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

Suffering from chemical sensitivities brought on when she helped build a log home, Linda Mellen and her husband, Peter, take an early twentieth-century farmhouse back to its nontoxic roots.

| March/April 2002

  • Rolling meadows and an old oak and hickory forest make Mt. Ayr an idyllic spot.
    Photo By Philip Beaurline
  • The original plantation owners named the 130-acre farm Mt. Ayr in the eighteenth century.
    Photo By Philip Beaurline
  • 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.
    Photo By Philip Beaurline
  • 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.”
    Photo By Philip Beaurline
  • Peter and Linda Mellen relax on the classic farmhouse front porch.
    Photo By Philip Beaurline
  • 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.
    Photo By Philip Beaurline
  • 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.
    Photo By Philip Beaurline
  • 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.”
    Photo By Philip Beaurline
  • 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.
    Photo By Philip Beaurline
  • 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.
    Illustration by Gayle Ford

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 



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