Episode Descriptions


Season 21: Billerica, MA
Premiered on PBS
September 25th, 1999
19 Half-hour episodes; programs #1901-1919

Program #1901
The new season starts with a visit to Chub Whitten's Colonial home in Ipswich, Massachusetts, that we toured at the beginning of last season. Then it was a burned wreck; now, a year later, it is impeccably restored. After Dick Silva talks about the fire, he leads a tour the ruins of the house. Then our host meets with Dick and his wife Sandra to discuss their plans for the future, which are to rebuild on the same spot. Finally, we see the basement heating plant which investigators believe may have been the source of the fire.

Program #1902
We visit the Billerica Fire Dept. to hear about what it was like to fight the Silva fire, and how it might have been prevented or at least kept more manageable. Back at the house, our host meets with the Silvas' insurance agent, who explains the benefits of having a "guaranteed replacement cost" endorsement on one's homeowner's policy—it provides for rebuilding after a complete loss. Public insurance adjuster (and former TOH homeowner) Dick Benedetti shows us some of the process by which he is writing up the insurance claim for the Silvas. Architect Chris Dallmus begins to discuss the design of the new structure with homeowners Dick and Sandra Silva, while outside a perc test is run for the new septic system and landscape contractor Roger Cook takes an inventory of the plants that did and did not survive the fire.

Program #1903
Tom recounts the day the machines came to tear down Dick and Sandra's old house. All that's left is a hole in the ground. Arborist Matt Foti and his crew take down two 75-year-old Eastern white pines damaged by the fire and cut them into 2x10 planks on a mobile saw mill. An environmental testing crew arrives to take soil samples, as the fire department suspects fuel oil was spilled on site during the fire. If tests show that concentrations are high enough, a mitigation will be required by the state's departed of environmental protection. Another team arrives to re-establish the height of the water table, digging a hole by hand, to satisfy the town's buildingdepartment that the foundation's proposed elevation is legal. Architect Chris Dallmus shows us a model of the house-to-be, a four-bedroom, three-and-a-half-bath structure whose style Chris describes as "village Victorian," modelled after some houses he found in Billerica's town center.

Program #1904
A full month after our last time on site, the foundation is just being completed, the construction schedule having fallen victim to a three-week soil cleanup process. With the complex, 30-corner foundation walls up, it's time for a proactive termite treatment beneath the slab, using a new class of chemical that, rather than acting as a barrier, allows termites to enter the treated zone unknowingly, upon which they die. Its continuing efficacy in the ground has been proven for seven years and counting. Before the slab is poured, the crew installs an underlayment of 2" styrofoam insulation and a clip-in system for radiant heat—at half the price it was only a few years ago, Richard insists we put the tubing in every slab we pour, even if it isn't used right away. Then our host takes viewers to a Florida house built by a major insurance company to showcase tips for loss mitigation—everything from sprinklers to kick-proof door jambs. Back at the site, the slab is poured, and homeowners Dick and Sandra Silva try to choose a brick veneer for the new foundation.

Program #1905
Homeowner Dick Silva gives a tour of the newly framed up first floor, and Tom Silva shows some of the hallmarks of a good framing system. In the basement, our master carpenter explains how the floor joists meet two steel beams to maximize headroom, while metal fabricator Our host di Orio and crew weld a metal post in position. We then visitthe Florida factory where the wooden I-beams used in the house's floor are made—25 miles' worth a day. Back on site, architect Chris Dallmus explains some of the strategies he's using to reduce the mass and appearance of the proposed three-car garage. Finally, framing contractor Eric Machemer and crew raise the last of the first-floor walls and the building begins to climb into the sky.

Program #1906
Homeowner Dick Silva gives a tour of the framed and sheathed house and reports that he and Sandra have receiveda very satisfactory insurance settlement on the structure; the settlement on the contents awaits a complete inventory. We pay a visit to the Massachusetts Firefighting Academy, where firefighters learn hands-on the techniques that save lives and buildings. Back at the house, the crew discusses the fine points of shed dormers, while framing contractor Eric Pierce puts one together in a fast and professional way. Mason Lenny Belliveau shows us his system: veneer brick on the concrete foundation face, a matching full brick for the chimney.

Program #1907
The new windows have arrived. They're made from an extruded composite of PVC and sawdust, and we visit Minnesota to see the factory. The crew puts up corner trim using two layers of cementitious board, while mason Lenny Belliveau shows us a new tool that extrudes cement grout like icing for a cake. Lenny forms the new hearth, and the guys move on to installing one of the new windows.

Program #1908
Our master carpenter and general contractor take over Dick's Quonset hut to set up a woodworking shop, forcing Dick to take his restored 1931 Ford Roadster pickup truck up to the new garage. He gives us a tour, then we meet James Crowe, inventor of a synthetic slate made from recycled automotive rubber and industrial plastic trimmings. Cast in molds, it looks almost exactly like the real thing, yet is lighter, less fragile, and a quarter of the cost. Roofer Mark Mulloy shows how it's going on the building and predicts that, if it lasts as long as Crowe claims (a minimum of 50 years), it will be a real hit. In the workshop, tool technician Scott Box helps the guys set up and calibrate the new table saw, shaper, planer, joiner and chop saw, while Richard Trethewey shows us the factors that determined the layout of the house's waste pipes. Finally, the guys put the finishing touches on an assembly table, the first piece to be made in the new on-site workshop.

Program #1909
The local electric utility is on site to bring power across the street to a new pole positioned in a discrete spot along the front edge of the Silvas' property. Far cheaper than digging beneath the road, this method will still allow for electricity, cable, and telephone wires to be undergrounded to the house, avoiding unsightly overhead wires. Inside the house, kitchen designer Phil Mossgraber and Sandra Silva are going over her wish list for the kitchen; our host joins them as Phil suggests eliminating a closet in the mudroom and putting in a service door to the dining room, a good idea Sandy embraces. Richard Trethewey is on site with the head of the American Fire Sprinkler Association, seeing the first steps in designing a sprinkler system for the house, while our host visits Underwriters Laboratories to see how they test all kind of materials relating to fire and fire safety. Out in the workshop, our master carpenter gives the machines a test by fashioning a flat-panel cabinet door for Dick and Sandy to consider for their new kitchen.

Program #1910
As our master carpenter sets up the table saw to make a sample raised-panel door for the Silvas to consider for their new kitchen, our host sees Tom's system for flashing windows: a layer of waterproof membrane covered with a custom cap of site-bent lead-coated copper. The cementitious clapboards—factory primed and first-coated—go on to great acclaim, and our host meets with landscape designer Stephanie Hubbard to lay out the challenges facing the project: entries to the property, views from inside, transitions among vastly different elevations. In the basement, master electrician Allen Gallant is working on one of two main panels. Turning down his rechargeable jobsite boombox, he shows off a new breaker called an arc-fault arrestor, which detects the kind of electrical arcs in frayed cords and worn wires that can cause fires. Tom Silva shows us the first of the porch decks: he's using ipe, a Brazilian hardwood, and giving it a clean look by fastening it down using only a marine adhesive and an absolute minimum of stainless steel trim nails. Out back in the workshop, our master carpenter is routing out a rabbet on one of the sample doors and takes viewers on a tour of the factory where the router was made. He also shows us a jig he's made to cut raised panels.

Program #1911
The site is abuzz as subcontractors hurry to complete their in-wall work before the insulation truck arrives. Tom Silva gives a tour of the wires, pipes, conduits and ducts, while Paul Somerson, editor-in-chief of PC Computing magazine, makes recommendations about the proper wiring, placement and configuration of the house's computer system. Kitchen designer Phil Mossgraber and homeowner Sandra Silva are down to the final decisions in the kitchen—natural fir cabinets, linoleum floor, counters of a material called kirkstone and they debate the merits of two different island designs. The sprinkler system is roughed in, and sprinkler specialist Jack Viola shows our host where the water comes in and (hopefully never) comes out. Media systems designer Mitch Klein shows us his plans for outfitting the living room with a surround-sound television package; it includes the rather unorthodox placement of a plasma-screen TV in the wall over the mantel. Finally, landscape designer Stephanie Hubbard unveils her plan for the property, which includes moving the Silvas' beloved frog pond.

Program #1912
We arrive at the house to find the last of the wallboard shipment being loaded into the basement. In the rest of the house, it's already hung and plastering has begun; homeowner Dick Silva gives a tour of the top floor, where the rooms are taking on their final shape. The building has been insulated with an open-cell polyicynene foam earlier Steve met with its Canadian inventor. Tom and Norm are in the workshop building the last of the kitchen and bath cabinet carcasses, while landscape contractor Roger Cook works with stonemason Roger Hopkins to shape granite steps for a new walkway up from the driveway. Tom shows Steve the cementitious shingle panels being used on the garage walls, and metal fabricator Tom McGregor works on a lead-coated-copper flat-seam roof over the kitchen bay window. Finally, Tom and Norm build a fir face-frame for the bathroom vanity using pocket-screw technology.

Program #1913
Landscape contractor Roger Cook and his crew begin to install a stone wall along the driveway, using a split stone from North Carolina that is available at home centers nationwide. Roger shows us his method of building with geotextile and proper drainage to ensure the wall won't succumb to frost heaves over time. Inside, Tom Silva is putting in the first of the new interior doors—made from medium-density fiberboard (MDF) in the traditional panel-stile-rail way, they keep the crisp details of a wood door, yet do not expand and contract like wood. For custom panel patterns like ours, they are less than half the price of wood and are delivered in a mere two weeks. Painters Ron and Greg Byers are applying latex paint to the house's exterior using an airless sprayer, and our host takes viewers to the factory that made the expanded urethane millwork we're using inside and out. Homeowner Dick Silva shows us some of the schemes he's considering to hide the flat-screen TV over the mantle when it's not in use. In the workshop, our master carpenter works to build heavy-duty cabinet drawers with slide hardware to match.

Program #1914
We arrive to find Rich in the basement, where the forced air unit for first-floor heating and cooling hangs; the main source of first-floor heat, however, will be radiant floor heat, made more effective with aluminum mounting plates and a joist-bay foil insulation that reflects heat back up into the floor above. Out front, Roger Cook shows us the options he had in edging the landscape's walkways—he's chosen steel, which is long-lasting, flexible, and nearly invisible. Out in the workshop, Tom Silva is spraying fast-drying lacquer on the new cabinet doors, while our master carpenter is in the New Yankee Workshop turning legs for the kitchen island. This Old House magazine editor-in-chief Donna Sapolin tours around the house to explain the interior design challenges, and then visits a nearby furniture showroom to see some of the design work that has been done for the Silvas' new house.

Program #1915
Master electrician Allen Gallant shows us the workings of the new emergency power generator, a quiet natural-gas-powered unit that will supply the house's "essential services" (heating plant, refrigerator, well, some lights) with electricity in the event of a blackout. Beautiful wooden garage doors go in, and we get a tour of their construction, installation and operation. In the kitchen, Dick Silva begins installing the new cabinets, while our master carpenter visits a converted woolen mill, where a local cabinet maker is building the Silvas an entertainment center out of rare and beautiful tiger oak. Back on site, inventor John Crowley shows us his line of "kit of parts" wainscoting.

Program #1916
Paving contractor Don Sloan shows Roger Cook a few different ways to pave the drive: plain black asphalt, asphalt "aged" with stone dust and asphalt with crushed stone rolled into a liquid asphalt binder. Around back, Roger shows us the drywell and crushed stone he and his crew installed to handle any excess water on the north side of the building, while inside Tom Silva gives our host a ride on the kitchen island's new pull-out pastry board, supported by 300-pound-rated slides. Then it's off to Kirkcaldy, Scotland, to see real linoleum being made the same way it's been made for the past 100 years, with the same natural ingredients. Back on site, Richard Trethewey gives the new a/c chiller a test, proving just how quiet these machines have become. Downstairs he explains the iron-removal unit that will handle the house's well water. Finally, Jean and Bob Sparkes spray on a hydroseed lawn, just in time, before the weather cools too much.

Program #1917
Landscape designer Stephanie Hubbard oversees the placement of the new plants and trees with Roger Cook, while inside our master carpenter talks to mill owner Charlie Wilson about the vertical grain loblolly pine and quartersawn white oak flooring he's supplied to the job. Meanwhile, our host visits a nearby shop to learn the ins and outs of Oriental carpets from expert Steve Boodakian; on hand is Jampa Tenzing, a Tibetan carpet weaver and repairer, who is giving in-house demonstrations. Back on site, Tom Silva hangs the new front door, a thick, custom mahogany unit with hand-cast period brass hardware. Then we tour of This Old House magazine's just-completed Dream House, a Robert A. M. Stern-designed Shingle-style home in Connecticut. Back on site, the guys check out the ongoing wainscoting installation, then hang the dining room's "hidden" door, using hidden hinges, then discuss the latest plans to use cabinetry to hide the living room's flat-screen TV when it's not in use.

Program #1918
Our host arrives to see wooden shutter maker Peter Malone and crew installing shutters on the front facade, using traditional pintle hinges and shutter dogs. Inside, master electrician Allen Gallant shows him the reproduction lighting fixtures he's hanging in the foyer and bathrooms, while the guys install the ingenious TV-hiding cabinetry built for the family room. Cabinetmaker Aaron Barth brings in the magnificent tiger-oak cabinet he's built to hold (and hide) the audio/visual equipment. Outside, our host helps carpenter Chris Hastings hang a mail-order copper gutter system to head off potential water problems at the house's rear entry, where several roof planes converge. Tom Silva begins to install the main staircase's treads and risers. Richard Trethewey tests the whirlpool bath and shows us the bathroom fixtures, which have no-maintenance ceramic valves inside and allow the homeowner to change out handles and faucets without needing to replace the fixture. In the kitchen, tiler Joe Ferrante is installing the Kirkstone countertops; the black-green material is quarried in the United Kingdom, is harder than marble and softer than granite, and costs about the same as granite. In the laundry, we check out the new linoleum floor, the fir beadboard, the full-size stackable "tumblewash" washer/dryer units, and the cast-iron Victorian shelf brackets.

Program #1919
The final two days in Billerica find Dick Silva returning his beloved Model A truck to the new garage, which is nice and warm thanks to a natural-gas heater. Roger Cook and his crew are rolling out a bit of sod in the back yard, and Roger gives us a look at how he covered up the septic tank, moved the frog pond and replaced the old pavers around the pool with some beautiful granite coping by Roger Hopkins. Inside, oriental carpet expert Steve Boodakian extolls the virtures of a central vacuuming system—it makes vacuuming so easy that people tend to do it more often, which greatly extends a carpet's life. The front stairs runner receives its decorative brass hold-down rods. PC Computing magazine editor Paul Somerson reviews the house's computer set-up, which starts with a high-speed cable connection to the Internet. A "hub" allows multiple Internet connections throughout the house, so more than one user can be online simultaneously; it also allows all computers in the house to share any peripherals, like a printer or fax. The final pieces of linoleum go down in the kitchen, and we get an end-of-the-workday lesson on arming the security system, which unlike the old house's is connected to a central monitoring station. The next day, the guys admire the etched glass installed in the front door last the prior evening, then we tour the decorated house with This Old House magazine's Donna Sapolin, looking at each room through the eyes of a design editor who has a picture spread to put together. We see, and hear, the powerful yet nearly invisible audio/video system, including the remarkable flat-screen TV above the fireplace. At the closing party, Dick and Sandy show off their just-obtained certificate of occupancy, which means they'll be into their new home by Christmas.