When we closed on our house, I bought this book called Renovating Old Houses because I figured it would be chock-full of interesting and valid information that would come in handy as a new renovator of an old house. Reading through the book later on, I was quickly filled with an all-consuming sense of dread: what the hell have I done. While informative, the book basically chronicles everything that can go wrong in an old house——which is to say, everything. Everything can go wrong in an old house. If it isn’t the foundation, it’s the roof, and if it isn’t the roof, then it’s the framing. The electrical will probably start a fire, the plaster will fall apart, and——of course——the asbestos will kill you eventually. I read through about half of it before I felt that it would be better for my mental health if I gave the book a little break for a while to recover from my house-hypochondria. All of a sudden, I couldn’t just see all the beautiful old things——instead, only a collection of problems, or potential problems, and a future full of regret and failure.
Old houses are difficult beasts by definition. They were built at a time before standardization, and before modern construction methods. Sometimes, that’s a good thing. Other times, it’s a massive pain in the ass.
We knew the roof was a problem before we bought the house, and intended to have it replaced in the near future. It wasn’t until we started living there that the “near future” became somewhat pressing. I came to be one of those people who dreaded sudden shifts in weather——each new rainstorm bringing slow (and…not slow) leaks of water into various areas of my home. We did our best to do some temporary patching, but we knew the roof needed to be replaced ASAP. Because of the way our home was built——a main section with various additions over time——we have a few different types of roofing. The main pitched roof was clad metal shingles (probably installed in the 1920s?), and all of the low-slope or flat sections were covered in sheet metal, covered up over the years by rolled asphalt roofing or gallons of tar. Metal roofing is really beautiful and extremely long-lasting, but unfortunately when it isn’t properly maintained (painted every few years, that kind of thing), it tends to corrode. It corrodes further when the repair method is covering leaking sections (or the whole thing!) with loads of tar——it works well for a while, but is a very temporary solution until the tar cracks and buckles and separates from the substrate (and further corrodes the metal). This “temporary” repair method has probably been used on our house for…oh, 50 years. Not awesome.
Eventually we found a roofing contractor (long story, not worth it) who came in at a reasonable price (and offered financing options), and we scheduled the work. Things were going super well, like so:
Oh yeah, did I ever mention that our whole house is insulated with brick and mortar? Well. It is.
And then they weren’t.
The problem is our house.
Remember that thing I said about old houses being difficult and complicated? Well. Unlike modern homes, our house is outfitted with a built-in gutter system called box gutters, which is part of the whole structure of the roof. I made a simplified technical drawing to illustrate. Excuse my chicken-scratch.
Basically this means that the gutter itself is built into the cornice of our house, as opposed to the regular aluminum gutters that contemporary homes have. The gutter structure is built out of wood and then lined with metal (or sometimes rubber, if it’s been redone recently). The problem with this elegant solution to water drainage is that a lot can go wrong over time——the house settles, a leak develops in the metal lining, or if you’re like us, both! Both awful things have happened, meaning that water leaked into the gutter system for a really long time and caused a whole mess of rot.
I was aware that this could be a problem, but every roofing contractor who looked at our house (not just the ones we hired) proclaimed our box gutters A-OK and good candidates for a quick re-lining job.
HA. HA. HAHAHAHAHAHA. *bursts into tears*
I’m the sort of annoying homeowner who lingers around whenever work is being done on my house, so when I climbed up onto the roof to check on the progress, I immediately saw some problems. The original tar-covered metal lining had been partially torn off, and underneath was a horror show——nothing but remnants of the original gutter structure remained, mostly comprised of completely rotted little splinters of wood.
And it wasn’t just this gutter (although——hopefully——this is the worst). It was all the gutters that they’d exposed. Luckily at this point they’d only torn off half the areas of roofing (and gutter lining), so I immediately told everyone to stop what they were doing so we could assess the situation before opening up more cans of worms. Good move, Kanter.
Basically what happened to this gutter can be explained by this second (exaggerated for dramatic effect) technical drawing I composed for your viewing pleasure.
The box gutter SHOULD slope within the cornice down to a terminal at the end, where water is then released onto the ground via a downspout. But on our house, over the course of 150 years, not only did the gutter lining develop leaks, but the entire wall of the house (and the cornice) bowed out, causing the cornice to settle with a slope at both ends toward the center. Water began to leak through the gutter lining, and then settle in the middle, rotting some of the wood of the cornice and continuing to eat away at the gutter structure. Just terrific.
To make things even more fun and exciting, this kind of repair is beyond what our roofing contractor could address——it’s really carpentry, at this point, and a fairly specialized type of repair. So basically they covered all the exposed gutters with ice & water barrier and told us we needed to fix it ourselves or hire someone who could, and it needs to happen within the next month or so, before there’s massive amounts of cold and rain and SNOW to ruin our house/life.
The whole thing was absolutely devastating, honestly, and I don’t say that about a lot of things. I panicked. I went to the hardware store and bought some tools and supplies and wood. Then I got on the roof and basically didn’t get off for three days. It was cold. I might have been sick, both physically and in the head. It was awful. I wanted to be dead, but I thought maybe I could fix it myself and really, really didn’t want to deal with contractors or pay contractors lots of money to do something that my pea-brain thought I could maybe conceivably handle myself.
I really tried.
At various points I thought I was doing super well and maybe I was an amazing carpenter/roofing prodigy, but Sunday night basically ended with me shivering on my roof, head in my hands, trying to figure out what to do next. I needed to come to terms with the fact that this is just beyond what I’m capable of dealing with by myself, for the following compelling reasons:
- I don’t really, actually know what I’m doing. I don’t think this repair is exactly rocket science, but it’s dumb for me to think I can do it correctly without any real knowledge of how to do it correctly. I’m not sure I can possibly make things worse, but I also don’t want to do it all wrong, cause further damage, or need to have it all redone in the next few years because I was too stubborn to hire somebody the first time around.
- I have no time for this. There are a lot of exposed gutters right now, and I’m under no illusions that upcoming rain/snow aren’t going to make all of this SO much worse. I need this to be fixed quickly, and doing it myself is not going to make it go quickly.
- There’s a problem of scale at work here. I’m one person, and even if I knew how and had the time, I can’t fix this many linear feet of gutter, half of it while balanced precariously on a ladder.
I’m not the sort of person who cries in moments of self-pity and dejection, but if I were, I would be. I know I try to keep things light and fun and happy around these parts (and I debated even writing this post), but honestly? This feels awful. I feel like I’ve destroyed my house. I know it’s just a dumb cornice and some dumb gutters, but this all feels overwhelming and insurmountable and sad.
We’ve had a couple of contractors out over the last few days who are familiar with rebuilding box gutters, though, and I think things are looking up. One of them in particular I LOVED, and his quote was actually relatively affordable, so hopefully he’ll be able to shuffle his schedule around and I’ll be writing a big update a couple of weeks from now about how he is amazing and solved all of our problems and I didn’t even have to sell my organs or anything AND my house has wonderful and reliable drainage that I’ll never have to touch again.
Hopefully. Fingers crossed, big time.
OK. Make me feel better. What’s the worst thing that ever happened during your renovation? Ready, go.