The Cross House

How To Heat A Big Old House. A Theory.

One of the single biggest impediments to owning a big old house — perhaps THE biggest — is heating and cooling.

Basically, in a big old house you will never be warm in the winter or cool in the summer. And even trying will cost a terrifying amount.

Geez.

Because I am quite fond of comfort (unlike some intrepid souls who delight in roughing it out), I am determined to make the Cross House comfortable year-round. And at a reasonable cost.

How? Well, my plans are admittedly theory and only time will prove the veracity of my Great Plans.

Quiet radically, I do not plan to insulate the house nor install storm windows.

OK, I just lost most of you with that statement. I know, I know, you are thinking: Wow! This guy really IS nuts!

But, please stay with me for a bit.

I suspect that we have it all wrong in America about how we insulate our old homes.

The problem is not insulation but rather air loss. In short, old houses are not tight so all your conditioned air seeps out of the house, and exterior air gets in. It is a losing battle which manifests in discomfort and high bills.

So, I plan to stop all the air leaks. Well, most of them.

Even if I remove all the plaster/lath and infill the exterior walls with fiberglass this would not stop air leaks (as air passes through fiberglass insulation).

Even if I install storm windows these will not stop air leaks (as air/wind will still get through).

So, here is my program:

 

ONE

After each window is restored I will be sealing them with Seal N’ Peel caulk by DAP. This is caulk that just peels off. With most windows I will never remove the caulk; with select windows I will peal the caulk off every spring and replace late fall. Thus my windows will have NO air leakage.

My windows all have sash weights. I am restoring these to use, even though most of the windows will be sealed. Also, while pockets for sash weights are notorious for air leakage, I will open each pocket and seal each.

I will also be installing really good weather-stripping on all exterior doors.

 

TWO

The exterior of the house is, for such an old house, quite tight. Thank God. Nonetheless, as I paint the exterior I am alert to every crack and opening; I seal these.

 

THREE

The exterior walls are 2×6 balloon framing. If I can stop air infiltration these walls will act essentially as thermopane barriers, meaning that the air inside the framing will be dead air — and dead air is a great insulator.

 

FOUR

However, no matter how heroic my efforts, some outside air will get into the balloon framing. Once it does, it can travel to ALL the framing, including all the interior walls. Why? Because the nature of balloon framing is that every wall (interior or exterior) is open to every horizontal joist. So, air getting in from a crack outside will travel into the exterior wall, then into the joists, then into interior walls, and on and on.

To stop, or at least significantly reduce this, I am going to stuff every nodule (explained below):

 

3

You see the framing above? ALL of this is open to each and very other piece of framing. Again, the vertical walls (interior and exterior) are open to every horizontal floor joist, and thus air traveling through one section of framing will travel through ALL the framing. So, I need to stop air from moving.

To do this I will, as mentioned above, stuff each nodule (filling each with closed-cell foam). By this please note the three X’s on the above drawing. Each X marks a nodule: this is where vertical balloon framing connects with a horizontal joist. By stuffing ALL such nodules (including interior nodules), any air which gets into one section of framing will be unable to travel through ALL the framing.

Has anybody ever done this? I am crossing my fingers that it will work.

 

FIVE

The Lid. This is likely the most important idea. I get a tingle just thinking about The Lid.

As I understand it, 85% of heat escapes straight up. In short, heat goes right through your ceiling and eventually outside.

Heat does not naturally go sideways; it is not (much) dissipating through your walls or windows.

Thus, what I plan to do is create a sealed horizontal lid so heat will be unable to dissipate through the ceilings and to the outside.

My second floor ceilings are, blessedly, just over ten-feet-high. I plan to run 2x4s across them, and with the narrow end of the 2x4s kissing the ceilings. Then, I will have closed-cell foam sprayed between these 2x4s. Then, I will attach a vapor barrier to the bottom of the 2x4s. Then I will sheetrock over the 2x4s.

The existing plaster ceilings are in such poor shape (trust me) that I had planned to sheetrock over them anyway (one ceiling is missing entirely). Now, I will simply install sheetrock 3-1/2-inches lower than planned.

The Lid will stop heated air from dissipating through the ceiling, to the third floor (which has its own heating system), and out through the roof.

 

SIX

Amazingly, the Cross House has never had return air ducting for the heating. So, although the radiators make heat, none is “returned” and reused. As such, for 120-years the second-floor would have been warm, the first floor not warm, and the basement cold (even through it has radiators).

However, I had return ducts installed, and gorgeous things they be (occasionally I caress them). In the winter, I will turn Tower One on low fan, and this will suck all the hot air trapped by The Lid, down through the return ducts, to be pushed out through the basement and first-floor registers. This heated air will rise again (effortlessly because of the titanic-sized stairwell opening between the first/second floors) only to be sucked back down. Over and over.

 

SEVEN

Most rooms will have two ceilings fans also helping to keep the air moving.

 

EIGHT

When I think that I am done stopping air leaks, I will have a pressure test. This will help reveal overlooked leaks and most (but never all; I am not that naive) will then be sealed.

 

COSTS

The closed-cell foam for just The Lid will be around eight grand. Ouch. But this pales in comparison to an estimated $1700 a month in heating costs without it, and the house will NOT be warm for all that monthly expense.

I figure that the $8K cost will pay for itself in less than ten years, and, more importantly, I will be warm during those years. Hallelujah!

 

COOLING

Sealing the house will also hugely help keep the house cool, and return ducts have also been installed to suck up the cool air dropping to the lowest level and bring it back up to the highest level in an endless loop.

 

SUMMARY

Well, this is the plan. Give me about two years to find out if it works.

Of huge importance to me is that, IF this all works, the future of the Cross House will be much safer, for most home buyers shun a heating/cooling black hole. I can think of no other issue more detrimental to the preservation of big old houses.

I invite comment.

25 Responses to How To Heat A Big Old House. A Theory.

  1. I don’t think you will regret it. It’s hard to pay for stuff you do not see, but the rewards come later, both financially and comfort wise.

    It’s hard though when you are seduced by great surfaces and finishes to have to dig behind and and under.

    I think heating and cooling costs are what stop many from buying an older larger home..

    “Oh gosh, it is so beautiful!!” is always slapped down by:

    “Can you imagine what it will cost to heat that THING in January ?!?!”

    • Besty, you made me laugh! That is exactly what people say 99% of the time!

      Oh, and I will be OK paying for The Lid. Even though I will never see it after everything is done, I will FEEL its effects every day!

  2. I think this is the hardest part of doing a good restoration – the building science behind insulation is so conflicted and untested it forces one to do the research and make the leap… In our case we’re only insulating walls where there was no plaster. Stuffing the “nodules” has been enormously effective for us, but we’re only doing it where plaster was already missing, same with great stuff foam. The foam pieces inside the outlets are great, as is clear caulk at the bottom of baseboards (pull the shoe, caulk, reinstall shoe). Do you have the routed channels in your windows for the lead/copper weather stripping, ours seems to be original and is amazing! We’re only slightly further in the process than you, but hopefully this winter will see a lot progress.

    • Hi Traci!

      Sheetrock is a TON easier to install than plaster over lath (and a TON cheaper). However, one can do plaster over sheetrock, and this is what I am thinking of doing for the second-floor ceilings.

  3. I did a comprehensive home energy audit as soon as I bought the house, and then went through a few revisions as the terms of the program I was in changed and I changed the scope of work. My favorite was when I said “please remove the 7 vinyl windows and substitute 3 wood windows.” Of course my original windows were already missing.

    My original report said that I would save $218 a year for lighting, $35 from attic insulation, $16 from window improvement, $12 from rim joist insulation (which I think is inaccurate because aside from the roof all my rim joists are on party walls shared with other houses) and $261 from air sealing. So yeah, putting air/fire stops in your balloon framing and trying to get the house as tight as possible will do more than insulating will. They told me that putting rigid foam over the original plaster on my solid masonry exterior walls wouldn’t save much, but the walls were freezing to the touch and the plaster needed restoration anyway so I did it. I was also very strict about sealing the tops and bottoms of the wall cavities in my balloon framed cantilever to the new plywood subfloor and drywall ceiling before closing up the walls.

    One thing to look out for: the gaps in your “lid” where the existing walls go through it could be a major air leak, so you might want to pull out some plaster at the tops of the walls and fill those up too. I have a weak point in my insulation in the wall separating the front bedroom from its closet. My ceilings are all different heights throughout the second floor because of the low slope (not quite flat) roof. I might try to Great Stuff that before I close up the closet.

    Anyways, hope that helps. You have about 5 of my house and I don’t envy you one iota.

    • Hi Chad!

      Thanks for the info. It seems to support that my theories are not totally crazy!

      Yes, I will be sealing ALL the nodules where walls (interior and exterior) meet horizontal cavities (ceiling joists), including where The Lid will be.

      I will also be sealing the junction of where wood house meets stone foundation — a notorious location for air leakage/infiltration.

  4. Hi again Chad!

    You also wrote: “You have about 5 of my house and I don’t envy you one iota.”

    Yes, the house is WAY big! But I am totally enjoying the process. It also helps, hugely, that I am besotted with the house, and it is a constant thrill seeing it look, incrementally, better.

  5. Hi Ross:
    Could you insulate the roof of the attic? Wouldn’t that be easier than the 2x4s?

    Also, I sent you a couple of emails on your “contact” page, did you receive them?

    Happy Thanksgiving!

    Traci

    • Hi Traci!

      The attic is actually the third floor of the house (or fourth if you count the basement, which I do). Level 4 is one huge finished room. Quiet amazing, and one of the glories of the house.

      It has its own forced-air heating/cooling.

      Above Level 4 is the true attic (or fifth level of the house). This has a ton of blown-in insulation on its floor.

      However, while the CEILING of Level 4 has a ton of insulation, the KNEE walls of Level 4, and the SLANTED walls have zero insulation. And behind the knee walls the empty spaces are filled with outside air as the dramatic curved tin cornice just allows air to pass right through a zillion small holes and cracks. At the moment I have no idea of how to resolve this situation.

      I will be using Level 4 to store lights in, and will not need to really keep it too warm (winter) or too cold (summer), but I DO need to create a sealed horizontal separation between Level 4 and the levels below, which I will occupy, to keep conditioned air at comfortable levels.

      My life would be a LOT easier if the attic of the Cross House were like a normal attic!

      Oh, I have not received any emails from you. I do not even SEE any emails from you in the Inbox for the blog. I will see what is going on!

  6. I like your heating/cooling theory and action plan(s). I like your approach. A lot. I can hardly wait to hear how it all works out.

    Are you living in this house as you do the work on it?

  7. Ross…you are a bear for punishment 🙂

    The only change I would advise would be to forget covering the closed-cell foam between 2×4’s on the ceiling. Closed-cell acts as it’s own vapor barrier from what I’ve been told.

    Best of luck…there are days when I wish I were you…and then there are those other days. I am 74 !

    • Ahhhh! Thank you! Good advice! And one less step in the creation of The Lid!

      I am actually now thinking of, instead of closed-cell foam, a special kind of foam board, 4×8 and like 4-inches thick, and called SilverGlo™. It should be much less expensive than the spray foam. I hope!

  8. Ross,
    Your plan is terrific and clever. My question is this: if you succeed in sealing the house, how will it breathe? Is that going to cause you mold problems down the road? Are you going to have some sort of fresh air exchanger to compensate?

    Kind of like when people try to insulate wrong, or they repair stucco by sealing off the exterior of the house with the wrong materials and then create all sorts of new problems for themselves.

    • Hi Deborah!

      There is no way I will very get my huge old wood house TIGHT like a new energy-efficient house, which are so tight they require a fresh air exchanger.

      My hope is that I am right on the edge of tight enough to keep the house warm/cool, but not so tight that I am axphixiated!

  9. Happy Valentines Day to another owner of a Vic fixer upper! Not near as large as yours, but a love story nonetheless!!

    Just read of your story today, via Circa, and hope to follow along with your progress!!

    Did I read correctly…12 bathrooms? What about the kitchen??? I went without any usable space for over a year! I wasn’t crazy when I bought this place, but your life begins to be taken over. Am I right!

    • Hi Carole!

      By 1999, the Cross House had 14 bathrooms!

      When I am done with the restoration, the house will have 6.5 bathrooms.

      And one kitchen.

  10. I was going to say that foam between 2X4s means every 2X4 is an uninsulated space creating different problems. I live in an old hippie house in Maine and the builder told my friend he wouldn’t need insulation with the board over board walls. Yeah right. I moved in in October and the wind that blew up the spaces between the boards would blow a cup of coffee right out of your hand and cold. I caulked every hole seam an crack and then put in 2″ of double foil faced foam – also caulked. The year before, my friend used 8 cords of wood and it was still cold. Last year we used 3 cords and could get it over 80 in here.
    So, use the 4″ sheets.

    • That is a good point. If you install rigid foam insulation directly to the existing ceiling without the wood framing, you could then overlay that with a vapor barrier, and install the drywall directly on top of that. That would increase the effective insulation value, as the 2x4s do act as a thermal bridge. The installation would be tricker, as you’d need to use very long screws for the drywall, and it would be harder to hit the existing joists behind all those layers, but if you marked them on the adjacent walls, and chalklined this location on top of the vapor barrier, it may not be that bad.

  11. Don’t forget that people in 1890 dressed differently too. They wore heavy wool with layers of cotton under it. I get upset when people complain about their cost of heating a house, but they are wearing tee shirts and khakis all winter. A bit of common sense about how to dress can save a LOT of money, and also be kinder to our environment. My Victorian is very drafty, but since I live in an area with very high radon levels and my “basement” is basically a tall crawl space with a later addition of a poured cement floor, I intend to keep it drafty. If I had money, I would jack up the house and put a proper basement under it with radon shields. But since I am disabled and so, poor, I will keep it drafty. And dress more appropriately for WINTER!

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