The Danger of Old Houses, and Fire

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In 1989, the great English country house, Uppark, was almost wholly destroyed by fire. The cause? A worker used a blowtorch on the roofing flashing, even though such so-called “hot work” was forbidden. The house was in the finial stages of a extensive restoration. Luckily, because the house was fully insured, it was rebuilt. Exquisitely. The house became a model for how to resurrect a grievously injured historic structure. The story is fascinating, and engrossingly told in this book, one of my absolute favorites.

 

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A house in Wichita, Kansas, was just finishing a full restoration. Rags soaked with stain from the floor refinishing were put into a trash can on the back porch. The rags spontaneously combusted in the middle of the night, and the home was destroyed. Luckily, no one was killed.

 

There are many stories like these. Too many.

It is for this reason that I do not allow a heat gun to be used on the Cross House. Never. Ever. EVER. And everybody working on the house knows this, too. It is the #1 RULE. Break it and you are fired. Sooooo fired!

Also, I am hyper vigilant about what is tossed into the trash. This week I have been refinishing the front entry doors, and am using denatured alcohol. When I am done for the day, I take all the bits of steel wool (soaked with alcohol) outside and burn them in the burn bucket.

NEVER EVER throw such bits into a trash can. Or old rags doused with floor stain. Or anything doused with linseed oil. For, these bits will burst into flames and burn your house down, as happened to the Wichita house.

The Cross House has had three fires. This terrifies me.

In the turret of the round tower is evidence of lightning damage. This caused a joist to explode, and charred numerous other joists. This damage though was wholly hidden until I cut a hole in the ceiling at the base of the tower, stuck my head inside (the first person to do so since 1894), and shined a flashlight into the darkness. Oh shit was my response.

In the attic there is evidence of a very bad fire, although I do not know when this happened:

 

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The attic of the Cross House. It looks OK, right? Look closer…

 

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Geez. The previous owner painted all the damage white. The whole main part of the attic is like this. Geez.

 

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On the south side of the roof, the charred sheathing boards were obviously replaced, and the charred joists had new joists sistered on. This means that the whole south roofing tiles, installed in the 1920s, would have been taken off, the damage repaired, and the tiles relaid.

 

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In 1999 a worker was using a heat gun on the third floor. He was being careful. But heat guns are simply too dangerous, and the house started to burn (it is believed that a bird’s nest behind the wall caught fire). Due to the quick response by the Emporia Fire Department (one block away), utter catastrophe was prevented. Image courtesy Bob Rodak.

 

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The fire burned through the roof. Because extra 1920s roofing tiles were stored away, the damage was invisibly repaired on the exterior. Image courtesy Bob Rodak.

 

I am soon to be installing a sophisticated smoke alarm system in the Cross House, which will automatically alert the fire department. The fire department will also have a coded entry key so they can open the back door rather than destroy it (or, God forbid, the fabulous front doors).

As part of the roofing work going on this year, I am adding a lighting rod to the chimney adjacent to the main tower.

 

 

14 Comments

  1. Cheryl Restoring home in Monson, Ma. on March 18, 2016 at 8:41 am

    Ross I agree with everything you said. I had soap stone used in the kitchen, the installer used linseed oil on the soap stone and they did tell me of the danger of rags catching on fire. I told him that I would never have linseed oil in the house ( I like natural soap stone anyway) I had him take the rags when he left. I also had the alarm company put in the fire and smoke system in the house as one of the first things I did, this is important in getting vacant home insurance.

  2. Barb Sanford on March 18, 2016 at 10:10 am

    Wow. I don’t use those sorts of items often. But it’s a good reminder to be really vigilant when I do. Thanks for the cautionary tale(s).

    • Ross on March 18, 2016 at 10:17 am

      I use linseed oil a lot. It is a vital component in restoring the windows.

  3. Lynn on March 18, 2016 at 5:57 pm

    Ross I am soooo happy that you have been matched with the Cross House. You are doing so much investigation and doing the work that most people don’t think about when restoring a home. The steps you are taking for safety will hopefully ensure that the Cross House will be standing beautiful for at least another 150 years. Thank you for your dedication to saving one of our nations most gorgeous historic homes.

  4. [email protected] on March 19, 2016 at 7:24 pm

    I’m curious as to what you mean by a coded entry key? Whatever it is, do you think the fire department would take the time to use it in case of a real emergency? Sadly it likely wouldn’t save your windows. Here in Pittsburgh it’s par for the course to smash each and every window in the case of (even not terribly big) fires. Terror doesn’t even begin to describe my fear of fires, and we don’t even have our original entry doors….

    • Ross on March 19, 2016 at 8:44 pm

      Hi Meg!!!!!

      The fire department itself recommended the coded key.

      In the 1999 fire, the fire department was remarkably careful about not damaging the house. One fireman lives a block away in a fabulous historic house designed by the same architect!

      • [email protected] on March 20, 2016 at 9:16 am

        That is amazing! And as jealous as I am of your fabulous house (shhh, don’t tell mine), I’m even more jealous of the well-deserved regard your community has for it!

  5. Connie in Hartwood on March 20, 2016 at 9:31 am

    Our old house has had at least two fires in its history. One was in a bedroom, said to have started in a chicken brooder that was in that room. Seems to have been caught and extinguished pretty quickly. I found traces of smoke damage at the upper corners of the window casings underneath the paint. I discovered evidence of the other fire when I was stripping paint from the mantel in another bedroom. As I was picking out a bit of bad wood filler on one side of the mantel, I realized that the subject hole that was filled was black around the edges. I carefully pried the mantel off the wall and saw the the entire inside of the upper portion was charred like your roof joists … a fire had smoldered there for who knows how long, and was probably only discovered when it broke through in the location of that hole.

    I experimented with many ways to remove paint when I began the renovation of our house. Used properly, I found that a heat gun was the most efficient way to remove the paint on our miles of trim and doors and acres of plaster walls. I only warm the paint enough to soften it and release its grip on the underlying surface, and I scrape it away with my handy carbide pull scraper. The paint chips fall onto the floor, and are swept up and thrown away with no residual mess and no risk of chemicals accidentally dripping and damaging our pine floors.. Most paid workers cannot be trusted to do it this way, because it takes longer and requires a LOT more care, so I completely understand your ban on heat gun use. For a careful homeowner, though, a heat gun is a very valuable tool.

    • Seth Hoffman on October 20, 2016 at 11:37 pm

      I share your approach. I frequently use an electric heat gun, but with much caution. It’s more important to be aware of what’s behind the piece your heating than anything else, especially if there are gaps or cracks that can admit the blazing hot air. I think that’s what gets people into trouble most often.

      I would never use a propane torch, though. I’ve seen people use it to strip paint, and it just frightens me.

  6. E.J. on December 20, 2017 at 3:55 pm

    Ross, you might think about grounding the tower finial, as well as installing 1 or more lightning rods, also grounded. When I redid my pile, our building inspector had retired from a full-time job in Detroit, to an occasional job in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The man was a wealth of incredible information. I can’t begin to count the times his advice saved my bacon. When I removed the weathervane from the center of the roof to repair it, and the roof(slate), he advised me to install a huge ground wire, and connect the 2 lightening rods(which were obviously decorative, because they had never been connected), and the weathervane, because of my very exposed location right on Lake Superior. I thought, yeah, right, but did as he suggested. The next week we had a terrible thunderstorm, and while I’m sure the house was not struck, one of the giant oaks in the side yard was, and the tree was so badly damaged that I had to take it down, it was split almost to the ground. It also struck a nearby home, causing a major fire, and much damage.

  7. Miriam on September 1, 2020 at 9:03 am

    Not sure if you still read this three years later, but I bought a house where there had been a fire. The inspector told us that the joists are still in great condition. He showed us pictures of the beams and joists in the house. They have charring, but when I checked, they all seem solid. I’m not an expert, but that is my humble assessment. I have always been doubtful about that inspection. This is a tiny town where everyone knows everybody. I have tried to call the fire chief and city office, to find out more about This fire. No one has ever called me back. My realtor and the seller’s realtor, I suspect are keeping secrets. No one is forthcoming. Again, they all know each other very well. When stripping paint off the stair risers and stair rail, I saw more evidence of the fire. We bought this house cash in order to have no mortgage into our retirement. Can you restore the risers and stair rails without replacing? Should I be as terrified as I am about the possible condition of this house? My only hope is that the house outlives me, and that it is still standing by the time I am no longer on this earth. Lol. Unfortunately, my income does not allow me to hire a structural engineer. Thankfully, the house is insured, but who knows what will crumble eventually if anything.

    • Ross on September 1, 2020 at 9:21 am

      Surface charring normally does not damage the structural stability of wood, Miriam.

      You can take a sharp knife and scrap away some charring. How deep is it?

      Ross

  8. Miriam on September 1, 2020 at 3:46 pm

    It seems like surface charring – maybe 1/8 inch. I’m not to keen with measurements. Not sure if it’s accurate, but I’ve read that these old houses can take a beating? It was built in 1920. I’m more concerned about water damage From the fire being put out. I have sloping floors in two connected rooms. We were going to do a major remodel, and then my husband lost his job. Thankfully, he is working again, but not enough left to do major repairs. The house makes me nervous, but I’m relieved we do not have a mortgage right now. There is definitely potential, and that part is a blast! So onward and upward!

    • Seth Hoffman on September 1, 2020 at 9:11 pm

      If the charred thickness is less than 10% of the joist, I wouldn’t be concerned, especially if it’s been that way for a while. Wood will usually slowly creep if it’s loaded beyond it’s comfortable capacity, so it would likely give you some warning with slow movement. There’s also quite a bit of redundancy in typical wood-frame home construction, so the failure of a single joists is unlikely to cause an immediate and catastrophic collapse.

      As you may have gathered from reading Ross’s journey, old houses are very resilient and can take quite a bit of damage and rot, but it doesn’t mean every component is over-designed. I see relatively common issues with settlement and creep in old wood-frame buildings, especially where upper level walls are offset from headers or walls below, around stairwells, or cantilever bays or turrets. The knowledge of wood strength over the long term wasn’t as well understood, and a lot of these more complicated areas were framed up by the carpenters just winging it onsite. They also didn’t have the advantage of the wide variety of engineered steel connectors at the time either. By and large, though, the overall construction is more resilient, and the rot resistance of old-growth lumber is no comparison to the plantation-grown stuff in most new construction.

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