Cleanly Colonial: Renovating a 20th-Century Farmhouse, Toxin Free

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Rolling meadows and an old oak and hickory forest make Mt. Ayr an idyllic spot.
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The original plantation owners named the 130-acre farm Mt. Ayr in the eighteenth century.
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This simple shed houses the mechanical heart of the house. By siting the furnace here and pumping heat to the house through underground water pipes, the Mellens keep the oil fumes at a distance. The building also houses a generator for power outages and a VACUFLO 460 central vacuum system which, unlike regular vacuum systems, does not recirculate dust and dirt. It operates by drawing air through PVC piping installed in the house walls. Peter and Linda simply plug the vacuum hose into the outlet, and, “Voilà! Instead of blowing the air with all the dust back into the room, the suction takes place outside, away from the house,” Peter says. The system costs about $1,200 to $1,400.
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Wood from a fallen poplar tree was used to make siding. Peter crafted the shutters from three six-inch pieces of tongue-and- groove pine, with braced backs for a tight fit. “Most people buy vinyl shutters, and they usually are not the same width as the window, but for decoration only,” he explains. “These can be closed and will cover the window.”
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Peter and Linda Mellen relax on the classic farmhouse front porch.
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Linda and Peter expanded and enclosed the original verandah to house a new dining room. The generous use of glass and French doors provides healthy sunlight and fresh air nearly year-round. In-floor radiant heating keeps the Italian tile warm and, unlike forced-air heat, doesn’t circulate pollens and dust. Wood finishes are natural or low-VOC.
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Rather than using plywood, which contains petrochemicals, the Mellens had kitchen cabinets crafted from old wainscoting and wood. The kitchen countertop and backsplashes are tile. The walls are fourteen-inch planks found behind the original house walls; they retain the original circular saw marks.
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A vintage wood-burning stove warms the kitchen and living area both aesthetically and practically. It is the heart of the home. “Linda’s joints get cold, and wood heat seems to be the one thing that can really warm her up,” Peter says. “She pulls up a chair, puts her feet on the edge of the oven, and reads.” The couple often cooks on the stove as well. “The taste is dramatically different,” says Peter, “quite extraordinary.”
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In the space that was formerly the attic for the old summer kitchen, the Mellens created a guest bathroom complete with eighteenth-century beams bearing nails made by Thomas Jefferson’s nailery at nearby Monticello.
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Linda and Peter expanded and enclosed the original verandah to house a new dining room. The generous use of glass and French doors provides healthy sunlight and fresh air nearly year-round. In-floor radiant heating keeps the Italian tile warm and, unlike forced-air heat, doesn’t circulate pollens and dust. Wood finishes are natural or low-VOC.

Linda Mellen can tell you exactly when her troubles began–though at the time, those hopeful months of 1992 foretold joy, not pain. Side by side with her new husband, Peter, Linda was building a 3,000-square-foot log house in Massachusetts. It was a house so dramatic that friends teased them about its imposing size; a house so grand, Peter describes it as a palatial Adirondack lodge.

And it was so full of toxic materials that over the next several years it would render Linda deathly ill.

At first, her symptoms were vague, leaving her with a general sense of ill health. Then came the migraines, so debilitating they nearly blinded her. “I thought I had a brain tumor,” she says. Once a runner, Linda could barely walk a few city blocks without feeling faint and dizzy, and visits to the mall left her with earaches.

Doctors couldn’t tell Linda what was wrong with her, and her symptoms worsened. Finally, several years after she first became ill, she visited a doctor in New Mexico who diagnosed her as suffering from multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS). It was the first step on a long road to wellness.

Today, Linda, who also suffers from a chronic autoimmune illness, believes the MCS was triggered by an overdose of toxins from the stains and sealers she and Peter used to finish the log house–a task they completed in the dead of winter with windows and doors firmly shut. “The day after I did the staining, I would be in bed. I couldn’t get up,” she says. “Then when we went to Hawaii in the winter, as soon as I got there, I felt better because I was outdoors all the time.”

The Road to Charlottesville

Linda and Peter sold the log house within a year of building it and moved to New Mexico, but the dry, dusty climate only contributed to Linda’s declining health. The Mellens needed a home in a place wet and green, where the air and water were clean and they could indulge their love of organic gardening. They packed up a U-Haul and headed east. “Just by chance,” recalls Peter, “we came through Charlottesville [Virginia]. We stopped by the side of the road, and Linda was just overwhelmed by the smell of the spring blossoms, the green countryside.”

A year later, in 1997, the Mellens became only the fourth family in more than 200 years to own an eighteenth-century property called Mt. Ayr in Scottsville, just south of Charlottesville. “It was one of the prettiest farms we’d seen,” Linda says. “One-hundred-and-thirty acres of rolling meadows, streams, springs, and old oak and hickory forest.”

Initially, it was unclear if the two-over-two colonial-style farmhouse, built in 1903, could be saved. “Termites had gotten to the bottom floor,” Peter says. “And everything was sagging and falling in.” The couple consulted an engineer, who urged them to save the house. And so they went to work, gutting almost the entire thing. The termites had moved on, and prophylactic methods including borax and a nontoxic Sentricon pest-repellent system were added to the new joists and the home’s new stone and concrete foundation.

A Clean Restoration

By then, Linda knew her sensitivities were triggered primarily by petrochemicals, which meant she had to stay away from anything concocted from a petroleum base: carpet, plywood, particleboard, stains, sealers, glues, even some rugs and upholstery. If it contained formaldehyde, it was bad news.

A local contractor, McRaven Restorations, set up a portable sawmill at the site and cut aging red and white oak from the property for the new ground-level floors. In the kitchen, new cabinets were made from vintage wood and wainscoting, which was sandblasted to remove old lead paint. Found behind the wainscoting, old fourteen-inch planks, an inch thick, with the original saw marks still visible, were used for the kitchen walls. On the second story, the Mellens were able to preserve the original windows and the heart pine floor.

“We had as few finishes as possible,” Peter says. “We wanted to keep a simplicity as if the house had been built 150 years ago.”

Peter and Linda’s decision to reuse old wood was a healthy choice that helps retain the antique home’s character and soul and adds to its structural integrity. “The older wood was from trees that were not farm-grown, so the wood is denser and stronger, usually,” Peter says. The old wood also protects Linda against chemical assault. As Peter points out, new pressure-treated wood often contains arsenic and other toxic chemicals that kill pests and prevent decay. The wood is very potent, Peter says. “It can even be dangerous to saw pressure-treated wood without a mask. The idea is to kill every kind of bug, so they obviously make it pretty intense in terms of its toxic content.”

Adding On

The Mellens also built two additions, one for the master suite; the second, a reworking of the original verandah, became the dining room. Charles Metro, owner of New Age Builders, guided construction on the additions. “Our first step was that we did not use anything that would offgas, which meant no vinyl, no Formica,” he explains. “We used low-VOC paints and sealers. All of the floor coverings are either wood or tile, and all of the interior finishes are wood. One of the cool things we did on the outside was sheathe the building in one-by-sixes, as opposed to plywood, so we didn’t have any glues.”

Metro chose fiberglass insulation over cotton, which he believes may attract mold. Sealed inside the walls, the fiberglass has not caused Linda any problems.

“It’s really difficult to build a house without putting out something [toxic],” Metro says. “But it can be done. The thing I liked about the Mellens is they went as far as we could take them and still stayed within good building procedures. I would say this is probably the cleanest work we’ve ever done.”

No one appreciates the results more than Linda and Peter. Linda’s symptoms have largely subsided, and Peter, who’s suffered low-grade chronic fatigue for years, notices an improvement in his health. Says Linda, “We went traveling, and for the first time I could go into a commercial hotel room and not have any reaction. I think it’s all the years of being away from the chemicals. I feel that living at the farmhouse has given my body an opportunity to rest and heal.”

Living with MCS

What to do when your environment is making you sick?

“Get out of denial,” says Linda Mellen, who suffers from multiple chemical sensitivities and chronic autoimmune illness. “Denial is so strong. You’re doubting what your body is telling you.”

After that, pinpoint the causes and remove them from your life as much as possible. For Linda, that means trying to live like the women who originally inhabited her eighteenth-century farm. “People lived fine for all those years without plywood, without formaldehyde,” she points out. “You really don’t need wall-to-wall carpeting.”