This article appeared in the Summer 2022 issue of This Old House Magazine. Click here to learn how to subscribe.
When Evan and Whitney Williamson’s house in Saratoga Springs, New York, was built, Abraham Lincoln was in the White House, and Ulysses S. Grant was slugging it out with Robert E. Lee in a struggle to shape the nation’s destiny. There were no telephones, automobiles, or refrigerators. Electric lighting was rare. Most homes in town lacked indoor plumbing.
Over the century and a half since then, six generations of Evan’s family have lived in the house, making a series of changes to it along the way. The first kitchen was added in the late 1800s; around 1914, the house was widened and became a duplex, with a series of additions that introduced new bedrooms, another kitchen, and multiple narrow staircases.
Plans for Restoring a Family Legacy
Now Evan and his wife, Whitney, have taken possession of the property, with plans to raise a family there. But before that happens, the rambling, 4,361-square-foot Dutch Colonial and its awkward, chopped-up floor plan are getting some much-needed attention. “In the past, someone would build a space to meet a particular need without stepping back and thinking about the building as a whole,” says architect Matt Hurff, who has been enlisted to bring the house into the 21st century as a comfortable multigenerational home. As the ambitious renovation plans are being brought to life by builder Matt Whitbeck and his crew, This Old House is documenting the project as part of its 43rd television season.
Key to Hurff ‘s design is not only creating more open space inside but also connecting the house to its lot. “They have a really nice backyard, but over the years, poorly thought-out rear additions created separation between the indoors and outdoors,” he says. Since work began last May, those additions have been demolished—the entire back of the house was torn off—to create a clean slate for Hurff ‘s new layout. When it is complete, the renovated house will have a large, open living dining-kitchen area with tall windows looking out onto the yard. Eight steep, narrow staircases will be replaced with a single central one.
Upstairs, four awkward bedrooms and a small bath will make way for a main bedroom and an en suite bath with views of the backyard, plus two secondary bedrooms and a full bath along the side and front of the house. The finished third floor will serve as a study and sitting area.
On the right side of the house is a two-story apartment with a separate entrance where Evan’s mother, Susan, has lived for nearly two decades; its layout will stay more or less the same, although Susan’s kitchen will be reconfigured into a galley and upgraded.
“My ancestors did what they could with the house, when they could. This is what I’m able to do now.” -Evan Williamson, Homeowner
Demolition uncovered structural problems and safety issues that, along with weather delays, have turned what was supposed to be a nine-month project into what looks to be a yearlong one. The house was out of level, and removing the additions revealed weak, crumbling mortar in their rubble stone foundations, which had to be taken out. Some parts of the old foundation didn’t reach below the frost line: “They didn’t dig down deep enough, because they were doing it all by hand,” says TOH general contractor Tom Silva.
“Back then people didn’t realize that you get a lot of heaving from the ground freezing and thawing, and that loosens everything up over time.” To support the new addition, which will hold the kitchen, mudroom, and second-floor main bedroom, the team turned to a modern solution: insulating concrete forms (ICFs). “They’re fantastic,” Tom says of the stackable polystyrene foam block forms. “They’re steel reinforced as part of the engineering, and Matt poured a nice wide steel-reinforced footing for the walls to sit on.”
Inside the house, the crew discovered haphazard framing as they opened up walls to allow for running new wiring—the existing armored cable wiring dated to the 1930s—and adding insulation. “A lot of the original work was done by novices,” says Tom. “We saw the old Yankee tradition of saving and reusing as much as possible. But there was a lot of patching and mingling things together without the right kind of joinery.”
For example, in the early 1900s, when the building was widened into a duplex, the existing rafters were saved to frame the new roof. But the rafters were turned 90 degrees, and because the home was wider, the roof pitch had to be lowered. The result: A squashed-down gambrel and less-than-7-foot ceilings on the third floor that required ducking through the doorways.
The awkward proportions of what he called the “squatty” gambrel roof bothered Tom from the moment he set foot on the job site: “It just didn’t look right; the proportions were wrong.” Fortunately, it became apparent early on that removing the old roof and rebuilding it would ultimately save time and money. So Whitbeck and his crew reframed it entirely using attic trusses, gambrel-shaped wood roof structures fabricated off-site, mostly out of 2×4s connected by steel plates.
Saratoga Springs has a great tradition of beautiful finish carpentry, but in houses of this age, the rough carpentry is always very rough.” —Matt Hurff, Architect
Unlike conventional roof trusses, which have diagonal braces that fill up the area under the roofline, attic trusses are configured to leave room for living space. The reproportioned gambrel now rises from 8 feet on the sides to 13 feet at the peak. On the second floor, Hurff’s plans called for steel I-beams to be installed in the flooring system in order to carry the load above while allowing for the open-concept living and dining space below.
But all that steel created a plumbing challenge: Underneath Evan and Whitney’s new bathroom, there wasn’t enough space to run the new drain lines. “Usually the toilet is the most difficult drain line to run, and once you locate that, you can run everything into that line,” says TOH plumbing and heating expert Richard Trethewey. “But in this house, the biggest obstacle was finding a way to maneuver around all the steel.” Local plumber Joel Schaperjahn suggested an elegant solution: concealing the pipes inside a coffered ceiling in the open kitchen/living space below.
While Schaperjahn solved the plumbing puzzle, Richard turned his attention to the new state-of-the-art electric heat pump system. Unlike earlier heat pumps, which cycle on and off, this version runs continuously. “It’s inverter-driven, so the compressor changes its speed to give you the perfect, precise cooling or heating temperature,” says Richard. One compressor and condenser outside can serve 4, 8, or 12 indoor air handlers mounted inside on walls, hidden in ceilings, or placed in a basement or closet and connected to ducts.
In the coming weeks, rough electrical will be finished, insulation will be added, and drywall will be hung; work will also start on the exterior clapboard siding and trim. Although the budget and timeline have both grown, Evan has stayed upbeat, because he sees this project as an investment in his family’s legacy. “The point of doing all of this is to leave a safe house for future generations,” he says. The couple’s deep respect for their family and the history of the house has been one of the most rewarding parts of the job for Whitbeck. “It’s fun to have clients who have a dream and a vision,” he says. “It’s not just that they need a place to live. This is really bigger than that.”
Reducing the Risk of Radon
The work that was done to shore up the house’s foundation created an opportunity for some advance planning: Before pouring the basement floor, builder Matt Whitbeck and his crew placed four runs of perforated pipe in the subslab gravel, all tied into a sealed sump-pump basin. Two pipes will lead out of the basin: one to a drain field in the backyard, and one up through the roof. The backyard system is there to receive any groundwater that rises up under the slab; the pipe through the roof is there to exhaust any radon that might be present in the future.
About one in five homes in Saratoga County has hazardous levels of radon, an invisible, odorless gas that’s formed when uranium undergoes radioactive decay in the earth. Uranium is ubiquitous in the earth’s mineral makeup, so radon can be found seeping out of the ground nearly everywhere—especially during construction, which disturbs the soil. Radon is implicated in lung cancer, and if it’s trapped in a house, it can build up to dangerous levels. That’s why the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends that all homeowners test for radon at least every two years, as well as after a renovation.
The system Whitbeck installed as a preventive measure relies on passive convection to move any radon up the vent stack: Radon, being lighter than air, should rise because of its buoyancy. Retrofitting the system later “would probably be at least $3,000 to $4,000,” Whitbeck says, so it makes sense to add it at this stage of construction, when the cost is only a few hundred dollars—a small price to pay for peace of mind.