That Old Farmhouse

We bought an old house in Brooklin, Maine about 15 years ago. The house was built in the 1860s. It’s a farmhouse, meaning it came with an extensive barn. There were actually four barns tacked on to the southwest side of the house, one after another. Over the years, Robyn and I have worked on the house, and here are some things we learned.
There’s a lot of lead in Maine.
We decided to gut our house and rebuild the inside. We tore out plaster walls. We created quite a lot of dust. And, we learned our house had quite a lot of lead in it, most probably from old paint. We had been given the standard Realtor disclosure form saying homes built before 1975 had lead paint, and we knew lead paint was a hazard. What we did not realize was that a crawling infant who sucks her thumb should be kept far away from a lead-tainted house under construction. Things worked out well, but this was a wake-up call for us.
We also did a soil test a few years back trying to determine locations for new gardens. One sample we took was about 20 feet away from the house’s footprint. Lead showed up. This made me realize there really is a lot of lead out there. Fortunately, most vegetable plants do not take up lead. The exceptions are the tubers: potatoes and such.
Infiltration is the heat sucker
We realized early on that our house had barely a stitch of insulation in it, and one reason for gutting the house was to add some insulation. Since it was an old house with crazy framing, we ended up using blown-in fiberglass at the recommendation of an architect friend. This is a great product, and it’s perfect for older homes. However, R-value from insulation is really only half (well, it is actually one third of) the story on heat loss. Heat propagates from conduction, which insulation can address. Heat also propagates by radiation, which is what the Low-E coating on windows is for. Heat also propagates by convection, and the importance of dealing with infiltration in exterior walls has only reached the mainstream in the past ten years or so. Having lived through a bunch of cold, windy Maine winters, I know now that it’s the wind speed, not the temperature, that makes my house cold. Looking back, an inch of spray foam on the exterior walls followed by the blown-in insulation would have made a great, economical exterior wall.
They did not have closets back then
If there is a major difference between life in the 1860s and now, it is that we have more stuff, and stuff belongs in closets. We had an opportunity to use our design skill as architects to create closet space, but it is not easy to take a small house without closets and make it a small house with closets.
Floor Framing was Hit or Miss back then
To say our house has bouncy floors is to state the obvious. Whether people just did not mind bouncy floors back then or not I do not know. However, Robyn and I do not like them, and we had to do quite a lot of work to stiffen the house. This is work best done as part of a major renovation. It is not easy to stiffen a house when all you really want to do is paint and change the window treatments.
Upgrade the mechanical and electrical systems
This we got right. When we bought the house, the entire house ran off four fuses in an old fuse box. I needed to have better power just to plug in my tools, so the first thing I did was upgrade the electrical system. Old wiring causes fires, so replacing the electrical service is something to think about. We also replaced light fixtures.
We also put in phone jacks everywhere, and this was probably a mistake. Everyone uses a cell phone now, and even if you have a land line, you only need one station plugged in.
Mechanical and electrical systems have seen major performance improvements in the last ten years. If I were to do it all over again, I would look at propane, wood pellets and heat pumps for heating. These are currently great options compared to the old standby, fuel oil. I would also install LED lighting, and occupancy sensors.
Most Important Room is the Mudroom
We have renovated our mud room three times in the last fifteen years, and this final time I think we got it right. The importance of mud rooms in the spring, fall and winter cannot be overstated. These rooms are used all the time. They are imperative for energy efficiency and for keeping the rest of the house clean. So much of Maine life is about getting in and out of one’s house. Follow the guidance of people who have experience.
Little Things
There are dozens of little things that we could have done better the first time around.
Hot water baseboard in the bathroom? Not a good idea; they rust. Cork tiles in the kitchen? They don’t handle water that well. No window in the bathroom? We should have.
All these little things we chalk up to experience. Buying an old farm house and updating it, restoring it, turning it into our home. It was a challenge. It can be done. A little guidance from someone who has done it already helps.

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Architect

Principal at Sealander Architects, Ellsworth Maine. Revit guru. Married with 3 children. Avid gardener. Lived in San Francisco for nine years. Master in Architecture from Columbia University Bachelor of arts in religious studies, Wesleyan University. Graduated Staples High School, Westport CT. Hope to spend some time in Hokkaido before all is said and done.