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The Attic Renovation

Our house is 1½ story with two bedrooms upstairs in what is essentially a finished attic. Shortly after moving in, we discovered a number of issues with ventilation, electrical and plumbing that led us to completely gut the second floor. It took six years and several contractors while flirting with the very real possibility of facing bankruptcy before we were able to start living upstairs.

The Layout

The layout of the second floor is relatively simple.  The “u” shaped staircase is roughly in middle of the house with a landing at the back overlooking our scenic backyard.  Once upstairs, the largest bedroom is to the right.  This is our daughter’s bedroom as it makes use of part of the back dormer which will be ideal for a study area.  The other bedroom is to the left.  It is the smallest bedroom in the house (while being as large as our master bedroom in our first house).  This is the guest room, or possibly another child’s bedroom in the future.  There is also a larger side attic area off of this room (facing the front of the house), which now houses our air handler.  A closet runs the length of the hallway between the two bedrooms.

Just move in?

We honestly thought that the bedrooms only needed some minor drywall repairs and a fresh coat of paint.  However, the installation of an air handler in the side attic set off a chain reaction that affected every level of the house.  I ended up gutting the second floor to the framing.  New insulation, vapor barrier and drywall had to be installed.  The unexpected and costly renovations stretched out to around six years.

The original features

Please note that the pictures on this page were taken with standard 35 mm film and, while the quality isn’t very good, these are the only pictures I have of these features.

The larger of the two bedrooms had a lot of interesting angles. Whoever finished the drywall must have had a lot of fun!

bedroom entry
The entry of the larger bedroom

My wife was particularly fond of the window seat in the dormer area of the large bedroom, overlooking the picturesque back yard.

window seat
The window seat / reading nook.

The smaller bedroom had some unique characteristics of its own. The ceiling panels resembled LEGOs and were lit by a fluorescent tube fixture that was attached to the roof peak. However they were horribly discolored and brittle and had to go.

Unique ceiling light panel
The ceiling panels resembled Legos. (I should have taken a picture with the light on…)

The closet within a closet was an interesting feature.  My wife thought the secondary closet was ideal for rotating seasonal clothes.  I saw it as an ideal place to store a life size Halloween figure such as a skeleton or zombie– perfect for those house guests or kids who like to snoop.

closet in a closet
Inside the closet: another closet!

Problems with the Attic

Some problems were more obvious than others such as the water damage around the back window.  We suspected the electrical problems.  The insulation completely blind-sided us, coming to light only after we opened up one of the walls during the installation of air conditioning duct work.

Water Damage

water damage under window
Obviously, there had once been a leak (or there still was).

There was some water staining on the trim around the back window in the large bedroom. Like our home inspector, I chalked it up to poor installation and substandard caulking of the window. I assumed that the problem was solved when I had the window replaced. Unfortunately, when I removed the trim to inspect the badly damaged drywall more closely, I realized that it would take more than just some spackle.

Insulation Issues

By far the most serious problem with the second floor was that the insulation was attached directly against the roof deck rather than allowing an air space for ventilation. We learned of this issue after I removed a section of drywall to allow the air handler installers access to the side attic to run duct work and this is what led me to completely gut the second floor, removing all the drywall, insulation and wiring.

The insulation was mineral wool with Kraft paper facing on both sides. Only the side facing the conditioned space should be faced. In fact, in Canada, it appears that we no longer use this type of insulation, using instead unfaced batts and a separate vapor barrier.

deteriorated insulation
The insulation had some issues.

The batts were also installed directly against the roof deck. In the climate of our area, code requires an airspace between the roof deck and insulation in a cathedral ceiling such as this. During the summer, this allows for the movement of air to keep the roof cooler, thus preventing the premature deterioration of the shingles. In the winter, this air space keeps the heated indoor air from melting snow on the roof, which can lead to ice dams in below-freezing temperatures. You can see what effect improper installation can have on insulation. It was impossible to remove the batts in one piece as they disintegrated to the touch.

The insulation and drywall were installed right up to the roof peak, not allowing any air space whatsoever.  A suspended ceiling concealed the exposed wiring and the plumbing for the hydronic solar panels. The roofers removed the panels when they shingled the roof. We chose to not reinstall them.

roof not ventilated
No air space for ventilation

Update: It is now acceptable practice to insulate directly against the roof deck using spray foam insulation.This creates a completely conditioned space inside, with no ventilation needed. In our case, though, the new roof we just had installed would not have been guaranteed if we left the insulation as it was. And I don’t know of any case where double vapor barrier is allowed.

Removing the drywall in the guest room, exposed some obvious repair work.  Apparently about 20 years ago, there had been a fire in this room.  New fiberglass insulation had been installed, but unfortunately it was installed with no air space, in the same manner as the old insulation.  The vapor barrier was only 4 mil rather than 6 and was about as effective as Saran Wrap.  You  can see significant moisture damage on the fiberglass batts.

damaged insulation and vapor barrier
Newer insulation and vapor barrier wasn’t much better.

Electrical Issues

With the walls opened up, another issue became evident.  The house had been wired with low voltage switches, which is not a necessarily a problem.  The advantage is that a light or other fixture can be controlled by multiple switches in several locations.  The low voltage wiring works well for retro-fit situations as the 18 or 16 gauge wire is easy to run, does not require conduit, and the switches, depending on the local code, do not necessarily have to be mounted in boxes.  The voltage to the wires is only 24 volts, virtually eliminating any shock hazard.

low voltage wiring
So that’s what was buzzing every time we used the light switches

However, the system is a bit more complicated than traditional wiring, consisting of a transformer and relays.  Plus whoever wired this house had gone overboard.  The large bedroom alone had 9 fixtures– lights and plugs– that were operated in various combinations by 7 switches in 4 locations in a 10×14 room.  Overkill does not begin to describe this configuration.  For example, one switch would operate a plug and an overhead light.  Another switch would operate two other plugs and another light.  Another switch would operate the first light and a fourth plug… get the idea.  It would be difficult for anyone to trace the wires, virtually impossible for someone like me, given the mess of spaghetti at the relays and switches.

low voltage wiring
What a tangled web we weave…

The transformer was located in the basement, in an area that was very difficult to access.  I determined which circuit was supplying power to the switches and set about tracing each wire from the second floor down to the basement and disconnecting it at the transformer.  Other low voltage wiring was also present in the house.  The previous owner had once had a central vacuum (low voltage wires went to each outlet) and a hard-wired alarm system which I removed.

low voltage wiring
The transformer was located in the basement.

In general, all the wiring in this house was a mess.  Removing as much spaghetti as possible makes tracing other circuits easier.  Removing the low voltage wiring was one of the first steps in de-cluttering the house’s electrical system.

electrician's nightmare
This is just one example of the bad wiring that existed throughout the entire house.

I began gutting the attic in the summer of 2003


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