Our home. (my new project).   ~mike gradziel.
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another project: kingdom plantae.

This page is divided up by project:
original 2009 kitchen re-painted kitchen with pot rack Kitchen Improvements
November 2013 - May 2014
roofing debris over cellulose fill attic vacuumed and clean Cleaning the attic and crawlspace
December 2009 - August 2010
dusty horrors of the cold air return attic ducts fully insulated Air duct removal and replacement
December 2009 - December 2010
old style wiring new style wiring Electrical wiring upgrade
December 2010 - September 2013
the bathroom staged when we bought finished, ready to decorate Main bath remodel
January 2011 - July 2013
new kitchen air vent and attic mounted fan faucet, disassembled and cleaned Air vents and piping.
September - December 2011 & Jan 2014
painted fireplace fireplace with damper pull handle in place Fireplace Refurbishment
June - August 2012

The house when we moved in, January 2010:
me and joy in front of our new house our new house our new house - original back yard
our new house - one bedroom our new house - living room our new house - kitchen with new fridge
The house in 2014:

As our major asset and a prized possession, the house is here given a lengthy description replete with technical details so minute that they will appeal only to the dedicated historian and the interested buyer.

The house stands on a gentle slope about forty feet above the lapping waves of San Francisco Bay which lies some two miles distant to the east. It was built in 1940 along with all the other houses on the block. The surrounding area was divided into building lots sometime in the 1920s when the first homes appeared; before that, it was agricultural land with only a few buildings. A few blocks away, the original home in the neighborhood still stands more or less as it was in 1892. Back then the railroad was in its present place and downtown San Mateo had started to take shape. Fifty years before that, it was undisturbed wild country.

In October 1940 when a city building permit was issued to owner and builder H. H. MacDonald of Burlingame who had draftsman R. L. Rigby of San Mateo draw up plans for the house, giant redwood forest still cloaked the ridges to the west and south and loggers hauled out thousand year old trees to be turned into shingles and fence posts. Outside the small towns, the low land on the Peninsula was generally given over to fruit and nut orchards and ranches or small farms, and a variety of heavy industries had become established along the bay. Constructed in a time that enjoyed abundant natural resources, with good materials readily available and modern building methods in use, the houses of this era have unusual character and quality. It is remarkable that the material value of the house in 1939 was listed by the builder as $5000, equivalent to just $75000 when we bought it seventy years later in 2009 for more than ten times that sum. About half of what we paid was land value, and the remainder would be the cost to build with the same quality materials today.

People have called the architecture of this house 'Tudor style' on account of its steeply pitched roof, decorative dormer roof over the front living room windows, and stucco exterior, but that is all there is to the resemblance. It never had exposed exterior beams or other architectural details characteristic of a Tudor period country cottage. Originally the bedrooms had rather dark patterned wallpaper, which I removed during the wiring project. The interior trim was a beige color, and exterior trim was once deep green. The exterior stucco was always a light color in the white family. Interior door and window trim, baseboard, picture moulding, doors, and the wood fireplace surround all make excellent use of shadows and light to decorate the rooms without being complex. The trim looks wonderful painted white.

The concrete foundation is straight and level. Cast iron drain pipe within the house and terra cotta french drain around the yard effectively carry water away and even in the wettest years the concrete-lined crawl space beneath the house remains dry though the water table then lies just a foot down. I think the french drain connects directly to the city sewer, because the pipe accepts significant flows of water yet shows no outlet even in dry weather. The homes on the other side of the street are not so lucky, being slightly lower, and many need water sumps and pumps to drain them. The cast iron is old, but has never had blockage problems or leaks. Some people don't realize how much better cast iron is than plastic pipe: water flowing in it is dead quiet, and it can last for hundreds of years.

City water comes in from a six inch main under the far side of the street, a light blue pvc pipe laid in 2012. I don't know what kind of pipe runs under the street to our water meter, but it is probably plastic since it has a copper tracer wire with it that emerges at the main shutoff at the water meter. From there the run is through 3/4 inch copper tube set just four to six inches deep along the north edge of the yard. I wish it was deeper. At least it is easy to access for repair should that be necessary. A branch of the water pipe supplies an irrigation flow control system in the front yard, while the main run continues into the crawlspace.

About half of the copper water pipe on the property, including the front irrigation system the run from the water meter, was installed in 2000 replacing original galvanized steel pipe. In 2011 and 2012 I replaced the remaining steel supply pipe (the cold water runs) with copper, including the risers within walls. I also added underground water pipe runs in the back yard (these are 12 inches deep) to supply hose connections and irrigation valves there.

The house is supplied with natural gas. In the 1930s gas pipelines were being built along the peninsula and it seems from the appearance of original stucco on the garage that the gas meter had its place in the original construction. The present meter of course is a more recent model, but some of the gas piping may be original. The pipe branch to the kitchen stove was installed with re-configuration of the kitchen during 2000. To more efficiently route pipe and to replace old shutoff valves I installed new branches extending to the furnace, water heater, and dryer in 2012.

The gas furnace dates from 1991 but the air ducts were original when we purchased the house. Imagine seventy years of dust in your air supply! It was so awful looking that we went without heat in February and March of 2010. The cold air return through the crawlspace was especially scary, with lots of open joints allowing dust and debris from the not-rodent-proofed crawl space to be drawn in. Furthermore, frayed asbestos tape covered some of these open joints. Asbestos wrapping covered the air distribution ducts in the attic, which also were nowhere near airtight. A licensed abatement contractor took out the ducts, and then I installed all new duct material including the air registers in the walls. With a new air return not going through the crawlspace, a high performance filter at the return inlet, and dampers for making adjustments at a manifold in the attic, the new duct system stays clean and works nicely. I have swept the crawlspace clean and screened off all openings.

The gas furnace and water heater sit side by side in the attic above the garage and share a single flue. In 2012 I moved the flue so it would not pass through the gypsum wallboard garage firewall, which I was installing to slow the spread of fire from the garage to the house. I also replaced most of the flue pipe at that time. In 2014 I replaced the water heater.

When the house was built, it was not customary to insulate walls so the wall cavities are empty. The attic is insulated with cotton batt material that I installed in 2013-2014, and this helps minimize summer heat gain. However during the heating season most heat is lost by outflow through window sash joints, electrical boxes, and doorways. A substantial amount of heat is also conducted out through single pane glass, and of course some also leaves by conduction through the uninsulated walls and floors. Despite this, gas costs being what they are (about $600 per heating season) it is difficult to justify taking out good windows or trying to insulate walls. The windows will get replaced as they succumb to sun and water (so far, the bath window and kitchen door are new).

The 1940 electrical system has been entirely replaced by modern wiring completed in 2013. The electric service entrance box and main breaker date from 2000, and the wires from the main to the garage subpanel are from 2000 though I replaced the metal tubing through which they run in 2011 to enlarge and re-route it. A whole-house surge protector guards against voltage spikes caused by falling trees, earthquakes, and rare thunderstorms. There are more than enough slots for circuit breakers, and every branch circuit is either arc-fault protected or ground-fault protected. There are lots of light switches and receptacles, and wall-switched lighting in the closets. New ventilation fans are remotely mounted in the attic for quiet operation, with timer or speed control switches placed at convenient locations. Data lines run through the walls, the doorbell circuit and thermostat have new wiring, and there is a motion sensor for the front door light. In addition, a 60 amp sub-panel line now runs to the larger back yard shed to power shop tools.

The structure of the house has held up wonderfully through all these years on account of good construction and proper maintenance. I won't say it is excellent construction, because the roof framing seems sparsely placed and hastily nailed and the floor joists look like they didn't match the concrete foundation pour and had to be adapted to fit, but good materials were used and the roof was kept in good condition so the structure has stayed dry. I have made holes into every wall and been through all of the attic and crawlspace, and I have seen no signs of termites or other insects.

The original roof was cedar shakes, as evidenced by several shingle package tags fallen into the attic reading, among other things, 'Red Cedar Shingles, Inspected by Red Cedar Shingle Bureau, Copyright 1935'. In 2000 a city building permit was issued for replacement of the roof. The roofers left a mess in the attic, and there was asbestos debris left from the air ducts, so before ducting and wiring I cleaned the entire attic and vacuumed it until it was pristine. The roofers took the old roof off down to the purlins and added new plywood, felt paper, and black fiberglass-asphalt shingles.

The walls are one inch rough sawn plank nailed to the studs, covered with tar paper and wire mesh, and then covered with stucco outside. Most walls have diagonal 2x4 bracing which should help in earthquakes though it is certainly not as good as nailed plywood. I added seismic bracing at the garage door top corners and made sure the sill plates are bolted, but there is not much more I can do to reinforce the structure for seismic loading without significant demolition. The sill plates and joists sit directly on wide concrete footers two feet tall, and on account of this and it being a single story home with a relatively lightweight roof it should be able to withstand a big shake. It's on solid clay, not filled marsh. However the brick chimney might not fare so well, and stucco would crack.

The interior is stucco too, good sand plaster reinforced with wood fibers, over wood lath, with wire mesh reinforcement at corners and over the entire bathroom walls to stabilize the tile. Much of the plaster is hand textured, and very little has cracked. Some of the rooms use paper-faced perforated gypsum board, a precursor of sheetrock, rather than lath as a plaster substrate. When I replaced the wiring, I made small holes for the drill and ran the wires with minimal removal of plaster. All the outlet boxes are new work style, solidly nailed to studs. Then I put up new lath and mixed my own sand plaster to make the patch.

Although it looks the same, my top coat of finish plaster was soft drywall compound whereas the original finish layer was a very hard plaster immune to scratches and dents. The hard material does not accept nails for picture hangers, and I make holes with a small masonry bit and use screws instead. There is picture molding at the top of the bedroom walls but I prefer to use screws into the wall rather than hang wires from the molding. In one bedroom the ceiling had more cracks than were elsewhere on account of inadequate depth of ceiling framing so I put up adhesive fiberglass mesh and tried making a hand troweled ceiling texture from acrylic-strengthened plaster. It looks ok, but not as good as the rest of the house.

Lead-containing paint lies beneath the latex top coats and care must be taken to contain lead dust when renovating. Bedroom walls were cleaned down to bare plaster when I removed the wallpaper so there is no lead paint on these walls, only on doors and trim and in closets. The kitchen walls are new drywall installed in 2000 so these walls have no lead paint, except for the kitchen closet. The living room has a layer of poorly prepared paint several layers down that leads to bubbles and blisters when applying new layers of paint; the best course of action is to apply very thin layers of new paint with a dry roller. Lead also seals the joints of the cast iron drain pipe, but this is does not present a hazard. I know of no other hazardous materials in the structure.

The subfloors are beautiful tongue and groove fir topped by asphalt felt paper and then 5/16 inch thick, 2 inch wide top nailed white oak. Evidently the San Francisco Bay area is one of rather few locales to use this style of flooring. It has held up beautifully and will probably last another seventy years. The redone kitchen floor is vinyl. The bath floor, shower stall, and lower walls around the bathroom are original pale yellow tile set with very thin grout lines. In 2012 I re-did the tile trim to better suit my color preferences.

In 2012 I restored the fireplace which is faced with a lovely tan-orange brick. We use it a few times a year. It pulls far more heated air up the chimney than it contributes to the house, but it makes a nice atmosphere on winter nights. The chimney is lined with flue tile and is very clean and in excellent condition. For it to draw properly, since I started replacing windows and doors, a window must be partly opened to let air in.

The back yard has two sheds, one closed and the other with an open front, that look as if they are as old as the house or nearly so. In 2009 the back yard was mostly pea gravel with shrubs around the perimeter. The back and south side fences had recently been replaced. I planted raspberries, highbush blueberries, and a brown turkey fig tree in 2010 and have been making various improvements to the landscaping there. The back yard is now mostly garden bed.

The soil is sticky clay, heavily compacted about 18 inches down with embedded rocks. By addition of composted manure and plant material over several years I brought the topsoil to a lighter texture good for most garden crops. It holds a bit too much water for happy citrus trees, spinach, and other things that like well drained soil, but in winter the lettuces, beets, chard, herbs, fennel, collards, kale, favas, and peas have thrived despite regular freezing. Frosts come one or several days a week from December through February and sometimes it gets cold enough for puddles to freeze though copper pipes coming up from the ground have not had freeze problems since they conduct heat up from below. Warmer temperatures beginning in May turn lettuces more bitter, and it is time to set out the tomato, pepper, and eggplant seedlings. Onions, potatoes, squash, cucumbers, and beans of all types also do well in summer. In spring and summer, leaf miners destroy beets and chard which do best planted in late autumn to grow through the colder months.

The back yard gets direct sun from mid morning until evening, with the areas nearer the sheds being sightly more shaded especially in winter. Even during June and July when impressive cascades of fog pour over the western hills and creep down from San Francisco, the sky in San Mateo is usually clearing by 10am. Summer highs occasionally reach the upper 90s F but more commonly are in the 80s, with lows at night in the 60s and 70s.

The driveway and concrete walkways were poured in 2001, and the front lawn turf and irrigation were installed then. At the front of the yard a large tree once stood, according to neighbors. Now a small maple tree grows there albeit slowly on account of limited water and the remains of a large stump said to be not far below its roots. I planted a gravenstein apple seedling in the middle of the front yard in 2010, knowing it will take fifteen years to produce significant fruit. If pruned properly it will have very nice character and a spreading appearance. Two pollinizers, a golden delicious and a flowering crabapple, will need to be grafted on when it is larger in order for fruit to form. I intended that the small maple might be removed when the apple tree gets big.

A magnolia grandiflora probably from 1940 sits at the corner of the garage and provides a foliage screen for the house throughout the year. As it has been heavily pruned and has many unhealed stubs, some of which have begun to decay, in 2013 I planted an osmanthus fragrans shrub (also evergreen) beneath the magnolia with the hope that it will grow large enough to fill the space as I slowly remove branches from the magnolia until it is gone.

By proper maintenance of the roof, exterior paint, and water drainage the house will last indefinitely. Most utility upgrades are now complete and will last for decades before further work is needed. The only significant future project I have planned is extension of the roof line ten feet into the back yard to add a second bathroom and a third bedroom. This will reduce the size of one of the bedrooms to make room for a hallway to the new room. Planning ahead, I made air, water, and electrical connections ready for extending to the new addition. Other than that the heavy construction is done, and only upkeep of the landscape will require a sustained effort to raise mature plantings and keep the soil in top condition.

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