Sunday, April 13, 2008

Old houses as "green" investments

I've been posting back and forth with Chile about life in old houses, and it got me to thinking about how old houses could be considered a "green" investment.

First, most were designed to deal with having limited heat and virtually no cooling. So many things were done with passive heating and cooling in mind, from the layout of the rooms, the ceiling heights (high to draw off heat in hot climates, low to conserve it in cooler ones), sleeping porches, double-hung windows that could be raised from the bottom or lowered from the top, even things like using heavy drapes to insulate (something a mini-blind never could consider doing). We have a big maple tree planted at the south corner of the house that shades the house when it's the hottest but lets the sun shine through in the winter. And for most people, if you were too cold in the winter you bundled up, and if you were too hot in the summer you went outside - no cranking the thermostat up or down.

Now, granted, many folks with old houses are now dealing with drafty old windows, no insulation in the walls, inefficient old boilers, etc., but the investment and challenge are worth it -- far more than the "challenge" of heating and cooling a McMansion and it's vaulted-ceilinged "great room", huge windows that create their own localized intense greenhouse effect in the summer, room layouts that are done without any thought to things like the location of the sun and the ability to open certain windows for a nice cross-breeze, and all of the other wasted spaces that permeate so many of those homes. Rooms are far bigger than folks really need -- some walk-in closets and bathrooms in a McMansion are bigger than some of the bedrooms in an old house. But even the storage spaces in old houses reflect the changing values and perspectives -- most had very little space for clothes and shoes since folks generally had dramatically less of those things than they do now, and yet most had ample spaces for all of the things that it took to cook and serve large family meals on a regular basis.

Old houses are probably the biggest thing out there that you can reuse, restore, recycle. Old houses were generally made with materials that, properly cared for, will likely last for another century or more, as opposed to the new houses that use materials that are far less likely to stand up to many decades of wear. Now, granted, many of those old materials represent the result of wide-scale deforestation, but it benefits no one to tear that down and put a new house up in its place, or leave the old house to rot and buy a new one that was build out in the fields of the latest small family farm that went bankrupt.

Somewhere in the yard of many old houses is a spot where the soil was tended for decades, growing gardens to supply much of the family's food. Somewhere in the yard of many old houses is a spot where a small chicken coop, there to provide eggs and sometimes meat, used to stand. A house in the neighborhood where I used to live in Philadelphia even had an original small goat shed. Somewhere in the yard of many old houses is a place where the laundry was hung to dry. In most old houses, those spots are unidentifiable, but many folks are going back to the old ways of growing/raising a lot of their own foods and letting the sun do the work of a dryer.

But for me, the most important thing is that every old house has a hundred hidden stories. Most of those stories are now permanently hidden, but even if the details are lost to us, the history and energy that they leave behind helps make our old houses that much more special.

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