“Careful is as careful does”
Greenwich, Connecticut: In 1983, the Pink House was nearly complete. We had worked for eight-months on a whole house renovation project that included adding a new wing to the original structure, sections of which dated from the mid-1700’s. The alterations inflicted upon this homestead over time ran the gamut from sound Victorian to weak 1960’s kitsch.
In the course of this project we touched every inch of this building – including adding a second story master bedroom suite above an existing wing. This was a very challenging undertaking requiring the participation of three separate construction companies, at least ten carpenters, at any one time.
At the front of the house at the dining room corner, the sills (base plates of the framing) were completely rotted through. The remedy for this situation required careful re-supporting of the wall and roof loads, cutting out the sills, and repairing 300 years of carpentry patches.
The mural restoration
On the inside of the exterior dining room walls were period murals depicting country life in the 18th century. Our task was to repair the outer walls without disturbing the murals which were in excellent condition (and this upped the ante considerably). We repaired the loose stones and mudsill of the foundation, bolted in new pressure treated sills, and replaced most of the lower two feet of framing. This process required several days of intense, careful work with sawzall, pry bars and screws (NO nail banging allowed). We kept the elements at bay each night with 6 ml plastic sheeting to prevent condensation in the new wall cavities. Eventually we installed new sheathing and house wrap without cracking or distorting the precious murals.
In the “good old days,” carpenters tried to finish projects “by Christmas” so the families could enjoy the holidays in their finished homes. This job was no different. The painters were working in the final stage of the east wing under the new master suite; the carpenters installing hardware, hanging artwork, and breaking down the temporary workshop we’d installed in the garage.
Danger lurked in the shadows
Late on a darkening December day, Vince and I were the last workmen on site, shutting off lights, locking up. We wished each other a “Happy Holiday” and, as I followed him out of the drive I took one last look in the mirror and noticed a flicker of light from the downstairs window. Was it a tail light reflection or something else?
In the corner of my mind as I’d departed, I had noticed something unusual … the painters had left rags around the edge of a trashcan. I’d made a mental note to chew them out about it…
It was one of those moments where timing and intuition meet, or angels intercede on our behalf. I stopped the truck, honked the horn to catch Vince, hit reverse and headed back to investigate.
As we ran up to the house I could see flames leaping inside that trashcan of mineral-spirit laden rags. By this time all we could do was get in there fast and hope to put the fire out! We grabbed a pile of drop cloths from the floor and smothered the flames.
With hearts pounding, realization struck! If we had left one minute, possibly 30 seconds earlier, everything would have been lost. All the work, the murals, the owners’ Dutch Masters artwork … everything. Old houses burn quickly and the rural location insured that the volunteer firemen could not have gotten there quickly enough to save it.
Here’s the rub. Construction is a dangerous business with incredible liability. Along with mastery of tools comes another skill set, namely being CAREFUL. I would even say, “mind-full”. This may be the most important skill of all.