Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Brick Behemoth

Full disclosure: This is a long post, filled with too many words and too few pictures. I won't be upset if you skip it entirely!

Here's the short version: Our chimneys are a pain in the butt. We stupidly spent $$$$ repairing a chimney, then discovered that it would never be functional. Our fireplace is ugly. I complain a bit. We have issues with some masons. I complain some more. One year later, repairs still aren't done. Winter is coming. Where is my wine?

Here's the much longer version:
One of the projects that's been hanging over our heads -- both literally and figuratively -- has been the chimney repair. We have a chimney on the side of our house and a corresponding fireplace in the dining room. Here is what the side chimney used to look like. 

We also have a rear chimney that is the exhaust for our oil burner (hence, no fireplace). Here is what the rear chimney used to look like.

When we moved into TPH, we knew that the exterior of both chimneys would need extensive repair. This picture doesn't accurately show the state of disrepair. When we moved in, we could see through our rear chimney because it was missing so much mortar. Bricks were coming loose and I couldn't help but think that the chimney resembled a game of Jenga, just before the blocks topple. The side chimney wasn't quite as far gone as the rear chimney, but it was still in bad shape.

We also knew that there was a good chance that our side chimney would need a new liner. We decided to tackle the exterior portion of the project before relining the side chimney, to avoid any further deterioration. This turned out to have been a bad decision, as I'll explain later.

In November of 2014, shortly after we moved in, we reached out to several masons to request a quote. We must have called a dozen masons to schedule a visit, but the response rate was abysmally low. 

After a few weeks of waiting for responses, we were getting impatient. We asked the local historical society to recommend a mason. They spoke very highly of a professional who had worked on several historic buildings in town (We'll call him Mason 1). After looking at his past projects we knew Mason 1 was the right choice. And honestly, since none of the other masons had returned our calls, he didn't have much competition.  

He wouldn't be able to do the work in the winter, so we waited for a few months to take further action. The chimney repair was going to be pricey, so we didn't mind holding onto the cash for a few extra months, anyway. We resumed the process in February, submitting the necessary paperwork to our town. And once the weather and our mason's availability synched up, he rebuilt/repointed both chimneys. His work was completed some time in late April/early May.

Here is a picture of our repaired side chimney. (Apologies for the poor photo quality)

Papered House_Repaired Historic Chimney

And here is a picture of our completely rebuilt rear chimney.

Papered House_Repaired Historic Chimney
I don't know much about chimneys, but I think they look great. Mason 1 used historic reproduction bricks and lime-based mortar to best replicate the construction and appearance of our original chimneys. Our goal with TPH has always been to restore "in-kind", using original materials and methods whenever possible. We were glad to find a mason who shared this commitment. I can't say enough positive things about this mason and his crew members. They were polite and considerate through the entire process, and left a clean work space. (if you're located in eastern PA or central NJ and need a mason, I'd be happy to provide a reference!).

The only downside to Mason 1 is that he does not install or inspect liners. But he gave us the name of another mason (I'll call him Mason 2) who does. We reached out to him to schedule a visual inspection and request a quote. Mason 2 came in mid-May and inspected the interior of our chimney. We learned some interesting info from him. 

See this fireplace? If you're thinking that it doesn't look particularly Victorian, you're right. 

Why is this NEW thing in my old home???

Mason 2 told us that this fireplace was likely installed around 1920-1930 based on the type of bricks that were used. The fireplace was built using butter joints, meaning that two bricks were "buttered" with mortar as if they were slices of bread and pressed together like a sandwich. In addition, he mentioned that the bricks on our fireplace were actually meant to be used for exterior masonry. It's a bit odd that they were used in an interior application (I have a theory about this, but I'll save it for another time. This post is already too long). Finally, the diagonal orientation of the firebox is not original. The original fireplace would have been built flat against the side wall.

The good news: This fireplace is solid and well-built. Mason 2 was impressed by the quality of the craftsmanship.

The bad news: From an aesthetic standpoint, this fireplace is all wrong. Before we even set foot inside TPH, I could tell from the realtor's listing pictures that this fireplace was a later addition to the home. It's not historically appropriate and it doesn't match the character of the house. I also think it feels too big for the room. Based on what Mason 2 told us, the original fireplace was likely built to accommodate a coal-burning stove. It was never meant to have an open fire, although we can clearly tell that previous owners used this fireplace to burn wood. The fireplace does not draft properly, which explains all the soot and smoke stains around our mantle (yes, I know I need to give that brick a good cleaning!).  

The very bad news: Unfortunately, whoever built this fireplace in the 1920s didn't foresee 21st century code requirements. The flue is so narrow that our only option is to install a wood-burning stove. If we choose to install a wood-burning stove, we cannot select a simple stainless steel liner. According to Mason 2, there is precisely one (one!) liner product that will pass code and fit into our chimney. It would be some sort of specialized cement liner that would be custom-made for our chimney.

Mason 2 happens to be one of the licensed installers for that liner product. He warned us that it could be a very expensive repair, but we requested a quote anyway. This was in May. But it's now October and we still hadn't received the quote, despite several attempts to follow up. We had a good feeling about Mason 2 when he came to visit, but he doesn't seem interested in our project anymore.  

Since we couldn't make any progress with Mason 2, we scheduled a third mason (Mason 3) to inspect our chimney. Mason 3 did a visual inspection and told us that a stainless steel liner might be possible, but not easy. We started to feel hopeful that this project wasn't a lost cause. We also started to feel hopeful that the project might be more affordable than we initially thought.

Mason 3 came back a second time to do a "Level 2" inspection, meaning that he viewed the inside of our chimney with a digital camera. This time, the news was not good: at its narrowest point, the flue was only 4" wide (narrower even than Mason 2 had realized). That's too narrow for a stainless steel liner. It's too narrow for any liner, so this fireplace cannot be safely used. Mason 3 then suggested several short-cut options that led me to doubt his familiarity with historic building materials and his adherence to code requirements. As if that weren't bad enough, Mason 3 repeatedly called me "sweetie" throughout the inspection. I've never been called "sweetie" by a stranger -- certainly not a male stranger. In this context if felt simultaneously unprofessional, patronizing, and too familiar.

So, almost a year after we started this process, we're back to the drawing board. We've resigned ourselves to the fact that our side chimney will never be functional unless we rebuild it from the ground up. This is not the conclusion we wanted to reach after doing pricey exterior repairs. A total rebuild would involve tearing down plaster and disturbing walls. It would also cost a fortune, so it's at the very bottom of our priorities. We're kicking ourselves for spending thousands of dollars fixing the masonry on a non-functional chimney. If we had known that the side chimney would never be functional, we would have delayed its repair and allocated our resources towards other repairs. We're rookie homeowners and our inexperience got the best of us. We were overeager to cross projects off our list and didn't do as much due diligence as we should have before starting the chimney repair. But hindsight is 20/20 and we learned valuable lessons.

Although the side chimney will remain non-functional, there are still some associated repair items we need to complete before we move on from this project. The side chimney needs to have a cap installed so that critters won't intrude. We still need to have copper flashing installed on both chimneys, since the existing flashing is in poor shape. The flashing isn't leaking yet but it's only a matter of time, especially with wetter weather on the way.

But there is a silver lining: We had set aside a significant chunk of cash for The Chimney Liner That Wasn't. Now that we aren't lining the chimney, we may have the budget for some other important exterior work. We'd like to bring in a roofer to do some maintenance on our slate roof and reline our Yankee gutters. We assumed that we'd need to wait until 2016 to do these projects, but now it looks like those projects might happen this fall. Or, we may use the extra funds to replace my 13-year-old car. In either scenario, we'll be glad to have the cash on hand.

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  1. Frustrating! It is hard to find people who will do the work in a way that will honor the original construction of a historic home. I know you did not want to spend the money on the rebuild, but I think it was a good idea. Bad chimneys can cause roof leaks as the water seeps through them. You may not be able to use your fireplace, but you may have saved your roof. :)

    Both or our chimney's need work too. Once needs rebuilding for sure, and the other may need minor repairs. I wish we could use our fireplaces too.

    1. Thanks for the encouraging words, Stacy. This has definitely been a long, drawn-out process. And yes, I agree that we may have saved our roof by repairing that non-functional side chimney. So even though the expense feels pointless now, we may have avoided a more costly repair!

  2. Jamie, I had no idea chimneys were this involved! I can totally understand why this has been such a frustrating process. I'm glad that you'll have a bit of extra money to spend on other things you need, maybe get some champagne to toast making it through this reno :) Hang in there, it's going to be amazing. Hugs, CoCo

    1. I know, I had no idea the chimney repair would be this involved either. Thanks for the support, CoCo. We'll be glad when this project is all wrapped up'