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Northern Comfort: Staying beautifully warm

Updated on February 6, 2013

Winter is heating season

Dreaming of a cosy home

It's that time of year again: Christmas planning, cabin fever, and the eternal dillema: Do we really need all this stuff ... and can we afford to heat a big house to hold it all?

I imagine a perfectly cosy small home: perhaps a Scandinavian cabin, or a little gypsy riverboat, or a country farmhouse with a welcoming front porch. Even a loft apartment could fit the bill.

When I open the door, I see just the right things on the walls and shelves. The kitchen is small enough that I can reach everything without moving; no digging through surplus pots and pans; the everyday items on display are both pretty and functional. The windowsill has green herbs, and a few cherished ornaments. In the living area there are books and a chest of toys, a fireplace with its tools. The bathroom has enough towels for a company weekend but they all fit in the laundry basket; and there is never a problem finding the first-aid kit.

It is two or three bedrooms, with the living room doubling as guest space (and bunkbeds for kids). The kitchen, dining, and living areas overlap a bit. 'Overflow' space might include a huge workshop/garage that does not need to be heated or kept clean. The church hall or community center works fine for big family events, and we do our social entertaining mostly in summer.

This idealized cool-climate cottage would also have some lovely light, and with every trick in my book, it will be conveniently comfortable winter and summer. People will be warm, pipes won't freeze, and the heating bill will be under $300 per winter.

Hey, I've done the last part already.

Warm Thoughts

sweater season fantasies... Image courtesy of Berroco, Inc
sweater season fantasies... Image courtesy of Berroco, Inc | Source
Elegance doesn't have to be cold ... Image courtesy of Berroco Inc
Elegance doesn't have to be cold ... Image courtesy of Berroco Inc | Source

Warm People

'The weather outside is frightful, but in here it's so delightful..."

People are more important than things. And easier to keep warm, too. If we can keep crews of Arctic oil explorers warm in all seasons, we can surely keep ourselves warm in moderate climates without needing to burn so much of their hard-earned product.

If you can keep yourself warm without needing the rest of the house so hot, you can save oodles of energy - as much as 20% off your heating bill if you can lower the thermostat by 5 to 10 degrees. (Paul Wheaton did a great article on a series of experiments that cut his heating bill by 87%.) Warming people instead of air can be done in lots of ways.

Warm Clothes - Classics and Fashions: Like Mom said, put on a sweater. Slippers too. For elegance try a scarf or shawl - even lacy stuff like tulle or feather-and-fan patterns can be wonderfully warm. These make good Christmas gifts, especially in non-scratchy fabrics like silk, mohair, cashmere, alpaca, as well as synthetics and good old-fashioned sheep's wool. (Avoid cotton, as it gets very chilly when damp.) Slinky sweater-dresses and hoodie-scarves make a nice update on the classic Scandinavian and Celtic cable-knits.

When you're outside, a warm hat can save over 80% of your body heat. You might even think of trying a cute old-fashioned nightcap for bedtime, especially if your master bedroom is off in some cold corner of the house.

Don't forget synthetic or wool-blend socks, stockings, or tights. Avoid cotton leggings and socks; they are strictly summer wear, especially in damp climates. Cotton chills quickly when wet.

For more modern fashions, look for synthetic versions of your favorite styles, like a fleece hoodie, or wool-blend ski pants. Silk long underwear is incredibly effective, and slim-line to fit under any fashions. Short skirts and dresses pair well with tights and boots, long scarves, and full-length fur coats. You don't have to look like your grandmother to appreciate her advice.

A pointed remark to grasshoppers:
Blue-tinged winter skin is not that attractive. Among other things, it kind of blatantly announces that you don't contribute much toward the heating bill, food costs, nor any outdoor emergency - such as fire alarms, or walking into town after the car runs off the icy road. Gals, at the very least, carry your own cab fare.

Winter Activity: Activity converts food energy into warmth. Staying active will keep you healthy, and you'll sleep better at night too. Exposing just the face or forearms to sunlight for half an hour supplies your daily vitamin D - you can practically get that much sun on the way to the mailbox. For more active fun, try winter traditions like sauna, snowball fights, sledding, skiiing, wood-chopping, and ice-skating to boost your metabolism.

Warm Nooks: Create a warm mini-shelter for sedentary activities in your home.

The Japanese kotatsu or Persian korsi is a table with a quilted drape cover, with a mini-heater under it, so your toes stay warm while you do homework.

Drafty old English manor houses make four-poster beds a practical luxury: closed, the drapes conserve body heat while you sleep. Even a 10th-century Viking who had never used a chimney would have been familiar with a cupboard-bed or seating nook near the fire, to wall out drafts.

Kids everywhere can identify with the cosy, slightly stuffy warmth of a blanket fort, or tucking your nose under the covers to read after dark. All these are examples of ways to frame in a smaller space, concentrating the warmth and eliminating cold drafts.

Lining the Nest: Quilts, furs, down comforters, and fleecy blankets make a warm nook into a luxurious nest. Electric blankets or bed-warmers can pre-heat the bed, and body heat keeps it warm once you are inside.

Pre-electric bedwarmers include warming irons, pans of hot coals, hot stones, or hot-water-bottles for the foot of the bed. This type of portable, localized heat also works for TV and office areas, where you tend to sit in one place for a long time.

Ever known a dog with foot fetish? This is a common trait in many companion breeds, incidentally a lot of these are small enough to fit comfortably under a desk.

Warm Light = Radiant Heat:
Fire and incandescent lamps give off heat as well as light.

A heat lamp (or chick-brooder light bulb) adds warmth to the bathroom or desk. Incandescent desk lamps do a little bit too. Electric heaters are one of the least-efficient room heating options, but with good insulation they can serve occasional-use rooms very nicely. (A super-insulated room can be kept warm on the heat from a single candle flame.)

Some wood burning stoves and fireplaces offer more radiant heat than others. Look up the 'Rumford Fireplace' or 'radiant fireplace' design to see if your fireplace is as efficient as it can be. And practice laying a clean fire with good dry wood. More efficient wood heat is available for the serious homeowner (here's a whole online discussion forum about wood burning stoves). Simple maintenance and cleaning, and understanding the fundamentals of wood heat, can dramatically improve the performance of any installation.

Pocket warmers: Carry your own warmth anywhere. Serious scouts know all about chemical hand-warmers (some also fit into the toes of roomy boots, and some are re-usable). Laura Engalls Wilder described receiving fresh baked potatoes to tuck under the lap-rugs on a sleigh ride. Microwaveable beanbags, hot water bottles, or even a warmed brick will keep your essential nuggets toasty.

Warm Food and Drink: Soup, hot chocolate, mulled cider, and other warm liquids offer both hydration and dense thermal mass to keep you warm inside and out. (Hydration matters in winter: warmed winter air tends to have less moisture, causing uncomfortable chapped lips and dry skin. If you dry out enough, you can even lose volume in the hypothalimus, the are of the brain that allows your body to regulate its own temperature. Dehydration can speed the onset of hypothermia in survival situations.) Winter stews and baked goods can also boost the home's heat while they are cooking. Herbal teas, winter spices, and coffee can also boost immune systems and improve mood and energy levels; there's a reason for eggnog!

Be careful with alcoholic drinks, as they create the illusion of warmth. Alcohol moves warm blood from the core of the body out to the skin, giving face and fingers a rosy flush. This can make people feel warmer, yet lose heat faster in the cold. Also consider the likely impact of alcohol on people's driving ability or delicate tasks; Christmas and New Years are horrible nights for driving accidents. (One of my favorite traditions growing up was an all-night New Year's fancy-dress dance party that turned into a pajama party at midnight.) Hot mulled wine and brandy-laced eggnog are popular for indoor parties and vacation-cabin reunions, but should not be used for outdoor survival.

Keeping spirits bright: It's important to feel loved and appreciated, rather than isolated. Winter depression can lead to poor self-care and even suicide. Basic preventive tools include staying active; getting outdoors for some sunlight exposure; or artificial full-spectrum lights on timers to mimic ordinary daylight.

The holidays can help cheer people up, or make things worse if expectations exceed the reality. Keep the focus on taking care of friends and family, and don't forget those who may not have family of their own. Remember 'perfect is the enemy of good' - don't get caught up in the misery-cycle of trying make things perfect even if it kills us. Be generous not just with gifts, but with gift expectations - allow re-gifting, or give consumable items like nuts, candies, candles or soap that can be shared with other guests. The point of the season is to give joy, not keep score. A good sense of humor is the best holiday accessory.

Even if you don't celebrate a religious holiday, consider donating time to help others. Make a point to keep up with healthy social connections and activities. Weekly book clubs, bible studies, volunteer work, or craft circles can make for cosy winter friendships. Reach out with correspondence, phone calls, or Internet to people you can't visit in person. Invite local friends over for a 'naked lady party' (used-clothing swap), or White Elephant / Yankee Swap.

Remember to be nice to the people you are snowbound with - and that includes yourself.

Home design concepts

Strawbale Studio, sunny side (Oxford, MI) Note that toward the end of summer, morning and afternoon light is just starting to reach the windows - in fall and winter, it comes right in all day long.
Strawbale Studio, sunny side (Oxford, MI) Note that toward the end of summer, morning and afternoon light is just starting to reach the windows - in fall and winter, it comes right in all day long.
Igloos are proof you can build a warm home anywhere
Igloos are proof you can build a warm home anywhere
Cottage in progress in Maine - southern exposure
Cottage in progress in Maine - southern exposure
Sun angles are predictable, so why not use them?
Sun angles are predictable, so why not use them?
Porches are an easy way to add shade and shelter. (Oregon small-town home)
Porches are an easy way to add shade and shelter. (Oregon small-town home)
Prairie passive solar - stairwell cooling
Prairie passive solar - stairwell cooling
Sears Catalog home from 1913 (porch removed) in Stanley, WI
Sears Catalog home from 1913 (porch removed) in Stanley, WI
Cooling for hot climates - Arabic and Mediterranean styles
Cooling for hot climates - Arabic and Mediterranean styles
Masonry heaters store heat in thermal mass, allowing a short hot fire to provide all-night comfort.
Masonry heaters store heat in thermal mass, allowing a short hot fire to provide all-night comfort. | Source
Hot feet beat cold feet; and a warm floor means occupants don't need a hot head.
Hot feet beat cold feet; and a warm floor means occupants don't need a hot head.
Strawbale studio - shady side (Oxford, MI)
Strawbale studio - shady side (Oxford, MI)

A Warm House

We were talking with the folks who deliver firewood around here, mystified about why people go in for such big houses these days. I suggested it might be because we are isolated - instead of having our big social gatherings at a church hall or community hall, we expect to host all our friends at our own home. But I think the reason is simpler: we have become accustomed to such cheap energy that we can afford a lot of cheap stuff, and then we feel we need a big space to store it all.

Modern American culture involves a type of conspicuous consumption that is ironically disguised as 'independence'. We buy separate things for each individual or 'nuclear' family instead of sharing, resulting in financial dependence on outside industries rather than our own resourcefullness. This may have originally helped create American independence by fostering local industries, but nowadays we buy most of our food and belongings from overseas manufacturers, and we have a lot of personal and national debt as a result.

True independence means being able to live comfortably within your means, on your own resources - even if a major local employer or outside supplier falls through. This means, among other things, returning to some older values like thrift, and distinguishing between wants and needs. A good house will be designed to support the residents' basic needs in the everyday core, with luxury spaces for occasional overflow or prosperous hobbies.

There are some basic tools for making the house itself a warm and cosy space - literally. The house itself should be laid out so that it's easy to heat, and ideally the pipes should not freeze even if we go on vacation.

The first step is a compact layout: just like a cat in wintertime curls up round, we want the house to be all collected around its core to keep itself warm. This can mean a smaller floor plan; or it can mean drawing in the 'legs' of a bigger house by converting summer screen porches and other unused rooms into buffers around the central core.

Compact floor plans include the Cape Cod, Saltbox, Dutch and Scandinavian designs; Craftsman and Mansard forms are pretty efficient, as are some log cabins. The less-efficient forms might include a sprawled-out California Ranch, some Victorians with too many gables and towers (surface area means it will lose more heat), long and skinny manufactured homes, or open-plan tropical designs.

The second step is insulation and weatherization. Just as animals put on a thicker fur coat in the wintertime, we should have a good layer of insulation around the outside of our house. Attic or ceiling insulation and gap-stopping is one of the most useful steps: you don't realize how much the warm air drafting up through the ceiling influences those cold drafts at the floor. Window edges, walls, and then floors are next most important. We usually don't insulate the roof itself, unless we can do so while preserving ventilation, because the house does need to breathe. Condensation and damp from snow and rain can quickly rot an over-insulated roof. The rule of thumb for ventilation is to allow a minimum of 1/3 of the home's volume of air per hour; some houses draft 4 times this much, or worse.

We can also change to insulated drapes in winter, and for occasional-use rooms some carpeting or quilted wall-hangings might help warm up the space while we're in it. Why not use these everywhere? Because insulation preserves a difference in temperature, but doesn't hold heat itself.

The third factor for a house staying warm is thermal mass. This is like the dense bones and fat layers of Arctic animals, holding heat in the core despite wind chill. Thermal mass should be located inside the insulation layer, so that once the house gets warm, it stays that way. This is kind of like keeping your fridge or freezer full so it doesn't have to work so hard. The stones of the fireplace; the weight of the furniture and floors; your own body mass are all part of the home's thermal mass. Some cold-climate buildings like log cabins and stone or earthen masonry have a lot of thermal mass in the walls; passive-solar and radiant-floor designs use a heavy slab floor with insulation underneath. This thermal mass stores heat, allowing a daily fire or the sun's warmth to be retained well into the evening, and slowing down the hot-and-cold cycles that can make winter such a miserable time for dry throats and stuffy noses. You can even increase the thermal mass with jars of prettily colored water or oil in the windowsills, if you don't want to make permanent alterations.

The fourth factor is environmental orientation, also called passive solar design. We're not talking liberal bias here; we're talking actual compass orientation that takes a conservative approach to heating and cooling. Big windows and long walls should face toward the sun, with more insulation and fewer windows (think closets) on the shady side. Eaves should be wide enough to shade the building in summer, but let in plenty of light in winter. A Sears catalog farmhouse, with wrap-around porches, gives a good classic layout that's easy to adapt in any direction for passive solar; some of the Wright houses take passive solar to elegant modern extremes.

More advanced passive solar design does cool things with landscaping too. Windbreaks or garden features to give shelter from the prevailing winds without blocking the sun's warmth. Some people use a reflecting pool to beam more winter sun into the front windows. Any necessary outbuildings such as a woodshed, or animal barn if you are on a farm, may be connected with passageways and courtyards for extra shelter too. It pays to think about this in advance; a sun-facing courtyard becomes a solar bowl, while a courtyard that faces away from the sun can stay very cool even in summer.

(Arguably, orientation should be the first consideration; it's one of the hardest things to fix on a poorly-designed existing home.)

A fifth factor is summer-winter adaptability. Many areas have muggy or unpleasantly hot summers, but bitterly cold winters. Decidious trees and vines that lose their leaves can help balance the need for summer shade and winter sun. (Evergreens are more useful as windbreaks - evergreen hedges especially.)

Winter sun is lower in the sky, so a wide roof overhang can block unwanted summer heat while allowing winter light deep into the home. Decorations can double as winter warmers: quilted curtains, or lace curtains for everyday with heavier side drapes that are only used on winter nights.

A sixth factor is ventilation control: being able to open and shut doors, windows, and registers. Hot-climate homes have open plans to allow cross-ventilation day and night; many also have cooling towers, shaded collonades, and courtyards that draw warm air away from the rooms. If you can't shut these features off in winter, they will bankrupt a cold-climate home.

Cold-climate or temperate-climate homes should have good doors to open and close for control of air movement. Stairwell doors are particularly powerful; a central stairwell can draft a huge amount of cool basement air up into the house, or help move heat from lower floors to upper ones in the evenings.

Some older homes have 'registers' or screened holes through the ceiling / floor above the parlor stove, with a flap to open and close to control warm air flow into the upstairs. Registers on your central air should also be kept in good repair, to help balance the heat in different rooms.

Hearth at the Heart of the Home:

The warmest rooms in the house will likely be the kitchen (from the heat of cooking), and the rooms closest to the heater. Passive solar design can add warmth to sun-facing rooms, but large unshaded windows can also take it away at night.

The rooms that need the most consistent warmth will likely be

  • the living room or rec room (where people sit on winter evenings),
  • the bathroom (where we take off our clothes and bathe), and
  • if working from home, the office or client rooms (massage studio, music room, etc)
  • next, the bedrooms, especially a nursery or elders' rooms. (Through all the long hours of a cold winter night, we need enough heat, but not too much, to sleep tight.)
  • the plumbing (protected and/or easily drained).

These rooms are the core of the home for winter heating purposes.

Good heaters are central. A super-efficient masonry heater at the core of a house can heat three or more rooms directly, and even provide a heated bench or bed for extreme cold snaps. Radiant fireplaces sharing a central chimney can also be a valuable heating asset if used intelligently; these are less efficient but very attractive. If the home has central (forced-air) heating, the furnace can be located directly below these rooms so they have the benefit of the shortest path through the forced-air ducting.

Some rooms may actually benefit from being further away from the heater, such as:

  • kitchen, excercise, play, or work rooms (where people are active, or appliances generate warmth)
  • storage rooms, including food storage such as root cellars and cold-closets
  • occasional-use rooms such as a parlor, guest room, chapel, great-room etc. (with supplemental heat when in use)
  • transition spaces for indoor-outdoor activities like pet rooms, mud rooms, porches, garages.

The core of the house is: Food, water, fire. A comfortable nook for privacy and company, and room to sleep. All of these can be accommodated in a single room if necessary; or in a core of no more than three or four rooms. Optional rooms should be optional to heat.

Many ancient systems of house design happen to lay out a very similar pattern. Sometimes it's through a set of rules - feng shui, for example, fits very nicely with passive solar design. Other times it's through a set of conventional patterns; look at traditional cottages or studio apartments for efficient layout of heat, wet walls, and other necessities.
Don't be misled by parlors and museum tours. Parlors are for occasional use only. Rich people can afford to be inefficient. Poor people may have little control over their homes' layout, or little incentive to make improvements that could increase their rent. Look to skilled tradesmen and working families with low to moderate income, but secure land rights, for examples of the most efficient and comfortable homes.

Manor houses are the exception rather than the rule; they tend to be laid out more like a hotel or conference center, and historically may have served much the same function. Wings full of individually-heated guest rooms and parlors with their own fireplaces; a great hall with a big fireplace for meetings and ceremonies. Historic servants' quarters may be in easily-warmed attics or around the kitchen's warmth; or in cold, far corners depending on the masters' consideration.

Locate the heat low in the occupied rooms, and use thermal mass to store it.
This is much easier to do in modern times than ever before. Yet we have become so accustomed to cheap energy that we just pour money out the roof and windows.

Many ancient cultures used floor heaters either for fancy homes (Chinese officials, Roman palaces), or for a community feature such as a Turkish bathhouse or sauna. Areas with natural steam and hot springs tend to become sacred retreats or develop into luxury destinations. Steam is a cantankerous but effective transmitter of heat.

Radiant-heated floors dramatically improve the heating situation because they counteract air stratification (the tendency for hot air to collect at the ceiling). With a radiant floor, people report the same comfort in a house up to 10 degrees cooler, a massive reduction of heating load. They are now being used for some cathedrals and chapels, where high ceilings make forced-air heating ridiculously inefficient. They're also great in barefoot houses or bathrooms. The problem comes in getting the heat source inside the home too, so that the efficiency is not counteracted by transmission losses from an outdoor boiler or distant power source.

Fireplaces that are flush with the floor are going to heat more effectively than those on a raised hearth. Masonry heaters and rocket mass heaters that include a heated bench, bed, or floor will improve comfort much more dramatically than a chimney tower or wall.

Don't go too low - putting the heater in an unused space, such as the basement, means that space will get more than its share of the heat. (A furnace is designed for such neglect; but radiant woodstoves and masonry heaters will under-perform in this situation.)

In case you are now despairing over ever finding such a floor plan:
Grandma tells me there is no such thing as a perfect house. She raised her kids in 27 different homes, so she would know. There's always an awkward corner where the cupboard bumps the door, or the stairwell in just the wrong place. But if you own your home, good design and careful observation will help you make genuine improvements rather than expensive mistakes.

Look at your neighbors' homes, especially local homes more than 100-200 years old. Houses built before the era of cheap electricity, and which have survived in constant use for more than a century, are likely to be great design examples for your area.

Historic houses last because they work: something about that home made it valuable to every generation that has enjoyed and maintained it. Registered historic homes have raised many generations of reliable people who kept the building sound through good maintenance, and/or at least one remarkable person who left a valuable legacy.

It's also worth looking at innovative, purpose-built energy-efficient homes, especially those by famous designers. Tiny Houses and Tiny Homes are two good books with many examples. But remember that many of these innovative designs have not been tested by time. Use them as inspiration, especially for modernizing your style; but be sure to use the lessons from experience and history as well.

If you can, try to talk with the current maintenance crew of older homes - they will let you know if the home is sound through its own good design, or if it carries lessons for how to avoid future maintenance problems.

Consider other examples from older cultures in similar climates, especially if there's also some cultural similarities or kinship. (The attitude a culture takes toward privacy, in-laws, child-rearing, and so on may be a big factor in whether their solutions will suit your needs.) Russian and Swedish immigrants brought some great technologies to the North American midwest.

Look at how your neighbors live, not just their home's appearance; and consider whether you'd be comfortable with the same lifestyle. Every lifestyle has its compromises; some accommodate more gracefully than others the trials of illness, injury, child-rearing, or old age.

Books and Resources

Tiny Homes: Simple Shelter (The Shelter Library of Building Books)
Tiny Homes: Simple Shelter (The Shelter Library of Building Books)

Tiny houses - many strange, creative, or portable - for inspiration in creating a compact home core design.



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