How to Have a House

Living with and understanding a home.


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Homeowners do the craziest things.  I’m always amazed at what people show me they have done.  The work is usually excellent and well researched. Homeowners will go online and look up materials and how they are applied, they’ll hop on YouTube and find a how to video for whatever job they’ve chosen.  They buy or rent tools and do the job.  I’m glad to be working for these homeowners.  Usually a couple days into a job with them and the real stories come out about the “did-it-themselves” job.  The fiberglass shower unit torn of the top of the car pulling into the garage, dogs and cats tracking paint, kids wrecking the place!  If there’s more than one person living in the house it’s hard to get stuff done.  For the homeowner these jobs give them a sense of perspective.  Scale. And effort.  Homeowners find some of these jobs overwhelming, and end up a hassle to finish or never finished at all.  Other jobs or improvements go without a hitch.  Through experience the homeowner finds their level of interest and ability.
I know this about customers because I pay attention. Mostly.  I know I lack attentiveness in certain ways, I’m lucky enough to have customers and friends who tell me this.  But the rest of the time I’m soaking it up.  It’s why I’ve done this job so long without getting bored or promoted.  Seems crazy but the people living in the house are just as interesting to me as the house itself.  I’ve heard a lot of stories about nearly everything imaginable from homeowners.  I weigh these shared moments with the job I’m doing and the house I’m in.  I go through the days and weeks learning the real purpose of the house in these peoples lives.  All along sanding and painting, rebuilding an old window, serving, maintaining and repairing
As special as this all sounds I’m just one of many workers sharing moments with customers in America.  I’ve worked for a woman for 8 years who still tells me about Old Jerimiah and all the coffee that guy could drink.  I’ve got customers who take service workers fishing, loan them money for furnace repairs or give them cars they’ve quit using.  Customers have paid for stolen tools, helped out with truck repairs and have been forgiving when appointments are missed or schedules fall apart.   Lots of my customers can tell about the guy before me with fondness.  Some of the guys and gals before me have gone on to other work, moved, gotten a “W-2” job, died or just disappeared.
 I’m the next guy.  I drink coffee like an addict when it’s offered, I don’t borrow money, I don’t need a car and I miss appointments sometimes and have lost track of weeks of work on my customer calendar a couple of times.  I shoot good trim, can make plaster repairs invisible and am willing to do almost any work. I’ve got bills to  pay.  Some times I imagine what the next guy after me will hear about “Jonas”.  What will my customers be telling them over coffee and toast?  What will I have gone onto that I’m no longer working on that home?  I guess that’s for the next guy to find out.  I’m guessing it will be way more fun than dying or getting a W-2 job.


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Old town. Old houses. Curious.

It’s not just houses.  We visited and antique town north of where we live last weekend.  A majority of the houses were antique and the whole original downtown was really antique.  What’s that hook?  How does something so old catch and hold our attention. These building were built before the American Civil War. They were stacked in tight, some up to two and a half stories. It seemed like everyone was sort of letting the exterior trim weather and peel.  The window frames, front store trim and thresholds were sort of worn and rough.   All along flower boxes were planted fresh, several buildings housed residents on the second floors and the stores were interesting and varied.
These building still sported tin ceilings with 8-12 inch crown.  Lots of downspouts still had cast iron finals square bolted to the sides of buildings.  A lot of the thresholds were cast iron or really worn cut stone.  A staircase in the back of one building was built in the late 1800s, it was steep and pretty.  All the same elements found in an antique house were found in these downtown, retail and residential places.  Rugged wood floors, tall base, maybe two piece with plinth blocks and big casing.  A lot of doorways were still trimmed out with the original transom windows.  Tin ceilings were two to three times the scale you’d find in old homes, it was also 11 or 12 feet high.  Being behind the buildings in these towns is just as fun.  The second floor residents had gardens, laundry, decks and all kinds of living going on behind their stores.  It was pretty lively, it felt urban.
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My favorite building was the tobacco sale barn.  It was a steel girder building with corrugated sheet metal siding and roof.  It was basically a time capsule.  Who can say no to that.  Tons of tobacco have been delivered and sold through the building to the extent it smelled like it would never not smell like tobacco again.  It was recognized for its long standing tradition of jobs, trade and community.  A product of vice in a mid-west culture.   A mile north of town is a distillery making whiskey and bourbon.  This town is funny.  This weekend while were in town an auction was going on in the selling floor of the tobacco barn. We hung around and then went down to the storage and distribution level.  A basement, but built to breath and act in the good of tobacco storage.  A cigar humidor  room with cigars for sale was next to a boutique.  Next to the cigar humidor were a group of men hand rolling cigars, chatting and smoking.  We hung out, learned more about the barn and about cigars.  I don’t smoke cigars but we bought one  for a friend.  If not for the vehicles outside on the gravel, the whole store, the men sitting in it and room could have been right out of the 19th century.
Like old houses old buildings are reassuring.  They’re proof we did good and amazing things quite some time ago, and at the same time reminders of how far we have come with planning, construction and lifestyle.  Old houses and buildings are history we can live and work in.  They creak and bang and have patterns of imperfection, standing through decades of utility upgrades and maintenance.  Ultimately taking on generations of curious occupants and visitors, old places serve in untimely fashion.

 


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Getting old sucks. Or does it?

How to Have a House

Went to an appointment today to visit a couple who have been regular customers for about 8 years.  We realized this when we reflected on the fact that the second time I worked on the house Bob told me he just turned 80.  That first couple years Fran would blow the car horn at me when she was trying to get out of the garage, she had no time for me or my “costly” maintenance on the house.  Bob’s an old Marine who was in banking for years and clearly managed his money well.  Eight years ago he was just thinking of selling his 40 foot power boat he kept on the Great Lakes. Bob’s always hangs  out at the back of the truck and chats it up while I drag ladders and tools in and out. I learn a lot about customers at the back of the truck.  Bob…

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It’s hard to let go of the past, even when it’s holding things together.

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I put a garage door up several weeks ago.  The garage I was working on was a little one car garage with an overhead door on the front and nothing more. No windows, no passage door.  The old door on the garage was running fine, but the panels were coming apart and it became futile to paint the door again.  My customer picked out another wooden door, with windows, similar to the one we were replacing but with fresh track and a torsion spring instead of stretch springs.  I was glad about that, stretch springs make me crazy.  I installed the door on a pretty cold day, but it was not snowing and garage doors are cold weather friendly work. I spread out the parts, sorted the hardware and assembled the panels for stacking.  I cut a zany scribe strip across the threshold area, the garage had been moved at least twice and the floor was a pattern of triangles and humps of concrete.  The bottom panel work was tricky but par for the course in an old garage. The garage had a little lean to it, the customer understood the new door would show the slight lack of plumb when installed, she was fine, she’s an old house kind of person.  She likes things done really nicely, does not seek perfection, and, embraces character.  Lucky for me and the garage. 
 
Then came the funny part.  Square head nuts, bolts and lag bolts.  All over the old garage door and track.  This door’s been around a while.  Taking most doors down is pretty quick.  I utilize a good electric impact gun and a sawzall.  Taking the nuts and bolts out in the correct order using the electric impact gun and the door practically falls into a pile ready for disposal.  If it’s a 16′ wide door, the sawzall comes out.  Since quite a few of us don’t have impact socket sets for square head nuts and bolts the process changes pace.  Vice grips replace sockets and it takes a little more focus.  One at a time, hand work with no motor speed.  
 
The old garage door came down, comically slow compared to other things going on.  Sort lumber from steel for disposal and recycle. The new door stacked right into the opening on it’s fresh bottom panel scribe.  I wound the torsion spring carefully, and attached the overhead operator.  Smooth quiet and solid sounding.  
 
I went back this week since the weather warmed and oil primed and painted the wooden door.  It got even quieter with three coats of paint and some caulk.  I also installed a wireless keypad for the customer.  It’s a great door, all wood, matches the old one so even the Landmarks Commission is happy.  Easy sneezy, out of sight out of mind. 
 
Not really.  Those square head bolts make me think.  They resist today’s tools, they shrug away speed with their simplicity.  They command consideration.  They won’t come out of that lumber without a reminder of days gone by, tools no longer sold except in antique shops and specialty catalogues. I’ve always had a hard time throwing those square bolts in the scrap.  I’m already seeing fasteners used that are barely recognizable to what I’m used to, things change.  It’s a gift to watch the past slip through my hands into history while I build today’s evidence to be considered by future workers.  This job really never gets old.