Sunday, August 22, 2010

How hot is it?

This summer has been a true test for those of use who don't have air conditioning.  When the HVAC guy came to sell us a new furnace, he asked us about air conditioning.  We said no thanks.  He shook his head.  We had lived in the area for 5 years, in houses without air conditioning.  Even though we're in the south, we are in the mountains so the summers are usually only hot enough to warrant the respite for maybe 5 days a year.  Why spend the money, we reasoned, and have to accommodate all the new duct work in our old house?

I've never lived in a house with air conditioning.  I grew up in New England, where if it got hot enough to need it, you jumped in a lake or went to the beach.  You might consider a trip to the grocery store, movie theater, or mall to cool off in the less rural areas.  For me though, the artificial cooling made the heat that much worse and harder to tolerate.    

This summer has been one of the hottest on record.  Even in the mountains, it has been hot and humid.  Somewhat unbearably at times.  The cat has probably felt the brunt of it since she spends all day every day inside, stretched out, hoping for a cool breeze, whereas we spend 8 hours a day at work in air conditioning.

But, you know what? We have 42 windows.  We have large shade trees.  We have roof overhangs and high ceilings.  We have an old house.  It was built for life without air conditioning.  During the day, the windows and shades on the south and west sides remain closed to keep the heat and sunlight out.  Most thunderstorms come from that direction anyway, so that keeps the rain out too.  The north and east sides stay in the shade and out of the rain, so the windows stay open there.  The ceiling fans keep the air moving, so other than being a little stuffy, it stays cooler than outside.  When we get home, the sun is lower in the sky, so we open the rest of the windows, add some box fans to pull in the cooler evening air, and enjoy our life without air conditioning.

If you think we're crazy, you might check out the book Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World (and Finding New Ways to Get Through the Summer) by Stan Cox, another proponent of an air conditioning-free world, to learn about how air conditioning has changed the world, and not always for the better.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

So what is an American Four Square?

An American Four Square is one of the most ubiquitous housing styles in neighborhoods across the country.  Built from the late 1890s through the 1920s,  the 4 Square was a reaction to the highly decorated and expensive houses of the Victorian era.  Though not always considered Craftsman homes, 4 Squares adhere to the Craftsman philosophy of Gustav Stickley and he published plans for the houses in his magazine, "The Craftsman".  

"The central thought in all Craftsman activities is the simplification of life and a return to true democracy," said Gustav Stickley in 1911.  Coming from the age of gingerbreaded Victorians, turrets, multi-colored houses, and decoration for decorations sake, Stickley was reacting to the Victorian excess.  There was a return to nature and honesty in workmanship and materials.  Most importantly, this new simplicity equated to economy, creating comfortable new single family homes for the growing middle class.

The American 4 Square was the epitome of  simplicity, honesty, and economy.  The houses are usually a big, 2 story, square-ish block with a wide, hipped roof capped with a large dormer.  On each floor inside are often 4 square rooms, providing the American 4 Square name.  As boring as that may sound, there is lots of room for variety.  The houses weren't dependent on symmetry, so the floor plans could be quite varied with a side hall, center hall, or no hall at all.  One of the front rooms might have a bay window to break up the squareness of the facade.  The windows might be evenly spaced across the house, or might vary depending on the function of the room behind.  The types of windows varied from house to house, some with simple 1-over-1 windows, others with leaded glass, curves, or multiple lights.  Siding was made of natural materials such as wood shingles, stucco, clapboard, brick, or concrete, but varied depending on the availability of local materials and craftsman.

American 4 squares provided a lot of space for minimal effort in construction.   One feature of these houses is the porch running the full length of the front of the house.  The hipped roof with dormer provided the opportunity to expand, creating living space in the attic.  Most houses sat on a basement, providing a storage area and a place for the furnace.  The square shape also lent itself to additions, such as additional rooms or porches attached to the sides of the building.

Environmentally, the houses provided lots of natural light, ventilation, and cooling.  The many large windows in many of these houses make it possible to perform most daytime tasks without turning on a light.  The same windows provide natural ventilation in summer, often making it unnecessary to run air conditioning.  Deep roof overhangs and porches help to shade the windows from the harshest sun in summer, helping to cool the house while also providing protection so that windows may be left open during rain storms.  Today, many of these houses have large old trees shading them, providing additional summer cooling.

Gustav Stickley said, "A Craftsman house should stand for 100 years or more without requiring repairs."  American Four Squares have stood the test of time and are continuing to prove their worth in neighborhoods across the country.  We can learn much from the simplicity, honesty of materials, and solid construction that have certainly proven to be more sustainable than much of the construction of the latter half of the 20th century.


Monday, August 16, 2010

Finding "the One"

All stories need to start somewhere, and ours starts with the completed rehabilitation of a 1-1/2 story bungalow. We lived there as we worked on the house, so flipping it required finding not only a new project, but a new place to live.  In our area, you can find great old houses at rock bottom prices, if you're willing to live a half an hour from your job and for us, a rock bottom price was a must.  We scoured the MLS listings for low priced houses with historic character.  We drove by houses, checked out neighborhoods and towns, and became well-acquainted with the communities in our area, but we didn't find "the one."  Until...we found a For Sale By Owner listing in the local newspaper.  The price was right.  The description was right.  The location was good.  We called.

The owners had sort of moved out already, but the door was left unlocked and we were told to go by there anytime.  We stopped by one day after work and, with the place to ourselves, were much freer to look around and say what we thought than we would have been had the owners been home.  Outside looked promising - a brick, American Four Square on Main Street in a small town, grassy yard, big shade tree, iron fence on the old concrete wall. 

We entered through the door from the back porch to an odd arrangement of two kitchens.  The path to the right took us to a room with 9 windows that smelled like dog and through to a room with two large windows and a door facing the front porch.  The door and one  window were at angles to the second window with leaded glass at top.  A door went back into the kitchen then out to the foyer with its big glass door and sidelights lighting the stairs.  The living room was on the other side of the foyer, a large arch extending the room to what was once part of the front porch.  A third front door was here.  We headed upstairs to find 3 bedrooms and a large master bath that had been added.  Downstairs again, we explored the remaining rooms, one of which featured a toilet in a very large room, all by itself.  The house also had a partial basement.

After exploring the house without saying much to each other, we came back to the foyer, looked at each other, and said "this is it!"  We saw the challenge of removing previous badly done renovations, the leaky new pipes in the basement, the 42 windows in need of restoration.  But we also saw the original hardwood floors, the original floor plan, the oak trim and 5-panel doors, and we decided to go for it.