Photo Pool Challenge: Mechanicals Vs. Original Design


Last week, we got some really depressing news from the plumber. We have to repipe our third-floor bathroom, and the only way to do it is to drop the the ceiling of the second-floor bathroom (our bathroom), which means tearing out an original window that provides ventilation and access to the air shaft and main stack. Well, we don’t want to do it. But we don’t want to live with the sewer gas smells coming from the three leaks in the lead piping either. The only thing we can think of that might save this situation is to drop the floor of the air shaft into the closet below, so we can reinstall the original window a few inches lower. Crossing our fingers that we’ll discover there are no joists in the way there. (In the photo above, you can see the window, and the hole we cut in the ceiling so the plumbers could inspect.) Have you ever encountered a similar problem, where some urgent mechanical or structural repair necessitated destroying an original architectural or design feature of your house? What did you do? Please post any photos here.

23 Comment

  • I don’t get why you have to drop the ceiling. If it’s a repair/replacement, why can’t it be in the same place? That being said, either way, you would have to carefully remove the window and molding so as not to damage it while the work is being done. If you must move it, looks like it would make a nice medicine cabinet! :)

  • did they say why you’d have to drop the ceiling? i suspect the plumber is just trying to make his job easier.

  • The space between the ceiling and the floor in our house is very shallow, as it no doubt is in many houses of this era. Cast iron (and PVC too, although that went out of code in March) takes up more room than lead pipes. Specifically, a new cast iron trap for the tub will probably stick out past the ceiling, and if we were to repipe the sink waste, the plumbers would want to go under the joists rather than on top of them, which would of course mean going beneath the ceiling.

  • Why not let the pipes hang below the ceiling? Paint them silver and treat them as funky-chic decoration. This has been done in many many places.

  • I would try to make your plumber replace the pipes without dropping the ceiling. If that’s truly impossible, then I would lower the window and air shaft. If that’s structurally impossible I would save the window frame and trim and remount them on top of the wall. You could replace the glass panes with mirrors – essentially a false window. At least you would be preserving the look if not the function.

  • I would try to make your plumber replace the pipes without dropping the ceiling. If that’s truly impossible, then I would lower the window and air shaft. If that’s structurally impossible I would save the window frame and trim and remount them on top of the wall. You could replace the glass panes with mirrors – essentially a false window. At least you would be preserving the look if not the function.

  • From your pick, that looks like a 4″ iron stack. Are you sure you don’t have an iron stack with lead drain bends?

  • From your pick, that looks like a 4″ iron stack. Are you sure you don’t have an iron stack with lead drain bends?

  • Disregard, I see what you are saying. However, you could always sister the joists on the floor above to raise the floor height, if absolutely needed to accomodate the new drain rather than drop the ceiling. There are very few situations that would absolutely require removal of an architectural feature. Sounds like you may be loathe to undertake the work needed to save that feature?

  • Hi, Cate,

    Tough call. Wish we had crowdsourced when our contractor was pushing us to take the easy route. Here is one idea. It looks like the window casing is at least 5″ wide. Wood? Plaster? How much more space doees the plumber really need? Would 2-3″ do it? Why not drop a ceiling about 2-3″ and use a combo of smaller casings to approximate the design of the innermost 2-3″ of the casing and leave the window where it is? We opened up a double-wide doorframe in our LR where we had very thick casings around the windows and the sliding doors to the DR. Our contractor — who was not at all high end in design — managed to assemble about trhee stock casings and pretty much match what we had framing the sliding doors.

    Second idea — can you repurpose the original window someplace else? A pass through? If you are semi-attached — a punchthrough for a new side window? Then do a new smaller window and smaller casing to accommodate the ceiling? The drop ceiling might also let you have some lighting fun in that bathroom.

    But if you have to pick your fights for preservation, I would fight harder in LR, BR etc. than bathroom. You want functional bathrooms with no plumbing problems.

  • Hi, Cate,

    Tough call. Wish we had crowdsourced when our contractor was pushing us to take the easy route. Here is one idea. It looks like the window casing is at least 5″ wide. Wood? Plaster? How much more space doees the plumber really need? Would 2-3″ do it? Why not drop a ceiling about 2-3″ and use a combo of smaller casings to approximate the design of the innermost 2-3″ of the casing and leave the window where it is? We opened up a double-wide doorframe in our LR where we had very thick casings around the windows and the sliding doors to the DR. Our contractor — who was not at all high end in design — managed to assemble about trhee stock casings and pretty much match what we had framing the sliding doors.

    Second idea — can you repurpose the original window someplace else? A pass through? If you are semi-attached — a punchthrough for a new side window? Then do a new smaller window and smaller casing to accommodate the ceiling? The drop ceiling might also let you have some lighting fun in that bathroom.

    But if you have to pick your fights for preservation, I would fight harder in LR, BR etc. than bathroom. You want functional bathrooms with no plumbing problems.

  • Why not drop the ceiling but stop it a few inches short & terminate up into old ceiling – then either reconfigure existing window or get a new window to swing out? Much cheaper than lowering window as opening the wall inside and out is potential for disaster.

  • Cate, we had a similar issue recently and our plumber said that we had to do the same thing – no talking about it, no exchange of ideas, no inventive ways to get around this – just “you have to have pipes hanging down into the parlor.” I reminded my contractor why I hired him and he figured out a way to do this without having to put layers of sheetrock boxes on my parlor ceiling. I would say that in the majority of the cases, there are alternative ways of handling this obstacle if you have some smart people who know houses coming up with solutions – but if you leave it to the plumber, he will be too lazy, too unimaginative, or in too much of a hurry to finish the job and get paid to think of them.

  • These ideas are amazing, I hadn’t thought of half of them. Especially the idea of using the window over a wall with a mirror in the panes. Thank you! Seward, I am laughing so hard reading your post. “I reminded my contractor why I hired him and he figured out a way to do this without having to put layers of sheetrock boxes on my parlor ceiling.” I mean, really, layers of sheetrock boxes on the parlor ceiling! Unbelievable! What are they thinking? I’ve seen a million Bushwick bathrooms just like ours (4×6) and they all had the dreadful closed-up air shaft with the fan. One had a little sheetrock box right under the toilet — it looked completely ridiculous, as you can imagine. Seward, do you have any idea what solution your contractor worked out? I look forward to showing everyone the finished result. It could take a while. We have to replaster (for the third time!), finish putting back the molding in the rest of the bathroom (combo of new and old), and reglaze the sink.

  • As an architect, when renovating my house I tortured the contractors by figuring out ways for them to install plumbing and central air without destroying original details and dropping ceilings wherever they wanted. However, liking modern plumbing, I did identify a few places where the original space was not so “special”, kind of like your bathroom, to route services and lower ceilings. We even moved mouldings and doors to the new walls. The window may be original, but how useful is it? It is already above your shower curtain. Is this an old tenement building with an air shaft? Screwing with the exterior walls can cause all kinds of problems, and expense. It seems that the wall adjacent to the window may have been added at some previous time anyway, probably to create this bathroom. You can get much more effective ventilation mechanically. I agree with the comments that suggest repurposing it.

  • As an architect, when renovating my house I tortured the contractors by figuring out ways for them to install plumbing and central air without destroying original details and dropping ceilings wherever they wanted. However, liking modern plumbing, I did identify a few places where the original space was not so “special”, kind of like your bathroom, to route services and lower ceilings. We even moved mouldings and doors to the new walls. The window may be original, but how useful is it? It is already above your shower curtain. Is this an old tenement building with an air shaft? Screwing with the exterior walls can cause all kinds of problems, and expense. It seems that the wall adjacent to the window may have been added at some previous time anyway, probably to create this bathroom. You can get much more effective ventilation mechanically. I agree with the comments that suggest repurposing it.

  • The reason the beams may appear to be shallow is because the floor above
    most likely has cement pockets, if the bathroom above has the original floor it is likely to have 3 to 4 inches of cement embedded between the beams. If you remove the cement from between the beams you will have plenty of space, you can replace the upper bathroom floor with plywood, wonderboard and tile on top of the beams which will eliminate the need for the cement pockets.

  • No cement that I know of. Our house is 1890s with wood floors in the bathroom and no tile. But this is very good information for anyone with an early 20th-century bath!

  • No cement that I know of. Our house is 1890s with wood floors in the bathroom and no tile. But this is very good information for anyone with an early 20th-century bath!