House Rehab Project #1

716 S. Livingston, Whitehall, Michigan 

Streetside, from the southeast. The old carport has no footings, and the rotted structure is nearly collapsing.

This sorry, old structure endured several remodeling disasters, before being condemned by the city and repossessed by H.U.D.  It was then placed on the market, priced at the value of an empty lot.  The neighbors hated its blight, and its spotty rental history.  Initially, they were skeptical that another purchaser would do any better than previous owners.  So why buy it?

Streetside, from the northeast.

Location:  The White Lake area, including Whitehall and Montague, is an excellent residential environment with remarkable natural beauty. The core area of Whitehall contains primarily older houses of modest size, in a wide range of conditions. The immediate neighborhood has a variety of housing types “grandfathered” in the current single-family zoning. The street has no through-traffic, making a quiet pocket neighborhood.  Downtown shopping is seven blocks away, grade schools are five blocks, and the bike trail is only three blocks.

The 65′ x 160′ lot provides a large backyard. The house location and the parking area to it’s south have great potential for solar energy collection.

Backyard, from the west.

The original storey-and-a-half structure, c. 1910, faces east to the street, with brick foundations on-grade, and a shallow crawl space underneath. The single storey wing to the north was rebuilt/enlarged c.1930, and has a small pit cellar. Later additions to the rear (west) of the house were poorly constructed. Floors and roofs everywhere sag. The original structure is “minimalist”, and has no architectural or decorative features to save.

Demolition ...

The two-story section of the house was gutted, and the floor joists of both levels were removed.  All windows/doors were discarded.  The carport was removed.  Structural lumber, flooring, and interior sheathing boards were salvaged and re-used both inside the rebuilt house and outside, as yard structures.

... and demolition ...

As for the one-story north wing…  Every layer (there were three layers of ceiling in the front porch, two in the main room, three layers of sub-floor in the rear porch, two in the main room and front porch) just sagged some more, and trapped more moisture to encourage rot. When finally down to framing, I discovered that it was short pieces of salvaged lumber (in the 1930’s) scabbed end-to-end.  By the time I got to anything solid, it was all gone, leaving the tiny pit basement and the chimney.

... and demolition.

The roof framing was beefed up with additional framing.  Notice the come-along in the picture below, pulling the side walls together.  They were splayed outward five inches!

Bracing up the original structure.

Finally, new construction could begin.  The new garage was placed eight feet back of the old carport, for a better streetside appearance, and to allow a south window in the future living room.  New sheathing was used on the original structure (replacing the interior 1 x 16 roughsawn boards).  The original roof sheathing remains, with sleepers and new sheathing above it to give a ventilated space (“cold roof” design).

Garage and roof construction.

New perimeter footings were constructed for the north wing, with a crawl space surrounding the original pit cellar.  The new roof is higher than its original, for better visual balance.

New north wing construction.

The old carport was right on the property line; the garage allows four feet of side-yard space, adjoining the parking lot of the neighboring property.

Rear walls left out on purpose, for concrete pours.

Supporting the “green” goals of this project, an aluminum roof was chosen. The shingles are made from recycled material, and can be recycled again, in about eighty years. Check out for details. This is the “rustic shingle” pattern, “shake gray” color.

Roofing, in progress.

But every good thing has its down side. For this product, installation on a steep roof is a real challenge. You cannot simply walk on these shingles. I gave up trying, and rented the lift. It’s the only way to go …

Roofing, completed.

Until now, the neighbors and city officials were skeptical about this project. They have seen others try, only to run out of capital, or energy, leaving another mess. Suddenly, this project looks like a quality, professional effort. The neighbors were pleased, and helped out in many ways.

Closing up; end of progress for 2005.

The picture below is taken from the two-story section, looking north into the new one-story wing.  You can see the old pit cellar, with a crawl space around it.  Concrete block are being laid to form a stairwell to the basement.  The sand fill from the new basement area was used to raise the grade in the remaining area, in preparation for the concrete floor (with hydronic heating in it).

Inside groundwork, new basement stairwell.

Spring 2006 saw the exterior siding and painting of the streetside, while the backside was left open. Water lines burst in the street over the winter, and the picture below shows ground-work in progress. The incoming water line was replaced. The driveway and a huge, decaying tree stump under it, were removed. Then the city (Whitehall) decided to replace the street, with new water and gas mains. So the yard was a mess for over a year.

Backfilling for new water lines.

Meanwhile, the work continued inside. Concrete was poured inside the original brick foundations, for increased strength. This also allowed sheets of foam to be placed vertically around the perimeter. When the sand fill was levelled and compacted, foam sheets were spread, and the hydronic tubing and re-rod were placed, awaiting a concrete pour.

Ready for concrete pour, over the hydronic heat system, setting on foam insulation.

With the rear exterior wall still missing, the concrete truck’s chute placed the mix where it was needed.

Power-trowelling the concrete floor.

Finally, building the rear wall, with a bumpout for the kitchen and dining area.

Enclosing the rear of the house.

By fall, the city had finished the street work.  Driveway, sidewalk, new grass and some young trees finished off the front of the house.  The fortuitous timing of the house project, with the city’s street and new utilities, ensures a low maintenance home and yard for many years.

Streetside, September 2006.

Streetside, September 2006.

The street rebuilding, plus the house improvements, prompted the owner of the neighboring apartment building to do some upgrading also.  I furnished the tractor and grading expertise, and the neighbor bought dolomite to resurface his entire parking area.  We removed the overgrown plantings at our property line, and erected a fence.  (The boards will wait for two years !!) 

Good fences... good neighbors...

That’s the neighbor on the left, me on the right.  Two “retired” men, both still working aplenty.

Backyard, ready for landscaping.

Attention now turns to the inside, mechanical systems and super insulation.  Shown below is a corner of the living room.  The original 2×4 studs are at the outside, with two perpendicular layers of 2×3 on the inside.  This gives a full 7″ space to fill with insulation, with offset framing members.  The raw concrete floor seen here will be covered with ceramic tile flooring.

Exterior framing, and hydronic floor of living room.

Looking north from living room, through front entry to bedroom.

The bedroom is in the newly framed, single story, north wing.  Here the floor spans the crawl space and pit basement, so is framed with wood I-joists.  The exterior wall framing is offset 2×4 construction, again allowing 7″ of insulation space.

Northeast corner of bedroom.

Looking south, from bedroom into living room.

The walls and sloped ceiling are all filled with sprayed Icynene foam.  This is a great material; it seals all the drafts despite all the irregularities of the old framing, and it is super-quiet.

Northeast corner of living room, insulated.

Great Lakes Insulating of Grandville, MI did the installation in portions of two workdays. Neat workmanship, a thorough job of filling the spaces, good sales support, and a reasonable bid — I highly recommend them to others. ($4,500 if you are curious)

Looking west from loft, over stair well into study.

The heating is a natural gas-fired hydronic system, the finest of all systems. In the main living area, a 4″ slab is poured over the foam, surrounding the PEX tubing.  The floor of the bath and dressing area has the PEX tubing in a 2″ concrete cap atop the crawl space.

The hydronic distribution is pre-plumbed for three zones, though only two are being installed initially. The main section lower floor is one zone, and the bath/dressing area of the north wing is the second zone. When the house is more complete, we will evaluate the need for heating in the loft area and the bedroom, using the third zone if it is necessary.

Heating system.

The system was purchased from Hannel Radiant Direct. The package included the PEX tubing to be placed in the floors, pre-plumbed and pre-wired distribution panel, thermostats, and the Polaris water heater. ($7,200 if you are curious) Check out for more information.

As their name implies, Hannel prefers to install “direct” systems, which circulate potable water directly from the heater through the PEX tubing in the floor. Michigan codes insist on an “indirect” system, which isolates the circulated water from the potable water in the heater. In the picture, the panel in the middle has a heat exchanger to isolate the two loops. The loop between heat exchanger and heater currently runs about 130 degrees F at 85 psi (city pressure). The distribution loop runs less than 120 degrees F at 15 psi. A balancing valve (included) drops the temperature to about 110 degrees F to the household fixtures.

The pre-plumbed system is very complete, with valves, guages, reliefs, and bypasses.  It is designed for DIY installation, and is truly a snap to install. However, installing the Polaris heater is not recommended for beginners. I’m not a beginner, and this installation went smoothly throughout. Everything worked perfectly.

The Polaris heater is pricey, but you get what you pay for. The solid state diagnostics are excellent: A problem with the gas meter caused the heater to go into a lockout mode, and the blinking LEDs showed me what to check. Once the gas supply was fixed, the heater re-started without a hitch. It has 100,000 BTU input, which is overkill for this house, but not a problem.  

The White-Rodgers digital thermostats (supplied) are phenomenal. Combined with the properly sized distribution layout, the house holds within 1 degree F of the set temperature, with no overshoot during a heat cycle.  Design temperature here is about -5 degrees F. We recently had a three day cold snap that low, and still the heat cycles where short. I will probably lower the heater’s thermostat from 130 to 120 degrees F.

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