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Designing a New Old Home: Part 2

The Elements and Materials

Part 1 is here:

In this part I will cover our initial constraints, commentary on the materials we used to give the house an older feel, and some notes on working with the elements.

For context, it’s important to know that we built this house in New Hampshire, which has freezing and snowy winters, and somewhat humid summers where the hottest weeks might be in the low 80°s (26°C), but periods of 90 degree (32°C) days occur. Your climate should impact what you choose to build. For example we didn’t build a farmer’s porch to further keep things cool in the summer (by shielding the sun from the first floor windows) but it would be an improvement here, and many old houses here have them. In hotter climates, it might be more of a necessity. Outside of New England, there are probably many design considerations that I won’t mention simply because I don’t know about them. I encourage you to study the traditional architecture of your area even if you do not want to build something traditional. Traditional architecture, like all tradition, is a creation born out of managing many unseen consequences and trade-offs for generations, and these are often not at all obvious until they are removed. So it is worth it to study the traditional architecture, and to be less clever when you’re on the fence about something, because you are always clever at your own peril.

Defining must-haves and constraints

Any creation with a budget has trade-offs. We wanted to build a house with a historic feel and quality materials, working with the elements when possible, while keeping costs down. This makes our process something of a balancing and cutting act, and if you have a bigger budget you’ll almost certainly have a lot more liberty than we did. Deciding what we could forgo was one of the first things we did, before getting any estimates, since we figured we could always embellish a design if estimates turned out cheaper than expected.

We began by trying to think of everything we could do without, regardless of what was typical for new construction in the area.

  • No garage: It’s not worth paying for a house for our cars if it frees up some budget. And the driveway would stay dirt and gravel.
  • Unfinished basement and unfinished attic. The attic is (still!) just a plywood sub-floor. With an eye to future potential, our design had 3 bedrooms but we built a 4-bedroom septic system so we could renovate the attic eventually. We also had the plumber run heating pipes up to the attic in case we want to add to the heating system later, since adding the pipes is much easier during construction.
  • Propane for heat and cooking, with a wood stove for primary heat. We opted for separate boilers for hot water and the heating system, though I think a single combination boiler would have worked for our usage. In NH it’s common to have oil for heat and propane for cooking, which means two separate tanks. We wanted to keep systems simple, and hoped to rely on the wood stove mostly for heat.
  • No central air. The propane heats forced hot water, so this means there is no duct-work in the house anywhere, making the internals a little simpler.
  • Smaller than average (for new construction) square footage, in an uncomplicated shape. Our house is just one primary mass, a rectangle, that’s 30x38 feet, or 2,280 square feet over 2 finished floors. While reducing square footage is one of the most obvious ways to save money I do wish our house was slightly bigger so that the outside proportions looked better, and so that we could have given our smaller bathrooms a bit more room. While we can make additions, adding space to those bathrooms isn’t something we can easily upgrade later.
  • No walk-in closets. In fact, no closets! The only thing we have that could be called a closet is a small passage-way underneath the attic stairs.
  • No cabinets above the kitchen counter. I think kitchens have too many cabinets, inviting clutter, and making some kitchens feel more claustrophobic than they have to be. Instead, we’d have a large accessible pantry off to the side.

So when working out your own budget, you should think about all the typical features that go into a home. What could you do without? What would be easy to do later? Can you design the building site so you can add some things later if you want them? I’ll revisit that a little in the floor plan part of this series.

To save more, we decided we would do as much of the finishing work as we knew how to do. This meant we finished the wood floors ourselves (we paid for installation), did the interior painting, cleaned up the final construction, and did (are still doing) all landscaping ourselves. We also did smaller things, like installing cabinet and door hardware.

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Staining and oiling floors: How hard can it be?

We delayed on a few things to free up more budget. We had granite steps put in the front of the house, but kept the side and rear steps as planks of unfinished deck wood. We figured we would be able to find granite for cheaper if we waited until something came along (this turned out to be true within a year, and we now have granite stones for all steps). We wanted a single open shelf above counters, and a kitchen island, but did not need them right away. Of course, since we want it, we’ll have to pay for it eventually.

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The current kitchen setup: No shelves above counters yet, and our island is just IKEA stilts and butcher block.

There is some advantage to delaying, when reasonable

If there are features you’re on the fence about, or aren’t yet sure how to design, it can be ideal to delay if it’s not intrusive to add later. As you actually start to live in the space you can decide if its something you really need or not. Once you start using your home, you might see the design of some part in a totally different way. A simple example is the design of our kitchen island, which we only recently finalized after using the kitchen for a year. Even simpler: we wired the pantry with electricity for a microwave, but it’s been over a year and we still haven’t felt the need to use one, so we can pass on that.

Since we knew we’d want some kind of island, we had the electrician wire for the eventual island when they were here, by running a wire in the basement so that when the island is built, we need to only drill a small hole to bring electricity up. Then we can run the KitchenAid, pasta extruder, etc, from the island’s power.

Another planned punting: Older homes have few or no closets, especially no walk-in clothes closets, and we wanted to try something similar. So we designed the house without closets (except the space under attic stairs), with the thinking that larger rooms are probably preferable to closing off the room space required for the closets. Then we could use wardrobes, chests, drawers, etc to store our clothes and things, and this would encourage us to have less stuff generally, while keeping larger bedrooms. Furniture instead of closet doors and openings means that everything in a room is more movable (for example, without closet doors there are more spaces you can put a bed against), letting us try more furniture configurations. Later, if we felt we really needed closets, we could always build them in, and once we’ve lived in the bedrooms for a while, we’d know exactly where we’d want them to go. After a year, we’re quite happy with just furniture, though finding nice looking (to us, usually older) furniture without paying a fortune is a slow process.

The downside of delaying I hope is obvious: Any time you want to add a closet or a mud room later, you will have to call another contractor, make a new mess, and possibly get more building permits, which ultimately adds cost compared to doing it all at once.

The Materials

Along with your use of sunlight, the materials you choose will make the biggest difference in the mood that inhabits your home. New houses are made of drywall, carpet, polyurethane (plastic) coated wood floors, foam doors, chrome and plastic hardware, and typically large, inexpensive tile that often looks the same house-to-house. Old homes tend to have a lot more plaster, oiled wood, smaller tile, heavy doors, and very varied hardware, tile, wallpaper, colors(!), more brass, rugs instead of carpet, and no plastic.

What’s the matter with these modern choices?

Aside from the obvious cost motivation, there seems to be an aesthetic undercurrent in new home construction. I think it is wrapped up in the design trend towards “cleaner” spaces. This trend spans centuries, though in America it is most obvious between the transition from Victorian and Eastlake houses to the modern houses we live in. Consider, for example, some popular doorknobs today:

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Left: The best-selling 6 doorknob “contractor pack” in matches-the-contractor-carpet gray. Right: Every single doorknob made in 1980.

I hate these knobs. You can feel it when you turn them, they scream cheap. They are “clean”, they make no aesthetic promises that you have to keep with your own decor or the rest of the house. But they aren’t born out of a respect for minimalism, they are just part of the rabid economizing on all house parts that do not directly contribute to square footage. In a $500,000 house, the builder spends maybe $200–400 total on doorknobs, including entry knobs. I think this is a mistake, and maybe the first signal that no care has gone into the design.

For our knobs, we bought old hardware at architectural salvage stores, eBay, and yard sales. Many of our knobs are the Eastlake style:

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(There are many more examples of Eastlake hardware in this Brownstoner article, if you’ve never seen any before.)

One important thing to note, if you go this route and buy old hardware, is that you must order doors that are not pre-drilled. The bore hole of modern doorknobs is much larger than the small vintage rosettes and plates that are screwed to the door to hold the knob and spindle. If you do not buy pre-drilled doors, you will also have to have a carpenter bore your doors for the knobs and latching mechanisms, which will increase your cost. (With some practice, the boring and chiseling is not very hard to do, if you’re handy.)

More simply, you can just buy nicer knobs that fit modern doors. Many brands sell them, such as Emtek (sold on lots of sites including large ones like build.com), House of Antique Hardware (which re-sells a lot of brands, including Emtek), Rejuvenation, and many other places online. Nice sets can be fancy, like the Eastlake style, or fluted glass, but they can also be simpler brass, iron, or porcelain knobs that were common one hundred years ago. Buying attractive modern-door knobs cost about $50–200 per set. You are free to mix these and cheaper knobs, and for many of them you can put a nice knob on one side (like the doorknob for entering the basement, that guests would see) and a less expensive knob on the other (the doorknob you see if you’re in the basement), and by splitting up the “nice” pair, use it in two places. Note that it may not be possible to mix and match all modern brands like this, but with antique hardware it’s easy.

How much you spend on something like knobs is up to you, but my feeling is that the hardware you physically interact with, the things you touch every day, are worth the extra cost. They should be heavy and feel like solid, purposeful objects, and not a hollow piece of brass connected to a hollow door.

Speaking of doors: Try not to buy the cheapest ones! You don’t have to get solid wood doors to have them feel considerably better (heavier), you can get MDF doors inexpensively that are fairly heavy and feel good. So when looking at options, pay attention to the weight of the product.

Aside: What’s really going on here, with beautiful knobs?

I think the doors of different ages tell a story, but it is a very common story, not at all about door hardware. Door handles were once simple pieces of wood or iron, shaped into bars or balls. As time went on hardware became more ornate, and there are many pretty examples of latches and knobs not just in museums but also on medieval shops and churches that still exist today. With the industrial revolution it became even easier to create more beautiful and complex designs, like the Eastlake ones and other styles.

But then something happened: the average knob with a lock has a fair amount of internal complexity, but the beauty has been completely stripped out. We no longer think of knobs, hinges, latches, or locks as things worth making beautiful, and we think this at a time when it should be easier and cheaper than ever to make such things beautiful. When they were difficult to make, iron latches and handles resembled hands, lions, flowers, gargoyles, etc. Now that a latch is easy to make, they look like nothing. It is worth carefully pondering this, I think, beyond the words of this article and well beyond door knobs.

With all the advantages of technology, we rarely build beautiful everyday structures or everyday objects. All the progress in mechanization and materials seems to be little match for the colossal bad taste that permeates modern environments. This seems to me some kind of primal mistake. Where gods may exist in history, they walk in gardens, temples, groves, and other beautiful places that we have built and sought out for thousands of years. If we have in some part stopped trying to build beautiful places and things, why have we done so? What forces have left the world? What work can we do towards recapturing these things? I wonder these and more, I think they are very important questions that deserve all of our attention. It would take too long to wonder aloud here further, so maybe I’ll come back to this another time. For now let’s continue.

More about modern cleanliness

The obvious problem with some modern materials choices is that if they are chosen for a clean look, they often don’t stay that way. New home materials tend to get worse over time: A soiled gray carpet looks worse than a faded vintage Persian rug, a chipped polyurethane floor looks worse than old, worn wood.

Old houses harbor much of their charms in the materials themselves, which seem to get better over time, because the wear that the materials take on makes them more beautiful. Raw brass and copper grow a patina. Marble gets scratched or etched. Oiled wood floors get re-oiled, darken with age and grow their marks by getting dented. The finishes on these objects are alive. They do not soil so much as they move with time. Even raw plaster, as it is painted and broken and repaired over time, becomes more and more pretty. A dramatic example:

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Image from Rose and Grey

Of course, something like this is not an easy look to pull off in new construction! We certainly didn’t try. But for old remodels along these lines there are several attractive pictures in the Architectural Digest article, The Easiest Wall Decor Idea is Leaving Them Unfinished. With new construction, unless its very well done, distressing and lots of artificial aging can look dishonest. So while I cannot recommend you prematurely age anything, consider how age acts upon your materials when choosing them. Marble countertops are rare in the US because people don’t want the maintenance or risk of etching, raw brass is rare because people prefer a solid (a “clean!”) color to a patina. When choosing countertops and hardware, we opted for marble and brass because we love the character they bring with them through the years.

Honest and Dishonest Materials

I mentioned in Part 1 that the level of honesty you put into your design is important. If you wish to build a cottage it should be simple in cottage ways and complex in cottage ways. It should aim to be cozy and not pretend to be a palace. If you build a palace it should not look folksy, or have disorganized landscaping, or plastic towel rings. You should try to think hard about what feels appropriate, and if you are trying to save money, the compromises you make should be different for different designs.

The materials you use should match what you are working with, and where you hope to build. There is nothing wrong with inexpensive materials themselves, and sometimes the cheaper option is the more suitable one. Have a look at this New Hampshire cabin kitchen, for example:

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Cabin Kitchen, from Forestbound

Much of good design is refusing to do what’s bad. Avoiding kitsch or out-of-proportion decor is important. A cabin is a place of simplicity. Fancy wood ceilings and exposed beams can feel honest in a cabin, while high-tech appliances like modern stainless steel with blue-LED displays would feel dishonest. So too would granite countertops in an otherwise humble cabin. What Forestbound has built for cabinetry are simply 2x4 studs, pine boards, and a few wood crates, all painted white. This is inexpensive, and keeps the feel of the space genuine. An identical setup of cabinets and counters in a stately colonial would be dishonest, though they may feel honest if you were building a farmhouse of the same size.

In 2016, we lived in the attic of an old house, which had interesting skylights, an unusual floor plan and a 3rd story porch, but it was renovated long ago with now-disgusting carpet. Simplicity and I ripped up the carpet to reveal a plywood sub-floor. We couldn’t afford anything fancy (and it wasn’t our house), so we felt the most honest way to renovate it would be to simply paint the plywood white, and let it be what it is, a simple, un-fussy attic apartment.

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Renovating an attic by ripping up the carpet and painting plywood.

For great examples of honest and dishonest design, read the books by Marianne Cusato (Get Your House Right) and Leon Krier (Drawing for Architecture) in Part 1. Examples of honest and dishonest materials and renovations are a little harder to come by, and are always interesting to talk about, but I don’t want to get carried away.

Tile and Countertops

Tile is commonly used in new home construction in mud rooms, kitchens, and bathrooms. It is almost always either large faux-wood large plank style or square tiles (large = faster and cheaper to install and grout) that look like this:

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what a brand name

Do these 49 cent per square foot tiles look familiar? Like gray carpet, they are everywhere. Tile quality in new construction rarely goes above $2/square foot. Note the similarities in fixtures, tiles, colors, and carpet of these three half-million dollar homes:

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Cheapo tile, plastic shower, spotlight while you poop, $479K. The faux-wood like tile on the right is also becoming popular.
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Carpet and cheap tile and one VERY awkward ceiling. $550K.
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Cheap tile, fixtures, carpet, low ceilings. $524K.

These new homes illustrate some of the problem with modern cleanliness. It’s not just “clean” but a kind of sameness-filled sterility that the builders are getting away with. None of the rooms are inspired. None of the builders are trying their best. You can’t even tell the pictures are from three different houses. They aren’t even trying to make them affordable, here, they’re just pocketing the thousands shaved off their price tag from cheap materials.

I don’t want to convince you against designing with a clean or minimalist aesthetic if that’s your desire. A sparse austerity can be dramatic and beautiful. But you should be wary of the identity-less sterility that permeates modern home construction. These houses are the opposite of having an aesthetic preference, they are trying to have no opinion at all, not even venturing to have a shade of color beyond beige. They contain the opposite of creativity, a kind of generic muteness. In a profession where your role is to create things, it is cowardly.

For tile: I cannot tell you what to design, here it’s only easy to tell you what to avoid. But you should look at a lot of images to get an idea of what else is possible, and at what price. Manufacturer sites like Clé Tile can offer a lot of inspiration. (We used them, and we also used much cheaper tile from places like Wayfair too. The difference is quality is noticeable, though.) You should also use Pinterest to get a feel for what’s possible in terms of making even bathrooms into charming places.

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less sterile bathrooms from our bath Pinterest board

Pinterest comes with its own tendencies toward sameness, which is a harder and longer problem to solve — but it’s a much better start than only looking at the homes that might be available for you to visit.

The essential thing is that you should try to make your spaces matter. Every room in your home is meaningful, and the smaller the space the more you should be comfortable being bold. Even odd opinions are often better than the endless uniformity you find in new homes.

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We are fond of small hex tile, like this fairly inexpensive tile we bought from Wayfair for the master bath floor.

Countertops

I have only two short notes on countertops: First, marble is not popular in the US because any materials that require maintenance are not popular. It needs to be sealed (and eventually, re-sealed), and is more susceptible to damage than granite, quartz, or composites. Still, we love it, so we went with mostly marble for ours.

Second, you can save some money by going to countertop fabricators and choosing from their remnants, the unused slabs from their prior jobs, instead of ordering new slabs. Note that this is only possible once you know the sizes for all your countertops, and it also puts you at the mercy of what they have in stock. We used remnants for our three bathrooms, but not the kitchen.

Walls

In older homes, the walls were typically made of horizontal strips of wood called lath that were covered in plaster, which seeps through the gaps enough to hold itself firmly in place. Drywall, sold in 4-foot by 8-foot panels, replaced this because it is much faster and cheaper to install. Drywall has downsides: Being fairly soft, it scrapes and dents more easily, and if the gaps between boards aren’t taped well it can show, and the sound dampening qualities are somewhat worse.

We are quite fond of plaster, so we opted for veneer plaster walls. This setup uses 4 by 8 foot gypsum boards instead of wood lathe, and then involves skimming a few thin coats of plaster on top of it. This is less labor intensive than the old way of doing things while retaining most of the benefit and all of the look. Pricing for this kind of wall apparently varies greatly depending on your location, but its generally slightly more expensive than drywall. Depending on how you finish plaster walls, you can add pigment directly to the plaster or texture the surface, or simply paint it.

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Veneer plaster, drying. The bottom part is still very wet. The gray is not-yet-plastered gypsum board.

Raw, unpainted and un-pigmented plaster has a slightly mottled appearance, with a white to white-rose color, which changes in different light. We like it so much that we’ve kept most of the walls in our house unpainted plaster.

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Our unpainted plaster walls

If you want to build a house with a more antique feel, plaster (raw, pigmented, or finished in other ways) can be charming. With wall finishes, you have a lot of options. You could argue that builders painting every single room the same contractor off-white color allows the the buyer to paint the rooms the colors they want, or wallpaper as they want, but it seems like most houses rarely change from the builder defaults. I think you should really explore Pinterest and whatever local historical homes you can find to get some ideas of what’s possible beyond Modernist Minimalist Gray. Eventually we’ll paint or wallpaper some of the surfaces, because the same walls everywhere is too much uniformity, but we’re in no rush.

Hardware and Other Materials

We wanted to avoid chrome as much as possible, so most of our faucets and lights are brass, either polished and coated (common for faucets) or raw (common on lights). I think brass, copper, and iron are very beautiful. They have an aesthetic gravity to them that chrome does not. I’m not exactly sure why they fell out of fashion, but I suspect it has to do with the trend towards “cleanliness,” in that it’s another opinion that people have decided to not have. Working with other materials is harder: You have to risk them looking gaudy, or silly, or simply out of place, and going the clean chrome route is a way to dodge this. Some of our fixtures:

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An antique light we installed, a light from Northeast Lantern in raw brass, the master bath in polished brass
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Kitchen brass

To economize on some bathroom fixtures, a few are chrome, and I regret this! They should all be brass. Alas.

We sourced light fixtures from a number of places, including Ebay and Etsy. For reproduction historical lights, like the ones on the outside of our house, we bought from a small New Hampshire company called Northeast Lantern, which specializes in historical reproduction lights made with raw brass and raw copper.

It turns out you can build your own lights pretty easily, and this is what most of the sellers on Etsy are doing. There are sites like Grand Brass Lamp Parts which offer almost everything you need to make a million different kinds of fixtures. Simi found a shade she really liked for the dining room table lamp, so we made our own fixture out of a brass ceiling base and cord from Grand Brass.

Old houses often had grand and sometimes unique newel posts at the bottom of the stairs. It was actually our builder’s recommendation that we look through architectural salvage stores to find one we like to install, because it would reduce the “sameness” feel of the house hardware. We took his advice, and found an old lavender post that appeared to be walnut underneath the paint (and regrettably gunky brown paint-like stuff under the lavender and white paint). I have no idea why people painted over a magnificent piece of wood, but they did. We cleaned it up and oiled it:

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So our thinking for house hardware could be summarized like this: The objects in your house should have an anchoring gravity to them. They should look and feel solid whenever possible. This doesn’t mean they have to be old or look old. They just need to have the weight of real things. Solid wood and metal have weight. Age has its own gravity. There are other ways to give this feeling, if you ponder it for a while.

Flooring

I like wood. I like hardwood floors like oak because they are beautiful, accepts a lot of stain, and change color with age. I like pine because it dents easily and builds its own character. I like the feel of wood, even the creaks and gaps in old houses. I really don’t like polyurethane floors because the coating takes away from the feel of the material. A hard plastic coated wood floor isn’t really a wood floor, it’s a plastic floor.

I don’t expect everyone to share this opinion. The reason polyurethane floors are so popular is because they are very simple to clean and maintain (provided you don’t damage the coating itself). Prolonged spills cannot water-log them, they cannot be stained by messes, and they can be wiped clean. Older wood floors take maintenance: They need to be re-oiled or waxed periodically to keep their luster and stop dirt and water from easily harming them. Wood floors without polyurethane coatings wear. They occasionally get warped by moisture. To us, these downsides of older floors add up to the living finish that makes them enchanting. Polyurethane floors feel “clean” in the sterile way that everything in new houses do. Oiled floors feel more like part of nature, the trees that compose the floor are no longer growing but they are still moving through time, gathering stains, scuffs, dark and light patches. They are capable of feeling worn, and this means they are capable of feeling lived in. Sterility is good for the hospital ward, but the home should feel more cozy.

We decided to have a contractor install the floors, and we would finish them ourselves in several stages. Since our goal was to have floors with texture and character, we thought that our amateurishness at the task would almost be an advantage.

To start, we used a WOCA color oil product on all the floors (except for the bathrooms with tile, the whole house has wood floors).

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Oiling over red oak. The third picture is at night, so the color temp is a little different, the raw oak floor is the same as in the first (in daylight).

This looked good, but it dried a little too matte for us. We decided we would lightly sand the floors and oil them again, this time experimenting with Tried and True wood finishes. The benefit of these products is that they are 100% solvent free, have zero VOC’s, and contain no heavy metal drying agents. This allowed us to re-oil each room of the house while we were living in it, without worrying about air quality.

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Some rooms we used only oil, others oil plus additional light stain, like here.

The downside of the these products is that, in containing none of the toxic components found in most floor finishes, they take considerably longer to dry. When using the pine resin finish, which is perhaps the most beautiful one made by Tried and True, it took almost a month to completely cure. So by doing the floors this way we found out why no one does anymore: No one wants to wait! People decided that if noxious vapors are the price of faster construction, so be it.

As a final step for some shine and water protection, we use a little wax on the floors.

The Elements: Heating and Cooling, Wind and Light

In our opinion, ensuring your house works well with the natural world is one of the most crucial parts of designing a home. Like I wrote in Part 1 it’s also, surprisingly, one of the most ignored. We wanted to build a house that would stay as naturally cool in the summer and warm in the winter, and receive ample natural light. If we were successful, we wouldn’t need air conditioning, and we would be able to mostly heat the house with a medium wood stove.

Ceiling Height

Heat rises. This gives tall ceilings two thermal effects: In the summer they keep the house naturally cooler, but they also make winter heating bills larger because you have more interior volume to heat. If you have air conditioning, tall ceilings would make it more costly too. Insulation used to be poor, and heating expensive, so many of the oldest small houses in New England (and other cold climates) have low ceilings.

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The Solomon Richardson house built 1748, with its low ceiling. Old Sturbridge Village, Massachusetts

While some homes would have ceilings no taller than a door, more opulent homes (often heated by wood or coal-fired furnaces in the basement) might have taller (9–12 foot) ceilings. Among historic homes in New Hampshire you can find many examples of both. As far as houses built in the last 100 years, the most common ceiling height is about 8 feet.

We’d rather have cooler summer temperatures and more light, and we dislike the cramped feel of lower ceilings, so we decided on 9 feet for the first floor, and 8½ feet upstairs. Modern insulation works very well (better than I imagined actually, I spent most of my life in an 1840’s house), and we collected examples of older houses in our footprint (30x38 foot colonial style) with 9 foot ceilings. The smaller the room, the more a tall ceiling begins to make the space feel oddly cavernous, so the slightly shorter ceilings upstairs help with a more cozy aspect ratio for the bedrooms.

There’s a lot more to ceiling height, and to what height feels “right”, but its somewhat climate and space specific. Both Get Your House Right and A Pattern Language offer more useful advice there. (See the end of Part 1 if you don’t recall those books)

Cooling (Airflow)

We weren’t planning on having central air conditioning, so we investigated a few passive options for cooling:

  • A porch to block the summer sun (Not in the budget! But this may be worth investigating for your own project, and we may build one some day.)
  • Trees with foliage to block sun (Someday, but not with our new construction.)
  • Taller ceilings (check)
  • Paint the house white (check)
  • Airflow, discussed here:

You should seriously consider if you want central air or not, and how much you want. It’s taken as a default in new construction because duct-work everywhere is taken as a default. I think people today, especially in temperate climates like New Hampshire, overdo it.

Having central air via ducting changes how you use your home. There are fewer reasons to open windows, so people open fewer windows. (In newer office buildings the somewhat crazy result is that you cannot open the windows.) As people open the windows less, they air out the house less, and are perhaps at more risk of indoors CO2 buildup.

I’m skeptical of forced-air heating and cooling systems for other reasons. Careless designs can lead to poor use of space, poor performance, and difficulty maintaining and keeping them clean, which can lead to mold and other respiratory issues. Careless designs are so common that you can google terms like “crazy ductwork” and see hundreds of examples. Most people agree that radiant heat feels better, and warms rooms more evenly than forced air ducting.

We decided on radiant forced hot water for our heating system, and several considerations for natural cooling, including incorporating as much passive airflow as possible. Ideally, we wanted wind passage north-south, east-west, and of course upwards. In our design, the downstairs is somewhat open, and the upstairs hallway affords some air passage with opposite windows. We then put the attic stairs in the middle of the 2nd floor hallway, so air could continue escaping upwards. Downstairs, I would have liked a wall between the dining and living rooms, but the airflow makes both heating and cooling easier. When rooms are open, air can circulate more freely, and the wood stove can sit in between the living and dining rooms, very close to the center of the house.

From the outside:

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Our exterior. The sparse north wall may someday accommodate an extension.

The house sitting on a slight hill may also help with airflow, as the hill compresses wind. This effect is stronger on bigger and more isolated hills, which is why windmills are often placed on ridges. I’m not certain this helps with the airflow, but the wind from the hill definitely helps keep bugs off the back patio.

Aside: In the back of the house, note the white vent pipe and chrome base of the black chimney. I wish these were painted black or dark gray, and should have asked for them. Never assume a contractor will know what you want or make any aesthetic decisions on their own! Their job is to install stuff, your job is to think about what looks good, and then ask for it.

Air passage on the inside:

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Air passage out and up

The idea is simple: Let air across, and let it upwards. The house is open enough (especially when bedroom doors are open on the 2nd floor) that wind can move quite freely through. Note also how the attic door is placed centrally on the 2nd floor, so we can keep it open for hot air to travel upwards.

Another aside: From what I knew of airflow and ancient designs, it seemed obvious that the cupola in many buildings was originally meant to collect and then release rising hot air. It’s too bad that cupolas in modern houses are usually not accessible enough for the air to get to, and often have totally sealed windows or shutters. In this old house (my childhood home), the cupola access inside was well placed to collect hot air and have it blown away, but we never opened its windows.

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Note the cupola full of windows. Note also the porch shading the first floor.

Does it work?

For our house, the combination of natural ventilation and tall ceilings works well on most days. When the days are warm and the nights are cooler, we find it best to close the windows when we woke in the morning and open them again at night. With modern insulation, this keeps the house cool during the sunniest hours. There was one very hot weekend in the summer of 2019 where we would have liked to have AC (or a bedroom on the first floor), but it was manageable. This setup may work even better with a whole-house fan, but we don’t have one.

A valid strategy, if you’re on the fence, would be to design air conditioning only on the second floor, since it gets hotter, or only in the bedrooms. Of course many people do that here simply by getting a window AC unit, but central air does have the benefit of relative quiet inside.

Heating Systems

The underlying heat for our house is radiant forced hot water. In NH it’s common to have oil for heat and propane for cooking, but we wanted to keep systems simple and use propane for both. The major downside is installing a large propane tank, and in some areas propane is more expensive, but it’s otherwise preferable. I wish we had a steam system like in very old houses, instead of forced hot water, but designing one into our house would have increased cost and time.

We wanted as much of the house as possible to be heated by a single wood stove. As I mentioned earlier, we also didn’t want a very open design. I prefer discrete rooms, they offer more privacy, more quiet, and more opportunities to make the home feel cozy. It’s much harder to decorate big tracts of open space, and much harder to furnish those spaces into patterns like a breakfast nook, a comfy reading/sitting area, and so on.

Before the 1500’s, open floor plan houses were mostly a necessity. The entire house was heated by one fireplace, which doubled as the stove, called the hearth. As time went on, richer houses gained additional fireplaces, and rooms multiplied (and the concept of a manor’s “great hall” gave way to hallways). Today its very easy to build well-heated rooms throughout the home, unless you’re like us and still want to heat with a wood stove. Despite not being a necessity, open-concept floor-plans are somewhat popular. I think this is partly due to laziness, partly to being an easy way to make smaller spaces feel more open, and partly because builders think that’s what people want.

In designing your own house, you should think hard about just how open you want things to be. Think about your needs, your activities, and the activities of everyone else in your (future) family. Where will the kids play? Where will you read? Watch TV? Eat? Where might you try to concentrate on something? Are they all the same one big room? I hope you get the idea.

All of this is to say: We originally wanted a wall between the dining and living rooms, as seen below, but couldn’t decide on an ideal place for a wood stove. This indecision went on even after we broke ground. Eventually, we decided to axe the wall and put the wood stove in the middle, between the rooms.

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The downstairs: An “L” shape with an enclosed Study. The wood stove easily heats the L.

Does it work?

The medium-sized wood stove we bought, a Vermont Castings Encore, is enough to nearly heat the entire house. It can easily bring the downstairs to 70° (21° C), except the study, and it heats the master bedroom too (above the living room). The two north bedrooms are colder, and also on a separate heating zone, so those require some forced hot-water heating at night. Our bedroom’s heating zone also turns on at night, just slightly.

Downstairs, the thermostat is permanently set to 58 degrees (14.4° C). In the winter, as the night’s fire dies, the temperature will drop several degrees by morning. Then each morning we get up and start a new fire (using coals if we were up late) to heat the house. Of course if this sounds unappealing to you but you still want a wood stove, you can always set the thermostat a lot higher than 58.

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Winter coffee

The cold start to winter mornings has become one of my favorite things about our house. It causes us to wake up and start the day much earlier. Before, I would get up with little time to spare and rush off to work. Since we moved in, we wake up early to restart the fire and make coffee. Sometimes Simi will write, or we will both read, or talk, but often we just sit together for a while and slowly wake up. When you have 1–2 hours in the morning where you can dwell calmly, drinking coffee, and not hurrying, you feel ten times better. We continue this routine into the summer, waking up even earlier with the sun, and keep the coffee pot with a few candles instead of the wood stove.

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Summer coffee

Light (To Be Continued, Part 3)

Good use of sunlight is one of the most important things to get right in your home. In fact it may be the single biggest influence on the layout of your floor plans. In the next post I’ll give thoughts on light, floor plans, and some notes on working with builders, architects, and contractors.

There’s always more to discuss, so if you have any questions, let me know on Twitter.

If you want to see more photos of the house and the land, there are lots on Twitter, and also on my Instagram and Simplicity’s Instagram.

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Sacred things and making things. Literature, Food, Web Development. — In labouring to be concise, I become obscure.

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