Causes of Sill Damage – Concrete

Cement against sill 300x200 Causes of Sill Damage   Concrete

Pouring concrete above the level of the foundation, and against the sill, leads to sill damage and eventual sill failure.

Sill damage can occur for many reasons that I will explain in future posts.

This building is a church in Eastern NY. Sometime in the past the stone foundation was exposed to add a layer of cement to the exterior. The cement was placed on top of the original stones and against the grade sills. Over time it began to take on water that ran down the wall and found its way behind the clapboards and trim boards. As a result the sills on the entire church failed. There was no evidence of flashing at the lower wall that would have helped considerably or would have eliminated the condition entirely.

Lay out templates to drill roof plates

IMG 0267 300x200 Lay out  templates to drill roof plates When drilling a sill plate with a diagonal  scarf joint it is necessary to be accurate with the layout to insure that when the hole is drilled through the  sill plate ,  the hole is dead center of the half lap. The 3/4 ” steel rod has to be inserted at the proper angle to follow the twist of the roof plate. When tension is taken up on the roof plates and the rods and turnbuckles tighten the roof plate will adjust itself to level.

Drainage and the Older Building

IMG 9640 200x300 Drainage and the Older Building The most persistent problem and threat facing antique buildings and properties these days is improper water management. The grade around the building may have been altered over time, downspout leaders might have been lost, foundation plantings may be re-directing rainfall flow. A simple drainage problem can lead to major damage to the foundation of the building, or to an unsightly or unsafe landscape.

Here, we have an example of misdirected flow. The driveway of this property was constantly being washed out, and in the winter, it was perpetually covered in ice. This caused safety issues at the end of the driveway,  and erosion problems that needed constant maintenance throughout the year. It was also creating tension between neighbors!

The solution was fairly simple: install a French drain. The bank that extended beyond the garage to the street, was excavated past the garage to a level below the driveway. A stacked and bolted wall of 6 by 6 pressure treated timbers was installed as a retaining wall. Vertical 6 by 6s were installed to support the wall and dirt, and then cloth, drainage pipe, and gravel were installed.

Some creative thinking and proper water management has turned this problem into a workable solution for these neighbors.  


Landscaping around older buildings – The trouble with trees

Wow! This is definitely a homeowner’s nightmare!IMG 9380 200x300 Landscaping around older buildings   The trouble with trees

Over the years I have seen a lot of things related to old buildings. There is some good repair work out there and a lot of disasters. Some of the disasters are just waiting to happen. I have learned to understand the lessons when they present themselves. I also try to share this information whenever I can to save someone from an impending disaster.

When Colonial homes were being built, the builder picked an open field to start the project. There were actually few trees around. If a tree was intentionally planted, the final height of the mature tree was always taken into consideration when the sapling was sited. For example, if it was going to be 60 feet tall, it was planted 60 feet or more away from the building. As the decades passed, the forest started recovering, and trees were either planted or, worse, volunteered, too close to the house. Eventually, 150 + years later, they towered 50’ above the house. The trees are beloved for their beauty, for their shade, and for providing habitat for wildlife, but there are some serious downsides.

I will always recommend that the owner remove these trees and I always get the same response:  “My spouse would kill me if I did that!”  The owner of this Connecticut Colonial probably wishes that he had taken that advice – after all, he had already paid for it. Two large branches of the tree to the left of the house fell in a high wind storm, and landed on the gable of the building. Price tag: $300.000.00 in damages.

When I visit a property for a consultation or inspection, this is just one of the potential disasters I look for, and offer advice on. This was a very expensive lesson that could have been avoided.

Documenting Historic Restorations

No. 001 View of barn from SE  300x196 Documenting Historic Restorations

Photo of the barn before repairs began in 2006

The word Restoration is painted with a wide brush and like the strands of that brush it represents many different crafts and skills.  Some people train for years in college, some apprentice with tradesman or artist and others realize a natural gift and apply it to the world around them.  I had the pleasure of meeting and working for a couple in Thurmont MD.  They have spent years restoring there historic home almost single-handedly.  When skilled professional help was needed they took there time and located the right person for the job. I was asked to restore there barn, a late 19c post civil war structure. This barn sat on a substantial fieldstone foundation secured with lime mortar.

All of the corner and exposed wall stones were carefully cut and fit indicating that the person who built this wall was very talented.  The mason that built this wall some 140 years ago was involved in a love affair.  He may not have known that he was, it may just have been a means to survive in these hard times after the war but his work speaks across the decades It tells me that he cared.  The only reason the east wall failed was because of erosion due to a natural change in grade.

Care is what brings me to the point of this story.

While we were restoring the barn the owners were on a mission to locate someone who knew how to repair their barn foundation.   They invited these contractors to the site to inspect the foundation but no one was interested, no time, no interest, too big a job.  One local contractor did agree to do the work however he said that he would only use Portland cement.  The owners asked me about the Portland and I said I though that would be a problem when it was mated to the original lime mortar foundation. We had meetings with the mason but he wouldn’t budge.  I introduced the owners to John Leeke , as Preservation Consultant out of Portland ME. . John gave them advice on how to proceed with the rebuilding of the wall and to ask if the mason would consider taking a course in lime mortar techniques, when he was asked, the mason still refused even after the owners offered to pay for a course in Chicago.  In desperation the mason was hired because the window to get the work don before sold weather was closing.

Having been in this sport for 42 years,  if I have learned anything it’s that  good documentation of a project can help when you can’t remember what it looked like when you started. Although the stonework had nothing to do with me, I knew that the clients wanted to reproduce the walls in question as close to original as possible. I have learned many skills through the years but the most valuable one is documentation through photography.  I always document my own projects start to finish. I’ve also have taken photos of other phases of the project and craftsman that didn’t involve me. As it turned out my photos were the only record of the project showing how work progressed and what was don by everyone on site. The clients were very happy to have the record of the work.

That being said, I took it upon my self to mark all the corner stones with a vertical red crayon line and photograph the corners separately and the walls individually inside and out.  I was sure that the mason would carefully dismantle the walls and line the stones up for reuse. I was wrong; the mason arrived one morning with his crew and pulled the walls down in one fell swoop with a bucket loader/ back how. I was shocked, he then proceeded to scoop up the stones and dump them into a pile. I asked about resetting the corner stones and he said, I don’t really care how they go back together.  At that point we all knew we had the wrong guy.

After sum frantic phone calls to find a mason with no luck I suggested that the clients give Gordon Bach a call at OHJ, He offered sum names of historic masons and the one from Hagerstown MD. Mr. Douglas Reed was chosen. He came promptly and he was very knowledgeable and said he had a crew that could repair the wall.   The other mason was politely thanked and dismissed.  The owners had access to a company that could blow the pictures of the foundation up to large scale and they were presented when the new masons arrived.  These photos proved very helpful to the masons.  The mason in charge of the actual rebuilding the walls is Tim Winther of Orleans VA. who as it turns out is a master craftsman as you will soon see shortly.  Tim and his helper Adam slowly unraveled the puzzle in the pile of rocks Using the photos and a carefully hand rendered drawing of the walls they pawed through every stone in the pile to locate primary and then secondary stones.

The photo shows how the previous crew left the walls in a heap.  It took quite a wile to spread the pile out to be able to make some sense of it. Slowly each stone was located on the photo and then found in the pile.  Adam marked the stones that were found and the stones were lined up on the ground in a logical progression. Considering that the stones were being found in random order this took sum creative thinking.  Tim and Adam would decide what stone they wanted to fin d in the photo and then go on the hunt.  As the saying goes, they left no stone unturned.  When this phase of the project was complete the two east walls laid on the ground in progressive order for reassembly.

By this time the project was becoming more difficult because winter was setting in and lime mortar gets cranky when it gets cold.  The mason team built shelters to harness the suns’ heat and to reduce damage due to cold nights electric blankets were used to protect the mortar until it could cure.  The days were warm enough in the shelter to allow the crew to continue laying stone. The crew worked from mid December till mid March to complete a portion of the north wall and the two east walls. In the end my crew worked two years to complete the barn repair,  completing this project, all turned out well and the clients were very happy.




By George Yonnone

 On  October/21/2002 I received a call from Jim Rayner of Lowell MA. He had been directed to me by Preservation Consultant John Leeke of Portland ME.  Jim asked if I would come and look at a column restoration project in Lowell and said that no contractors would answer his calls and the ones that did never showed up to look at the job.  I thanked him for calling and told him I was not available for about a year and that I really didn’t do that kind of work. I told him I had inspections to do that I hadn’t gotten to which had to be finished before I could look at his project.  About six months later I received another call from Jim, asking if I would reconsider and again I politely declined. Jim called a third time and said that the columns were compressing into the plinth blocks and the roof they supported was settling, he asked if would come and look at the problem. Considering it was a emergency I agreed to look at it I arrived at the site on a wet September morning and made my inspection, when I finished Jim and I talked about the situation and possibilities relating to the repairs. Jim asked me if I could do the job and before understanding the consequences of my answer I said yes. His immediate response was, you have the job! The columns were 18′ tall with base parts and capital, that wasn’t too bad The problem with this project had to do with the fact that the columns sat 9′ plus off the ground putting the roof soffit height at 27′. This was the reason that no one else wanted to do the work.

On the two and a half hour ride home I had time to think about the project and come up with a plan. I thought about wood jacking post but realized that the weight and length would be too hard to deal with, that’s when I came up with a new plan, a set of 30′ adjustable jacks.  I took my design my friend who owned a local machine shop, Balgen Machine in West Stockbridge Ma.  I described my design to him and decided on materials and specs and with 4 to 5 weeks they were complete  There is a leap of faith between concept, reality, and application, the moment of truth when everything comes together. That happened in the beginning of November 02. There is a broad learning curve with any new product.   The system consisted of 3 steel pipes sized to fit into one another with alternating pinholes. It was necessary to install support wood between the soffit boards to reinforce the roof plate. A 2×8 PT board was installed to the bottom of the soffit and outside of the frieze board. Two 90 degree saddles were lagged to the PT and the first pipe was installed. Each pipe had to be carefully lifted into position, slid on to the pervious and pinned in place

Ropes attached to cross pins allowed the second and third pipes to be lifted into position safely. We had to make some adjustments to get the proper length. Once that was established the pipes had to be pushed out at the bottom to allow the jack screw and bias to be installed and lowered back into position on top of a 24″ wood P.T. bias.  It took one week to set the jacks up including all of the related prep. When the large screw was turned, the jacks lifted the roof soffit with ease. The roof was jacked to level. We didn’t have a lot of time to pat our selves on the back, the reason we were here was to rescue the columns and we had 3 weeks to do it .

 This is a turn of the century mansion with ornate Greek details, many of which had to be saved. The wood raised deck was removed at the first and second level and a copper roof laid over a fir decking. As with all things, time takes it’s toll. The copper roof at the column base began to leak. The raised seams had to be heated to melt the solder and separated.  All raised paneling and exterior and interior trim was labeled and removed for repair at a later time.

With the roof safely supported a support system was built to hold the second story porch in position and the columns were separated. After considering the difficulty of removing and lowering the columns to the ground we decided to get sum professional help. from Topin Rigging Co  to remove the wood Columns.  The experienced crew strapped and lifted the columns out of position and down to specially built cradle horses that would support them for the winter. This phase of the project took 4 weeks to complete. The building was secured and safety boards were installed at the perimeter of the porch decks for safety and the crew and I were off to Cumberland Island Ga. to save another historic building.

It took January and February to complete our project in Georgia and we started back in Lowell in April. The  roof soffit never moved, I was happy this system worked well.  We spent the next two years on this project restoring decks, railings, and all damaged plinth blocks and bases, the client wouldn’t let us go, he kept finding other work including  the porch on the other side of the house.  Because I said yes to Jim, I had the opportunity to learn how to restore wood columns and that was the gift to myself and my crew.  Jim was happy and we remain friends today.