How old homes stayed cozy when temperatures got chilly

This summer, we published a blog on how older homes kept cool in the days before air conditioning. It was one of our most popular posts, inspiring a lot of great feedback.

Now, with winter on its way—and with much of the country facing months of sub-freezing temperatures—we thought it would be a good time to reboot the topic. This time, we’ll look at the flip side: How older homes kept people warm in the days before modern heating systems.

We’ve again reached out to registered architect Mary Wheeler Schap. Her Cincinnati, Ohio-based firm, Schap Architects, specializes in restoring older buildings to their former glory. Mary has a passion for old homes. And, she has a wealth of insight on how they were designed to keep their occupants comfy when the mercury level dipped. Here’s a bit of what she shared:

Enormous fireplaces

Used for both heating and cooking, fireplaces in early American homes were often enormous—big enough to stand in. Modest homes usually had a single, central fireplace and chimney to take advantage of radiant heating. Homes of wealthier families might have had two or more chimneys on opposite ends of the house, and in multiple rooms. By the end of the 19th century, cast-iron radiators and coal-fired boilers eliminated the need for large fireplaces.

A “keeping room”

In colonial times, families escaped to a “keeping room,” just off the kitchen, when the rest of the house was too cold. The room was heated by the kitchen stove or fireplace, and was often the only warm space in the house. It was a place for families to gather, read, talk and play games, and evolved into what we today call the family room, great room or hearth room.

Cold-weather architectural styles

Common in New England, the “Saltbox” and “Cape Cod” architectural styles were developed with a long roof facing the northern wind, and a central chimney to radiate heat. Both styles also had low ceilings and small rooms, each with a door to trap heat. Small windows allowed some light, while keeping the heat loss to a minimum. And, steep, narrow stairways provided less space to heat.

Thick walls

Older homes had thick walls made of brick or stone. These materials absorbed the sun’s heat during the day, and released it into the house for hours after sunset. Fiberglass insulation wasn’t developed until 1932, so older homes might have used mud-plaster and straw within their walls to cut down on heat transfer.

South-facing windows

The south side of some homes had larger windows to allow in sunshine, providing both light and heat. Thick, long draperies were often used in these windows at night. This helped to prevent fireplace heat from escaping through the single pane of glass.

Overhangs, eaves and smart landscaping

Large overhangs and eaves helped shade a house from the higher path of the summer sun, while allowing rays from the lower-arcing winter sun a way inside. Leafy landscaping was also a popular tactic: Leaves that blocked the sun’s rays in the summer would be gone by winter, allowing sunshine to hit the house. And, a bank of evergreen trees on the north side of a house could help shield it from strong winter winds.

Good old Yankee ingenuity

Even the best home design sometimes needed a little help. To take the edge off the cold, people used glass or ceramic bed warmers filled with hot coals or embers. Wingback chairs—a style imported from England during the colonial era—were designed to trap the heat radiating from the fireplace, keeping the occupant warm. Portable tin, brass or silver foot warmers were carried when out and about. And people wore many, many layers of clothing, including long underwear, caps, wool socks and gloves.

The modern idea of energy conservation was not the original intent of these design features. Nevertheless, understanding how your old home “works” might help you save energy. An energy advisor or architect specializing in vintage buildings can help you take advantage of all your older home has to offer.

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