My realtor has an unusual idea about home ownership. She claims houses and their owners are meant for each other. “Try to buy a house that doesn’t belong to you,” she says, “and it just won’t work. The deal will fall through (or at least become difficult).” My house and me, she says, were meant for each other.
I suspect she’s right.
Here’s how I figure it.
House Conveys Requirements
My house is a classic Chicago brick bungalow–one story with three bedrooms with a full basement. And yet, true to the Chicago Bungalow Association’s description, it has “generous windows”–54 of them, in fact! The garden-level basement claims 15. (They’re covered with glass block, but I intend to open them up eventually, and install the most-often recommended window type for basements–hopper windows. As you can see from the photo, the living room welcomes the morning light with one whole wall of east-facing casement windows which also wrap around–two windows deep–both north and south corners. That’s twelve windows. But this room also has two sets of clerestory windows (three in each set)–one facing north, the other facing south. Unfortunately, they’ve been plastered over (which is a whole ‘nother story…). But the brick openings are there, filled in with glass block. All told, that’s 18 window openings in the living room alone! One of the bedrooms boasts a bit too loudly of its six double-hung windows. And even the attic wanted a view, demanding three fixed windows for its rear-facing dormer. Rooms, I’ve decided, crave windows.
On top of all that, each of the thirty-one first-floor double-hung and casement windows have original, wood storm windows. And you guessed it…all of them, both the main and the storm windows, need to be restored!
I suspect that must have been one of the requirements my house conveyed to the realtors when they sat down to talk. “Find me someone who can restore my windows.”1
While I groaned at the thought of this cobbler-has-no-shoes task laid before me, I acquiesced to my beloved’s request. I let her purchase me. (Funny how that works. She chose me, but I still have to pay the mortgage AND complete all the “honey-do” work she requires!)
Articulate Your Architecture
A year-and-a-half later, as you can see from the photo, I’ve at least got a running start.
I began with the exterior window frames, stripping them down to bare wood. Given the “virgin forest” stock from which they had been milled, there wasn’t much rotted wood to repair. But elbow grease was still needed to dig out the old, sloppily applied caulk from between the brickmould and the brick. I then switched to a chemical stripping agent to remove residue from the brick itself. Pausing to choose the appropriate caulk for the conditions I faced, I lined the brick with duct tape (because blue tape wasn’t sticking to its rough-textured surface) and re-caulked the gap between the brickmold and the brick, relying on the tape to give me my straight-edge.
[Digression: When it comes to craftsmanship, you don’t notice each little detail like this attentiveness to achieving a straight caulk line. What you do notice, though, is the cumulative effect of having paid attention to multiple details. For instance, paying attention to making crisp, straight lines at edges of things–between a ceiling and a wall, around a doorframe, or between the window frame and the brick–makes a house or a room “snap to attention.” The same smart look can be achieved on the exterior by ensuring straight caulk and paint lines. ]
I also stripped the metal lintels down, scrubbing out loose rust with a wire brush attachment on my drill, and applied an industrial-grade, rust-inhibiting primer. I was careful, at this point, to custom-tint the finish paint for my lintels so that it would match the color of my brick rather than the color I had chosen for the windows and window frames. (See the article titled “Articulate Your Architecture” which I wrote for West Suburban Living to learn the importance of respecting the architecture when making design decisions.)
I used the same high quality, “long-oil” primer on the window frames that I use to saturate client’s windows, knowing that the slowness of drying time would allow the wood to soak up this primer like a sponge. I finished off this first phase of what will necessarily be a multi-phase project–because the cobbler has to attend to other people’s shoes most of the time–by applying as many coats of finish paint on the window frames as were needed to achieve full saturation.
You might notice, though, looking at the picture, that I also managed to restore the storm windows. But the windows themselves are still white. That’s because I’m following the same basic architectural restoration and preservation principle I recommend to my clients.
It’s called “mothballing” and is pretty much what it sounds like–the arresting of the degradation of architectural elements by protecting what needs to be restored which you can’t restore immediately. This “moth-ball” of protection buys time. So I attended the storm windows now, since they have maximum exposure to the elements. But I put off restoring the main windows for now, because restoration of the exterior window frames and storm windows ate all of my available time the first time around.
The first layer of the mothballing principle applies to exterior versus interior work on a building. The first priority is to “seal the envelop” or, in construction trade terminology, achieve “dry in” condition. This means that you do all the exterior work that is needed to seal the structure against the elements. Projects like the 12-foot long window box I intend to build on the front of my bungalow will have to be scheduled down the road.
But what happens if you can’t even afford to do all the envelop-sealing exterior work at once? What if, for instance, you can’t afford to restore both your storm and main windows in one big gulp? Well, then, like I’m doing here, you restore the exterior window frames and the storm windows first. That’s your “moth-ball” that protects the interior windows, keeping them from further deterioration until such time as you can afford to restore them as well.
That’s why, then, you see white peaking behind these fully restored, green storm windows on the facade of my brick bungalow. I’ve already installed a new weather-seal system on the interior side of these casement windows. But the windows themselves will have to wait until their number comes up on my “honey-do” list.
You might have noticed I haven’t said anything about color yet. But color is important!
Given the level of detail I invested in the labor, I wasn’t about to make a hasty color choice! After much deliberation over sample boards, I chose a period color which I had learned of by consulting Robert Schweitzer’s wonderful book, Bungalow Colors: Exteriors. The fact that earth-tone yellow and moss green harmonize well–it’s a classic combination–is one reason this was an appropriate choice. But the fact that this particular shade of green was popular back in the early 1920’s, when my bungalow was built, also contributes to the “fittingness” of this choice.
Only after the fact did I realize it was an appropriate choice for another, more personal reason as well.
I had noticed, when I purchased the house, that there was only one tree on the property. But the significance of the particular species of this tree hadn’t dawned on me until after I realized the name Sherwin Williams had given for the shade of green I had chosen for my trim color is “Oak Moss.” The tree, of course, is an oak tree. In celebration of this bit of synchronicity having slipped into my life, I’m thinking of getting vanity plates for my van that say “OAK BROS.” If you see me truckin’ down Lakeshore Drive, I hope you’ll honk-and-wave!
1 This isn’t far from the literal truth. The seller chose me among competitive bidders, in part, because she wanted to sell to someone who would live in and take care of the house. My skill in restoration work was icing on the cake.