When I was in high school, I became possessed of the notion that I wanted—nay, needed—to join the crew team. I was about 5’2″ at the time and around 100 pounds, yet still my main condition for joining the team was that I didn’t want to be a coxswain. Thinking back, I probably did it solely out of a misguided desire to develop more shapely arms (I did not), but at the time nobody asked any questions. The coach was also my math teacher, and in my school—where activities like theater and debate reigned supreme—it wasn’t so easy to get five kids to willingly spend hours rowing a boat together, especially if it was also part of competitive sport. As long as all of my limbs technically functioned, I was not only automatically accepted to the junior varsity team but also allowed to be a diva about it. And I demanded to row. Soon thereafter, I became the most absurd bowman the sport has ever seen, a position that evidently traditionally requires both strength and a certain amount of skill for things like steering and stuff.
The season started out alright. Practices took place often in the third floor hallway and the stairwell of our school, where we worked on getting in good shape or something. I’m not an especially strong person, physically, but I’ve always been good at things that require endurance and stamina, so practice time suited me. I could run up and down stairs until my legs fell off, or row thousands of fake meters on the rowing machine, and I remember thinking thoughts like “hey, look at me, I am a total athlete. I’m going to be awesome at this whole sports thing.” Many days we’d also go out onto the river to practice in the actual boats. I was less good at this part, but I chalked it up to being distracted by the scenery. We practiced on the Potomac River from a rock formation upstream of Key Bridge down to the Kennedy Center, and floating around in the middle of the Potomac on a beautiful fall day surrounded by, like, gorgeous trees and D.C.’s monumental landmarks was really very pleasant. The part where we got yelled at from a megaphone to work harder and row faster was less fun, but it seemed like a decent trade-off for getting to enjoy the outdoors.
We never did terribly well in the competitions, but that wasn’t all that surprising. Lots of schools seemed to have high school students who looked a lot like high school students on TV look—what with their adult-like bodies and actual muscles lurking between their bones and their skin—but our team was just a rag-tag bunch of kids who weren’t suited for any of the other sports. We never really expected to win, so we were OK with just spending a few hours out on the water playing along. The thing that we hadn’t really anticipated, though, was that fall would eventually give way to the early months of winter. This unrelenting march of time, combined with our ridiculous costumes of sleeveless spandex unitards, began to make everything progressively more miserable. That’s when things really began to fall apart.
One Saturday, we had to go to a competition on the Anacostia River. The thing that nobody tells you about with crew is all of the waiting involved in the meets. You put your boat in the water and row out to somewhere nearby where the race starts, and then you sit. You sit for a really long time in this holding zone until it’s time for your race, which only takes a couple of minutes. All of the sitting and the waiting wasn’t so bad in the warmer months on the Potomac, but it was essentially unbearable on this morning on the Anacostia. First of all, the Anacostia is a horrifically filthy waterway without much in the way of scenery, and on a grey rainy day, the whole thing is a total bummer. Second of all, what might feel like a slightly cold and drizzly November morning onshore felt something like being directed to stand outside naked during a blizzard whilst sitting stationary on a boat in the middle of the river. My shivering approached something not unlike a seizure, my teeth chattering so hard that, if I’d had fillings, I’m positive they would have come loose. I was so cold, and so wet, and so much of my body was exposed, and I was surrounded by so much garbage, and there was no way to make any of it better.
I have no real concept of how long we sat there, but it felt like days. It was long enough that I recall weighing the relative benefits of throwing myself into the trash-strewn water and drowning myself, or at least drinking the river water and waiting a minute or two for the toxic sludge to work its way through my system. I remember hoping that the rain might pick up and I’d be dealt the mercy of getting fatally struck by lightning—something, anything, to end it all in the sweet release of death. What I remember most was the feeling of certainty that this—right there, in that moment—was the most amount of misery I had the capacity to possibly feel. Nothing would ever be worse, and if I survived it, the rest of my life would be, essentially, easy. Until recently, that’s more or less held true.
I think probably trying to fix this gutter was worse than that. It was worse than anything.
Here is the sequence of events that led to this moment:
1. We have a terrible time finding a contractor who would take the job of replacing our ancient roof who isn’t also trying to take every last penny of our entire renovation budget.
2. We finally find a contractor we can afford. We are able to finance the job and pay it off over several years, but still—it’s a roof. It’s like the most amount of money we’ve ever spent on anything (aside from the house itself), so we really, really want it to just go well. This seems like a reasonable hope to have when you are paying professionals to do the thing that they professionally do.
3. Workers begin job by tearing off majority of old roof. It quickly becomes clear that our poorly-maintained box gutters (which are gutters that are essentially built into the structure of the house rather than attached like a regular modern aluminum gutter) had undergone a lot of damage and deterioration and rot over the years, all of which I detailed in all its gory detail at the time. It is devastating.
4. Roofing contractor tells us that there isn’t anything he can do, and I need to find someone qualified to make the repair of re-framing, sheathing, and lining the gutters. No, he has no recommendations. Other than to get it done within the month, since winter’s a-coming. We are in deep shit, officially.
5. I go into panic-mode and delude myself into thinking I can probably rebuild a 34 foot long gutter, two stories in the air, by myself in a weekend. Not my finest moment.
6. I try really hard for like 4 days. It is very cold on the roof, but I spend essentially all daytime hours up there regardless. I have a bad cold. I realize I have very little clue what I’m doing, but I keep trying anyway. I panic more. I descend into madness and admit defeat. I am broken.
This is where things start to get lots better:
1. I talk to somewhere around 6 contractors. Some of them are very expensive. Some of them are only regular-expensive. I choose a regular-expensive contractor, who is vague about when he can start the job. It is getting more winter-y, and various structural components of my house are basically exposed to the elements. Finally, the contractor hands off the job to another contractor. I no longer really even know what’s going on, but I’ve stopped caring. As long as it gets done.
2. Other contractor, whose name is Shane, turns out to be terrific. He seems to fix things very well. He costs a little less than expected. Things are OK.
I didn’t want to get in Shane’s way, so I don’t really have many process photos, but the one above is the reconstructed structure of the box gutter over the front porch. Look at that! Because the gutters that he had to repair were various sizes and in various states of disrepair, each required different things. The sheathing on these gutters over the porches had completely rotted, but for the most part, the framing members were in decent and usable shape (though he did reinforce them where necessary). Then he sheathed the gutters in a mix of exterior-grade OSB and pressure-treated plywood.
So we went from this:
To this: (!)
Check it out! Doing what it’s supposed to do!
OK, I know it’s not the most beautiful thing in the world, and old house purists might be screaming at their computer monitors in horror. There are a couple of different ways to address repairing box gutters, and there’s a lot of disagreement in the old-house-world on the best way. Traditionally, these gutters were lined with metal (either tin or copper), which was painted to help preserve their longevity. Lots of roofers or gutter people who work with box gutters will still line them this way—either with aluminum or copper. Obviously copper gets obscenely expensive, and was just completely out of the question for us, but both metal options have to deal with the issue of expansion and contraction. Properly lined gutters are done in sections with soldered joints to allow for expansion and contraction of the metal under different temperature conditions, but very often these joints fail over time, allowing for water to seep into the structure below. Which isn’t cool at all.
The other option is using a very thick rubber called EPDM (basically pool-liner), which is obviously not historically accurate, but seems to work. Lots of people seem to not like this solution because it’s so historically inaccurate and because using it goes against the manufacturer’s installation recommendations, BUT the general consensus seems to be that in terms of functionality and longevity, it works great. With all that in mind, we chose to go with EPDM, both because it was much less expensive and because it seemed like potentially a better material in terms of avoiding problems down the line. I really hope this was a good choice because I never want to deal with this bullshit again.
Here’s the overhang over the front door, after all the rotted bits had been removed.
And here it is now! Cool, right? At some point, I’d REALLY like to get better-looking downspouts for this area, since those cheap modern aluminum ones aren’t really doing the house any favors visually, but that can wait. The water is draining like it’s supposed to, and also not rotting away the house from the inside. Success!
As for the HUGGGEEE gutter that I spent so long working on, it needed a much more comprehensive reconstruction, including all new framing, sheathing, and lining. Unfortunately this entire side of the house—including the soffit—has bowed out over time (probably an effect of our rafters not having collar-ties, which help keep the pressure of the roof structure from bearing down on the exterior walls), which really threw the pitch of the gutter off. We thought we might have to completely reconstruct the soffit, but luckily Shane was able to just fix the pitch of the gutter with the new framing and avoid a much more extensive re-build. Point is, now the water drains toward the downspout at the end instead of pooling toward the middle.
There she is! The beast. Again, not the most glamorous looking thing in the world, but it really does fine from the street, which is what’s important. Even though it might have been easier to just sheath right over the box gutters and attach regular modern gutters (which is what most people do in this situation), I’m still glad we decided to restore this original feature. Even though we didn’t go all-out and line them with fancy metal, we were still able to preserve the original shape and structure of the roof and cornice (sheathing over it would have meant a sudden change in the pitch of the roof because the angle of the edge of the roof to the edge of the gutter is different than the overall angle of the roof, if that makes sense…if it doesn’t, just trust that it would have looked totally awful). And instead of tacking on new gutters, we were able to maintain the original crown molding that tops off the cornice. Because I think the cornice is definitely one of the best architectural features of the house, I’m super happy it wasn’t compromised because of all this.
Speaking of the crown molding, you might notice that it’s missing! Unfortunately the original material was badly rotted and unsalvageable, so it’s being replicated now (so cool!), since it’s not exactly something you can find stock. In the spring, we’ll attach the new crown, finish fixing up a couple of damaged corbels (hello, generous slathering of Bondo in the after picture…), caulk, and paint everything.
Even though I really wish all of this hadn’t happened the way it did, there were a couple of silver linings. The first is that I really like the contractor who did the work, and it feels good to have a trusted professional in the arsenal when we need more stuff done that I can’t do myself. The second is that after trying to deal with the gutters myself, all the interior stuff feels like small potatoes. Maybe it’s not so fun to rip out a plaster ceiling, for instance, but it feels comparatively super easy and fun compared to crying on the roof. Third, it gave me a chance to really see and understand more about this house! I used to love old houses pretty much for completely superficial reasons (doors! moldings! pretty things!), but it’s fun learning more and more about how and why things were build the way they were. It’s sort of weirdly empowering to be able to explain and diagram exactly how our box gutters are built, and it’s kind of exciting to see the “guts” of the house that are usually covered up, even when the circumstances might suck. Take for instance this peek at the pegs joining together our timber framing! It’s cool because it further supports that our house is definitely older than we originally thought—the listing said 1895, but this style of post-and-beam construction went out of fashion in the mid-19th century, when sawmills brought about during the industrial revolution allowed for smaller, more precise dimensional lumber and homes became cheaper and faster to build as a result. The amount of craftsmanship that went into just the structure of this house is so remarkable.
We still have a ways to go with the roof (a couple more roof surfaces and a few more gutters haven’t yet been addressed…ugh), but I’m glad this stuff got taken care of in time for winter. Even though looking at these gutters might be way less satisfying than, say, the bathroom renovation that we might have spent the money on otherwise, this was an essential repair that needed to happen now, so I’m glad it did. Sorry, bathroom! I’ll aim to get to you by at least 2030.