Home & Garden Columns

When Building, Think Ahead To When Repairs Are Needed

By Jane Powell
Thursday July 03, 2008 - 10:15:00 AM

Recently I have been doing a few repairs to my back porch, which has required taking it apart in places to replace various structural members which are rotting. 

Because I have been doing this carefully in order to reuse some of the visible redwood parts, which are better quality wood than what could be bought now, there has been a good deal of prying, nail-pulling, and judicious use of the reciprocating saw. Oh, and swearing. A great deal of swearing.  

The reason for the swearing is a thing which I have been pondering ever since I first started fixing houses—why do guys (and it’s always guys) use five nails when two would have been sufficient? This leads to further questions, such as: Why is it necessary to toenail a stud on all four sides, making it well-nigh impossible to remove? (Toenailing involves driving nails in at an angle.) If they were going to overbuild the porch, why didn’t they overbuild it with lots of flashing, tar paper, Simpson ties, pressure treated lumber, and sloping so the water would drain off?  

But no, not one of those things are present, just lots of unnecessary nails. Trust me, a six-inch wide cedar shingle does not require three nails. 

I have encountered this phenomenon many times, and have also noted that the uglier the “improvement,” the more likely it is to be overbuilt. Now, I am all in favor of quality workmanship, don’t get me wrong.  

But I am also in favor of thinking ahead to the time when some future person might need to take whatever thing you are building apart, whether to repair it, replace it, or get access to some part of it. Now I realize that often when something is being built, the primary focus is expediency. Time is money and all that rot.  

But how much time would it have taken to turn the bathtub around so that its plumbing could be accessed through the wall in a hallway or closet, instead of leaving the plumbing in an outside wall, where some future owner will be forced to make a choice between removing the ceramic tile inside, or the siding outside, in order to get to the now-leaking plumbing in order to repair it. I’m not even asking for an access panel, just an inside wall.  

And you truly haven’t lived till you’ve pried up a particle board underlayment that has been fastened every four inches all over the entire sheet, not with ring-shank nails, which is bad enough, but with staples. I realize the underlayment isn’t supposed to move, but still. Actually no one has ever offered me a really good explanation as to why the underlayment for resilient flooring has to have so many nails—even underlayment for ceramic tile only has to be fastened every six inches in the field, and I can see why that needs to be rigid.  

Too much thinking ahead must also be why I distrust the new hydronic heating where PEX tubing is embedded in a concrete slab—they can do all the accelerated testing they want, but no one really knows whether or not the tubing will start leaking in 100 years (or less, as the owners of Eichlers with radiant floor heating now know—the metal piping used eventually corroded and now they are having to jackhammer the slabs in order to replace it). So next time you’re building something, give some thought to the poor slob who may have to take it apart someday. Go easy on the nails. 

Explanations of why underlayment requires so damn many nails are welcome at hsedressng@aol.com. 


Jane Powell is the author of several bungalow books and is available for consulting on historic homes, whether or not they have big honkin’ pillars. She can be reached at hsedressng@aol.com.