Renovating Old Houses: Bringing New Life to Vintage Homes

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by: George Nash

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Book Description -- For those who love to live in old houses or want to invest in one, this completely revised and updated book leaves no stone unturned. From evaluating a property to making foundation repairs to adding on a porch, it's a comprehensive guide to every aspect of making renovations and repairs - whether you already live in, or are contemplating buying, an older home. Over 450 color photos and drawings are featured.

Our bible restoring and maintaining our old house -- Nash is a classic author who joyfully shares his experience in restoring old houses. While there have been a lot books we've enjoyed, no book has been more useful regarding issues specific to old homes than THIS ONE. The book is published by Taunton Press, known for other high quality publications like Fine Homebuilding and The Not So Big House. It's been critical for helping us to figure out how to do everything from fixing a smelly basement to removing a load bearing wall. What it has done the most is helped us to think of our house as a system (not just as the sum of it's parts). While it's true that construction and engineering have come a long way in 97 years, you can't always slap on a new [insert any product here] and assume everything will be better. Nash emphasizes how old houses are different in many ways, including how they circulate air, keep in heat and even stay standing. We never knew a balloon from balloon framing until we read this book. Finally, Nash shares our own values for design integrity. We know that his heart is with us and other old house owners trying to "right the wrongs" brought upon a house which has been 'remuddled' one too many times. We never lend this one out!

My favorite old house renovating book -- I have 5 books that are "Old house" oriented. I have an old house as well, "1765". Well, that's the oldest part of my house with which I most cherish and protect. This is by far my most looked at, referenced, used book period. I have the last edition. This edition has been improved. Mine is just starting to have that used/broken in feeling. It's my favorite in terms of depth and breadth of coverage. Whether doing the work yourself or highering specific contractors familiar with what it is that needs doing. This book may help familiarize you with a great many things you're likely to encounter owning an old house. It also gives a nice explanation of the difference between Restoration, Renovation, and Preservation. As in religion and politics, those are very, very, different things. I'm preserving the 1765 end while renovating the damaged/shabbily repaired sections


Bringing new life to vintage homes -- The definitive book on how to bring an old house back to life -- without destroying its spirit -- is now updated with all new color photography. Experienced contractor George Nash covers everything -- from replacing foundation walls to repairing old windows, including how to save what's irreplaceable, where to use the best materials, when it's necessary to update (and when it's not), and how to make repairs that will endure. This revised edition also contains a new chapter on preventive maintenance plus a resource guide. Throughout the book, Nash balances an abiding love of old houses with a common-sense understanding of modern-day needs. Whether you already live in an older home or are contemplating buying one, this hearty book gives you detailed, professional-level information you can't find elsewhere. "Plain talk for restorers, from soup to nuts (and bolts). Here's thorough, practical advice that's sensitive to both history and budget." -- Old House Journal

Bringing new life to vintage homes -- This square home, as it stands in unshadowed earth between the winding years of heaven, is, not to me, but of itself, one among the serene and final uncapturable beauties of existence: that this beauty is made between hurt but invincible nature and the plainest cruelties and needs of human existence. -- James Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
WHY BUY AN OLD HOUSE? What is it about old houses? What strange spells do they cast, so that otherwise perfectly rational human beings are compelled against all sanity and sense to commit large amounts of energy, money, and time to their rebuilding? Is it economics? In an era of inflated real-estate prices, fewer and fewer people can afford the up-front costs of a new or completely remodeled house. The "handyman's special" (real-estate agent's euphemism for "crumbling disaster") ostensibly offers home ownership to first-time buyers on a limited budget or enterprising individuals a chance to make a good return on an investment. Of course, the low purchase price will be offset by the cost of remodeling, but this can theoretically be spread out over a long time -- ideally, cash flow might keep pace with repairs. But even with that low purchase price, an old house, when all the costs of remodeling are finally tallied, will typically cost as much as, if not more than, a comparable new house.
Is it then a matter of aesthetics, the charm of a bygone style? Splendid manse or humble farmhouse, old houses seem to embody a suitability that is conspicuously absent in their modern counterparts. Even if it's still standing a century from now, a split-level tract house will never be an "old house." Why should this be? According to Jonathan Hale, author of The Old Way of Seeing (Houghton Mifflin, 1994), the answer is proportion. The windows and other visual elements that make up the facades of old houses, particularly those built before 1830, are organized by regulating lines in a kind of fugue on the fabled "Golden Section" of classical architecture. It has long been argued that because this ratio (1:1.618) is consonant with the proportions of the human body and ubiquitous throughout the natural world, buildings that incorporate it inevitably seem "just right." Apparently, somehow, somewhere along the road to modernity, we lost that innate sense of pleasing design. We forgot the old way of seeing.
However, although the contrast between a hand-built old house and the developer-assembled product of today is obvious, it is not fundamental. The success of present-day custom builders proves that pride in workmanship is still economically viable. You can build yourself an "old" house from scratch, with the Golden Section as its template. You can make it traditional, down to the last details of the woodwork and hardware, without the shortcomings of comfort, convenience, and utility that plague their prototypes. Design is part of it, but there's more to the mystery than pleasing proportion.

People who work with and live in old houses use fuzzy words like feel, aura, and essence to justify their obsession. These are aesthetic categories that attempt to describe the perception of beauty, the way that so many old houses almost seem to live a life of their own, breathing in slow, subtle rhythms of shifting lines and weathering wood. As do all living things, a house achieves a delicate equilibrium, a precariously maintained and constantly changing relationship to time, the seasons, and its people. It responds to the care (or neglect) given it -- growing, changing, adding windows and doors, sprouting porches and sheds as the years progress.
And when its people depart, a house begins to die. The process occurs with a grace, beauty, and terrible simplicity. The tilt and sag of the walls, the weathered shades of clapboard and peeling paint, the tired angles of the roof, all give mute expression to the ebb and flow of the lives once harbored within.
An Act of Resurrection For me, it is this spiritual dimension, above all, that makes the renovation of old houses so deeply satisfying. To bring back a house to useful life, immersing oneself in the grain and texture of an earlier way of living in the process, is ultimately an act of resurrection of both the house and its owners.
Although the old-house restorer may undertake a profoundly spiritual journey, the path is full of physical details. Like all heroic quests, it is fraught with pitfalls and perils, both real and imagined. On the mundane level, this translates into lots of work, time, and money. Because purchase price is obviously a function of the neighborhood and the condition of the house, determining how much work the house needs and how to go about doing it make up the crux of the matter. No matter how astutely you may have examined the structure for defects, you are guaranteed to have missed some. It's quite likely you'll discover not only rotted beams but also windowsills eaten clear through the sheathing boards, a roof as watertight as an old bucket used for target practice, and a torrent deep enough to float a river raft pouring through the foundation wall every time it rains.

You will soon find that as bad as you thought the place might be, the reality is much worse. Your original estimate of time and money needed to restore the house to bare livability will increase by a factor of three. This money will disappear into largely invisible, and therefore ungratifying, structural repairs. And winter will be coming on early this year.
You probably knew all this at the outset, knew that the place really was in terrible shape even as you were poking your finger through the dry-rotted beams and telling yourself, yes, there will have to be some minor repairs here, and yes, perhaps the cracks in the foundation need some patching, or is it pointing. And, of course, that ghastly linoleum on the floors will have to go, but the plaster seems sound enough, just a patch of Spackle ought to fix it up fine. . . . So potent is the spell of the old place, that you simply ignore your reservations and common sense, even as the real-estate agent is thanking the stars for city slickers.
And so you sign a mortgage but also body and soul, spouse and children over to an idea that will soon become a joy and a burden, a black hole that devours every molecule of your time, money, and spirit. Yet even when you discover that the only thing keeping the place from blowing away is the weight of the mouse droppings in the attic, you wouldn't have it any other way. If this is the case, you might be one of those old-house people, a peculiar kind of maniac who is one part ability, one part inventiveness, two parts determination, three parts romanticism, and six parts damn foolishness.
CONSCIOUS RENOVATION: PHILOSOPHIES DEFINED There are basically three approaches to working with old houses: preservation, renovation, and remodeling (or, as some would have it, "remuddling"). These are distinguished by the degree of alteration (or violence) to the existing structure considered permissible and the amount of importance attached to historical fidelity

The umbrella of preservation, encompassing both restoration and conservation, covers the most conservative (some might argue sensitive) end of the spectrum. Preservationists believe that there are thousands of old houses that have a far more enduring importance to society as educational examples and tools than they do as dwelling places for any one family or as investments for any one group or individual at any one time. Since so few of these historically important houses can be protected through outright acquisition by preservation societies, preservationists argue that the lack of a legal mandate to preserve old houses does not absolve private homeowners of their moral responsibility to do so.
The number of surviving American homes built before 1850 in original (or even "modernized") condition is dwindling much faster than the realization is growing of how much important historical and social information is bound up in them. Through the process of seriation (the correspondence of particular details and structures to a specific chronological period), architectural historians are just starting to trace the evolution of specific features and construction techniques. To do this effectively requires a large stock of original unaltered old houses. In this light, even seemingly minor details of fairly ordinary old houses could be historically significant. Thus if the owners of an architecturally important house make an irreversible change to suit their personal needs or tastes, they will destroy the opportunity for anyone else to learn from that house. They could even permanently erase information considered important by future scholars.
Personally, I think the concept of "old house" is too slippery to assign a cut-off date of 1850. The Shingle-style houses built in the 1930s in Berkeley, California, are now "old" and architecturally significant. The day will doubtless come when preservationists decry the desecration of historically important examples of southern California tract houses. Accordingly, the most important test for any proposed change to any historic old house is reversibility. If the change cannot be undone later, it should be avoided. If this is impractical, the original features and changes should be documented on film and/or videotape, with measured drawings and written or taped descriptions: Documentary overkill is an invaluable aid to future researchers.
Ultimately, preservationists hold that if a prospective buyer finds a particular old house absolutely charming in its ambiance but feels that it needs drastic changes in floor plan, window size, and interior finishes to make it livable, he or she has an obligation to history and society not to buy it. They argue that it is immoral to impose irreversibly one's personal tastes and needs on the fading fabric of history. Such people should seek a house more suited to their sensibilities or build a "new old home" instead.
Within the preservationist camp, there are some nuances of methodology that are confusing enough to merit further discussion. Although it can be argued that in a strict technical sense preservation can be distinguished from conservation, the difference is so subtle that the terms can be used almost interchangeably. At most it's a distinction of fine degree: Just as conserves are a jam made from whole fruit and preserves are a jam made from mashed fruit, a conservationist is perhaps more insistent on leaving the existing structure intact than is a preservationist, whose primary interest is in historical continuity. Whereas a preservationist might paint over existing trimwork with modern latex paint, nevertheless preserving the underlying paint strata, a conservationist would be more likely to oppose the use of any but the traditional calcimine or whitewash formulas.

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