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October 6, 2013
Dirty rotten windows

Gail cleans a window frame in the master bedroom in preparation for reinstalling the windows

We are waving the white flag. We surrender.

We have spent years battling infestations of mice and woodpeckers at our mountain home. We have caulked gaps and set traps. We have hung netting and reflective streamers. Yet every time we come up to visit, we still find dead mice in the traps. We still find new holes in the exterior walls. We are simply not up here often enough to keep the vermin away. Our deterrents are not adequate, and we need a more permanent solution.

We discussed whether to cover the house with aluminum siding, vinyl siding or stucco. We decided on stucco. Given our lack of availability and advancing ages, we have decided not to try this ourselves, given the enormity of the task. Instead, we are going to throw money at the problem and hire a contractor.

(This will be the fifth time we have relied on outside expertise in building our mountain home. We previously jobbed out the cement foundation, the septic system, the plumbing and the drywall on the vaulted ceilings. We have contracted anything that seemed like it would be an irreparable disaster if we screwed it up ourselves.)

At the recommendation of our building inspector, we contacted Greer Stucco, a local company. We heard that Scott Greer would probably be the most expensive, but he would also do the best job. Scott came out to the site several times to discuss how he would handle many of the goofy aspects of our octagonal house. We signed a contract, and Scott will begin work in mid-October.

We have a few preparatory tasks to accomplish before then, such as dismantling the shed we built around the water tank on the side of the house. So on Friday, September 27, we drove up to the mountain for the weekend.

Russell took the lead in dismantling the shed, and finished it within a few hours. With the bulk of the weekend still ahead, he wanted to start rebuilding the gazebo roof before the rainy season starts. Gail asked if we could take a look at some of the windows instead.

The shed to protect the water tank and electrical box, which Gail constructed a year and a half ago, is now gone

In another chronic problem, our windows have leaked ever since they were installed back in 2006. We have since come to learn the cause of the problem. When we first did the installation we used a lot of caulk, but we didn’t use any window flashing. We would need to uninstall the windows, add flashing, and reinstall the windows.

This is especially a problem on the southern-facing windows, where the wind blows the rain almost sideways. These windows are in the master bedroom and our son Joss’ bedroom. The lack of a permanent fix has prevented Gail from being able to finish the hardwood floors in those rooms.

Fortunately, you can now buy self-adhesive window flashing that comes in rolls. We took a trip into town to purchase some, and set to work on Saturday afternoon. We decided to tackle two of the windows in the master bedroom. We would remove the quarter-round trim, unscrew the windows and pull them out. What could possibly go wrong?

Our task for the weekend of September 28: two windows in the master bedroom

The first problem is that these two windows do not overlook a balcony. Instead, they overlook a sheer two-story drop. The second problem is that Gail has been adding caulk continuously for seven years in various attempts to stop the leaks. Even after we removed the quarter-round and screws, the windows would not budge.

In order to reach the windows from the outside, we had to assemble scaffolding (borrowed from our building inspector) and put a ladder on it. With Russell on the outside pushing with entire body weight, and with Gail on the inside armed with crowbars, we finally got the windows out.

Russell, on a ladder, on the scaffolding

We spent the rest of Saturday cleaning the windows and the sills of all of the accumulated caulk, insulation and spray foam. We had to cover the window holes with plastic sheeting so that we wouldn’t freeze that night.

Sunday, we attached the adhesive flashing to the window frames. Reinstalling the windows was easier compared to reinstalling the screens. We have written before about the cheap quality of the vinyl windows supplied by Topsider, our kit home company. The screens are actually slightly larger than the windows, so removing and attaching them is a huge chore.

A page from Russell’s ubiquitous notebook. Per the top two illustrations, our goal is to put flashing around the window frame and the exterior quarter round trim, then push the window up against it. (The bottom illustration was an alternate approach that we rejected.)

The window frame with self-adhesive flashing installed. Note all of the shims: this is how unlevel our walls are!

The two master bedroom windows, finally back in place

Speaking of shims, the stud between the two windows is severely warped. We had to add a bunch of shims to keep things aligned.

We didn’t finish the task and associated clean-up until evening. After a long drive, we didn’t return home to the Bay Area until almost 9:00 pm Sunday night.

The next Friday, October 4, we turned around and drove back up again. With another free weekend, we decided to tackle the last window in the master bedroom. This one overlooked a balcony for easier access, and by now we had two previous windows under our belt. What could possibly go wrong?

Our task for the weekend of October 5: the third window in the master bedroom

The problem was that several years ago, Gail had attempted to solve the leakage problem by nailing a board across the bottom of the window on the outside of the house. When we removed the board, we discovered that the sill plate that the window rested on had pretty much rotted. We would need to replace the entire sill plate before we could attach any adhesive flashing.

The exterior of the master bedroom window.
The sill plate had a lot of wood rot damage.

It took all morning to replace the sill plate. We decided to attach extra flashing, both below and above the sill plate, for extra weatherproofing. It took all afternoon to attach flashing to the window frame and clean the window for reinstallation.

The new sill plate: cut, sanded, varnished and ready for installation

The new sill plate installed. Note that we have added adhesive flashing both above and below the wood.

Gail cleans the window frame of old caulk and spray foam

This time, it was the reinstallation of the window that caused the problem. The addition of two layers of flashing caused the window frame to be slightly smaller than the window. We used a half-hour of sheer brute force to get the window back into place.

The good news is that we got the window installed. The bad news is that we broke two of the vinyl corners of the window getting it installed.

Two corners of the cheap vinyl window broke when we reinstalled it: upper interior (we had to use a shim just to get it past the window frame), and lower exterior

The solution – other than paying a window company for a new window – was to add additional flashing around the exterior of the window. This is unsightly, but it is the only way to make sure the window won’t leak again. After the stucco work is finished, we will try painting the reflective flashing so it is less conspicuous.

The window, finally reinstalled – with extra flashing around the lower edge

On the more positive side, we successfully hooked up the liquid propane line to Gail’s new stove. She now has a working gas burner for the first time! Of course, the positive was balanced by a negative, as yet one more of our metal shutters came crashing down because its gear mechanism broke. All told, the shutters have turned out to be a waste of many tens of thousands of dollars from our original Topsider purchase.

Gail with her now-working cook top

Finally, on the wildlife front, we saw our first tarantula on the property. Apparently, male tarantulas leave their burrows in September looking for females. The locals look forward to tarantula sightings as a sign of the coming winter.

We have now run out of tasks to do before the stucco work starts in another week. The rest of the southern windows – including Joss’ bedroom and everything downstairs – can wait until after the stucco is done. Scott Greer estimates that it will take a total of nine weeks. Gail intends to be up here as much as possible, to oversee the work.

Our first tarantula sighting on the property!

"A spider on the wall indicates success.
Whose success, I cannot guess."
– Pacific Overtures (Stephen Sondheim)


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