January 11, 2012

Heritage Home Gets New Look


‘I guess we discovered we didn’t have enough to do in retirement,’ owner says of renovation

BY GRANIA LITWIN

John and Carol Langston’s bungalow in the Fairfield neighbourhood of Victoria was built in 1912 and needed some major repairs when they bought it five years ago, but luckily these energized retirees had more than a little experience in renovations. And they started from the ground up.

Because the basement was not full height and had obstructions running across it, the new owners decided their first project would be to remedy that. With the help of a Bobcat and mini backhoe, they excavated down and added two feet of compacted gravel base, poured new footings and foundations, inserted three huge engineered beams to support and straighten the house — and installed new drain tile all around the perimeter. And that was just for starters.

Before and After – house at 169 Beechwood in its pre-renovation drab colours and following extensive renovations.

They needed new ductwork, new plumbing, new electrical service and none of the windows opened because they had been painted tightly shut: “So we hired Bob Crouse to free them all up with his razor and chisel, and install new pull-cords with counterweights,” said John, an amateur artist who then did 100 per cent of the sanding, prepping and painting.

“There are 149 panes in the front porch alone,” he said with a wry grin, adding each pane needed the old paint scraped off before repainting. But that was relatively easy compared to adding a full basement. “We dug down about 40 inches and suspended the house while we added the gravel and poured new concrete foundations. It was an engineering feat to shore up the front pillars [so] we created forms and a slurry to pour around them for support.”

The house originally had one large central beam running east-west and over time the whole structure had sagged in each direction. The slope amounted to only a couple of inches, but it required careful lifting and measuring to make sure the home would be level. “It had had 100 years of settling and nothing was plumb any more so we put beams under to take the sway out of the floors and jacked it up till it was perfectly even, using a rotary laser beam. During the process a lot of people stopped by to look,” Langston said with a chuckle.

Carol said the house was “basically on stilts” while the excavation continued, and during the process, “cracks appeared all over the place — all of which needed filling, sanding and painting.” But their attention to detail and efforts to retain the home’s character resulted in their receiving a heritage achievement award for outstanding accomplishment in restoration.

The two-year, $250,000 project was an ordeal but the Manitoba-born duo had already cut their transformation teeth on a more challenging project. John’s grandfather had had a farmstead in Teulon, north of Winnipeg, and when the 800-acre spread came on the market a dozen years ago the Langstons decided to buy it and take on the mammoth restoration challenge. There had been an interim owner and the former dairy farm had fallen into disrepair.

The recently retired couple had worked most of their lives in B.C. — she as a librarian and he as a manager for BC Hydro — and obviously had energy to burn. “I guess we discovered we didn’t have enough to do in retirement,” joked John, adding they commuted back and forth to Manitoba for five years and eventually had the old farm designated as a heritage site.

“It seemed a shame to let it fall apart. It was such a grand place, with a magnificent three-storey home, barn, blacksmith shop, outbuildings, milk house,” said John who had retired at 55. “The homestead was at the centre of the Scandinavian community in that part of Manitoba, which was settled in the late 1800s and early 1900s by Swedish and Norwegian immigrants.” His grandfather, a civil engineer, had used granite rock to form the bottom 10 feet of the barn’s walls, which were two feet thick, but the place was derelict now with many of the windows broken so birds and weather were getting inside.

“We spent winters here and worked there in the good weather — and we did save it. We put at least 50 years of life in front of it, another 10 years without attention and it would have been gone forever.” Once the project was finished, the couple retired, again, and began renovating their Victoria home with the help of general contractor Rick Kinnersley.

John, now 69, concedes the Manitoba project was “much greater in magnitude than this, but here we were more encumbered with doggone permits.” They had to go to the city’s board of variance twice and were never allowed to build a garage as the house exceeded site coverage. Because it was so old, the house was non-conforming in certain aspects, including setbacks, and creating a legal suite on the ground floor meant more approvals.

“But it was worth it, and we love it here,” said Carol, 67. “Gonzales Beach is just four houses away. Dallas Road is five minutes away. It’s a short walk to Fairfield Plaza and I love all the boulevards here.” They also enjoy the mild winters and ensured their “new” home would be warm by installing Prairie-style storm windows. Made by Vintage Woodworks, they all open and are all laminated, which John says cuts down on road noise by 40 per cent. They cost about $500 each but offer huge energy savings, as does their on-demand hot water heat and R-20 insulation.

The entire downstairs is brand new, except for a couple of antique doors they brought from the Manitoba homestead, and extra insulation in its ceiling, guarantees soundproofing. An original feature they saved was the original cedar gutter system. Only one section needed replacing with custom parts and while John was installing the new pieces, he saturated the vintage gutters with a 50-50 mixture of linseed oil and turpentine. “Luckily heights don’t bother me,” he explained. So now all the big jobs are done, and they can enjoy their new/old home. Carol explains: “We love the quality and craftsmanship, the picture and plate rails, the tall wainscotting, the arches, layers of moulding around the windows,” and the popped-out sections of wall that give their home texture.

What are their plans now? “We’ll put our feet up,” she said happily. “Do a little more lawn bowling, volunteering, walking, painting and travelling — because we enjoy looking at beautiful architecture.”

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