All posts in: Kingston House

Matching my Historic Windows!

If you read my last post about restoring the side elevation of my house, you probably picked up on the fact that I’m in need of a few new windows to properly execute my plan of removing non-original additions and restoring the original architecture. The actual framing and installation of a new window is all pretty simple, even on an old house, but actually finding the right windows at a price point I could afford was a much bigger challenge.

“Why not just replace your original windows? Aren’t they drafty and outmoded and horrible anyway?” is what you might be thinking. This is not a conversation you want to start with me because you will never get out of it. Here is kind of my pitch for old windows, though, because I can’t not.

anatomy

Almost every single window on my house is original to the time it was built, and I could not be more grateful for that fact. They’re beautifully crafted out of old-growth lumber that—decently maintained—lasts literal hundreds of years. Old windows are normally fairly easily restored and repaired, and when combined with a storm window, comparably energy-efficient to a new window in good working order…the difference being that a new window’s life-expectancy is only about 15-20 years.

In climates with harsh winters especially (like where I live!), people very often replace their original windows with new, thinking that they’ll be increasing their energy efficiency. And while that’s moderately true (again, depending on the quality and condition of the replacement!), windows are EXPENSIVE motherfuckers and so the cost of buying new windows (not to mention having them installed) typically ends up costing far more money than you’re saving on utility bills throughout the life of those windows…a cost you then have to incur AGAIN in a couple decades when those new windows inevitably fail. New windows are difficult or often impossible to repair yourself, too. If a neighborhood kid hits a baseball through one of my window panes, all I have to do is spend about $10 on a new piece of glass and a couple hours removing the broken pane and installing the new one. When a new window breaks, you’re usually looking at a completely new sash, which has to be ordered, and then installed by a service tech, and if the company has stopped making that model, you might need a new window altogether. Just because of some broken glass! The window industry has been very effective with marketing new windows to consumers, but when compared to an original wood sash, I don’t think the replacement argument holds up to any kind of scrutiny. And EVEN if we accept that the energy-efficiency argument is true, think about the amount of waste generated by the production of the new windows, the disposal of the old windows, and then the continued disposal of the new windows every couple of decades in perpetuity. That’s a lot of shit in the landfill!

All of this is to say nothing of the actual preservation of a historic structure, which new windows have a funny way of destroying. The first way this happens is when consumers change the style: as a very general rule, the older the house, the more divided the lite pattern is on the window. I primarily have six-over-six windows, which means there are six window panes on the top sash and six on the bottom, divided by wood muntins. That pattern is typical of this style of architecture and is how the house was intended to look, but matching that lite pattern on a decent quality new window significantly drives up costs. So very often consumers switch to one-over-one windows with no lite pattern to keep costs down, and then the house looks totally different and almost always much worse. The second way this happens is because replacement windows generally come with their own jambs to fit within the existing window frame (not all—there are things called “sash kits” that allow your to reuse your existing jamb, assuming it’s very square), so even at a custom size, you’re losing an inch or two of the sash opening because you have to accommodate the new jamb. Which leads me to the third way windows get messed up—custom sizes. Almost all window retailers do offer the option for replacements to be fabricated at custom sizes, but it costs more than a standardized stock size…which often doesn’t jive with the dimensions of an old window. As a result, consumers decrease the size of their windows to accommodate a stock size, and then their house looks all wrong because chances are that the original size is scaled appropriately to the house.

The fourth issue is materials, which is both an issue from the inside and the outside. There are a lot of options out there, but in general you’re looking at:

  1. Cheapest: vinyl interior, vinyl exterior. Vinyl, as far as I’m concerned, is the work of the devil and will have the same place in history as plastic 70s paneling and asbestos siding. Vinyl expands and contracts with heat, dries out, becomes brittle, breaks, bends, warps…I really dislike vinyl, as you can probably deduce. It’s cheap and fast and bad.
  2. More expensive: Wood interior, vinyl-clad exterior. These can actually be pretty fine, especially if you’re trying to restore the original appearance of a structure where the original windows were already removed. Most companies offer a few color options, too, and somehow black vinyl looks LEAPS AND BOUNDS better than white vinyl and is very often appropriate for an old house (and handsome on a new house!). I wish more people considered black sashes.
  3. Most expensive, I think?: Wood interior, aluminum-clad exterior. These are spendy but far more durable than their vinyl/vinyl counterparts, and typically look the best.

The major thing in common with nearly all new windows is that the glass is insulated—meaning that there are actually two panes of glass separated by about a 1/4″, which essentially serves the same function as a storm window would on an old window. Windows, of course, will always allow for more heat loss and transfer than a solid insulated wall, but insulated windows do serve a benefit. Of course, they come with their own problems…if one of the panes is faulty or broken, you sometimes see condensation building up between the two panes, and again, the repair is much more difficult and costly than an old wood sash.

The means by which windows are insulated—and the divided lite pattern is executed—also has a big range of options and prices. These are things you’ve all probably seen out in the wild. I think I have this right:

Cheapest: No division at all, one-over-one sashes.

snap-ongrilles

More expensive: snap-on grilles, which is exactly what it sounds like. The grilles are either wood or vinyl, and snap on the interior, exterior, or sometimes both. The appearance is usually very flat and kinda sad, especially if the grilles are only on the interior (ugly from outside) or the exterior (ugly from inside).

btnglassgrilles

More expensive: integrated grilles. This is when there’s a (usually plastic) grille between the two panes of glass. I really don’t understand the appeal because they look bad and fake from both the interior and exterior. I guess the benefit is that they’re a little easier to clean.

SDL

Most expensive: Simulated Divided Light. There ARE some really nice options here, again, especially if you’re trying to restore windows that are already gone. One of my favorite makeovers of all time—Steve’s house at An Urban Cottage—used Marvin’s Ultimate Double-Hung windows which are wood interior, aluminum-clad exterior, with simulated divided light, and I think we can all agree that they look great. This is done by putting a grill on the interior and the exterior, with slim bars between the insulated glass, too, aligned with the grilles. They’re a nice way to approximate an original appearance. They’re still one big piece of glass separated slightly from another big piece of glass, and the divided lite pattern is purely aesthetic, but they can look very nice. Of course, they’re costly! The photo above is, I think, is cheaper Jeld-Wen window, but you get the idea. That’s the interior you’re looking at, and you’ll see below that the muntin profile is kind of a bummer compared to my original windows.

Before I shut up: if you’re considering replacing your original windows because the restoration seems daunting (since we’ve already debunked the financial and environmental benefit) or too time-consuming, quote out hiring out the reglazing! It may be less expensive than new windows, particularly if you’re paying to have them installed. And better for your house!

And! If you might want to give the restoration a try on your own, there are some great resources online! A small sampling:

Here and There
Old House Online
This Old House
Probably my favorite, Alex of Old Town Home’s Window Restoration Series

SO! With all these different products out there, you might think finding a suitable match for my old windows wouldn’t be too difficult! But it was! Of course it was. If I’m doing it, it’s a pain in the ass. That’s the rule.

First I thought to myself, “self, buy yourself some of those nice Marvin Ultimate Double-Hungs and call it a day!” but then two things happened: I saw one up close, and I got a quote. It IS a very nice window, but remember that I’m installing my new windows adjacent to original windows, and they look different enough that I thought it the new ones would stick out like sore thumbs. Then the price came in at around $1,500 for ONE window, and I need/want several, and that’s a lotta money. That led me to looking at similar simulated divided lite new windows that were also quite nice but cheaper brands. Windsor seemed to have the nicest product but all the aesthetic issue with the Marvin also applied to the Windsor windows. I think the price came in at about $650 per window, which was better but still a ton of money for something that isn’t even really what I want.

I looked into having windows custom-made, which would have been TOTALLY BALLER because I could have specified the muntin profile, the sill dimensions, the stops, the width of the stiles and rails…but that looked like about a $1,500/window endeavor, too, and again…just too much money for me. I also tried to just source old sashes, figuring I could probably figure out how to make the jambs and everything myself. If I’d needed one window that might have been possible, but I need several and the sizes have to be VERY specific, so that seemed like a total long shot and incredibly impractical.

THEN SOMETHING GREAT HAPPENED. There’s this store about half an hour from my house called The Door Jamb, and they are THE BEST. It’s a family-owned small business and they know everything about windows and doors. They have an enormous stock of windows and doors that are overstock and stuff (but all brand new), so if you can be a little flexible on sizes, they’re a great company to do business with. They can ALSO order new windows and doors (and shutters and storms!) from several retailers, which you’d think would price out more expensive than the big-box stores but I’ve always found them to be far less expensive which makes me love them even more.

So I’m in the store and I see what looks like an old window sash, but is clearly new. It’s single-glaze, with a muntin profile that looks mighty familiar, and even the glass is held in with glazing putty on the exterior…just like my old windows! So naturally I freaked out and got really excited and had to know what this thing was that I’ve been looking for all my life…or at least for the last year or so.

“They call it a barn sash.”

“Why?”

“It’s single-glaze, so nobody would put that on a house.”

“I would. All my windows are already single-glaze. Do they make it in a double-hung?”

“I think so.”

“Can they do custom sizes?”

“Yes.”

“GIMME.”

Brosco

The windows are by Brosco, which seems like a really great company from what I can deduce online, which admittedly is not a lot. But here is what I can report!

  1. One way they measure the windows is by the sash opening—that is, the size of the actual opening of the window rather than the size of the opening you need in your surrounding framing to fit the window into the wall. This made ordering VASTLY easier since trying to work backwards to a sash opening (which is really what I need to match—the rough opening will be new framing so it doesn’t matter so much) from a rough-opening dimension would have been tricky without the actual window in hand.
  2. After quoting out so many different options, I was DELIGHTED to find out that my windows would come in at about $350 per window…roughly half what the other options were going to cost! And VASTLY closer to what I was really looking for all along.
  3. All my sizes were stock with Brosco! This was somewhat unbelievable to me. I might be off by a fraction of an inch, but they’re pretty damn close and I can live with that! It seems like custom sizes roughly doubles the cost, so this was a hugely lucky break.

Let’s compare, shall we?!

stilesoldwindow

Here is the stile, rail, stops, and sash cord of one of my original windows. Old double-hung windows are typically weighted—there is a metal weight concealed behind the casing on either side of the sash, so when you open the window, the weights counterbalance the weight of the sash and allow the window to remain open. Those Marvin Ultimate Double-Hungs seem to be the only window on the market where you can actually get something very close to this, although they use metal chain rather than rope and I’m unclear on whether it does anything other than look good.

stilesinterioroldwindow

This is the same(ish) angle of one of the new Brosco windows! So the pullies and weights have been eliminated for a modern balance system, but otherwise? It’s SO super similar. I’m looking at the proportions of rails and stiles and the profile of the way the wood is routed around the glass and it’s almost identical. I think I can fairly easily tack on a couple of “stops” that will make it look almost identical. The modern balance system is kind of a bummer, but once everything is painted, you’d have to be looking REALLY close to deduce original from not.

glazingexteriororiginal

Outside, here’s an old gunked-up muntin for your viewing pleasure.

glazingexteriorbrosco

And on the Brosco! It looks different but it’s actually very much the same—this just doesn’t have 150 years of paint and old glazing putty on it. The glazing job is so clean on these!

muntinsoldwindow

This is the interior muntin profile of an original window, which I thought I’d never match without going completely custom.

muntinsnewwindow

Brosco, baby, you get me. I don’t even think it’s close, I think it’s…identical?? How gorgeous is THAT? This is the kind of stuff that is like make-you-weep-amazing when you’re trying to restore an old house. I’m sure 99% of everyone has stopped reading at this point, haha.

SO ANYWAY. I bought a few for all of the locations we talked about last week, and Edwin and I have been hard at work installing them! It’s, like, the most exciting.

framing

That’s where that closet door use to be in my dining room bay window! We’ve demolished a lot of the old solarium, but are leaving the main structure intact as long as we can to keep the house from being exposed longer than it needs to be. I can insulate and put up a lot of siding and stuff before we have to totally rip it off, so that’s the plan!

We framed the rough opening a little bigger than necessary to give me some wiggle room to make things as aligned as possible with the originals.

bayinstalled

LOOOOOOOOK! Isn’t that really really good?? I’m so thrilled, and I think with a couple minor tweaks I can make the new windows match even closer. Even right now, though, I’m just SO THRILLED I can’t even express! Replicating my millwork on the interior is sure to be another big challenge, but it’s not as though that needs to get finished with the same pressure that putting the exterior back together does. It’s going to be crazy how much light the dining room will have now!

Now I have to think about storm windows! Part of the thing with getting single-glaze windows that doesn’t bother me at all is that they’ll match the originals, so whether that means sticking an aluminum storm on the outside, or getting interior storms, or maybe trying to make my own wood storms (yikes!), at least everything will be uniform and the new windows won’t scream that they’re new work from either the inside or the outside.

Does anyone have interior storm windows? How do you like them? I love the idea but admittedly hesitate because I feel like my crappy aluminum triple-tracks, while unattractive, do protect the original windows from the elements. I’d remove and spray-paint the frames black which does DRASTICALLY improve their appearance, but they’re never going to be particularly attractive. I have a few months to think about it before it starts getting cold, so I’d love to hear thoughts on the topic!

Restoring the Side of My House!

Please excuse me if I’m a little overly excited in this post, but it’s only because I’m actually overly excited about some crazy stuff going on at my house. You might have noticed that it’s been a little while since I’ve posted about my own house, which is really just a reflection of nothing too exciting going on there. I finally primed the walls and ceiling in my hallway? I did some stuff in the backyard? I…got a dishwasher? My life has pretty much been Olivebridge Cottage 24/7 (slew of posts about that forthcoming), but after wrapping up restoring the back elevation of my house back in December, the renovation progress has more or less stalled.

WELL. I AM BACK IN ACTION AND IT FEELS SO RIGHT. Here’s what’s going down.

Side1

Here’s a picture of the side of my house in all its glory. My house is on a street corner, so arguably this is actually the most visible side, since the other side is more obscured by other houses and trees and stuff, and you don’t see the front unless you’re, well, in front of the house, give or take a hundred feet or so.

It’s pretty bad, right? Clearly I have what borders on an unhealthy affection for my house, but this side is a damn mess. What’s supposed to be all elegant neoclassical architecture is a vinyl-siding-clad imbalanced mishmash of weirdness that I have been scheming of a way to take care of for over three years. Things were improved quite a bit with the elimination of the “mudroom” addition on the back of the house, but that didn’t do anything to address the rest of what’s going on here.

house-then

Taking a trip back in time, here is the sole, prized photo I have of my house from 1950. As you can see, things were a little different back then. The house was about 85 years young, and looking a lot better than it does now. That part that sticks out on the side on the first floor is a long, narrow space that was almost entirely windows…I suppose sort of my house’s version of a solarium! I originally thought this was at one time an open-air porch and fleetingly thought I’d restore it as such, but I’m 99.9% positive that this is how it looked when it was originally built.

And that bump-out bay window on the second floor! It was pretty in its day, and I’m sure a fun feature to have inside the house. It had two big two-over-two double-hung windows on either side, and two smaller one-over-one windows facing the street.

side2

Even back then I can’t say I think it looks particularly right, but it sure is more attractive than it is today! The windows on the sides were lost at some point, with the openings covered over with plywood and the whole thing wrapped in vinyl siding and…now it looks like a tumor. I feel similarly about the long former-solarium—with all that glass replaced by those three crappy vinyl windows at some point, it’s just a sad sagging thing tacked onto the side of an otherwise pretty good-looking house…if I do say so myself.

bayinside

Inside, things are similarly awkward. This bay window is in my dining room, and I think it’s more or less without question that there was a third window where that door is when this thing was built. I actually think the bay window was itself an early addition, onto which the solarium was later added, and then the bump-out upstairs added at some point after that. The doorway appears to have been added in the 1930s, based on the framing and wall material (which is this wood composite garbage stuff called beaverboard).

The side-porch-solarium-thing has been a real concern of mine since buying the house. Unlike the robust bluestone foundation of the rest of the house, this thing sits on a few cinderblock piers that appear to have pushed themselves outwards over the years. If you return to the first photo in this post, you can see a pretty significant sag in the roofline of the solarium, which seems to be partially an effect of rot and partially an effect of the way those three shitty windows were framed and installed. The header that spans that length of this thing is very old, very rotted, and lacking almost any support…that’s not good! It seems to have sagged more since I bought the house, too, but that could just be my imagination.

The bump-out above, of course, is resting entirely on the top of this thing, which is also not good. Putting a really heavy part of a house on top of something with barely enough structural support already is probably not the safest thing. It’s all mildly horrifying.

You might see where I’m going with this. The dining room bay window is solid and old and beautiful, but the rest of it? Trying to fix this stuff would essentially mean rebuilding it, and then…what? That’s a lot of major expense to try to salvage some non-original features that I’m not hugely fond of to begin with, you know? Emphasis on the “non-original” part. That’s what I have to keep reminding myself, because the solarium-ish and the bump-out are old. Just not original to the house. I feel a lot of weird guilt about not being able to restore this stuff to how it looked when it was built, but then I remember that restoring the house is much more important to me and I feel a bit better.

Still, it’s a sticky subject! How do you decide how to handle stuff that’s really old but not original? I’m guessing a lot of owners of old homes have crossed this bridge a few times. For example, my house has beautiful fir hardwood flooring that was probably installed in the 1930s. Do I tear it all out to reveal the original wide-plank pine subfloor? I’d say no, but only because I prefer living with the smoother and tougher “upgraded” flooring. And sometimes I justify decisions like this with thinking that changes like that are also part of the history of the house in their own right, and perhaps that’s reason enough to maintain them. And, admittedly, these non-original additions do have their place in both the history of the house and the trajectory of local architecture. According to the Architectural History and Guide of Kingston:

August 7, 1874: The Daily Freeman describes “a new architectural fancy,” the “rage uptown” for bay windows. “No man of property can consider himself in style unless a bay window has been added to the house.” Upper-story bay windows were said to be especially fashionable as a sign of wealth, and looked well when “studded with flowers” or, even better, “an attractive lady.”

The only thing that makes sense to me is dealing with everything on a case-by-case basis. If this stuff were in better condition and more practical to salvage, or original to the house, I’d restore them. But that’s not the case, and the alternative of restoring this elevation of the house to a closer resemblance of its original architectural intent is hardly a bad thing, either.

Side1

So see if you can follow. This is the plan.

Look at those first two windows on the far left. That’s what things are supposed to look like. Slightly bigger window on the first floor, aligned center with a slightly smaller window on the second floor. The sizing is significant, since placing smaller windows on the second floor was meant to make the house look taller and bigger. Greek revival loves drama, and if my house looks enormous, that’s by design. It’s a little over 2,000 square feet, so nothing to shake a stick at, but it’s hardly the mansion it looks like!

Moving toward the back: in the 1950 photo, the house had two false windows next to these windows at the front corner, which I LOVE! It just tickles me! They look like regular windows that are shuttered closed, but they’re purely decorative and there is nothing behind those shutters. This is actually pretty common around here, but somewhat rare to see intact. I want to restore that, but I might actually make the second floor one into a real window and just do the shutter trick downstairs.

The bay window on the first floor stays, and has its third side restored with another window. Trying to match and replicate all of that woodwork is going to be a big task (inside and out!), but I’m kind of excited for the challenge!

Remember, to the right of the bay window on the first floor, there’s that other dining room window that faces out to the solarium thing. The solarium thing is demolished, and that window is an exterior window again. My dining room will get so much more light!

Aligned center above that window where the bump-out currently is goes a new 6-over-6 double hung, matched in size to the adjacent windows on the second floor. The cornice gets patched back in (hopefully just reusing everything I can from the parts that are coming down), the vinyl is removed, the siding (hopefully all salvaged) gets re-installed, this house gets painted…BOOM. If I have any money remaining, which is unlikely, I’d dieeeeeeeeeeee to outfit all my windows with shutters, but that part might have to wait. Doing shutters the right way is a pretty spendy endeavor.

On the far right, on the first floor under the dormer, I’d like to add two windows in my kitchen. Which means my kitchen is about to get kind of destroyed. Oops! But I kind of feel like…let’s just tear the bandaid off and get it done. My kitchen was never meant to last forever, and I really don’t feel all that precious about it.

I don’t like that second floor dormer above the kitchen, but I don’t really know what to do about it. I’d still like windows in that room, but potentially the dormer could be reconfigured. I just feel like the scale/location/shed roof on it is all wrong. Anyone have any ideas?

ANYWAY. Cool. Let’s do this thing!

When I bought the house, that door in the bay window led to a very small triangular closet, which was separated from the rest of the space with a slim wall (just some lengths of beadboard tacked to a couple horizontal supports on the floor and ceiling), which you see below. The beadboard was then covered in wood paneling—that cheap 70s kind, nothing nice.

interior1

The rest of the space was accessible from the kitchen and looked like this! I started tearing layers out of this space so long ago that I actually forgot what it looked like until I was editing photos for this post. There was a drop ceiling, wood paneling, linoleum floor, some very moldy drywall on the window wall due to the very leaky roof…blech!

BUT! Notice how there’s a window back there, on the right side? That’s the other window in my dining room, which was very clearly at one point a window that looked outside. The thing that was remarkable about this window, though, is that its trim was never covered with the vinyl/aluminum combo that’s on the rest of the house, so I have a well-preserved example of the original sill size and casings and stuff to model everything else after.

demo5

At some point I got pry-bar happy and took down the wood paneling, and was delighted to find the original clapboard below in excellent condition. If only the whole house was like that!

dogs

I had the realllllly long baseboard radiator removed during the great radiator shuffle. Shortly thereafter, I removed the layers of flooring. This linoleum was stuck to plywood, which was attached to a bunch of shims to level out the floor. Below that was the original tongue-and-groove, which rakes downward toward the street.

windowframe

Check it out! At the other end of the solarium, there was another window! I actually think it’s possible that this window was moved here from the side of the bay window and re-installed here. The sashes and parts of the frame are long gone, but you can see how it looked at one time.

Notice the brick-filled wall cavities, too—my whole house is basically like that! Broken, defective, and weak bricks and mortar were used as an early form of insulation and pest-proofing, called nogging. It has an R-value of less than 1 and is not structural, so I’m removing it piecemeal as I work my way around the house and replacing it with modern insulation that will hopefully help increase my energy efficiency. Removing nogging is an extremely dusty and heavy pain in the ass, but I think it’s the right thing to do.

interior2

I also removed the drywall on the street-facing window wall, which was moldy and yucky, and this is pretty much how things sat for a couple years! UNTIL NOW!

demo4

The other night, I started tackling more of the demo again! I always try to demo slowly and deliberately, saving anything I can—especially stuff like moldings that are much easier to reuse than try to replicate!

demo02

By the next morning, I had this!

demo01

I took up the old floor board-by-board (to reuse for what, I have no idea!), and underneath was surprised to discover…a 4″ thick or so layer of mortar! OOF. This is when my main squeeze Edwin started working with me, and we shoveled it out and hauled it out of the house bucket by bucket. Super fun, as you can imagine.

foundation

Underneath the layer of mortar were these really wide boards attached to the joists. It’s interesting that the joists run from side to side instead of back-to-front…those are some REALLY long joists! We had to cut them in half just to get them out, but the old wood is so pretty that I’m determined to do something with them.

Here you can kind of see the foundation below. Told ya, just a couple of cinderblocks! I wonder if they have footings or anything. We’ll soon find out!

demo1

Demo, demo, and more demo! It’s so crazy how much material went into these houses. This is part of why demolishing old houses is such a tragedy—the sheer volume of stuff that ends up in a landfill is almost unimaginable, which is another reason I try to salvage as much as possible. Renovations always generate enough waste as it is!

demo2

With the floor, the mortar, the subfloor, and the joists removed, we have….the original exterior wall of my house, looking pretty damn good! The rim joist is enormous and in excellent condition, and the foundation is in amazing shape from being protected all these years! And look at the basement window! Light comes in through it now!

Oh, and what’s that back there? A window? A NEW WINDOW? I have so much to share about window shopping that it’s gonna have to be another post, but I can happily report that I think I’ve found a very good solution for matching 150 year old original windows with new, if you’re in a similar predicament. I’m totally opposed to replacing my original windows for a number of reasons, but trying to find a decent match was no easy feat!

SO ANYWAY! This week, my house feels like it is getting torn to shreds, and the copious amounts of dust and disorder that I haven’t experienced since demo’ing a couple plaster ceilings a few years ago is back with a vengeance.

I couldn’t be happier about it. Progress once again. Feels good.

Spring Garden, 2016!

gardenwide

Now that it’s super nice outside, I’ve been trying to spend a little bit of time every week in the front yard, tending to the set-up I call a garden. Last summer was much more about trying to get the backyard in order, so not much happened out here aside from maintenance and a couple new plantings. That means that this is Year 3 for most of this stuff, and I feel like I’m finally getting a better sense of what I want with this space! Which, of course, isn’t really what I have. These things take a long time! Getting to know your plants, your soil, your light conditions, how different plants look together…it’s a long process. But it’s fun to see things grow bigger and bigger as the years go by, and I think most of it will tolerate being moved when the timing is right for both me and the plants.

Anyway! I’m not winning any landscape design awards (YET) but I’m still kind of like a proud little kid walking around the garden. I know what everything is, I remember planting it, I cared for it (slightly, let’s be honest)…I love that feeling in early spring when things start to pop up out of the ground and I really love when stuff flowers. It’s all very satisfying.

hostahedge

I had this idea last year (inspired by a nearby house I love) to change up this border between my sidewalk and my fence, which I think I still want to do. The hostas are perfect here because they die off in the winter (an evergreen would probably die from getting buried in shoveled snow) and are hearty enough to deal with the pedestrian foot traffic on my street and my lazy watering schedule, wherein I don’t water anything, basically ever. Anyway, the idea is to split these plants and add some more (probably the ones remaining inside the fence), so it reads as more of a single hedge of hosta instead of having big spaces between them like they are now. I aimed to tackle it last fall, which didn’t happen, so now I’m aiming for this fall! My experience with hostas is that you can kind of move and split them anytime and they’ll be fine, but they’d look sad and wilty all summer if I did it now.

hosta

The creeping jenny planted intermittently between the hostas does OK! I think it’s finally starting to creep? I got a lot of comments about planting creeping jenny that it would totally take over and destroy my gardening dreams, but that’s definitely not been the case with any of mine! Definitely bigger than when I planted it originally, but nothing crazy. I’ll probably transport a lot of it elsewhere in the front and into the back when I do the whole hosta hedge project.

bleedinghearts

The bleeding hearts have come and gone, but the foliage is still nice for now! I’ll have to cut it down in a few weeks…it’s really just an early spring plant here, but quickly withers and dies when it gets too hot.

oakleafhydrangea

I snagged a couple of oak leaf hydrangeas last year (reader recommendation!) that are in the process of reemerging! Not sure if I can expect them to flower this year or not, but I like the weird foliage.

falseindigo

Ahhhh, my false indigo! I looooove these. The foliage is such a nice color, the plant has an unusual shape, and the flowers are so sweet while they last. After the flowers are done, it’ll grow these bean pods that’ll stay on until the fall.

peonies

PEONIES! THEY WILL FLOWER! I don’t think these have ever bloomed before, so I’m pretty stoked. There are three peony plants in the yard, but the other two are teensy and will probably take a couple more years to catch up.

irises

My irises had their best blooms to date this spring! There are a lot of them so this was all very pretty for a few weeks. These irises were planted near the garage when I bought the house and I transplanted them up here, and they’ve really taken off. Good going, irises!

weigalia

I don’t think I ever really blogged about it (whoops!) and it doesn’t look very good in a wide angle, but I did finally plant out the other side of the front yard last summer! Now I want to move everything around there, too, but at least it’s nearly all living (I seem to have lost one small hydrangea and another small creeping juniper) and doing well. This is some type of weigela that I bought last year after it was done blooming, so I never saw the flowers! They’re so cute! And there are so many of them! I have a different type of weigela on the other side of the yard that has more purple-y leaves and more hot pink flowers, but I think that one is a little more of a ground cover and this one stands more upright. Cute!

juniper

Creeping juniper is unchanged since last year, but I think these are slow-growers and will take a while to lose that fresh-outta-the-pot shape. That’s ok, though—I got time!

sandcherry

I also planted a purple sandcherry up near the front corner of the yard, which is doing great! I actually didn’t realize they flowered in very early spring so that was a nice surprise. Now it’s just foliage from here on out. They’re super hearty plants and I like mixing in this color foliage among all the various shades of green.

smokebushleaves

That smoke bush is in its third summer and I LOVE it! Some of my favorite foliage.

peartrees

You can see the smoke bush on the far left in this photo, by the bay window. It hasn’t EXPLODED with growth but it does steadily get bigger every year. It’s not planted as close to the house as it appears in photos, so I think the location is fine. But the real focus of this photo is TREES! Last summer I dug all the sod out of this “hellstrip” on the side and planted 3 flowering cleveland pear trees (no fruit). This was based on the one old photo I have of my house, where there were three mature trees here that looked so nice. Pear trees are fast growers, so they’re already much taller and fuller than they were last year. They didn’t flower this spring and I don’t think they will, but maybe in the next year or two or three they’ll get there. Even at this size, they make this stretch of the street SO much nicer, and even make the side of my house more bearable. I’m hoping, PRAYING, PLANNING, SCHEMING to redo this side of the house this summer, which will be SO EXCITING if it happens! Right now it’s a vinyl-clad mess of architectural weirdness that has taken some serious hits over the years, and my goal is to bring it back to how I think it looked when it was built. I can’t wait! It’s not stuff that can be totally DIY’d so I have dibs on Edwin and Edgar for a month or so after Olivebridge wraps up.

(related: anyone want to sell me a bunch of scaffolding?)

peartree

Grow big and tall and strong, tree! Go go go!

rhododendrons

And back on the other side of the yard…the ancient rhododendrons that cause me too much emotional distress. These are planted right in front of my porch and I’m not a huge fan, mainly because they’re too tall for the space, and too leggy to be particularly attractive most of the time. Every year I debate removing them, and then every year they flower and I’m charmed by them. They seem to have just finished blooming, which I guess is the time to prune them, so I lopped off some of the really tall branches in an effort to get them to grow lower and fuller. I think I’ll see how this strategic pruning works out over the next couple of years and if I’m not happy with the results, I’ll replace them. They’re probably too established to be successfully transplanted, but I’m sure I’ll try anyway if it comes to that. Who can say! It’s all a process.

Does this get you in the gardening mood? I hope so, because next on the docket is my Lowe’s Spring Makeover which—spoiler!—I love! Tune in to see a postage-stamp yard of a D.C. rowhouse go from garbage dump to a chill garden-growing, hang-out having, barbecue-cooking party zone of a space! Yay!

Fixing the back of the House, Part 3! (it’s done!)

windowdetailshot

I did that!

If you’ve been following my blog for the past several of months, you’ve been pretty familiarized with the back of my house. I wrote a few pretty detailed posts about the process—which was somewhat grueling in the way that restoration work often is—so I won’t rehash the whole thing here. Suffice to say this was one of those projects that started as a fairly modest proposition and spiraled into a much bigger endeavor than I was prepared for.

Because this area of the house saw a lot of abuse over the years in the form of additions, non-original doors and windows, and the conversion of the house to a duplex with the legally-required fire escape, this is probably one of the more heavy-handed renovations this house is likely to see under my care. Most of the house is an extended exercise in restoring what’s already there, but this wall needed to be re-thought and re-imagined. Absent any evidence of how it looked back here originally, well, I kind of just had to let the house dictate what it seemed to want (with a little help from nearby examples). I know that sounds like voodoo, but that’s how I make probably the majority of my decisions about my house. We’re buds by now and she tells me what she needs.

SO! Additions were removed. Approximately 4 billion pounds of concrete got jackhammered and hauled away by the truck-fullVinyl siding was removed. All original clapboard was removed. All original brick and mortar insulation was removed. Then the walls were insulated. Original clapboard was planed down to remove all old paint and crap, then carefully put back up. New windows were framed, trimmed out, painted, and installed. Cornice details were restored. Siding was primed, caulked, and painted. Even the eavestrough on the laundry room roof was rebuilt. By me! I don’t know why I’m writing all of this in passive voice, because it sounds like it happened by magic.

It was not magic. It was a shit ton of work.

beforebefore

Take a gander at that! This is when I bought the house. I honestly don’t even remember thinking it was so bad but now I think it’s really pretty bad.

before

Fast-forward a year and the roof has been redone, with the overhang over the mudroom door and the fire escape removed in the process. Then that second floor door continued to hang out there, leading to nowhere, for roughly two years. It remained locked throughout the entire duration of that time, but it still looked a little…unique.

Angledviewafter1

BOOM.

I’m sorry I didn’t turn the kitchen light off when I took these pictures. I’m also sorry that the yard is such a total disaster. I couldn’t even move those black trashcans in the foreground because they’re full of bricks and currently frozen to the ground. I’m pretty fancy.

backofhouse1

In the past six months or so we went from this

newboard4

To this madness.

BackAfter1

And finally, to this! Long. Strange. Trip.

And yes, I know I’m crazy, but I still think of this as phase 1. Long-term, I can still see a nice covered porch out here, with that door switched to the other side and a nice 6-over-6 double-hung window where the door is, scaled more like the windows on the rest of the house. Theoretically the porch could have been done during this, but finances were running super dry and it’s not necessary right now. The current first floor window is just a cheap vinyl one that I spray-painted black so that I could use the sashes from the old kitchen window to make those two little windows upstairs. Changes to the door/window placement on the first floor might take place quite a while from now and would be part of a more extensive kitchen renovation than the slap-dash one I did when I moved in.

If I were to do it over again (and considering this is more or less the same process I plan to use on the rest of the house, I should have many opportunities), I’d do a few things differently.

  1. I would have probably sistered in new studs next to the originals to beef up the structure a bit. I’m not sure how much it’d actually accomplish, but it wouldn’t be a ton of money and it’d help support the old bones of this lady.
  2. I would have added blocking—or horizontal pieces of framing that span between vertical studs. This is common practice now, and required for spans of framing that are over 8 feet. It adds more structural stability and aids a little in fireproofing.
  3. I might have tried harder to add sheathing. This house is built with clapboard running right over the studs, and sheathing seems like it would add a little structural rigidity and create a more robust barrier between the inside of the house and the elements. Adding sheathing is complicated here because all of the trim work was installed with the thickness of this clapboard in mind, so I’m still not really sure how to accomplish this without throwing everything off.
  4. I might have experimented with using opaque stain (I like Cabot’s solid-color acrylic siding stain) rather than paint on the clapboard. I didn’t do this because the clapboard is still old with lots of knots, remnants of old finishes, and quite a bit of Bondo was employed to fill gaps and old nail holes and stuff, so I wasn’t sure how the stain would take given all of that. Instead I just went with what I knew, which was to use a good oil-based primer (I like Zinsser products) and two coats of flat exterior paint on top.
  5. I would have added flashing at the butt joints between boards. You wouldn’t see it, but it would be some added protection against water infiltration. I just didn’t know any better.
  6. I went back and forth and back and forth on beefing up the corner boards, and ultimately decided to leave them as-is. It wouldn’t be such a hard thing to change at some point, but I wasn’t ready to commit to it. I’m totally happy with the end result but I can see wider corner boards (maybe half the width of the frieze under the eaves returns) looking nice and kind of increasing the formality and stateliness of the architecture. I think that’s an OK thing to do, by the way—a person with more experience in restoration work than me once told me not to be afraid of getting too formal with old houses. As long as new details are added well and are in keeping with the house, it can be just fine to add stuff that wasn’t there originally. I try to keep that in mind when I get too hung up on just trying to stick with what’s original—those decisions made 150 years ago weren’t always the right ones, the best ones, or the most considered (unless they were, ha!), so who knows. I’ll keep thinking about it.

paintedclapboard

Look. At. That. Clapboard! It’s far from perfect, which is just fine. It makes me like it better. If I weren’t able to do so much of this work myself, it would probably have been totally impractical to try to reuse the original boards, given their prior condition. It might surprise some people to hear this, but my alternative would probably be to use JamesHardie lap siding with the same exposure as the original boards. Hardie (there are a few competitors, but that’s the big brand) is a cementitious wood composite product that does a nice job of mimicking the look of real clapboard, but requires less maintenance because it takes paint really well, is pest and rot resistance, and doesn’t expand and contract like wood does. It’s relatively inexpensive, too—so if you are thinking of re-siding but can’t reuse what’s already there and want to avoid real wood, CONSIDER IT, PLEASE. With all the products out there these days, I can’t fathom choosing vinyl or aluminum!

ANYWAY, I’m so happy (and proud!) that these are the original boards that were put on the house when it was built. I didn’t buy a single piece of lumber for this entire project, which feels both thrifty and environmentally responsible. And really, nothing would compare to these boards…the thickness, the character of the grain patterns, even the dents and divots and imperfections from so many years of use just enhance how right it looks on the house. New siding like Hardie (or even real wood) would have been fine and a huge improvement over the vinyl, but this is just…the best, I think.

backofhouse1

angledviewafter2

HAHAHAHA, OK, we don’t have to pretend like this “after” picture is the most satisfying thing in the world, but WHATEVER. Sometimes you just gotta make sure your clapboard is painted before winter hits and accept that you have garbage cans full of bricks and piles of bluestone and dirt for landscaping. Clearly I did not get as far into my backyard plans as I’d hoped, but progress is progress and I’ll take it!

littlewindowsafter

I don’t feel like it’s translating particularly well in photos, but the difference between the vinyl and the clapboard in real life is HUGE. And by huge, I mean subtly a million times better. The difference is really not that dramatic because the vinyl siding has the same exposure (the part of the board that shows) and is basically the same color, which makes it extra cool just how much better the real clapboard looks. The house looks so…SOLID now. Because vinyl is so hollow-looking I feel like it always makes houses look like they could just whither up and fall over, but the wood siding meeting up with trim pieces and stuff just looks super substantial and…right. Ahhhhh.

By the way, the clapboard was painted using Valspar Reserve exterior paint (flat) from Lowe’s, and the trim is Valspar Reserve exterior paint in semi-gloss. I had the siding paint color-matched to Benjamin Moore’s Simply White, which is a really nice off-white that’s bright but has definite yellow/greenish undertones that keep it from looking too stark. I considered going darker and more grey to create more contrast with the trim, but that kind of seemed like a decision that would serve before-and-after pictures better than it would really serve the house. The trim is off-the-shelf…I think it’s called Ultra White but naturally I can’t locate the can right now.

I love how those little windows turned out, seriously. They might look small but they’re really about as big as they could be without interrupting the rake frieze and still fitting in the room. They need more extensive restoration work (reglazing, a couple of panes replaced, some rotted areas epoxied) but in the meantime I just gave them both a liberal coating of Valspar’s Latex Enamel (semi-gloss) in off-the-shelf-black. I used the same paint on the door, too, and it’s awesome stuff! It’s VERY thick, dries quickly, and looks much like oil paint after it’s fully cured. I highly recommend it!

frontalafter1

The door threshold is the original one, which I LOVE and guarded with my life throughout this ordeal. It’s beautifully worn from foot traffic in the center, and is so beefy! It had some old paint on it that I didn’t want to totally annihilate with scraping and sanding, so I tried hitting it with some wood hardener to see what that would do. Unfortunately it’s turned this hazy white color so in the spring I’ll probably sand it down a little and do a proper polyurethane or waterlox or something to really protect it and bring out the natural tones of the wood. That wood hardener product seems pretty great but I’ve yet to find an application for it that hasn’t given me grief later on. Oh well.

I think that’s about it! I’m so happy with how this turned out. Now to just do THE ENTIRE REST OF THE HOUSE.

I’m going to be renovating this thing forever, right? OK, cool.

Fixing the Back of the House: Part 2!

WELL. It’s December 16th, which is just a little crazy. I feel like we haven’t talking in forever. Hi! How are you? You seem well. Did you get a haircut? You’re glowing.

I know pretending to be shocked about what month we’re in is hardly an original way to dive into a post, but mid-December (oh my god, “mid-December”) feels particularly remarkable right about now because—as of this writing—I still have not wrapped up work on the back of my house. Usually we’re buried in snow by now, but ye olde mercury has been hovering right around freezing at night and in the 40s and 50s during the days, so I’ve been able to continue working on this project (and so many others, good lord) despite what the calendar is saying. This kind of weather is supposed to hold for another few days at least, so if I can keep squeezing some work into those precious few off-hours (when it’s actually light out! it gets dark around 4:30 nowadays), I should be able to get it all finished before winter really hits.

I’m so grateful for the weather on one hand, but to be honest this whole rush-before-winter-thing is getting wearing. I’ve been in that brand of crazy-mode since early September, and all I really want right about now is an excuse to curl up on the couch and write some blog posts and…I don’t know, do winter stuff. Basically, I’m losing my mind. It’s all good.

So anyway, exterior painting in December in upstate New York. That’s happening.

newboard4

It’s been a while, so here’s where we left off with this whole endeavor. I ripped off all the clapboard on the back of the house, poached the old kitchen window sashes for reuse, replaced the kitchen window (yes, in fact that ladder is leaning right on the new one’s glass…whatever, everyone survived including the window), tore off all the original clapboard, removed all the brick nogging between the studs, replaced that with new rigid foam insulation and spray foam, ran the original clapboards through a planer, and then began the fun and exciting process of re-siding with the original boards. That all sounds like a lot of work, right? Yeah, well, it was.

scaffoldpart1

Guess what’s difficult? Standing on a ladder, 12 feet or so in the air, holding a 10 foot long piece of clapboard in one hand and trying to position and nail it correctly by yourself with the other. So until one of you people finds me a husband*, I’ll be forced to improvise…and on this day, that took the form of erecting my own scaffolding. Scraps and leftovers! It looks like garbage but I swear it was shockingly solid and stable. This made things slightly easier…at least easy enough that I was able to do the entire first level solo! Boom!

*preferably super handsome, rockin’ bod, my mother would prefer Jewish and a doctor/lawyer/both, around my age, likes to be bossed around.

edwin1

A few days later, I got Edwin and Edgar to come by and help me out with the top half of the wall. I’d already gutted this wall from the inside upstairs, so this top half had to happen relatively quickly since the house was literally wide open to the elements/animals/bugs/zombies. This part of the job was also a little more complex than the lower half since we also had to remove that door, frame in two windows, install the windows, patch the rake frieze, insulate, and install all the trim and siding. Obviously this was also happening high above the ground and all of those boards from the eaves returns upwards have to be cut at angles at the ends…this would have taken me FOREVER by myself and I probably would have died.

windowframing

While Edwin and Edgar worked on pulling off the old clapboard and removing the old door and window, I built window jambs! I wish I had more and better pictures of this, but I can’t seem to find any. The original frame for the old kitchen casement window was still intact, so I took the whole thing apart and used pieces of it to create the jambs for the two individual casement windows. There was some trial and error but I figured it out and I think they ended up looking pretty good!

dripcap

I also had to make the casings to trim out the windows after installation, but before the clapboard went back up. The casings are 5/4″ thick (1″ in actual dimensions) x 4″ pieces of wood that were easy to just rip down to size on the table saw, but that little drip cap on top of the casing took a little more effort. This is the kind of thing that tends to get hacked off when vinyl siding is installed, and my house is no exception. Argh! I was able to replicate them pretty easily with my table saw, though—first by ripping the board to the right width (I think it ended up being 2 inches?), and then by adjusting the angle of the blade and running the board through again.

rakepatching

Meanwhile, Edgar and Edwin put their brains together and figured out how to patch in the missing parts of the rake frieze—the restoration of which was a big part of why this project happened in the first place. They used scrap 5/4″ lumber (which was slightly thinner than the original board, so they had to be shimmed out a little bit) and somehow got the angles just right and fit the pieces into place. Those guys…they make me so happy.

upstairsgutted

How ya like them apples? Things were looking pretty nuts at this point, but look at how good that patch job is up on the rake frieze! The patches are nailed to the studs and screwed into the original boards—the whole installation seems very secure. After patching and paint…well, just wait!

sidingbeforeandafter

While Edwin and Edgar worked on framing out the rough openings for the window jambs I’d just made, I planed more clapboard! I know we’ve been through this, but man…pre-planed board above, planed board below. SO. SATISFYING.

In case you’re wondering why I didn’t just flip the boards around and reinstall them with the painted side facing in, the backs of these boards are finished totally differently than the fronts—all rough and splintery and not made to be reversible.  Many of the boards that came off the mudroom appear to come from the 1930s or so and those are finished on both sides and could have been flipped, but not the originals. I just went ahead and planed all of them, because whatever.

windowsinplace2

YAY! Placing the windows wasn’t too difficult—it was just a matter of figuring out how large they’d be—including the exterior casings—and leaving enough room in the top corners that everything would fit nicely under frieze we’d just patched in. These windows need some restoration work, but they’re easy to remove (hinges just unscrew) when I have a second to do that later on.

By the way, I decided to use these sashes instead of the ones from the window that was already up there because these were a little bigger—a few inches longer and about an inch wider—and I thought that scale seemed better. These windows had to be relatively small but I didn’t want them to be too dinky. I still want that room to feel really great when it’s done. I’ll do another post on how that room is looking from the inside now, but I really like it! The little windows really change things but it feels very cozy and authentic to this whacky old house. There’s a big dormer on the other side of the room, too, so it still gets plenty of natural light.

windowsinplace

Moving right along! Edwin and Edgar installed the casings that I prepared and everything fit so nicely. Then they went about insulating the wall using the same method I’d used downstairs—2″ rigid foam insulation with spray foam around the edges.

e2siding

And then, clapboard!! This went pretty quickly between the two of them up there and me on clapboard cutting duty down below.

edgarsiding

This kind of goes without saying, but I’m so lucky to have these dudes in my life. I love that I can ask them to re-side my house with 150 year old splinters and they don’t even try to talk me out of it. That they also do nice work is a bonus! Cutting those angles at the top and getting the boards to fall with the right exposure (5.25″, if you’re curious) was sort of math-y so I’m glad Edgar was on deck for this part.

patchingcornice

Look at all that glorious siding! Next, the guys worked on patching the rake frieze and the notched out components of the soffit. They nailed smaller pieces of wood into the notched areas and then approximated the curves of the molding with patching compound, which was contoured further with some artsy sanding work. The patches aren’t perfect up close but you can’t tell that from standing on the ground, so it’s all good! Short of prying the moldings off and getting them replicated, it’s about as good as it gets. edwinandedgar

We used Bondo for all the patching, by the way. There are better products out there for wood patching (Abatron’s line of products is kind of the gold standard now, as far as I know), but Bondo is cheap, easy to work with, and I had it on hand. I’m curious to see how it does—I’ve never had a problem with Bondo repairs and any old-school contractor/carpenter I’ve talked to about it (yes, I’m that guy that strikes up that conversation) hasn’t either, so I hope it all holds up. Worst case, I’ll spend a few days scraping it out and cursing my life and using the fancy shit in its place. Best case, I spent about $12 on Bondo instead of $150 on Abatron.

edwin

So we were all rocking and rolling as your dad would say, and feeling overly confident about our progress. Edwin asked me why we weren’t just doing more walls like this, and started picking at the vinyl siding on the adjacent laundry room wall. I reminded him that this was November in upstate New York and the weather could change and I did NOT need to make this job bigger, and he countered with pointing out how fast things were going with he and Edgar there, and that we were all wearing t-shirts. I reminded him that he was only planning to be there through the end of the day and then I’d be on my own with another mess on my hands, and he told me he could let me pay him for another day or two of help.

Then he batted those beautiful brown eyes and we decided to rip the vinyl off another wall. I mean, just look at that gorgeous man. He just does something to me.

laundrywall2

Damnit. What’s wrong with me? Good news was that this wall was neither much better or worse than the other wall—no super nasty surprises. Ya never know what you’re gonna get!

laundrywall1

I went about removing the clapboard, tearing out the brick nogging, and cutting my insulation to size for the laundry room wall. I was already kind of regretting this move but the damage was done and Edwin had promised me another day or two so I tried to calm down. It’s not that fixing this wall was particularly hard—it’s all basically straight cuts and the whole thing is less than 7 feet wide—but it’s just more work. I still have to patch and caulk and prime and paint this thing!

Edwin and Edgar did not return, by the way. I can’t fault them because they were off doing another job for me elsewhere (different day, different post) but I still like to pretend like this was their fault. Jerks.

primer2

Check it out! Primer! Much to the chagrin of Edwin, I wanted to use oil-based primer on the clapboard. Pro painters seem to agree that it performs better than latex in terms of adhesion, durability, and stain-blocking, but it’s a little harder to work with and clean-up sucks. I like to skirt this issue by wearing latex gloves and using cheap brushes that I can throw away at the end, but it still takes longer to apply than latex.

ANYWAY. It was really, really exciting to see this finally coming together. I tore off the mudroom back in June (!) and hemmed and hawed over this wall before deciding on a plan around early October, so seeing those windows in place with the clapboard restored and the rake frieze patched in…well, that was some gratifying shit right there.

primer1

And this is where they left me! I’m guessing some people will think this looks like a horrific mess and some people will think it looks like it’s almost done, and you’re both right! It’s amazing how long the additional patching, sanding, scraping, priming, caulking, more patching, more caulking, finally painting, then painting the trim, then final touch-ups really takes, but I’m finally ALMOST THERE. Give me good weather tomorrow and I think I can wrap this sucker up!

backofmyhouse

I’m having trouble figuring out how to end this post, so why not—it’s not a full before and after (yet) but it’s still fun to see the change! Almost there. Almost there. Almost there.

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