This Old House has long been one of my favourite shows. I only watched it occasionally in the Bob Vila years, but once I started doing home repair for myself and made the leap into home ownership, I watched without fail and began collecting the shows on VHS tape for repeated viewing. This was around the time of the Acton “Pumpkin,” Kirkside with its awesome second-floor meeting room, and the beautiful arts-and-crafts shingle style house in Belmont. Great shows.
TOH has always stuck to its strengths: demonstrating some of the basics of home repair for the do-it-yourselfers, performing work that is best done by a professional contractor (with Tom Silva and company still making it look easy), and showing off a little bit of the latest technology, like pre-fab foundation systems and rubber membrane roofing.
The latest projects have been terrific, too. The Cambridge mid-century modern was an eye-opener, because TOH really explained the philosophy of modern design and showed me that these buildings are much more than plain, unadorned boxes. They also did a wonderful job on the Carlisle farmstead, treating the old structure with respect while biting the bullet and ripping out the entirety of the kludgey, ramshackle extension between the barn and main house.
This season’s project, a 1916 two-flat in East Boston, should be no different. It’s a nice frame home that has seen its share of neglect, needing the usual assortment of structural repair, mechanical overhaul, and interior renovation. Plenty of opportunity for interesting episodes. And yet, I find this project painful to watch, week after week.
I’m not going to pull any punches here. The reason for my pain: the owners of the East Boston project house are idiots.
To begin with, they refuse to leave. They’re living out of boxes and cooking on a hot plate on the second floor, but no matter how many times Kevin O’Connor and the rest of the gang drop hints that they’re underfoot, they stick around. A prime example of the difficulty this causes is the new third floor bathroom. Because the house is occupied, it requires a working bathroom, so the third floor build was pushed up in the schedule so that it would be complete before the second floor bath was demolished. In a project where the tight budget is constantly in mind, I would be very interested to know what it cost to bring in the various subcontractors, out of sequence, to get the new bath built.
Their biggest mistake, though, and the one that makes me sick to watch, was their decision on the house’s exterior. The house is sided with ninety-year-old stucco and was covered in rampant, overgrown ivy, which while it supposedly turns lovely colours in the autumn was tearing the stucco off the walls and infiltrating any gaps it could find, threatening to blow the windows right out of their frames. The owners actually were reluctant to remove the ivy and were sad to see it go, which deserves a dope slap with something forceful, say Tommy’s new power auger.
Then they were given three choices:
- Tear all the stucco off and replace it all with new stucco, at a cost of around $50,000.
- Tear off the major failed areas of stucco and replace just that, for about $25,000.
- Caulk up the gaps and paint it with a waterproof coating, for about $5,000.
They chose option #3, despite the fact that it was presented to them as a “band-aid” repair at best.
The sheer folly of this was brought home in episode 8. With Kevin’s assistance, the masonry contractor pulled off a failed section of wall, about a five-foot by two-foot area (and one of many, it appears). Underneath was weak lath and a felt-paper backing that looked water-damaged (and possibly mildewed). Beyond that, nothing but the back side of the interior walls. They filled the hole with a plywood board, covered it with vapour-barrier sheeting (solely to prevent the plywood from soaking up moisture from the plaster as it dried, which would make it brittle), then tacked on the galvanized mesh lath that will hold the plaster in place.
Then, along came the plasterer, an immigrant with limited English skills who was an absolute wizard with the trowel. When he slapped the finish coat onto the patched area, I could have wept with admiration. With a precise and practiced flick of the wrist, he gave the plaster a texture that matched the original perfectly without any need for dressing up trowel marks later. It was truly beautiful, masterly work.
And yet so sad. Because the correct course of action was so clear. That stucco is ancient. It has served its purpose and owes them nothing. The extent of the patching repairs makes it likely the “band-aid” job is going to exceed $5,000 by a wide margin.
They should have torn every inch of old stucco off those walls. Cleared out any carpenter ants that may be lurking about (and, judging from the porch roof, my money is on further infestations). Repaired structure as needed, because there’s more than one rotted sill beam in that house. Sprayed TOH‘s current standard—expanding foam insulation—throughout, resolving the building’s utter lack of insulation. Then, sheathe it, lath it, and let that genius artist go to town with his trowel and float.
Yes, the $50,000 route would have blown the budget. Although this house has supposedly been in the owners’ family for generations, the owners’ weblog implies that there’s a bank mortgage on it. Nevertheless, why not take out a home equity loan to cover the stucco work? After all, they had a fantastic opportunity here—they had This Old House working on their project! The Silva Brothers, Trethewey Brothers, Roger Cook, et al., all of whom are consummate professionals and probably so booked up that the average Joe can’t get an estimate from them, much less a whole job.
If it were my house, I would have walked into my local bank and said, “I’ve got TOH on the job. I need a loan for a stucco job that will last for many decades. You know the work will be good. I want this loan well below current interest rates, with no fees or points, and in return I’ll make sure your bank gets a prominent mention in the ‘Special Thanks’ credits, every single week. Heck, I’ll even wear a t-shirt with your bank’s logo on it for every episode I appear in.” I can’t imagine it would take long to find a willing banker.
Instead, the choice was made: new bath, old walls. How asinine. I, for one, am looking forward to this project ending, so we can move on to something else and forget about the mistakes in East Boston.