The Real Dirt On Rehabbing: With Pain Comes Gain


May 18, 1991|By Karol V. Menzie and Randy Johnson

No matter how many times you do a rehab (and yes, perfectly sane people have been known to do more than one), there are a lot of little things you forget.

Like the dust, and the sheer weight of garbage to be hauled away (at $75 a truckload), and the dust. And that what's behind the walls may not be what it seems. And the dust. And the things that fall down (like large chunks of historic plaster). And did we mention the dust?

We have just launched into a new project, a big old brick row house that has great spaces and spectacular harbor views, but needs a gut rehab. We plan to turn this poor old house, not well treated by time or tenants, into an elegant single-family dwelling. Since initially it lacked heating, plumbing and electricity, was missing a whole third-floor back wall and had been heavily damaged by water, the task is formidable. We'll report occasionally on progress -- the problems we encounter and the methods we use to solve them.

Though there's little left of its history to preserve, the house has "good bones" and transforming it will be a pleasure. But it's been several years since either of us started a project, and we've discovered that memory plays some interesting (some might say merciful) tricks. Among other things, here are some details that slipped our minds:

*Debris, debris, debris. Departing from our usual practice of attacking unwanted house parts ourselves with maul, crowbar and cut saw, we hired a crew of professional demolition experts to clear out the house from top to bottom. They worked for several days and hauled away huge amounts of junk. So we're completely astounded that the house, being worked on part time by Randy, Gene and Tony, is still constantly full of debris. We're trying to frame walls here, where is all this stuff coming from? The solution is to put a local hauler on retainer and, between his weekly runs, shovel everything through a two-story hole (left when we took out a useless fireplace flue) into the basement. Then it's Bo's problem.

*Level -- as in, no floor ever is, and never will be. "That doesn't look right!" is the cry of the frustrated framer: If you level one, you have to level the one adjoining it, and then level the stairs next to it, and then the hallway next to the stairs.

The floor slants, the wall framing is plumb and the ceiling is level. Somehow it all looks crooked.

There's a point of increasing madness and diminishing return.

The solution is to be rational. It's a very old structure. It has had a hard life. It will never be perfect. (Just put that level up there one more time, will you, it looks a little . . .)

*Slowdowns -- at this stage, the ones caused by masonry repairs. Brick seems like an indestructible building material, especially compared with fairly fragile wood, but, in fact, lots of bad things happen to old brick. The water that damaged walls, floors and joists in the house also took its toll on the mortar and bricks. When a joist is so damaged, it pulls out of the walls, or when the lintels over doors and windows rot out, the bricks fall down.

Besides the damage, there are changes made to door and window openings that then have to be rebuilt. To take advantage of views and maximize light and to make best use of tight spaces, we changed a lot of openings. We have a terrific mason, but it's slow work. It's impeding the framing progress, but at least its tempered the appetite of the voracious lumber monster, the one that was gobbling dozens of 2-by-4s a day . . .

*The gap -- not in missing floors or walls, but between getting to work and getting in shape. The aches and pains. The scrapes and

bruises. The cuts and splinters. They don't call it heavy labor for nothing. It takes a while to get back into the routine of physical effort. Solution: Steady hard work for a short time every day seems to be easier than spurts of weekend work. Pacing, at least in the early stages of a project, is the key.

*The constancy of safety concerns. We no longer feel invulnerable -- that's one reason we hired experts for the demolition. Not working when you're tired or strained is a start. Plus, we've bought a carton of dust masks and made sure everybody on the project has safety goggles and a hard hat.

*How fast the money goes . . . $225 for the hauler, $220 to the window place, $350 to the glass-block fabricator and HOW MUCH DID YOU SAY? for a plumber. (Wouldn't it be cheaper to hire a lawyer to rough this in?) Not to mention the $40 or $50 here and there for nails, saw blades, dust masks, etc. etc.

*The constant surprises, some of them bad -- like the wall that extends 9 inches further than you thought -- and some of them wonderful -- like cautiously enlarging a window opening and discovering a nice wood beam right where you need it and beyond the beam, a magnificent view you didn't know you had.

There're several good reasons why these mostly onerous parts of a rehab fade from memory, and the good surprises go a long way toward helping the process of erasure. The rewards of rescuing and restoring an old house are far greater than the pains of achieving it. In a few months we won't remember them either.

Meanwhile, could you just hand me that level . . .

Next: Windows.

Mr. Johnson is construction manager for Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore. Ms. Menzie is Home Editor of The Sun.

If you have questions, comments, tips or experiences to share, write c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.

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