CAUTION – The Wrong Insulation Strategy could Ruin this 120 Year Old House!

Embarking on the journey updating a 120-year-old relocated house.

Foreword by Ian Thompson, Editor

In this short video, we head back in time in more ways than one and look at a 2019 Matt Risinger’s video that explores an old relocated house (120 plus years old house) that has impressively stood the test of time, built entirely without treated timber. Matt explores the unfamiliar concept of a crawl space – a feature uncommon in Australasia, but one that I am keen to incorporate into my next home build for its future-proofing, cost, and maintenance benefits.

The house, in its many years of existence, has never had insulation – a crucial element in modern homes. Matt presents his strategy for retrofitting insulation, a critical step in bringing this century-old house up to current living standards. This project isn’t just about modernization, but also about preserving and celebrating the house’s unique character and history. Let’s now turn it over to Matt to guide us through this fascinating journey of transformation

CAUTION – The Wrong Insulation Strategy could Ruin this 120 Year Old House!

This beautiful 120 year old house was relocated from downtown Austin to Georgetown by local designer Claire Zinnecker. We’ll show you today how to upgrade, insulate, and bring it back to life without ruining the character, foundation, and moving process!

Claire calls this project “Saving Ida” and you can follow her at

More from the 1950’s House that was spray foamed –

Video Transcript:

On the Build Show today, we’re going to be talking about this gorgeous 120-year-old house behind me: how to upgrade it, how to insulate it, how to bring it up to new codes without absolutely ruining the house, including the foundation in the moving process. We’ve got a really fun video for you today. Now we’re at the residual live event today, and we’ve got a couple of other cool things happening for a future video. Let’s get going.

Originally built in 1898 in East Austin, this is the home, or the future home, I should say, of designer Claire’s. Enter Claire, if you don’t know her, an amazingly talented Austin designer. She actually bought this house off of Facebook auction and moved it to this property where we’re a little bit north of Austin, in a place called Georgetown, Texas. Check out this house. I mean, this is all crazy original. Look at this original porch decking.

The house needs a little bit of work in a few areas, but amazingly in really good shape. Original siding, a lot of flaking paint, I’m sure a lot of lead-based paint that’s gonna be needed to deal with. But check this out, it looks like a brand new concrete foundation, but in fact, that house is pier and beam. Let’s go look underneath the house and talk about how she moved it here.

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Okay, so let’s talk about the foundation first. As you can see, pier and beam, very, very typical to 100 plus year-old houses here in Texas. And these are original floor joists. But as you can see, we’ve got a lot of new beams here. This pressed-rated beam is new, and obviously, all these concrete piers are brand new. Now, depending on where you are in Texas, you sometimes have rock, you sometimes have clay soil. I’m told that in this area, we have a lot of rocks. So these piers are pretty straightforward. And you can see the layout is on the beams, and you’ve got a pier about every six to eight feet down here in the basement.

Now, what’s interesting about houses like this, pier and beam, is that you can do a really inexpensive stucco skirt on the outside that makes them look like a slab on grade, but in fact, that’s just stucco. Now, this is a pretty common detail to see. This, you just have some tie wires, and you have some wire lath that’s gotten stuccoed on the outside. And then they’re gonna run all the utilities down here. Now, my understanding is this is gonna be a vented crawlspace. I prefer conditioned crawl spaces, but they can work, which means then we’re probably gonna have to run spray foam insulation down here in the crawlspace and spray it underneath here.

Now, we’ve got old wood here, we’ve got old wood here, that means that we need to be a little cautious because this crawlspace can have some moisture content in the future. Best practice would be to lay a vapor barrier down here and tape it. We’ve got a lot of columns, though, that’s not gonna be an easy process. So if we’re gonna use spray foam, the best way to do that is gonna be closed-cell down here and also encapsulating our joists as well so that they’ll be basically living in the upstairs condition, and we can make sure that our humidity is kept low so that nothing has any rot down here.

I like this is a tall crawlspace. We got at least three, maybe four feet of clearance, so that’s good. If we got any water down here in the future, we wouldn’t be touching any wood. We just have concrete down here, and that’s a nice change. But let’s go upstairs and talk about the house because bringing the house up to modern standards when it comes to HVAC systems and insulation, there are a lot of pitfalls, and we need to be really cautious. There are two ways to do it, so I’ll meet you upstairs.

Alright, now that we’ve seen the crawlspace on the outside, let’s check out the inside of the beautiful old house. It’s crazy that it’s hardly been touched. I mean, look at this. This is the original walls. If you look above me here, see that fabric with the kind of wallpaper hanging down? That’s how houses in Texas were built for many, many years. In fact, I did a 1920s remodel that had a similar interior. No sheetrock back then, so they would shiplap the interior walls, real shiplap, or in this case, not exactly shiplap.

This is more of a decorative piece. But you can see that on top of that, they nailed on this fabric. Here’s a great little piece of it that’s been saved. This got nailed on with real small nails, and then they would wallpaper on top of that, and that’s where the interior walls were. There was no sheetrock back then. It really wasn’t until probably the ’50s or ’60s that houses like this probably got air-conditioning and sheetrock. And in this case, I don’t see any vents in the ceiling. So, what I understand is that this house had window rattlers, which you see all over Texas, even still today. Great way to heat and cool the house, and no insulation in the walls. And that’s really what was the saving grace for this old house, 120 years old. Some minor rot in a few places and obviously, the siding needs scraping paint, but for the most part, it’s in good shape. And it’s because the old house had real wood, old wood, and it had plenty of airflow.

Now, the energy bills were terrible, the insulation was non-existent, the air sealing was non-existent. I mean, I’d have to think that in the summertime, these rooms were hot, and in the wintertime, these rooms were cold. When the wind blew, your bedroom at night got real cold in the wintertime. But at the same token, this 120-year-old house is still in pretty good shape, which begs the question: How do we remodel this and not mess it up? How do we bring this up to modern codes? Right? We’re gonna have to bring this up to our codes here in Texas and get inspections and make sure that we don’t put the house into a position that it’s going to fail. And what I mean by that is if we insulate these walls, so these walls that were leaky and then had plenty of airflow, you know, this window right here, if the wind was blowing and it was raining, would probably get water on the sill. And more than likely with this old wood window, we have water getting into this stud bay right here.

So, what happens if we blow a bunch of insulation into this cavity and blow some in here? What happens is all of a sudden the physics, the thermodynamics change. The rate of drying is gonna be severely slowed down. And remember, my friend David Nicastro says, ‘If it can’t dry, it’s gonna die.’ So, we need to be really cautious.

Now, on this house, there are really two ways, I would say, to remodel it but keep the character. I know that the owners here are really interested in keeping the character of the house, keeping these interior walls that are in place now and these cool ceilings. I’m sure there’s gonna be some cleanup, but kind of keeping that old historic character, making it look like an old house, keeping some of these old floors. Check out these old studs, wow, that’s a true 2×4 right there. But how do we do that and not mess it up? As I mentioned, two ways: we could either unclad the entire inside of the house, meaning take off all of this on the inside, and then do our work from the inside. Or we could take out the cladding on the whole outside of the house and do it from the outside. So, let’s think about that.

Actually, I made a video not too long ago. I’ll link in the description where I talked about how to keep old wood siding and not mess up the house. And on that house, in the stud bays here, where you can see the back of the old wood siding, we put a dimpled mat. The guys at Dörken make a dimpled mat product that you could cut into strips. And it’s basically a plastic egg crate-type material that would go right on the back of that siding. So that you’d have an air gap back there. And we could bring that all the way down to the bottom of the stud bays, all the way to the top of whatever top plates. Not much if it’s played here. But then we could use closed-cell spray foam from the backside of that. And we’d want to make sure we had airflow both at the top and the bottom. Check out that video. We did that on an old 1950s house in Austin that a friend of mine did not too long ago. That’s one method. On this house, the other method would be to go to the outside and do the work. Let’s walk outside and let’s talk about that method.

Alright, so now let’s talk about the outside. And before we do that, let’s look at some of the details here. So, we’ve got original windows, tough shape. You can see the weather’s really there’s been no maintenance. Basically, we’ve got cedar siding, it’s original. Some of it has been painted, you know, in the last thirty years. Some of it’s in tough shape. We’ve got maybe one-foot overhangs on the two sides of the house, but here on this front turn gable, no overhang. And they put, gosh, what do they call that? Brent Hall would know. A kind of a pilaster on top of the two windows to offer a little bit of protection here. But the point is, this house is fairly exposed. We don’t have a lot of overhangs, which means that when it rains, you’re gonna have a lot of water running down this cedar siding.

Now, again, because the cedar siding, if it got wet in the front, it could dry to the front or the back. We had no rot issues. The paint films blew off, but the house is still intact after 120 years. So again, if we add insulation to the inside, we could cause problems. I talked about the dimple mat. My preference would be to actually attack this house from the outside. Now, this may not be the most preservationist way to do this. If you’re in a historic zone, you may not be able to do this. But I would say if this were my house, I would actually pull all this siding, catalog it, save it. Pull all the windows, get them rebuilt and redone and working well in weather strips. And then I would probably re-sheath the whole outside of the house with something like Zip-R or Huber Zip-R, so that we could have a really nice tight envelope. We could even insulate on the outside of that.

We could add a rain screen, which is basically a 1×4 type batten that would be on top of that insulation. And then we can strip all the lead-based paint off here to make sure that we don’t have lead on the outside of the house or flaking down into the ground and attaching this again later on to a new substrate. Now, the key on that, though, is we need airflow behind this siding at the bottom and at the top. So we’re gonna have to create some details that allow us to have airflow behind there. But if we were to take the exterior part and redo it, I think you’re gonna have the best chance of getting this house to be energy-efficient, to be comfortable on the inside, to have good indoor air quality, to be insulated to modern standards, but still maintain the look of this beautiful old house.

If you want to learn more about this house, I’ll put a couple of links to Claire the designer, and I think she’s actually done some stories before on this house. What a beautiful house! She calls it Saving Ida. Super fun to be out here and see this, guys. If you’re not currently subscribed, hit that subscribe button below. We’ve got new content every Tuesday and every Friday. Follow us on Twitter, Instagram. Otherwise, we’ll see you next time on The Build Show.

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