Sunday, February 14, 2010

Garden shed

Long ago, I mentioned fixing up the garden shed to make it liveable during the summer. Electricity was a must, so we wired the shack. It looks a bit industrial, but since there is no heat out there it needs to be outdoor rated (fear of condensating air).
Digging for the feeder from the main house was pretty bad, the ground is hard and incredibly full of roots as well as two sewer pipes that forced us to dig deeper than we had intended to. We did get it done in one afternoon though.
Once we had juice and light out there we could start working on fixing the building up. As I mentioned before, when we bought the house there was a big hole in the roof (as I type this, the hole kinda reminds me of the story I read on some house blog or forum of previous owners who were crackheads and managed to get the attention of the police by launching their kitchen stove through the roof, even though this hole was definitely caused by wet rot and not flying objects) which we had fixed ASAP, but the floor underneath had suffered too.
There were several seriously rigged bookshelves, one of which is barely visible at the right hand edge of this picture. When we first got in there I supported it with a stack of paperbacks, but it was clear it had to go. So we piled the books into boxes, ripped down the shelves (no tools required, 5 minutes of work) and cleared out the whole shack, again piling up lots of trash. The shack odd shaped due to the long and narrow garden, 2m long and 4m wide, built along the fence. The fence is actually a tall brick wall which also served as one exterior wall of the shack. This contraption had been built in ca. 1990 using the leftovers of a garden shed, 2/3 of which were just open and 1/3 with a wooden plank rear wall (between the planks and the brick wall there was a 10cm gap). The exposed section of the brick wall had been covered with rigid foam insulation and wallpapered, with paper looking like knotty pine paneling. The remaining third had the sheets of insulation just stuffed in between the brick and plank wall and the plank wall covered with tar paper and pine paneling. This was below the roof leak so we decided to remove the whole shebang. A great idea! Everything was rotted and there were thousands of ants living in the planks and the foam sheets! The planks actually had the soft part of the grain eaten out!

The more we worked on the building, the more clear it became how poor the construction was. There are no foundations at all, the main timbers are rotting away where they met the ground. The floor, some of which is holding the walls up suffered severe and active woodworm damage and will need complete replacement at some point. Furthermore, thre are pretty big holes in all walls (old cat door, poor framing,...). Permanently fixing this is going to be like rebuilding! In the end, my uncle never came to help, so we didn't really need to fix this up too much, but we did replace the worst section of the floor with leftover old boards, so it is in theory useable. Anything beyond is a project for the distant future when the main house is done.

Damp course

After a lot of discussions and almost hiring a different company, we had a small Vienna based company install a horizontal damp course in all our walls. The process is simple - they have a regular electric chainsaw, fitted with a diamond-coated chain to make it possible to cut mortar (and to some extent brick) which they take to the wall. They cut small sections, up to 1m in width, depending on the shape of the mortar joints. Ours was crumbling, so they cut much smaller sections. Then they push in a sandwich damp course consisting of two layers extra-strong tar paper and a layer of plastic in the middle. To keep the house from settling, they first insert plastic wedges and then fill the cut with mortar. Again, the filling method is very plain. They took an old plaster pump (yeah, such beasts exist - fill the funnel with plaster, point the nozzle and shoot plaster at the wall. Just need to trowel it smooth) and created their own nozzle for narrow cuts by hammering a piece of copper plumbing pipe flat.

They estimated a week, but in the end it took them three weeks to complete the work. Where bricks simply fell out or where they couldn't find straight joints to work with they had to do real masonry repair, which took even more time. However, the main work is charged by wall cross section and not based on time, so the price didn't change. Now we're mainly waiting for the walls to dry out - we were told to wait around 6 months before plaster, which means late spring.

Here you can see a progress shot:

Mostly they cut underneath the floor, that means we don't have to worry about damp-proofing the wall underneath the damp course. The floor membrane will simply extend up to the damp course. The floors are going to be a very low-cement concrete mix, extremely thin (3cm) just to give a clean surface to work with. It is going to be covered with overlapped tar paper. To prevent creating a bath tub which keeps water forever in case of a pipe leak or other event, we intend to build a small gravel-filled sump in one corner of each room covered with felt (to keep the sump from getting filled with silt). The original plans didn't include that, the damp course company guy said overlapping and not connecting the tar paper would be enough, but I'm not convinced.

On top of this we're going to pour the screed in the bathroom and WC and do a traditional wood floor in all other rooms. That means a dirt or slag infill with sleepers and a floating wood floor. Not having it rest directly on the concrete has two major advantages: it makes the floor slightly softer to walk on and it allows us to be less anal about the height of the concrete.

The guys were pretty good at their job, and they only caused me one minor fit of screaming (well, actually not even that, but it could have become one). They just cut two big honking pieces out of the non-rotted section of our plank floor!
The darker piece is the top, the light wood is the bottom of the second piece, including the sleepers the floor used to rest on. I mean we needed to pull this up anyway, but taking a chainsaw to the floor without asking?!?

So far we didn't get any noticeable cracks, but I think they won't be so bad anyway with all the plaster gutted.

PS: I started playing with the HTML code for the embedded pictures a little, we'll see if it worked. I don't have the slightest knowledge of HTML, but I tried to reduce the size of the embedded pics to thumbnails you can click on.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Still alive

Yes, I am still alive... even though I didn't post for ages.

First a reference to the last post. Actually we don't have much more than 10m2 (about 100 sq. ft.) of flooring, but with what we alredy had and what we might be able to get it'll hopefully enough - or maybe we can do the whole back hall with it. Once we get to it.

Plumber #2 came for an estimate in mid June. In October he sent an e-mail with a few questions which I answered promptly. So far we didn't get anything.

Around the same time, plumber #3 came in for an estimate. In mid-December he called and asked if we needed the work to get done before Christmas which we declined. Nothing from him so far either. We mostly liked that guy, so we still might take his services.

The two biggest changes so far: all floors are out (with the exception of half the big room) and we had the walls cut through (which more or less required removing the floors).

Here is the full fun story:
After endless discussions we got an estimate from the only company in the whole half of the country that hammers corrugated stainless steel sheets into the wall. Most people claimed that this method is perfect for adobe houses and all others will crack the walls. When we had already told them to do the work (only on the phone though, so no problem canceling that) several people told us to call another guy, including my architect uncle, who had him do his own house and is happy with the results some 10 years later. So we did and made an appointment. The guy was very nice (and nowhere near as pushy and sleek as the stainless steel guy) and really seemed to know what he was talking about. He mentioned the obvious fact, that corrugated steel sheets won't really line up and form a proper seal in the corners... and his offer was better than the first one.

All rooms renovated by the previous owners (i.e. back hall, bathroom and small room) as well as the front hall had solid poured concrete floors, tiled in the bathroom, covered with loose roll vinyl in the back hall and small room and bare in the front hall. Apparently the front hall concrete was intended to be a finished floor (*gag*) and pretty high up, no way of putting a finished floor on top, except vinyl or carpet (in fact it was even considerably higher than the floor in both the kitchen and big room). The back hall had a 2" step in the middle of the floor to accomodate an inwards opening door in an otherwise higher floor - talk about a tripping hazard! The back room floor was even worse - almost 6" higher than the higher part of the back hall floor. So all those floors had to go.

The wall between bathroom and back hall was built onto said concrete floor and had to go, with the additional advantage of giving us the chance to enlarge the bathroom by about 6", giving us the chance of rotating the tub 90 degrees and build a separate water closet around the current toilet.
Out came the sledge hammer. The wall put up a serious fight. It had been built in 1976 to split a bedroom into back hall and bathroom and consisted of some odd breeze block, hollow concrete blocks mixed with small brick splinters for volume. Taking it down took us the better part of two days, lots of cursing and a bruised and scratched elbow on my side (wanted to take a big blow with the hammer, moved my arm backwards and hit the wall), nothing serious though.
We ended up with some galvanized plumbing hanging in mid-air *g*

Then we proceeded to gut the plaster as long as we had the floors, they did make cleanup a lot easier. In the small room we gave up - the better part of 3 walls is cement plaster (aka concrete) reinforced with chicken wire. Purists are going to scream here, but let me calm you down! This house is 130 years old (parts perhaps older) and has been altered and renovated so many times it's impossible to tell which parts are original and which aren't. Since creeping damp has always been an issue, plaster was repaired and replaced continuously throughout the house's history and is a mishmash of at least 4 different types.
- mud plaster. Only remains in modest patches in bad shape with the exception of the front hall, where we kept it on 3 walls. The way it was originally done.
- bad lime plaster, crumbling away, perhaps 1930s.
- very hard lime plaster, which unfortunately didn't adhere to the adobe brick and came tumbling down in huge sheets.
- cement plaster, which needs to go since the walls are badly damaged behind and need to dry out.
That means we gutted all plaster with the exception of the two long walls of the front hall (and the tiny one above the back door) and the small room, where we just didn't get off our lazy butts so far to remove the concrete completely.

Then we started to attack the concrete. The most common way to build a floor here (in modern construction) is to pour some kind of concrete, either a slab or a load-bearing ceiling, with insulation, perhaps radiant underfloor heating and another layer of conrete, the screed on top. The screed is usually 5-7.5cm (2-3") thick and never reinforced. The finish floors are laid on top of the screed - tile, carpet or vinyl usually glued, engineered hardwood or laminate installed floating. In older houses with strip foundations, the screed is usually poured directly on the dirt between the load-bearing walls during extensive renovations and that's what we had.

In order to be able to get rid of the debris in wheelbarrows we started with the small room. The screed was unusually thick (roughly 10-15cm/4-6") and hard. Underneath we found plastic, mineral wool insulation (stupid, the soft battens can't take the weight of the concrete) and what we thought dirt. Towards the window, the screed got thicker and thicker, but finally we had it out. Then we wrapped the insulation into the plastic (did you ever work wearing rubber gloves in 30+C weather? The gloves just fill up with sweat!) and hauled it out into the yard. At that time we realized our mistake. The stuff underneath wasn't dirt but tar paper. And underneath the tar paper we found... another screed! This one was worse - while some spots were barely more than 1cm thick and crumbled away, others went up to 20cm (8")! At that point we imitated the PO's handyman: "Hey, we got a hole! Gimme concrete!"
Then we had a gaping hole underneath the door.

(This was the last g(l)ory shot before we trashed that 1976 hollow core door with aluminum hardware and rusted steel frame).

Removing the water heater in the bathroom we discovered that the bathroom floor sloped in every direction, but NOT towards the floor drain. Ingenious! The bathroom/hall floor went considerably faster, mainly because there was loose sand underneath, which made it much easier to crack the screed. Unfortunately, the screws holding the toilet bowl were completely rusted and didn't move- Our careful attempt to separate it from the floor broke it. Norally I wouldn't mind, a new bowl is close to free, but this one was extra tall, which is €129 new. Oh well...

Because the front hall floor was 2cm higher than all other floors (2cm is the standard thickness for most older flooring) I suspected concrete over an old floor. That wasn't the case though - ca. 10cm screed over dirt. Extremely awful to remove. To make matters worse, I had a cold when we did it and every blow of the hammer transferred directly to my head. Not good. My brothers and my dad (after all, it's a family house and not mine) did a lot of work too though.

For the wall cutting process we needed to remove 2 boards of the kitchen floor, a beautiful wide plank pine floor, one of the main selling points. Unfortunately we find it extremly worn (some of the boards are down to half their thickness) so we remove it altogether and hope to replace it with a salvaged floor. The sleepers in the dirt underneath (we expected 5x8cm/2x3") were a whopping 10x10cm (4x4) but some were soft like bath sponges. Wet rot.

Then we proceeded to remove some floor boards in the big room (less worn wide plank floor). Unfortunately it was completely rotted and woodworm-eaten near the front, so we removed more and more. ABout half the room appears to be shot.

I'm going to dedicate a few more catch-up posts on wall cutting (in full detail), wiring and other small items over the next few days.