Making interior repairs after the walls come crumbling down


We're getting there. After weeks of demolition, tearing out both ugly "modernizations" and crumbling original walls and ceilings, and after a week or so of repairing structural flaws that have been there since the building went up, we're finally getting ready to start putting our rehab house back together.

Like most of Baltimore's rowhouses, this one is brick, front, back and sides. Originally all the walls were plaster over brick (on exterior walls and party walls), and plaster over lath (on interior partition walls). Ideally, we'd just repair the plaster; but there are several reasons why that's not possible here.

First, the walls are not in good shape. There are a couple of buckled cracks -- not surprisingly, since the house may be 150 years old. But the worst thing is that every single wall in the house was paneled. The paneling was installed on furring strips, which were nailed through the plaster into the brick with heavy masonry nails. (The paneling installation also destroyed most of the original trim: Wherever some poor piece of wood stuck out, it got hacked off with a hatchet.) The masonry nails can be pulled out -- but each one also pulls out a chunk of plaster. There are hundreds of these nails in the walls.

Second, we need space to install plumbing pipes, wiring and ducts for heating and air-conditioning. (The house has a '40s-era coal-burning furnace with a couple of grates above to let the heat rise.)

So, we're going to repair what plaster is still repairable and frame where we need it or can't avoid it. The house is so small we don't want to frame any more walls than we have to.

All this means careful planning to determine exactly where pipes and ducts will go, and to make sure there are places to install outlet boxes. We have a good set of plans and subcontractors we trust -- two things that are essential in avoiding mistakes or headaches.

But there are still plenty of things to think about before getting started. Here are some of the considerations on our list:

* In many cases, plans are just wishful thinking. It's usually necessary to work with the plumbing, electrical and heating subcontractors to determine where they need space to run their equipment. We have strong aesthetic concerns, so we don't let them take liberties with our layouts; but we are prepared to compromise, because the subs know what makes the equipment work best. If we don't like the advice we're getting, we get a second opinion. (For instance, in many cases, there's no need to run bulkheads for ductwork across ceilings, and no reason to run wire molding across the walls; push the heating contractor to find ways to hide the ducts and encourage the electrician to conceal wiring.)

* Frame walls need good floors to rest on, so all floor problems have to be fixed before framing. In our case, all the floors are a single thickness (no subflooring), but a couple need patching where they were hacked up for lighting fixtures or compromised when a beam below cracked. We're planning to salvage flooring out of the bathroom and kitchen areas to use as patching; those two rooms will be tiled, so they need plywood subflooring anyway.

* Framing requires a big work space. It sounds simple, but all debris has to be removed and all clutter put away, so there's plenty of room. (Plus, it's just easier to work in a clean space.)

* The highest and largest walls will be built first. Frame walls are built on the floor and then raised into place. If the work area is closed in too soon, the work space disappears.

Framing can be a real headache -- not to mention a backache, when you're lifting a heavy wall into place. But it's also an exciting phase in a rehab, when the bones of the plan begin to take shape. It's nice to walk in to begin each workday -- it always smells like new wood and it gradually looks more and more like a house.


A reader in Louisville, Ky., suggests that a recent column on demolition should have mentioned that old flooring may contain asbestos, and removing it can be dangerous. The sheet flooring we were talking out was harmless, but, as the reader points out, even some recent flooring materials may contain asbestos.

We've warned about the hazards of demolition repeatedly: If you suspect you have lead paint or asbestos in insulation, flooring or flooring adhesive, you should have it tested. If you do have some hazardous material, find out what your jurisdiction requires for removal and disposal. Even if you live in a place with no restrictions, you still need to use extreme caution. Check with state environmental protection agencies or with the federal Environmental Protection Agency for guidelines on handling dangerous substances.

On the other hand, you should also be wary of people trying to sell you expensive services -- like asbestos removal -- that you might not need. The reader said he was told by a "carpet man" that flooring made as recently as 1984 might contain asbestos. While there might still be some older stock around, products manufactured in the last few years should be asbestos-free. If you have any doubts, however, the only way to be sure is to have the material tested.

And, by the way, for even the simplest demolition work, you should wear heavy shoes, long pants, long sleeves, a dust mask, safety glasses and a hard hat. It may turn out you don't need all the gear, but you'll look so funny the laughs will be worth the effort.

Next: The nitty-gritty of framing.

Mr. Johnson is construction manager for Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore. Ms. Menzie is a feature writer for The Sun.

If you have questions, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, write to us c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St. Baltimore, 21278. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.

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