Living in the past a passion for Greens
By Art Simas, Worcester Telegram & Gazette
Father-son team strengthens older homes to be enjoyed by next generation
Even though they’re very old, they’ve got character and charm.
While everything around them whirs in fast-forward speed, they are unmoved by it all – silent sentinels of centuries stoically marking time.
They’re numbers are dwindling now. Many have hidden ailments, broken bones or rotting innards.Others have endured years of neglect and may lilt a little to the left under the pressure of their own weight.
If beauty lies in the beholder, every one of New England’s old houses and barns is precious to Tom and Brad Green.Owners of Colonial Restorations in Brookfield, the Greens are experts at repairing the structural integrity of buildings so that they’ll stand true for a few more centuries.
The father and some team specialize in post and beam houses and barns built before 1880.Tom has been in business for 23 years and Bard joined him in 2000, after graduating from Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT.
Because the Greens want to restore a house to its original time period, “We use traditional joinery and work with the beams,” Tom said. “Usually we use 8 inches by 8 inches oak timbers and we use joinery as much as possible.Sometimes we have to cheat a bit and use metal only because you don’t want to tear the house apart just for one joint.But we usually keep the house 95 percent intact… Our clients want a house that looks its age. If it was built in 1740, then we want it to look 1740.”
When the colonists settled in the 1600s and 1700s, they brought with them their methods of building houses as they had in England, using timber framing or what is known as post and beam construction.
Tom said that in post and beam construction, beams are joined together with mortise and tenon joinery, and large sills are used as a base to the frame to distribute the weight of the structure, usually on an uneven foundation.Often, the sills need to be replaced.
That’s how the business started, Tom said.“About 24 or 25 years ago, I was painting someone’s house and the women asked me if I could replace a section of sill. I told her I’d get back to her the next day. So I looked up at what a sill was, and then told her I could do it, and it wasn’t that bad.”
“I can also educate the owner of the house and suggest types of woods for sills. I’ve done tests on what woods work best. For instance, a bigger house might get a different type of sill that a small house close to the ground.”
Over the years, Colonial Restorations has expanded to include many other types of repairs, such as scarfing and exterior work.
Replacing the beams using traditional joinery is still a challenge.“With the post and beam, if you were off by one-sixteenth of an inch in setting up the joinery, it won’t go together, “ Tom said.“It’s like cabinet making on a big scale.”
In laying out the beams, one can use the scribe rule of the square rule.“In a nutshell, the scribe rule has more to do with working with the older irregular beams,” Tom said.“Today if you buy an 8 by 8 from a good mill, you know you’re going to get an 8 by 8.
But hand-hewn timber will be irregular and very difficult to lay out the joinery, which has to be exact, therefore you’re scribing and using an awl, and doing different ways of measuring.And we lay out one timber at a time.”
Because it must be precise, environmental conditions must be accounted for.For example the house may sag a few degrees or the foundation may be uneven.“When you’re dealing with houses you find out that math is not an exact science,” Tom said.
The Greens have come to appreciate the work of the colonists, especially the early colonists who followed the English methods of construction.In houses built in the late 1600s through the 1700s , Tom said the joinery was much better and the timber used was much better because it was larger from first growth wood.“The colonists were still copying the traditional and much more complicated joinery that was produced in England.Then in the late 1700s, early 1800s, they started to ‘cheat’ and they used much simpler joinery, with almost designed in failure points.
“I can look at an 1850 barn from 300 yards away, and I can tell people what’s wrong with their barn because I know what fails, because of the methods they were using at the time.I theorize that it’s human nature to reduce things to its point of failure.Just look at houses today – they won’t last 200-300 years.”
Brad Green started doing little jobs with his dad when he was 12 and liked the physical nature of the job.But it wasn’t until his senior year at college that he decided to ask his father for a full-time job.“I majored in economics and wanted to try something different, but after four years I realized I wasn’t an office person,” he said.“I like working with my hands and enjoy the satisfaction of looking at an older home and knowing that I can save it from falling down.”Brad updated the website (www.cr1981.com) and does most of the correspondence with clients and home inspectors.
Tom does the estimates for the jobs and works throughout New England.Many times we’re driving two hours to go to a job.But those are the people who want to do the job right and have the money to back it up, he said.Work comes though personal and professional referrals, such as home inspectors’ recommendations to owners and the website itself.“The average project lasts from two to four weeks.Mosts days, “We’ll leave at 6 a.m. and get back at 10 p.m., because I’ll stop and do an estimate on the way back.So that’s 12 to 16 hours. It’s a long day,” he said.
In a recent project in Sharon, one house had little vertical support. In fact, the first thing the new owners did was put up some supports to keep it upright, Tom said.“And the upstairs flooring was so sloped, it was great for the kids who were racing Matchbox cars,” Brad said. “But obviously it wasn’t structurally sound.There was one beam going 30 feet horizontally from the front of the house to the back, a 7 by 7, with no vertical supports.This was a big project.We had to uncover the first floor and replace the beams and put in new joists.
“These building are like part of the people’s family,” Brad said.“So if a building is failing, these people want to have the best material for it.Sometimes they’ll fix it up when they pass it on to their children, it’ll be in the same shape as when they got it.”Tom said owners of homes that are 200 or 300 years old view their role as caretakers or custodians, not as owners of the property.“They don’t own the house, the house owns them.”
“And there aren’t many 1600s left anymore.We worked in one in Manchester-by-the-Sea where the beams were all hand-planed and beaded…And we’ll be working on another one in Reading this fall.
While on the job, Tom and Brad have their own separate tasks.“I’m usually taking a beam out and after, we shore it up together.Brad will working on cutting the new one that will go in.It’s like artwork.It takes about three hours with a beam to turn it out.And it takes about that long for me to remove it.If we can have it cut and removed by noon, we’re in good shape…I can listen to Paul Harvey and then put the beam in,” Tom said.
In some cases where a house sags a few degrees, it is better to let it sag rather than attempt to straighten the frame.“You leave them like that unless you’re going to gut it.If the house has sagged and the homeowner has redone the interior, you’d wreck the whole interior when the house is jacked to even.”
“And that’s another thing,” Tom said. “I can educate an owner and tell them exactly what’s going to happen if they do this or that…It’s a nice little niche that we found.”