Clearly it was a job for the Moisture Police.
For long years this bathroom had suffered from having too much water in the wrong places -- and from having too many "fixes" that simply concealed or compounded the problem.
On the surface, everything seemed fine. Judging from the pink fixtures, the bath, the only one in the 70-year-old bungalow, had last been remodeled in the late '50s or early '60s. The layout was simple: door in the east wall, radiator and toilet along the south wall, tub across the west wall, with a linen closet and laundry chute at its head; small pedestal sink on the north wall. Beside the sink, a closet in the next room took a big square corner out of the space.
There was one window on the wall behind the tub, and there was an exhaust fan over the sink and a light built into the medicine chest over the sink. The main room light was behind a frosted panel in the suspended ceiling.
The floor was white tile, and so were the walls, about 57 inches high in most places, higher behind the tub.
So what was wrong?
It smelled terrible -- musty, mildewy, moldy, old.
The first suspect was the wallpaper, dark blue vinyl, possibly a kind of self-sticking shelf paper, already peeling around the edges of some strips. It was no problem to rip it right off by hand. And the verdict was Guilty: There were huge areas of mold on the plaster underneath.
But clearly the wallpaper had accomplices.
Attention turned to the glass shower doors and the evidence was plain: all the surfaces were scummy and, where the insulated metal strips fastened to the wall, black gunk oozed out. Guilty.
The doors weren't quite as easy to remove as the wallpaper, but taking them out, scrubbing the tiles and removing the residue of the insulation made a big improvement.
But while they were taking out the shower doors, the detective rehabbers got close enough to the ceiling to see that the metal strips holding the fiberglass tiles were rusty. And there was mildew on some of the tiles.
The dropped ceiling had other problems too. The exhaust fan was mounted in one of the tiles. When it was turned on, the entire ceiling vibrated and the fan sounded like a 747 taking off. And the light fixture was the incandescent type; it was burning a hole in the translucent panel beneath it. (Dropped ceilings require fluorescent lights, which are cool when burning. They're not very appropriate for a turn-of-the-century cottage, though.)
The ceiling was definitely guilty. Down it came, revealing, at last, the motive for the major cover-up.
As we reconstruct it, here's what happened: The shower doors, installed to "modernize" the bath, focused large amounts of moisture toward the ceiling. The plaster began to fail; a huge area right over the tub was simply missing.
To "fix" the problem, someone installed the dropped ceiling and the exhaust fan. The dropped ceiling began to collect water as the warm, moist bath air rose and hit the relatively cold fiberglass and metal. (The suspension strips weren't the only metal victims: The light fixtures and the medicine cabinet showed signs of rust as well.)
The fan, intended to exhaust some of the moist air, was installed so the vent went straight into the basement -- right under the uninsulated bathroom floor. The basement was already too damp, so the extra moisture was hardly escaping.
Long as this list of perpetrators is, there was still one more suspect: the wall tiles, especially near the top of the tub and behind the sink. At some point, the grout had begun to fail and water got behind the tiles. The cover-up "fix" -- intended to hold in the loose tiles and provide a solid surface to caulk -- was to install plastic molding strips around the edge of the tub. The installation was anything but neat, however, and the tiles were still loose, the grout was still bad and water was still getting into the wall.
To sum up: Ill-considered fixes that ignore natural forces -- such as condensation -- and underlying problems -- like bad grout -- are as bad as no fix at all. The bathroom will survive, but only with major surgery. And the harshest sentence goes to the rehabbers: hard labor till it's truly fixed.
Next: Solving the moisture problem.
Mr. Johnson is construction manager for Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore. Ms. Menzie is a home writer for The Sun.
If you have questions, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, write to us 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.