Restoring an old house brings another dimension to the meaning of DIY


Restoring an old house brings another dimension to the meaning of DIY.   It takes Drive Inspiration and Years to complete. About year ago, I started my project… now, a year later it is still not completed. Sure , it has changed a lot…since that early morning on October 10 , 2014.

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Restoring an old house is like building 3 new houses, first you need to tear it down to its very basic shape, deal with the surprise’s and finally start to build it up. It can be very pain taken, never knowing what will hit you next… You remove a timeworn wall to erect a new one and notice while doing so that it has no foundation.

It just sits on the floor. I am not joking these things do happen and often I wonder how things could last that long.

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Tearing down the interior is something that needs to be done with great care, especially since the old elements such as fireplace, windows, doors and floors are to be preserved and recovered. Floor tiles are removed by hand one after the other, transported outside for storage.   Wondering when I will see those tiles again. As they say  “all good things exist out of three”  – remove, clean and install.

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Four containers of 20 cubic meters each arrived, to be filled with dirt and debris.   You might think that this is easy; let me assure you that shuffling 80 cubic meters is one hell of a job for a men.

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It was like pounding on rocks time after time, as the soil consisted of clay, sand and pieces of rock. Not to mention the concrete slab in one of the rooms.

It didn’t take long before I realized that a small digger would be needed to complete the job. I rented a small track excavator with a variable track, allowing me to drive the thing inside through the door openings. It took a week of scrapping and excavating until a sufficient depth was reached for a new concrete base.   Filling the wheelbarrows in an endless reverberation.

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Finally I could tear down the inner wall, an easy job as there was no foundation or anchoring into any other walls. A few short decisive pushes with the excavators scope made the 300 year old wall collapse with one hell of a dust cloud.

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Now I could move on to the second room, this was all handwork as the excavator could not enter the room and secondly there was a basement under the floor.

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There was no way I would take changes with those old arc walls. They say that they become stronger under load, that might very well be… but still it was too risky. Four more days of digging, finally the arced wall became visible.

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Now the place was ready to receive 40 cubic meter of extra strong concrete, mixed with steel enforcement rods. Not a steel grid or mesh as you would expect, but single 10 centimeter steel wire rods mixed in the concrete at the mill.   It is as good as a 12 mm steel net.

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Poring concrete is a piece of cake, especially if the mixer can reach inside. I had a long plastic tube extended through the window. The concrete filled the rooms in no time, and since it was prepared with extra viscosity and slow dry additives, I had ample of time to level it… Late that night my arms gave up.

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Finally a few days rest, allowing the concrete to settle and harden.   The next major event was the removal of the old staircase. Build in 1616, made out of oak and assembled with wooden pins.

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I drilled out the wooden pins, numbered the pillars and other parts for later assembly. Of course one often forgets how heavy oak beams can be. The steps were all rotten and needed replacement; an easy way to remove them was the chainsaw. Biting through the rotten wood.

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As with anything else in an old house, one surprise after the other. The top rafter along the wall and the rafter spanning the sidewalls were gone, eaten by time.

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Over the years I collected lots of old building materials, all I needed was to rework a spare old oak beam to the right dimensions and create the tongue and grove. Not that hard to do, it just takes time.

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Once complete, the beams were hoisted into place by a pulley and my poor back. At the end it looked worthy and formed a solid base for the ceiling and the staircase… oh well, whenever I would get to the point of re-assembling the staircase.   I had other things to do first.

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The ceilings in the rooms are constructed with large oak beams, called “ mothers”. They span from wall to wall and support the roof triangular beams and the rafters.

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Insulation did not exist in the old days, and what was the ceiling from below, was the floor above. The rafters were cross-covered with floorboards, forming the ceiling and floor at the same time.

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Woodworm and rot ate those floorboards. They were removed and burned; it took days before that old wood was removed. All what remained was a skeleton of rafters and mothers seeded with iron cast nails, once used to hold down the floorboards.

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The fun was not over yet; nail by nail had to be grinded away since removing them was like pulling teeth. As a fakir, I balanced on the rafters been pricked by one or the other nail…I hated it.

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Finally, the rafters and mothers could be cleaned with soda and warm water. Scrubbing and rubbing, side after side, rafter after rafter. I did not want to use sandblasting tools or any other grinding methods… just some hard scotch sponge and a bristle.

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Sandblasting takes the patina away and destroys the original wood surface. Once done, it was time to smoke out all the little creatures like woodworm of their habitats.   Oh yea, they may have lived for hundreds of years in those rafters, but now they are mine and it’s time to go little bastards.

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Time to place new oak planks on the rafters, easy right! It turned out to be a nightmare. The rafters and mothers had deformed over the years, hanging like the belly of pregnant pig. Not that I mind it, as it is part of aging. Yet, it makes it impossible to mount teeth and grove planks. There is only one solution, cut of one lip of the grove (the one facing upwards), and so I did.

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Now I could at last mount the planks, all I had to do was to bold them down with Torx scews of 60mm. That ceiling/floor took 2080 Torx screws. Oh boy, what did those planks surf the waves of the rafters.

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Concrete base done, ceilings done, but what about the walls? That was indeed a big issue. In those early days walls were not placed on water repellent foils , and as a consequence walls were always a bit damp.   I had three choices; remove a layer of bricks and insert a foil, Inject the walls with a water stop product, or build a new shell at the inside.

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The choice was easy, old walls like these (Anno 1616) have settled over time and have a certain water ménage that keeps the old mortar together. If I were to change that environment with a foil and or injection, then those walls would have to re-settle…

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Placing an inner wall offers insulation and a guaranteed drywall, while the outer walls can continue to live their life. And so it happened, 20 pallets of Ytong cellular gas concrete blocks created the inner walls. Glued together, enforced with metal strips every odd row and anchored to the outer walls with plastic and inox taps.

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The good thing about this method is that it creates an air- gab between the outer and inner walls, allowing them to breathe. Ytong is a perfect insulator and a perfect surface for inner wall coating. A month later the walls were erected and could be finished with plaster or drywall (gyprox).

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As I am not really good with plastering, drywall plasterboards were the obvious choice. I had no intention to screw them onto a framework.

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Instead I used foam glue. At first I was a bit hesitant on the use of glue, especially foam based. A trial showed that this stuff is not only fast and easy but also very strong. So I glued all the drywall onto the walls with easyfix Polyureen glue. That went fast, of course the joint filler and finisher takes time. Not to mention the sanding. Corners were enforced with a metal mesh.

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Plasterboards came as 2,6m lengths, for some reason people build in the past high ceilings. Mine is 3,4m , so there you go with an extra joint to take care off.

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Ah, the old fireplace. Once the place where people and animals shared the cold winter days, and enjoyed the cooking over an open fire. If there was one thing that must stay then it was this big fireplace. As long as 2,6m wide and as high as 2m tall, it withstood the teeth of time. It only needed some repointing, a new base and some metal enforcement to keep it all together.

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The base had burned away over the years and needed to be replaced by other red/black clay tiles.   The tiles that had been removed months ago were recalibrated to size, cleaned under high pressure and installed as a new-checkered fireplace base.

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This fireplace roars like mad, what a great thing to have.

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The basement, looked terrible and yet it had something special. I can’t really describe it, macabre and appealing at the same time, strong and robust and yet elegant with its arc walls.

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The floor covered with mud and dirt. It seemed that for many decades it was used as a storage place for potatoes.  Under the mud and dirt, a perfect old floor, red clay tiles…

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All it needed was a quick wash with the high-pressure hose, paintwork on the walls and the grandeur returned to the basement.

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The last thing was a rework of the wooden ramparts of the staircase leading down to the cellar. An easy job, that took some time to complete as the old oak beam that supports the floor was disintegrated and needed a replacement with a steel support beam and some brickwork.

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Days went by , plastering, sanding, cleaning and finally the chiseling of an old wall.

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That wall was made out of an oak structure filled with brickwork. The old plaster was removed reveling the old oak beams. Some re-pointing was needed.

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At the end I decided to leave those walls as naked as they could be… In the early days of the production brickwork was not in place. Instead the openings between the oak beams were filled with branches and clay. That construct collapsed in 1734 and was replaced by brickwork.

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The central room hosts an old and strange fireplace, its massive and fragile basically build with brick and plaster.  Most likely from 1734, it was not uncommon to find those pretentious structures in the Stucco period.

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That fireplace has no foundation and slanders over to the left and falls over with major cracks in the walls.

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The fireplace has been reinforced with metal bars at several places and a foundation as been pored under needs its base. The patient is stable.

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There are still so many things to complete, but at least it gives me something to write about in my next article.

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Thanks for reading

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