Old, Cold Houses

Yesterday it rained all day, heavily, the last gasp of Hurricane Patricia reaching up into the edge of Canada. Today the winds blew hard, gusting to about 90 km/hr, bringing a cold front with them, and stripping most of the remaining leaves from the trees.

Parts of the house are cold tonight.  A four-square built in 1911, it’s grown a bit from the original; a summer kitchen renovated to a rec room in the sixties; the attic made into living space sometime earlier than that; our own addition of a sunroom.  Insulation didn’t exist originally and was minimal when added sometime later.  The windows aren’t quite sealed.  We’ve added pink fibreglas and vapour barriers in all the places we’ve stripped the walls down to the beams, and in the new sunroom.  The rest of the house had insulation blown into the walls a few years ago.  It helps.  It doesn’t make the house completely airtight, and on a day like this, bits of it are cold.

We’ve grown used to this, over the years.  We wear fleece-lined slippers, and layers of warm clothes. There are throws to snuggle into on the couch of an evening.  I have tea after dinner, reading or watching television.  The new high-efficiency oil furnace (no other choice except electricity, where we are) chugs away, doing its best.

All the heating to the bedroom floor is by convection, open grates in the floors and the wide staircase allowing heat to move upward.  Now we’re both home all day, the bedrooms are much warmer than when we were working, and had the thermostat turned down when we were out. We’re still adjusting to that, both of us liking cold bedrooms to sleep in.  I do wonder how the grandmother who slept in the attic survived, though – it’s just plain COLD up there – no heating at all, ice on the windows in the winter, damp in the spring and fall.  I suspect pneumonia carried her off.

We bought the house from a woman who had been born in it, about seventy-five years earlier.  She told us how the pipes use to freeze in the kitchen, unless the cupboard doors under the sink were left open in the winter. How the drains out to the dry well and the septic tank would freeze, too. The house wasn’t built with a bathroom; it came later.  I imagine going out to the privy on a cold winter’s night, or bathing in the kitchen in a tin tub.  We may only have the one bathroom, and when the winter wind is from the northwest prepare to shiver if you forget to turn the electric heater on – but luxury compared to that.

And that is what I am thinking about, this first windy, cold night of the fall.  What exactly do we need, and when does more become, in the words of a Monty Python skit, “bluddy luxury”? We could warm the house more – it would be simple:  turn the heat up, and turn more of the electric space heaters on. But not only would that cost us money, it would produce more greenhouse gases, more climate change, more pollution. Just because we can have something, should we? Doesn’t the attitude that says ‘sure, have more’ lead to obesity, metabolic disease, debt crises, foreclosures, addiction, and all the sins and symptoms of our material world?

Perhaps that’s an advantage of an old, cold, house.  It makes you think.

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