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 and a full basement. True to the Chicago Bungalow Association description, it also has “generous windows”—54 of them, in fact!
I won’t bother you with an inventory. Suffice it to say that, in typical bungalow fashion, my house was so desirous of a fluid relationship with nature that it insisted on being “raised” up so that the basement might achieve proximity with the garden, complete with fifteen windows to afford a proper view. (Never mind that they are covered with glass block—a regrettable, and temporary condition.) In something like a “keep up with the basement” attitude, then, each room demanded its own, unhindered view as well. “Of all the elements of a room,” the architect Louis I. Kahn once said, “the window is the most marvelous…” (The Street, the Room, and Human Agreement). The rooms in my house seem to agree.
Even the attic demanded a view of the yard.
I suspect, then, this surplus of windows must have informed a requirement my house conveyed to the realtors when they sat down to talk. “Find someone who can restore my windows." *
While I groaned at the thought of this cobbler’s-children-have-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 demands!)
Articulate Your Architecture
A year-and-a-half later, as you can see from the photo of the front of my house, I’ve at least got a running start. I’ve restored the exterior window frames AND the storm windows on the facade. (I’ll say more about those white casement windows peeking out behind the green storm windows in a moment.)
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 sloppily applied caulk from between the brick mold and the brick. I then switched to a chemical stripping agent to remove residue from the brick itself.
But wait a minute…. If you don’t mind, I’ll just step down off my ladder here a moment so I can step up on my soapbox for an important digression.
I’ve been working in architectural restoration for more than twenty years. And yet, only once, to the best of my memory, have I ever been questioned about the quality of the materials I use! And yet, any work done on houses, and especially windows, is so labor intensive that it seems foolish to me to not use the highest quality materials you can afford! And when you hire someone to do the job, you should be making sure the person you’ve hired isn’t trying to save a few bucks by sticking you with low quality materials! (I know, I know. Homeowners fear they don’t know how to evaluate differences in materials. But just asking the question lets the hired help know that you are watching, and that you care. Besides, just a bit of online research can give you sufficient knowledge to make informed decisions.)
Consider caulk, for instance—not all caulk is the same! And as is the case with most materials, the product that is most readily available in the big box lumber stores isn’t the best product. Besides which, different kinds of caulk are recommended for different situations. When covering the gap between brick mold and brick—"brick mold" is the term given to that piece of wood that butts up against the brick, and is typically molded—the best caulk is a 100% silicone caulk. But since this caulk is unpaintable, and oncomes in a limited range of colors, the next best thing is a paintable silicone caulk. Since I’ll be painting my trim a shade of green, I’ve selected GE Supreme Paintable Silicone Caulk which is, despite what I said above, readily available at big box lumber stores.
And caulk is important! I don’t know how many times I’ve been called out to look at windows that the client claims are leaking water, only to discover that the problem was not the sashes themselves, but the exterior window frames. In particular, the frames were not properly caulked. If you have time and money for nothing else, the simplest and smartest thing you can do is to ensure your window and door frames are properly and securely caulked on the outside of the building.
What’s that, you say? Your window frames have been capped with aluminum siding? Don’t even get me started! Whoever installed those caps has created a tin can into which water will eventually leak to then slowly, but methodically rot the hidden wood frame. But why worry? What you can’t see isn’t a problem, right?!?
Okay, I’m stepping down off my soapbox now and back up onto my ladder where I belong…
I line the brick with duct tape (because blue tape isn’t sticking to my rough-textured brick surface) and re-caulk the gap between the brick mold and the brick, relying on the tape to give me my straight-edge.
I also strip down the metal lintels, scrubbing out loose rust with a wire brush attachment on my drill, and apply an industrial-grade, rust-inhibiting primer. (The Rustoleum primer homeowners can readily purchase is adequate to the task.) I am careful, at this point, to custom-tint the finish paint for my lintels so that it will match the color of my brick rather than the color I had chosen for the windows and window frames. (Color tip: Anyone tinting color for vintage and historic elements needs to know how to create the color of dirt—old things get dirty, though the polite word for it is “patina.” A mixture of raw umber and raw sienna—that’s the color of di…I mean “patina.”)
Both these details—making sure I get straight caulk lines and painting my lintels the color of the brick—contribute to the important task of articulating the architecture. What that means, in layman’s terms, is that you let the architecture speak…and speak with authority. When it comes to paint, then, this means that, as a general rule, you make sure your paint line follows the architectural line.
You can see the effect this has in these pictures of the line between my lintels and windows and between my brick and the brick mold.
The effect this attentiveness to respecting the architectural line has, as you can see, is to achieve a sharpness of definition. You can clearly see where the wood trim of the window ends and the brick begins (because it isn’t slathered with carelessly applied caulk which would blur the line). The same goes for the lintel, which is part of the volume comprising the brick edge. Painting it to match the brick gives definition to the corner. The cumulative effect of this kind of precision is to make the whole building snap to attention. It renders a palpable sense of substance and weight, an effect that is enhanced by the quality of the materials that were used to build these gems in the first place.
To learn more about this principle of articulating your architecture, take a look at an article I wrote for West Suburban Living (Jan./Feb. 2005 issue). Here’s a link to a copy I’ve uploaded to my website: “Articulate Your Architecture.”
If You Can’t Restore it Right Away, Get out the Mothballs.
But let’s get back to my windows.
After removing the paint and de-glazing the storm windows (which means to remove the old window putty and extract the glass from the wood frames), I repair and prime the frames, then re-install the glass using a pure linseed oil glazing compound (alias “window putty”) that, once again, meets my standard for using quality materials that are compatible with the age of the building.
I then use the same high quality, “long-oil” (meaning, slow drying) primer on the window frames that I use to saturate my client’s wood windows, knowing that the slowness of the drying time will allow the wood to soak up this primer like a sponge, thus enhancing its moisture-resistance. I finish off this first phase of what will necessarily be a multi-phase project–because the cobbler has to attend to other people’s children’s shoes most of the time—by applying as many coats of oil-based finish paint on the window frames as are needed to achieve full saturation (2-3 coats). Footnote: If you want to know why I use oil-based instead of latex paints, you’ll have to come to my seminar. I’ll also explain a number of other details involved in the proper restoration of these valuable windows.
You might notice, though, looking at the picture of the façade of my house, that I only manage to get the exterior window frames and the storm windows restored. The casement windows themselves are still white, still in need of restoration. That’s because I’m following the same basic architectural restoration/preservation principle I recommend to my clients—“mothballing.”
What happens if you have 54 windows to restore (plus original storm windows), but you don’t have the resources to do it all at once? By restoring the most vulnerable layers first—the storm windows and exterior wood frames—but leaving the main, interior windows for a later phase, I am engaging in the restoration practice of “mothballing.”
Mothballing is pretty much what it sounds like—the arresting of the degradation of architectural elements by protecting what eventually needs to, and is worthy of restoring, but which you can’t afford to restore immediately, either because of time or money or both. This “moth-ball” of protection buys time. So, I limit the scope of my first restoration project—How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!—to restoring the exterior window frames and the storm windows, since they have maximum exposure to the elements. But I put off restoration of the main windows for now, because my restoration of the exterior frames and storm windows provides the protection they need to keep them from further degradation. It buys me time so that I can eat this elephant-of-a-window-restoration-project one bite at a time.
Mothballing can take any variety of forms. For instance, notice what I’ve done to my attic windows.
Not the most aesthetically pleasing option—But the whole window frame had rotted and water was leaking into the attic. Since I don’t have time, right now, to rebuild the window frame (and, in fact, much of the dormer), I extracted the sashes (so I can restore them before reinstallation) and, because the windows are in the attic and I won’t miss the light—board up the opening. I use a wonderful product—Dap Seal-and-Peel Caulk—to temporarily seal the board-up edges so moisture can’t leak inside. Seal-and-Peel Caulk functions just like any other caulk, its advantage being in the ease of its removal. It peels off in long strips and doesn’t leave a nasty residue. It is a well-named product which does exactly what it says it will do!
As a global strategy for the restoration of a building, mothballing fits within the larger objective, as the first stage in the restoration of any building, of “sealing the envelop”; that is, placing priority on exterior work that will protect the building from degradation by natural elements before doing less important exterior or interior work. This process is referred to in the construction industry as achieving a “dry in” condition.
Part of the “drying in” process involves inspecting and repairing or replacing gutters and downspouts. All of my gutters drain into this single downspout. I had to disconnect it, stuff a garden hose down it, and turn on the water to make sure this downspout drains into my catch-basin rather than alongside the foundation (a condition which will eventually degrade the foundation.) I was happy to discover it had been designed properly!
To achieve “dry in” condition, you do all the work that will sustain a dry interior—roof and chimney repair/replacement, gutter repair/replacement, lawn grading to make sure water sheds away from the house rather than soaking into and degrading the foundation, and the kind of partial window restoration I’ve described. Projects like the 12-foot long, faux-limestone window box I intend to build on the front of my bungalow, and the desperately needed new landscaping will have to wait for another year.
You might have noticed I haven’t said anything about color yet. But color is important, even at this first stage of “dry in” restoration work! There’s a trick to any restoration/renovation work at play here; that is, that one’s design work needs to outpace one’s actual projects. If you don’t plan ahead with the design work, you won’t know how to frame your actual projects, thus ending up having to do make-up work.
For instance, when restoring windows, one often has to confront the fact that there was a craze somewhere around the mid- to late-thirties when everyone got tired of natural wood. They responded to a fad that was sweeping the nation and painted over all that interior wood. Before you restore your windows, then, you want to decide how much (if any) of that natural wood patina you want to uncover. This is important because the ideal time to strip the interior side of your sashes is when you have removed the glass in the restoration process. Color choices on painted wood similarly need to be integrated with larger color scheme plans. Plan ahead; implement accordingly.
Because I am intending to restore my bungalow to a relaxed period condition—I’m not doing museum-style restoration but, rather, a more livable, relaxed restoration—I first did research on period colors before choosing my trim color.
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. (See my “Articulate Your Architecture” article for more detail about the importance of giving strong preference to period colors.) The color is “Oak Moss.” The fact that earth-tone yellow (the color of my brick) and moss green is 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 aesthetic desirability of this choice. A third reason to prefer this organic color is that it fits with the Arts & Crafts principle of establishing a fluid relationship between architecture and nature as a baseline for design decisions. Having a lot of windows facilitates this choice. Painting them a shade of green just makes sense.
But only after the fact did I realize this particular choice 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. Oak Brothers is, of course, the name of my business.
Oak also happens to be the species of tree the Greeks thought was inhabited by wood nymphs. And if you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m a believer that both the natural and the built world have a liveliness that we either enhance or neglect, to our own pleasure or peril. And a commitment to restoration is one means of respecting both.
* 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.