This week, The Escape Home’s Danielle Hyams spoke with Doug Beane, the operator and owner of New Hampshire-based Blue Water Construction. Beane and his wife, who mainly work in the Lake Winnipesaukee area (a region that went from being known for second homes to primary residences in true pandemic style), have more than five decades of experience remodeling antique homes, including their own — an 1870s house in Portsmouth.
EH: What is the greatest challenge of remodeling an antique home?
Beane: The worst part of remodeling an antique house is the foundation, without any question at all. In my house, half of my foundation is stone and brick and the other half is poured concrete where there have been additions. The foundation is a very difficult and expensive thing when it comes to an old house because you have a couple choices. You can lift the house up and pull the old foundation out, and that’s very expensive. Or you can work with the foundation that you have.
Another challenge is not knowing what is in between the walls. Most old houses have very small rooms, and today everyone wants opened up rooms, big open kitchens. And not knowing what is in between the walls, you’re going in in the dark.
EH: How do you honor the original details of an old home while modernizing it?
Beane: We do all of our own moldings. In most old houses, the moldings are incredible. The workmanship back when these old houses were being built was more based on what you can do, not how you can get the materials. They had craftsmen back then. So now you have to basically duplicate these wide moldings and wainscoting, so you have to have some talent because these moldings were not built from machines, they were built with hand scrapers and old tools. So it depends on how authentic you want to be. Usually when we are doing an old house, clients choose a room or two to do exactly the same as it was, and other than that they want the big kitchens, they want the family rooms, they want the great rooms.
EH: Old wood — reuse it or imitate it?
Beane: Even in my new houses, all of the clients want old beams for their mantles. They want something old. The beams in an old house, people love them. The old wainscoting, the beadboard, all of that works to a certain extent. The problem that you run into is insulating. These old houses weren’t insulated to be able to be exposed. They used to plaster everything. But when you take the plaster off and reveal these beautiful beams, you are faced with how to insulate the house, and you have to do it from the outside by removing the siding, so that’s a whole other challenge.
EH: What are some steps to take before you purchase an old property?
Beane: Have a building inspector walk through to understand what you can legally do. A lot of areas have codes and you have to try to work within these codes and in old houses that is difficult, especially in bedrooms due to the codes for egress. Most of these old houses don’t meet those kinds of regulations.
You also want to know about asbestos. A lot of the older houses have a lot of asbestos. Their shingles are made of asbestos, their tiles are made of asbestos, even the caulking around the windows. You have to be careful now because asbestos now is very, very expensive to remove. The other thing is lead pipes, a lot of the homes have lead pipes. You also have to have someone come in to look at mold and mildew. A lot of these old houses weren’t that weatherproof and they weren’t designed that way and they do have a lot of mold and mildew issues.
And you really need to get an engineer in. With old houses, most of the time you have a lot of problems with the foundation and also the sills that the house sits on. They are mostly wood and they are mostly rotted out.
When you finally get all those answers you need to find yourself a small construction crew, not a big company. Maybe two or three guys who are comfortable working with older homes. It’s definitely an art if you want to do it right, no questions.
EH: But, if it’s your dream, don’t be discouraged.
Beane: These older houses, they just last forever. They were built, I think, with a lot more technology than today’s homes. They were timber framed, a lot of wood. And today the new building products are not a lot of wood, they’re composites. I don’t know anybody who has done a rebuild of an older house who won’t tell you it’s a labor of love. But there’s nothing more beautiful than a restored old house.