Our House | Before + After

Three years ago, almost to the day, we made a bid for a century-old house on a corner in the Museum District.  Standing in the front yard, waiting for our turn to go inside the property facing foreclosure, I knew it was meant to be our home.  It took four months to close on what was called a “short sale.”  We took another six months to finalize architectural plans, sell our former home, and gather the finances to begin renovation and restoration.  John and his team spent about a year getting the inside to the point that we could leave the apartment we rented and officially live in the house we had affectionately named “Honor’s Corner.”  We spent an additional year completing the exterior of the home and other projects outside.

This summer has brought a real slow down around here.  We finally just live here.  The construction mess is gone and for the most part the house has settled into the block.  We still get an occasional knock on the siding as passersby, heading to Carytown, try to determine our siding material but for the most part we are just another house on the block.

We have tried to gather photos that best represent the transformation of our home.  Because we opened up the interior, it is impossible to get “Before & After” photos that line up perfectly but you can get the general idea.  Many thanks to Mallory for helping me get this culminating post together and thanks to you for following our journey.  It’s really been meaningful to share this transition with family and friends.



final shot




The wall between the front and center rooms was removed so the living room now opens directly into the kitchen.


We removed the fireplace and added French doors opening to the side porch.




We relocated the stairwell to the center of the house to make room for a foyer, shoe bench, powder room, and coat closet.stairs2






The kitchen and a full bath were at the rear of the house.DSC_0481

We added a row of windows in the kitchen, reconfigured the bath, and made a 1st floor master suite.DSC_0145




The former mud room retained its purpose but we added a laundry area with cabinetry. The hole leads to the cat box!DSC_0535


This is the center room at the top of the stairs.DSC_0722


The attic was opened up in the center of the house to highlight the interesting roof angles and flood the space with natural light.
A loft was added to provide space for additional family members and visitors to sleep.  It houses a full size bed!


better flex room



my room





Beforeep before

Afterep after2







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Photographs used throughout this blog post are courtesy of Mallory, Alferio Productions, and Adam Goldsmith Architectural Photography

We passed the energy tests!

Earlier this week Honor’s Corner passed the final energy audit.  The audit measures the “tightness” of the home by evaluating two features: the exterior seal and the internal ductwork.  Basically, the tests let you know if you have any leaks or holes in your home.  Anyone can have the tests conducted in their home for about $300. The measurements obtained during our tests are part of the total energy model used to calculate our EarthCraft and LEED ratings.

We have actually had the outer envelop tested three times.  Back in March, as a proactive measure, we hired an independent company to come to the house and conduct a blower door test.  At that time we were mostly looking for gaps in our insulation so that we could fix anything before the siding went on and we had the final certifying test.  At that time, the auditor said that our house was one of the “tightest” he had measured.  There is a fine line between having it tight enough for efficiency and too tight for healthy air exchange.  You need to have some fresh air entering your home.  If the outer envelop gets too tight then a whole house fan could be necessary.  At that time, without siding, caulk or paint on the house we were right where we wanted to be.  We didn’t have the ducts tested because Delta Temp, the company that installed the geothermal heating and cooling system, had already tested it as part of their routine service.

The second test took place in July when EarthCraft came for official testing.  The outer envelop test went as expected but there were some issues with the ductwork testing so they had to reschedule.  The third time was a charm.  Brad and Paige came back this week and repeated the blower door test for the outer envelop and were able to successfully complete the duct test.  Both tests indicated that we are in the high efficiency and healthy zones!

A blower door is a big fan that mounts into the frame of an exterior door. The fan pulls air out of the house, lowering the air pressure inside. The higher air pressure outside then flows in through any unsealed cracks or openings. The test simulates 20 MPH winds blowing on the house from all 6 sides at the same time and determines air infiltration into the house.

There is a frame and flexible panel that fits into the doorway, a variable-speed fan, a pressure gauge that measures the pressure difference inside and outside, and an airflow gauge with hoses.

Setting up the blower door test back in March.


An infrared camera is used to identify “hot spots” where there is a leak or gap in insulation.  This tool is so sensitive that it detected a hole in the foam insulation about the size of dime in a narrow corner in the peak of the attic.  Here the tool is showing where the glass of the window and the frame meet.  It detects a sliver of heat exchange.  The guy chuckled when I seemed concerned about this and he dismissed it as “nothing.” IMG_6897

Paige from EarthCraft is using the same tool to follow ducts behind the wall to see if there are any leaks in the system.DSC_0024

Brad is covering the air intake with tape.  All the vents in the house are sealed during the testing.DSC_0015

Black plastic covers are placed over some of the high vents.DSC_0010

An air pressure gauge is inserted into a vent during the duct test. DSC_0006

This contraption sucks all the air out of the ducts.DSC_0022

The doors have to be kept closed during the testing.  Once the fan was removed the dogs made a quick escape through the hole.  You can see just the bottom of Shelly’s legs as she darted away.  Luci exited right behind her! DSC_0013

John completed his paperwork with Richard (LEED Consultant) documenting his construction methods and materials.


We have submitted all of our receipts (proof of purchases) and paperwork to Richard who will finalize documentation with EarthCraft.  Together they will calculate our points and file for our certifications.  We are really looking forward to wrapping up that part of the project!

Tunnel Vision

As you know, we have meant to be intentional, minimal and carefully resourceful in building our home.  This mindset has become our guide not just for this project but for our lifestyle.  Lately I have been uncomfortably consumed with cosmetic details.  I have allowed myself to be taken over by knobs, pulls and hinges.  I have spent a ridiculous amount of time on deciding the style and finish of these items and fretting over my choices.  I don’t know if it’s because these details are important or not important at all but I am just burned out on decision making.  I also feel a certain sense of shame in getting frustrated with such “first world” issues.  Really, how important is a door knob?  Fortunately the end is in site and most of the decisions have been made.  We are all hopeful that the inside will be ready for us in the next 4-5 weeks.  Once we are moved in these details will just be part of the landscape of the house and fortunately my micromanaging of them will fade away.

The kitchen cabinets are in place and we love them!  Several weeks ago I found hardware that I liked on and ordered 75 of them to use in the kitchen and various other places around the house. They were a great deal but too good to be true.  Beautiful and high quality but they had a 2.5” space between the screw holes which is an odd size.  This would make it very costly to replace them later if we ever decide to do so. Those had to go back, all 24 pounds of them!  The next enormous load of knobs and pulls came from a trip up to Ikea in Northern Virginia, only to realize that the pulls and knobs were a slightly different color once they were out of their wrappings. The third time was a charm…a trip to Lowes brought home a selection of hardware from which we chose a coordinating pull and knob.

 Here is a look at how things are shaping up this week.

Cabinets and drawers arrive in the house.

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All of the wood used in the cabinets is FSC certified and finished with no VOC paint. The cabinets were fabricated in Midlothian by Cary’s Mill Woodworking.  Cary’s Mill has been fantastic from the first phone call to final finishes taking place now!



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The island came into the house in five separate parts and was assembled in place.


This is the view from the kitchen side.  Do you see the little central vacuum kick vent in the bottom left?  I’m excited about that little feature.  I can sweep junk up to the vent, tap the lever with my foot and the vacuum will turn on to extract the pile of debris.


View from living room area.


Final decision on hardware; knob and pull.


LEED points are awarded for a permanent shoe removal area at the door.  This is in an effort to keep your interior clean and improve indoor air quality.  The area around the shoe station cannot have carpeting and there must be room for two pairs of shoes per bedroom.  Our shoe cubby was made along with the kitchen cabinetry and John fashioned the top from leftover flooring.


A built-in desk was also made for an upstairs bedroom.  John will make a top for it as well.

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Also happening this week is the installation of closet systems by Closet Factory.  Mallory definitely scored the best and biggest closet!  My former neighbor, Sue Pike, helped me plan the best use of space in the bedroom closets.  I am thrilled to incorporate friends into our home.  She has great ideas and a no-nonsense, professional style.  We were happy to find that the Closet Factory offers “green” materials made from recycled wood and free of formaldehyde.

Mallory’s closet:


Here is a look at the master bedroom closet that shrunk during the ductwork installation.  Mallory’s closet is about 50% larger than ours and two of us will share it.  Limited space should be an effective reminder for us to shop and wear responsibly!


John and Bobby are moving on to the bathrooms.  Laying tile and installing toilets and sinks!

The hardest decision to make

At least once a week someone will ask me what has been the hardest part of this process. The decision to downsize and the steps to get there have been challenging at times but as for the building process, besides waiting, there is definitely one thing that really stands out as the most difficult decision to make.

It’s the front porch, specifically the flooring. The old porch floor was not original to the house. There is no doubt that the original floor was tongue and groove wood as it was when we bought the house. It’s just that in our climate, a porch made of wood is going to rot. I have written about the porch before. It’s been going on a long time.  Here’s some back history: We were determined to maintain a tongue and groove, wooden deck and we thought we had this all figured out a few months ago. We thought we had found the perfect product in a material called Proteak; teak grown in an earth friendly fashion in North America. Unable to find any other long lasting “green” options for the flooring, we settled on using the Proteak in an experimental tongue and groove application. “Experimental” in that teak expands and contracts about 5% and is typically installed as deck boards, close to one another but not touching. We were going to have the wood cut into T&G and apply it like an interior wood floor with a little extra spacing. It was a bit risky but we couldn’t find anything else and were willing to take the chance that it wouldn’t warp or separate during seasonal extremes. There are a number of man made composite materials available but none that we felt complimented the house and satisfied the EarthCraft and LEED recommendations. We waited two months for the material to arrive in Richmond only to find out it was delayed again. The new framework for the floor was sitting bare and the columns and rails had been rehabbed and were ready to come home. During the wait, we had begun to have reservations about the installation and deemed the numerous roadblocks a sign from above to move along and find something else.

I literally researched and examined every decking and porch material known to humankind, at least in North America and Europe. I spent hours on line and driving around to various lumber yards and home improvement centers. I contacted a company in New Jersey that specializes in bamboo decking but like teak, bamboo is typically installed as deck boards, not in a T&G fashion.  I walked around the city, looking at everyone’s front porch! We considered using reclaimed heartwood pine that is dense and long lasting but were told that even that will rot fairly quickly when used outside in our climate. We discovered several Brazilian and exotic woods, used in marine installations, that would last nearly forever but importing a wood from Brazil for our project goes beyond our goal of being green and supporting the local economy. We were just about to throw up our hands and use a man made material when I decided, as a last effort, to contact Ashley Moore at E.T. Moore and ask if he had any ideas for us.  E.T. Moore had supplied the Tidewater Pine for our inside flooring.  (Side note: In 2009 we visited the New Kent Winery and when we first stepped onto the front porch were awestruck by the wood and the craftsmanship that went into the building. We discovered that all the wood was reclaimed, antique wood, fabricated and installed by E.T. Moore of Richmond. This building immediately became our inspiration and we kept the company in mind to use for our dream home someday.)

Ashley, as his name would suggest, is a fine southern gentleman. He is younger than myself and by now probably thinks of me as that crazy old lady from Floyd Avenue. In any case, he has always remedied our wood problems so I reached out to him for a solution for our porch flooring. In his characteristic slow Richmond draw he says: “Well, we just might have a wood for you but I have to talk my Dad about you using it. You see, there was just a small amount of wood left over from the New Kent Winery front porch that he might let you use.” If he could have seen me dancing on the other end of the phone he would have known that I was going crazy! That would be just unbelievable. That front porch is where it all started.

Apparently it wasn’t unbelievable and Dad let us buy it. The wood is a long lasting, dense exotic wood named Ipe. We would never have considered importing wood for our project but since it was left over from a previous project, locally owned and milled and just sitting in a warehouse we were ecstatic to have found a solution. It will virtually never, ever rot. At least not in our lifetime. It can be installed by tongue and groove because it’s too dense to expand and contract and it’s beautiful!  It starts with rich brown tones but will gray over time if left alone. We love the wood tones so we plan to treat it with special oil to prevent the graying process from occurring.

So in the end, we have come full circle and have exactly what we wanted. It took months of research and patience (and worry on my part) but it worked out perfectly and the wood carries meaning for us.

Here’s a look at the flooring. We love it!

Image 2 The corner was a little tricky.

Image 1Image 5 Seems like it was raining or snowing through the entire porch installation.

Image 11

The original columns and rails were rehabbed and are happily back home. They had taken quite a beating over the 103 years that they have adorned and supported the house.  RBVA removed every bit of paint, repaired all of the rotten areas, replaced missing pieces, primed, painted and reinstalled all of the elements. When I first saw them I had mixed feelings.  I guess I was expecting them to look brand new.  They are definitely structurally sound and they look better but there is still some cosmetic work to do now that they are back in place.  Once the rain stops and the temperatures warm up a bit we can get some more finishing done.  They have character and retained many of their wrinkles and dents from century old production and use but they are sound and strong. There is something about having them there that feels right and comforting. We can sit on the extra large hand rail and lean on the columns without fear that the front porch will collapse.  We will sit where hundreds off folks have sat before.  I will sit on Honor’s Corner where the home’s name sake spent her days in the early 1900’s. It’s a great pairing; the crisp new with soft and worn.

The columns arrive back home!

DSC_0001 DSC_0009 DSC_0014 DSC_0017 Each balustrade was rehabbed individually.  It turns out that we have four or five, nearly identical, but different balustrades on the porch.  There are slight variations of the same style and two types of wood were used to make them, pine and cyprus.  A couple were even installed upside down!  The bottom is notched to fit over the rail and the top is straight.  RBVA cut the top and bottom off, reattached them properly and put them back in.

Image 9

The first day back was mostly a day of math and physics to determine where each piece was to be placed.  John had numbered the pieces as they were taken out but the markings were removed when the paint was stripped off and each part was sanded. Plus, the floor joists and decking are all new so the thickness was not exactly as it had been before.  It literally took an entire day of measuring and calculating to figure out how all the pieces of the puzzle would go together again.


The head carpenter is a woman!  It almost seems sexist to mention it, but one has to admit that the construction and home improvement industry is dominated by men.

This is Sydney making some measurements for the corner column.

DSC_0022 I was able to catch Syd before she primed the base of this column.

Image 8Notice how close together the rings are in this old heartwood pine.  These columns should last another hundred years or more if properly cared for due to the density of the wood. They were put together with a zigzag joint for strength as opposed to a biscuit joint that is used today.

Image 17Image 18 Image 16Image 14

Flashback to column and rail rehab.  Most of these photos were taken from the RBVA blog that featured our project several times over the past few months.

The crew that saved our porch elements!  Minus Sydney who takes all the photos and makes the blog posts.

IMG_0118 Replicating a bottom rail to replace a rotten one.

IMG_0115 IMG_0112 Replacing the bottom portion of a column.  Most of the bases had rotten wood.

IMG_0062 IMG_0051 columns Rehab of a balustrade.  I like this picture because you can see pieces of our elements all over the workshop.


balusters2 balusters


Another imperfect post…

In a perfect blog world I could share with you a piece of the house when it is complete and include the “before and after” photos.  Yet, it just doesn’t work that way.  For example; the roofers were called away a couple of weeks ago to finish up another job that stalled earlier, allowing them to start on our job.  We thought they would be gone just a day or two.  By the time they were ready to return to our house, our landscapers and brick masons had taken over the front of the house and there was no room for them to return.  So they are waiting for us to make way for them, meanwhile they began another job and will hop back over to ours to finish up when the time is right.  It’s quite the juggling act they maintain!

Each piece of the metal roof is hand crimped to make the standing seams.


The sheets are then connected to one another and fastened down to the wooden sub roof.

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Remember this look?

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Another view…almost done!


Parts of the the old roof waiting to be picked up for recycling.


Our front porch was removed, new piers constructed and the framing replaced.  Now we wait for eco-friendly Proteak wood to arrive in Richmond.  Proteak is a renewably-harvested wood grown through environmental stewardship on reclaimed ranch lands in Mexico.  This method of farming alleviates the human, financial and environmental hardships of strip farming from the Southeast Asia trade.  It produces a FSC certified wood.  We will be using Proteak for the flooring of the front porch.  The first time we saw the wood we knew we wanted to use it!  It’s one of the hardest, long-lasting materials suitable for outdoor uses plus it ages beautifully with extremely low maintenance.   We have spent weeks figuring out how to cut the wood for installation.  The boards come into Richmond precut into deck boards.  Our preference is a tongue and groove application but we haven’t been sure that when installed this way, outdoors, there will be enough room for expansion and contraction with climate fluctuations.  Yesterday John and I visited Ecosupply, the local distributor for Proteak and after some discussion came up with a suitable tongue and groove installation plan that will leave about a dime’s worth of space between the boards when they are installed in December.  This should be the appropriate amount of space for the boards to swell during the summer months.  No “after” photos yet!

The framed porch awaits flooring.


The front yard landscaping is one major undertaking!  In the last few days before installation was to begin, the plan ballooned into a much bigger job than originally anticipated.  In an effort to prevent storm run-off, we decided to capture the rain water from the front half of the roof and direct it into the center of the yard in a holding basin or cistern.  The sidewalk will also be slightly slanted inward to direct falling rain toward the center of the yard.  The pitch should be unnoticeable when it is complete, much the way our roadways are pitched to facilitate rain runoff.  In the end we will have a self-watering system going on up front.  The cistern is a 10‘ x 10‘ square that is just over 4‘ deep.  It’s a BIG hole layered with gravel and corrugated pipes, and topped with soil for planting.  The pipes have drainage holes so that the water can disperse into the surrounding ground.  The rain gutters from the front half of the house are connected to the cistern by large plumbing pipes.  That part of the project, the BMP (Best Management Practice) is complete!  The sidewalk that forms the courtyard around the cistern requires meticulous persistence.   We have been told that Hector is the perfectionist at Rock Creek Innovations and we have certainly witnessed his attention to detail.  I have watched him level and re-level the stones dozens of times. I have seen him chisel a stone out and go after the mortar with a hammer to start again.  Each day this week I visit to see how far he has gotten and to photograph the progress.  The stone is still dusty from cutting and transportation but I can see the variety of colors and look forward the great reveal when the installation is complete and the stone is washed.  That will be a while as I have been told that after each stone is in place, every single joint is hand cut to ensure they are all the same width and then grout is applied.  When that is all said and done, the trees and shrubs will be planted.

Matt from Rock Creek and his cohort spent an entire day measuring for the precise placement of the cistern, walkway and plantings.


More leveling and measuring.


Digging the BIG hole!



Thousands of feet of perforated piping waiting to go into the hole.


The white rigid pipe is coming from the downspout.


The pipe is covered with gravel.


The walkway is dug out and bordered with wood to accept the concrete.


Ready for concrete.





Variegated Bluestone is delivered and the concrete base is ready!


Hector, the perfectionist.  Who doesn’t want a perfectionist on scene? Thankfully, it seems we have several on site these days!DSC_0018

This is how it looked when I left yesterday.


John and Bobby have continued to work on the basement stairs and door.  Again, not quite done but you can certainly get the idea now!  The final piece of that puzzle is the door which should arrive next week.

A new drain is in place.IMG_5879

Gravel and support rods are next, followed by yet another inspection from the city!


Bobby in the stairwell.


John up to his shenanigans again.





We reached another milestone on Tuesday.  With the insulation complete we passed another inspection!  Brad and Paige from EarthCraft came in and performed their inspection. They found a few crevices that the blown insulation missed.  John filled them by hand with canned foam.  The goal is to form a tightly sealed envelop from top to bottom.  In the near future we will post details about the ratings and the differences between open cell and closed cell insulation.  The city also sent an inspector to take a look and he signed off on his part.

The insulation team arrives.  Two different chemicals are mixed together to form the expanding foam barrier that is sprayed onto the walls and ceiling to form an envelop around the house. DSC_0022

Respirators and suits are worn by the installers.  We were not allowed inside so I held my iPhone up to the window and stuck it through the plastic from the outside to sneak this shot wile they were working upstairs.


They worked late the first day and after the sunset one of the guys had to hold a light for the other.


After the foam dries it is leveled with the wall and ceiling surfaces by gently sawing it off with a small hand saw.




Paige and Brad inspecting the window and measuring the depth of the insulation.


Brad is in the attic storage area measuring and looking for holes.


The city inspector arrives on scene as well.


The joy of technology…

Brad took a photo with his iPhone of a gap in the attic and after he climbed down shared it with Richard so that it could be fixed.


Can you see the insulation that oozed out of the holes below the windows?  It did this all over the house, which is great because it forms a vapor and moisture barrier as well as insulating.  This is one of the reasons that we used the spray application as opposed to sheets of insulation.

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With the insulation complete… the sheet rock arrived!




By the end of the first day the bottom level walls and ceiling were just about covered.


Next time I write the walls should be complete and with any luck so will the sidewalk and plantings.

Walls are going up!

I think it’s safe to finally say that demolition inside the house is complete!  The porches, garage and landscaping will follow.  The current goal is to get the inside complete so that we can move in as soon as possible.  We are all so excited about the house that we can tolerate outside construction!

Last week the crew replaced the last of the rotten wall studs and made the necessary alterations to the doors and windows.   When we see studs in this condition we know we made the right decision to gut the whole house.


 The back side of the house has been a challenge.  Nearly every stud had to be replaced because of rot, water and termite damage.  We also changed the configuration of all the windows and the door on this wall. Image 11

Framing the French doors and side window in the dining area.Image 10

One of the hardest working guys I have ever met!  Doesn’t he look like an angel?Image 3

Another angel on the crew!Image 4

The sub flooring is down on both levels and most of the interior wall positions have been chalked onto the floor.  Once we could stand in each space and visualize moving around we realized we needed to make a few changes in window placement and the direction of the shower stalls.  We are grateful to be there regularly and to have a flexible builder!

We will have a zero entry shower in the master bath.  That means the transition from the bathroom floor to shower floor will be level and easily negotiated as we age.  To achieve the level grade, the floor joists are adjusted before hand.  Fortunately, John wasn’t too perturbed when I decided I wanted to change the direction of the shower.  He smiled and said “All it takes is time!”  In no time at all he had the shower turned and the floor filled and level again.

Image 12 Looking up the stairwell into the loft.DSC_0005

Looking through the kitchen into the master bedroom.

Patched up oval stained glass window opening.

Erinn’s BathroomImage 4

John is particular about his printed plans.  So much so that I found my keys strung up high on a screw when I left them on top of his papers.  Of course I had to ask John to get them down for me.  I will not forget the rules from now on. DSC_0012



Non-tropical wood waiting to become our walls!

Our team!

Richard Cross  (LEED Consultant),  John Luck (Builder) and Michael Cross (Architect)DSC_0004

This is happening today…walls are going up!Image 9