This Cold House

This weekend was productive, in the minutia of everyday life kind of way. Returned some stuff at IKEA, bought some BILLY bookshelves and a kitchen cart. Lugged it all in, assembled everything, took down the Christmas decorations and the tree. Organized two closets, unpacked eight boxes of books, and gathered things to donate.

But now, onto the only thing I can think about today: dang, it’s cold out! This photo is from last week, but there’s at least another 6″ more of snow out there now.

Snowy Victorian House

We aren’t new to living in an old house. Brandon grew up in a Victorian nearby, and our first home was built in 1910, making this one is just 19 years older, from 1891. The first year though, living through a complete weather cycle, is always going to be one of learning what your home’s particular quirks are. This first winter in our Victorian is quickly showing us which windows need attention, where we might want to increase insulation, and reminding us to leave the basement faucet trickling when the temperature drops absurdly and abnormally low.

We’re also learning what we can do to even out the temperature between floors. Our other house had zoned forced-air heating (one furnace for the basement and first floor, and another upstairs), but the Victorian has hot water radiators. If the temperature outside is 20°F or warmer, the heat is fairly even throughout the house. Below that and the first floor will be cool while the second and third floors are toasty. With a temperature outside right now of -14°F, that first floor is downright cold (the thermostat puts it at 57° and dropping) and even the second floor is a little chilly. I think that what will work, moving forward, is to manually adjust the radiators on the third floor to turn them down/off when it’s really cold out. We’re staying relatively warm on the second floor, hunkering in and hoping the unusually frigid air moves out of the midwest by tomorrow, as predicted.

I love being the caretaker of this crazy old house, but there’s a learning curve.

63 Responses to “This Cold House”

  1. Kathryn January 6, 2014 at 1:05 pm #

    You know about this, yes? http://nicorgasrebates.com/index.php/programs/hes

    • Making it Lovely January 6, 2014 at 2:54 pm #

      Yeah, Nicor has to change our utility from a commercial account to a residential for us to be eligible. The previous owners converted this from multi-family to single… except nope, not really! Straightening out the bureaucracy has been fun.

  2. Mina January 6, 2014 at 1:15 pm #

    My sister lives up in Chicago and I feel for ya. It IS cold out there! Whoo! But, your home is absolutely stunning. Especially with all that snow. Gorgeous!! I love old houses too. So much charm. Have a wonderful New Year Nicole!

  3. Kelly January 6, 2014 at 1:15 pm #

    A lot of people closed off rooms in those big old Victorians to save energy — maybe that would be an option? I also forget if your house has functional fireplaces, but they make super-efficient fireplace inserts now. You have to get your chimney re-lined and they put some sort of insert in the firebox, but they do have Victorian-looking ones. My in-laws got a fireplace insert and they can easily heat their entire 2,000-sq-ft house with it. Just some thoughts. Your house is beautiful and I enjoy seeing pictures of it and reading about it … I’m not handy enough to have a house like that myself, but I can live vicariously! :)

    Also, I LOVE those arches on the front porch. They are beautiful.

    • Making it Lovely January 6, 2014 at 2:55 pm #

      There are pocket doors and ways to close everything off, yes. And we do have a functioning fireplace, but it was coal once upon a time and was converted to gas. It’s pretty, and pretty convincing, but it doesn’t throw off a whole lot of heat. The insert sounds interesting.

  4. carrie @ brick city love January 6, 2014 at 1:17 pm #

    Your house is so lovely looking.

  5. Heather K January 6, 2014 at 1:27 pm #

    We just bought some plastic kits from Home Depot to insulate our old windows and they have worked surprisingly well. If you just put “window insulator kit” in the search box on their website it comes right up. The plastic is extremely clear so you can barely even see it. I don’t notice it at all when I just walk into the rooms where we’ve done it. It probably made close to a 10 degree difference in one of our rooms where the windows were particularly drafty. It might be worth trying out, especially in bedrooms. :)

    • Making it Lovely January 6, 2014 at 2:59 pm #

      We’ve been meaning to wrap our windows and hadn’t gotten around to it. Obviously we really should have done it sooner!

  6. jenn aka the picky girl January 6, 2014 at 1:27 pm #

    I cannot imagine. My house is older than your first but newer than your current. I’m up high on piers, which in Texas isn’t usually problematic. But this winter has been so cold, and my heat (which I had installed when I moved in; there wasn’t even ductwork) just isn’t keeping up. The kitchen at the back of the house and the front rooms are cold, while the dining room and my bedroom (in the middle of the house) are toasty. I can’t stand it, but I’m grateful I’m dealing with weather in the 20s and 30s as opposed to much lower. Stay warm!

    • Making it Lovely January 6, 2014 at 3:02 pm #

      If you hadn’t installed heat, there wouldn’t have been any? Yikes. Stay warm, yourself!

  7. Sarah @ 702 Park Project January 6, 2014 at 1:30 pm #

    I know it can be inconvenient, but that picture is just gorgeous! Enjoy this time learning your house!!

  8. Ellen January 6, 2014 at 1:31 pm #

    Hey Nicole,

    I’m no contractor but you may need to get more insulation put in your attic. Those icicles are a very clear indication of where heat (and money) is escaping from your roof.

    Keep you and those sweeties of yours warm!

    • Making it Lovely January 6, 2014 at 3:03 pm #

      Brandon and I were talking about that the other day. “How is it warm enough for the ice to be melting outside the window? Oh, right…”

  9. Jessica S. January 6, 2014 at 1:36 pm #

    I’m sure your family is so cold, at this point, that you’re willing to sacrifice appearances for a little more warmth; but, your home looks absolutely magical in the photo above!

    Happy 2014 — And hope that you and yours are staying cozily bundled.

  10. Jane January 6, 2014 at 1:42 pm #

    I live in a nearly 100 year old home. Do you have any advice for better insulation under the house? We do not have a basement but a crawl space you can stand up in. There is currently no insulation under the house. I am confused as to the best course of action. I do not want to create a mold issue. What do you think you all will do to address some of the insulation issues?

    • Making it Lovely January 6, 2014 at 3:07 pm #

      I don’t feel qualified to offer any insulation advice. We’re going to have to do some research to see what we can do here, maybe calling in a pro for a quote.

      • Jane January 7, 2014 at 3:32 pm #

        Thank you! I know you can’t give out professional insulation advice but you are my style and home decor guru!! I thought I would try and bend your ear first ;)!! Good luck!

  11. Stephanie January 6, 2014 at 1:43 pm #

    Girl, I feel for ya. I’m freezing my butt off a few blocks away from you. We are month 9 of OUR old Victorian and while we knew we are going to need new windows throughout the whole house, these past few days have made it crystal clear! It’s currently 46* at my desk (I have a digital candy thermometer sitting there telling me how cold I am).

    Will you be replacing your windows at some point? If so, I’m very curious what you do. We haven’t seriously started looking but we want to get something that fits the era of the house.

    Until then, I’ll just be sitting here, nagging my husband to put the plastic on the windows like he said he would do for the past month and a half. ;)

    • Making it Lovely January 6, 2014 at 3:28 pm #

      Yep, we’ve been talking about putting up plastic film and sealing off the doors for a while now. Would have been a good idea to do it way back when! I hope you get yours up soon.

      Most of our windows are in good structural shape — they’re just drafty. There are ways to increase the efficiency of old windows though, and that’s often a better way to go than replacement. I’ll write about what we do with ours, but we probably won’t be tackling them at least until it’s warmer out.

      • Torie K. January 6, 2014 at 3:42 pm #

        Hi Nicole! We live in a similar aged house a few blocks off the Fox River in St. Charles. Brrr….the wind off the Fox is brutal. We did wrap all the windows and it has made a HUGE difference! Although, I need to be real and say no matter what you do or don’t do, weather like this is going to sneak into these older houses…it’s just that FREAKIN’ COLD.

      • judy January 6, 2014 at 6:29 pm #

        I remember seeing a bit on This Old House years ago about a person coming out in a van with a shop setup and retro fitting just the glass part of the window. I think he was able to add another layer of glass creating a double pane effect-it maintained the esthetic of age but the efficiency of a more modern window.

  12. Lynn January 6, 2014 at 1:45 pm #

    Hi Nicole! I am not one to ever share or reply to blog postings & have never done so before, but today, I couldn’t help but do so. I am a neighboring MN girl (live 25 mi. N or MSP/St. Paul) & also live in a cute little 1907 Victorian (albeit much less sq. ft. than yours) & we are sharing your “pain” today! My husband & I started our restoration almost 23 years ago & in our foolish youth, should have replaced the entire heating/cooling systems while we had the house torn apart, but at the time had a lot less $$, so decided not to. SO, although that will be done finally now in the Spring, we help supplement our heat w/2 little electric heaters that look like baseboard heaters. It helps immensely. It is just part of our winter living that most people don’t understand living in more modern homes. They come out in Nov. & get put away in March. We tried many & these baseboard ones work best for us. Our current ones are a LASKO brand & I believe my husband picked them up @ Home Depot or Menards (do you have them in Chicago area?). I believe Walmart may even carry them. We just are careful to make sure they are always turned off when we go to bed and/or leave the home. They otherwise are quite safe & made to just radiate heat up. The entire heater stays cool to the touch w/only the top grate-type area getting warm/hot.

    I enjoy your blog especially because of your love of older homes & also enjoy your writing. Take care & keep warm! Just a few hours to go!!

    • Making it Lovely January 6, 2014 at 3:31 pm #

      I’ll look into them! We have a small space heater that I bought for my office (it was an addition to the house, and it’s a bit colder than the rest), and another that looks like a portable radiator that was left with the house.

  13. anisa January 6, 2014 at 1:49 pm #

    your house is absolutely gorgeous! The snow looks stunning too!

  14. meta January 6, 2014 at 2:16 pm #

    Have you thought about a thermographic inspection? Here (in Switzerland) it’s usually the first thing we do, to know which area of the house leak the energy thus you put them as priority.
    I found this through Google
    http://energy.gov/energysaver/articles/thermographic-inspections

    • Making it Lovely January 6, 2014 at 3:33 pm #

      Yes, I think we’re going to do something like that. It doesn’t seem to be commonplace here, but I think it would be helpful.

  15. Kay January 6, 2014 at 2:40 pm #

    You’re probably losing a ton of heat out of the roof, hence the giant icicles. :) Once we reinsulated our entire roof, it made such a difference in the winter.

    • Making it Lovely January 6, 2014 at 3:34 pm #

      How did you do that? While replacing the roofing, or by adding insulation to an attic or crawl space?

      • Kay January 8, 2014 at 11:48 am #

        We replaced the old attic insulation with blown-in insulation. :)

  16. Shivni January 6, 2014 at 3:04 pm #

    Love your journey in setting up a new home!! we will be moving into a new house…nothing as historic as yours..but nevertheless will be a tough thing to move 15 yrs worth of stuff!! I love ready your blog to get ideas and reviews of various things!! How do you find the quality of all the IKEA products? I was looking into their closet systems and was not sure how good they are.

    • Making it Lovely January 6, 2014 at 3:36 pm #

      Depends on the specific item. Some of the furniture is solid wood, and I’ve always found the quality pretty good on those pieces, but the cheaper particle board stuff is something you have to kind of go into knowing it won’t last forever.

  17. Brittany January 6, 2014 at 3:05 pm #

    Our house is around the same age and has it’s quirks too. For me, slippers with good soles, thermal socks, and several pairs of warm fleecies/’soft pants’ are must haves. This year we bought an infrared heater too, which definitely helps heat the room we place it in. Hope Chicago warms up soon!!

  18. Erin January 6, 2014 at 3:06 pm #

    Haha I’m so glad you used the word hunkering! I was home in Wisconsin for Christmas and we were debating if it was a word or not because we all use it! We ultimately decided that because they used it on the weather channel it is, in fact, a real word. It was all very scientific!

    I also flew out of O’Hare and spent two hours sitting in the plane before take off so they could de-ice. I’m glad to be back in the south again. Hope you guys are staying safe and warm!

  19. Cher January 6, 2014 at 3:08 pm #

    I’m just down the road from you (literally, like half a mile) and I have a 110+ year old house with hot water radiators. You should definitely get someone out to look at your radiators to make sure they are functioning properly ASAP. A fun thing I learned is that you can’t “turn then down,” you can either use the knob to turn them full-open (on) or full-closed (off). I got a small space heater to bring to the “cold” rooms when I need to use them, and until literally today, that was enough. Now, there aren’t enough space heaters in the world. BRRR stay warm!

    • Making it Lovely January 6, 2014 at 3:49 pm #

      That’s what we kind of thought, but then I second-guessed myself and wondered if I just wasn’t doing it right! Ha. I haven’t lived in a house with radiators since I was 10, and as a kid I was just told “don’t touch!”

  20. Vanessa January 6, 2014 at 3:24 pm #

    I feel you, lady. We have a 120-year-old heritage home in Nova Scotia (Canada) and trying to heat it when it gets this cold is a daunting task. We’re contemplating installing heat pumps in the spring. I’ve heard great things about them in similar homes to ours. Good luck figuring out what will work for you guys!

    • Making it Lovely January 6, 2014 at 3:51 pm #

      I have fantasies of radiant heating in the kitchen floor if we ever do a major remodel of the space. The reality is probably going to look more like added insulation and window efficiency though!

  21. Kristin January 6, 2014 at 3:28 pm #

    Ha! I hear ya, we are in MKE and damn it’s cold. We also have an old Victorian/Federal house built in 1903…yesterday I had the heat at 74 so our noses weren’t running downstairs but it was sweltering on our second floor. Today I set the heat at our normal temp (72, not normal I know) & hibernating upstairs. I guess it is the price you pay for a house with character. And hey, in the summer all is nice and cool and we rarely have to turn on the AC…so there’s that!

    • Making it Lovely January 6, 2014 at 3:52 pm #

      We haven’t been here for a whole summer obviously, but when we were here during hot weather, the house did stay fairly cool. Hopefully we’ll have that to look forward to.

  22. Josephine January 6, 2014 at 3:42 pm #

    Wow! It looks magical, but I’m sure the reality is somewhat sobering! Living in Australia all my life, I have no concept of what living through such harsh conditions is like. We’ve never had to worry about freezing pipes, or the like. It’s fascinating and alarming! I hope the weather improves for you all!

  23. casacaudill January 6, 2014 at 4:14 pm #

    Old houses are so much fun, no?

    It took us about a year but we quickly learned the quirks of our 1910 craftsman and how to stay warm or cool.

    Strangely, we’re now in a 2009 rental apartment and it has even more quirks. This place is a refrigerator no matter what the temps are outside. It’s great in summer (although I never know how to dress) but in winter I would have expected it to do a better job at keeping warm temps in.

  24. Laurie January 6, 2014 at 4:21 pm #

    Oh your house looks charming in the snow! So beautiful!

  25. TammyLee January 6, 2014 at 4:41 pm #

    What a beautiful photo of your house, I think it should be your Christmas card next year!

  26. Julie January 6, 2014 at 4:54 pm #

    ha, I love that you shared this. We’ve always lived in old houses, from an 1895 home (but that was in GA), to some from the 1920s, and now we are in Michigan in a 50s ranch….and it’s freezing in some rooms! Particularly the two rooms that were added on in 1960 and are over crawl spaces and not basement. Our bedroom is like 15 or 20 degrees colder than the rest of the house… we just pre-heat our bed with a heated mattress pad and we’re good. Old houses are worth every single hassle (to me!).

  27. Alli January 6, 2014 at 5:20 pm #

    We are (trying) to stay warm in the suburbs! Crazy how cold its been ;)

  28. Johanna January 6, 2014 at 5:23 pm #

    Those pretty icicles can well be indicative of a bigger problem than lost heat – looks like you have some serious ice dams happening there. This can easily lead to water infiltration and subsequent damage. I’d prioritize a thermal moisture imagining service very soon – see if you have water backing up under your roofing because of the ice dams. It’s caused by melting snow (not just from escaping heat – often happens on south-facing roofs too, even in REALLY cold climates) and made worse by poorly draining gutters. Attic insulation + regularly cleaned and properly maintained wrt slope gutters makes a big difference, as does a(much more expensive, not period appropriate, and probably not effective given your complex roof lines)snow shedding metal roof. For insulation – first check that what you have up there isn’t wet, and figure out what it is. If vermiculate, you want to get it tested for asbestos. Fibreglass batts are easy to remove. Spray in foam (done by a contractor, obviously) is pretty great because it’s not only got a really high R value but also does a lot re: draft sealing. Just make sure that any electrical upgrades that need to happen up there get done first, while old insulation is out of the way. That’s my years of cold climate living in old houses, construction family two cents.

  29. Marcee ... ILLINOIS January 6, 2014 at 5:54 pm #

    Ohboy. We are going through the same exact thing. Cold, cold and more cold. Just freezing here. This house is 104 years old! It was never properly insulated. There are ways to keeping it and us a bit warmer though. For 2 days all drapes were changed with heavier backing. We blocked off hallway front door. A huge improvement! Windows (tops) have been covered nicely. You can also use pillows to block drafty floors. It isn’t terribly ugly if you use pretty flannel cases! Haaha. Cannot wait until Wednesday when temps will be warmer.

  30. Kerry January 6, 2014 at 8:37 pm #

    Oh goodness, I feel ya! My 1890 home in Cleveland is right off of Lake Erie, and I swear I can almost see the wind blowing through the house. Our house is a registered historic site, though, so we can’t even THINK about doing anything to the windows, besides that plastic stuff but it drives me nuts. We’re relying on lots of fleece, hot chocolate and a space heater. Cats help too! Knowing the midwest, though, it’ll probably be 55 again in a week!

  31. Kendall January 6, 2014 at 9:14 pm #

    I would LOVE to know what you do to increase the efficiency of your windows. My husband and I just bought our first home (woo hoo!) and it’s 75 years old and I am FREEZING. The other day I realized there was ice on the inside of one of the windows and I freaked out. I have insulating drapes and cellular shades on a few windows, but I should’ve done the plastic film before this cold spell started. Too late now! Stay warm!

  32. Karin January 6, 2014 at 10:03 pm #

    We have a freezing first floor. Because we are built on a slab with no basement and have high ductwork I have been wishing for radiant floors — then I found a radiant heat pad for under the area rug in our living room! We are planning to put it on a timer. The 5×7 size was around $275 from http://cozywinters.com

    Another option: my friend has these cool slim electric panel heaters from eheat.com mounted in both her (old house) kitchen and bathroom: they’re from http://www.eheat.com
    – they’re slim and unobtrusive and very energy and cost efficient. They come in plug-in and hardware versions.

    Stay cozy!

  33. Xenia Allen January 7, 2014 at 1:43 am #

    I am in the same boat as you. My 1871 Brownstone house is cold now because of below freezing temperatures. Last Friday it was 8 below zero here in Upstate New York. The next day it was 5 below zero. I put on thermal underwear under my flannel pajamas. I also put on leg warmers, socks, a thick sweater, my robe over that, and even a hat when I went to bed. Oh yes, how can I forget the scarf. I looked silly going to bed with all that stuff on, but I didn’t care. It is horrible to be so cold in your own house. It went up to 40 degrees yesterday, but by dinner time it dropped back down to near zero. We got slammed by a big snow storm on Thursday, then an ice storm overnight on Sunday.

    I had no choice but to replace all the windows in my house 10 years ago when I first bought it. They are energy efficient and double paned. About 5 years ago I had someone caulk all the windows inside and out, and that has made a huge difference. I don’t even need to wrap them in winter now.

    I usually cover the door down in the basement with plastic, but I failed to do it before winter set in this time. It is freezing down in my basement now. Wrapping the pipes in your basement will help to prevent them from freezing.

    My foyer and back staircase area are always the coldest places in my home during winter. I am at my wits end trying different ways to stop the drafts.

    I have figured out how to keep the temps level in the rooms, but when it gets extremely cold outside, there is a coldness that seeps in anyway. I don’t want to turn the heat up more because then my heating bill will go through the roof. My house is over 4000 sq feet of space. I do have 4 zone heating, but even turning one up is costly. I have the old time radiators that gets so hot that you can boil water on them.

    I do have a wood stove in my second parlor room, but it does not heat up the entire floor that it is on because it is a small one.

    This is all simply one of the things that lovers of old homes have to deal with. I would not trade it for a newer home.

  34. Amber January 7, 2014 at 9:26 am #

    Old houses are tricky to heat. Your house looks beautiful in the snow. :)

  35. alisa January 7, 2014 at 10:54 am #

    oh snow… how I love to look at you. Seeing your victorian with snow on the rooftop is one of the main reasons I tell my hubby to transfer to the chicago office… so I can experience 4 seasons. But then you post the -17 temperature gauge, and my eyes get big.

    I just turned the heater on here in CA, it is quite a chilly day out today at a whopping 50 degrees.

  36. Amber @ Wills Casa January 7, 2014 at 11:35 am #

    Yikes! Have you told Brandon that San Francisco sounds pretty good right about now!? Stay warm which I guess that mean everyone needs to huddle on level 3! :) The house does look so beautiful in the snow!

  37. Lea January 7, 2014 at 12:32 pm #

    When we moved into our 100+ year old home seven years ago we froze our behinds off the first couple of winters. This year we finally got storms windows up and it’s made a big difference on the main floor. We also close off every room that’s not in use and use our doors liberally, in general, to preserve heat in every room. It’s very, very helpful.

  38. Heidi S. January 7, 2014 at 12:56 pm #

    Hopefully it is warmer for you guys today! Here in Philly it is COLD! Our 1888 Victorian had a 15 degree differential between the first and second floor this morning. It was 57 degrees downstairs (with the thermostat set to 64). The upstairs fortunately was quite warm! We added spray foam to the underside of roof and eaves of the third floor last spring, which has made the upstairs MUCH warmer (almost too warm). Unfortunately we have several large radiators on the second floor (rather than more smaller radiators) making it hard to turn any individual one off. I have started experimenting with ceiling fans (we installed one in the upstairs hallway) but I haven’t come to any conclusions yet. I am also about to order some interior storms for my third floor casement windows to see what I can do about the leakage.

  39. Alisa January 7, 2014 at 1:17 pm #

    Our house is a mere baby, built in 1960, but it’s an old seaside cape and was NOT well insulated at all. Our first winter here was brutal, but then we had packed and blown cellulose insulation added to our attics and knee-wall areas, and it has made so much difference (in both our comfort and our oil bill) that it’s almost unbelievable. Worth. Every. Penny.

    And the cool part? Our insulation contractor did Natalie Portman’s place the very next day. No joke. We had the insulation contractor of the STARS! hahaha

  40. christaline mamaril January 8, 2014 at 3:54 am #

    I’ve been reading your blog for more than a year now. I love everything you write about!

    Anyway, your new house is gorgeous! it’s Christmas card perfect!

    More power to ya!

  41. Louise January 8, 2014 at 5:07 am #

    wow we are having extremes in temperatures, I live in the outback of Australia and we have extreme heat up to 50C, just looked up the American conversion 122F. You can fry an egg on a shovel in the sun here. Please send some coolness our way! Stay warm.

  42. Kathy January 8, 2014 at 3:05 pm #

    I love old houses but I go back and forth about whether that’s what I will get when we finally get a house in the next year or two. I live in Cincinnati and the winters here can be pretty rough. I always wanted an old house, but then I lives in a, 1880 duplex for 3 years, and during the winter months it cost about $400 a month to keep that 700 sf at a “warm” 62 degrees :/ Maybe not all old buildings are quite that bad, but those heating bills were enough to make me think twice. It’s too bad. I really do like the old houses and the neighborhoods we like the most are all old houses. Our friends just had their pipes freeze this week, too.

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