New Year, New Project

I’m busy again. This time I’m doing part-time work for a neighbor who has big plans for his traditional farmhouse. Bob wants to convert his attic into a comfortable master bedroom, and when that’s done he wants to expand his barn (not shown) in a pretty creative way. He hired me for the extra set of hands, but I’ll also offer structural advice wherever I can.

Bob’s house was built in the late 19th century, and the details from that era are fascinating. We found nails with square cross sections, relics from the height of the Industrial Revolution when nail-making was first mechanized but before the introduction of the round wire nails everyone uses today. The original roof rafters vary between sawn timbers and full rounds, which makes me think the farmers self-built the house with wood they harvested onsite. The original structure has stood for over a century and shows no signs of structural deficiency. (Well, there’s the Leaning Tower of Chimney, but that’s not really structural.)

Original rafters and sheathing. The Leaning Tower of Chimney is just left of the door.

Original rafters and sheathing. The Leaning Tower of Chimney is just left of the door.

On the other hand, a renovation performed in the 1970s has held up poorly. The entire north side of the 12-on-12 gable roof was replaced by a dormer with a shallow pitch, creating enough headroom for a bedroom. The 2×6 dormer rafters seem a bit slim for the 10-foot span, and holes cut near the bottom fiber of some rafters for wiring make them effectively even slimmer. The rafters don’t sag, but they are cracking, particularly at the stress points where they meet the ridge beam. I suggested adding splice plates to strengthen the rafters at the hole locations, and Bob replied he might as well double up every rafter. Works for me!

2x6 rafters support a dormer roof.

2×6 rafters support a dormer roof.

It felt great to dive into hands-on labor for the first time in over a month. Of course, retrofitting an old house requires different steps than building a new one, and for starters I enjoyed the novelty of demolition. Working with a hammer claw and sometimes a crowbar, and wearing gloves and a respirator, I ripped out all the remaining drywall and batt insulation. I also pried nailers loose from the rafters – we’ll gain a few more inches of headroom by attaching the new ceiling directly to the rafters. For new construction you usually pull nails out only when you make a mistake, but for demo dislodging a nail that protrudes is actual forward progress, and I must have pulled hundreds from the studs and rafters.

The growing pile of debris, looking east.

The growing pile of debris, looking east.

Bob’s specific goals for the attic are to make structural improvements, insulate it better, and reconfigure interior walls to make the bedroom more attractive and functional, including a walk-in closet. I look forward to working with him.

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