Monthly Archives: October 2010

Mending more masonry

I have learned a lot about masonry and its inner workings. One lesson I took home is how cement parging can ruin common brick.

Cement parging traps moisture, which then begins to deteriorate the brick over time, because it cannot dry out. The deterioration may manifest itself through freeze-thaw damage or spalling caused by efflorescence.

That is the theory and it makes sense. But I had the privilege, if you will, of witnessing the theory confirmed on our own building.

I wrote about moisture damage in the basement that was associated with the exterior cement parging, which led to the need for re-pointing. That parging covered the bottom two feet of the east and west elevations.


The darker spots on the parging are evidence of trapped moisture. The brick above the parging deteriorated under the pressure of moisture from below moving up and dissipating outwards.

We are about to install Spray Polyurethane Foam (SPF) insulation in the basement and there is a level of urgency to get the masonry moisture problems fixed. In short, the parging had to go … and we began to chip away.


Based on the uncovered deteriorated brick, we concluded that the parging was installed to cover it up minor damage. It’s one of those ‘sweeping it under the carpet’ things.

That brick elevation is three wythe wide at the bottom of the building. The inner wythe, facing the basement, was recently repaired and the middle wythe is still intact. The outer wythe needs our attention.

Ironically, the brick repair needed before the parging was applied was relatively minor. Now, with the extended deterioration, we have to replace the entire out layer or wythe.


I initially intended to leave this job for next year. But looking at the mess day in and day out became unbearable. I purchased good quality reclaimed common brick, but rather than having fun replacing the brick myself, I opted for enjoying the brick being replaced by someone else. I found a mason that had time to squeeze us in before it gets too cold.

With the intent to restore moisture balance and drying mechanisms in the mass assembly (the masonry wall), it is important to keep an eye on the following factors:

  • Match the original mortar (in our case Type O mortar)
  • Make sure that all bricks get thoroughly soaked in water to get the best bond to the mortar. If the brick is too dry, it will suck the moisture out of the mortar, which compromises its bonding strength and caused small fissures through which water may enter the assembly.

We are happy with the results. The building looks again like a house and not any more like a crumbling shack. And believe me; I now sleep much better at night.


Salvage savior

While taking care of some framing details around the windows and doors, I ran out of construction screws! Not good. I am not in the mood to run an errand for screws!

And I did not need to. I lucked out and found a bunch of salvaged screws that we saved during the deconstruction process.


They were the right size and gauge and kept me going for the rest of the day.


Reuse reflection

Right or wrong, I feel that I own bragging rights to the amount of reclaimed lumber we’ve used on our sustainable rehab.

In all, I estimate that I purchased about 5% at a regular home improvement store or lumber yard. Those were specialty items, such as cedar trim or treated lumber. The remaining 95% is all reclaimed, whether from our deconstruction process or purchased.

So – how did it work out – the handling of reused framing material? Well, I learned a few things along the way.

  • Always purchase the lumber at least 6 inches longer that what you really need. It is pretty common to have split or perforated ends that you need to cut off. Even if the ends are sound, they may need to be squared off.
  • Working with reclaimed lumber involves a lot of cutting, as the note above implies. It is safe to assume that most pieces require a cut at both ends. Contrast that with new lumber that may not require any cutting at all, such as a pallet of 8 foot studs for an 8 foot wall.
  • Reclaimed lumber is usually carefully de-nailed. Still, it is advisable to watch out for remaining nails, screws and staples. You hit one of those with the circular saw, and you will need to run to get a new saw blade.
  • Pay attention to the lumber dimensions. Take studs for instance. Today they measure 1 ½ by 3 ½ inches. Reclaimed studs from older buildings are typically bigger. I have found true 2 by 4 inch old growth, as well as 1 ¾ by 3 ¾ and 1 5/8 by 3 5/8 inch studs. It’s a good idea to match material dimensions.


  • I always check to see if the material is bent or warped. That is for salvaged materials as well as for new studs.

Some of the older studs are good quality, hard wood with dense growth rings. The disadvantage, if you will, is that they are also heavier to haul around. Some of the material is so hard that it is difficult to sink a framing nail or even a screw without pre-drilling. I think sturdy is the word that I am looking for…

I think it is fair to say that it takes more time to handle and prepare reclaimed lumber. But it doesn’t outweigh the fact that this is material that otherwise would have been destined for the landfill, and you can purchase it for cheap!


Framing frenzy

I got myself some reclaimed lumber by the truckload. Rather than having it sitting in the basement while I dance around the pile like musical chairs, let’s use it and put up some walls.

We got the basement perimeter walls framed out and got somewhat of a start on the interior wall framing. But there is a whole stack of interior framing left to do: The storage rooms, pantry, corridor and bathroom.

I mentioned (at least once) the salvaged framing lumber. But we also got some nice salvaged doors at the ReBuilding Exchange.

Another special piece, for which we had to search a little longer, is the stained glass panel between the bathroom and kitchen. The bathroom has ample light with two windows. We thought we could borrow some of the light for the kitchen, thus the stained glass panel atop the wall between the bathroom and kitchen.


It feels really good to see the garden unit shaping up.


Grinding away…

Our green rehab is going pretty smoothly, with some exceptions. For example, I got into trouble with the basement bathroom floor.

Our plan is to tile the entire bathroom floor and walk-in shower area. The floor in the shower area should pitch to a dedicated floor drain while the rest of the bathroom should pitch to a second floor drain. After some investigating and learning more about the tiling process, I determined that the pitch or slopes towards those two floor drains were insufficient.

If I had been aware of the tiling process at the time of the concrete pour, I could have paid more attention to the floor pitch and avoided the trouble all together. But that train has left the station.

One solution would have been to build up the floor with mortar substrate before tiling until I have the slopes I need. But that would have created an awkward step at the door and would have left me with less than the required seven and a half foot ceiling height.

The only option I have now is to grind down the concrete floor until I have the right slopes. It’s also the most cumbersome, time consuming and dusty option.

I found myself a handheld concrete floor grinder with a diamond blade at a local equipment rental store. It comes with a shop-vac connection to suck up some of the dust, which helps a little.

I got to the floor pitch I need, but next time (if there is a next time) I will take the easy road and make sure to get the correct slopes while the concrete is fresh. That may only take 15 minutes, and not a full day of grinding.

Can you tell that I had a really fun day?


Utility room preps

Yep, it’s time to get ready for the heating and hot water equipment.

utility-room-001We have set aside a small utility room in the basement that will accommodate all the new gadgets, such as the boiler, hot water storage tanks, pumps, manifolds … you name it. The location of that utility room is not haphazard, but rather deliberate, right next to the utility wall.

It appears that 100 year old houses like ours were build with resource efficiency in mind. The kitchen and bathroom on the first and second floor are back to back, separated by a 12 inch deep wall, what we call the utility wall. It runs from the basement to the roof and is the ideal location for the plumbing, vent piping and conduits.

Placing the utility room up against that wall allows for the shortest possible plumbing pipe runs, and will give us a pretty efficient system. More details on that later.

I met with Mariusz, our installer, to go over the equipment layout in the utility room. He pointed out that once the equipment is installed, it would be rather painful and tedious to put up and paint wall board. It would be much better to get that done first.

It is still somewhat awkward as we have to leave the exterior walls and ceiling open for the spray foam insulation. But we can finish the interior walls.

There will be a lot of plumbing equipment in the utility room and the one or the other piece may have a leak at one time. With that in mind, we decided to tackle moisture management proactively. The utility room has a floor drain and we used fiber cement board around the bottom – from the floor and five feet up. It is pretty moisture resistant, and, unlike gypsum board, should not require replacing if it would get soaked with water.

Cathy took care of the taping, mudding, sanding and painting. Well, if you think about it, she did most of the work.

We can’t wait to get the heating and hot water equipment installed, particularly after the very long road that led us to the mechanical design and decision on what system to use. That experience is worth a bunch of blog posts in itself.


Pipe column details

The time lapse of the column installation shows the process OK, but doesn’t give much away on the structural anatomy.  For those who are interested, here are some more details starting from the bottom up.

Earlier this year, while preparing for the new basement floor, we poured a four by four foot reinforced concrete spread footing at each pipe column location, which is centered between each existing column.

On top of the spread footing, we prepared the thermal breaks for the 18 by 18 inch footing pedestal, which got filled with concrete during the basement floor pour.

The top of the pedestal is at the same elevation as the new concrete floor. The pipe column bottom is welded to a ½ inch steel plate, which in turn is anchored into the spread footing pedestal with ¾ inch concrete anchor bolts.

Going all the way to the top of the pipe column, we have another ½ steel plate that is welded to the pipe column and the existing WF steel beam.

To add rigidity to the assembly, the design called for a ½ inch stiffener steel plate to be welded into the WF beam right above the pipe column. In some instances, like in the above image, we had enough room to fit the stiffener plate.


In other locations, we had the floor joist right above the pipe column. Rather than tinkering around with the existing floor joists we opted to install two stiffener plates that were offset by a few inches from the column center line.

Do you need similar work done? Here are the resources I used:

Structural design by Louis Shell Structures


Vegetable garden support…

That is the answer to the question in the last post. How do those steel pipes and plates support a vegetable garden?


Well, let’s take a step back. In April, I was contemplating our dream of a green roof, or more precisely a vegetable garden on our roof. A structural analysis showed that this would be possible at reasonable cost.


The analysis also showed that we would need additional steel columns in the basement to support the weight transfer from the roof. Since then we had excavated and poured the required spread footings. All that’s missing now are the actual pipe columns.


The materials are on site and we have the expertise of Yuval and Adam who will prepare and install the assembly. This involves quite a bit of grinding on the pipe column ends to get them ready for the weld joints.


In the basement, the existing steel work got polished at the various welding locations. Once that was done, Yuval clamped and tack welded the top plates of the pipe columns to the existing WF steel beam that runs from front to back through the basement.

We now could transcribe the location of the bottom plate on the spread footing pedestal with the help of a plumb line, set the plate in place and squeeze the pipe column between the top and bottom plates.

Installations like this call for non-shrink grout under the bottom plate to fill any gaps and make the installation a little easier. Yuval exercised great precision when measuring the lengths of the columns.

So much precision that we could, with the help of a hammer and wood block, nudge the pipe column between the two plates. I was ready for the non-shrink grout, but I had no place or gap to put it.

Once we had the pipe column centered and plumb, Yuval finished the welding around the top plate, welded the pipe column to the top and bottom plate, and welded the stiffener plates into the existing WF steel beam right above the columns.

That is a lot of welding with a lot of sparks close to a lot of 100 year old floor joists and other framing lumber. We were very careful to have a water sprayer and two fire extinguishers nearby – very nearby.

Last task: painting all blank steel with primer and anchoring the bottom plates with ¾ inch bolts into the spread footing pedestal.


We have support in place, but no vegetable yet. Hmm, I wonder when we will get our first harvest?


Finishing the job

I like to think that our new basement windows have a pretty good energy performance:

  • U-value: 0.20
  • SHGC: 0.21
  • Visible transmittance: 0.36
  • Air leakage: 0.02

For definitions of the terms above, refer to “The world of windows” post.

But that performance is only as good as the building envelope surrounding the windows. In other words, the insulation value of the window (about R-5) will be negated if the insulation value of the wall is below that of the window, or if there are gaps and cracks around the window that allow for cold or hot and humid air infiltration.

We have planned for proper wall insulation and have already taken the first steps toward that goal with the perimeter wall framing. We have also worked hard on eliminating thermal bridging. All these efforts should assure an appropriate R-value in the building envelope surrounding the window.

But we still have more than enough gaps (or intended thermal breaks) around our freshly installed windows. They are between the masonry opening and the buck and between the buck and window jambs, header and sill. To finish the job, I need to fill all gaps with spray foam and render them air tight.

Because of the rigidity of the masonry and buck, the gaps in-between are filled with regular spray foam.  Not so the gaps between the buck and window. Here I need to use a low pressure expending foam so as not to bow the window. There are specially formulated foams out there just for door and window applications.

Last step: taking out a sharp utility knife to remove any excess foam after it cured.