Goodbye Chimneys

Through the window of the Little Yellow House
Through the window of the Little Yellow House

So we cleared out the basement so that Nickel Bros(house lifters) and Ridgewater (contractors) could get a good look and figure out where the beams that will lift the house are going to go.

[UPDATE MARCH 2016: since this post was written, Leanne and I have entered into a contract dispute with Ridgewater Homes. For more details, click here.]

It’s a straight forward lift I’m told but one question is what do we do about the chimneys?

Lifting chimneys is possible, but there will be inevitable cracks and they will need work to make them safe to use again.

Here is what Daryl from Ridgewater said last week:

If you keep the chimney it will cost more to lift and protect it – $2-3k, but it does add to the charm of it. I can talk to my brick guy and see what he says.

Since we’re already beyond our means, our task is to find savings wherever we can. As it turns out, I have an excellent “brick guy” living across the street and I asked him for advice.

Fireplace chimney on the left; furnace chimney on the right.
Fireplace chimney on the left; furnace chimney on the right.

There are two chimneys in the house: one running up the centre of the house and a more decorative one on the northwest corner. The centre chimney once served the sawdust furnace, the kitchen stove and another space-heating stove in the dining room. More recently it exhausted the oil furnace (which is for sale, by the way). The other one serves the fireplace.

The centre chimney can come out because we will not need it with our new HVAC system (whatever that will be), but the other is not such an easy decision because of the fireplace.

I had been assuming that removing the chimney and keeping the fireplace would be relatively easy. Leanne and I have never contemplated removing the fireplace with its simple but beautiful brick work and mantel.

Our wood-burning insert is also for sale!
Our wood-burning insert is also for sale!

Ron, the neighbouring brick guy reminded me that the brickwork is precious because it is made of firebrick that has never been painted. We can thank the fact that the house was rented out for 30-odd years for this. Renters don’t typically remodel places so the fireplace survived the 1970s trend to paint fireplace bricks white.

the fireplace and its Jack Arch
Jack Arch

When he came over last Thursday he pointed out the brick design just above the black insert; each brick was cut into a different parallelogram to create a fan effect and keep the line above straight in what is called a Jack Arch.

“That fireplace could be the four-month-long final project for an apprentice” he said.

Fireplace chimney directly above oil tank. Hmmm...
Fireplace chimney directly above oil tank. Hmmm…

Unfortunately, the fireplace and chimney are of a piece. Looking up from below in the basement, you can see the concrete block that supports the hearth. It extends all the way out under the tile in front of the fireplace. If we remove the chimney, all of of that will come, too.

Concrete box extending out to support the entire hearth
Concrete box extending out to support the entire hearth
This hole was used to empty ashes from the fireplace above. There was a hole in the floor of the fireplace. Much easier than what I had to do this winter!
This hole was used to empty the ashes from the hole in the floor of the fireplace. Much easier than what I had to do this winter!

Our idea to remove the chimney is not just to save a few thousand dollars. Chimneys are holes in the heat envelope of a building. Even with an air-tight unit like ours, the heat from the house radiates through the brick and also up the chimney.

When we blew spray-foam insulation into the exterior walls, there was no way to get at the walls behind the chimney unless we drilled from the inside.

I have been pestering Monte the Energy Advisor for months to send me the infra-red photos he took because they are striking. Taken from the inside looking at the wall above the fireplace, a chimney-shaped red column extended up to the ceiling. That is the heat escaping. It’s not air leakage, just a lot of heat.

Ron is also responsible for Hammond's Community Libraries
Ron is also responsible for Hammond’s Community Libraries

Removing the chimney will allow us to insulate that wall properly and make it that much easier to run the house on next-to-zero energy (and we all want that, don’t we?).

I imagined the chimney could be removed and the wall behind the fireplace rebuilt and insulated but Ron (and also Dave-the-father-in-law) say nope. If the chimney goes, the fireplace goes.

So what can we do?

Here is what Ron told me.

First of all, he glanced up at the chimney in question and pointed out that the section above the roofline has been rebuilt with bricks from the 50s or 60s with no attempt to match the original bricks. Due to the way the mortar was done, however, he could tell that the work was done more recently. These bricks will be “worthless” partly because when we try to remove the mortar from each brick to re-use them it will result in a bunch of broken bricks. The original bricks below the roofline will be reuseable if we’re careful.

When I told him we wanted to keep the fireplace, he suggested the compromise of taking down the chimney to the shoulder (that’s the top of the slanted part half-way up the chimney) and then lifting the rest when the house gets lifted.

In the basement Ron told me that when he was just starting out a lot of people were lifting their homes and the house-lifters would bash two holes in the brick under the chimneys to fit the lifting beams through. His job was to patch up the holes afterwards and “it was impossible to make it look nice.”

That was when he offered to remove the bricks necessary for Nickel Bros. to fit their beams through and make the final result would look much better. Standing in the basement looking at the underbelly of the chimney with him I did a little dance of joy in my head but tried to retain a respectable expression on my face. I suspect that a significant chunk of the extra cost of lifting a chimney comes from just that kind of precision work.

Before we were done our tour of the brickwork in Hammond Forever House, Ron had not only offered to make nice, patchable holes for the house-lifters, but also to lend us scaffolding and a special roof-ladder he has.

I learned a few other things, too.

1. To stay safe, don’t drop bricks from the scaffolding, remove them and carry them down later.

2. After we remove the wood burning insert and steel chimney liner, we should jam the flue open firmly before we start removing bricks from the top because pieces will fall down the chimney and if the flue is not open, it will be impossible to open it later with all the debris on top of it.

3.The fireplace opening will have to be covered with plywood to stop the debris from falling into the living room.

On his way out he told me that the centre chimney was re-done sometime in the 1970s, but its bricks “from the roof on down” will be a perfect match for the outside chimney.

Of course, we would like to replace the chimney immediately because it is integral to the heritage of the house.

That would be expensive, however, and this is not a story of how the other half lives. It is not a tale of a ┬árich family renovating and preserving their property for the common folk to enjoy vicariously and muse, “if only we were so lucky.”

No, this is the story of a middle class family who were tired of waiting for the money to come and decided to go ahead and do what is right for their family, their community, and their planet. With luck, we can be a catalyst for others. As such, there are things that are going to have to wait and one of them is getting our chimney back.

For perhaps ten years we will have half a chimney and people will drive by and shake their heads. “What a travesty,” they will say.

But you will understand, won’t you gentle reader? You will have read the story of Hammond Forever House.

Published by

James Rowley

James lives in Maple Ridge, BC, Canada with his amazing partner, Leanne Koehn, and their two amazing kids in their beautiful house. He studied Science and English Literature at the University of British Columbia where he met Leanne. He also studied acting for a while at Studio 58 in Vancouver. He works as a teacher of English and curriculum writer for new Canadians.

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