Like many people this year, I traveled for the holidays, arriving home to a chilly house in the center of an arctic vortex. With more time than usual to fuss over the eccentricities of a house that is, frankly, too young to have so many eccentricities, I found myself reflecting on what a housing upgrade might mean for my life. More specifically, what aspects of my holiday I would be happy to do away with, next year.
MY WATER PIPES ARE FROZEN
There is nothing quite like staggering out of bed into a cold kitchen, intent on that first glorious cup of hot coffee, and then staring dumbfounded at a kitchen tap that simply refuses to fill your kettle. Turn it on, turn it off. Hot, cold, doesn’t matter. Nothing comes out. Cue the panic.
If you are smart, you have a stockpile of water jugs hiding in the back of a closet, because you live in a part of the world where electricity occasionally disappears, shallow-dug wells run dry, or pipes freeze. If electricity is not your problem, you can heat some of that emergency water in a kettle and take care of the coffee issue, whereupon you can focus on the puzzle at hand, restoring water to your house.
In my case, a ceramic heater, patience, and strategic running of specific taps in a precise sequence achieved the desired effect, however it should be noted that, somehow, the pipes feeding my two best friends -- Clotheswasher and Dishwasher -- will not release their grip until the temperature outside approaches 20°F, no matter how many heaters I relocate. These appliances are fed by pipes that travel through the least insulated and least accessible regions of my home, the exterior walls. I can be heard grumbling to myself, “this would never happen with 10 inches of densely packed cellulose insulation,” as I fuss with yet another heater, placing it under the sink, and then sobbing because I’ve spotted a leak in the drain pipe.
THERE IS WIND IN MY LIVING ROOM
I know that it is a fashionable and desirable design strategy to “bring the outside in” or “blend the living spaces with the landscape” but listen: there is a time and a place for everything and THIS IS NOT THE TIME OR THE PLACE!
Living in the Northeast, intentionally, means that you accept certain realities, such as -20°F cold snaps that make anything other than hibernating seem like pure folly. Originally from the Canadian tundra, I know this better than most. Still, I object to the breeze wafting across my neck. It’s not unlike the brisk wind one might experience while watching Teenagers from Outer Space at the drive-in late in the season, wrapped in a sleeping bag in the back of a pickup truck, except I am sitting on my couch, indoors, with all windows and doors closed.
BrightBuilt Home knows that in this climate, the outdoors should only come inside when invited, and that they are not invited in January.
AIR QUALITY CANARY
Depending on the age of your ventless propane heater, assuming you have one, (you know, for emergencies like this) you will want to pay close attention to every symptom you exhibit while that gloriously warm deathtrap is running. Working as I do in the field of high-performance building (and living as I do in a prototype of the polar opposite) I am perhaps a little paranoid. That said, when my brain starts to refer to propane as “the smell of warm,” my throat begins to close up, and a foggy headache knocks me down every time I try to stand up, it is time to turn off the “backup” heat and get some fresh air in the house. Of course, the fresh air is the temperature of nope, and it’s not long before I go back to my friend, who I know is not good for me, and beg it to make me warm again.
I am apparently the only member of my household who suffers these symptoms, and so have the dubious distinction of being the proverbial canary in the inadequately ventilated farmhouse. When I pass out from the fumes, I dream of a continuously-running, heat-exchanging, dust-filtering angel named Zehnder.
You know cats. Deceptively fuzzy, innocent looking, heat-seeking little monsters with raptor talons and bad attitudes. I have two of them, and for the most part they are remarkably independent, happy to race around the house destroying everything in sight without much input from me, and only rarely slow down to accept 1.75 gentle strokes of the head (not the back) before biting me and dashing away. I have noticed, as the season progressed, that a cooler house meant more cat affection. It so happens that, prior to Christmas, there were several mornings that found me sitting on the couch with a cat on my lap, scratching her under the chin or behind the ears. It was nice, the sort of thing that I always imagined other cat owners might experience.
Now that the temperature has plummeted, the cats have figured out that the warmest things in the house are the humans, and it really has turned into too much of a good thing. No sooner do I sit down than I have a cat on me, demanding my active affection, kneading my bladder like a blob of bread dough, sinking her claws into me if I contemplate moving, daring me to get up and go to the bathroom.
At night I lie awake with a cat nestled between my knees, afraid to roll over. If I do, she will attack my feet, her claws somehow penetrating the thick comforter as I stifle cries of pain. If it was up to these little hellions, I would never go to work again, or rather, I would be otherwise employed, providing body heat for their enjoyment.
BrightBuilt Homes don’t come with cats.
SPIDERS IN MY HAIR
Lying on my back on the uneven dirt floor of a crawl space, I am trying to decipher the maze of water pipes with a flashlight while a disturbingly large spider beckons to me with one slow, creepy leg. I spend a lot of time down here, thanks to the shoddy workmanship of any number of individuals who should turn in their tools, immediately. I have perfected my army crawl, tools in a bag wrapped around one fist, ducking under plumbing traps and scrambling over unused ducts, bruising my knees, and avoiding cobwebs. It really should be called a slither space, as there are only a couple of spots where one can properly crawl.
As I contemplate the water pipe fiasco above me, I reflect on the number of hours I have spent laying in this space, puzzling out a solution to some incomprehensible situation, or the evidence of some profound idiocy. I would estimate that every fix I have attempted that involves a visit to this slither space takes about 3 times longer than it should, involves several days worth of procrastination and dread, and results in a less than ideal solution because the only true fix is to tear the whole thing down and rebuild it. What would I give for the peace of mind of knowing that my home had been planned and put together by vetted professionals with a sound understanding of heat loss, water management, and junction boxes that don’t spark when someone upstairs flips a switch?
A lot. I would give a lot.
Days like these remind me of why I do what I do. My house is not so unusual in terms of building standards, and three seasons of the year it feels perfectly adequate. It is not so old, built in ’79, and satisfied code at the time. When the temperatures dip far enough, I am reminded on a visceral level that there is a better way to do things, and that it’s worth it to keep pushing for higher standards in building.
(And for the record, I love my cats.)