Mar 15 2012

Clar Construction Forges Together Old and New in Refurbishing Project

by Bob Nuner | Montpelier Bridge, March 2012 (view original article)

Dan Clar, of Clar Construction Inc., and Matt Gould are refurbishing an 1890s house in Montpelier’s Meadow neighborhood. The two-story, flat-roofed house has seen better days, and Clar and Gould talked about some of their work to make the old new. With sun pouring in the windows on a March day, Clar explained that their scope of work was “gutting the house almost down to the bare bones and revising the floor plan” for today’s living, while maintaining, where possible, original finishes and flooring, original staircase and exterior doors, and, when using new materials, blending them as nearly as possible with the original materials. At the same time, because this is 2012, the revised floor plan allows a modern kitchen and bath and enlarged closets for storage “to accommodate a modern lifestyle.” Asked how long the renovation would take, Clar estimated four to five months.

In what once might have been the house’s parlor, replacement windows sit in their cardboard cartons awaiting installation, ready to replace previously installed and “pretty inaccurate,” now rotted, single-light replacement insulated windows from the 1980s, cloudy from failed seals. Clar Construction is replacing them with metal-clad wood-core insulated windows that use newer window construction technologies but, Gould pointed out, represent the original “grill style” of the house when it was first built: two panes in the upper of the double-hung sashes over two in the lower.

Discussing energy performance, Clar said that the house had “had a halfway decent job of blown-in cellulose insulation” prior to this renovation effort, but that, where they had gutted the house to the studs, they had substituted foam insulation, to get the most insulation value possible in the house’s walls, which, because of its age, are only 4 inches thick.

One of the variables of what one leaves and what one “guts out” involves return on investment. If the plaster walls are sound, there’s less compelling reason to remove them and put in new sheetrock. “If it’s sound, we left it,” Clar said. “There’s always a delicate balance” between “how much do we demo[lish] and how much do we keep.” He continued, “At the beginning stages of the project, we try to do some financial comparisons” between what to keep and what must go. “It’s an imprecise science at best, but that’s the conversation that takes place early on,” Clar added.

An interesting sidelight to the task of matching materials arose in conversation about matching the existing flooring: Clar said that when he phoned Lathrop’s hardwood mill in Bristol and said he needed to match “some 2-inch select yellow birch flooring” (not the standard 2.25 inch width) mill owner Tom Lathrop appraised the situation immediately, “and said, ‘you’re working in Montpelier,’” and further offered which of two mills would have originally milled the flooring. That’s an aspect of renovation, returning to mills or suppliers who may have supplied previous materials, that connects the chain of builders from one generation to the next, Gould pointed out.

Renovations of historic houses involve compromise. Of course, there’s the construction budget that drives many decisions, but there are other considerations. One owner may be more concerned with energy efficiency than another. The focus of the owner may differ and other aspects of a house’s renovation may take precedence. Gould also pointed to safety codes that may, for instance, demand changes in stairwell configurations or window sizes (for safe egress). While renovators work to retain door hardware where feasible, or perhaps retain a cast-iron floor grate for use in a new mud room, an attractive but damaged entry door may have to be sacrificed, its detailed elements repurposed for use elsewhere in the house.

Looking at sound plaster walls, the transformation from plaster to Sheetrock is smooth and will be invisible once paint unifies it. The archeology of past renovations reveals itself in the gutting preparatory to renovation. In this case, the house had previously been converted into a duplex, so the staircase had been walled off to separate the downstairs from the upstairs apartment entry. Now the newly uncovered newel post is temporarily protected by a ’60s-looking box of oriented strand board, but only as it awaits refurbishment with its railing, part of the renovation of the “butchered” staircase that will make it a feature of the house again.

Upstairs, Clar pointed out, “Matt carefully dissected the floor to allow the new flooring to be woven in to the old flooring.” The 1890s house had been previously renovated, perhaps during the 1940s. Gould said, “It’s kind of cool; you know, people hide some newspaper in the walls or something,” sending a silent greeting to the next generation of builders. The house, home to generations, also has stories to tell each generation of craftsmen as they renew it for another family who will soon enjoy its light, warmth and spaciousness.