all in it together
This Old House Magazine|Fall 2021
The TOH team gives a fire-damaged triple-decker in Dorchester, MA, some long-overdue updates —and its owner the safer, more comfortable home she and her family deserve
DAN DICLERICO

Walking past the tidy new fence and neat foundation plantings, climbing the refinished concrete steps, and pushing open the old oak entry door, now brightened with high-gloss burgundy paint, Carol Wideman was filled with emotion. It had been nearly two years since the fateful July Fourth night in 2019 when a stray firework that ignited her neighbor’s house caused her home in Dorchester, MA, to catch fire. For many months afterward, Carol wondered whether her family home of four decades—where children were raised and countless memories made—would ever be livable again. “Before This Old House came in, I wasn’t sure we’d be able to put the house back together,” she recalls. Today, the 1905 triple-decker is transformed. “There’s a lot of history in this house,” says Carol. “It’s been a fixture in our family and this community for a long, long time. I’m so happy it will be here for another hundred years or more.”

The project, part of This Old House’s 42nd television season, was a homecoming of sorts for the show as well: The inaugural project house, renovated in 1979, is just up the road. “It was a rush of memories every time I drove by that old Victorian on the corner,” says TOH plumbing and heating expert Richard Trethewey. “Our work back then helped change the neighborhood,” he says of the area, which then suffered from urban blight exacerbated by discriminatory housing practices. “There was a similar goal this time around, not only to get Carol back in her house but also to do our part to keep the community strong and vibrant for years to come.”

A happy ending was hardly guaranteed when TOH home builder Charlie Silva first showed up on the scene. Damaged by fire, smoke, and the water used to extinguish the flames, the building was uninhabitable, leaving Carol and her sister Willie, who shared the first-floor unit with a nephew, displaced in nearby rentals. The original contractor had dropped out of the project, in part because of hardships brought on by the pandemic, from labor shortages to product delays. Then there were the vagaries of the insurance claims process, which put a major crimp in Carol’s budget. For one, the insurance company required that the house be brought fully up to code but did not cover the full cost, so there was little to spend on appliances, fixtures, and other finishes. On top of that, Charlie’s inspection revealed additional problems, including extensive asbestos on the existing ductwork. The house’s worn wood floors and paint-encrusted trim also needed attention.

At least the crew didn’t have to worry about knocking down walls or moving plumbing and electrical lines, since the building’s basic layout would stay the same and much of the demo— such as opening up the third-floor ceiling and walls—had already been done. So they could get right to work restoring the triple-decker and overhauling its major systems, including replacing all the hot and cold water supply lines and drains. TOH master electrician Heath Eastman ended up rewiring the whole house; much of the electrical had been damaged by fire and water, and some remnants of old knob-and-tube were uncovered. Richard worked closely with HVAC contractor James Bouchard on a high-efficiency hydro-air system to deliver separate hot water, heat, and air-conditioning to each level of the house. Ronnette Taylor, a local plumber and fire protection specialist, installed a code-mandated sprinkler system. Insulation followed—mineral wool for the walls and spray foam in the roof.

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