In the hot real-estate market of 2004, it took a true "fire sale" to find our home—a 1949 cinderblock house that had suffered major damage from a serious blaze. We purchased it "as is."
Buying a burned house takes imagination. Our first walk-through revealed an apocalyptic scene. Chunks of plaster and household debris were piled knee-deep in the front entrance hall and the den, where the fire started. The firefighters had broken 38 windows in the house to allow smoke and heat to escape, and shards of glass mixed with black soot covered every surface like a lava flow. Then there was the smell—nothing compares to the odor of charred wood, plaster, and plastic. But the house was pure Bauhaus, and the layout was fantastic. Despite its appearance, we fell in love.
Cinderblock construction has plenty of naysayers (including several of the general contractors we interviewed), but the house handled the fire surprisingly well. In a stick-built house, the fire would have spread much more quickly from the den's fireplace, destroying the master bedroom above and traveling through the roof. In this house, the second floor is a reinforced concrete slab, so there was no structural damage. Most fortunate of all, the home-owners who'd lived in the house for 52 years escaped the fire unharmed.
When our selected general contractor fell through at the last minute, we decided to take another risk and become our own general contractor. We made all decisions based on two things: cost and speed. It was a strategy that meshed well with the goals of historical restoration because it kept us focused on simply putting the house back together. An unlimited timeframe and budget might have lured us into over-renovating to the point of losing the original spirit of the house.
Where There's Smoke
The house sat vacant for six months before we purchased it. The first week that we took possession, my husband, Mike, started working to remove soot from the exterior. This was tricky since the house had no working systems, including water (the well pump had frozen). Using fall nor'easters to our advantage, Mike ran a rubber tube from the flat roof and filled our empty hot tub with rainwater. Then we rented a gas-powered pressure washer and blasted the outside soot.
For the interior smoke damage, we hired a fire restoration company, Servpro. The first step was to remove the overpowering smell of smoke permeating the house. Servpro set up five ozone generators, which ran for three days. The machines produce ozone, which oxidizes the airborne odor-causing molecules.
Then the laborious cleaning process began. "People make mistakes trying to clean soot themselves," explains Steve Taylor, general manager of our local Servpro franchise. "Using water or household cleaners smears the soot around and can sometimes even set it into the underlying material."
The fire restoration workers painstakingly cleaned every square inch of the interior using vulcanized rubber sponges. Their goal was to remove any loose particles so the walls could be primed and painted. Mike and I followed them with Kilz oil-based primer (which is specially formulated to cover smoke damage) and painted the interior ourselves. Thanks to this careful process of cleaning, prepping, and promptly painting, we were able to save most of the original textured plaster despite the extensive smoke damage. We only needed to replaster in the den and hall, where the fire had destroyed the walls. And after four years and three humid summers, we've never smelled smoke.
Turning up the Heat
The house was designed in 1949 with radiant heating throughout the first floor. The concept was way ahead of its time, but the system itself was way past its prime. The life expectancy for original radiant heating systems was about 50 years, after which time corrosion tends to cause leaks in the piping embedded within the concrete floor. Our plumber tested for leaks by using an air compressor to pressurize the system. A check of the pressure gauge showed a significant loss of pressure after 12 hours—the pipes were shot. Our first thought was to install new radiant heat, which uses flexible tubing. But that meant either demolishing the floor to redo the piping or building it up by a few inches. Building up would have affected the steps to the sunken living room, as well as the room's built-in bookshelves, hearth, and French doors.
We decided to preserve the design of the sunken living room but compromised by adding hot-water baseboard heating and leaving the slab and its embedded pipes alone. The trade-off was losing the original modern concept of having no visible heat source, but we simply didn't have the budget, time, or stomach to tear up the entire first floor and re-pour a slab with new tubing.
However, adding baseboard heating left us with an unheated concrete floor. When searching for flooring that would be both true to the time period and insulating, we hit upon the perfect solution: cork. We laid a vapor barrier and a floating cork floor directly onto the slab.
The house's wraparound aluminum ribbon windows are its main design element, adding modern luster both inside and out, but they presented a dilemma after the fire. The 1949 single-pane windows weren't exactly energy-efficient (the previous owners had even glued wood strips to some of the interior frames to prevent water condensation), and now 38 of them were broken. Then there was the problem of the den windows—the frames had actually melted and twisted in the fire. We needed to find replacements.
Naively, I carried an aluminum frame into a window shop. "I would like to replace 38 casement windows matching this sample," I said. I quickly learned that unless I ordered custom windows at great cost, I was out of luck finding unclad aluminum replacements. Sticking to our goals of budget and speed, we found Gary Moliterno of Moliterno Glass, who was able to fit double-paned glass into the frames that were still intact.
But what about the melted frames in the den? We shopped around for standard casements and found that a line of Andersen Windows had the thinnest profile, which best matched the thin aluminum-frame windows. We chose a paintable exterior option for the vinyl-clad windows and painted them a light gray to match the appearance of the aluminum windows.
Ironically, the biggest projects we tackled on the house had little to do with the fire. If the house hadn't burned and we'd purchased it at market rate, we probably would have put nearly the same amount of money into upgrading the outdated systems, windows, flooring, and kitchen. The fire not only lowered the purchase price, but also deterred other would-be buyers. After the eight-month restoration was complete, a friend visited our house. She told us, "There is an old Korean superstition about living in a house that has had a fire. The fire cleanses old energies and brings good fortune." It's certainly proven true for our house.
Barbara Rhines, a longtime collector of 20th-century decorative arts, serves on the Board of the Friends of Modern Architecture/Lincoln (FoMA), a local group working to preserve the town of Lincoln's collection of early modern houses.
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