Repointing a Stone Wall with Lime Mortar

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Our wall is cleaned up and ready for pointing. The joins are quite worn away and this project is very overdue.

First and foremost, you can not use concrete / portland cement in any masonry work on a house built before 1850, and maybe even until 1900. It’s worth asking a local mason to see what sort of bricks you have in your home. If they are new bricks and fired to be very hard, cement with confidence. However, older bricks, usually those with inclusions like small stones, have been hand-fired and therefore should only be pointed with lime-based mortar.

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Here is a close-up of the original mortar from 1832. The sand is course and filled with small rocks and pieces of shell. It is very likely that the materials for this wall were obtained from the nearby Delaware river.

 

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This quartz is enormous! When you’re really up-close to your masonry, you discover all the character.

It has taken years to build up the courage to face our basement wall. Years of sweeping up dust and bits of stone as the wall sheds. Years of research on how to make quicklime into lime putty and what ratio of lime putty to mix with sand to form the appropriate mortar for a row house built in 1832. Meanwhile, steadily voicing concerns that we were one rock away from the house falling apart around us. Finally, my husband said, “Make a plan already!” and so I did. I’m currently in the middle of earning my Master’s in project management which means I can’t write as often as I’d like to. It also means that any project I undertake is a good time to practice the project management skills I’m learning. So last month, I spent an entire Sunday researching lime mortar, again, and writing out a plan which included a list of materials needed, a work breakdown structure, and a timeline with actual real dates on it.

Download our repointing project plan.

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Section off the area with plastic sheeting. Misting the wall as you clean away loose mortar also keeps dust to a minimum.

The most challenging aspect of the project was the mortar itself. Quicklime is very caustic and corrosive. Turning quicklime into lime putty is time consuming, messy work; not something you would want to do in your kitchen. I was overjoyed to discover Ecologic natural hydraulic lime from Limeworks. Ecologic mortar is the perfect choice for older buildings that need lime mortar but it has the ease of modern mortar because you just add water. We used a ratio of three pints of water to 12 pints of Ecologic to obtain the perfect consistency. After trying to use several things to stir the mortar, we discovered that using our hands worked best. Mix for a good five minutes and definitely double up on the gloves since the lime is very drying. Also, use a face mask because the dust is irritating. Once it’s mixed, you don’t need the mask but keep the gloves on throughout the project. Mixing the mortar is very therapeutic and like building a sandcastle at the beach and we made small batches as we worked across the wall.

We’re lucky to live nearby one of Limeworks retailers, Killian Hardware in Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, Pa. Killian’s is a fantastic place that carries many products for the older home. It’s hard to estimate how much mortar you’ll need for a stone wall since it’s irregular but we used four and a half bags. Ecologic is around $26 per bag and each bag covered about four-square feet worth of pointing.

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Ecologic mortar from Limeworks. Years of research and all the while, this fantastic product was just waiting to be discovered.

Repointing is messy work and you’re going to want to make sure the area is sectioned off with plastic, along with the floor.

Before we got started with the mortar, we cleaned out as much old mortar and debris as we could. For an interior wall, about an inch depth is recommended. Our wall had been shedding for so long that we only had to suck the loose sand out with the shop vac and give the rocks a good scrubbing with a stiff-bristled broom-head. We had no idea but there are a few very large pieces of quartz in our wall; one the size of a cantaloupe!

In terms of pointing, we had purchased trowels but discovered that using our hands was really the best method. Again, it’s going to be rough on your hands, as the lime is very drying, but our fingers could get the mortar in the crevices most effectively. The trowels were a bit expensive and using our hands saved us $30. We also didn’t need the wood or dowels for the palettes either, knocking another $6 off, making the overall budget for the project less than $200. The best method for applying the mortar was to take small lumps and work it into the joints slowly, like creating pottery. There is something very zen about working with your hands and really considering the shapes of the rocks and how to work the mortar around them.

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Here is our wall about half-way through the project. The difference was really amazing! Notice; if we had partially repointed the wall, we would have had to color-match since the old mortar is almost pink in comparison.

Overall, it took the two of us about 10 hours to repoint a 10′ by 12′ wall, including a lunch break and the two hours I worked by myself while my husband went back to Killian’s to get more mortar because we needed five bags instead of the two we originally purchased. The next day we devoted to clean up and a light spray of the wall in the morning, followed by one more spray before bedtime. It’s important to note that you do want to use the mortar during the more humid times of the year, so spring and summer. Lime mortar needs to dry slowly. Our basement is usually about 70 percent humidity which is excellent for the wall. When cured, the mortar should last a nice long time and not damage the stones and bricks like portland cement.

A final note; Ecologic comes in several color options and there are kits to further customize the color. We used the DGM 50 color because we wanted a nice contrast with the rocks and were doing the entire wall. You can send a sample of your mortar to Limeworks and they will help create a mortar that matches the color if you need to repoint in sections.

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The finished wall and everything back to normal!

We didn’t realize before the project but the repointed wall, with the brighter mortar, is much more welcoming than it was before. In a basement dining room/kitchen it’s very important to keep things light and cheerful to avoid the feeling you’re in a dungeon. We can also expect fewer drafts and less dust.

RowHouse Magazine Resources: Research

Colonial row houses in Philadelphia.

Colonial row houses in Philadelphia.

You don’t have to face renovation alone. These are a small sample of the associations you can reach out to for assistance with your renovation. If you have an association near you, please let us know and we’ll add them to the list.

 

RowHouse Magazine Resources: Renovation & Restoration

Georgian row house in Philadelphia.Row houses come in every age. If you have an older row home and you wish to preserve the authenticity, the following resources may prove useful.

Please note that listing a product or company here is not an endorsement of the product and/or its quality. Listings here are meant to be useful and informative but not promotional. Companies listed here have not paid compensation to be listed.

 

Going Green on Top: Row Houses and Green Roofs

You’d have to live under a rock, and maybe not even there, to not know something about the state of the environment. Everywhere you turn, government and celebrity representatives are urging you to make even a small change to balance out the resources you consume every day.

Container gardens in front of a row house in Philadelphia.

Container gardens in front of a row house in Philadelphia.

I have been fortunate enough to live in two cities that place a very high emphasis on reducing waste and emissions. New York City recycles militantly, ticketing you if you mix your glass with your leftovers. Every time I visit, I see more and more hybrid cabs. When I lived there, I hardly ever drove. We took the subway or walked.

As a resident of Philadelphia, I walk even more since I no longer have to take a subway to work and I am recycling more than ever. We’re also on one heck of a budget so we don’t buy anything we don’t absolutely need. Less consuming equals less waste. Additionally, the new heating system we just purchased was the top of the line in efficiency and we try to keep it as cold or hot as we can stand, depending.

I was reading the April 16th issue of Newsweek which was all about the environment and I scanned over an article about green roofs. Since I happen to now have a roof, I read on.

Having a green roof can lower the temperature of your roof in the summer from over 120 degrees to closer to 80. This might not seem like a lot but if you have a bedroom in your attic, 80 degrees is practically arctic. A green roof cools your entire house and keeping the house cooler in the summer means less air conditioning. As an added bonus, the green roof also insulates the home in the winter and keeps the warm air in.

I went to Greenroofs.com to do a little research. Their FAQ page is very informative. I’ve summarized a few key points:

  • What is a green roof?
    In the most simplest definition, a green roof is a roof that has growing things on it. Your plants replace the normal things which go on a roof such as shingles or tiles. Most green roofs have a waterproof lining layer, drainage, something to grow the plants in and the plants themselves. Typically the entire roof is covered. There are two types, extensive which is low maintenance ground cover and intensive which are more traditional gardens with a variety of plants. In both cases the plants get planted into dirt on the roof, not merely planted in pots standing on the roof.
  • Do I need a flat roof?
    Although intensive green roofs need to be relatively level, extensive green roofs can be grown on slopes up to 30 degrees and more if structural enhancements are made.
  • Will my roof cave in?
    Actually the extensive roofs don’t weigh too much, about 10 to 50 pounds per square foot. Intensive are a little more involved and can weigh upwards of 120 pounds per square foot. Neither will collapse a roof in good condition.
  • How do I care for my green roof?
    Everyone should check their roof yearly for stability. When you have a green roof, you also need to check to make sure the plants haven’t migrated somewhere unwanted. You also have to make sure the root aren’t interfering with any of the underlying structure. The plants also need to be cared for just like any other plant. They’ll need to be watered and you have to watch for any stress because living on a roof, they will be subjected to harsh winds and weather.
  • Setting up your green roof.
    Make sure the under layer is made out of something the root cannot penetrate like polyethylene. You have to use special dirt which is lightweight, drains well, and yet retains rain water. A typical mix is 1/3 clean topsoil, 1/3 compost, 1/3 perlite or other inorganic material.

There is a lot more information at the web site that covers what kind of plants work well and more benefits to having a green roof. A green roof probably isn’t for a novice gardener. It’s suggested that the typical homeowner should have a professional install the garden as well as an engineer come to inspect the home prior to installation. But the expense and effort is well worth the investment.

Even if you can’t commit to a full green roof, you can still keep as big a garden as possible and bring a little green into the city.

RowHouse Magazine Resources: Research

A wooden row house in Brooklyn Heights, New York.Baltimore City Historic Society

Athenaeum of Philadelphia

Historic House Trust – New York City

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

National Parks Service – Technical Preservation Services

New York Historical Society

Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission

The Bostonian Society

Please note that listing a product or company here is not an endorsement of the product and/or its quality. Listings here are meant to be useful and informative but not promotional. Companies listed here have not paid compensation to be listed.

If you would like to be added to this list, please leave a comment below. Thank you!

Making Your Facade Fabulous

Federal row house window box garden.Often, it’s the small things that make row houses special. Take away the architectural accents and you probably find yourself in a fairly basic, brick box which is why row houses have such a bad reputation for being boring. Well, we don’t like boring! Additionally, summer is the perfect time to add a little charm to your row house.

If you’re lucky enough to have a front yard there’s a lot you can do. If you mix the types of plants and flowers you have, you can transition from season to season without ever having the front of your house look bare. Small ornamental trees like the Japanese Maple, Cascade Falls Bald Cypress, and Forest Pansy Redbud are perfectly scaled for smaller homes. A nicely pruned Holly or other evergreen will provide foliage year round. Just make sure today’s perfect little tree doesn’t turn into a monster that will fall on your house in future years.

Many row house dwellers have street facing homes with nothing but a stoop and concrete sidewalk. You can still can add some nature to your facade with window boxes and container gardens. Window boxes can range from inexpensive wire baskets to elaborate wooden boxes. Because they’re small, you can experiment with different plants and flowers. If you have a black thumb don’t be discouraged, there are very hardy plants that require minimal attention, such as a Hosta. Minimal attention will keep it fairly lush and Hostas come in a variety of colors. Ivy is another nice choice as long as you watch that it doesn’t attach itself to your walls and cause damage to your masonry. As a former plant-killer, I have found that if you take the little stakes that come with the plants and use them to make a watering schedule, it works out fairly well. I use a calendar and make notes on which days I need to water which plants. The process takes about 10 minutes, once a month, but I’ve been able to keep more plants alive this year than any year previous. It helps to hang the calendar in an inconspicuous place and buy a perky watering can that you will look forward to using.

Container gardens are equally nice if you have a little more room to work with. Usually you can stash a pot or two next to your stoop without getting a summons from the city for obstructing the sidewalk. A good rule of thumb is to take a look at what your neighbors have done and devise what you can get away with. Ask your local garden store what sort of plants work best in containers. To avoid people from walking off with your plants and to promote drainage, put a nice layer of heavy rocks in the bottom before you add the dirt and your plant. If you can fit a very large pot, you may even be able to grow some of the smaller ornamental trees and shrubberies.

If you’re ambitious and have a decent budget, shutters can add lots of charm. All About Shutters provides a decent repertoire of information for people looking for interior and exterior shutters. Before windows had glass, shutters would offer privacy and protection from the elements. Once glass windows began to be widely used, shutters still provided protection from storms and harsh weather. Today, most people don’t have functional shutters.

There are a few things to keep in mind if you want to install shutters on your house. If you are using functional shutters, which are especially nice if you have historic windows with glass panes that may be over 100 years old that need protecting, make sure you measure several times to make sure they’ll fit correctly. If you opt for decorative shutters, make sure you hang them close enough to your windows so that you don’t see a wide gap. They’ll look better if they look like functioning shutters instead of a random attachment.

Finally, summer is a great time to make sure the facade of your house is in good condition. No sense making it pretty if it’s falling apart. Inspect your masonry or siding for any evidence of wear or damage. Check your gutters to make sure water flows smoothly. Water can cause quite a bit of damage so you want to make sure it’s going where it needs to.

Reader’s Letter – Taking on a BIG renovation project.

There are times when life gets in the way of our website. Thankfully, we have this blog which allows us to keep up with our readers in the meanwhile.

We recently received an email from a brave reader in Washington DC, who is looking to restore a row house shell and asked if we at RowHouse had any advice.

I love people who are willing to restore an old home. Neighborhoods are reborn through restoration. It’s our very favorite type of recycling. And, to reward the intrepid owner for saving a row house in need, they get a custom home. But there are some things to consider.

Renovations are expensive. Tally up the total you think it will be and double it. For every cost you are aware of, there will be sneaky things like eating out, renting tools, permits and cookies for the workers. Renovation is not decorating. You can’t compromise or go cheap on things that will affect safety or stability of your home. Cutting corners results in horror stories later on. Make sure you have ample budget.

Along with plenty of money, make sure you have plenty of time. A realistic time frame will allow you enough time to make informed decisions about everything from the layout and interior design to the small details like palette and fixtures.

It is unlikely a larger renovation will be something you can do entire alone so you’ll need to assemble a team of professionals like an architect (someone who can not only design but also navigate the permit process), engineer, contractor, plumber and electrician (at least). Having friends who can help out, provide moral support and the occasional place to stay is also helpful. To get the best team, ask your friends who’ve had work done for recommendations. Angie’s List and ServiceMagic are great websites for honest reviews of contractors/plumbers/etc. Remember, the people you hire to help you are going to make or break you so do a lot of research and check all references, confirm insurance and proper licenses.

Before you buy, you want to make sure the row house has a sound foundation. If the bones aren’t good, all the other repairs you do will fall apart so you want to make sure there is no structural damage. If that’s ok, your team will help you decide what to do next.

Take some time to educate yourself about home restoration. Most cities also have development groups, such as an historic architecture/preservation committee, who can also provide guidance. Again, the more research you do and the more knowledgeable you become, the better your renovation will turn out.

Renovating is an adventure. It’s also like running a marathon. Taking your time and pacing yourself usually gets the best results. Go into the project knowing that things will go wrong and take twice as long as you anticipate and you’ll be fine.

Bedbugs and Row Houses

Although it’s been quiet in the news, experts predict the creepy-crawlies will be back this summer. Because their homes are attached, row house dwellers may be especially concerned that they may be more susceptible to infestation than those who live in detached houses. Never fear, row house residents are no more at risk than any other person and there are things you can do to prevent bedbugs from ruining your summer.

According to a recent e-newsletter from Harvard Medical School:

“Bedbugs are small, flightless insects that feed on the blood of (usually) sleeping people and animals. During the day, they hide in dark, protected places around beds, and their flat bodies allow them to squeeze into cracks and crevices in bed frames, headboards, and box springs and to tuck themselves along the seams of mattresses. They also hide behind baseboards, under wallpaper, beneath carpet edges, and amid clutter.”

Sounds like the perfect roommate, doesn’t it? In case bedbugs aren’t welcome in your home, Harvard suggests the following things to protect your house. When you’re on the go:

  1. Put your luggage on a table or luggage rack away from the bed and off the floor. You can also keep it in the bathroom. To be extra careful, keep your suitcase in a large plastic bag. Placing each day’s outfit in its own sealable plastic bag will also deter the bedbugs from hitching a ride home.
  2. Upon arrival, check mattress seams for reddish-black dots (bedbug poop). Inspect the headboard, bed frame and underside of the box springs if possible.
  3. Do not put coats or jackets near any beds.

At home:

  1. When returning from trips, wash (hot water) or dry clean all of your clothing or put your clothes in a dryer for 20 minutes. Inspect and vacuum your suitcase.
  2. Refrain from buying used upholstered furniture. If you have to, inspect the piece thoroughly and treat for bedbugs before you bring it into your house.
  3. Plug holes and cracks in walls and around pipes, baseboards, and moldings in your bedroom.
  4. Place mattresses and box springs in protective mattress and box spring encasements.
111 Elfreth's Alley.

Show Your Row House Some Love: Semi-Annual Maintenance

18th Century row house on Elfreth's Alley, Philadelphia.

18th Century row house on Elfreth’s Alley, Philadelphia.

Originally posted Fall 2008.

Unless you live in a condo and pay a maintenance fee, chances are, you are responsible for the up-keep of your own house. Maintenance is very important for any home owner but doubly so for row house owners who need to think about how their house’s integrity affects the row and their direct neighbors.

Fall is the perfect time to take care of some basic home maintenance and make any needed repairs because you don’t want to find out that something is falling apart during a blizzard in January. We started with a list from Bob Villa, adapted it for row house dwellers and added a few more things we think are important.

Check Your Roof

The best thing to do is to go on your roof right after a good rainstorm. Look for any loose materials. Inspect vents, skylights and chimneys. If you have a flat roof, look for pools of water. Inspect your drainage spouts to make sure they aren’t blocked. Look out for our upcoming article on roof maintenance for more ideas.

Attic

Thoroughly clean and vacuum the space as much as you can. If possible, keep vents open to allow for air circulation.

Gutters

Make sure your gutters are clean and water runs off your house properly. The best time to do this is after most of the leaves have fallen off the trees. Periodically check, weather permitting. It is very important that water doesn’t collect or pool and then freeze since the expansion can cause a lot of damage. Make sure the water is draining away from your property.

Garden Gear

After your last gardening, clean all your tools. Make sure hoses and outside faucets are drained and properly dried. Store hoses in a dry place.

Fireplace/Chimney

If you use your fireplace a lot, more than 30 times in a season, get the chimney’s swept. If you only use it occasionally, you can probably clean alternating seasons/years. In either case, before the winter season, check flues for evidence of damaged mortar and resident creatures. Make sure your damper opens and closes.

Filters

Change the filters in your heating and air conditioning systems. Check and clean dryer vent. Have your duct work professionally cleaned. Clean filters in appliances like air conditioners and stove hoods. Vacuum your room vents, floor heaters and radiators well.

Alarms & Safety Equipment

Test your smoke and carbon monoxide detectors and replace batteries. Inspect fire extinguishers, checking the expiration date.

Air Conditioners

Remove window air-conditioners, if you can, or put weatherproof covers on them. In a pinch, you can make a nice cover out of a heavy duty contractor garbage bag, foam and some duct tape.

Refrigerator

Test your refrigerator door seals by closing the door over a dollar bill. If the bill pulls out, adjust the latch or replace the seal. Move the refrigerator and vacuum the coils, if you have, and the space since it tends to collect a lot of dust.

Windows and Doors

Clean your windows and doors. Inspect areas where windows and doors meet your masonry and look for cracks. Check for drafts and inspect for damage. Replace weather striping if needed. Make sure window panes are not cracked or broken. As the months get colder, you might want to use shrink-wrap to seal the windows.

If you own an older or historic home, you may have to deal with single
pane windows. You can use heavy curtains to block drafts effectively. Make sure to launder your curtains before hanging. Inspect for damage. Clean your summer curtains thoroughly and store. If you want to reduce wrinkles, instead of folding, roll curtains on a large mailing tube.

Storm Windows

If you have screens and storm windows that you can swap, remove the screens and replace with storm windows. Before storing the screens, inspect for damage and repair. Use this time to clean your storm windows and look for any wear on the window.

Exterior Finishes

Make sure there is no exposed wood on your house. Paint or stain as needed. Replace worn away sealants and caulk. Inspect siding for holes and damage and repair. Replace and paint any rotting wood. Inspect masonry for loose mortar and bricks. Get these things repaired before the bad weather comes.

Basement

Make sure there is no moisture and dampness in your basement. Inspect foundation for signs of loose material or water. Use a dehumidifier to keep things nice and dry. If you already have one, now is a good time to clean the filter.

Heating System

Make an appointment for seasonal maintenance. Most reputable companies have a yearly plan you can sign up for. It’s well worth the fee since they call you to remind you to have your system looked at and usually have a comprehensive check list they follow.

Hot Water Heater

If you have the kind with a tank, drain it and remove sediment from the bottom. If you have a tank-less, use a manufacture-recommended product to de-scale and clean it.

Finally, if you still have energy after doing all that, take time to purge things that have collected in the house over the previous six months. Before you store your Summer things away ask yourself if you used it. Especially when switching wardrobes, ask if you wore it. If not, donate or toss.

Ground floor garages in Philadelphia, PA.

Turning Cleaning Your Row House Into a Happy Ritual

20th Century Row Houses in Philadelphia.

20th Century Row Houses in Philadelphia

In a recent article for his blog called “Turn Green Cleaning into a Game,” which appeared on November 10, 2008 on The Daily Green, Michael de Jong shared a story about how his mom used to make the dreary task of cleaning the house into a game. She would write the day’s tasks onto little slips of paper, toss them into a hat, and have her kids draw slips. The person who finished all their tasks first, won. He says there wasn’t anything actually won but the idea of winning was enough to keep everyone motoring away on the cleaning. He says that even today he likes to write the cleaning tasks onto a list and check each one off as he completes them. Seeing everything checked off gives him a warm and fuzzy feeling of accomplishment. Michael is working on a book about the “Zen” of house cleaning. See his blog, http://www.thedailygreen.com for more information.

Homeowners used to be able to look outside of their homes for pleasure with vacations and eating out. They had the luxury of owning a house and yet hardly spending any time in it. Domestic tasks like cleaning the home were easily cast off for a seemingly small fee. The home was reduced to a place to sleep and show off your posessions. But these days, hardly anyone can afford to be so luxurious.

When times get tough, people get back to basics. Since there is nothing more basic than your home, what better way is there to get back to basics than to reacquaint yourself with the rituals of domestic life? Society has been in such a rush to make everything easier and faster, that the simple joy of cleaning has pretty much been eradicated. It’s a shame because most domestic tasks are easy to expidite with excellent results. It’s a great way to feel good about something, especially now, when it’s hard to feel good about anything.

A clean house is good for your health. Left unchecked, those pesky bacteria and microbial beasties will breed and eventually contaminate your entire house which, in turn, will make you ill. Everyone knows they should clean their house but this doesn’t make people any more happy about having to do it.

The trick to enjoying cleaning is probably to take your time doing it. Anything over too quickly is less likely to be appreciated, such as taking very small bites to savor each morsel of a decadent dessert. Taking small bites of cleaning also makes it far less daunting. Pick the tasks you like and take your time and imerse yourself in the process. Strive for perfection. It could be folding the laundry and getting everything shaped into a perfect square. Or vacuuming every little crevice and making patterns on the carpet. It could be washing and putting away the dishes according to color and size. This is not insanity. This is taking an ordinary and mundane chore and turning it into a work of art. After all, look at what Warhol did with soup cans.

Like most people, we have a coffee table. It’s technically on loan. We love this coffee table because it’s rustic, looking like it’s had a very long and colorful history, and because it’s small enough to fit in our small living room. Every week, my husband sits with the furniture polish, the old fashioned, pre-Swiffer variety, and he massages the table lovingly until it shines and smells like a lemon grove. This process of polishing the table makes him very happy. It’s not that he particularily likes to clean but within the dusting and making things shiney, he has found his cleaning bliss.

It’s a matter of perspective and economics. The human mind is wonderfully capable of looking at things in a multitude of ways if it is open enough. In so many ways we have to work very hard for others and hardly have any tangible relationship to the results. In cleaning your house, you benefit from the results of any work you put into it. Additionally, because things are not so easily replaced, perhaps there will be a newfound appreciation for keeping what you have already, in pristine condition.

Happy cleaning!