Wednesday, February 12, 2014

On a Winter's Night

"Winter then in its early and clear stages, was a purifying engine that ran unhindered over city and country, alerting the stars to sparkle violently and shower their silver light into the arms of bare upreaching trees. It was a mad and beautiful thing..."
Mark Helprin, Winter's Tale

Closer to finished than not!

Well there's no denying this year that winter is making a comeback. After a weak showing the past two years, it is once again testing our mettle... 10 degree high with a wind chill factor of -2?? Deal with it, she says. And so we shall, because for some crazy reason even I can barely understand, I wouldn't give up this beautiful yet beastly season for a minute. Autumn, spring, nor summer would be so sweet without the bitter cold and (at times) bleak landscape winter brings. It definitely feels like this time of year is meant for hibernating and resting up for the busy summer months, but unfortunately we don't have that luxury!

Tony and I did allow ourselves a bit of a VT hiatus during the holiday season but we finally got back on track with things two weeks ago, when we made our first visit to the farmhouse for 2014. We also took a bit of an accidental hiatus from the blog (what the heck else was I doing during that time, I don't know!), so it's time to get caught up on that as well. We accomplished quite a bit of work before December, so we need to get to recapping and then talk about upcoming plans!

When we last left off with the blog, the drama was building and the clock was ticking as we worked feverishly to prepare the house for the installation of first floor heat. So the big question among friends has remained...

Did You Guys Get Heat?!

Is that a radiator I see?

After three consecutive Springs of shaking my fist and shouting to the treetops that "I'll never be cold in this house again!", were we finally able to deliver? Did we actually get our radiators installed and the heat set up for Winter 2014?

Well, the simple answer is... we could have, had we chosen to go through with it haha. Which basically means... our water bottles were as frozen as our limbs by the end of our workday last weekend. Congratulations, farmhouse, you've bested me again! If anyone is running out of space in your own kitchen freezers, bring your food items to us... they should be good here until April.

So, no... we did not get our heat installed! A minor defeat, at least for my ego and all of its visions of hanging drywall in a comfy cozy house over the winter months. To look at this in a good light, we made a mad dash to the finish line and did basically reach it in time - our radiators were in place, all of the first floor windows had been repaired, all of the insulation had been run, and the holes in the basement had all been closed up. All that was left to do was fill the oil tank and have our plumbers hook up the radiator lines, but two rather expensive fixes popped up last minute.

First... our septic. While the following picture looks mainly like a dirt mound, what you are looking at is a brand new septic tank tucked away under our yard:

There is quite a bit of $$$ sunk into that ground!

As we mentioned in our September blog post, we discovered we needed a new septic tank put in, along with a new drain line running from the basement to the tank. While the team who did the job this fall completed the job well and at a fair price, installing a new septic tank simply does not fall into the category of 'cheap' house fixes. A few thousand dollars down the line, we can at least happily report we have a brand new concrete septic that will be able to handle the strain three bathrooms, a laundry room and a full kitchen will be putting on it.

Add to the septic bill the cost of having our very filled dumpster hauled away, and the money we had set aside to pay for additional plumbing work and the filling of the oil tank had all but disappeared. We were in a pickle and had a tough choice on ours hands; was it really worth putting another $2,000 into an oil tank, when the house was not as sealed up as it should be? Without storm windows in place, minor holes in the walls here and there, and a few remaining broken windows upstairs, our heat would have flown right out of that house at an alarming rate. Realistically, we would have been paying an arm and a leg to keep a house heated that we probably wouldn't come up to all that often. And so we made the difficult decision - it was best to wait on heat.
 Such pretty radiators, just waiting to be used!

So in the end, our radiators received an extended vacation. They have one more season to rest up, and once the weather warms up enough we'll have our plumbers come back and finish the installation. It's a good thing we're well-versed in this 'working without heat' thing. I don't know if I'll ever be able to adjust to a comfortable winter life up there once all is said and done!

And of course, aside from our mad dash for our narrowly attained heating system, we kept busy with other work...

The gargantuan task to end all gargantuan tasks... the total renovation of the house exterior. After two summers of exhausting, dirt-covering prep work, this summer we finally took off with painting the house. Once all of the sanding and priming was done, actually getting the paint on the house was a snap! With the super helpful addition of the occasional electric lift rental,  we nearly completed our goal of getting three sides totally redone. It was a definite race to the winter finish line, and I kept up the fight right through the arrival of freezing temperatures. After renting the lift for one more frigid weekend in late November, I threw in the towel on finishing the north side of the house. We probably fell about one weekend shy of getting the whole side done!

Fighting the clock, and the cold!

The north side of the house is unfortunately still looking a bit nasty... there is some serious repair work to do along the roofline above the bathroom, a bit of sanding and priming still remains, the short window on the first floor needs to be switched out with a full-length window, and new trim work needs to be added along with clapboard on the bottom of the house. In short, there is still a lot of work to do on this side. Finishing it was never realistically in the cards for this season!

Yuck! Still a bit of an eyesore.

There is also some painting work to be done in the front of the house, including a total re-do of the first floor paint job, not to mention finishing up the bay window on the south side of the house. SO, we're not quite close to finishing these three sides of the house yet, but I think we should be there by early summer. Once we can check that big to-do off of our list, I intend on focusing my energies on finishing up the back of the house. It's about time to put this painting makeover to bed! As much as I enjoy the beauty of winter, I'm looking forward to spring's arrival so I can jump back into painting and get this house DONE!

The Basement

As we raced to prep the house for heat, a great deal of work remained in closing up the basement. This included getting all three new windows installed, repairing a rotted sill, and rebuilding the wall around it, in addition to some basic brick work here and there. As always, Tony's never-ending skills stepped up to the challenge, and he managed to get all of these projects done with incredible speed and quality. For instance, he knocked out this sill replacement and brick wall rebuild in less than two days...

He also installed the first of two basement ventilation fans with built-in dehumidistat, so the basement will hopefully enjoy a much drier and humidity-friendly life! We also have some other big plans for keeping moisture out of the basement, including eventually putting down a vapor barrier over the floor and covering that in gravel, and doing some sort of basic ground gutter system to direct water further away from the foundation.

I was actually able to get started on installing ground gutters along the north side of the house over the fall, which included digging out angled channels, running a plastic vapor barrier from the edge of the foundation down through the channel, and covering everything in gravel. In front of the gutters, we began planting some initial perennial shrubs and covered those in mulch, all of which will hopefully help soak up more moisture on our rainy days. We're not sure if this will make a huge difference, but it is a step in the right direction! It's also making the house look a bit more like a real house and a little less like a construction zone :)

Crossing my fingers for these shade-hardy shrubs!

While this is just the beginning of our landscaping adventures, it's great to get our hands at least a little dirty as we learn the science and artform behind beautiful landscaping. Having the opportunity to also learn about New England's native plant species has been an amazing education so far, and I can't wait until we build up our gardens in the future! In the meantime, I am crossing my fingers that our shrubs and grasses survive their first VT winter.

Other Tasks...

Aside from our plumbing and painting tasks, there are always a million other things going on inside the house. With the superhuman dedication of Susie Merkel, we managed to get all of the first floor windows scraped, sanded, glazed, and in some instances, painted, before winter set it. Windows are of course on hold until the weather thaws, so we're focusing on more indoor-friendly tasks.

Tony and I have basically finished mapping out the electrical plan, right down to the last dining room sconce, and I'm convinced this room is going to look absolutely beautiful! When I stop to look at our hollowed out dining room/kitchen, it feels like my brain switches into SketchUp mode, and suddenly tables, cabinets, sconces and kitchen islands seem to appear out of thin air. In my mind I can already see our home completed down to the last minute detail... now it's just a matter of getting it there!

A former oil lamp chandelier is transformed for the dining room

We've purchased most of the light switches that we need, and have begun installing the switch and outlet boxes throughout the first floor. Soon, once the house temperature is a bit more manageable, we'll invite our electrician back to help us run all of the first floor wiring. In the mean time, we're keeping my father busy with a ton of rewiring to do on all of our vintage lamps and pendants. We actually have our dining room chandelier, most of the overhead lights and first floor sconces already in our possession; with a little soap and water, and a little wiring know-how, we're returning them to their former glory!

Also, during our last VT visit, Tony and I installed (with surprising ease!) the second of our 16 foot support beams across the kitchen. I can't quite remember when we first had these beams cut, but I am thinking it was fall 2012, so they have had plenty of time to dry out and lighten up a little. For once since owning this house, a project actually went according to plan!

Getting those measurements just right on the support beams

Learning the hard way that it is better to expect the worst and be pleasantly surprised when you get something slightly better than the worst, we anticipated another battle royale to get this beam installed. After all, last time we nearly busted through the dining room floor trying to lift a sinking corner of the house to get the first support beam in place. I think we spent a solid two hours just hammering the wall post into position.

Up she goes, bit by bit!

Therefore, how wonderful it was to find that the back ceiling was not somehow sinking, and there would be no crazy maneuvering to do. Once we had the beam hoisted onto two opposing ladders, Tony slid the first wall supports (on the right side, which will actually be hidden behind drywall) into place. Then, after trimming the height slightly on the left side wall post, we were able to hammer it into place perfectly!

Aside from the prep (cutting out the old wood supports, removing wall insulation, etc.) which always takes awhile, the actual installation of the barn beam took no more than a few hours. When we were finished, we sat there slightly in shock. Did something really work out so easily? Has the world gone mad? If so, we'll take it! This is the kind of surprise we could use more of.

We of course documented the beam installation along with all of the other work we've been doing...

Phew, that's a lot of photo updates.

Seeing as how this winter weather no longer scares us, we'll be heading back up to the farmhouse next weekend for another round of frigid work. This time, we'll be knocking out the last of the rotted ceiling joists in the basement (those running underneath the family room floor) and putting nice, new ones in their place. It won't be glamorous work, but it will certainly keep us warm and will finally bring an end to our rotted wood witch hunt. Plus, that old wood burns beautifully in our wood stove - a double win for warmth! And for fire safety ;)

You can count on more updates as spring approaches. Until then, thanks for reading and check back soon! Wishing you all a happy, wintry evening in your warm and toasty homes :)



  1. Thanks for all of these posts. I like the guidelines you've laid out here. Thanks for sharing us.
    United Restorations | Vintage Car Restorations Jaipur

  2. Great read, Melissa! Looking forward to seeing a bit of Vermont in September!

  3. “…have our plumbers hook up the radiator lines, but two rather expensive fixes popped up last minute.”- This is really not the news you wanted to hear, especially if you have a tight budget. But in my opinion, it’s great that they discovered the problem right away before it got worse. I hope it’s progressing smoothly from your septic tank up to the installation of your gutter system.


  4. This all looks so familiar! We haven't had to do anything with the outside of our home just yet, but the inside certainly is a reno. We love it though, really making it our own home. Good luck to you! I look forward to following the progress

  5. Hoping we will have an update from you soon now that the weather is warming up. I love this house and the work you have done so far.

  6. It's too bad you weren't able to get heating last year, but you could always try again! Anyway, having your septic tank up and running was a more pressing matter. It would have been much more difficult to not have that. With that out of the way, you should be able to find a way to be warm this winter. Good luck!

    Evon Brow @ Athens Plumbing & Well Service

  7. You’ve been working a lot those days. Amidst your disappointments with the heater, you managed to accomplish other major projects, like the septic tank. I hope you were able to update us about the current status of your renovation, especially with regard to the HVAC unit. Good luck!

    Tommy Hopkins @ AccuTemp