Yes, for the past couple days, the entire right half of the country has been enveloped in a so-called ‘polar vortex’, with temperatures well BELOW ZERO (huh??) up North, and single digit record breaking temperatures here in the South. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not complaining about Charleston’s recent weather because my northern neighbors would most certainly guffaw, but I thought I’d take the opportunity to give you a little architectural lesson about WHY it’s a bit more difficult for many us to tolerate it (besides the fact we just don’t own puffy down jackets), and why we might not do anything about it.
So, faced with the daunting degree-by-minute temperature plummet on Tuesday night, I did the following like a good former-yankee-gal will do:
- Brought all the plants in. The ones we couldn’t move we covered.
- Dripped all the faucets. Every single one.
- Slung an extra blanket on the bed.
- Put on cozy socks to sleep in.
- Set the thermostat to 68.
- Settled down for a long winter’s nap.
When I awoke in the morning, facing 20 degree temperatures outside, with a windchill of 8, I shivered and dragged myself out of bed wondering why my nose was near frozen. Shuffling over to the thermostat, I peered at its little red indicator (I have yet to buy the fabulous Nest ok?) and noted that it was barely pushing 59 degrees. And the heat was on. The poor thing just couldn’t keep up with our 100+ year old house. Here’s why.
1. General construction – Back when the house was built, it was constructed to deal with HEAT, not cold. Remember, there was no air conditioning back in the day, so Charleston homes were built to expand and contract with varying degrees of humidity, and to shelter one from the hot sun. This ‘breathability’ also helped to prevent mold from forming, as good ventilation can stop that nasty little organism in its tracks.
2. No insulation in the walls – Nope. none. nada. Homes were built then with lath and plaster construction and spray foam and batt insulation just didn’t exist. The expense of trying to retrofit and insulate these old walls is absolutely not worth it.
3. No insulation under the floors – You read me right folks, we do not have any insulation under the heart pine floors of our place. This is NOT abnormal in historic Charleston though these days many people do opt to install some. We just haven’t because there is a Great Debate about the value of insulation under the house here, as often it can create more problems that it solves. Why? Because not only does it attract vermin and wriggly little critters, it also traps moisture. And why don’t we want to trap moisture in this Lowcountry clime? Mold. So instead we suffer with cold air coming through tiny cracks in the floors a couple months out of the year, protect our feet from becoming icicles the minute we touch down by wearing slippers, and put a few area rugs down. We’re too vain to follow the sage customs of 19th century owners who insulated their floors from the cold by using wall-to-wall carpet tacked down in 27-36 inch strips. Cover these gorgeous floors?? Never!
4. Single pane windows – That’s just how it is folks. Glass so thin that it can break if you push on it just so, and in this part of historic Charleston you can’t replace them with double pane unless you spend jillions of dollars for historic replicas. So we endure, and enjoy our historic double and triple hung windows, marveling that the ropes and weights are still intact.
5. Gaps in the windows – Old houses settle, leaving gaps on the bottom where the window meets the sill, and in the middle where the upper and lower sash come together. When I put my hand over any of those gaps, I can feel the cold whooshing in. Though we may have a few storm windows laying around that might help alleviate the problem, quite frankly, we are too lazy to put them up. After all, we’d have to take them down again once the heat returns because moisture trapped in between a regular window and a storm windows causes…you guessed it…mold. So here’s what I did on night two to a few of the worst window cracks (I am sure my neighbors are thrilled…)
You can stop laughing now. Yes, it’s bubble wrap and masking tape. 🙂 And when it is a balmy 66 degrees on Friday, it will take me 4.3 seconds to remove it.
So yes, my house is quite drafty. No, it is not ‘energy-efficient’. Yes, there are tons of things we could ‘do’ to make it less like a sieve and more like an airtight box, but frankly, I’ll take the cold over the mold any day. Because one of the lovely things about living in the Lowcountry – the cold just doesn’t last that long.
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