In the May 2019 issue of the ASHI Reporter, in the article “The Life Cycle of a House: How Houses Age Gracefully,” I shared my observations about the way homes age. In this article, I will share how, when a home has reached the old age of 100 or even 200 years, an inspector must apply a different set of standards to evaluate the house.
For the most part, building codes were not in effect when homes were built more than 100 years ago and engineering standards were “trial and error.” The quality of the construction was left up to the integrity and expertise of the builder. The type of construction that was used was quite different from today’s standards and different materials were used as well.
In “antique” homes, builders employed a framing method primarily referred to as “post and beam,” “timber framing” or “log framing.” This method required framing members of a large cross-sectional dimension to span long distances and provide support at each end, with no vertical support between the two ends.
Many times, the trees that were growing on the property were used for the building and they were hand-hewed, shaped and cut to the appropriate length. This method presented a pathway of entry for beetles and other wood-destroying insects whose natural habitats were those trees.
The spaces between the large framing members could be filled with many different materials, as they were not load-bearing and were only fill-in materials. The joinery on timber framing was done by hand and referred to as “mortise and tenon.” In this system, no nails were used; the joints were secured together using wooden pegs (Photos 1 and 2).
Nails were scarce and expensive because they had to be made by hand (Photo 3). In fact, it is important to keep in mind that nearly all of the materials in these structures had to be made by hand.
Timber framing methods are still used today, particularly in barn building, as well as in new home construction; however, the tools and materials used today are much more precise. The joinery is tighter and metal strapping (as well as nails and screws) holds the joints together (Photos 4, 5, 6 and 7).
Chestnut was the primary type of wood material used in antique buildings; however, this type of wood is no longer available in great quantities. Oak also was used (note: Oak is often misidentified as chestnut). Another noteworthy item in old homes is the flooring boards, as they are usually quite wide. Chestnut, oak and pine wood all were used for flooring. Wide board flooring materials today are scarce and expensive.
When electricity and machines became available, machine-milled wood and machine-made nails became widely available, and a method of framing called “balloon framing” became popular between the 1830s and 1950s. Using the balloon framing method, the vertical wall studs were run down to the foundation all the way up to the attic. This required long framing members that were hard to handle and, eventually, they also became scarce and expensive.
Around the 1950s, another change was made to the way homes are framed. “Platform framing” refers to the framing of a home in which the first-floor deck is built on top of the foundation, then it is framed up to the second-floor deck and continued up to the attic level. This method of platform framing required only that the home had wall studs as high as the ceiling heights that the builder was trying to achieve; this method is still used today.
The fireplace was not only used for heating purposes, but for cooking as well (Photos 8 and 9).
In the back wall of the fireplace, a “beehive” oven was constructed for baking purposes. This construction turned out to be quite hazardous because clothing (such as long skirts) worn by women of the time could easily catch fire when they leaned over the fire to bake and cook. To prevent this, women often soaked the bottom of their skirts in water to keep them from catching fire. It wasn’t long before builders moved the location of the beehive oven from the rear of the fireplace to the side—an area that did not require a person to lean over the fire. This building adjustment was a momentous change for the women of this era.
The foundations of the earliest antique homes were, at first, dry-laid stonework. When lime and sand became available, builders used a mortar mixture of the sand and lime to hold the stones together. This lime mortar was very soft and not very strong. If you happen to inspect a home that has one of these old foundations with lime mortar, you can easily scrape the mortar out with a screwdriver. In addition, old foundations are not very good at keeping storm water from seeping into the basement area. When cement became available, it was a mixture of finely ground clay and limestone, which created a strong mix that strengthened the foundation wall substantially and is still in use today.
Central heating was introduced in Worcester, MA, around the year 1835. Heat conservation was important. The ceilings of the oldest antique homes were very low and the exteriors were built close to the ground, to conserve heat. Years later, this building strategy was the cause of decay to the sections of the house that were near the ground surface. There was generally one heat supply duct in the middle of the first floor and the heat moved through the home by convection. It worked quite well, except in those rooms farthest away from the central floor duct, which did not get very warm during cold New England winters. Later, builders added ductwork so that heat could reach distant rooms via convection. Finally, builders added fans to distribute the heat more evenly (Photos 10 and 11).
Indoor plumbing in the United States was introduced in the early 1800s. The White House added indoor plumbing in 1833. There are also reports of indoor plumbing in ancient Rome and in settlements dating earlier than that.
Up to the point when the privy was moved indoors, the outhouse was an important component of building planning (Photo 12). It had to be close to the house, but also far enough away (for obvious reasons) and it had to be sturdy enough to withstand bad weather. Some builders thought it was a good idea to build outhouses out of brick.
The invention of electricity is another story. In 1882, Thomas Edison brought electric light to parts of Manhattan in New York City. But the use of electricity did not spread rapidly into residential areas of homes for many years. Most people lit their homes with gaslight and candles for another 50 years.
The earliest source of electric power in older homes was a 110-volt, 30-ampere electric service, which was named “knob and tube” wiring (Photos 13, 14 and 15). This method was a two-wire conductor system that did not have a ground; today, it is considered to be unsafe. It employed porcelain connectors when the conductors were run on the surface and porcelain tubes when the conductor was run through a wooden beam. This was a miraculous invention at that time and its use escalated the growth of the United States.
If you are fortunate enough to live in an antique home that is in good shape, you are very lucky. These homes are usually cozy and give you the feeling of a “glow” that comes from an open fireplace, although you might have to sit in an easy chair directly in front of the glow from the fireplace to feel that comfort. If you live and own an antique home that is in bad shape or has not been properly maintained, be prepared because these homes can be expensive to repair, even if they are wonderful to live in.
Ron Passaro is the founder and first President of the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI). He founded RES-I-TEC, Inc., a home inspection company, in 1973 and has since served as inspector, president and CEO. He has personally conducted more than 15,000 home inspections, and he voluntarily served for 15 years as ASHI’s national spokesperson for news media interviews and meetings with home inspectors. He was a senior trainer for American Home Inspection Training Institute, teaching new home inspectors nationwide. He teaches continuing education and other programs throughout the country, and conducts educational programs for home inspectors, real estate professionals and homebuyers. He has been a speaker at the Connecticut Association of Realtors conference, Northern Fairfield County Association of Realtors conference, National Association of Realtors conferences in California, Washington and the “Triple Play” conferences in Atlantic City, as well as national conferences for ASHI, the National Association of Home Inspectors (NAHI) and others. Contact Ron at (203) 791-1076 or email email@example.com.