Heating Old Houses
For 21 years now, Tom Silva, general contractor on the PBS shows This Old House and Ask This Old House, has served up hands-on advice to owners of antique homes across the country. And he certainly knows his stuff. He’s been working on old houses since he was a kid, when he kicked off his career by helping his dad around the family homestead, a 1787 Colonial in Lexington, Massachusetts.
Today, he lives in a restored 1865 Victorian in Reading, Massachusetts. We caught up with Silva in between tapings of the 30th season of This Old House, which began airing in October on local PBS stations.
“The thing I always tell people when it comes to owning and living in an old house is: Pay attention to the things that you can’t see so that you can live in the house more economically. Things like insulation, windows, and caulking. Everybody wants to have the granite countertops, and the mantel, and the fireplace — all that stuff — but they’re not going to let you live in the house cheaply.
“I like the character, I like the charm, I like the challenge that comes with older homes. Lots of times you’ll go into these places and find that over time someone has destroyed the integrity of the building. A plumber may have been trying to find ways to get pipes into places that didn’t have plumbing. Or, you may be putting in a new kitchen and you’ve got to deal with floors that aren’t even, walls that are crooked, and some spots that are understructured. Then you’ve got to deal with uneven materials because something like the thickness of the sheathing may be different. But I love that. I always love it when somebody says, Well, I was told that you can’t do this. That just gets me going.
“We’re just caretaking these places for the people who originally built them. These older houses have been around for 100 or 200 years. They were put together by hand with a bunch of people who took a lot of pride in what they did. They used materials that would last. They did it right.
“I wish I could say I opened up a wall and discovered my fortune, but I’ve discovered a lot of old techniques and methods, from diagonal sheathing to making truss headers to how a floor was laid down. I’ll go into a 19th-century house and say, That was a heck of a way to support a wall when they didn’t have space to put a beam in there. Then I might take that technique and improve upon it or change it a little bit and use it somewhere else in different projects.
“You have to be true to the character of the old house. I do work for a lot of people who buy old houses, they want an old house, but they have a different feel for it. They may like a contemporary look. That’s fine, and you can have contemporary furniture, but what you don’t want to do is destroy the integrity of the house. Keep the old trim, for instance, and paint the house kind of funky if you want, to give it kind of an eclectic look. Besides, in the end you’ll only be making it easier for yourself when, down the road, you want to sell the place. Somebody who likes the old houses won’t say, What happened to all the old trim and all the old doors?
“Older homes will never lose their importance. In New England we have so many old houses and so much history. You go down into Boston, the old brownstones, or a place where I grew up, Lexington, Massachusetts, where there are these old houses around the Revolutionary War battlefield. Our family house was from the late 1700s, and my great-great-great-great-grandfather was one of the men killed on that green. That’s a special connection.
“I’ve lived in my house for more than 30 years. I’ve renovated it five times. I cut it in half once. I got rid of a wing that was rotted. I did things to it when I first started working on it that were wrong and that I’ve corrected over time. Sure, I get tired of fixing my house — you find yourself going, Enough is enough, but then I get back into it.
“When these homes were built, they didn’t think about saving energy. They didn’t care — they just let it run wild and the house was in great shape because it could breathe really well. But unfortunately we’re in a situation now where we want to tighten up our buildings. There’s absolutely no reason why these houses can’t be efficient.
“There are lots of things you can do. For example, what costs you money 24 hours a day, seven days a week, even if you’re on vacation? Your hot-water heater. It maintains a temperature so that when you take a shower at the end of a long day, you can just turn that faucet on and you’ll have your hot water.
“But if you insulate the outside of the tank, you’re increasing the efficiency of the heater by lessening the amount of time it needs to come on to keep that water hot.”