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

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!

Acorn Street, Boston, MA. Source: Amanda Beattie

RowHouse Magazine Resources: Publications

Acorn Street, Boston, MA. Source: Amanda Beattie

Acorn Street, Boston, MA. Source: Amanda Beattie

Bricks and Brownstones: The New York Town House

Old House Journal

The American Townhouse

The Modern Townhouse: The Latest in Urban and Suburban Designs

The Old House Web

This Old House

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!

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.

Making changes to your row house is ok.

Responsible Improving: Is It Possible to Think Outside the Box?

Making changes to your row house is ok.The modification issue is really not all that easy to address which is why we haven’t really talked about breaking out of the row before now. Neighbors’ “improvements” are something people constantly have to deal with. When you’re not attached, you can mostly ignore the changes if you don’t like them. However, when you live in a row and a neighbor decides to make a personal statement and do something “unique” with their home, it can often blow up into an all-out community brawl.

You may be thinking to yourself that the answer is really straight-forward. If you live in a row, you must submit yourself to looking exactly like your neighbor or else become the neighbor who no body likes. End of story.

Well, if you are expecting us to promote cookie cutter homes, we’re going to surprise you. Row houses do not have to look the same to look great in a row. However, there are things you have to consider.

One: Consider Yourself

Before you buy your row house do yourself and your future neighbors a favor and think about what sort of person you are. If you are ok with conforming, choose a row that’s more consistent. If you are a little more expressive, look for a row that’s been altered already. Especially older row house neighborhoods can have quite a few mixed dwelling rows. If there is already a few out of the box houses in the row, no one will care what you do to your house, within reason that is.

If you are very conformist and want to live the epitome of row house life by living on a very uniform block and also will be very upset if your neighbor alters their home, make sure you check to see that the block is protected under zoning laws that keep the integrity of the block intact. This way you can let the zoning people fight the battle for you.

External features such as dormers and lintils are key aspects of certain styles. Altering them will diminish a houses character.Two: Anticipate and Get Involved

If you are in a neighborhood that’s emerging, perhaps a previously fringe neighborhood that is now undergoing gentrification and redevelopment, join the local community board or neighborhood association. Propose guidelines and rules that will keep development responsible. Become a row house advocate and get neighbors involved with their community. Row houses need protecting and a strong community is the best defender.

Three: Practice Responsible Development

If you’re going to make improvements, practice responsible development. Think of the relationship of your needs with your neighbors and with your block. Is your improvement going to make your neighbors miserable? If your neighbors know you are considering their feelings, they might be more open minded to your plans.

No matter what, you absolutely must thoroughly engineer the project. Check to make sure you are not putting the structural integrity of the row in danger. Make sure you get reputable contractors. When you share walls, you’re not just working on your house, but your neighbors as well. Make sure you have ample insurance to cover any damage to your house or others. Have open lines of communication with your closest or attached neighbors. Imagine how upset you would be if a sledgehammer plowed through your dining room wall during dinner.

The great thing about getting neighbors involved is that if you have a good relationship, often you will find all sorts of things available for loan, like ladders, paint brushes, sanders, (it’s amazing what people have) and probably some helping hands as well.

The more unique the architecture, the less change you can make without ruining the character of the block.Four: Don’t Forget Aesthetics

Aesthetics have got to be the most touchy of all topics. If you make improvements to the back of your house, you will probably have to consider less. But the front? What a can of worms! Again, the more uniform the block, the more you have to consider design and appearance. Symmetry and balance in architecture has been a theme since ancient Greece. It’s not breaking news that the human brain favors pattern and consistency. The unexpected and unbalanced makes people uneasy which is ok for some things like opera houses and modern art museums but not rows of domestic row houses. So when you’re making improvements consider materials and style.

Materials

You can get away with a lot if you make sure your improvement uses similar materials to the other houses in the row or to the historic design of the house. For example, although most Federal row houses are made out of brick, wooden clapboard siding wasn’t unheard. If you wanted to, you could probably have either on your Federal-style row house. If you want to do something different to your house structurally, such as adding another floor or enclosing a porch, use the same materials as the other houses such as a similar brick color. If you enclose your porch, use similar materials to what the house is made of. Make the additions as seamless as possible. The more they look like they were original, the better your improvement will be received.

Style

You can change your house if you are sensitive to its place in the block. Here someone added Greek Revival features to their Federal row home without ruining the continuity.It’s important to do some research. Don’t paint your circa 1850 home in bright, neon, lime green. However, if you have a Victorian townhouse, you might be able to get away with brighter colors and some interesting paint schemes, a la Painted Lady. Don’t try to turn your Greek Revival into Art Deco. However, you may have luck turning Tudor into French Chateau if you get creative. Sometimes you do have to be sensitive to what the house is or isn’t. The more familiar you are with your house’s style, the more likely you are to make a sensible improvement and the less likely you are to inspire thoughts of “what were they thinking?” from neighbors and visitors.

Aesthetics are completely related to how uniform your block is. The more uniform, the more you should consider staying true to the block. The less uniform, well – then you can do whatever you want, within reason.

Don’t forget that you can do whatever you want inside your home, as long as it doesn’t damage the integrity of your house or your attached neighbors’ homes.

Five: A Man’s Row House is His Castle

In the end, your house is your house. Your neighbor’s house is your neighbor’s house. He can do whatever he wants with it, within the law and zoning regulations, as can you. After all is done, you might like his addition so much that you want one yourself, in which case you’ll have to swallow every bitter word you exchanged. Better to keep things civil.

The house in the middle just doesn't work. Probably replacing one that was demolished, it lacks similar materials, scale or style.The real estate agents I spoke with felt that although it tends to cause concern among neighbors, unique modifications to row houses generally don’t decrease the value of the other homes in the row. Sometimes seeing the potential can actually attract new buyers. Likewise, sometimes being able to modify your house gives you more pride in your block.

Another thing to remember is that even a strange improvement is better than a mothballed or boarded up home. It’s better to have an odd house or two and have the block be well cared for and tidy than having complete uniformity but with litter, graffiti, and dilapidation. Good landscaping, or stoop-scaping, is important too. Besides providing shade and beauty, trees can hide all sorts of strange architectural things.

To help ease fears, I’ve collected a few pictures from articles we’ve done as well as some from around Philadelphia of rows that are very consistent and those that are not. More photos will be added shortly. The pattern seems to be that newer rows, those built post 1900, seem to be more uniform than those built earlier. It might be a logical conclusion that over time, the houses are bound to be altered a little bit. Especially as houses fall apart, mid-row, the ability to build new helps preserve the row.

Bathroom sink in a row house.

RowHouse Magazine Resources: Kitchen & Bath

sommoBathroom3Compact Appliance

Everhot Ovens

Hansgrohe Bath and Kitchen Plumbing

Hãfele– Furniture, cabinet, kitchen, closet, and architectural hardware

Kitchen Kapers

Kohler Bath and Kitchen Plumbing

M. Teixeira Soapstone

Mark Wilkinson Kitchens

Plumber Surplus

The Marble Institute of America

The Tankless Water Heater Guide

Thomas Crapper – Period bath fixtures

TOTO Residential Plumbing

Welbeck Tiles

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!

The stained ;wood and ironwork on this garage door is quite lovely. The front door of this row house has a coordinating design.

Row Houses and Garage Doors

The stained wood and ironwork on this garage door is quite lovely. The front door of this row house has a coordinating design.

The stained wood and ironwork on this garage door is quite lovely. The front door of this row house has a coordinating design.

If I had $5 for every time someone cursed the parking situation in my neighborhood in Philadelphia, I would be a very, very rich woman. Like many older row house neighborhoods, ours was not made to accommodate hundreds of cars. Cars were simply not around when the neighborhood was being developed. Fortunately, many row house neighborhoods allow for the residents go without a car, but if you find you’d like one anyway, parking can be a traumatic experience.

A few years back, Philadelphia thought it would solve the car parking problem by requiring new homes to include off-street parking a.k.a. garages. This is a great idea except that in older lots, it requires the garage to be built on the ground level with a driveway to the street. Although it is nice to have your car protected from the elements and random parking violence, it eliminates the street parking and cancels out any greater good.

My favorite solution is how it’s done in Middle Village, NY. The row homes are built on the garages that you access from a common rear alley. Plenty of parking remains on the street, your car is protected, no one has to look at your ugly garage door, and everyone is happy. But to implement this arrangement, the block has to be designed this way. It’s very hard to construct such parking within a pre-existing footprint.

I pass a lot of garage doors on my daily commute. Some are so ugly, they actually provoke people to cross the street and cause young children to cry in horror. But, fear not! It doesn’t have to be so. There are beautiful garage doors that will not only raise your curb appeal, but will also make the entire block look great.

RowHouse Magazine’s rules for avoiding an ugly garage door are simple:

  1. Buy something that looks like an actual door
  2. Keep your garage door in good repair
  3. Try to coordinate with your neighbors
This is a beautiful, old world styled, garage door. The paneled style and small square windows resemble colonial doors, which are common in this area. The owners have placed a welcoming bench and flowerpot to add curb appeal.

This is a beautiful, old world styled, garage door. The paneled style and small square windows resemble colonial doors, which are common in this area. The owners have placed a welcoming bench and flowerpot to add curb appeal.

 

These are more typical garage doors but they feature a consistent panel design and are painted in nice colors. The arches over the doors are a nice architectural touch that blends the garage with the front entrance.

These are more typical garage doors but they feature a consistent panel design and are painted in nice colors. The arches over the doors are a nice architectural touch that blends the garage with the front entrance.

 

The front door and windows of their row house.

Surprises in a Pennsport Kitchen

Carolyn's Victorian row house in Pennsport.

Recently, we got an email from Carolyn, a row house owner who lives in Pennsport, a neighborhood in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, just south of Queen Village (read about Queen Village). Pennsport is quintessential South Philadelphia with rows and rows of homes ranging from Victorian and Workman style to more modern. She was kind enough to share a story with us about a discovery she made during her recent kitchen renovation.

Carolyn lives in a three-storied, brick, Victorian row house. The age of the house is between 100 and 120 years old. Typically homes of this style are about 1200 square feet in size and have small back yards. She resides there with her husband Rick.

RowHouse Magazine:

How long have you been living in your row house? What made you decide to live in a row house in Philadelphia?

Carolyn:

We’ve lived here about 3 years. Before buying a home here, we rented in Center City and Graduate Hospital [two other neighborhoods in Philadelphia ]. We both grew up in the suburbs and gravitated more towards city living for its walkability, closeness to neighbors, arts & culture, and restaurants.

RowHouse Magazine:

Let’s chat a little bit about your neighborhood Pennsport. It’s fairly old, just being south of Queen Village. Most homes are over 100 years old. Is there anything really unique about the neighborhood you’d like to share?

Carolyn:

The front door and windows of their row house.We moved into our house in late November. The first Sunday there, we were surprised to see a marching band go down our street. Turns out that the marching band was one of the Mummers and that we would be in for a treat on New Year’s Day. Those Mummers are a little crazy and, truthfully, a little surreal, but a ton of fun! In the last year, two new restaurants have opened in our neighborhood, the Ugly American and Café Peppercorns. Both are a welcome addition.

[The Mummers are a long-standing Philadelphia Tradition. Part marching band, part mobile theatrical revue, part psychedelic experience, the Mummers march down Broad Street every New Year’s Day. Spectators come from all over the world. Learn more at their website – http://mummers.com/.]

RowHouse Magazine:

How old was the previous kitchen?

Carolyn:

When we renovated the kitchen, we found five different layers of wallpaper. We should have had them carbon dated to find out from which decade each came from. We’ve pieced things together from context clues. The newspapers we found, that were used for insulation, were dated from the 1950s.

RowHouse Magazine:

Was there anything that really motivated you to update the kitchen? Avocado appliances? Bad formica?

Carolyn:

One layer of wallpaper exposed.I hate to criticize anyone’s style because Lord knows we all have some quirks. But the biggest thing that bugged us was the drop ceilings! The day we closed on the house and signed the paper work we went back to our house and sat on the counter in the kitchen. I put my hand up and popped out a popcorn board drop ceiling panel just to see if there was treasure above. No treasure, but there was a good 2 feet above it! Style issues aside, who gets rid of two whole feet of space when you live in a small row house? It doesn’t make sense! Unless, of course, you are trying to hide something. In our case we found water damage to the original ceiling and upper portions of the walls. When the drop ceiling was installed, the water damage wasn’t addressed, so there was moldy wallboard and wallpaper up there. Also, the kitchen had only one outlet which powered the refrigerator. So it was in need of [electrical] upgrades.

RowHouse Magazine:

What style did you choose for your new kitchen and why?

Carolyn:

Another layer of wallpaper and the original cabinets.We started out intending to go with the Mediterranean style but along the way it morphed into something else more contemporary. We installed a copper tin ceiling, very classic dark wood cabinets, a white tumbled stone backsplash, and dark birch hardwood floors. It doesn’t sound very cohesive but it all came together pretty nicely.

RowHouse Magazine:

There is a Lowes, a Home Depot, and an IKEA all in Pennsport. Did this help or hinder your renovation?

Carolyn:

We struggled with finding unique but cost effective materials. We poured through websites like www.rejuvenation.com and www.schoolhouseelectric.com and visited antique and restoration shops in town, such as Restore. In the end, we couldn’t afford the kitchen of our dreams that way; so we stuck to one unique showy element, the copper colored tin ceiling from www.Americantinceiling.com. [ We] used the big box stores for more simple and affordable elements.

RowHouse Magazine:

The finished kitchen.Any pointers you want to pass on about things to consider when renovating a row house kitchen?

Carolyn:

It took us about two years in total to re-do the kitchen. We started without a budget or a clear plan. That was a mistake. Be prepared for surprises, both good and bad, and also budget for eating out a lot.

RowHouse Magazine:

Often renovating an old home yields surprising things like random wiring and experimental plumbing. Anything interesting?

Carolyn:

Frankly, we were aiming high and hoping to find hidden treasure so we could afford to hire contractors. Instead we found a lot of mundane stuff from the 50s and 60s behind the walls and in the ceiling. We found old bottle caps, pieces of coal, baseball cards, cotton socks, a mood ring, business cards, and a church letter. Also, they insulated the back door and around the windows with old newspapers from the 50s and 60s. The newspapers were twisted into logs and shoved into the gaps. We saved them because while they weren’t valuable, they were a part of our history. They contained some interesting articles about issues of the time such as desegregation.

RowHouse Magazine:

A close-up of the newspaper they found in their walls.What did you do with your special find?

Carolyn:

This year was our first wedding anniversary, for which the traditional gift is ‘paper’, so I dug out the box of old newspapers and carefully cut out old headlines, articles, and photos. I even found a wedding section which gave advice on whether you could wear gold shoes with a white gown and told of a story of a man leaving his bride the day before they walked down the aisle. The newspapers were dried out and disintegrating, so I glued the pieces to a canvas and made a collage, sealed it with Modge Podge, and gave it to my husband as a gift. We will hang it in our kitchen as a nod to what came before us.

Photos: Carolyn (home owner)

The finished project.

The finished project on display.

Making Your Older Home a Little More Green

A rare example of wooden row homes from the 18th Century.

A rare example of a wooden row house from the 18th Century.

The Philadelphia Preservation Alliance offers free workshops for homeowners in Philadelphia. The workshops are a great opportunity to learn more about preserving and maintaining older and historic homes. The Alliance hosts knowledgeable speakers and offers supplemental materials for further research. A full schedule of workshops is listed on our calendar.

Sara Sweeney, an architect and owner of Eco Vision, spoke on Wednesday, April 15, 2009, at the Wiccacoe Community Center in Queen Village, Philadelphia. She explained that residential homes are responsible for a lot of energy usage, surprisingly, even more than transportation. As energy costs rise and more homeowners become increasingly environmentally conscientious, many are looking to make their homes as efficient as possible.

Ms. Sweeney, who lives in a semi-attached house in Collingswood, New Jersey, outlined some of the steps she is taking to reduce her home’s environmental footprint. She is an expert on “greening” residences and conducts environmental audits for homeowners through her company.

When she bought her home, her first instinct was to remove the drop ceilings and wood paneling that had been installed throughout the house. However, as she progressed, she discovered that these hid additional insulation that was keeping the energy consumption of the house lower. So she put the ceilings and paneling back, replacing the outdated styles with more contemporary options. For example, dropped ceiling panels come in patterns that resemble stamped tin which offer a vintage look with the insulating properties of a dropped ceiling.

Additionally, Ms. Sweeney is attacking all the gaps in her house. She explained that if all the gaps in a typical home were combined, there would be a hole over two square feet big which is like having a window open constantly. Proper insulation makes a huge difference in the amount of heated or cooled air that escapes from a house. There are many products homeowners can use to fill spaces such as batted fiberglass insulation, expanding foam, sprayed cellulose, cotton batting or newspapers. The choice of materials used depends on budget and
type of gap and if there has to be special sensitivity to historic surfaces.

Another project Ms. Sweeney had done was to replace all the windows with double pane, vinyl replacement windows, specially treated for efficiency. Obviously, new windows are far more efficient than older, often single pane windows but replacing windows isn’t always an option in a historic house. It’s also important to consider that the space around the window can also been drafty. There should be no gaps between the window casing and the walls. Use caulk to seal any cracks. Another solution is storm windows. Typically for double hung windows,
there are options for pre-colonial windows which involve one large panel of glass, fitted into the space of the window and secured with fasteners. These offer similar protection but blend in well with the architecture. Finally, working shutters are a great way to protect your windows and block drafts and heat transfer from sun.

Aside from the windows, doors can also be very drafty. Weather stripping is a great barrier and won’t affect the appearance of an older home. Damaged and old thresholds should also be replaced to reduce gaps. Another culprit of heat escape? Mail slots. Replace with a newer one than has a two flap system that blocks drafts.

Once a house is sealed up tight, homeowners have to consider how the house will breathe in order to prevent condensation which can lead to masonry damage and mold. Ms. Sweeney suggested a small ventilation fan in a central spot in the house.

Another way to improve a home’s efficiency is to install “green” appliances and look for systems with low impact. If a row house has a flat roof, it’s a great opportunity to look into a solar water heater. A new trend in heating and cooling systems is replacing big units with smaller ones that allow the owners to control usage so that only the rooms being used are using energy. Another energy efficient appliance is an on-demand water heater which is also much smaller than traditional tank water heaters.

Besides large improvements, there are small things homeowners can do. Don’t be quick to blast the heat or air conditioning. Use curtains to block the sun in the summer and open curtains to allow the sun to warm the home in the winter. Utilize a rain barrel for collecting rainwater for watering plants. Roof run-off can also be used for a rain garden, which is a special garden with flowers and plants that work well when occasionally flooded.

Usually it’s pretty easy to tell where the drafts are but if a homeowner wants to know exactly how the energy is being used and wasted in their home, they can work with a licensed professional who conducts residential energy audits.