A to Z Primer for Homeowners

A Primer for Owners of Old or Historic Homes

This glossary is designed to be a beginning resource for owners of old or historic homes. Its definitions include architectural and building terms, as well as common agents of deterioration and issues faced by owners of old houses. Additionally, this primer contains suggestions for further reading and information.


A to H

From Adaptive Use to HVAC System

Adaptive use (also commonly called adaptive reuse) is a term preservationists use when an old or historic structure is given a new use. In doing so, structures that have become obsolete are given a new useful function and are therefore saved from abandonment, decay, and demolition. Good adaptive use projects not only find a new use for old structures, but also find a compatible use that allows a building’s original fabric and significant elements to be retained. Some common examples of adaptive use are the conversion of old factory buildings into loft apartments or office space, reuse of barns as dwellings, and the transformation of large single-family estates or mansions into inns or conference and functions space.

An A-Frame house is one in which the sidewalls and roof junctions are omitted, with a gable roof continuing to ground level on two sides, thus forming a structure that is triangular or A-shaped. This type of house became popular following WWII and is typically used for vacation and second homes, particularly in snowy climates, where its form sheds snow easily. Features include: a steeply sloping gable roof, front and rear gables, deep-set eaves, large window openings on the front and rear facades, and a small living space.

Alligatoring describes a particular way in which exterior paint can fail. Alligatored paint on the exterior of a house is caused by heavily built-up layers of paint that become brittle. Over time, successive layers of paint dry out, and small cracks in the paint layers (called crazing) develop. These breaks in the protective paint coating allow moisture to penetrate through to the underlying wood, which then swells with moisture, causing the paint layers above to crack further. Larger stress fractures in the paint film develop and the paint surface cracks into small, uneven boxes that resemble alligator hide. When prepping for repainting, any loose paint should be hand scraped to bare wood. Alligatored paint, which is paradoxically often firmly adhered, may require alternate means of removing the paint. Among the newer products available are safer chemical strippers, infrared heat plates which do not heat to as high a temperature, and consequently are safer than the old heat guns (but still must be used with caution), and steam-heating the paint to soften it so it can be scraped. More information on proper paint removal techniques.

Archaeology is the scientific study of past human cultures through material remains (sites and artifacts) that people left behind. It may not occur to homeowners that the locations of their houses contain archaeological evidence of historical uses of the property, but owners of seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth-century houses should be especially sensitive to the possibility that their properties may have archaeological content worthy of consideration. All National Register of Historic Places nominations now require an assessment of the archaeological potential of every property listed, regardless of the structure’s age. Contact your State Historic Preservation Office if you encounter substantial historic archaeological remains (such as trash pits, wells, privies, or, burials) on your property as part of any large renovations or new construction.

“The architect is the professional who guides you through the design and construction process. Licensed by the state to practice architecture, the architect is the only professional trained to design the places in which people live and work and to manage all aspects of potentially complex projects from design through construction.” So says the Boston Society of Architects’ Homeowner’s Project Handbook: A Guide to Massachusetts Architects. It lists architects practicing in Massachusetts, includes suggestions on how to work with an architect, and worksheets to help you plan your project. For architects licensed in other New

An architrave is the lowest physical part of a classical entablature. Alternatively, an architrave is a molded frame surrounding a door or a window. In builder’s terms, the molded frame and trim surrounding a door or window is called a “casing.”

Two of the four main “artificial” siding materials introduced in the twentieth century, asbestos and asphalt siding were widely used as a “maintenance-free” covering over a building’s original siding; both “breathe” more easily than the aluminum and vinyl sidings that replaced them and neither is as damaging to the underlying fabric of the building as those later coverings.

Asphalt, introduced for roofing in the nineteenth century, evolved into a siding material in the 1930s. Asphalt siding, usually produced in rectangular panels of 18 by 24 inches, retains some of the appearance of asphalt roofing shingles (a gritty aggregate surface over a flexible, tarry-looking black substrate) but, for use on walls, it was often stamped to look like brick.

Asbestos siding, commercially introduced in the 1930s as a fire-resistant exterior wall covering, is a rolled composition of cement and asbestos (to reduce weight and increase fire-resistance) which is cut into shingle-sized pieces that are nailed up individually just like wood shingles. Asbestos shingles have a stiff, matte appearance and are often textured with “wood” grain. As long as they are intact, and not shredded, chipped, or sanded, they do not pose the hazard of asbestos pipe insulation because their asbestos fibres are embedded in the cement component of the shingle.

Removal of artificial siding can be done by a trash removal contractor and should always precede any consultation with a contractor about restoring original siding and trim. Having the original siding exposed allows the contractor to make a much more precise estimate on restoration work required. Disposal of asbestos and asphalt siding may be subject to hazardous waste removal regulations.

Depending on the type of artificial siding used, the age of the house, and the length of time a house has been sided, twenty to forty percent of the underlying original siding material (which will be present beneath the artificial siding; only selected projecting trim elements, such as brackets or the “ears” on a window sill, are removed when siding is applied) may need replacement or repair. Replacement of all of the original exterior siding and trim is never necessary and should be avoided.

Balloon framing: One of four historical methods for framing a house, the others being timber framing, braced framing, and Western, or platform framing (see below), balloon framing was developed in Chicago in 1832 and relied on standardized dimensional lumber, machine-made nails, and the use of thick sheathing boards to add rigidity to the structure. Sheathing boards covered the outside of a light frame of continuous-length sills, joists, and plates running the house from side to side and studs running from the foundation to the roof. The use of continuous studs running from the sill to the plate meant that early balloon-framed houses had long vertical wall cavities that created a fire hazard. The addition of fire-stops between the studs reduced that danger in later balloon-framed buildings. Balloon framing as a term has been used somewhat simplistically to differentiate all “modern” lighter framing from the heavy timber frames of seventeenth and eighteenth-century New England homes. However, the “Eastern” or braced frame system (also known as the “barn frame” or the “old-fashioned” frame) was, historically, the standard framing system in nineteenth-century New England, while actual balloon framing and platform framing are more typical of late nineteenth and twentieth century house construction. A useful resource for more information on this topic and other framing types is Dwelling House Construction by Albert G. H. Dietz.

A baluster is one post in a continuous row of posts supporting a railing; the row is the balustrade. Often the shape of a baluster is more or less urn or vase-like; that shape is similar to the shape of the pomegranate flower, from the Italian word for the flower, balaustra. The design and shape of balusters or a balustrade is often indicative of the time period in which it was constructed. Balusters and balustrades are commonly found on stairs, porches and as decorative roof elements.

Barge board, also sometimes known as verge board, is an exterior trim board covering a rafter which extends beyond a gable wall along the edge of the roof from gable peak to eave. It is often embellished and decorative. Use of ornate barge boards is a particularly common and distinctive feature of Carpenter Gothic and Gothic Revival homes from the mid-nineteenth century.

Bathrooms: Before 1850, only the most elaborate homes in the United States had bathrooms, i.e., a room with a bathtub, sink, and water closet. Privies located either in a separate outdoor structure or in a distant section of a real ell, and chamber pots, were standard. Piped, running water was generally only available in cities, and even then, in better houses. Sinks, either in bathrooms, or kitchens were rare until after 1850 and flush toilet technology did not become standardized until the end of the nineteenth century. The bathroom with a sink and water closet/toilet only became a standard feature of houses after the Civil War. Bathtubs were even rarer, and showers did not become common until after 1900. Into the twentieth century, many smaller, simpler houses lacked a bathtub and use of a hip bath was typical.

The term “bay” can have two meanings. The first, more common, usage refers to an element of the building that contains additional living space or volume and that projects from or is attached to the main block of a building. One- and two-story bays are a common feature of nineteenth- and twentieth-century houses. The second use of the term defines a structural component of the building and refers to the vertical sections of a building, which are normally defined by the patterns of its fenestration (window locations): many Georgian and most Colonial Revival houses, for example, are five bays wide, with an entrance in the center bay.

Bilateral symmetry is the most common form of symmetry found in architecture, and is frequently found in structures using classical (Greek, Roman) design elements. It describes a building designed where halves of the architectural composition mirror each other; in other words if a line is drawn down the center of the façade, both sides are identical in terms of their architectural details, including doors, windows, columns or other architectural elements.

Board-and-batten is a type of exterior siding or, more rarely, interior paneling that has alternating wide boards of wood with narrow wooden strips called battens placed over the seams between wider boards. Usually this siding is attached vertically, but can also be found in a horizontal configuration. Board-and-batten siding is also sometimes called barn-siding because it is commonly used in barn and outbuilding construction.

Braced-frame construction, also known as “Eastern frame,” the “barn frame,” and the “old-fashioned frame,” is a form of timber-framing, the oldest framing method found in houses of New England and the strongest and most rigid type of framing. Braced-frame construction typically consists of the following: sills, resting on the foundation walls to support the frame; vertical posts placed at all corners and at intermediate points along longer walls; girts, horizontal members at the second floor; plates, further horizontal members at the top of the frame supporting the roof; braces, diagonal pieces set in the angles between the posts and sills, and the girts and plates to stiffen the frame; studs, vertical pieces generally 16 inches apart between the sill and the girts and the girts and the plates; and sheathing covering the outside of the frame. In most braced-frame construction the sills, posts, and girts are solid timbers. For more information about braced-frames and other types of framing, a good resource is Dwelling House Construction by Albert G. H. Dietz.

Brick is an ancient building material, but in modern historical usage, there are three distinct brick types: 1) hand-made, “soft-mud” bricks, typical of the pre-industrial era, and usually irregular in size, varied in color, and coarse in texture; 2) pressed brick, machine made of clay pressed into molds and fired in hotter kilns, uniform in size and color, and smooth textured; and 3) modern, wire-cut brick, made of clay extruded mechanically and cut to size with wires. By the nineteenth century, chimneys were always constructed of brick, as were most building foundations, except in areas with good indigenous building stone; brick houses are rarer, except in dense urban areas where fire codes mandated masonry construction. A major distinction of historic and modern brick is size. Nineteenth-century brick was narrower than twentieth-century brick and was intended to be laid with a very narrow (1/8”) mortar joint. Modern brick is sized to conform to the dimension of a standardized “concrete masonry unit” or CMU (commonly called a concrete or “cinder” block) and to be laid with a half inch mortar joint.

A bungalow is a type of house which became popular in the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century and often exhibits Craftsman stylistic details (thus the term Craftsman Bungalow). A house type or form is distinguished from an architectural style in that a type or form relates to the shape of the house and may be constructed using details of one or a combination of various styles. Bungalows are typically modest in size and one-and-one-half stories tall. Other commonly found features include: raised foundations, simple floor plans, deep porches, and gently-sloped roofs with wide overhangs.

Calcimine (or kalcimine) is a water-based coating which was most often applied to cover plaster walls and ceilings used from the late-eighteenth century into the mid-twentieth century. To remove and re-coat surfaces that have layers of calcimine, scrape, sand and then wash the surface using a mixture of one-and-one half cups of TSP (trisodium phosphate) and one gallon of water; repeat as necessary to remove as much of the calcimine as possible. For re-coating, Historic New England recommends applying one of the new products designed specifically to overcoat calcimine.

Capital is the decorative head or top of a column. Capitals from the five classical architectural orders can be readily identified, but many idiosyncratic variations are possible, particularly certain architectural styles such as Queen Anne. Capitals may be carved out of stone, wood or composition.

Cape Cod houses or “capes” are prevalent in New England and are used to describe a house type. A house type or form is distinguished from an architectural style in that a type or form relates to the shape of the house and may be constructed using details of one or a combination of various styles. The Cape Cod house type is typically modest in size, one-and-one-half stories tall and two rooms deep. Other typical features include: steeply pitched gable roofs, large central chimneys, and minimal roof overhangs. A “full cape” is typically five bays wide with a symmetrical façade, a “half cape” is three bays wide with the door at either the far right or far left of the façade, the rare “three quarter cape” is four bays wide. Cape Cod houses are an enduring house type, with older capes dating anywhere from 1680 to 1800. A revival of the form emerged following World War II.

A carpenter is a building tradesperson who specializes in making, finishing, or repairing wooden structures or objects. Further specialization in carpentry may include restoration or preservation carpentry, finish carpentry (for completing the specialty finishes of a building interior), stair-building, and cabinetmaking/furniture making.

A casement window is attached to a frame by one or more hinges. These hinges are typically on one side allowing the window to open vertically like a door. Less commonly the hinges may be hinged at the top or bottom. Casement windows were common during the seventeenth century when they were typically hinged on the side, and opened inward. At that time windows were also frequently covered by functional exterior shutters and the casement sash were filled with diamond panes of leaded glass.

A casing is the wooden trim piece that “frames” the inside or outside opening of a window or door. Most often, and nearly always in the major rooms in a house, interior window and door casings have a decorative molding profile; typically, less important rooms in the house will have a simpler molded, or a plain, flat board, casing. Along with other standard architectural moldings (such as the muntins in a sash window), casings have characteristic profiles that vary in style by period and can be used to ascertain the approximate date of interior or exterior construction or alterations to the house. Likewise, casings often carry a significant paint history for interior and exterior decorative color schemes.

Caulking is the process of sealing joints or seams in various structures and in the building trade is used to describe the application of flexible sealing compounds to close up gaps in buildings and other structures against water, air, dust, or insects. Caulk, the material used for this process, is a ready-mixed compound made with silicone, polyurethane, polysulfide, sylil-terminated polyether, or polyurethane and acrylic sealant. Caulk is typically applied using a caulking gun which extrudes the compound in a bead that can be pressed into cracks and joints and smoothed. Sealing unwanted air leaks around homes is an excellent way to cut home energy costs and decrease the household carbon footprint. There are several types of caulk which are used for different applications based on where they are used on a building and their desired performance (interior versus exterior, paintable versus clear, prevention of water penetration versus air penetration, curing time, etc.)

A chimney is a vertical passage through which fire and gasses may escape from a fireplace, furnace, or flue. They are typically constructed of brick or stone set in mortar. A chimney can be a structural, decorative, or functional part of an old house, and often all three. Maintaining the structure of the chimney ensures its safe operation and protects the house and its occupants from the possibility of a chimney fire, from damage through infiltration of moisture or from animal or insect infestation, and from the leakage of carbon monoxide gases into the house. Working with the intrinsic structure of the chimney and understanding its materials is important to preserving a historic chimney.

Chimney caps: Moisture entering at the top of the chimney may damage masonry and old mortar. Vented chimney caps are an inexpensive way to prevent rainwater from getting into the chimney while still allowing air to circulate. They also prevent squirrels, birds, or other animals from entering a chimney. A stainless steel chimney cap with a top mounted damper will prevent water from entering the chimney and damaging historic mortar and masonry while still allowing air to circulate. If an “invisible” chimney cap is necessary to preserve the historic appearance of a chimney, retractable or pop-up chimney dampers with a low profile when closed are available. Likewise, a “table-top” chimney cap, consisting of a slate or bluestone slab supported above the top of the chimney on upright bricks at the corners, provides a neutral historic appearance while protecting the chimney from water and animals.

A clerestory is a high wall with a band of narrow windows along the very top. Originally, the word clerestory referred to the upper level of a church or cathedral. The clerestory wall usually rises above adjoining roofs so that light can reach the inner space of a large building. For example, factory buildings often used a clerestory for that purpose. Today, clerestory is used to describe any row of windows above eye level that allow light into a space.

Closets and cupboardsin houses were historically rare, primarily because people had few personal goods to store. In the eighteenth century, cupboards were tucked into areas of dead space around chimneys, while linens and clothing were stored in chests or hung on pegs. By the 1830s, some dedicated spaces for storage were being included in houses, such as a china closet adjacent to the dining room. Soon after, floor plans in pattern books, such as A. J. Downing’s books of the 1840s and 1850s, began to include linen closets and small bedroom closets (narrow from front to back because clothing was hung on hooks, not crosswise on hangers). By the end of the nineteenth century, fitted pantries and china closets and small bedroom closets were standard in middle class housing, while in elaborate houses, specialty storage included airing cupboards in attic storage rooms, bedroom closets with built-in bureaus and shelving, and kitchens supported by a battery of pantries, butler’s pantries, sculleries, and larders.

A column is an upright structural support that is round in section. In classical architecture, columns have three parts: a base, shaft, and capital, and have a form that tapers from bottom to top. Columns in the five classical orders have distinct characteristics of increasing complexity, but in historical practice, elements from more than one order are likely to be mixed on a single column; this is especially true for non-architect-designed housing built at the end of the nineteenth century. One of the best sources on repairing historic wood columns is the chapter on “Wood Columns” in the Practical Restoration Reports Compendium, written and published by John Leeke.

Composition: Much of the elaborate late nineteenth and early twentieth-century exterior decorative ornament applied on porches, bays, and window casings, such as swags, garlands, and relief sculpture, is not, despite appearances, carved from wood, but made of composition, a malleable product made of glue, resin, chalk and linseed oil. It was used to easily and cheaply produce complex sculptural ornament for architectural applications. This material is still available today and can be obtained to restore missing architectural elements.

Concrete and cement have two distinct definitions. Concrete is a mixture made of cement, aggregate (usually sand and small stones), and water. Cement is a powdery substance, which when mixed with water, forms a plastic mass that hardens through chemical reaction. Natural cement, first used by the Romans, was made of lime and a pozzolan such as pumice. Advances in material science helped create stronger, faster-setting cements. In 1824, Englishman Joseph Aspdin took out a patent for Portland cement. The cement we know today, made of alumina, silica, lime, iron oxide, and magnesia burned together in a kiln, is still known by this name. It is important to note that Portland cement, particularly Portland cement-based mortar, is not appropriate for repairing or re-pointing historic masonry. Portland cement is usually stronger that the surrounding masonry, meaning that any stress to the masonry will crack or damage the brick or stone rather than the more easily replaceable mortar.

A contractor, or more precisely a general contractor, is an individual or company providing construction services. There are many different building trades people engaged in the repair or construction of homes. Those who work in one specialty area will generally be known by the name of that specialty such as electricians, carpenters, or plumbers, and are usually hired to perform a single job. A general contractor is someone who will undertake a more complex job, in which the contractor may indeed perform work, but which will also involve overseeing the work of sub-contractors (also known as subs) who perform work in their specialties, such as excavation, plumbing, electrical, and finishing, such as plastering. A general contractor contracts with an owner for the construction of an entire project or building and normally hires the sub-contractors who work under contract to the general contractor. Normally, a general contractor is responsible for overseeing the entire project, including obtaining any building permits needed, coordinating building inspections, and ordering and purchasing all supplies. “Design-build” contractors provide design services as well as construction services. They may possess some architectural training but they are not architects.

A corbel is a projecting block, usually made of stone, supporting a beam or other horizontal member. Corbelling is a technique whereby brick or masonry courses are each built out beyond the one below in a series of steps. This was a popular method for creating vaulted ceilings, particularly in churches or cathedrals.

The cornice is the topmost, projecting component of the three elements that make up a classical entablature (architrave, frieze, and cornice). In builder’s parlance, cornice describes any projecting decorative element at the roof line of a building.

Crown molding is a specific type of molding (see below) that runs along the top of an interior wall at the intersection the wall and ceiling, creating a decorative transition between the two.

A cupola is a small and typically domed structure on the top of a building. Cupolas may also crown a larger roof or dome and may be used to provide light or a look-out point. Cupolas are often decorative and are usually are found on large public buildings, though they can occasionally be found on high-style houses.

Dendrochronology is the scientific dating of past events or structures through the study of annual tree-rings. The method has been used to arrive at precise dates for the construction of timber-framed structures, such as New England’s seventeenth-century houses. Using small samples of wood taken from framing members of the house, dates can be determined for the felling of the timber used in the house construction, thereby ascertaining a date before which the house could not have been constructed.

A dentil is a small, square block that is used in a sequence along the lower edge of a cornice. Most elements of the classical orders are believed to derive from functional, structural building components of ancient masonry construction, and dentils are thought to have been the ends of rafters. As one of the easiest architectural details to construct, the “dentilated cornice” (a simple cornice with a row of dentils running below it) is also one of the most frequently used architectural elements in house construction and shows up in houses from 1750 to the present.

Doors, like windows and the casings that frame both, are among the most readily dated features of a historic house. From the seventeenth through the mid-nineteenth century, only a few different styles and types of door construction were used, and while doors are relatively mobile and may be relocated within a house, the style and type of doors present can augment other physical data in the house to “date” its construction. Just as for the early periods, fashions and tastes in interior decoration for the period after 1850 and through the twentieth century can be used to “date” more modern doors as well and quickly identify approximate dates of construction or alteration.

A dormer is a vertical projection in a sloping roof with a roof of its own. A dormer contains an opening, usually a window, allowing light into the second story or attic story of a building. Dormers are found in a variety of shapes, usually defined by their roof structure, such as shed dormers, gable dormers, etc.

Drainage: Water is the enemy of houses and keeping water out of, off of, or away from them is critical to every element of their construction. Any water carried to the ground from downspouts and roof drains needs to be directed away from the house as quickly as possible, while any standing water on the ground around the house must be dispersed or collected in such a way that it does not remain there for long.Proper drainageis built into foundations at the time of construction, but can be compromised by later alterations, changing soil conditions, or the passage of time. For example, the grade around the house can erode, causing rain water to travel back toward the foundation. The area around the foundation must be re-graded so that it slopes away from the foundation. If a rough stone foundation is visible beneath a finished brick or stone upper foundation wall, you can be sure that the grade has eroded as those rough stones were never intended to be seen. Gutters and downspouts are the primary means of getting water away from your house. Keeping gutters clean, and oiling and painting wood gutters regularly will keep them operating properly.

Drywall is a type of interior wall and ceiling material. Panels of drywall are made of gypsum plaster pressed between two thick sheets of paper, then kiln-dried. Also known as sheetrock or wallboard, drywall construction is the most common form of finish wall and ceiling construction used today; it superseded traditional plaster finish techniques beginning in the 1930s. Drywall requires hand-finishing with mesh tape and joint compound at the fasteners and joints, thus requiring less labor and drying time than traditional plastering.

A dutchman is a builder’s term for a piece of wood used to patch a missing or damaged section of wood “invisibly,” i.e., so that the patch piece will not be evident once finished or painted. A dutchman could be required to fill in the location of a missed lock or knob on a reused door, for example, or to repair a section of damaged flooring. The term can be used as a verb, such as to “dutch” a section of damaged woodwork.

An eave is the part of the roof that extends out past the side walls. The edge of the roof is a complex bit of carpentry which includes the soffit (the underside of the eave) and the fascia (the vertical edge of the eave). The fascia and soffits can decay when gutters are not kept free of leaves and debris.

Efflorescence is a white, powdery substance of soluble salts that appear on the face of bricks or concrete as moisture travels through masonry; the salts remain as a residue on the surface once the moisture evaporates. This residue is harmless and can be removed with a stiff brush and water. Efflorescence can be, however, an indication of rising damp, a destructive process where moisture from the ground is drawn up (or wicked) into a masonry wall if the wall is not protected with an intervening layer of impervious material, such as slate, tile, building felt, or metal. An experienced masonry contractor should be consulted to determine the best way to correct rising damp.

Entablature is the classical architectural term for the trim element at the roof line that consists of the architrave, frieze, and cornice. In builder’s terms, these would correspond to the rake, fascia, soffit, and eave.

Electricians install, connect, test, and maintain electrical systems for a variety of purposes, including climate control, security, and communications. Most electricians acquire their skills by completing an apprenticeship program lasting four to five years.

An elevation is any wall on a house and is usually described by its compass orientation (west elevation, for example); the front or primary elevation is the façade.

The façade is the front or primary elevation of a house, and usually contains the main entrance.

A fascia is the upright flat trim board enclosing the end of a rafter or eave.

A fanlight is a semicircular or semi-elliptical window over a doorway or another window. They are a common stylistic element of Federal architecture (commonly dating from around 1780 to 1820) where they are typically found above the main entry door.

Flashing is made of sheet metal or another impervious material. Its purpose is to prevent water from penetrating a building at a joint or angle, generally on the roof. The most common locations for roof flashing are at valleys (where two downward sloping roof planes meet), chimneys, eaves, rakes, ridges, roof-to-wall intersections, and at roof penetrations such as skylights, stovepipes, and vents. Flashing must be durable and rust-resistant. Traditionally, materials such as copper, leaded-coated copper or lead are used for flashing.

A floor plan is an architectural drawing that depicts a two dimensional view of a space, such as a room or building. It is a view of the space from above, as if the space was cut through horizontally at the windowsill level. The floor plan will show the locations of walls, partitions, doors, stairs, washrooms, furniture, dimensions, etc. and is usually drawn to scale. In contrast, an elevation is a view of an interior or exterior wall as if you are standing back, looking directly at the wall. This view of the wall shows items that cannot be clearly shown in plan such as wall moldings, signs, graphics, window sizes, or a finish pattern that is applied on the wall. Interior elevations will show the inside walls of a space; exterior elevations will show the outside walls of a building and again, elevation drawings are typically drawn to scale. The scale used (for example ¼” on the drawing represents 1 foot in real scale) will be noted on the drawing.

Floors: There are three major wood floor types for homeowners of older/historic homes in New England to be aware of: 1) plain-sawn, random-width, face-nailed white or yellow pine boards, which were used from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries; 2) narrow, tongue-and-groove, hardwood, oak and/or maple “strip” flooring, introduced in the late nineteenth century and still used today; and 3) parquet flooring, thin hardwood flooring laid in patterns. Historic wood flooring should be treated gently. It can be protected with butcher’s wax, or if painted, repainted. Polyurethane should be avoided. Historic wood floors should not be sanded.

Folk house: A house built with little consideration for fashion, folk dwellings were built to provide basic shelter and exhibit no distinctive architectural style. Folk building traditions were handed down from generation to generation and show relatively little change over time. The main influences on the design of a folk house are geography and availability of building materials. Examples of folk housing forms or types, are hall-and-parlor houses, I-houses, and shotgun houses.

A foundation is the base of a building or structure, usually below (or partially below) grade that transfers and distributes the weight of the building onto the ground. Traditionally, foundations were made of stone either dry-laid (without mortar) or dressed with mortar. A combination of techniques was frequently used, with dry-laid stones below grade, and above-ground portions that were exposed to weather, laid in full beds of lime mortar. Stone foundations were initially of rubble stone (irregular stones laid in no particular pattern). Improved stone-cutting technologies during the late 1700s led to the use of cut or dressed stone. Particularly popular were granite slabs mounted above field stone cellar walls above grade and backed by bricks (to create sufficient depth to support the building’s sills). The enemy of any foundation is moisture.

An American Foursquare, also sometimes known as a Prairie Box, is a building type that was popular from the mid-1890s through the 1930s. Its boxy, yet roomy design was well suited to small city lots. Typical features include: a simple boxy shape of two and a half stories, simple four-room plans, low-hipped roofs with deep overhangs, large central dormers, and full-width porches with wide steps along the front elevation. Foursquare homes were dressed up with features of various architectural styles, including; Queen Anne (bay windows or gingerbread trim), Mission (stucco siding and roof parapets), Colonial Revival (pediments or porticos) or Craftsman (exposed rafter tails, sloping/battered porch columns, and interior carpentry details such as built-ins and boxed beams.

As a noun, the framing of a house is defined by the elements that make up the structure of a building; those elements which support the sheathing and aesthetic elements. Framing as a verb, is the act of erecting such a structural framework. Timber framing, the oldest form of structure found in New England’s domestic architecture, has evolved from simple post-and-beam construction with mortise-and-tenon joints to standardized platform framing using dimensional lumber. Several framing methods are defined in this primer. Another good source for more information about various framing techniques and the elements that make up a frame is the book Dwelling House Construction by Albert G.H. Dietz.

A frieze is the portion of the Classical Entablature between the cornice (above) and the architrave (below).

A French drain is a shallow linear trench, following the perimeter of the building four to six feet away from the foundation, lined with gravel and occasionally with a perforated plastic pipe that collects and directs water away from the house.

A gable is the upper portion of a wall at the end of a roof or dormer; most often it is triangular.

Historic window glass is a resource worth preserving. The distinctive ripples and bubbles of old glass are a character-defining feature of old houses, so when possible, broken panes should be repaired or replaced in kind. Specialty “restoration” glass is available commercially, but old windows are frequently discarded and can also be salvaged to obtain historic glass panes. Historic glass with no more than four breaks per pane can be repaired by careful re-adhesion of the pieces. Where possible, remove the glass from the sash, clean cracked edges with alcohol, and apply a bonding agent according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Where glass cannot readily be removed from the sash, try injecting the bonding agent along the cracks with a syringe.

A girt is a horizontal beam, used to connect and reinforce vertical posts in a timber frame. In two-story construction, a girt is the horizontal beam at the mid-point of the structure, also helping to support the floor of the second story.

Glazing has several definitions. It is used to describe the portion of a wall that is transparent (usually filled with glass windows or doors). Glazing is also used to describe the material used to seal the transition between glass window panes and the wooden framing, holding the glass panes in place and sealing the joint to prevent water from penetrating the window and protecting the wood below the way paint protects the flat surfaces of a wooden window. The act of glazing is to apply this material to a window. Glazing compound as a material is also known as putty and was traditionally made of a mixture of linseed oil and calcium carbonate (chalk). It hardens slowly over time through a process called oxidation. Today additional additives may be added to this mixture to decrease the drying time.

To remove graffiti from masonry, there are commercially available paint removers that should be safe on both granite and concrete. It is important to follow the manufacturer’s instructions. Prepare a small test patch (at the rear, if possible) just to be certain that there will be no unanticipated reaction with the stone.

Gutters are the first line of defense against water damage to a house. All gutters, regardless of their material, must be cleaned routinely (twice a year or more frequently if a particular gutter collects debris quickly) to allow water to flow away from the building. Clogged gutters can damage elevation materials and structural members as roof water drips down the elevation, settles near the foundation and seeps into the cellar. Careful pruning of surrounding trees will prevent excess debris from clogging gutters and downspouts and impeding water flow. Fitting downspouts with leaders or splash-blocks facilitates the movement of rainwater and snowmelt away from the building’s foundation. Gutters should be pitched toward the downspouts. Wood gutters need periodic treatment, but brushing the interior of wood gutters with a mixture of raw linseed oil and minerals spirits (1:1 ratio) will extend the life of the wood and paint.

HABS/HAER: The Historic American Building Survey (HABS) was created in 1933 under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal to both document America’s rapidly vanishing architectural resources and provide work for unemployed architects, photographers and historians. The program field-tested documentation strategies still used today, such as recording contextual information; it also established quality standards for preservation documentation. The Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) was founded in 1969 for documentation of historic sites and structures related to engineering and industry. Also related is the Historic American Landscape Survey (HALS) founded in October 2000 to document historic landscapes. All the original survey material is held by the Library of Congress.

Half-timbering is a type of construction using a timber-framed structure with the space between framing members filled in with nogging (see below). The structural frame of the building remains visible from the exterior of the building.

HardiePlank is a proprietary name for a relatively new building material used for exterior sheathing and made out of fiber cement board. Meant to imitate wooden clapboards, this product is promoted as a sustainable replacement to wooden clapboards, with lower maintenance costs. James Hardie Building Products also manufactures HardieShingle, HardiePanel, and HardieTrim.

A hipped or hip roof is one that slopes towards the peak from all four sides. The most common hip roof type has a ridge over a portion of the roof that creates two triangular sides and two polygon sides on the roof. The pitch of hipped roofs is often low. Also common with hipped roof construction are large overhanging eaves.

Housecleaning/housekeeping: Several detailed guides with expert advice on cleaning techniques for historic houses are available, including the brief but comprehensive Housekeeping for Historic Homes and House Museums by Melissa M. Heaver, (National Trust for Historic Preservation), Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House by Cheryl Mendelson Scribner, an encyclopedic compendium of all aspects of cleaning and keeping house, and the English National Trust’s authoritative The National Trust Manual of Housekeeping by Sandwith and Stainton, Penguin Books. While both the American and English National Trust books present a curatorial standard for housekeeping, they provide detailed and careful advice on the full range of cleaning questions that can confront an old house owner and will be a handy reference.

HVAC stands for heating, ventilating, and cooling system. HVAC systems are used in buildings to control environmental conditions, meaning temperature, air quality and, to a lesser degree, relative humidity. HVAC systems range from simple to very complex and often have computerized controls to help the system maintain strict temperature and humidity levels.


I to P

From Ice Dams to Purlin

Ice dams form when snow lying against the roof is melted by attic warmth from below rather than from the sun’s warmth from above. If water on the roof cannot drip off the eave because the gutter is blocked by leaves, ice, or snow, the water may re-freeze and push water up under the roof shingles and into the sheathing, soffit, and wall cavity. When ice dams form, water is forced inside and can flow down the interior walls, damaging decorative finishes. Plastic sheeting placed under the attic eaves may catch water and minimize interior damage. Ice dams often form on the north slope of a roof since this slope receives limited sunlight during the winter. Clearing an ice dam is difficult and dangerous as it requires accessing the ice dam and chipping a hole through the overlying blockage to let the water out. There are several ways to prevent or lessen the occurrence of ice dams. Using a special long rake, snow can be raked off the eaves after each major snowfall to keep gutters free of overlying ice and snow. Alternatively, eave flashing, such as a course of roll roofing or rubber membrane ice shield installed under the roofing shingles, can prevent water infiltrating the roof sheathing. Finally, unheated portions of the attic can be air-sealed and then vented to keep household heat from warming the underside of the roof; opening attic windows or adding soffit vents, or vents in the gable ends of the house may be needed to cool the attic sufficiently.

The I-House, a house type or form brought over by colonists from England, was common in English communities of the mid-Atlantic region during the eighteenth century. Defined by its tall, thin profile, common features include: two-story construction; side gable roof orientation; a rectangular, one-room-deep floor plan; and a symmetrical design with a central entry and three to five bays.

Interior woodwork includes all the wooden elements found inside buildings, such as: window and door casings, baseboard, crown molding, chair rails and wainscot, mantels, built-in cupboards and shelves, staircases, railings, balusters, and newel posts. Decorated or embellished with details, interior woodwork elements often define the architectural style of a house (see also Molding). Woodwork is usually painted, stained, or varnished. The following treatment is recommended for cleaning interior woodwork: using a slightly damp cloth (Historic New England uses cloth diapers), wash woodwork with a mild solution of soap and water, then rinse thoroughly, using a slightly damp cloth. If oily grime remains, wipe woodwork with odorless mineral spirits being sure to open windows to ventilate the area well and rinse until dirt is no longer evident on surface of cloth. The woodwork can then be treated with a light coat of wax.

Jacking: A house can be leveled or hydraulically jacked to correct serious settlement problems, such as from the presence of unstable subsoil conditions, to access significant framing members to repair them, or to undertake a substantial construction project, such as installing a new foundation or excavating a basement area. Modifying the level of a historic house is, however, a major and costly effort and should only be done after thorough study and consultation with a structural engineer who can identify the underlying causes of any failures and recommend appropriate solutions. It should be remembered that an old house will have settled over time and should not be expected to be plumb and level. What appear to be “imperfections” in an old house do not necessarily represent a substandard or threatening condition that must be corrected. When consulting a structural engineer, be sure to use an engineer who has worked with old houses previously.

Regardless of the framing type, floors in a house are supported by joists, long timbers that span the distance from an outside wall to a partition or interior wall and support either the floor boards, in the case of timber-framed houses, or the sub-flooring and flooring in braced, balloon, or platform framed houses.

Keys, in building terms, are those portions of the wall or ceiling plaster that have squeezed through the openings in their supporting lath to the backside of the lath and “lock” the plaster surface to the lath. If the keys break, the plaster is no longer properly supported and a bulge or sag develops on the wall or ceiling surface.

Knob and tube wiring is an early system of electrical wiring, introduced in the 1890s and commonly used in houses until the 1920s. Laid in concealed locations, in walls and under floors, the system used porcelain knobs and tubes to carry lightly-insulated wires from the power entry point to switches, outlets, and fuse boxes around the house. Electricity could also be carried throughout the house in a wood molding system where the wiring ran inside a two-part wooden molding channeled out to receive the wires. Like knob and tube, wire molding systems were outlawed by the 1930s as demands for electrical power in the home expanded beyond the carrying capacity of these early transmission systems. Both early systems were replaced by wiring that ran inside rigid or flexible conduit and later by BX cable, in which insulated wire was integral to a continuous armored cable. Romex, a plastic insulated wire, was introduced after 1940. Old houses can have a combination of wiring from several eras, as additional service was added to support a larger and larger number of standard electrical appliances and uses in the house. Modern electrical loads far outstrip the capacity of historic wiring and a licensed electrician or electrical inspector should be hired to thoroughly inspect the wiring to ensure that old wiring is no longer live and to make recommendations on appropriate electrical requirements and systems.

Lath is attached to the framing of interior walls and used as a backing to support plaster walls and ceilings. Wet plaster is pushed through spaces between the pieces of lath to form keys (see above). It should not be confused with lathe, which is a tool used in woodworking. Historically, three types of lath have been used in house construction: 1) eighteenth- and nineteenth-century wood lath, thin strips of wood installed horizontally between major framing elements and with spaces between the strips into which plaster could be pushed; 2) metal lath, a late nineteenth-century innovation whose mesh structure provided a multiplicity of small openings for keying the plaster, and 3) rock lath, or gypsum/plaster board lath, a two-by-four-inch perforated gypsum board introduced in the early twentieth century to which plaster would be keyed.

Lead was among the most venerable of building materials, historically used in roofing, flashing, plumbing, ceramics, and paint and other finishes from ancient times. However, since 1978, the use of lead in paint has been prohibited due to the health problems associated with ingestion of lead dust and fumes, particularly for young children and pregnant women. Adding lead to gasoline was banned in 1986, but the lengthy history of the material, which is durable, malleable, and easily worked in both molten and solid states, means that most old houses contain lead hazards in some form. The presence of lead in a house does not, however, mean that every source of lead in a house must be eliminated. Lead-painted woodwork and windows can be safely abated without damaging character-defining architecture or installing modern replicas. Interim controls for managing the level of risk from lead hazards can be undertaken if abatement is not immediately feasible. A number of useful guides are available to better understand the levels of risk entailed and the appropriate methods for abating lead contamination. The Environmental Protection Agency’s “Protect Your Family from lead in Your Home” also provides a brief overview on the subject.

A light is the individual section of a wood window frame. Each individual piece of glass is called a pane, while the unit containing the lights and panes is a sash, and the larger combination of sashes within a framed unit is a window. A double-hung sash window with two sections of glass on the top and two on the bottom is called a two-over-two sash (commonly abbreviated 2:2); common window types include 1:1, 6:6, 8:8, 12:12, and asymmetrical combinations such as 9:2 (in the Queen Anne style for example), 6:9 and 8:12 (often called “Cottage Style” windows by window manufacturers) and 3:1, (Craftsman style) In each instance, the number refers to the number of lights in each sash section and the first number is the top sash, the second the bottom.

Linoleum, the earliest form of resilient flooring, was invented in 1860 and contains a mixture of linseed oil and cork or sawdust on a canvas or burlap backing. It was widely used until vinyl flooring was introduced in the 1950s, and is suitable for many historic house uses. Linoleum is not a generic name for any resilient floor product and should not be confused with sheet vinyl flooring or vinyl composition tile (VCT); linoleum has been reintroduced in the market in recent years because of its environmentally preferable materials.

A lintel is a horizontal beam spanning the top of a door or window (a lentil, of course, is a legume).

A loggia is a recessed portico, or internal room, with pierced walls open to the elements. Italian in origin, a loggia is often a gallery or corridor at ground level (sometimes higher) along the façade of a building open to the air on one side where it is supported by columns. A loggia is accessed only from the outside, and was commonly used as a place of leisure.

A louver is a window, blind, or shutter with a frame filled with slats (traditionally of wood, though also found today in metal, plastic or fiberglass). These slats are usually oriented horizontally and angled to allow light and air into a building, while keeping out rain, direct sun and noise. The angle of louvers is sometimes adjustable. A jalousie window consists of parallel glass, acrylic, or wooden louvers set in a frame. The louvers are locked together onto a track, so that they may be tilted open and shut in unison, to control airflow through the window and controlled by a crank mechanism. They are commonly found on non-climate controlled porches in mild-weather climates.

Lustron houses are a unique pre-fabricated house type developed by the Lustron Corporation. Founded by inventor Carl Strandlund, following WWII, the creation Lustron houses was a response to the major housing shortage following the war. They were made with steel frames and pre-fabricated steel panels coated with porcelain enamel (the same finish used on bathtubs). Only about 2,500 Lustron homes were constructed between 1948 and 1950, selling for between $8,500 and $9,500. Learn more.

A mansard roof has two distinct slopes on all four sides. The upper portion is hipped, has a very low slope and is often not visible from the ground, while the lower portion is very steeply pitched and is often pierced by dormers. This type of roof got its name from the architect Francois Mansart, who popularized the design in France during the 1600s. In the United States, mansard roofs are generally a component of Second Empire style buildings, popular during the nineteenth century.

A mantel is the framework surrounding a fireplace. More elaborate versions are called a frontispiece or chimneypiece and may include a paneled section above the fireplace called an over-mantel. The woodwork surrounding a seventeenth, eighteenth or early nineteenth-century fireplace is an important indicator of its period of construction.

Masonry is the construction technique whereby individual units are laid in and bound together by mortar. The term also refers to the units themselves. Common materials used in masonry construction are brick, stone (such as marble, granite, travertine, or limestone), concrete block, glass block, and tile. Masonry construction is typically very durable, though dependent on the quality of the mortar used, workmanship, and the pattern in which the units are assembled (also known as the bond pattern in brick construction). To remove moss and mildew from masonry by using a mixture of bleach and warm water (one cup of bleach to one gallon of water). Using a natural or nylon bristle brush and protective eye wear and gloves, wash a manageable area, wait ten minutes and wash again. Rinse the surface with a hose, being careful not to soak any wood adjacent to the masonry.

A miter joint is made by beveling, or cutting at a 45-degree angle, two pieces of material (usually wood) so that when put together, they form a 90-degree angle corner. Miter joints are commonly used in making picture frames or for architectural molding framing decorative elements, such as doorways or windows.

Modular homes are constructed of pre-made parts called modules. Wall panels, trusses, floors, windows, doors, and whole sections of buildings are transported from the factory where they are constructed, to the building site where they are assembled. At the site, the sections are lifted onto an already poured foundation and permanently anchored. Only limited finishing is required to attach the various sections or modules together once they have been set. Modular homes come in multiple designs and can be customized slightly. However, their overall uniform construction and design allows manufacturers to keep costs low.

Moisture in a house derives from both exterior sources, such as rain and snow or power-washing for painting, and interior sources, including cooking, laundering, and bathing. It is estimated that a family of four generates 150-175 gallons of moisture weekly! Ambient household moisture needs to be controlled through actively ventilating kitchens, bathrooms, and laundry areas, either mechanically with stove hoods and ventilation fans, or by opening a window until moisture clears. If windows accumulate condensation, check to make sure the small weep holes at the bottom of the storm windows are present and clear of debris. Basements and attic spaces also accumulate moisture and dampness and should be ventilated; cellar and attic windows should be kept open (and screened) as much as possible. Alternatively, a dehumidifier can be run when humidity levels are high.

Moldings (also often spelled in its British version moulding) are decorative pieces added to structural elements (such as cornices, capitals, bases, door and window jambs, etc.) to introduce aesthetic variation (also see Interior Woodwork). Traditionally of wood, moldings can have profiles that are curved, rectilinear or a combination of the two. Molding profiles in old and historic houses, found on decorative paneling, door and window surrounds and door panels can be an indication of the period of construction for these elements. One book with a nice discussion of various molding profiles is A Building History of Northern New England by James L. Garvin.

Mortar in masonry (also sometimes referred to as pointing) provides the “pores” through which moisture is conveyed through a masonry wall or chimney; it also serves as the “glue” that holds the masonry together. Modern mortar products are harder than historic masonry and may cause damage during the freeze-thaw cycle. The mortar used for re-pointing historic masonry should generally contain no less than two parts hydrated lime to one part Portland cement and between five to seven parts sand as needed to match the color and texture of existing mortar. Specific mortar mixes for specific types and ages of masonry should be developed on a case by case basis. More information.

A mullion is a large vertical framing member (either of wood or stone) that separates multiple windows or panels of glass in a window. Mullions are often confused with muntins (see below), which separate individual panes of glass in a window sash.

A muntin is the small wooden bar that divides a window sash into smaller divisions (which are called “lights”). By contrast, a mullion is a much larger bar, usually one that divides one window from another window in a group or row of windows (windows in groups of two or more are said to be mulled together, for example). Muntin profiles, their size and appearance may be useful as an indication of the period of construction for the window in which they are found. James L. Garvin’s book A Building History of Northern New England contains more information on this topic.

Murals are decorative interior wall paintings, the majority of which were created by itinerant painters from the eighteenth through the mid-nineteenth century. Two of the best-known and documented New England painters were Moses Eaton (1796-after 1880) and Rufus Porter (1792-1884). The inherently fragile nature of decorative paint finishes dictates specialized analysis and treatment. Before taking any steps, hire a professional conservator to assess the condition of the decorative wall paintings; ask the conservator to prepare a report detailing how the paint should be conserved. Do not attempt to clean the surfaces or to infill any lost areas before such a consultation.

Nogging is an infill material (often soft, crudely formed large bricks) found placed between the framing members in the outside walls of pre-nineteenth-century houses and used as a form of insulation.

An oriel window is a small projecting bay window commonly found in Gothic Revival architecture popular between 1840 and 1880.

Outbuildings are those buildings that are associated with a dwelling but separate from it, including barns, garages, carriage barns/houses or stables, and other minor structures such as sheds, privies, spring houses, and a host of agricultural buildings for specific uses, such as granaries, corn cribs, silos, and hen houses, etc. Historically, outbuildings were often more lightly constructed, are more likely to have become obsolete functionally, and typically have been less well maintained than residential structures, and are thus more fragile and easily overlooked than primary dwellings. Nonetheless, they provide important information about how a property was used and evolved over time and should be preserved.

Paint is the traditional coating for interior and exterior protection and decoration of wood structures and of wood trim on masonry structures. Paint is made up of pigments and vehicles (see below) Contrary to the popular belief that the choice of paint colors for historic houses is solely a matter of taste, both paint color and paint usage were governed by the technologies and practices of their day. Using paint schemes according to the available colors and traditional practices of the historical period of the structure in question yields results that are both appropriate and attractive.

A Palladian window is a triple window with an arched fanlight (see above) over the central window. It gets its name from the Renaissance Italian architect Andrea Palladio, whose Palladian architecture was characterized by symmetrical massing, hipped roofs, projecting pedimented central porticos, and classical Roman elements and proportions. Palladian windows became a signature of high-style Federal architecture (which also imitated other elements of Palladian architecture) popular in the United States during the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century. Palladian windows saw a resurgence in popularity during 1880s and into the twentieth century in Colonial Revival homes.

A parapet is the portion of an exterior wall extending above the roof line. Often found on multiple-family dwellings (like three-deckers) and on early twentieth-century apartment buildings, parapets are more decorative than functional but are comprehensively integrated into the roofing system and are vulnerable to weather-related damage, including the buildup of snow and ice.

A pediment is a triangular decorative element whose moldings define the end or front-facing gables on a roof or porch; decorative pediments can also be used to define the top of a window. The profile of a pediment is an indication of not only a building’s architectural style, but also its period of construction.

A pent roof is a small shed roof (single plane) attached to a house just above the first floor windows and doors. It is unsupported by posts or brackets and creates a visual division between the first and second floors of a home. It also sheds water away from the foundation and shades windows from sunlight. Pent roofs are found most commonly on homes built between 1700 and 1830, though few intact examples still exist.

The variety of pests that can damage a historic wooden house is large, especially if the house harbors moisture problems, and includes a long list of organisms that attack wood, such as algae, bacteria, moss, crustaceans, mollusks, fungi, and of course, insects. Many insects are beneficial and should be tolerated within the house, but some are destructive and must be eliminated. Other animal pests, such as rodents, also damage houses by chewing and gnawing as well as spreading disease. A comprehensive guide to managing a range of household and other pests is Common-Sense Pest Control: Least toxic solutions for your home, garden, pets and community, by William Olkowski, Sheila Daar, and Helga Olkowski.

A piazza, sometimes called a veranda (see below), is a covered open space attached to the side or sides of a house.

Pier, depending on context, can have two meanings: the first is a square support or post (a pier is square, while a column is round, for example). The second meaning applies to the organization of a building’s structure: in this instance, a pier is the solid space between the openings in a wall, i.e., the solid mass between the window or door openings.

Pigments and vehicles are the main components used in the manufacture of paint (see also above). The pigment provides the color of the paint while the vehicle is the liquid or paste binding material in which the pigment is carried so that it can be applied to a surface. Traditionally, oil-based paints used linseed oil as the vehicle, and this type of paint can still be found today. However, synthetic resins developed beginning in the 1920s, are the preferred choice found in so-called latex paints used today. Pigments were traditionally made of naturally occurring minerals or metallic ores ground into a powder and added to paint to give it color and opacity. Color preferences were a matter of the availability of various pigments, and changed and grew with their discovery and improvement.

A pilaster is a shallow section of a round column or of a flat pier that is attached to a wall as part of the decorative detailing of the structure.

Platform frame: A variation of the balloon frame (see above), the platform frame (also known as the Western frame) uses standardized dimensional lumber, machine-made nails, and thick sheathing boards to add rigidity to the structure. Sheathing boards cover the outside of a light frame of continuous-length sills, joists, and plates running from side to side and attached to vertical studs. Unlike the balloon frame, each floor is a platform on which vertical studs are erected for that floor only. Each story is therefore a separate entity, allowing additional floors to be added seamlessly and addressing the fire hazard of traditional balloon frames with their long vertical cavities between floors. Platform framing is the standard method used in residential construction today.

Plywood is a manufactured wooden sheathing material (also see sheathing below) comprising thin layers of wood which are glued together. The advantage of plywood in comparison to traditional solid wood sheathing, is its resistance to cracking, shrinking, warping, and its superior strength. Plywood can also be made in wider dimensions than are available in solid wood sheathing.

A porch is an open-sided structure attached to one or more walls of a house. Porches were often designed to protect the entries and to provide covered receiving and living space. Porches were commonly altered or added to homes and may exhibit later architectural details from the rest of the building. A sleeping porch is a similar open-sided structure usually on the second story of a house. Because of its open, breezy yet protected nature, it was often used for sleeping during hot summer months. Porches and sleeping porches are frequently enclosed with more permanent walls and windows to provide additional year-round living space in colder climates.

A porte-cochere is a French term which literally translates to carriage porch. It is a structure over an entry or entry porch that extends over a portion of the driveway. It was intended to be a covered area under which a carriage or automobile could be driven so riders could enter or exit the vehicle protected from the weather. Porte-cocheres are often associated with Colonial Revival architecture.

A post is a supporting structural member, usually square. Posts in timber-framed structures are major elements of the framing, usually running from the sill (at the bottom of a wall) to the plate (at the top of the wall), but posts appear in many guises around a house, as supporting elements for porch railings, porch roofs and porch structures, and in fencing. Often the structural post is encased in a decorative box that hides the utilitarian timber post from view.

Powder post beetles are one of the wood-boring insects that commonly attack wood-framed houses. Monitor framing members for active powder post beetles by vacuuming or dusting off accumulated powder, spreading paper under the framing members, and watching for new deposits of powder. If new accumulations appear, contact an exterminator experienced in historic buildings for recommendations on how to treat the infestation.

Prefabrication, or prefab, is the construction of building elements such as walls, windows, or doors in a factory as opposed to on a building site. Increasingly, prefabrication has come to mean the construction of a greater number of larger elements, so that today entire houses can be constructed in a factory and then shipped to the building site (see modular home above). Prefab can also connote mass produced elements of shoddy quality as opposed to those that are custom or hand-crafted.

Preservation is the most conservative approach to the treatment of buildings. It aims to maintain a structure and all of its elements as they are. Therefore, preservation entails repair of elements rather than replacement, including those elements that may not be original.

Preventative maintenance is a term used by preservationists to describe maintenance work on a building, such as gutter cleaning, exterior painting, applying wood preservative, etc., that prevents deterioration of the building fabric. Preventative maintenance is vital to the overall preservation of historic buildings. After all the best, and most cost effective way to preserve a building is to maintain it.

Putty is a mixture of linseed oil and whiting (washed chalk) used in glazing windows and filling holes in woodwork. It also provides a flexible seal between window panes and the frame in which they sit (see also glazing above).

A purlin is a secondary horizontal framing member used in the construction of roofs. Attached to roof rafters or tTrusses (see below), purlins provide lateral support to the roof (keeping the vertical roof members from being pushed apart, and serving as a structural member to which the roof sheathing and/or roofing is attached.


Q to W

Quoins are dressed stones used as a decorative element at the corner of a house to suggest stacked and rusticated stone work. They may also be made out of brick or wood painted to imitate stone. Quoins were a popular stylistic element found in Georgian and Federal architecture during the eighteenth century.

The Quonset hut, a rare building form, first appeared in the United States during World War II. A Quonset hut is a lightweight prefabricated structure of a galvanized steel frame with a semicircular cross section. The sides were covered in corrugated steel sheets and the ends (with the doors and windows) in plywood. Based on a British design, the name comes from Quonset Point in Davisville, Rhode Island, where they were first manufactured. Quonset huts were designed to provide an all-purpose, lightweight building for the US Navy, one that could be shipped anywhere and assembled without skilled labor. Between 150,000 and 170,000 Quonset huts were manufactured during WWII and the flexible interior space served for a myriad of uses. After the war, the military sold surplus huts to the public, some of which were used for temporary housing.

Rafters are the slanting members of a roof, extending from eaves to the ridge of the roof. In colonial New England, two building traditions are evident in the two types of rafters found in gable roof construction. In coastal New Hampshire and southern Maine, large rafters were spaced seven to eight feet apart and tied together with purlins (see above). Contrastingly, in Connecticut and western Massachusetts, smaller lighter “common rafters” were used. These were spaced more closely together. This type of roofing did not use purlins. A good discussion of these two building traditions is available in James L. Garvin’s book, A Building History of Northern New England.

The rake is the angled slope at the edge of the roof; the rake molding is the molding that follows the edge of the roof slope.

Reconstruction entails the erection of a new building or structure based on one that is historic (and usually no longer standing). Reconstructions may vary in their accuracy, but typically are created based on documentation, such as original architectural drawings or photographs.

Rehabilitation is the process of returning a property to a viable use by repair and alteration. It allows for some changes to be made to the building fabric in order to allow for new or efficient uses, while preserving those features or elements of the property which are historically or architecturally significant. Rehabilitation is the most common treatment used on historic buildings.

Rendering or roughcast: See stucco, below.

Replacement windows: The urge to replace windows in a historic house is compelling, and replacement windows are marketed to homeowners relentlessly as a way to achieve energy savings and ease of use. Replacing historic windows is, however, one of the most destructive modifications that can be made to an old house, and removes a critical, character-defining feature of its design. Beyond the loss of architectural character, there are many practical reasons to resist the window replacement sales pitch: the wood used in modern sash are commercially grown and harvested quickly, making them intrinsically less dense than the old-growth hardwoods of eighteenth through early twentieth century windows; historic windows can be made functional and energy efficient through proper repair and installation of good quality storm windows; historic windows are a “renewable resource” whose individual components can be repaired in part as needed, while replacement windows are a closed system incapable of piecemeal repair (when one part fails, the entire system fails and must be replaced); and replacement windows have a limited lifespan of 15-25 years, while historic windows can be, and have been, kept in place for more than a century. While almost any historic window can be repaired, and there are carpenters who specialize in window repair, if a window needs to be replaced, single-glazed, wood replacement sash in the dimensions that were traditional in New England are still manufactured.

Re-pointing: See mortar, above.

Restoration is the process of repairing and renewing a building so as to bring it back to a specific time period, usually the most significant point in its history. This can mean removing later elements and additions which may have gained significance. It may also entail reconstruction (see above) of elements that are missing, either through documented evidence or by conjecture. Accuracy of restoration efforts vary depending on the amount of documentation. For this reason, restoration is generally not advocated by preservation professionals.

Historically, roofing shingles in New England were made of white pine, oak, or cedar, until the introduction of asphalt shingles at the end of the nineteenth century. Slate was also used to roof houses, and metals, including lead-coated copper, terne (a lead or zinc and tin alloy used to coat steel), and galvanized iron, are another traditional roofing material. More recently, architectural shingles, an asphalt shingle that is textured, colored or shaded, and sometimes laminated to create a three-dimensional appearance, have become popular. Architectural, or dimensional, shingles are often marketed as a superior product because they are thicker but also because they are erroneously believed to have a more “historic” appearance.

Sandblasting is never an appropriate treatment for historic houses, regardless of the material, because it destroys the outer protective weather-resistant surfaces of the material, exposing it to decay. Don’t do it, ever.

Sanding (floors): Late nineteenth- and twentieth-century hardwood strip flooring can be sanded to expose a clean, blemish-free surface for refinishing. It is important to remember that sanding removes a portion of the flooring material and reduces the thickness of the floor boards. Old floors that have been repeatedly sanded and refinished may not be capable of another sanding. Waxing and buffing an old hardwood floor may be sufficient to renew its appearance. Sanding wide-board, softwood floors dating before the 1880s is not recommended. An alternative to sanding is screening the floor, which involves lightly burnishing the floor with a floor sander fitted only with a mesh buffing pad, not sand paper. Screening removes old finishes without eating into the wood and prepares the surface for a new protective finish coat, once the floor has been vacuumed, damp mopped and dried. Generally, polyurethane finishes are historically less appropriate for historic hardwood floors, but if polyurethane is used, a matte or satin finish is preferable to a high gloss. Remember to always open windows and ventilate the area very well when working with floor finishing products as many solvent-based products are extremely flammable. Water-borne polyurethanes are suitable and are odorless and dry quickly.

The term saltbox is used to describe a particular roof shape common during the seventeenth century in New England. Saltbox houses were one-and-a-half to two stories tall with a one-story shed addition off the back. An efficient way to add more space, the rear gable roof plane was simply extended across the shed addition at the rear, creating the “saltbox” shape, so named because of the similarity in shape to wooden lidded boxes used to hold salt. In the south, saltbox houses are also referred to as catslides.

A sash is used to describe the portion of a window consisting of the frame holding the glass panes, as opposed to the window frame proper which holds the sash and fits into the wall. Sash may be fixed or movable, and hung in different configurations such as: sliding or swinging casements, double hung, or single fixed.

Screens and storm windows were first used after the mid-nineteenth century. For much of the twentieth century, wooden storms and screens, hung on the outside frame of windows were common. The aluminum triple-track (or combination) storm window with a movable screen and storm window in one unit did not become standard until the 1960s. Contrary to popular belief, combination storm windows, either painted or factory finished to match the color of the main window, are appropriate and even beneficial for historic houses. In addition to augmenting energy efficiency of the historic window, storm windows provide protection for the original window from the elements, preserving it from wind, water, and sun. An alternative to combination storm windows, which project out beyond the window frame, are storm windows that sit just inside the window frame, closer to the plane of the main window. These “invisible” storm windows are also available with screens. Finally, interior storm windows, which are installed on the inside of the window, are an alternative to exterior storm windows. They do not protect the primary window from weather and generally need to be removed seasonally, but they may be a useful supplement where noise abatement or additional energy efficiency is desirable. Modern window sash generally come with full-length screens. However, while these modern screens (like the old wooden screens) allow the window to be opened to the air at the top and bottom, they often have the visual effect of permanently obscuring the windows behind them, since, unlike historic screens they are rarely taken down seasonally. Thus, it is preferable, if window sashes are replaced or new windows installed, to request that the screen used on the replacement window be a half-screen, covering only the bottom half of the window. Much of the visual appeal of a multi-light sash window comes from the play of light and shadow on the surface and this is lost when a mesh screen covers the window year-round.

Sheathing generally refers to the heavy, rough boards that cover the timber frame of a mid-eighteenth through early-twentieth century house and to which the exterior siding is attached. Today, plywood (see above), introduced in the 1920s, is used for sheathing in house construction. Sheathing, which can be attached to the frame diagonally, but most often runs vertically on the wall, stiffens the frame and provides additional protection against wind and water infiltration.

Sheetrock: See drywall above.

A shed roof, also referred to as a lean-to, is a roof defined by its single face sloping down in one direction. It is generally the least expensive and easiest type of roof to build. For this reason it was often used for sheds (from which it derives its name). Shed roofs are also commonly found on additions, which when combined with a traditional gable roof form a saltbox (see above).

Shellac and varnish are two of the most common protective finishes for interior woodwork. Shellac derives from the secretions of the lac bug and was widely used in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century as a protective finish over unpainted interior woodwork. Varnish is a combination of drying oils and resins, was also commonly used for finishing late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century woodwork. While shellacked finishes can be revived by rubbing them with denatured alcohol, varnish must be stripped chemically. Historically, most interior woodwork was painted. Woodwork should only be stripped to recapture fine details that have been obscured by accumulated paint or to reveal wood intended to have been seen. A good guide on whether and how to strip woodwork is contained in The Old-House Journal Guide to Restoration (ed., Patricia Poore, Dutton Publishing, 1992).

Shingles are a type of exterior sheathing used both on roofs and as a siding material. Shingles may be made out of a number of materials including wood, slate, asphalt, vinyl, or asbestos (note asbestos shingles were common during the early twentieth century but are no longer manufactured).

Shutters are solid, paneled wood window coverings, used either inside or outside, while blinds are the louvered wood window coverings used on the exterior of a house (also see Louver, above). Historically, many New England homes had exterior blinds by early in the nineteenth century and for much of that century, blinds served a number of important functions in the home, but by the early twentieth century, their use had become largely decorative. In the days before electricity allowed lighting and cooling to be augmented mechanically, blinds served to mediate light and air in the house. Blinds were hung on the outside casing of the window, with the louvered slats fixed downward to shed rain to the outside when closed. With the blinds closed, the windows of a house could remain open to circulate air, but the interior would be protected, either from rain, or, in warm months, from the heat of the sun. Light to the interior could be regulated by opening or closing the blinds, both for the use of the occupants and for the protection of fragile interior decorations from fading and damage by sunlight.

Siding is the material used to cover the exterior of a house. Clapboards and shingles are the most common wooden materials used for siding. Many variations in the dimensions and applications of wood siding are possible, including shiplap, tongue-and-groove, drop (or novelty), flushboard (both horizontal and vertical), and board-and-batten. Historically, the materials used for clapboards included cedar, oak, white pine, redwood and Douglas fir. Most clapboards today are of western red cedar. Shingles have historically been produced from white and red cedar and cypress.

Slate is a sedimentary rock that has been metamorphosed into a hard, fine-grained, homogeneous material that is suitable for use in building. Because it cleaves neatly into layers, it can be split into the thin sheets used for roofing shingles. Though among the most durable of roofing materials, some slate is harder than others, and all slate is subject to damage by breakage. A typical roofing failure with historic slate roofs is the failure of the roofing nails with which the slates were attached: iron nails will rust out, causing individual slates to fall. The major costs in repairing a slate roof are not in the materials but in the labor; replacing a slate roof with “artificial” slates, usually made from rubber and plastics, may not be cost-effective, as installation costs can be similar for both products.

A soffit is the underside of an overhanging roof.

Spalling is a word used to describe a form of masonry or brick deterioration in which exterior portions of the material break away from the surface. This type of deterioration has several causes, including when moisture trapped inside the masonry unit expands and contracts due to freeze/thaw cycles, or by salt crystals wicked into walls when dissolved in water. Spalling may also occur as a result of mortar that is harder that the brick or stones set in it. Any movement in the wall (from vibration, thermal expansion or settling) causes failure in the weaker brick or stone instead of the mortar. For this reason, it is critical when re-pointing a historic masonry wall that a soft lime mortar be used. It is easier to re-point a building than to replace failed bricks or stone.

The split-level house became popular in the United States following WWII. Features of the split-level house include: horizontal lines, low-pitched roofs with overhanging eaves, multiple types of exterior wall-cladding, and a two-story block that was partially submerged underground, intercepted at mid-height by a one-story wing, creating three different levels of interior living space.

Stain is an alternative coating material to paint for finishing and protecting exterior siding on a house. Solid-color stain is the typical material used over new siding and in new construction today, and, because it is easier to re-coat than paint and requires less exacting surface preparation, is an appealing alternative for old house owners. However, the use of solid-color stains, which are basically thinned-down paints, may not be compatible on previously-painted wood surfaces.

The stone-ender, common in seventeenth-century Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts, is a rare house type of colonial construction. Stone-enders are typically small, one-and-a-half- or two-story gable-end houses with steeply pitched roofs and massive stone chimneys that form most or all of the north wall of the house. Like more common seventeenth-century houses, stone-enders typically had diamond-paned casement windows and lacked façade symmetry. They rarely had any type of applied ornament with the exception of corniced chimneys.

Storm windows: See screens and storm windows, above.

Stucco is an ancient exterior wall cladding material, but is most often associated with the early twentieth century, when the material was widely used as an exterior finish in several typical early modern house styles, including Tudor Revival, Mission Revival, and Arts and Crafts, or Craftsman, architecture. As a finish material, stucco (also known as rendering or roughcast) was also used in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and may be found in fragments under later alterations. Stucco was often used in the eighteenth through the mid-nineteenth century to imitate masonry. Stucco is applied like plaster on the interior, with successive layers of plaster over a wood or metal lath backing (a scratch coat, a brown coat, and a finish coat or coats). Stucco can be applied as a cladding over a wood-frame structure or over masonry. Early historical stucco was a lime-based product, but in its twentieth century applications, Portland cement became the primary ingredient. Stucco repair should be done by professionals. Note that many stucco repair products are incompatible with historic stucco. A thorough guide to stucco history, maintenance, and repair is The Preservation and Repair of Historic Stucco by Anne Grimmer.

The studs in the house frame are those upright pieces of the framing that run between the sills, at the ground floor framing, girts, the horizontal framing members at the midway point of a two-story house, and the plate, the topmost horizontal framing member at the roof line. Studs, usually spaced sixteen inches apart (or with their centers sixteen inches apart) make up the structure of the wall to which wallboard, or historically, paneling or lath and plaster, is applied.

Termite infestation in New England is more common in the warmer southern portions of the region; most infestations will come from subterranean termites that colonize in moist conditions but termites that infest dry wood are possible in coastal locations. A good guide to diagnosing the presence of termites and treating infestations is Common-Sense Pest Control: Least toxic solutions for your home, garden, pets and community, by William Olkowski, Sheila Daar, and Helga Olkowski (Taunton Press, 1991).

Terracotta is an architectural material that was widely used in commercial buildings at the end of the nineteenth and into the early twentieth century, both as a structural masonry unit for construction, and as exterior cladding. The latter use, which employed terracotta fired with an exterior glaze, allowed for molded and colored decorative treatments to be cast into the masonry unit, creating a highly elaborated, dirt-resistant surface. Use of terracotta in residential architecture is less common and usually confined to decorative uses, such as in fireplace surrounds, or as an accent in masonry buildings.

Terrazzo is a floor finish of the late nineteenth and twentieth century. It uses marble chips embedded in a wet concrete base which is then polished when set. Terazzo is rarely used in residential construction other than in flooring of some Modern houses, and could be present in entries or porches of multi-family buildings.

Tiles (fired clay slabs) are often used as a finish material for floors and walls, providing a durable and decorative finish. Glazed ceramic tiles have been used historically in New England houses since the eighteenth century, when imported English and Dutch tile began to be used to face fireplaces. The use of glazed ceramic tile for walls and fireplaces reached a high point after the mid-nineteenth century, with the production of decorative tiles using transfer-print and encaustic (inlaid) processes to enhance color and patterns. Unglazed and glazed ceramic tile for use on floors came into widespread use in domestic design during the same period. In the twentieth century, glazed ceramic tiles for walls and floors became commonplace in bathrooms and kitchens, promoted for their hygienic as well as decorative properties.

Timber framing was the standard method of constructing the structure of a house from the seventeenth century into the nineteenth century. Consisting of heavy oak, pine, chestnut or spruce timbers hewn or sawn from logs and mortised-and-tenoned together, the timber frame is a signature element of pre-industrial house construction. First Period (1630-1725) timber-framing methods relied on techniques established in the framed houses of sixteenth-century England, but by the early-eighteenth century, timber-framing methods had become normalized around a system that, except for a gradual diminishing in the dimensions of the timbers used, and an increase in the use of mechanically-worked timber, did not change significantly until the introduction of the balloon frame in the mid-nineteenth century (see balloon frame above). The best sources on timber-framing in New England are The Framed Houses of Massachusetts Bay, 1625-1725 by Abbott Lowell Cummings (Harvard University Press, 1979; out of print) and A Building History of Northern New England by James L. Garvin (University Press of New England, 2001). A brief guide to dating and identifying house construction is How Old Is This House? by Hugh Howard (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1989).

A townhouse is an urban domestic building type. Townhouses may be attached row houses or narrow detached structures. Their narrow façades make townhouses ideal for small urban lots. As a building type, townhouses may exhibit a variety of architectural styles and details.

A transom is the bar between the top of a door and the window above it. Transom windows may be rectangular or fan-shaped (see fanlight above). Transoms can be found above both exterior and interior doorways and are practical as well as decorative, allowing more light and adding ventilation into interior spaces.

A truss is composed of structural elements, typically assembled in a triangular form (as the strongest structural shape) to create a rigid framework. Trusses are commonly used in the construction of roofs as well as bridges. Different types of roof trusses include: king-post trusses, queen-post trusses, fan trusses, and gambrel trusses, etc.

Tuck-pointing is a term often used interchangeably with re-pointing or pointing (also see mortar). However, the term is used to describe a specific method of finishing mortar joints developed in the late eighteenth century in England. In an effort to create the impression of a fine joint, bricks were laid in mortar of a matching color and flush with the exterior face of the brick. Then, a thin strip of mortar in a contrasting color (usually white) was laid in the still wet mortar joint. From afar, this gave the impression of more expensive and well-formed brickwork. Another, less sophisticated technique was to draw a thin line (called a tuck), into flush-faced mortar.

Usonian is a term used to describe a group of a group of homes designed by the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright beginning in 1936 during the Great Depression. These designs were intended to control the cost of home construction and create a distinctly American style home that was affordable. Usonian houses are small, one-story structures set on a concrete slab, with no attics, no basements, and little ornamentation. They feature low flat roofs with cantilevered overhangs for passive heating and cooling, radiant heat, open living areas, clerestory windows, and use of inexpensive natural materials.

A valley is formed when two roof planes meet to form a concave angle. This connection is often vulnerable to water penetration and should be bridged with flashing (see above).

A vapor barrier is a waterproof material used to prevent or retard moisture from traveling between an interior and an exterior surface. Vapor barriers are installed on interior walls to protect them from condensation or, in new construction, beneath a concrete slab or underneath siding as a wind and moisture break. A major source of ambient moisture in historic houses is dirt cellar floors: installing a vapor barrier on a dirt cellar floor will reduce moisture throughout the building. Polyethylene sheeting is recommended. Seams should overlap six inches and outside edges should extend six inches up the wall. Placing bricks along the floor at the foundation will secure the vapor barrier. Opening cellar windows, using screens to prevent small animal and insect intrusion, will provide further ventilation during good weather.

Vegetation is a major source of dampness and insect infiltration around any old house. Keeping vegetation cut back at least two feet from building elevations will reduce the likelihood of damage to painted surfaces and wood elements.

A veneer is a thin layer of material adhered to a backing of a less expensive material. For example, wood veneer is a thin layer of wood adhered to a backing (of plywood or a similar material) used to imitate solid wood. Stone veneer is similarly a thin layer of stone covering a layer of a less costly material (such as poured concrete or concrete block) and is intended to imitate solid stone.

Venting: See drainage, moisture, vapor barrier, above.

Veranda: A veranda, sometimes called a piazza, is a covered open space attached to the side or sides of a house.

Vernacular: In architecture, vernacular is used to describe construction without those stylistic elements of design that are used for aesthetic purposes beyond functional requirements. Vernacular architecture is characterized not only by the lack of a specific “style” but also by its use of locally available resources and materials, and building techniques that are part of local tradition (also see folk house above).

Vigas, used in adobe construction, are exposed structural horizontal roof beams (usually round, and of wood) that usually project through the exterior wall.

Vinyl: The use of vinyl and plastics in house construction now goes well beyond the old nemeses of vinyl siding and vinyl replacement windows. Products using vinyl, fiberglass, and many other new materials are now being marketed to old house owners as alternatives to the wood products used historically. Among the many alternative products available to the contractor or homeowner are: wood-plastic composites intended to replace wood decking; cellular polyvinyl chloride (PVC) flat-stock boards to trim houses; molded and extruded fiberglass and PVC products to replace carved or sawn trim pieces, such as brackets, cornices, and capitals; and composite fiber-cement materials that look like clapboards or shingles. As a historic homeowner, you will need to decide if you find these materials appropriate for your old house. Most historic districts do not allow the use of such materials and Historic New England does not recommend them in historic houses.

Windows/sash: Historic wood windows are a superior product to any replacement wood window available on the market today and should be retained and repaired. They can be made energy-efficient through the installation of weather-stripping and a good quality storm window (see replacement windows, above).

Woodwork: See interior woodwork, above.


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