When we bought the house we're working on now, we knew it had a few problems.

A few? In Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf's famous words, "Hah!"

For years rain had poured and snow had sifted through the tumbled-down back wall on the third floor, slowly and surely damaging all the wood, plaster and mortar below.

In fact, when you stood at the top of the stairs and looked down, the back part of the house didn't appear to be connected to the front. It was connected, of course, by the side walls; but the gap went right down beside the stairs to the ground floor. And what was holding up the stairs? The landings? What was holding up the landings? They were all pretty bouncy.

Trampoline floors are generally a sign of bad things to come, but it's hard to tell how bad until you start ripping into the house.

We began our rehab with a major demolition effort, partly so we could get down to the framework and assess the damage, and partly because we knew what was there wasn't salvageable. We started at the top, closing in the back wall to keep the rain out and give the house a chance to dry out, and nudging the debris down, floor by floor.

When the old ceilings and plaster came out of the first floor back room, it was clear that the joists between the second-floor floor and the first-floor ceiling were in serious trouble.

"A few bad joists," Randy murmured. "Especially near the door." Hah!

A couple of days later we were admiring the lovely two-story-high space and joking about catwalks to the master bath.

The house is old so the lintels above the windows and doors were made of wood. With age, rain and neglect, they simply rotted out. The bricks above them -- where the joist ends ran into support pockets in the walls -- collapsed. The joists were left swinging in air -- or hanging on by their little wooden fingernails.

The solution: Take out all the collapsing bricks, replace the lintel with steel, mortar in new brickwork; rip up the floor and replace all the joists with new 2 x 12 lumber, leveled up and mortared into the joist pockets; replace the floor with 3/4 tongue in groove plywood.

What Randy didn't say then was that he knew the joists under the first-floor floor were just as bad. He didn't say it because he needed that floor to work on the one above.

"It wasn't that bad," he says.


A couple of weeks later we were studying the lovely two-story-deep space and wondering if we should turn the bottom into a swimming pool, with a high dive off the second-floor landing.

You mean that landing that slipped a few inches the other day and is now supported by a 4 x 4 from the ground floor?


A few days later Gene was using the rock-solid (and almost nearly level) floor in the second floor back as a staging area to cut replacement stair carriages, there was no 2 1/2 floor landing and we were using the fire escape to get to the third floor.

There's a lesson here, and it's not to avoid old houses because they might have big problems. The lesson is that even the biggest problems break down into small pieces: bricks, mortar, lumber, logic. The house wasn't born in one piece, it was built up bit by bit. And it can be rebuilt that way too.

In the case of the joists, some people would suggest scabbing, or sistering, new lumber to the old. However, scabbing works only where the existing joist is basically sound and secure within its support pocket. It's a great method of leveling an otherwise sound old floor, but doubling the thickness of the old joist from wall to wall will just increase the weight and will not provide more support.

And besides, it won't meet many building codes.

In our case, the first-floor joists need to rest on a load-bearing wall at the ground level. The framing all the way up will be supported that way.

We were lucky (Hah!) because we could figure out what was wrong and how to fix it, and because we have, in our crew, the skills and tools to do it ourselves. If you run into a problem that seems unsolvable, by all means consult an expert -- a structural engineer or contractor. The problem may not even be as bad as you fear.

Obviously if your budget of time and money is tight, a major problem will strain it. And if you care about preservation, losing any old house parts can be painful.

But resist with all your might the temptation to apply a Band-Aid and go on to cosmetics.

Remember that the house got into its predicament because someone failed to build or maintain or repair it properly. How often do you have a chance to right the wrongs of the past? You owe it to the house, and you owe it to the people who will own the house after you.

"Poor old house!" Karol said, the first time she set eyes on the current project -- and has said almost daily ever since. But she's getting ready to change it to, "Good old house!" -- once the stairs and landings are replaced, that is.

But that's another story. Hah!

Next: Step by step.

Mr. Johnson is construction manager for Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore. Ms. Menzie is Home Editor of The Sun.

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