Renovation Triage

The history of our home

We have now been in our 1945 built home for just over 12 months. Our home started its life as a single story two bed, one bathroom dwelling with concrete tile roof at a 35deg pitch with water tank and detached toilet. After 70 or so years and a handful of owners, it has evolved into a four bed, two bath, double story dwelling with painted steel roof, detached single garage, garden shed and back porch. It had the lower walls relined after a once-in-a-century flood in the 1980’s that came through about 1.5 meters deep. The original footprint is a rectangle about 10m wide x 9m deep. The roof space was built in to add full length habitable area in the form of a small study and a 6m x 6m ‘L’ shaped room with a north facing dorma. Upstairs is accessed by an internal ‘European’ style staircase that is 600mm wide with no railings and a door at the top step. The back of the house had a porch added at some point too.

The house originally had a raised water tank on a reinforced concrete structure. Behind this was the old thunderbox. At some point the tank was removed and the structure extended upwards and enclosed to make a semi-detached laundry with a plumbed toilet resulting in the thunderbox becoming the coal store. A concrete and brick constructed tool shed and a single car garage were added sometime between 1970 and maybe 1995. The late 90's was also the approximate time a north facing conservatory was added.

The main advantage of the older house is a solid a hell native hardwood frame. It is the kind of frame that means I have to hammer framing nails by hand even after firing them in with a nail gun at 125psi.

The principle downside is that older houses like this don’t have adequate ventilation in the exterior walls meaning any moisture that get in there, tends to stay there for a long time. This is especially true outside of a New Zealand summer because the temperatures are just too low for water outside of direct sunlight to evaporate. Another big problem with old houses are wiring. All circuits excepting the lights had been replaced post-flood. All of the cabling was undersized with most power run in 1mm solid core and while strictly legal, when installed, it is drastically undersized once insulation is laid. The light circuits had no earths which was the norm at the time and was a cable made with rubber insulation and cotton braid. Circuits in the roof space were run in a timber duct called ‘cap and casement’ and the switchboard was old ceramic fuses with no safety switches. Some fixed lighting and a space heater had been run using extension leads that needed to be plugged into power outlets to run.

Wall insulation had been added as part of the post-flood repairs however the batts used were ceiling insulation and over time it had settled in the bottom of the wall cavity rendering it pointless. If anything, the house would have been better without the incorrect insulation because all it did was trap moisture causing mould and damage.

The shed tilting door never had a rebate in the concrete slab and whenever it rains water tracks on the floor and runs about halfway through the shed causing rot in the timber frame. The building paper/sarking underneath the sheds roof has been put in backwards meaning the bottom strips overlap the top strips. Any condensation now runs down the building paper and drips out on the floor instead of over the barge boards.

I could go on…

Scaffold ready for windows, roof, chimney and flue.
Scaffold ready for windows, roof, chimney and flue.
Suz and the kids exploring the scaffold while they can
Suz and the kids exploring the scaffold while they can
Chimney is down and the windows and roof are being done.
Chimney is down and the windows and roof are being done.

Triage

Triage is the assignment of degrees of urgency to wounds or illnesses to decide the order of treatment of a large number of patients or casualties. Sahara, like myself suffers from asthma forcing us to address the moisture and mold problems first. This meant that the high priority task was to get the house water tight and warm while making sure that internal sources of moisture were either eradicated or adequately controlled.

We had a lot to do before we could say our house is warm and watertight. We took a stock take of problems when we moved in giving us two lists. What needed doing versus what we wanted done. The top items on our Necessary list included repairs to the roof addressing at least three active leaks and replacing two rotten barge boards. Equally as important was replacing several single glazed (rotting) timber windows. One bedroom also had a very damp musty smell and water damage in the back corner making the room basically uninhabitable and effectively rendering us three bedroom house.

Further down the Necessary list we find installing wall and ceiling insulation, replacing the undersized and ‘illegal’ coal/coke freestanding fire, demolishing the brick chimney and built in fire, re-wiring everything, relining the bedroom walls and ceilings, installing a new freestanding oven and completely redoing the bathroom and laundry.

The Want list has a lot of items on it including painting, adding shelving and rewiring the shed, replacing the tool shed roof and adding doors, converting the old glasshouse slab and back wall into a firewood shelter, adding a tap to the back yard and fitting new blackout curtains. Highest on this list was replacing the undersized, gravity/low-pressure storage hot water cylinder with a gas califont giving us mains pressure instantaneous hot water.

Pot belly morning before new fire
Pot belly morning before new fire
During the install
During the install
First fire the afternoon of install. House will soon be dry and warm.
First fire the afternoon of install. House will soon be dry and warm.

Now that we had two lists prepared it is time to triage: warmth and moisture elimination are number one. To achieve this we needed to replace some roofing, most of the flashing and spouting, eight out of ten windows, rotten barge boards on the dorma roof, install a new wood fire and demolish the old lime mortar and brick chimney. We did the hot water system first before replacing the pot belly because the fire had a wet back heat transfer that needed to be removed.

The week following the winter solstice the work started with the plumber/gas fitter changing out the hot water. On the Saturday following, the scaffold was erected and on Sunday the chimney was taken below roof level and the dorma barge boards were replaced in preparation for the roofers. Monday roofers and glaziers turned up and Tuesday saw the builder return to finish demolishing the brick chimney. Wednesday the old 7 kW pot belly coal fire was replaced with a 15 kW wood fire. We also used the window guys to help up get a three seater couch upstairs via the scaffold – #winning!

Roofing was quick and easy enough and the windows went in almost without a hitch. One window needed to be raised by about 50 mm so the flashing underneath could be done properly. This meant internal lining needs repair work as a result (and because of triage, 12 months on this still needs work). The external lining is sealed ply with spatter cast concrete finish known in NZ as roughcast and the window guys sealed this up like new. The work was not without its problems. The guys who put the new fire in shot a nail through the ceiling from above requiring patching and the guys removing the chimney slid the bricks down the tin roof scratching the hell out of the paint finish. This I did not see until after the work was paid for and of course, any rectification work should have been done before I paid because they won’t entertain the idea now. The master bedroom walls had the lining stripped below the windows to dry out resulting in us losing another room – at this pint, we lived in the equivalent of a two bedroom house.

Panorama faving east. Gives us spectacular sunrises. I did sit here while the scaffold was up having more than one beer.
Panorama faving east. Gives us spectacular sunrises. I did sit here while the scaffold was up having more than one beer.

By the end of the first fortnight’s work-in-earnest we had trades fit new windows, a water tight roof, demolish the brick chimney, install new freestanding wood fire and have mains-pressure showers. With that work, we now had windows with no architrave and a 1.2 meter square hole in the lounge wall. Unfortunately the roofers did a terrible job of integrating the old flashing into the new work and we had three different leaks that they needed to return and fix. Two of those leaks needed multiple visits to repair.

While the scaffold was up, I used the opportunity to strip the east facing gable weatherboards down to bare timber and repaint. The paint stripping was a five day job. I’d start about 9:30 am and work through until it was school pickup time. I spent around 25 hours getting the timber ready for a new undercoat and four top coats including the repair of cracks, stripping the soffit and fascia boards. It was another two weeks to paint because low temperatures meant the paint was taking a lot longer to cure. We also used the opportunity to paint the dorma section with our desired exterior paint colour and install a new digital terrestrial TV antenna and remove the two rusted out satellite dishes.

East gable stripped to the bare timber before painting
East gable stripped to the bare timber before painting

All up from HWS install to removal of scaffold was roughly eight weeks. I banked on it taking three to four weeks and the reason for the blowout was weather. I was not prepared for the effect of sub 10⁰C top temperatures. Paint stripping took longer because the stuff that wasn’t peeling needed to be baked with a heat gun before scraping off and when the timber is 2 to 5⁰C it just takes longer – not to mention I’m taking off 75 years of paint. My hands needed time to adjust because my knuckles ached in the cold. Temperature hindered the painting process too because the material being painted needed to be over 10⁰C to cure properly. The up side of the scaffold being here for so long – the kids loved climbing all over it!

By the end of all this, the east gable looked proper mint. The roof is finally watertight. The windows are in and the house started to get warm and dry.

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