Episode Descriptions


Season 27: Cambridge
The Cambridge House
This project premieres on PBS
October 6, 2005
Programs #2501-2518

Program #2501
The new season finds the experts at This Old House in historic Cambridge, Mass., working on a mid-century Modern house for biotech bachelor, George Mabry. At the project house near Harvard Square, host Kevin O'Connor and master carpenter Norm Abram discover that George's house is the sleeper on a street of renovated beauties. Problems include water damage, structural issues, failing plumbing, and an outdated floor plan that locates the master bedroom near the front door. The kitchen, renovated 13 years ago, and many aspects of the landscape, will stay. General contractor Tom Silva shows Kevin the failing 50-year-old tar-and-gravel roof, while plumbing and heating expert Richard Trethewey shows Norm the house's original boiler and early radiant-heat system, both of which are still in use. Despite concerns about working in a congested city neighborhood, the team is up for the challenge, and the change of pace, of working on a Modern home.

Program #2502
Host Kevin O'Connor arrives to find homeowner George Mabry moving out and general contractor Tom Silva moving in. With a building permit in hand, Tom starts with the carport, dismantling it piece by piece on order to gain better access to the house. Kevin meets landscape architect Gregory Lombardi to evaluate the existing landscape, and finds that while much of the back yard is worth saving, the rest of the site will need to be completely reworked. Master carpenter Norm Abram meets project architect Will Ruhl at another modern house he recently designed on the island of Martha's Vineyard. Then, back in Cambridge, Will presents his design for George's house with the help of computer renderings and a 3-D model. The new house will still be Modern, but tempered by a warm palette of natural materials. The expansion allows for a combination library/dining room on the first floor (along with a powder room, mudroom, and wet bar), a new master suite upstairs, and a private guest suite housed in the new third-floor loft. Certified arborist Greg Carbone arrives to begin clearing the lot of the overgrown and dying trees.

Program #2503
A week of rain from a springtime Nor'easter hasn't stopped work on the house, nor on the lot. Landscape contractor Roger Cook shows host Kevin O'Connor the progress—the trees are cleared, the access road is in, excavation for the new foundation is complete, and the form work is underway. General contractor Tom Silva discovers extensive rot and termite damage on the Eastern elevation, and what he thinks is a failed footing in the basement. Master carpenter Norm Abram finds that the problem is not the footing, but rather under-structured framing from two previous renovations. Homeowner George Mabry shows Norm the exterior materials he's thinking of using; stucco and stone with accents of wood siding. In nearby Lincoln, Mass., Kevin meets educational director Peter Gittleman to see the Modern house Walter Gropius designed and built for his family in 1938. Gropius' modest house was revolutionary in its impact at the time, and is today a museum and monument to the Modern movement.

Program #2504
Host Kevin O'Connor and master carpenter Norm Abram visit the independently owned neighborhood shops of nearby Huron Village. Back at the house, Kevin lends Norm and general contractor Tom Silva a hand jacking up the old floor joists of the future library to make it level with the floor of the new addition. Landscape architect Gregory Lombardi presents a plan for the front yard featuring stone walls and courtyards organized around a water feature. Certified arborist Jack Kelly shows landscape contractor Roger Cook a treatment of horticultural oil that will protect the property's hemlocks from a fatal infestation of wooly adelgid. Down the street, Kevin meets curator Nancy Jones for a tour of the legendary Longfellow House. Built in 1759, the Georgian-style home has been lived in continuously for 250 years by luminaries such as General George Washington and poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Program #2505
Master carpenter Norm Abram shows Host Kevin O'Connor the newly discovered problems at the project house, most of them caused by the poor workmanship of a previous contractor. In the living room, one structural fix is already underway as general contractor Tom Silva prepares to install a flush frame beam made from LVLs that will carry the load of the second floor. Pest management expert Dan Fleicher shows Kevin the extent of the termite and carpenter ant damage, and suggests possible treatment options. Landscape contractor Roger Cook reveals the anatomy of new landscape walls; they'll be natural stone veneer over reinforced concrete. Kevin visits Six Moon Hill, a utopian neighborhood of modern houses created by The Architects Collaborative in 1948. Plumbing and heating expert Richard Trethewey shows Kevin one of the challenges he's facing in this minimalist modern house — no place to hide necessary ductwork.

Program #2506
Master carpenter Norm Abram and host Kevin O'Connor open the show at Cambridge Common — the city's oldest public open space and a center of rebel activity in the early years of the American Revolution. Back at the project house, Kevin lends Norm and general contractor Tom Silva a hand framing in the "not quite flat" roof above the library — it has a slight pitch to shed water. Plumbing and heating expert Richard Trethewey shows Kevin a new software program that allows him to design the HVAC system on a laptop and run heat loss scenarios for the house while changing variables like windows, insulation, and various kinds of ductwork and heating. Landscape contractor Roger Cook brings homeowner George Mabry to one of the largest stone yards on the East coast to begin selecting hardscape materials for the landscape.

Program #2507
Host Kevin O'Connor finds master carpenter Norm Abram and homeowner George Mabry discussing the recent water damage in the old kitchen, and George's new inclination to renovate the entire space. Master mason Lenny Belliveau gives Kevin a lesson in block work while he builds up the lower landscape wall to the proper height. Kevin travels to Los Angeles to see a restored modern house that once belonged to Hollywood legend Gary Cooper. In the entry to the library, general contractor Tom Silva shows Kevin how he's using fir two-by-fours turned sideways to frame for the future pocket door.

Program #2508
Host Kevin O'Connor opens the show around the corner at Formaggio Kitchen — a world-class gourmet food shop that also has a cheese-ripening cave in the basement — the first ever to be installed in a retail store in the USA. Back at the project house, Kevin finds stone specialist Jason Buechel installing natural quartzite veneer on the landscape walls. At three dollars more per square foot, it's more expensive than fake stone, but worth it to homeowner George Mabry for its authenticity. Designer Todd Tsiang shows Kevin how obscure glass, custom shoji screens, and low-E coatings will work together to provide privacy, UV protection, and lower energy bills. On the roof, general contractor Tom Silva oversees the installation of the low slope EPDM roofing system. Kevin meets up with George and kitchen designer Amy Leonard to review a few possible layouts for the new kitchen and wet bar.

Program #2509
Landscape architect Gregory Lombardi shows host Kevin O'Connor the final design for the entry courtyards and water feature, and landscape contractor Roger Cook explains the formwork, rough plumbing and rough electrical on the structure. General contractor Tom Silva removes the old single-pane steel slider in the living room and replaces it with a more energy efficient, insulating glass unit with a low E coating. Master carpenter Norm Abram travels to Keene, NH to meet artisan tile manufacturers Stephen & Kristin Powers for a tour of their showroom and factory. Custom pool specialist John Fitzgerald shows Roger and Kevin how his eight-member crew forms the trough of the water feature out of gunite.

Program #2510
Host Kevin O'Connor and plumbing and heating expert Richard Trethewey stop in to a neighborhood institution known as "Mr. Bartley's Burger Cottage." Master carpenter Norm Abram explains the decision to use a formerly controversial exterior cladding system know as an "exterior insulated finishing system", or EIFS. Installer Dan Rourke shows Norm how product manufacturers have adapted over the last decade to solve problems of water infiltration. In the library, Kevin finds general contractor Tom Silva chimney specialist Mark Schaub working with the new gas fireplace unit to establish the location of the vent pipe in the new "chimney."

Program #2511
Landscape contractor Roger Cook shows host Kevin O'Connor Mount Auburn Cemetery — America's first landscaped cemetery featuring 5,500 trees and many notable graves. Back at the house, general contractor Tom Silva shows Kevin how he's creating a modern look inside by using minimal wood trim around the windows. While the garage slab is poured in the garage, landscape contractor Roger Cook starts installing 18 tons of bluestone in the front courtyard. In the kitchen, tile contractor Joe Ferrante shows master carpenter Norm Abram how he's reusing old slate (should be bluestone) from the front entry to extend the old kitchen floor using a traditional mud job. Kevin lends Tom a hand building a small deck on the flat roof off the guest suite.

Program #2512
Host Kevin O'Connor arrives to find exterior coatings specialist Dan Rourke and his crew applying the EIFS finish coat. Custom pool specialist Bob Snay installs a black pebble finish on the bed of the new water feature. Inside, general contractor Tom Silva oversees the installation of the steel stairs. Kevin visits the custom metal shop that fabricated the steel as well as the dramatic bronze "wishbone" balustrade that will be installed later on the job. Reclaimed wood specialist Richard McFarland shows Kevin samples of reclaimed wood from all over the world as Tom's crew installs exterior redwood siding harvested from giant olive casks. Plumbing and heating expert Richard Trethewey gives Kevin an update on the mechanicals — the new boiler has arrived, radiant panels are installed underneath the first floor, and PEX water supply lines have been run.

Program #2513
Landscape contractor Roger Cook shows host Kevin O'Connor how he's installing a pre-fabricated pitched structural foam trench drain at the entrance to the garage. Inside, plumbing and heating expert Richard Trethewey shows Kevin the radiant tubing going down in the master suite, the cast iron waste pipe and PEX water supply lines in the walls of the library, and how the high-velocity mini duct system is saving valuable space on the first floor. Painting contractor Jim Clark shows master carpenter Norm Abram the challenge he's facing in developing a stain formula that will work with all of the various wood species in the house. General contractor Tom Silva shows Kevin the water-blown expanding soft foam insulation going in on the second floor. Kevin visits the Stata Center at MIT to see how modern architecture is serving the needs of one of the country's most advanced universities. At the end of the day, Tom lowers the 12kW generator into place on the newly poured pad next to the garage. The unit will cover just the "essential loads" during a power outage — some lights, mechanical systems, refrigerator and sump pumps.

Program #2514
Host Kevin O'Connor visits Harvard University to see their preservation efforts on several historic old buildings, including Memorial Hall, which was ravaged by a fire in the 1950's and was recently restored to its former glory. In the backyard of the project house, landscape contractor Roger Cook installs two concrete storage tanks that are part of the underground water collection system that promises a cure for George's waterlogged yard. In the garage, a crew from a local home center installs a two-part epoxy coating to give the concrete slab a showroom-quality finish. Master carpenter Norm Abram travels to Middletown, Rhode Island to see the custom mill shop that is machining the stair treads and making most of millwork for the project house. In the driveway, Roger shows Kevin how he's installing the new concrete pavers over radiant "snow melting" heat.

Program #2515
Landscape contractor Roger Cook sets the massive bluestone treads on a stringer that appears to "float" over the new water feature. Landscape architect Greg Lombardi shows host Kevin O'Connor the low-maintenance plants he's chosen for screening and seasonal interest in the side yard. Inside, master carpenter Norm Abram meets plastering contractor Alberto Riponi to see the most challenging trim detail in the house—a narrow plaster bead that creates a subtle shadow line around every window and door. Plumbing and heating contractor Richard Trethewey shows Kevin why a chiller makes sense for cooling a house on a tight urban lot. In the front guest room, flooring contractor Pat Hunt shows Kevin the new engineered floors from Europe—a 5/8" pre-finished red oak floor that carries a 30-year warranty over radiant heat, and locks together without glue. Rug specialist Steve Bookokian shows Kevin how he's cleaning, drying, and repairing 26 of George's oriental rugs. Out front, custom door specialist Tim Forster shows Kevin a cutaway of the construction of the front door as general contractor Tom Silva prepares to hang the door and install the hardware.

Program #2516
Host Kevin O'Connor arrives to find general contractor Tom Silva meeting with building inspector Michael Grover. At the front door, Tom shows Kevin how he's installing the brushed nickel mortise lockset on the custom oak door. In the basement, plumbing and heating expert Richard Trethewey shows master carpenter Norm Abram the mechanical room —highlights include a gas fired boiler, three different temperatures of radiant heat (for ice melt, under floor, and over floor), an HRV for fresh air, and a fine mist humidifier to add a touch of moisture to the building. In the kitchen, Norm finds carpenter Charlie Silva installing the custom cabinetry and scribing the base trim to the irregular bluestone floor. Out back, irrigation system specialist Ed Marchant shows landscape contractor Roger Cook the features of the new irrigation system. Kevin sees the new modern closet systems from Italy being installed in the master suite. Norm travels to a fine furniture shop in Auburn, Maine to see some of the modern cherry furniture being made for the house. In the basement, Kevin finds master electrician Allen Gallant and audio/visual specialist Dan Chadwick installing a complex electrical landscape that employs over 6 miles of wire to support whole house automation and lighting control.

Program #2517
With only a week left on the project, master carpenter Norm Abram finds general contractor Tom Silva at work on the dramatic 3-story stair. With the teak treads and bronze balustrade finally in, Tom can work on installing the teak handrail. Audio/visual specialist Dan Chadwick shows host Kevin O'Connor how he's concealing a 61" plasma TV in the living room, and adding acoustical panels to enhance the sound in the room. Designer Todd Tsiang shows Kevin the modern fireplace mantle, tile, plumbing fixtures, and the fully decorated master suite. Tom reveals the private roof deck off the master bedroom as a new modular steel railing system is installed. Landscape contractor Roger Cook visits a 500-acre sod farm in Rhode Island to see how sod is grown and harvested. In the wet bar, tile contractor Joe Ferrante shows Norm a "bubbly" glass tile being installed on the backsplash.

Program #2518
In the garage, master carpenter Norm Abram finds specialist Joe Ferraro installing a new custom garage system. Inside, host Kevin O'Connor and homeowner George Mabry meet kitchen designer Amy Leonard for a look at the finished kitchen and state-of-the-art appliances. Plumbing and heating expert Richard Trethewey shows Norm the central vacuum system and modern plumbing fixtures on the first floor. Upstairs, the stainless steel washer and dryer and the luxurious master bath round out the master suite. Chimney specialist Mark Schaub installs new vented gas logs in the corner fireplace of the library, as general contractor Tom Silva installs custom shoji screens from California. Instead of rice paper, the panels are made of an environmentally friendly textured polyester resin. On the second floor, another kind of window treatment is going up—mail order custom shades. Specialist Cindy O'Reilly shows Kevin how easy they are to install. On the final day, minutes before the wrap party, audio/visual specialist Dan Chadwick shows Norm the finished media system and whole house automation. Lighting designer Susan Arnold and designer Todd Tsiang show Kevin how they have illuminated and decorated the house that George has been dreaming of for 13 years—a glowing, minimalist home that is clearly modern, but yet comfortable and warm.