In June 2013, Jill and I moved into our new house in West Tisbury on the island of Martha’s Vineyard.
This house has an interesting history. The owner of the place had been living on the lot in a structure that began its life as the body of a box truck. It was 8’x16′ and had a small attached shed that housed the water pressure tank and the water heater. A small gambrel loft had been built on top; I could just barely sit up inside.
There was a small gas heater, a 100-amp electric panel, a sink, and some built-ins. No shower. There was an outhouse on the property. You might say this was a tiny house before the Tiny House movement began.
One section of the house was moved here from Edgartown
The owner learned that there was a house in Edgartown that the property owner wanted to remove, and that the house was available for free if he moved it.
The Edgartown house was a stubby L-shaped building, with a 16’x32′ section that contained a kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom, and a 22’x25′ section with living area.
What I think happened — this is conjecture on my part — is that, in haste to get the project underway, the new foundation was possibly put into place before the conversation with the house mover occurred. I hypothesize that the house mover looked at the 22’x25′ piece and said it would be difficult/costly/impractical to move. So in the end the 16’x32′ portion was severed from the rest and moved, and the 22’x25′ section was duplicated new on site.
All this happened in 2002-2003. I suspect the portion that was moved wasn’t much older than that, as the glass in the Andersen windows was dated 1996 and the walls were framed with 2x6s.
The interior finish of the house was no great shakes: green carpet, white vinyl flooring, and inexpensive kitchen cabinets. There were some unpleasant odors, traceable to some rodent activity, and a 140-square-foot patch of basement floor where the water pipe came in from the well and the pressure tank and water heater sat; this area didn’t have a concrete slab, just crushed stone over filter fabric. Smelly soil gases.
Plus, the insulation was in the ceiling of the basement, so the basement ran cold, which on Martha’s Vineyard means mold.
There was a very creative outdoor shower, complete with clawfoot tub (see photo above). Bathtubs are another tale I’ll discuss in the future.
The floor plan left a lot to be desired
The floor plan had only one bedroom and the south side was very modestly glazed, so we knew we were in for an interior gutting project and major re-framing of the exterior openings. Note to self: this is expensive; it’s better to buy a house with a floor plan and orientation you like!
Once the drywall and fiberglass were removed, it was clear that some creative structural design had been incorporated. The 16’x32′ portion had no structural ridge or ties across, so it was held up by paint. The rear had three substantial wood ties across at roughly 6 to 7 foot centers, but we needed to remove the drywall to see that each was attached to the wall with a single 1/2-inch-diameter lag screw — about 1/10th of the fastening capacity that the design load would merit. Good thing it hadn’t seen a significant snow load.
Did it make sense to buy a house that needed so much work?
A sensible person may ask, Why did we buy this house anyway? We looked at a couple of parcels in West Tisbury (we were clear we wanted to stay in this town) and I felt that I didn’t want to go through the disturbance process that accompanies the development of raw land. I’ve been preaching that we need to fix what we have already built. I can assure you now that I have put my money, far too much of it in fact, where my mouth is.
When all was said and done, we paid about $100,000 more for this house than a parcel would have cost, and we got an excellent well, a Title V compliant four-bedroom septic system (this is a good thing: we could expand), two underground electrical services — one 100-amp service for the outbuildings, and one 200-amp service for the house — two funky but useful outbuildings, an excellent concrete foundation housing 1,000 square feet of basement, and a developed site.
A leaky shell
You might say that everything above the mudsills was a modest bonus: a decent floor frame in the portion built on site, a ten-year-old roof in excellent condition, and a 12’x24′ deck. Oh, and a buried 250-gallon propane tank, still mostly full of gas.
The house had a gas water heater and a gas furnace. The furnace was in a tiny attic-like spot in the 16’x32′ part, and I could see outdoors through the eave vents from the furnace location. The thermal boundary was, like the framing, creative.
The blower door number was a tad over 3,100 cfm50 — about 0.63 cfm50 per square foot of shell area. We aim for 0.05 cfm50 per square foot of shell area at South Mountain, and frequently do better. In this project we reduced the leakage ratio 25:1. More on that to come.
Marc Rosenbaum is director of engineering at South Mountain Company on the island of Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. He writes a blog called Thriving on Low Carbon. Marc teaches a 10-week online Zero Net Energy Home Design course as part of NESEA’s Building Energy Master Series. You can test drive his class for free.