or rainy. Which leads me back to my introduction.

A few nights ago, Ms. Huis said to me, "You'd better go take the shingles off the line. It looks like it's going to rain." It made sense to me, but I chuckled as I was taking the shingles off the line. It was a sentence I never imagined I'd hear.

Last night, we were woken up at about 2:45 by something scratching loudly in the exterior wall of our bedroom. I got up and thumped on the wall and the scratching stopped. Something didn't make it out in time from when they finished the roof. I hope it doesn't stink when it dies. I went back to bed and could only think of all the H.P. Lovecraft stories I've read...

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Roofers, Gutters, Masons, Oh My!

Do not assume that the recent lack of posting equates to an equivalent lack of progress on the house projects. On the contrary, things are moving along at a frightening clip. My head is spinning.

When I started to put together the numbers for these projects in the spring, I allowed for a 30% overrun fund, (my "Oh Crap" fund). The mason was a fixed bid, given to us last year, so I wasn't too concerned about that bid, but the roof and gutters were a different story. The number of contractors and the specialized nature of the repairs made me very wary. When the initial bid came in for the gutters, it was double what I expected and it ate up almost all of my "Oh Crap" fund.

Then, when looking at the cedar shake on the sides of the dormers and the state of the dormer fascia board, I realized we'd need to do some repair work there too, so I called Matt, who has extensive experience repairing historical buildings. When his quote came back, it used up all of my "Oh Crap" fund, and even dipped into my "I'm screwed" fund. The problem, of course, is that the "I'm screwed" fund doesn't contain money. It consists of a roll of antacid and a bottle of aspirin. Unfortunately, Matt doesn't work for antacid OR aspirin (can you imagine), so I called him and we negotiated. I told him how much I had budgeted. He agreed to cut his labor rate by 10% and I agreed to do some of the work myself. It's all that work that has been eating into my posting time. I'm doing all the painting and I had to do demo of the dormer walls. I'm still not done with all that I'm supposed to do, but enough has happened since last Wednesday that I need to post.

Roger continued to do installation of the gutters all through last week, finally finishing them up Friday around noon. Sort of. Really, he just completed enough so that the roofers could come by on Monday. When Roger called me on Friday afternoon to tell me that the gutters were done, I asked him if I could run water through them over the weekend, just to see how they performed. No problem he replied.

So when I got home Friday night, I climbed to the top of the scaffolding to look at the shiny stainless steel gutters, and was dismayed to see that the first two seams I saw were riveted and NOT soldered. No need to run water to test those gutters. With seams like that, they are guaranteed to leak. I called Roger immediately to let him know he'd missed two seams and to ask him if he could do that after the roofers started. He said it was no problem to solder them during or after the roof installation and that, "I thought I'd done all the seams, but maybe I missed some." I've expressed concerns about Roger and his capabilities on the project in the past. This was further proof to me that while the end product looks great, Roger is not great about details and consistency. It concerns me more than a little. If these are the things I'm catching, what am I missing?

Anyway, much to my disappointment, I was unable to test the gutters over the weekend. Roger still needs to add the downspouts to the gutters, which I hope he'll be doing this week. I need to go around and check all the seams to make sure they are soldered. Short of those minor details (soldered seams and downspouts), the gutters are done! Here is a picture of a finished corner. It looks almost identical to the original gutter (which is great).

Here is a picture of the gutter interior. Notice that they have been in place all of two days, and they already need to be cleaned out.

Here is a cross section of the gutter. This matches the original gutter, with the exception that the interior gutter is stainless steel, rather than galvanized steel. You can see the decorative front attached to the interior gutter, which slips up onto the roof decking and is secured there.

With the gutters installed, the roofers were able to come out on Monday. In one day, they were able to get about 60% of the roof shingled. I'm hoping they will finish up today, but it may take them one more day. Putting on the flashing and roof vents will slow them down a bit.

The original roof had no roof vents. This really wasn't a problem as the roof was essentially cement. If the attic got to be 120 degrees, the cement handled it fine (of course it made the house very warm in the summer, but I'm only talking about the roof here). In the winter having a "closed" roof was an advantage. In the days of little insulation, the attic acted as a buffer to the rest of the house helping to keep it warm.

It's not possible to take the same course with our new roof. Our new roof is asphalt and asphalt exposed to 120 degree temperatures will fail prematurely, which is why you see roof vents on all the new houses. Most people find them to be unbearably ugly, so some clever fellow came up with a roof vent that is incorporated into the roof peak. Very clever really and attractive.

Unfortunately, one of the new roof vent systems is not an option for our roof. We have to use the older style vents, which sit up from the roof. I'm one of those people who think that they are ugly. One of the requirements of the roof job was to not put any roof vents on the front of the house. All the roof vents will be going on the back and the sides of the house. This will help keep the attic cooler and extend the life of the shingles.

"But Wait!" you say. "If the attic is cooler what will buffer the rest of the house from the cold?" The house is one big connected system. Changing the roof will affect the rest of the house. Depending on how "leaky" the old roof was, we might see a huge increase in our heating bills or a small one. I doubt we'll see an improvement. This all leads to the next project, which will be to rip up the attic floor boards, plug any air leaks coming up from the basement or the house interior (there are a lot) and then add to the five inches of pink fiberglass already in place. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The masons continue to work away at the house, although they've been absent for the last two days as they stay out of the way of the roofers. I was hoping they would have been done by now, but I think they've been working on other jobs. So long as they finish up by the end of the year, I'll be happy.

Monday, October 13, 2008


The House of 42 Doors can henceforth be known as...

The House of 42 Ladders.

(Ok, so right, I know that some of them are scaffolds, but this is just the front. And there's not even one on top of the foyer as there has been usually lately.. But on the plus side, if there's a fire, it'll be pretty easy to get down from the second floor.)

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Masonry 101

The House of 42 Doors is all brick and it's one of the things I love about it. With the masons here doing work, I thought I'd take up a post by going over bricks and mortar. If you don't care about bricks, go get a cup of coffee and peruse some other blog. If you're curious, go get a cup of coffee and come back. Here's what I've learned and a few photos to illustrate the point.

The bricks were made by the Streator Brick Company. They're still in business, but it appears that they no longer make our type of brick. Hopefully we'll never need to match the brick because I think we'd be out of luck if we had to.

Brick composition has changed over the years. Bricks today are hard, much harder than older bricks used to be. Many older bricks have a hard exterior with a relatively soft interior. This is due to the older firing process. As long as the brick exterior stays in place, the brick should be fine, but bust through that hard exterior and the soft interior will wear away faster than a neocon's deregulation stance during a financial meltdown.

The problem is that during periods of high humidity, water has a nasty tendency to get behind bricks and then during periods of low humidity want to migrate out. If the moisture wicks through the brick, it will make the brick flake away (or spall), especially during winter with the freeze/thaw cycle. Once that happens you expose the soft interior and the brick crumbles. Older bricks can avoid this by having a very soft mortar around the brick. This porous mortar allows water to wick out without going through the brick. The downside is that the mortar will eventually crumble and fall out.

If you've ever seen a white substance on bricks that looks like road salt, it is probably due to something called efflorescence. This is also a problem with bricks and water moisture. Water is coming through the brick and as it travels through, it picks up salts in the brick. Once this mixture gets to the brick exterior, the water evaporates leaving behind the salt residue.

One of the problems in tuckpointing an old building is that a "modern" mason will come in and replace the soft, historic mortar with a modern mortar mixture, which is much harder. If the mortar is harder than the brick, the water will evaporate through the brick, causing spalling and efflorescence. A good mason understands the different types of mortar and how hard they are. They will also understand when they should use modern mortar or historical mortar.

The other tricky bit is that when a mason is going to tuckpoint, he needs to remove all the old loose mortar from the problem areas before filling in with new mortar. This insures that the new mortar will stay in place. This can be done one of two ways, either by hand with a hammer and chisel, or with a grinder. The hammer and chisel method is highly precise and there is almost no chance of damaging the brick. It also takes forever. The grinder is much faster, but if the mason is not careful, it's easy to nick or chip a brick. Once that happens, he's exposed the soft interior and it's possible that brick will deteriorate, just as if it had been victim of bad spalling. Purists insist on hand chiseling, which means they either do it themselves or are filthy rich.

The house originally had black mortar between the bricks. We can still see this on the interior masonry for the fireplace. The problem is that black coloring agent does not stay in the mortar for long. It fades relatively quickly, leaving a gray/buff color mortar. A good mason will take the time to match the color of the mortar he is tuckpointing. Otherwise where he has been will painfully obvious, as the mortar will stand out.

Mortar doesn't just fail because of water migration. Mortar will show failure if the building settles. Mortar can also fail if water drips down onto the brick. In both of these cases "step cracks" develop. Below is a picture of one of my larger step cracks. It may have been caused by settling, but it may also have been from water dripping down from the lintel above onto the wall. From there the water just found it's way down to the ground.

In this next picture it doesn't look like there is a step crack. The holes here are probably from moisture freezing, thawing and pushing mortar out.

The next picture shows a wall that has been tuckpointed, but not cleaned. There's a step crack going from the upper left hand corner to about mid way in the picture, where it split and went both directions.

It's pretty easy to see above where Howie tuckpointed, but Larry and Howie haven't washed the building yet. Once they do that, it will be quite difficult to tell where they have done their work, which is exactly what we want.

The tuckpointing job they are doing is expensive (the bid was $6,000), but if we keep water away from the bricks by keeping the gutters in good shape, there's no reason why this tuckpointing job shouldn't last another 85 years. When compared to the costs of vinyl siding, stucco or paint over an 85 year time frame, I think that's a pretty good investment. And it qualifies for the historic tax credit.

Monday, October 6, 2008

The Money Pit Mason

I've been saving this story for awhile, but now that the masons are working on the house, I think it's time to trot it out.

Finding masons to do residential tuckpointing is not easy. Masons are accustomed to working on government buildings, churches and schools, but there are very few all-brick homes in this part of the country, which means a low demand for those types of services.

When we bought the house I knew that I wanted to get the masonry tuckpointed. There were a lot of voids and step cracks. There were also a few loose bricks and even one broken one. I had no idea though how to go about finding a mason to do tuckpointing. Asking around led me nowhere. Nobody else knew of anyone who tuckpointed brickwork. Somebody suggested a mason, but they specialized in building chimneys from field stone. That type of mason might have worked, but I wanted a mason who specialized in building repair. I also wanted somebody local.

This meant I had to do about the worst thing to find a contractor. I opened the yellow pages and started looking through the listings. I found only one entry. I called the number and left a message. Mostly I was looking for a quote. The research I'd done hinted that it was going to be expensive to tuckpoint the brick. Material costs were practically zero (sand and mortar), but the labor was very intensive.

I can't remember the name of the mason that I first spoke to, but I remember with crystal clarity our conversations. I'll call him M (for mason). The first phone call went like this after the pleasantries were dispensed and I explained to him what I wanted.

K: When do you think you could come out and take a look at the house? I can run out over lunch or I get off of work after 3:00 most days. I could meet you out there and we could talk about what the scope of work is and costs.
M: I've got a job out in that area so I could swing by anytime.
K: Great! How does Tuesday or Wednesday sound? (This being Monday).
M: I can't schedule that way. I'll just swing out and take a look.

I can't schedule that way? What does that mean? Anyway we left it at that and I waited for him to come out and take a look. A week or two went by before I contacted him again. After several unreturned phone calls, I was concerned that the only mason I could find was not going to take the job. Imagine my surprise when I received a phone call from him at 4:00 one day.

M: I'm in the area. I'll swing by and take a look.
K: Sounds great! I'm on my way home.

Except he never showed. He called about 5:30 to say that he had gotten busy and would have to swing out some other time.

Another week went by and he called at 3:55.

M: I'll be out to your place in five minutes if you can be there.
K: No, I'm sorry but I have to work late.

Finally after another few days, I took a day off to work on the house. The stars had lined up just right and the mason and I were finally going to meet. He pulled into the driveway in a pink Cadillac. He was in his middle forties, had dark brown hair, a great tan, and a wardrobe that looked like it should have been left in the seventies. It was complete with the open V neck shirt and gold chains. At this point, "The Money Pit" seemed like my future. We walked around the building talking around each other - what I wanted, what he could do, how much it might cost, etc. It went like this.

K: We'll be applying for the historical tax credit for this work, so I need to be sure that the mortar matches closely and that it is the softer Type O mortar. We'll also need to do a test patch first, just to make sure that the work is acceptable.
M: Hmmm. You don't want to get involved with the historical society. They're just a hassle. I've walked away from jobs because of them.
K: Really? What problems have you seen?
M: They are too particular. Look, we can come in and put a new bead of concrete on your joints. Do the whole house for you. You'll love the results.
K: Wait. Don't you chisel out the old mortar first? I thought that if you didn't remove the old stuff first, the new stuff wouldn't stick.
M: (looking indignant) I've been at this twenty years and we've never had a problem with the mortar falling out. We can put new mortar in, make it flush with your brick and it will look great.

At this point I was horribly torn. This guy was talking about doing things I'd read were a bad idea (like not chiseling out the old mortar) and on top of it, changing the look of the house. The brickwork was meant to have recessed mortar. He was also the ONLY mason I'd found.

We got around to the front of the house and I knew we were getting close to the end of the conversation.

K: So what's a ballpark figure to take care of the house?
M: We'll we'd come in for a few weeks, do the whole's hard to say. But I know that you'd love the work. My guys are fantastic at what they do. And I'm extremely particular. I make sure the work they do is first rate.
K: Great! So what are we talking? $5,000? $10,000? $50,000?
M: A building this size...Probably around $20,000. But that includes caulking too. Don't have somebody else out to caulk around the doors and windows. You won't be happy and we'll just have to come out and redo it. And that will save you tons in heating costs.
K: OK. Well how much to just go around and caulk all the windows?

(We had to walk around the house again, because I guess he didn't take that into account the first time we walked around.)

M: It'd be about $2,000 to $3,000 to caulk all the windows and doors. But we really don't like working for that little amount of money. You give me a call when you're ready to do the whole house and we'll talk.

He left and the only thing I regret about that whole exchange is that I didn't have the presence of mind to tell him to get off my property and never come back again. I resolved that the House of 42 Doors would fall down before that guy ever set foot on my land again.

After a few weeks of cool down time, I sent an e-mail to the previous owner of the House of 42 Doors (who was an architect) and asked him if he knew of any masons. He came back with Larry, and thankfully, the story has come out with a happy ending.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

It's OK, Mom - I didn't fall.

Every time I have ever mentioned that I wanted to go onto the roof of the House of 42 Doors, my mother has called or e-mailed the next day to tell me to be careful. To be fair, a fall from the roof would most certainly be painful, and could be fatal. In a worst case scenario, it's a 22 foot drop to a concrete sidewalk and even in a best case scenario it is a ten foot drop to another roof. Either way, her concern is justified.

Still, curiosity killed the cat as they say. Last week I put on my boots and headed out the dormer window to see what the world looked like from on top of my roof. What had really sparked my curiosity was a comment by the previous owner that from the roof it was possible to see the river. Somehow in my mind that meant a great vantage point.

The roof currently has Sharkskin underlayment and some tar paper with granules where the flashing is going to go. Now you might think this sounds like good footing, especially since Sharkskin is touted as having a slip proof outer layer, but what has happened is that the granules from the tar paper are very loose and they have gotten onto the Sharkskin underlayment. If you take thousands of little granules (which are shaped like little marbles) and put them on underlayment, guess what? It get's verrrry slippery. In the interest of not giving my mother or wife a heart attack, I will only say that I made it to the top of the roof and back down again without falling off the roof.

It was good that I had made this little exploratory foray though. In the interest of saving some money I told the carpenter that I would demo the cedar shingles from the sides of the dormers. I had some serious second thoughts about this after a short ride on my overly large playground slide. After a few days of consideration, I hit upon a safety mechanism that was functional, if perhaps a bit simplistic.

I took a rope, tied it to a stud in the attic and threw it out of a dormer window. Then, doing the most dangerous part, I climbed back on the roof with the rope in hand. Taking it over the roof to the other dormer, I climbed into that window and tied the rope off on a radiator. Now I had a rope that went across the roof and was tied at both ends. With that rope I was able to give myself a handhold/foothold/beltloop so that I could comfortably demo the cedar shingles. It took about a half day to rip off the shingles, throw them down and then clean up the mess, and there was no slipping or sliding.

Our masons Larry and Howie are fantastic. Howie shows up every day at 7:15 and even worked on Saturday. The work they do is first rate. The mortar they are tuckpointing with matches almost perfectly and the job also includes caulking and cutting drip edges on the window sills. Really great work. When they are done, the house should be sealed up from the elements. I don't know how much it will help with the heating bills, but it can't hurt. They hope to be done by the end of the week.

Our gutters though are a different story. I was expecting Roger to be out last Tuesday or Wednesday. Friday, after days of calling with no answer, I sent an e-mail asking when he would be on site for installation. His response was, "We have had a few set backs but we are back on track. I am hoping to start on Monday, Tuesday for sure!!!! Sorry for the delay." No word on what the set backs were, but I hope to find out soon. We are now officially a week off schedule. I'm hoping this won't mess up the schedule for the roofing crew.

MHH adds: Here is a slightly easier to see version of the above picture. Yay for Picnik!

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Masons, Day 2

Day 2? What happened to Day 1? Well, I uploaded the blog yesterday morning and as the day progressed, a few things happened. First off, Jon stopped out at the house to see how things were progressing. We didn't chat much, as he was just swinging through on his way to or from somewhere. I think it was the shortest conversation I've had with him.

Later on in the day (around 15:00, I think), Larry the mason showed up with one of his guys, Howie. It seems that they had a few extra hours and they were going to start on the house. Like right now. We unloaded Larry's air compressor and Howie went straight to work grinding out the mortar from the bad joints. They're back again today. We signed a contract for them to do the work last October, so I'm glad that they are finally here to get the work done. There are some pretty serious spots of erosion in the mortar.

When the roofing guys ripped off the old shingles, 87 years of dust, dirt, coal and who knows what else filtered through the tongue and grove roof decking to land on our attic floor. I was doing some cleaning in the attic last week when I made an unpleasant discovery. I found the dessicated remains of two mice (numbers 43 and 44) in the live trap in the attic. The live trap is not particularly humane when the mice starve to death.

Now the last time we caught a mouse was in January, and I can't say for sure when we caught these two, except that it was a long time ago. The only thing left of these guys was fur and bone. It does remind me though that I need to set traps. It's fall and the little buggers are going to be looking for somewhere warm in the winter.

Roger is still manufacturing the gutters in the shop today. He might be out later on. If he is and he gets some of the gutters up, I'll take pictures and post.