Friday, April 24, 2009

Compost Anyone?

One of the items I have yet to mention is the compost heap that came with the house. It's large enough to bury a body under it so there's no telling what's at the center of it...

It's too large, isn't in a very good location and getting full. The fence around it is a four foot high octagon with each side of the octagon measuring four feet long.

One of this year's goals is to make it go away and put a smaller compost heap in the corner. Here it is in all it's glory, with my dad in the picture for scale.

Now that's a compost heap!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Chimney Effect

Following up from my last post, what exactly did my Dad and I do for three days if we didn't rip up the attic floor? We worked sealing the eaves from the attic underfloor.

The image below shows how the exterior walls of the house are constructed.

On the outside of the house there is a wythe of brick. I believe that this brick is held in place with metal ties. There appears to be a very thin layer of air between this brick and the main structural terracotta block walls of the house. Attached to the interior of the terracotta walls are 2 x 2's. Nailed to those are the lathe and then the plaster is applied over this.

Any cracks in the exterior mortar allow the wind to penetrate into the first air gap. Any additional cracks in the terracotta mortar allow further penetration into the second air gap. These air gaps terminate in the attic, between the attic floor joists.

During the winter, the warm interior air seeps into the second air gap from cracks in the plaster and along the base board. Warm air from the basement also seeps into the second air gap. What ends up happening is a chimney effect. The warm air from inside rises up to the attic, pulling cold air from outside to replace it. This makes our interior walls cold and allows a lot of warm air to escape the house.

Because of our cantilevered roof, cold air is also vented into the attic from vents in the overhanging soffits. Which means a whole lot of cold air circulating in the attic and along the walls. The R-19 pink stuff is better than nothing, but one problem with pink stuff is that it is terrible at stopping air infiltration.

My dad and I cut 2 x 6's and installed them between the joists to try and stop the cold air from the soffit vents from mixing with any air that might be leaking into the attic joists. We also did this in preparation for possibly putting in polyisocyanurate spray foam. I didn't want the spray foam to ooze out into the soffit or down into the first gap between the brick and the terracotta.

Here's a picture of what it looks like at present that will hopefully make it clearer. The clean, shiny boards are the ones we put in. The are positioned on top of the terracotta wall.

And this is what one of the four corners in the attic looks like. It also shows how it would be impossible to remove the attic floor without causing my roof to collapse.

And that's what took three days. Taking up the perimeter floor boards, cutting around sixty five 2 x 6's and then nailing them in place. This will hopefully block wind from coming up the soffits and the first gap and mixing with heated air in the house. We still need to plug the second air gap though.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Cantilevered Roof

When you know almost nothing about something, anything can seem unusual. It's why I wish I had the architect who designed the House of 42 Doors and the head carpenter who built it here, right now, so I could ask them, "Why?"

Our attic floor is framed with 2 x 6's and then covered over with tongue and groove pine boards. At some point the previous owner pulled up the majority of the floor boards and put fiberglass batts beneath them. This was no small task. The boards were nailed through the tongue at an angle and somehow he was able to take out the boards without destroying them. I'm not sure how he did it, but it's impressive. When he nailed them back down, he nailed them down through the top, rather than through the tongue.

What he didn't know was that insulating the attic in this manner was a mistake for two reasons. First he never air sealed any of the cracks in the house. This allows cold air to circulate throughout the gaps in the walls and up into the attic. Second, it's not a good idea to insulate around knob and tube wiring. It can overheat and begin a fire. It is also the only insulation in the house, a whopping R-19 in a climate that is recommended to have R-49.

We replaced the knob and tube wiring last year, so before adding any further insulation, I wanted to seal up the cracks in the attic. Several months ago, I mentioned in passing to my father that I wanted to take up the attic floor and air seal the cracks up there. He came up to help me do that, but things are never as easy as they look.

To understand why this wasn't going to work, it will take a few pictures. Roofs on most houses are built something like this.

The roof rests directly on the outside walls of the house. In this case, if there is an attic floor, the entire attic floor can be taken up without affecting the roof. It may be advisable to keep the floor in place to help tie all the joists together, but the roof can stand without an attic floor.

Our house is built like this.

This shows that when the house was built, they first put down the attic floor joists. Next was to put down the tongue and groove pine. Around the perimeter of the house they then nailed a 2x8 board, and the roof trusses are notched to rest on this. Essentially, we have a cantilevered roof, resting on the attic floor.

This makes taking up the attic floor impossible at the edges of the house where the tongue and groove flooring runs perpendicular to the 2x8. We can take up the rest of the attic floor, but if we try and take up those attic boards, the roof will fall down. Which leads me back to my original question. Why on earth was it built this way?

Besides the fact that I can't take up the attic floor (which is annoying), it has caused parts of my attic floor to bow down at the edges. The weight of the roof is really heavy over the outer eaves. This does not seem like good a good design to me.

In the end we didn't, pull up the attic boards. What we did instead I'll leave for another post.

And on the topic of straightening warped boards, I came across this suggestion. I'll let you know how it works out once I get a hot summer day.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Catch Up

Spring is here and I can finally feel the constriction of winter ease up. We are two weeks away from taking off the storm windows. The Siberian squill are poking their heads up in the backyard and in another week or two, there will be a wash of blue throughout the woods. The tulips and day lilies are coming up. Over the weekend, I saw a bat flying around the front yard, finding whatever insects are available at this time of year. I called out to him ("Come here Bruce"), but he didn't respond. I suspect that my voice wasn't high pitched enough.

The weekend before last, my parents came down to stay with us for five days and get a few house projects done. The two main projects were to get the office fixed up and to try and figure how to insulate the attic.

The office plaster was not in very good shape and needed a fair amount of patching. After a lot of experimentation (and peeking inside the truck of our plastering contractors), I've finally found the right material for patching plaster in the house. Diamond Veneer Basecoat and Diamond Veneer Finish. Now I just need to improve on my technique. I'm getting closer to doing seamless patching, but I'm not there yet. I'm certainly not comfortable doing any patching in the living room or dining room, and ceilings just plain stink. The only downside to the new plaster is that it is a lime based plaster, and it is very alkaline. It is hell on my hands.

Fixing up the office meant peeling off as much of the loose paint as possible, patching the plaster, priming the fresh plaster and then finally applying the final color. I'm happy with the room, except for the ceiling, and I don't have anyone to blame for that, except myself.

All that is left is to put the picture rail back up. The previous owner took it off many years ago and stored in the basement. After years of sitting in the 100% humidity of the basement, some of the picture rail is quite warped, so before I put it back up, I need to strip the paint off of it and try to straighten it. If anyone has any suggestions on ways to straighten warped boards, I'm all ears.

Here is the office, with the new wood desk we picked up from Craigslist.

P.S. from Ms. Huis Herself: Yeah, just so y'all know - there's a lot more stuff in it now!

Friday, April 3, 2009

Of Mice and Men

Now, I reckon that the average mouse is about three inches long and about an inch wide. Carefully skinning and tanning the hide of one should yield about three square inches of fur. Based on the 49 mice I've caught to date in the House of 42 Doors, that's 147 square inches of mouse fur, or about one square foot. That isn't a lot, but if I get an average yield of one square foot per two years, then after about ten years, I should have enough for a nice, soft fur cape.

Something to think about.

The parents are coming this week to visit and to help us work on the house. Hopefully there will be plastering, scraping, painting and who knows what else. The big job my dad and I will be tackling is to rip up the attic floor to assess the state of the insulation. I'm not sure yet what I'll be doing there, but more and more I'm leaning towards polyisocyanurate spray foam. Since I only have about six or seven inches between the attic joists, I don't have many choices, if I want to put the attic floor back down. Otherwise I have to pack the attic full of insulation and lose that space for storage.

Here's hoping we don't find too many surprises under the attic floor (unless it's money).