Out of the Ashes: Restoring a One-of-a Kind House

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Insurance restoration and remodeling of a distinguished 1935 house had burned.

July 01, 2008
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Gutted and rebuilt, the kitchen preserves every detail of its vintage styling.  Photos by Chris Silliman

A phone call one Friday evening launched First Restoration of Asheville, N.C., on a journey far down the road and decades back in time. The message: an alert that Catherine Benson's distinguished 1935 house had burned. Benson carries Chubb insurance and, as a Disaster Kleenup International (DKI) franchisee, First Restoration of Asheville is a preferred contractor for Chubb. To meet DKI rules, First Restoration had to respond to the call within 30 minutes, and get to the disaster site, 42 miles from the office, within an hour. The pressure continued from that night on, as the Fletcher, N.C., insurance repair company worked to return Benson's one-of-a-kind house and the antiques within to their original vintage appearance. The finished project earned a DKI award for excellence in disaster restoration.

"We drop what we're doing and go" when a call like that comes in, says First Restoration President Chris Silliman. Along with First Restoration Emergency Service Manager Dan Throgmorton and an after-hours, on-call crew, he barreled down the road to the house, in a rural area of Tryon, N.C. They pulled into the driveway just after the firefighters left.

The house was devastated. An electrical fire had started in the sunroom that afternoon. The fire department was eight miles away, and by the time the trucks arrived, much damage had been done. Flames had burned through the sunroom roof. Smoke and soot blackened the 2,700-square-foot house and everything in it. What smoke did not destroy in the basement, fire-quenching water did.

Before

Benson was distraught. Formerly a guesthouse for an estate owned by heirs of the Colgate (Colgate Palmolive) family, her house had been "improved" in the 1980s by the previous owner — with no permit and without the involvement of a licensed contractor. On the advice of architects, Benson had many structural repairs done after she bought the house in 2000. "We believed everything had been taken care of," she says ruefully. She was even more upset about her beloved English springer spaniel, who died of smoke inhalation in the blaze.

First Aid

Silliman first needed to reassure Benson. "I was in a traumatic state," she says, "but Chris made me feel so much better. He told me that this is their company's specialty, what they do best. 'You will have a renovated home,' he said. 'A lot of these things can be repaired.'"

First Restoration's crew got to work immediately. "The firemen had taken out the power, and it was pitch dark when we arrived," recalls Throgmorton. "We set up emergency lighting, got out sawhorses and quite a few sheets of plywood." They also sealed the roof and boarded up windows for security. They toured through the house looking for belongings that appeared salvageable. That night and through the weekend, crews photographed, logged and removed items ranging from crystal to electronics to clothing to old paintings and fine furniture. "The whole house had to be packed out," Throgmorton says. Everything went to the First Restoration warehouse and into an ozone chamber for deodorizing.

Before

Faulty wiring in the sunroom sparked a fire that burned through the roof. The new sunroom mirrors the old, though Benson chose windows with less grillwork.

On Monday, Silliman met at the house with Jim Ludlow, the area Chubb adjustor. Ludlow wanted the house to be stripped down to the studs. "This house was full of smoke," Ludlow explains. "To get rid of the odor you have to tear everything out. We don't want to do all [the repair] and still have a smoke smell." Silliman agreed with Ludlow, but was worried. "We had no idea what we might find when the skin came off this old house," he says.

To expedite the project, Ludlow told Silliman to use his Chubb estimate rather than spend time working up a First Restoration estimate. Though Silliman prepared an estimate anyway for comparison, Ludlow's plan worked out well. "Chubb goes the extra mile," explains Silliman, "and wants things to be done right." But because the Benson project required treatment of vintage materials, artwork and antiques that would not appear in standard insurance repair estimating software, Silliman arranged "to give Ludlow actual subcontractor and supplier quotes and to review his estimate before we finalized." Ludlow's final estimate was almost the same as Silliman's — $500 higher. Silliman used DKI's Diamond propriety software system to keep Ludlow posted from day one of the job by uploading progress photos, documents and notations.

Behind Walls

Once past the emergency phase, Chubb gave Benson the option of choosing another company to put her house back together. "It was an easy decision for me" to stay with First Restoration, she says. "I was so pleased with Chris and his capability. They were dedicated, thorough and very caring."

As Silliman feared, his crews had discovered structural problems when they stripped out the house. Undersized, rough-sawn timber composed the ceiling of the balloon frame dwelling. Fortunately, "the building department came out, saw we had an old house, and suggested sandwiching the ceiling joists with ¾-inch plywood" to bring them up to code without dismantling this house of cards, says Silliman. It turned out that the house also had to be rewired completely. Chubb covered both extra costs.

Baring the structure revealed that the stairway to the second floor had no header. "The wall stringer was nailed to the wall with two 2-inch nails," says Silliman. First Restoration dropped down framing, installed a header and built a supporting wall under the stairs; to give the under-stair space practical use, they added a closet.

Before the fire, the house had central heating on the first floor and no air conditioning. First Restoration installed a whole-house heating and air conditioning system that fit within Chubb's replacement price guide.

Match Making

An interior designer, Benson was determined to bring her house and its contents back to their pre-fire appearance. (She was willing to go with standard rather than antique heart pine flooring, though, and windows that didn't have so many hard-to-clean grids.) First Restoration and Benson did extensive research to find products and finish materials that cloned the originals, from hardware to plumbing fixtures to wallpaper. Custom millwork exactly matches the 1935 tongue and groove paneling. New kitchen cabinet doors and knobs are dead ringers for the old ones. Silliman installed an eight-panel entry door that was similar but not identical to the original; Benson preferred the old one, so he refinished it and installed it instead.

First Restoration used 16 specialty subcontractors to bring Benson's home back to as-was condition. One subcontractor ice-blasted the sunroom fireplace to remove the char. A furniture restorer returned her antique pieces, most notably a centuries-old gold inlay French sideboard, to pre-fire grandeur. An art restorer cleaned her paintings and frames, and made her silver service shine again. Specialists reclaimed books, prints, and heirloom architectural drawings.

"So many things are repairable if they know what they are doing," Benson now attests. With a safer, sounder but familiar-looking house and a new English springer spaniel at her feet, Benson feels completely at home. Says Benson: "I ended up with a better house."

2006 Stage of Project
Sept. 15 Demolition complete
Sept. 27 HVAC rough-in complete
Oct. 5 Electrical rough-in complete
Oct. 10 Framing code upgrade
Oct. 13 Wall and floor insulation complete
Nov. 13 Blown-in insulation complete
Nov. 17 Drywall complete
Dec. 1 Ceramic tile installation complete
Dec. 7 Hardwood floor installation complete
Dec. 26 Kitchen cabinets delivered
Dec. 29 Wall paneling installation complete
2007 Stage of Project
Jan. 12 Hardwood floor sanding and finishing complete
Jan. 15 Kitchen appliances delivered
Jan. 17 Interior painting complete
Jan. 31 Exterior painting complete
Feb. 1 Gutter & downspouts complete
Feb. 6 Cleaning of structure & return of contents
Mar. 8 Wallpaper complete
May 4 Punch list completed; project complete
2006 Client Payment Schedule
Oct. 16 $61,172
Oct. 25 $2,015
Nov. 7 $51,219
2007 Client Payment Schedule
Jan. 9 $68,699
Feb. 12 $51,219
Mar. 13 $51,219

 

Products List

Appliances: GE Monogram Cabinets: Wood-Mode Door hardware: Baldwin Fire & security alarm: Tyco Heat pump: Trane Paint: Sherwin-Williams Shingles: CertainTeed Windows: Hurd



Specialists reclaimed Catherine Benson's antique French cabinet, resurfacing the marble top, cleaning the wood and polishing the gold inlay. An art restorer cleaned Benson's paintings and their frames.

The Financials

To recreate the charm of her old house, homeowner Catherine Benson chose products that closely matched what she had before. In several cases, they exceeded the agreed-upon budget Chubb Insurance established. Nevertheless First Restoration of Asheville readily "bent in her direction," says Silliman, to ensure that Benson and her insurance company were happy. "One wrong move and an insurance company will hesitate to call you again."

The pricey products, plus retrimming around windows to correct work by the installer (a subcontractor new to Silliman's company), meant the profit was lower than the company wanted; the company hopes for 32 percent gross profit and gets it 85 percent of the time. "In this business, there are aspects that are hugely profitable and others that we break even on. All that balances out at the end of the year."

Company Snapshot

First Restoration Services of Asheville 
Owners: Chris & Shelley Silliman
Location: Fletcher, N.C.
2007 volume: $2,016,545
Projected 2008 volume: $2,225,000
Web site: www.firstrestorationwnc.com 
Biggest challenge of this project: Remodeling a 1935 house the way it was using 2007 products

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