1 Helpful?

Advice on planning a historic renovation project

First things first...fantastic site. I don't know how I found it but it's already proving to be a gold mine of information and I'm thankful to those that maintain this site. I haven't paid for a full membership yet but I'm seriously considering as I get further into my project.

My situation: My wife and I are considering purchasing a historic stone farmhouse that has been gutted and that the current owner began renovating. It has nothing but the original stone shell and a foundation that was poured for an addition to the original (~1800's) stone structure.

I'm sure a lot of people would shudder at the thought of undertaking a complete and lengthy renovation like this but it's essentially a dream home for me. I love the character and location, as well as the opportunity to essentially design and build it from the ground up.

Assuming I get the property, my primary goals are creating an environment that is healthy for my family, building a structure that fits in with the historical character of the community (it's located in eastern West Virgina near the MD and VA borders), and that is as durable and maintenance free as possible. I'm drawn to natural materials but do not necessarily want to steer clear of synthetic materials that are innovative and make sense for their application.

All that said, I've been reading up a lot on this site as well as others. I've read about breathable wall construction and vapor diffusion walls (but don't really understand the difference), different types of sheathing/siding/insulation, and can't make heads or tails out of most of it. It seems like some folks are all for modern vapor barriers and air-tight structures and some claim they're toxic regardless of what mechanical ventilation system you use. Personally, I don't care one way or another, nor do I really care a/b the environmental "footprint" of the materials/construction methods I choose (see my goals above). I do have some personal preferences and hope that by discussing these, someone here can help me determine my path forward.

I've already mentioned the location, the climate is described well here: http://www.nps.gov/hafe/naturescience/weather.htm. Regarding my preferences, I think I'm sold on diagonal wood/board sheathing. From what I've read, it just makes sense and at minimal cost. I've decided I want wood siding, either cedar or cypress (unless someone else has a better recommendation). I'm very intrigued by wool insulation. I know it's expensive, but the benefits I've read a/b outweigh the cost, in my opinion. Given these preferences, should I be looking at some type of breathable wall? Using a vapor barrier seems to defeat the purpose of the wool insulation and sheathing I've mentioned. And, should I use some type of house wrap? If so, what is best?

Some other questions...

- What about the roof? (metal roofs are common in the area, especially properties like the one I'm looking at)
- Should I use trusses and cathedral ceilings on the top floor? (most ceilings will be 8ft and I'd like a little more head room on the top floor but don't want to inadvertently create moisture problems)
- The foundation for an addition on the house is already poured...can change that. Are products like this worthwhile: http://www.rubrwall.com/
- Are there more significant "green" factors I should be considering?

Thanks for taking the time to read this and help me out.

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Asked by Scott Cooper
Posted Jul 8, 2011 7:04 PM ET


8 Answers

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You certainly covered a lot of ground in that post.

First off, good luck with the project if you two go ahead. Second, I'd suggest breaking the questions down into smaller and perhaps more specific bites. I can sense some excitement that you may be restoring something substantial, but it's hard to take all the issues you posted and return anything more meaningful than general opinions on subjects that you've probably already read about.

I'd like to suggest that you hire at least a local consultant who has worked with traditional stone walls. There are water, vapor, structural and energy issues that are really important to get right in the main structure in order for it to still be around for another retrofit in 200 years.

"I've been reading up a lot on this site as well as others. I've read about breathable wall construction and vapor diffusion walls (but don't really understand the difference)" I'm guessing that this is about the addition but i'm not certain what the question is.

"It seems like some folks are all for modern vapor barriers and air-tight structures and some claim they're toxic regardless of what mechanical ventilation system you use." Vapor barriers and airtightness come from two different subjects: Managing water vapor, managing air-tightness. Read about them and think about them as separate issues. They can happen on the same layer, but they have different functions and goals.

Making an envelope air-tight has nothing to do with making it toxic. Lack of ventilation will make the indoor air quality poor.

Air-tightness is primarily about energy and secondarily about controlling vapor to prevent mold and building damage. The simplest and clearest statement about airtightness that i've seen in a long time was made here this week. It was something to the effect that: Imagine your in your car on a cold day with the heat on and your windows rolled down.

"Personally, I don't care one way or another, nor do I really care a/b the environmental "footprint" of the materials/construction methods I choose (see my goals above)." + "- Are there more significant "green" factors I should be considering?"

I'm probably not understanding what your trying to say, but there seems to be a little bit of conflict in those statements.

As you know this is a Green Building site. The people who spend time here and offer a little help are here because they care deeply about the environmental impact on what we collectively build. The issues range from healthy indoor conditions, energy consumption, sustainable material supply chain, embodied energy, etc... All of those issue are "significant "green" factors".

I'm probably like you in that I have certain issues that are more important to me than others. My top interest is reducing building energy consumption through teaching new methods of air-tightness. (I wish I could have picked something more exciting.). It seems like yours is possibly the building material used?

If you go ahead with your project, maybe ask one question at a time. Keep reading about super insulation and all that embodied energy hocus pocus. Hopefully it's practice will contribute to a healthy environment for you children in their adult lives.

Answered by albert rooks
Posted Jul 9, 2011 3:42 AM ET
Edited Jul 9, 2011 3:58 AM ET.


I'll tackle one of your questions.

Q. "Should I use some type of house wrap? If so, what is best?"

A. I assume you are talking about the new addition, not the existing stone house. Every wall needs a water-resistive barrier (WRB). A WRB is required by code and is not optional. You can choose among many types of WRB, including housewrap, asphalt felt, building paper, rigid foam, or a liquid-applied membrane.

One type of WRB is not "better" than another; the most important factors in good performance are the overall design of the wall -- how all of the parts interact -- and the quality of the installation details.

To learn more, read All About Water-Resistive Barriers.

Answered by Martin Holladay
Posted Jul 9, 2011 5:06 AM ET
Edited Jul 9, 2011 5:07 AM ET.


Thank you both. A couple points of clarification:

Yes, I was referring to the addition as it will be the primary living area and the one I obviously have the most control over.

I do intend to hire someone to work on the original stone walls but I'm at a loss as to what type of professional(s) to hire for that aspect and how to find good ones. Any advice there would be appreciated.

I probably worded one of my statements too strongly (and perhaps poorly)...I only meant that things like a "sustainable material supply chain" are lower priorities for me than healthy indoor conditions and performance.

To bring more focus to the discussion, assuming I intend to use wood siding, diagonal board sheathing, and sheeps/lambs wool insulation, I'd like some guidance (I'll read the WRB link, thanks!) on the following:

- What type of WRB would work best with the other materials and offer the best combination of health/performance/cost?
- Are there any particular construction considerations that I should be aware of?

Thanks for the feedback you've already provided. It is definitely helping. Does keeping the discussion centered on the "overall design of the wall [for the addition]" seem to make more sense?

Answered by Scott Cooper
Posted Jul 9, 2011 7:43 AM ET
Edited Jul 9, 2011 7:54 AM ET.


Scott, you're in the same place I was when I first landed at GBA nearly two years ago. There is more to learn than you'll ever imagine! I'm not so cocky as to give my opinions on building science, but I'll offer my experience re: how to make the most effective choices for your personal situation.

Every option you read about has both strengths and weaknesses ... so even though you have to choose (for example, a WRB) ... there is no single "best" clear choice in most cases even for a single project.

Every situation is climate dependent. Not only in terms of general area (VA/MD) but in terms of the micro-climate -- orientation of the house, exposure, tree cover, even soil. Your choices need to consider variables such as that, as well as your preferences re: finish and style.

I was fortunate as I've gone foreward: I read here, continue to ask questions, and I found a local contractor with lots of experience who is both RESNet certified (they list members and associate members on the website) and is a certified HERS rater. I paid him to be a "consultant" (hourly) and he continues to help me make choices based on a) construction variables b) location c) local labor experience (this is an important item!), and d) my resources.

Once you're tired of reading and even more confused than you are now, I recommend you search out such a person (or three) in your area. Learn here; ask questions there!

For historic construction resources and answers, I also have a thought. Years ago I took down two old barns (in MA) full of chestnut, oak, and pine beams. I wanted to build an historic reproduction timber frame using the materials. I couldn't afford the big-time guys who were doing similar work, so I went to an outdoor museum (Old Sturbridge Village) and got hooked up with the guy who supervised construction on their historically accurate building recreations. I couldn't afford to have him build the house of course, but he showed me what to read (pre-computer era) on timber frame design, then each day he would stop on his way home from his own projects to "look over" my work for that day. I'm sure there is such a person (who really groks stone building techniques) in your area if you ask around. I did the work (with helpers) while he kept me away from horror stories!

Good local fall back resources (i.e., pros who specialize) will keep you on track. Your own learning of green building science will help you ask good questions. And when you get a membership, you willd be able to open the "details" packages you will need, along with product lists you can research!

Another essential contact, if you dont' know it: http://www.buildingscience.com/index_html

Good luck.

Answered by 5C8rvfuWev
Posted Jul 9, 2011 10:58 AM ET


Thanks, Joe (I'm assuming the W is an initial). I've already started to recognize a lot of what you've mentioned. I'm reading and digesting a lot. I did find buildingscience.com to and, yes, I'm more confused!

One article I found after my first post that helped a lot is Martins "‘Walls Need to Breathe’ and 9 Other Green Building Myths". Martin, you've written some great stuff!

My big concern right now is trying to find contractor(s) and possibly consultants. I looked on the RESNet site as well as nahb.org for "Certified Green Professionals". Neither is yielding many results.

Answered by Scott Cooper
Posted Jul 9, 2011 11:51 AM ET



It's great to hear that your open to local professional help. We don't have enough of these "heritage structures" since the US such a young country. Even less where I live on the West Coast. Yours would be extremely rare here.

"- Are there any particular construction considerations that I should be aware of?" Yes. All of them unique to your existing stone structure and local climate. Being a West Coaster, I'm of no value to you on that but I can suggest that you check out http://www.timberframe.org/. The TFBC is the business outreach arm of the Timber Framers Guild. Through the TFBC You'll find some of the smartest people in the country, and, who care deeply about heritage structures. You can get an overall view by looking at the resource guide: http://www.timberframe.org/images/pdf/Resource%20Guide%20Final%20209.pdf

"Does keeping the discussion centered on the "overall design of the wall [for the addition]" seem to make more sense?" Yes it does. Your wall design choice makes great sense. It seems your down the road quite far already. I'll add that a double stud wall with dense pack cellulose would be equally as good and equally as healthy. Diagonal sheathing is a really good choice for either.

Answered by albert rooks
Posted Jul 9, 2011 12:29 PM ET


Albert, thanks for the link to TFBC.I'll definitely check it out. I'm not only open to local professional help, I prefer it but it seems difficult to find much in eastern WV.

Answered by Scott Cooper
Posted Jul 9, 2011 1:52 PM ET


Scott, you might try contacting RESNet by phone, which I did. They were helpful and gave me names for a couple of "Associate" members, whose names aren't listed online.

Finally, don't forget to check around here -- many of the experts here have contacts all over the country and are willing to share names in areas. I can't promise, of course, but worth a try.

Answered by 5C8rvfuWev
Posted Jul 9, 2011 8:06 PM ET

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