Be Green

One of the challenges of renovating an old house is deciding what to keep and what to toss. Some features can’t be restored and others you just don’t want to. For instance, this built-in cabinet looks like it is original to the house. It has a marble top and Victorian-looking drawer pulls.

Drew hates it. I have mixed feelings. I love the detail but in reality we need a closet in that location and it is not very elegant. It’s the same for other details in the house such as some of the moldings and a cast iron claw-foot tub. But we can’t just throw them out because they are history! Enter Build it Green, NYC.

Build It Green! NYC,  located in Brooklyn, is a non-profit retail outlet for salvaged and surplus building materials and home furnishings. The warehouse has everything from panel doors to high end refrigerators. On our last visit, they even had an antique phone booth. Our daughter could not figure out how the dial telephone worked. Its mission is to keep materials out of the landfill, while offering deep discounts on their resale. What we can’t sell, we will donate here and get the tax deduction. Oh yeah and be green.

Another good resource that we plan on checking out is Demolition Depot, located in Harlem. This shop is a popular source for vintage plumbing fixtures, doors, windows, shutters, railings, gates, grills, mantels, stone and terracotta pieces, religious objects and more. Its fixtures are geared towards the re-creation and renovation of period places.

The Structural Engineer

Now that we’ve settled on the general layout of each floor it’s time to bring in the structural engineer. The structural engineer is necessary because of the extension we’re putting on the house. The engineer will review the architect’s designs and design a foundation and the structural components of walls capable of holding everything up over time without settlement or deflection.

North Elevation

Our plan is to add a 10 foot extension to the ground floor and a 6 foot extension to the parlor floor. The 4 remaining feet above the ground floor extension will serve as a deck for the parlor floor. The top floor will remain unchanged.

Currently, the rear wall of the building runs straight from the top floor to the rear basement foundation wall. This means that the weight of 3 floors of wall is held in place entirely by the rear foundation wall. Under our new design (shown in the North Elevation drawing above) each wall is staggered and thus we must place structural members under each wall capable of supporting the weight above it. We don’t have the designs yet, but mostly likely this will mean 2 large steel beams running the width of the building. One to hold up the existing top floor wall and one to hold up the parlor floor wall. The ground floor’s rear wall will be supported by the extensions foundation.

This past Saturday the engineer met us at the site with our architect to review the plans. We started by looking at the backyard and basement to begin designing the foundation. The engineer needs to design the foundation so that it can not only support our extension but so that it doesn’t cause any damage to our new neighbor’s foundations. If the foundation isn’t properly designed then over time there will be settlement, cracking and most likely an expensive repair project.

Luckily, one neighbor has no extension and the other only has a very small porch sitting on a concrete slab. We’ll need to underpin the porch’s foundation but according to our engineer this is pretty minimal effort compared to what would be required if either had a true extension.

We also need to determine what is under the concrete slab foundation of our home’s existing extension. It could be simply dirt, stones or more interestingly it could be some sort of landfill garbage. The engineer and architect told us several entertaining stories about digging up refrigerators and other sorts of debris on other jobs.

While they are both fairly confident that we’ll just find dirt, the DOB requires us to do a probe. This will involve contracting a team to bring out a large drill and digging a hole about 8 feet down to confirm the contents. Given that we haven’t closed and don’t own the home yet, we won’t be probing for a couple of weeks. I will post pics once this is done.

While we focused on the backyard and foundation design, the engineer also reviewed the rest of the building to confirm that we could move walls around as we desire. The good news is that because our brownstone is only 16 feet wide, we have no load bearing interior walls. Each floor is completely supported by the floor joists which run between the party walls. On wider brownstones this was not common because the larger the run the larger the floor joists. If the home is 20 or 25 feet wide the floor joist would need to be impractically large. On these wider buildings often the wall separating the stairs from the rooms is load bearing.

Although I’m a software engineer by trade, I did take some civil engineering classes in classes and understand the basics of these structural engineering concepts. Aside from designing the room layouts this has been my favorite part of the process.

Parlor Floor Decision

Not surprising, we have decided to go with option number 2, with some modifications to the original design.  We are going to push the kitchen toward the back of the house where it can get the maximum amount of light.  As with most homes, the kitchen will be the heart of it and we want it to be as pleasant as possible because we know we will spend most evenings cooking and doing homework there.  I can picture a nice comfy chair by the fireplace where I can read on cold snowy nights.  In reality, I will rarely get enough peace and quiet to do that but a girl can dream, can’t she?

For the living and dining room area, we decided to forgo the china closet for an open archway so the space won’t feel so closed in and dark when you come up from the stairs.  As much as this was a nifty idea, we don’t really have any china to put in there anyway—but feel free to steal this idea for your own renovation.  We would also prefer the powder room door to face the stairs instead of into the kitchen if this is structurally feasible.

Our next design decision will be deciding on back doors and windows.  It is harder than you think.