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Bostonia: The Alumni Magazine of Boston University

Winter-Spring 2012 Table of Contents

Homes to Lust After

Kevin O’Connor (GSM’99) celebrates The Best Homes from This Old House

| From Alumni Books | By John O’Rourke

“The photographs here tell the story of This Old House in a totally different way,” says Kevin O’Connor. Photo by Image Group LA

After renovating a farmhouse in Carlisle, Mass., for the PBS series This Old House in 2004, show host Kevin O’Connor had an epiphany. TOH had undertaken the project to commemorate its 25th anniversary, and rather than the usual method of working with an existing homeowner, producers bought the property outright. This afforded them the luxury of working an entire season on a single project and having a more flexible budget. And because there were no owners, once all the remodeling and rebuilding was complete, O’Connor and his colleagues did not have to decamp immediately.

“Usually, we might finish filming on a Thursday,” says O’Connor (GSM’99), “and the homeowners are back in their house by Saturday morning. It’s like any construction. They’re just desperate to get back home.”

O’Connor’s eureka moment came when he was kicking back in the beautifully renovated house. “All of this stuff that I was enjoying and experiencing sitting on the couch, I realized viewers never get to see,” he says. “We’re mostly about sawdust and process on the show. But there are a lot of people who love design, and I figured they’d probably want to linger a little bit longer on these finished spaces.”

The Carlisle, Mass., project involved repurposing an old barn, which now houses a “living hall” with a massive fireplace. Book photos by Michael Casey

O’Connor came up with an idea for a book that would celebrate the best of the finished homes created by the builders, designers, and craftsmen of This Old House. He knew that only still photographs—not video—could adequately capture the beauty of the completed interiors. Where the TV series devotes only the last half of the last episode to the finished rooms, a lavishly illustrated book would allow fans to study the rooms and appreciate the artistry involved in each project.

O’Connor contacted professional photographer Mike Casey, his roommate at the College of the Holy Cross and a close friend, for help on the project. Over the next six years, the two set about documenting in words and pictures the transformation of eight homes featured on the show. (Two other houses, completed before the book idea was hatched, are also included.) “The photographs here tell the story of This Old House in a totally different way,” says O’Connor.

In deciding which houses to include in The Best Homes from This Old House (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2011), O’Connor says he chose those whose transformation was greatest and finished product most impressive. Case in point: the 130-year-old Second Empire Victorian in Roxbury, Mass., that the show gutted and rebuilt in 2009. He laughs now, recalling the project. The TOH team not only had to remove three layers of siding and rebuild the entire foundation, but the whole back of the house, which they’d initially thought could be salvaged, had to be destroyed and replaced. “This building should have been torn down,” says O’Connor, “but we had made the decision to renovate it, that was the deal we had struck.”

The facade of the old barn was left intact. The dining room walls were covered in red silk.

The stunning photographs of completed renovation reveal what is possible for even the most derelict buildings with the right craftsmen. Page after page chronicles similar before-and-after tales: a Brooklyn, N.Y., brownstone, a bungalow in Austin, Tex., and a 20th-century modern in Cambridge, Mass., among others.

O’Connor admits that his personal favorite is the Carlisle farmhouse. He was still fairly new to the show when they undertook the renovation, which required working on three separate structures—a historic Greek revival house, an old barn, and a one-story ell connecting the two. The project allowed them to demonstrate three different methods of construction: renovation, reconstruction, and repurposing. “I was unbelievably upbeat that we were able to do all this on a single project,” he says.

The book also celebrates the many craftsmen, artists, and homeowners who, in O’Connor’s words, “create these beautiful spaces”—people like Tedd Benson, a master timber framer, and plumber Richard Trethewey, both frequent contributors to the show. It pays homage to the people behind the show as well, people viewers never glimpse, like talented cameraman Stephen “Dino” D’Onofrio. “Gathering their work in a single volume is a fitting way to celebrate their efforts,” says O’Connor.

He reminds readers in the introduction that “homes aren’t renovated by ‘us’ or ‘them.’ The work is done by real people who labor for long days over many months, shaping and fitting materials, transforming pallets of supplies into spaces that offer both comfort and shelter.”

Ask the Expert: Kevin O’Connor
Readers took advantage of our invitation to ask Kevin O’Connor about home-remodeling. Here are some of those questions, along with O’Connor’s responses.

QWe are adding a master suite and bedroom atop a 1967 ranch in Darien, Conn. We need to raise the chimney. We may have room to keep the existing concrete encasing (in the attic, about to become new bedroom wall) around the two fireplace and one oil burner flues. Is it safer to keep old concrete surroundings and just extend the chimney up past new roof line, or are the new flues with more flexible modern insulation requirements safer to be built, starting on the floor of the new second floor? What would be some important pointers regarding insulating?

Also, we are extending the sink and dishwasher area out three feet, cantilevering with a post into our deck area. Will the eight-foot space under that three-foot extension cause insulation headaches, or would it be better to fill in the three-foot extension space under the deck with an unheated tool shed or something against brick wall of walkout basement? If we skip the shed, what type of insulation would prevent sink/dishwasher/pipe problems?

I wish you could bid on the project. We’re excited! — Adria Bates

AI have to pass on the chimney question as it’s out of my expertise, and in any regard, it would be best to have a mason look at this specific situation. This is not a question that is served well by a general answer. You don’t want a chimney fire or to mess around with flue gases.

With regard to the extension of your kitchen, I can say it’s always best to keep the plumbing inside the conditioned space. If you can add walls to the three sides of the extension, that would help, even if the space underneath is not conditioned.

But regardless of what you do with the walls, treat the space as if it were completely outside and insulate it well. Local code should dictate the minimum r-value of insulation needed in this situation, so check with your plumber or builder. In this case, expanding foam insulation is preferable to fiberglass because in addition to its r-value, the foam will cut down on air infiltration and make a better seal against the cold. Closed cell foam insulation will have a far superior r-value per inch than both open cell and fiberglass insulation, so I recommend paying a little extra money for the peace of mind.

And if the extension is going to be finished on the underside, consider building in an access hatch in case you need to get to the pipes at a later date.

QI live in a single-family home built by my parents in 1955. I have a problem with banging pipes when the heat comes on, present since the home was built. The banging lasts for about 45 seconds or so—not long but very loud, as if someone were hitting the pipes with a hammer.

This is a hot water, oil burner heating system with cast iron baseboard heating “units” that extend along the full length of three walls in most rooms. The kitchen and the foyer each have what might be considered a "standard" 40-inch-wide-by-20-inch-tall cast iron radiator, rather than that baseboard heating. Those baseboard "units" in most of the rooms are about six inches high. Bleeding of the pipes doesn’t help eliminate the banging.

The room with the most banging is my bedroom, which is above an unheated garage. There is access to the heating copper pipes for most of the rooms in the house in the ceiling of the basement below them. But because the ceiling of the garage is what I think is cement, with some fluffy insulation above, there is no access to that piping from below for my bedroom, or for an adjacent bedroom also over the garage.

Have you a solution for me?— Gerald Strassberger

AOur plumbing expert, Richard Trethewey, has tackled this problem plenty of times, and from working beside him, here’s what I think is going on: There are a couple of reasons your pipes might make noise. The first is something called “water hammer,” which is when a valve closes quickly and the weight of flowing water slams into the closed valve. I don’t think this is your issue, however. Instead, I think your copper pipes are expanding and contracting as they go from cold to hot. Copper expands when it heats up, so when you turn on your heat and the hot water starts flowing through them, the pipes get longer. And those pipes are held to the floor or ceiling joists with fasteners, causing friction when they expand. Hence the noise.

Wherever possible, try to relieve that friction, at either the fastener or wherever the pipe comes into contact with the home’s framing, walls, or floor. Wrap a piece of rubber or cardboard around the pipe so it can more easily move as it expands. A good picture of what I’m talking about can be found here:


I hope this helps. Cross your fingers that expansion and friction are only occurring in those places that are accessible.

QWhat is the best (least disruptive) and most cost-effective way to remodel a basement or room with plaster walls? The plaster is constantly falling when improvements are done in the space, and it is time to get rid of it completely so the basement can be better weatherproofed and updated. (I am a huge fan of the This Old House series.)

I sincerely thank you for any information you can offer. — Adrienne Vyfhuis

ABefore you undertake any basement remodel, determine if the space is wet. If it takes on water, consider leaving it unfinished, or make sure you seal it up and allow for proper drainage. This can be done with an interior perimeter drain, a sump pump, hydraulic cement to seal cracks and gaps, a good sealing paint such as Drylok, as well as work on the exterior to keep the water away from the house. On the outside gutters with good downspouts that direct the rain away from the house, a French drain and proper grading are your best friends.

If the space isn’t perfectly dry but dry enough to refinish, consider using materials that will prevent mold, such as paperless wallboard, pressure-treated wood or metal studs, synthetic fibers for the carpet, or, better yet, no carpet at all but ceramic tiles instead. I recently put carpet in my basement, but made sure to use carpet tiles instead of wall-to-wall carpet in case I needed to remove or replace some (which I did!). It’s a lot easy to take up a few carpet tiles than to patch or replace a room of wall-to-wall carpet.

New drywall should hold up much better than your old plaster, but you might consider a bead board or wood panel look, too. You can by 4'x8' sheets in many different styles and materials and apply them to the wall.

Lastly, consider hiring a company that specializes in basement remodels. They generally are more experienced with these spaces, and that means they can assess how wet the basement is and then tailor the remodel to address your conditions.

QWe built a home in 2004 and have a metal door that opens to an upper deck. Every time there is a wind/rainstorm, water somehow gets under the door, and it is getting onto the floor and into the underneath wall. We have tried many things to fix the problem, but still water. We had someone come and look at it, and he put an edging strip at the bottom of the door and extra weather facing on the step under the door. Sealant and weather stripping and other things are not working. I am worried about water damage to the walls underneath. Do you have any suggestions? — Joyce

AA good seal at the bottom of that door is critical, so make sure the work that was done in that spot was thorough. Also, keep in mind that even though the water is ending up at the bottom of the door, it could be getting in elsewhere. A door is a penetration into the wall and has to be properly flashed around ALL its sides. The water might, for example, come through the upper corner and then run down behind the casing or even inside the wall cavity. See if there are any signs of water damage anywhere else around the door and even consider taking off the exterior casing for better access.

If the problem persists, you might have to remove the door and re-flash around all four sides before reinstalling the door.

Norm Abram, our master carpenter, dealt with a similar problem and dished out some good advice of his own. Check it out here:


QI have been restoring a 1938 Walter Gropius/Marcel Breuer–designed house in Bucks County, Pa., for the past 15 years, and helped put it on the National Historic register. Last year’s rains were especially rough on this delicate glass and redwood structure, as you might imagine. The original windows (ribbon style and picture size, as well as hand cranked) are single pane and great in many respects except efficiency and wear.

Any ideas on how to keep the place standing? If used in one of your episodes, who covers the cost of renovation? At this point it feels a bit like a losing battle. — David Itkoff

ACongratulations on all your hard work and inclusion on the National Historic register. Keeping an old house running is not an easy job. It’s hard to spell out a comprehensive plan for keeping your house “standing” as you say without seeing it. Unfortunately, in my experience, the answer often includes large measures of time and money, and then more of both.

When This Old House renovates a home for our program, the costs are borne by the homeowner. But often times those costs are defrayed significantly through the donations of materials. It’s hard to put a dollar amount on those donations, but they can be significant. Additionally, the renovation is quick (by about 30 percent or 40 percent) and carried out by some of the best tradesmen in business.

Just about all the projects we work on come from viewers of the program who write or email us, so feel free to submit your proposal via our website. Just know, however, that it will be one among thousands or even tens of thousands of emails that we receive every year.

QHaving a home with electric heat, I’ve happily had propane backup in the basement family room for 22 years. Safety problems with the burner required replacement and the new stove caused CO emissions. The distance from the stove to the chimney is too far, I’m told—the number of elbows and pipe horizontal distance is prohibitive. What can I put in safely and ‘to code’ to handle future heating of the area and cover power failures? I’ve considered infrared heaters, but these are electric, and I can’t handle pellets for a pellet stove.

I am an 82-year-young widow and have entered a proposal to This Old House for a whole house re-do for a senior home, including this project, but have not heard anything yet. I want to stay in my own home, but it is presently uncomfortable without heat downstairs. How can it be fixed? — Eeva Stromski

AConsider a backup system for your electricity instead of a backup system for your heat. A standby generator can service the whole house or a limited number of circuits, depending on its size, and can run off natural gas or, in your case, propane. The benefit to this system is that it can be built to automatically turn on in a power failure and run continuously as long as your fuel source is available. In the case of natural gas, that might be indefinite and for propane it might be days or a week, depending on the size of your tank (which can be refilled easily). Another benefit is that this system keeps your current heating system operational as well as other critical functions of the house, such as your refrigerator or a well pump if you have one.

The cost of these systems varies based on size and the configuration of your home, but when thinking about the price, consider that you are not just providing a backup for your heating system, you are also backing up other critical functions of your home.

QAny tips on finding picture rails and installing them in an 1850’s Victorian? — Dana

APicture rails are typically wood moldings that traverse a room’s wall, and you can hang pictures from them or they serve simply as a decorative element. So, what you’re really looking for is wooden molding, and something that matches what you have, I presume.

There are three usual ways to match existing molding.
(1) Millwork shops and online/mail order dealers carry lots of different profiles, and you can usually find a match, as many early molding profiles were standard and used repeatedly throughout the country.
(2) Salvage yards often carry lengths of unique and antique moldings, as do folks on eBay.
(3) And finally, if cost is not a concern, you can have your profile replicated exactly. A millwork shop can cut a knife to match your existing profile and then mill an exact replica in any quantity you need. But beware: this is an expensive option, especially if you only need a small amount.

As an alternative, consider harvesting the molding you need for one room from another room in your house. You can then use new and hopefully similar molding on the now bare walls of the other room. Since it’s unlikely you can see into both rooms at the same time there’s no need for an exact match.

QOur first floor, which has a kitchenette at one end, has an entirely wood flooring. The bathroom floor, kitchenette floor, and the floor in front of the washer/dryer are all suffering water damage. Is there a way to put down a good tile over the wood without trapping water underneath it? We rent the townhouse, but I suspect that the landlord would want us to pay for floorboard repairs, and I don’t see how we could replace the floorboards in a way that would prevent the damage from happening again. — Rachel

AA. If you lay a tile floor over the existing wood floor, you will have height issues at the baseboard, thresholds and appliances at the very least. Tile should be installed over cement board and some sort of mastic or thin set. That will add half an inch or more to your existing floor’s height and cause lots of headaches.

Instead, consider refinishing the wood floor. A good sanding and refinishing by a pro can have a dramatic impact. Alternatively, there are other surfaces that you can apply over the wood floor, such as vinyl tiles that come in hundreds of finishes and measure only about a quarter of an inch thick.

Finally, get to the bottom of the water damage. Otherwise, you run the risk of ruining all your hard work.

QHi Kevin. I have been watching TOH since the very first season. I love your show.

We just built a house using Azek for all the exterior trim on the entire house. We live on the Gulf Coast, right on the water. I absolutely love the Azek and believe in the long run that it will drastically reduce maintenance costs, which is a very positive thing. So, now my question: What do you think of using cellular PVC vs more sustainable resources?

AI’m a big fan of cellular PVC. Its critics knock the fact that it is often a petroleum-based material and is not sustainable, but I think they miss the point. Azek and other similar brands can last a lifetime, which means you may never have to use additional material for the trim on your house, and that’s what matters. It can save resources, as well as time and money. And it looks authentic.

QI have a pine house; a portion of the ceiling that is pine has fingerprints all over it. (The exterminator did it.) What should I do? I do not want to scrap the whole ceiling—too expensive. Thank you for your help. — Andy

AWithout seeing the room, it’s hard to say for sure, but let me assume you’re talking about knotty pine boards on your ceiling. Consider cleaning them, first with soap and water, which should work if the boards have a clear coat finish. If that doesn’t work, try a diluted solution of TSP and water (use protective cloves and glasses) or some off-the-shelf wood cleaners. There are many brands available. A more aggressive approach is to sand the affected area and then refinish it. I recommend sanding lightly and in a discrete spot first to see how it looks once you’ve refinished it. If you can replicate the original look, then go after the affected spot on the ceiling.

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Ask the Expert

Through March, Kevin O’Connor will answer your home-remodeling questions.

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