The insulating properties of rat poop

I realize it's been about six weeks since I posted photos of our new, er, old farmhouse in Maine. We knew that we would be stripping back the layers of additions, extensions, ad-hoc changes, and eras of personal choices and oddities that didn't quite fit our vision or the context of the house that were the end result of decades of use as a fraternity & then boarding house for the nearby university. 

The eight person hot tub in the first floor bathroom, for example, just didn't scream 'farmhouse' to us. 

But our first problem was where the heck we were going to stay while we made chaos in the house. Our goal was to move out by Thanksgiving. 

At some point in the last decade, the previous owner had moved a dilapidated barn from the center of town, and joined it up with an existing cattle shed and another small outbuilding on the property. The first floor became his workshop, and the upper floors were a mostly-finished 1+ bedroom apartment. 

An apartment right on the property had great appeal to us - a property with an in-law solution was a major plus. And the workshop is about as large & at least as well set up as the barn at the house in Massachusetts was. 

One teensy little problem: the water was shut off to the apartment. It wasn't well insulated. And Maine has a tendency to get a little cold in the winter. And when were we planning on moving in again? Oh. That's right. The end of November. 

(I walked outside the other morning and it was -15 degrees Fahrenheit. Which is almost 40 DEGREES BELOW FREEZING. It hurt to breathe. Why am I living someplace that hurts to breathe? Breathing is kind of important. I want to go on breathing. STOP HURTING MY BREATHING, MAINE.) 

So we backed Itchy & Scratchy up to the barn, ripped the ceiling and walls out to check all the plumbing (and electrical while we were rooting around in there), and sprayed something with an 'R' value approaching 1,000, I think, and moved in the night before Thanksgiving. 

We tossed the second-hand, rusty stove & fridge that had been in the apartment as placeholders and moved the large 6 burner/2-oven Viking range (with griddle) from the house out, along with the larger fridge. Which meant we also had to convert the heating & kitchen appliances to propane from kerosene. We threw the kids up into the loft area to share a bedroom, loaded the house with a few essential bits and bobs, and were set. 

When we cooked our turkey to celebrate the holiday, we had a lot to be thankful for. Everything except a dining table. There's room for a large 4-seater table on the porch off the kitchen. But see my note about the temperatures.  We made do. 

Now we were ready to start on the house. 

The last few weeks, we've mostly been pulling pieces apart to see what we have to work with. See the hot tub and sauna above? You want them? Too bad. We cut them up into pieces. Because that was the only way we could actually remove the thing from the house. It was that big.

In fact, this whole area (which used to be two rooms, the bathroom and mudroom. See where the shovels are leaned up against the wall? That was the mudroom) was a series of lean-tos-turned-house. When we pulled all of this out and looked at what we had left, these rooms were built on 4 different levels. (note the hot tub in its sunken position. That was a knee-shattering-and-mind-boggling 3 feet drop from the floor above.)

When we pulled it all back, we could see some evidence of how it had been put together. The outlines of original exterior windows that had been blocked up. (I'm playing pretty fast & loose with the term "original" here. I'm fairly certain that the dining room that's on the other side of the wall below was added about 50 years after the original house was built). 

We also pulled a ton of granite blocks out of this area. I mean that literally. About 2,000 pounds. Maybe a little more. 

We set them aside for later use. 

Then it was time to strip back the kitchen. Remember our hobbit kitchen? It came with bricks. Lots of bricks. Bricks that didn't match. Bricks that ran in different directions. Bricks held up by sticks. Bricks for no apparent reason. 

We saved the bricks we ripped out as well. 

We turned around and started pulling down more walls, stripping everything back until we could see the original post & beam structure. 

Except it was only partly post & beam. 

I was fascinated by the connection of this part of the house - it used to be a barn. Actually more than one.  The layers and levels made that obvious. The ceiling in the kitchen that had been several inches lower than the area around it was an artifact of construction. The external beams were post & beam construction. The ones used as joists were original 10"x16" beams, notched for joists and support. But they didn't start out there.  They were reclaimed from elsewhere (probably the barn whose stacked-stone foundations were still standing in the backyard). They were twisted up on their sides and toenailed in every couple of feet. 

No wonder the ceiling used to bounce & sway like a trampoline.

We very carefully pulled these beams down and set them aside. And hey! Look! You can see up into the next level now! 

When we got up to the next level and pulled the interior walls down, we found evidence of the fire that had turned up in our pre-buying inspection report. Lots of evidence. Lots and lots of evidence. 

Not the best picture, but all of the upper timbers here are charred. Many of them all the way through. 

There was no smell of ash - the fire had been decades ago. But instead of repairing, whoever addressed it just built up around it. 

Because, you know, building codes were a bit more like 'suggestions' back then, I guess. 

By the way - the piles of dust on the floor? That's what's left of the insulation. Our contractor crew described it as "about 20% insulation, 30% squirrels' nests, and 50% rat poop." 

I wonder what R value rat poop has? 

My favorite part was jacking up the ceiling. My Bride called me one day to tell me. 

"They think we should jack up the dining room ceiling a bit." 

What do you mean a bit? Did it fall down? Holy hell. I'll be right there. 

It was fine. The house was just that out of level, and this secured things better to get let us get at more of the layers. See, right above this floor was where the master bath and rental bathrooms had been put in. And to do that, they had to insert some plumbing. Which they did by cutting large holes through the joists. 

Because that seemed like an ok thing to do? 

They haven't all been unpleasant surprises (thankfully). We pulled down the tired drop ceiling in the back of the barn extension (one of the rental areas), uncertain what to expect. 

We found these. 

Nice, eh? 

Once we opened up the walls, and pulled things back, suddenly, the whole interior of the house had more light, and even more potential. 

See this? This is the look that says "I am going to ignore the pile of rat poop at my feet, and focus on the potential." 


We haven't really begun much construction yet. The work so far has been focused on pulling things out, looking around, and drawing up plans that fit the space. We've bought appliances and started jigsawing them together on paper. Picked out tiles and doors and had innumerable conversations about what kind of floor we will one day have. 

We only managed one real construction task pre-Christmas. We backed a concrete truck up to the house and filled in the hot tub pit.