At the age of 8, Allan Green began watching “This Old House” with his father, who worked in the building trades. As the years went by, he wondered what it would be like to be part of the “This Old House” crew. Two decades later, in the winter of 2000, his company rewired a home not far from the historic Santa Barbara, Calif., mission.
“It was a really interesting process for many of us in this trade,” said Green, estimator and project manager for Blum and Sons Electric, Carpinteria, Calif. “To finally be on it after watching it for 20 years was a good experience.”
In last month's cover story, we detailed the experiences of three electrical stars on “This Old House,” including Allen Gallant, Lexington, Mass.; Pete Woodbury, Manchester, Mass.; and Paul Kennedy, Methuen, Mass. This month, we cast three more electricians in the spotlight, including Green of Blum and Sons Electric; Sally Bates Hall, Nantucket, Mass.; and Rick Rose, West Palm Beach, Fla.
While Green worked on a Craftsman-style bungalow, Hall and her team of electricians fished wire through horsehair plaster walls in an 1887 Victorian cottage for the 1996 season of “This Old House.” Five years later, Rose transformed a broken-down West Palm Beach, Fla., home into a Mediterranean villa. These three electricians not only became an integral part of “This Old House's 23-year-history, but they also helped transform aging homes into modern masterpieces.
ALLAN GREEN, ESTIMATOR AND PROJECT MANAGER FOR BLUM AND SONS ELECTRIC, CARPINTERIA, CALIF.
Green and his crew rewired a second-floor-addition to a 1907 Craftsman-style bungalow in the middle of Santa Barbara's rainy season.
“When I say rain, I mean rain,” he said. “I'm actually an ex-East Coaster, so most of the time when it rains out here, it doesn't rain all that hard. It's something that we might call a drizzle. This was rain. There was no mistaking it for anything else. It was coming down in bucket loads.”
The team had no choice but to work through the torrential rainstorms.
“This poor woman's house was wide open and there was a TV production schedule to meet, so we needed a lot of rain suits, plastic tarps and changes of clothing,” he said.
Homeowner Jan Winford and her family bought the fixer-upper in 1973, but never got around to renovating it due to a tight budget. When she found out that “This Old House” was coming to Santa Barbara, however, she jumped at the opportunity and wrote them a letter in 1988. Twelve years later, she got a call from the show and hired Steve Crawford, a highly recommended local general contractor, to visit the site. Crawford then invited Blum and Sons Electric to join him on the job.
“He called us because we specialize in fast-track work for the superconductor and biotech industries where we have shutdowns for large facilities,” Green said. “We have about 50 electricians on staff so we can man the job. We are known in the area for getting tough jobs done quickly without impacting owner's schedules.”
Green said the house was in dire need of repairs. The general contractor improved the floor plan layout while Blum and Sons Electric rewired the home, brought everything up to Code and upgraded the electrical service. The contractor also supplied enough power for a small shop in the garage. Green said the house had mainly knob-and-tube wiring, so they upgraded the service from 60A to 200A.
“For the most part, the wiring was in surprisingly good condition,” he said. “It was what we would have expected for that time period of house.”
The company also installed landscape lighting.
“The general contractor changed the entry a lot, which had an effect on us because we provided the step lighting and the decorative post-mounted lighting,” Green said.
Blum and Sons Electric worked on the kitchen upgrades that were required by Code such as appliance circuits. The homeowner had all of her appliances behind barn doors, so the electrical crew did custom installations into the cabinetry.
“To get to the toaster, you would roll up a barn door in the cabinetry,” she said. “When she had cleaned the kitchen and she didn't want to see any of the appliances, she would just roll those barn doors down and it would hide a lot of things.”
Blum and Sons had four electricians working on the house. Despite the fast-paced job, the electricians were able to work fairly normal schedules.
“It wasn't like 14-hour days or anything, but things got really tight when the production crew was coming back in,” he said. “People were laying underground conduit while the concrete was being mixed. They even poured concrete behind us.”
The Blum and Sons electricians completed the work in stages to keep up with the television production schedule. For example, the crew had completely finished and painted one of the bathrooms, and on the other side of the house, it was still rough framing. Green said that everything happened very fast on the job.
“The whole project was very dynamic in nature,” he said. “Given the set of circumstances that we were working with, it worked out well. There was a lot of coordination between the electrical contractor, the general contractor and the owner.”
Blum and Sons Electric worked for three months on the Craftsman-style bungalow. Green said Craftsman-style homes, which are popular in California, often have a lot of wood siding and porches.
“Normally, there's a small porch in the front with a couple of posts with a roof covering the porch,” Green said. “It's almost just what the name implies. It looks like a wood house that a craftsman would build, not a brick house that a mason would build.”
The redwood house repelled termites, he said.
“The construction was old 2×4 rough-cut lumber, not like the 2×4s that we have nowadays,” he said. “It was a solid house.”
Despite the wooden construction, the home was built on a steep and narrow site and perched on a substandard foundation with no footings. The team had to upgrade and replace the foundation to meet the requirements of Zone 4, the highest-risk earthquake area. The new foundation, coupled with a second-floor addition, stretched the homeowner's budget from $200,000 to more than $400,000. Green said the house was basically reduced down to sticks.
“We brought it down until it was just a skeleton,” Green said. “There was no second floor on it when we first got there, but a second floor was added. They added a large master bath and a master bedroom upstairs. We had a three-month construction schedule to basically build a brand new house.”
The homeowner lived in the house, raised her daughter in the house and had to watch while her home was torn apart.
“You have to break a couple eggs to make an omelet,” he said. “She went through the financial roller-coaster of course, and the emotional roller-coaster as well of seeing us destroy her house.”
The finished product, however, turned out amazing, Green said.
“I just drove by there the other day and it still looks wonderful,” he said. “The landscaping is starting to take hold. She seemed to be ecstatic over it.”
SALLY BATES HALL, OWNER OF BATES ELECTRICAL CONTRACTORS INC., NANTUCKET, MASS.
Generations of islanders have preserved the vintage homes on Nantucket, an island east of Martha's Vineyard.
“Nantucket's appeal is that it's more than a place, it's a state of mind,” said Russell Morash, executive producer of ‘This Old House.’ “The quaint, gray-weathered cottages, the fences draped with roses and the small-paned windows that typify the island's architecture create a harmonious look that has a calming effect on those who've left behind a more hectic world in America… as the locals prefer to call the mainland.”
Master Electrician Sally Bates Hall, owner of Bates Electrical Contractors Inc., has rewired many of these historic homes, including an 1887 Victorian cottage for the 1996 season of “This Old House.”
“They called me because it's unusual that a female has her own electrical business,” Hall said. “Our company has a very good reputation. We turn away like 90% of the phone calls that come just because we can't do them all.”
The homeowners hired the team of Nantucket tradespeople to transform the summer cottage into a year-long retreat. Because they wanted to save the plaster walls, Hall and her electricians had to snake a lot of the wires.
“It was a very difficult job to work on, but in the end, it looked great,” Hall said.
The electricians put in a new 200A service, ran wires to the receptacles and light fixtures and put in new switches. The crew didn't save an inch of the old wiring.
“There isn't any old wiring left anywhere in that house,” Hall said. “It was knob-and-tube and BX, the old metal cable. It was just nasty.”
The team pulled out all of the old wiring and then snaked the new wires. Hall said the most daunting challenge was trying to snake a wire from Point A to Point B without ruining the old plaster walls. It takes a lot of expertise and a lot of patience to work in an old house, she said.
“A lot of people look at your bill when you give it to them and they're like, ‘Oh my God,’ because they don't know how hard it is to snake wires. You really have to have a talent and a knack for it. You could be a real hack, get the saws all out and cut a hole in the wall but we try to avoid doing that.”
Hall and her long-time employee, Billy Humphries, used to work together in Cohasset, Mass., a town with virtually no new construction and all older homes. During her five years in Cohasset, she gained a lot of hands-on experience snaking wires. She remembers one particular project — a huge mansion on the harbor in Cohasset — where she worked with balloon framing.
“One day we were trying to snake a wire from the basement to the third floor attic,” Hall said. “I was in the basement snaking the wire up, and my helper was in the attic and then all of a sudden, I felt him grab it. That's when we started jumping up and down and yelling, ‘Yahoo!’”
Hall said it's always easier when the contractors decide to gut the house, but it's not always possible. The crew didn't gut the front room of the Nantucket home because an old gas pipe ran to the chandelier. She had to run a new wire to the light fixture, and the cameramen caught her on tape.
“I had to do seven takes because I was very nervous,” she said. “I was shocked. I thought it would be really easy. I sang ‘Mustang Sally’ at my wedding in front of 250 of my friends, but when I had a camera in front of my face, I was like, “Whoa!”
She said she hadn't eaten lunch that day.
“On the fifth take, I was like, “You know what?,” she said. “I need some water. Give me some water, please?”
Hall said she has never seen herself on “This Old House” because her family doesn't get cable.
“We're not big TV watchers around here,” she said. “I'm dying to see it. I have friends from high school call me out of the blue and they said, ‘I just saw you on This Old House.’ My mother said I looked very nervous.”
She said the camera crew, director and producer all helped her feel at ease.
“I can't say enough great things about them,” she said. “They were like, ‘Sally, we're all friends here. C'mon. Relax.’ I was like, ‘Friends? I hardly know you guys.’ They were very sweet and they really loved me.”
Her late father, who passed away the year that Hall worked on the project, also came by the job site to see his daughter's handiwork.
“My dad was very proud of me,” Hall said. “He would come on the job and check it out, and everyone loved him. He was a really sweet, cute little guy, who was also in the construction business for a long time.”
Hall's father got to witness the transformation of the home from an aging summer cottage to a year-round family home. The construction crew tried to make the 1887 cottage look like it did when it was first built. One of the former homeowners brought in some old photos of the original home so the woodworkers could recreate the entrance.
“The guys are amazing woodworkers and they did a fabulous job,” she said. “It's time-consuming to make the wood like they did in the past. Back in the old days, they built all these gorgeous Victorians and now everyone just tries to get it done fast. It costs more money to do that, but in the end, you get a nice product.”
For example, Hall's company does a lot of electrical work for a Vermont couple, who renovates old homes without digging into the plaster or ripping out any walls.
“Nowadays, everyone wants a great room and big bedrooms, but they like to keep all the small rooms and old light fixtures in their Victorian home,” she said.
Like many of the other Victorians on the island, the Nantucket home's walls were made of horsehair plaster and lathe.
“The old horsehair plaster actually has horsehair in it to keep it together,” she said. “It's like plaster and lathe and has little straps. When you cut in an outlet, you have to find where the slots are. It takes a lot of patience.”
Horsehair plaster is fragile, Hall said.
“On Nantucket, where we have damp and foggy weather, it's not very nice to work with,” she said. The new plaster is much harder and holds up a lot better.”
While Hall prefers working with the new plaster, she would rather work with old light fixtures. The lighting consultant, however, included many modern lights in her design.
“I love old lights and believe that if you're trying to restore an old house, you should put in old light fixtures,” Hall said. “I guess I've hung way too many recessed lights. I like wall sconces and overhead surface-mount lights.”
Bruce Irving, the senior producer for “This Old House,” said the house had been stripped of almost everything original before the team arrived on the project. Hall said the original chandelier was nowhere to be seen.
“I bet that house back in its day had some really gorgeous light fixtures,” Hall said.
Hall has rewired antique lights and now has a small collection at home. Because of her interest in lighting, she often designs a lighting plan for her clients.
“My normal customers can't afford to hire an architect to do the lighting plan, so I do it for them,” she said. “If you go in and lay out a house, it's easier to get the real feel of it.”
While she didn't get to design the lighting on the “This Old House” project, she said she enjoyed the experience of working on the show and meeting some of the finest tradespeople on the island.
“The Nantucket builders and tradespeople are all gentlemen and there to give you a helping hand,” Hall said. “To work on an old house like that and make it look the way it did in the end, you have to know what you're doing and be talented.”
RICK ROSE, MASTER ELECTRICIAN FOR CARPENTER ELECTRIC, WEST PALM BEACH, FLA.
Master Electrician Rick Rose will never forget the camaraderie, professionalism and quality of workmanship on the West Palm Beach project.
“Some jobs I go on, you ask for an electrician, a plumber or a carpenter and they'll say, ‘We'll get there tomorrow,’ Rose said. “It didn't happen on this job. If you were due to be there, you were there. No excuses. It ran like clockwork.”
Rose, who has recently retired from Carpenter Electric of West Palm Beach, Fla., said the two general contractors ran the job on time and within the budget.
“For them to come in on a three-month job is really amazing,” he said. “They worked six days a week and eight, 10 and sometimes 12 hours a day. They were not one to pinch on time. If they needed to get it done, they got it done. Being in the trades for over 30 years, I take my hat off to these two gentlemen.”
The West Palm Beach home, like many of the other historic houses on “This Old House,” was an unpolished gem. Overgrown weeds had taken over the backyard and termites had chiseled away at the rotted lean-to at the rundown property. In the second building, the walls were bowing out and the roof was falling in.
“When my friend first wanted to buy it, I said, ‘Are you out of your mind? Are you sure you really want to do this?,’” Rose said. “Everywhere you went, there was something wrong. There was nothing right.”
The general contractors, as well as the other tradesmen, rolled with the changes, Rose said.
“Sometimes you have unforeseen things when you open the walls,” he said. “On this project, the termites had taken out the beams and the floor joists and we had to replace them. When we took the window out, the only thing holding the window in place was the plaster on the outside wall, and there was no lumber left at all. Little things like that you don't see. It takes a little more time, a little more money and a little more lumber.”
The owner had full trust in the general contractors, Rose said.
“That's highly unusual,” he said. “In a project like this where you have media, movie stars and a lot of high-publicity people, there were no big heads like, ‘Here I am. I'm this and I'm that.’ All of us on the job site were normal people and we just did our thing.”
Each individual trade had their moment of glory, Rose said.
“Mine lasted for about eight minutes,” Rose said. “There's a little film clip walking through the house and I explain the different electrical aspects of rewiring the house and how easy it is to put a box in the wall if you have the right tools.”
Rose used what's called a 3½-in. diamond saw, which is like a regular circular saw, except it's 3 in. in diameter and is on a side grinder. Norm Abram, the master carpenter for “This Old House,” was so impressed with the diamond saw that he even tried it himself.
“That's how I cut my holes so I would maintain security of the wall,” Rose said.
Along with preserving the walls, Rose enjoys working with the homeowners. For the “This Old House” project, the homeowner, who is an interior designer, gave Rose a footprint of the furniture, which made it easier to plan for the wiring.
“He knew the color coordinates, the placement of furniture and exactly where everything was going to go,” he said. “That way I could hide these outlets, make them accessible and work for his furniture.”
Rose met with the homeowner to decide how to meet the demands of the Code, and at the same time, satisfy his client's electrical needs. For example, he customized the location of the receptacles to match the location of the furniture.
“If you have a little table in the center of two windows, you don't want your extension cord run down to the end of the wall to plug in,” he said. “By having the footprint of furniture layout prior to wiring, it makes a world of difference.”
Rose hid all the TV, electrical and phone wires and installed a three-way switch in the den. He also rewired the entire house, from front to back and top to bottom. Throughout the project, he struggled with minimal crawlspace in the attic.
“I could barely crawl from the top to the bottom of the truss and I only weigh 120 pounds,” he said. “We were able to access many of the exterior walls from underneath the house.”
The home had all of its original wiring, which was in extremely poor condition, Rose said.
“There had been a little remodel in the kitchen area and a bathroom by a previous owner, but the majority of the house was still knob-and-tube. I eliminated all the old wiring and service and put in a new 200A panel underground.”
Everything from the telephone wiring to the communications cable, was installed underground, and no wires were exposed anywhere, he said.
“I could not see putting anything overhead with pools and driveways,” he said. “It's ugly so we buried it all. That's my pet peeve. I don't like wires. They're unnecessary. It cleans everything up to put them underground.”
The home, both inside and out, turned out beautifully, Rose said.
“The actual layout, the furniture and the finished product were quite magnificent,” he said. “It had a kitchen to die for with a stainless-steel six-burner gas stove, super-quiet hood fan and hidden washer and dryer in the cabinetry.”
The team added a little dinette area adjoining the kitchen as well as a $35,000 pool.
“There are French doors that open up from the breakfast room,” he said. “You could look straight down into the pool area. It was just gorgeous.”
Rose said the two-bedroom home had a Mediterranean flair.
The man's colors are black and red,” he said. “He has a red throw that you put over you on the couch and a zebra-type carpet under the table. It is modern, but it's old.”
The fireplace, which had a faux-marble finish, was redone in handcut, multicolor, mosaic tile. Each 5½-in. sq in. tile had a traditional Moroccan starburst pattern. Thousands of pieces were also hand cut for the mosaic around the front door arch. Rose faced the challenge of placing a doorbell dead center in the design.
“We only had so many inches to work with,” he said. “I worked with the tile man who was super at getting every piece to line up. When you are doing a pattern, and someone comes in and sticks in a bell or a button, you want that button to line up.”
The homeowner, Rob Thompson, bought the house for $200,000 and invested another $200,000 in the renovation. Rose said Thompson was pleased with the end result.
“If you could see the house, you would fall in love with it,” Rose said. “It's one in a million. You hear those stories, ‘We bought the worst house on the block and fixed it up’ and that's what he did. He brought it back to grandeur.”
TIPS FOR WIRING HISTORIC HOMES
Rewiring vintage houses takes experience, preparation and a lot of patience, said the electrical stars on “This Old House,” a home improvement show with a 23-year run. While Allan Green, Sally Bates Hall and Rick Rose worked on drastically different projects, they had one challenge in common — snaking wires. With a camera crew looking over their shoulders, these electricians managed to preserve the homes' history while updating them to modern electrical codes. Below are their tried-and-true tips for CEE News readers.
“I don't think there is any hard and fast set rule for rewiring an older home. You just need to pay attention, think ahead of what you're doing and try to minimize or eliminate your mistakes so you don't have to go back or reroute something.”
“As an electrician, you should always think safety, bring the existing wiring up to Code when possible and go one step further than you have to. Don't rush, take your time, have a patience and do a great job.”
“Electricians don't have to destroy the walls in order to rewire an older home. If you go in and you beat up the wall with a hammer like most electricians, you lose that portion of history that the homeowners are trying to preserve. I tried to keep the integrity of the surrounding area by just cutting what I needed to get my box in. That was one of the main things that I emphasized when we were wiring the house.”
SANTA BARBARA SNAPSHOT
A 1907 Craftsman-style bungalow in Santa Barbara, Calif., got a facelift in the winter of 2000. The architect and general contractor were challenged with the historic home's sagging foundation, small rooms and awkward floor plan. General Contractor Steve Crawford took one look at the attic and envisioned a small room, but the plans escalated into a full-scale, second-floor master suite.
Here are some of the many affordable Arts-and-Crafts finishes that the “This Old House” team used to change the Santa Barbara house from an aging structure to a well-preserved landmark.
- Reproduction lighting fixtures
Rather than paying a high price for vintage lighting fixtures, the homeowner bought reproduction antique lights from a factory in Portland, Ore.
- Synthetic stone
Real stone can often be cost-prohibitive for homeowners. “This Old House” casted lightweight concrete in molds and then used the “stone” blocks for the retaining walls and exterior columns.
- Simulated leaded glass
A glass artist added zinc strips to factory windows to create the look of handmade leaded glass.
- Colored concrete
The front entryway of the Santa Barbara bungalow underwent a major transformation. To make the concrete seem soft and natural, the crew tinted the concrete a tan color for the walkway and retaining walls.
FAST FACTS ABOUT BLUM AND SONS ELECTRIC
Blum and Sons Electric was founded in 1972 by Josef Blum Sr., who had worked in the electrical trade since the 1940s in Germany. He moved to the United States to start a large union company in Los Angeles and later relocated to Carpinteria, Calif.
Josef's three sons all help with the family business. Wally takes care of the residential work, while Josef Jr. focuses on the commercial and industrial markets. Santa Barbara has a large flower-growing industry, and Josef's third son, John, works with the agricultural customers.
BUILDING BOOM IN NANTUCKET
Master Electrician Sally Bates Hall, who founded her own contracting firm in 1984, said the summer is the busy season for her residential electrical business.
“There are a ton of renovations in Nantucket because there are a lot of beautiful old houses here that need to be rewired,” Hall said.
The tradespeople in Nantucket are faced with a daunting challenge — preserving the historical charm of the vintage homes while updating them to modern codes. Hall said she loves the work, but not the pressure.
“This time of year it's very hard for us,” she said. “You try to do the electrical and the office work and handle all the phone calls. Out here, it's a great trade to be into — any kind of construction.”
New homes are also popping up all over the island, Hall said.
“There is so much building going on out here, it's unbelievable,” Hall said.
To manage the heavy work load, Hall employs a small, but hard-working team of electricians.
“We have a lot of work, and I have a very small crew, and I don't want it to be any bigger,” she said. “I want to have a good handle on my business.”
Her licensed electrician, Billy Humphries, has been with her as long as she's had her master's license, which has been about nine years. She also has two other apprentices, one of which is her husband.
“My husband wasn't an electrician when he met me, but once we got married and he realized how much help I needed, he became one,” she said. “It's hard to find good help out here.”
Despite the slowing economy plaguing the rest of the country, Nantucket's construction industry is still going strong.
“We have not been affected whatsoever,” she said. “The economy is bad, and we haven't even seen any of it because there's a lot of wealthy people out here. I feel very lucky.”