Unlike most houses that undergo basement reconstruc tion, the house on 8 Planting Field Way in Edgartown has a foundation that has kept the building upright for 163 years.
“With a lot of old homes the foundation collapses entirely,” said Scott Decker, the general supervisor. “We end up having to literally raise up the house, rip out the old foundation and put in new footings. The footings for this house go down into the ground about 12 inches. It’s made up of flat rocks with bricks piled on top, and it still serves as our foundation now.”
Although the home is being brought up to modern standards, the historical integrity and overall design of the house remain preserved. Details such as the original windows, whose cloudy surfaces are a testament to the hot oil cooling techniques of the late 1850s and an individual fireplace in each room of the original structure, remain practically untouched.
“We’re also keeping the original staircase,” said Mr. Decker, pointing to the steep wooden steps leading into the belly of house. The movement of the stairs is reminiscent of those leading down to a galley on a typical fishing boat.
“This house was built by shipbuilders,” Mr. Decker explained. “Everything is done in a mortise and tenon fashion, which means all the joints have little inserts that fit into each other.” The process is similar to the way in which children assemble model wooden boats, only with far more impressive results. Mr. Decker points at the meticulously aligned wooden planks that make up the ceiling. “You can see the little tongues in the planks going into an angle in the corner of the room. It goes into a dowel which locks it in, keeping the house from pulling apart”.
The house on 8 Planting Field Way has been under construction since June of this year, with an installation in the works toward the rear of the main structure in addition to insulation of the basement and redoing its outdated wiring. Built in 1850, the home includes a series of architectural and constructional features that are unique to its era. Even the individual planks that constitute the interior appear a veritable marvel. “They’re what we call King Planks,” said Mr. Decker. “All these floors are made of planks that are continuous one-width pieces of wood. The largest one we found was 28 inches wide and 22 feet long. You can’t get those anymore because trees that we use now are so young when we harvest them.” The solid-one-inch pine planks found in this particular residence were christened King Planks back in the 1700s when the United States was still under British rule. Pine lumber of such caliber was reserved for the King’s use, meaning that no tree that surpassed the measurements set by the royal decree could be felled for other uses. After the revolution ended, this lumber became available to common markets.
“Its like National Geographic every day here,” said Mr. Decker. “This building is so old. Instead of ripping it down we dismantled it and kept all the parts and pieces. We have some of the coolest lumber on the Island.”
Historical integrity aside, if the structure is to function as a comfortable modern home, certain alterations remain inevitable.
“We had so much to do. The electricity was so substandard it became hazardous. In fact, one day I was doing a demo in the living room and there was electrical wiring coming up from the floor. I turned around and I could hear the breaker down in the basement beeping at me and then wiring caught on fire. The next day we gutted the house.”
There is also the matter of humidity. The ocean views of the Vineyard may be beautiful and the salty air refreshing, however the proximity to the sea inevitably results in high levels of humidity — a contractor’s mortal foe. Moisture wreaks havoc on wood, often providing fertile ground for mildew and destroying the entire structure of a house. The areas most susceptible to mildew circle the perimeter of the house where the bricks of the foundation sit on pine wood. The bricks suck the moisture out of the planks causing the wood to rot.
“As a result the structure starts to fail and collapse. That’s the worst part of what mildew can do.”
Installing proper insulation plays an integral role in regulating humidity and temperature in the home. In order to begin the process of insulating the basement a specific procedure must be rigorously followed.
“We clean out all the debris underneath, then we put a membrane down that keeps vapor from coming up and through and turn it up onto the sides of the foundation,” said Mr. Decker. “Vapor is a concern all year because of the humidity. So we’re trying to eliminate as much humidity as we can coming through the system and so are using closed cell insulation.”
Closed cell insulation effectively blocks vapor from coming through the basement, which also stops the foundation from transferring moisture onto the floors above it. The construction crew insulates the basement using state-of the art materials. “We don’t really use a sealant,” Mr. Decker said. “It’s not like bad insulation that uses fiberglass, which is pushy when you touch it.” Mr. Decker grimaced. “We’re insulating it with closed cell urethane foam. This stuff, unlike the cheap foam, becomes hard as a rock, sealing off any vapor transmission areas that allow it to come in or out of the building through the wall spaces.”
As Mr. Decker surveyed the basement, he outlined the process by which the crew preps the interior for the installation of the urethane foam. “Underneath the floor cells is sand and then we have the two-inch insulation and the poly-ethyl vapor barrier to keep all the concrete together...When we do the duct system, this basement will have some air handling capabilities to process all of the humidity out of the building. We’ll be spray foaming all the perimeters of this basement and then we won’t do anything to the walls. That’s how we protect the envelope of the house from underneath and from the sides. We’re also using a heat pump system, which has the ability to not only take the heat out of the air and heat during the wintertime but also act as an air conditioning system during the summer. On top of the vented-duct system we add the dehumidifier, which works to control and pull the humidity out of the air.”
Despite all the changes to the temperature regulation system of the home, and the addition of a living room, a workspace at the back of the house and various structural reworking, the home retains a sense of historical character. In one corner of what was once a kitchen with a wood-burning stove, a cabinet stands with its doors open. Inside are relics and mementos from a time long ago. Pulling out a dusty, pocket-sized book, Mr. Decker presented what was once a grammatical instruction manual dating back to the late 1800s. Chapters range from Syntax to Proper Posturing of Prepositional Phrases. Mr. Decker flipped through the pages of the book.
“This must be what they handed down from generation to generation,” he said.
Faint traces of cursive lettering remain on its yellowed pages, perhaps the eager pen marks of a young child writing down notes some 160 years ago — reminder that some things never change.