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This Old Dilapidated House

If you’ve just tuned in, we’re fixing our deplorable kitchen in our $24,000 house, in fits and starts, with no money. I know, I make it sound so sexy when I put it like that. Who hasn’t dreamed of living in a tumbledown Victorian dustcatcher with a bombed-out kitchen, two hours north of civilization, that occasionally sports four feet of snow on the roof?

I really didn’t mind the four feet of snow on the roof at first, because it plugged up all the holes where the squirrels went in and out. Old farmers say that snow is the poor man’s fertilizer. Like most old wives tales, it sounds silly, but it’s right on the money. Snow has nitrogen in it, and it enriches the soil when it melts. I didn’t need any nitrogen in my attic, but I didn’t need any more squirrels, either, so it worked out for me anyway.

Oh how my wife suffered as we tried to get the house propped up enough to really work on the kitchen. She prepared countless meals for the four of us in that makeshift mess. Luckily, we got a dishwasher right away. It was a housewarming gift from a generous relative. We kept it in our bedroom closet for years, and stored sweaters in it, because if you’ve got squirrels and mice and spiders and bees and flies and bats in your house, you probably have moths, too, we figured. I assured my wife that we’d only have to wash dishes by hand until I leveled the floor in the kitchen enough to install the dishwasher properly. We had to jack up the back of the house first. My wife washed a lot of dishes in a tiny, rusty, stainless steel basin, with her back facing the windows, and her face staring at a tatty cabinet door the whole time, with a brand new dishwasher slumbering in the closet. Why yes, I’m still married. Why do you ask?

That reminds me of an opinion I’ve held for most of my life. It’s especially trenchant when it comes to home design and renovation: Never listen to what people say. Just watch what they do. As a useful aphorism, it’s right up there with professor Gaye’s daisy, believe half of what you see, and none of what you hear. You see, I’ve been in a lot of different homes of all kinds, and tried to help people alter them to make them more pleasant to live in. I only rarely actually made houses more pleasant to live in, but it wasn’t entirely my fault. I was forced to listen to what people said, because doing what they told me instead of what I thought they should do was the only way to get them to sign the checks.

I was always very specific with my input. I’d stress that it wasn’t because I didn’t like what they were going to do, that they shouldn’t do it.  It was because I knew they wouldn’t like it after it was done. It’s a difficult concept to get across. Everyone just wants what they want, and they don’t know or care why they want it, but boy howdy do they want it. The home and garden industry is based on it. Whenever you hear a woman on a TV show say something ticks all her boxes, the marketers must smile and buy another sailboat. People are regurgitating what they’ve been taught, not thinking. Home shows are based on envy, not comfort.

So, for instance, I’ve given up counseling people that they don’t want a huge soaking tub in their bathroom in front of a giant expanse of windows. Men don’t take baths, and women will not take a bath in front of a big window, no matter what they tell you. It’s a colossal waste of money, but everyone wants it, and that’s that. After they move in they board up the window with blinds and go in the shower stall to wash themselves and pay the elephantine mortgage and are happy. Sort of.

I watched my wife struggle with what she had, so it was easy to determine what she really needed to improve the kitchen. Eventually, she got a working kitchen by her standards, not social media’s idea of it. When you see someone trying to do something with lots of impediments in their way, but they keep going anyway, you can trust that they’re serious, and figure out how to help them. People who think they’ll exercise if they only had a gym membership is the obverse of this coin. I doubt it.

So where can you go for good advice about home design and renovation? Beats me. For the most part, you have to have a library card and some common sense, not premium cable and YouTube red. You can find stuff on the internet, but you essentially have to know the answer before you start, because you’ll have to look for it in a sea of wrongness. Let me give you a concrete example.

This Old House is the granddaddy of home improvement shows. Their original carpenter, Norm Abram, was like a god, and his successor, Tom Silva, was at least a vestal virgin or something. So the last time I remember seeing anything from that show, someone asks Tom Silva how to tell if a wall in an old house is load bearing or not, and he tells them if the wall is made with 2″ x 3″ studs instead of 2″ x 4″ studs, it’s not load bearing, and you can tear it out to achieve the huge, undifferentiated space everyone craves for some reason.

Tom should know better. The former occupants of our house didn’t. They wanted to take out the wall between the kitchen and the dining room, and they did. The wall was built with 2x3s, so they figured why not? The house didn’t fall down or anything, it’s true. That minute. But another of my favorites sayings comes into play, regarding the law of unintended consequences: something else happens. Here’s the something else:

That’s the room directly over the kitchen. Let’s zoom in on the baseboard at the floor, directly over the spot where the wall used to be, but currently wasn’t:

The floor had sagged over an inch where the wall had been removed. The room on the other side had the same dished-out gap at the floor. The dining room ceiling on the other side of the missing wall had a huge sag in it. So they house didn’t fall down, but it was falling down. Why for, you might ask in the vernacular? Because you have to understand what’s going on before you know how to fix things, or in this case, break things.

What guys like Tom and the former residents don’t know or don’t care about, is that earlier generations had reasons for doing what they did, and you have to understand their thinking before you go Dresden 1945 on walls and things.

The lumber used in old houses (ours is from 1901) is undersized for what it’s doing. The floor joists here are only 2 x 7 framing lumber. There’s no such thing as a 2×7 at the lumber yard, or on a span chart nowadays. They’re actually 2 inches thick by 7 inches, unlike a modern 2×8, which is 1-1/2″ by 7-1/4″, but they’re still not stiff enough to span long lengths. How long a length are they spanning? Why, 34 goldang, dadgum, motherloving feet, my friends.

Framing lumber doesn’t come in 34 foot lengths anymore, but it did then. If you don’t believe me, call a lumber yard and ask for price on 2″x 7″x 34′ joists. You’ll be on hold for a long time, and may hear giggling on the other end of the phone. Why would carpenters use 34-foot long joists to span from the back wall of the house, all the way across the kitchen, all the way across the dining room, ending when they got to a bearing wall in the living room? Because they knew there would be an interior partition about halfway to cut the span in half.

Tom wasn’t crazy, a 2″ x 3″ framed wall isn’t wide enough to lap joists on top of. That’s what he thinks of as a bearing wall, because he’s accustomed to ordering lumber from today’s lumber yard. Our wall was plenty strong and wide enough to use it as an intermediate support. They framed this partition with 2 x 3s simply to end up with the correct wall thickness after layers of wooden lath and three layers of plaster was applied to both sides of the wall, not because the wall wasn’t doing anything structural.

So, let’s take out the sag, and add some wall space back. People are crazy to remove all the walls in their houses to achieve an open plan, but walls are useful, especially in a kitchen. The floor above made some interesting noises when we lifted it up, but we didn’t have 1″ gaps under the baseboards anymore.

As you can see, all the former occupants accomplished with their open plan was to open up a vista of the side of the wretched kitchen cabinets they installed ten minutes later. We’ll put the wall back, with a big 6′ x 7′ opening remaining between the kitchen and dining room. Just how open do you need?

[To be continued, of course. If you’d like to support this blog, keep reading, recommend us to a friend, leave a comment, or hit the tip jar. Thanks!]

Day: August 24, 2023

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