Sunday, August 16, 2009

Basements

Chezzah's owners return home sometime today so the house-sit ends and I return to my forest home.

A few days ago I went with a real estate agent to look at a local house for sale, just up the road. It has a bit of land associated with it, a lovely front yard with big old maples and a horse chestnut tree, and the house itself is old but in good shape. The real estate agent used to be a builder so he took me on a detailed tour of the house pointing out its high and low points. Overall a sound house, but it just did not grab me as "my new home." I think the thing that sticks most in my memory is the HUGE new fridge sitting in the dining room because it is too big to fit in the kitchen. And all the old oilcloth on the floors (which the real estate agent thought was wonderful, I was less impressed). Anyway.

To be thorough we toured the basement of course, which was an old fashioned dirt-floor, stone-walled and low-ceilinged affair. Even I, at 5'3", had to stoop low, sometimes bending over double to clear low floor joists. But the details of construction were plain to see, the old unplaned 2x5.5s(?) on 18" centres, the unmortared stone walls, the plank subfloor, the uneven dirt floor. Definitely not a finished basement!

This is not one of the oldest homes in the Harbour, but it was probably built by one of the Schofields maybe 75 years ago, maybe less. A lot of Harbour homes were built then, most likely all by the same few guys.

I used to own a small house in Wolfville built in the same era, right after World War II to accommodate returning soldiers and their new brides, the mothers and fathers of the Baby Boomers. It was a small 2-bedroom square bungalow with a flattened pyramid-shaped roof, where all four sides come to a peak. I have since seen its close cousins in cities all across this country, all built at the same time for the same reason.

I replaced the front door on that house with a newer insulated steel door and in the process uncovered a wall stud bearing the builder's autograph and the year of construction. That gentleman then lived in a house at the top of the hill on which my house was located, with a big picture window overlooking all the houses on that street that he had built. I told him that I had found his name inside the wall of my house, and asked him if he had insulated the house (I was in the process of weather-proofing the house and was wondering whether I needed to insulate the walls). He grinned and winked and said, Oh a little bit, a little bit! In those days "a little bit" would have meant a mess of dry seaweed, horsehair and straw in the walls, and sawdust in the ceiling.

The home I am staying in now was built over 200 years ago. It also has unmortared stone walls and a dirt floor in the basement. I am impressed by unmortared stone walls, I think it takes a degree of skill to put together a stone wall that does not fall down without mortar.

The floor sills and primary floor joists are huge 12"x12" beams, and there are secondary 6"x6" floor joists on 24" centres, open half-dovetailed into the primary joists. The subfloor is made of 2"x12" planks. Talk about solid! The current owner did a lot of work to restore this house to be modern in weatherproofing and amenities while retaining its old style in construction and finishing detail. He covered the basement dirt floor in gravel, so you do have to wear shoes down there but it does not get muddy in the springtime. Head clearance is considerably better than the house I looked at the other day, I do not have to stoop anywhere in this basement.

In addition to original construction work you can also see later modifications, the addition of wiring and plumbing and forced air heating ductwork to the old floor beams. At this point the whole thing becomes rather messy to look at, and the addition of years of old stuff being stored in the basement completes the picture. I wanted a photo of the old stone basement wall but it was hard to find an area of wall clear enough to photograph. Likewise with the floor beams. I looked it up and this type of joist construction is known as Continental Dutch (primary and secondary joists), as opposed to English Colonial (single set of joists, the common modern method). The other house I was looking at was an example of the latter method, but not yet standardized in the modern format of 2x6s or 2x8s on either 16" or 24" centres. In those days you could get unplaned lumber which was thicker and rougher to the touch. Maybe you still can, I've just not seen it in a few decades.

4 comments:

Wisewebwoman said...

Gee Anne, you sure know your houses, my daughter bought an old frame house here in NL and it is at a slight tilt and could have been for a while....
Your eagle eye would probably sort it out!!
XO
WWW

Barbara Anne said...

Love the pictures of the stone walls and I share your appreciation of good, solid, old craftsmanship!

Are you thinking of moving your home base to NS? If so, you'll know your house when you see it inside, outside, underneath, and all around!

Hugs!

20th Century Woman said...

2Looking for a new house is exciting and a bit scary. Like WWW I am impressed at your expertise. I think to understand building is a great advantage. I'm looking forward to reading about your final decision

Annie said...

WWW, I sound like an expert but really this is all just what I've learned in the past few days, looking, listening and reading. I think my advice would be worthless for figuring out what's wrong with something!

Barbara Anne, yes about the old craftsmanship! It is wonderful to see and appreciate first hand, whether it be floor joists or a quilt! As for moving, I'm hither and yon about my intentions, still trying to figure it out...

20CW, you're right, it's both. I guess you have to look for a bit to even figure out what it is you're looking for! I hope Barbara Anne is right and I'll know it when I see it!