The Difference between ‘Breathing’ and ‘Blowing’

One of the interesting features of an historic home is the concept of Breathing.      The ability of the structure to stretch based on the humidity and the temperature.    It all translates into the home’s ability to adapt to extreme temperatures.       In many cases, it is because the posts and beams were pegged together.      This allows for expansion that nails won’t allow.    Unfortunately, this allows for air to penetrate.       When cold comes, the air begins to not just seep in – it often blows in as the denser air is attracted to the warmer inside.

Historic homes are great in most seasons because the Breathing and the quality of the dense woods prevent mold from forming and stale air which generate things like Legionnaire’s Disease and Radon Gas poisoning.     As long as the moisture is kept out, the house is dry and inviting.

So how does one stop the blowing while allowing for the Breathing?

“Most old houses are so drafty any water evaporates.    When we tighten them up we have to do it in such a way that it in fact doesn’t create a mold problem.” –Mark Philben, Charlie Allen Restorations, Cambridge, MA., New England Home, Jan/Feb 2009, p 207.

What one does not do is seal the house like a bank vault.      From vinyl siding to extreme insulation, the historic home is going to invite condensation and mold.      And one thing I can’t stand are people who do this damage to the home and then demand to tear it all down later.      Ever thought who was responsible?      The key factor is to apply insulation that still allows the house to adapt to temperature without opening up air vents.

But even if a careful balance is obtained, there will still be some persistent air leaks.

The answer: every fall go through the routine of winterizing the home with non-permanent methods so the building can be opened up later when the warmer weather arrives.

And the nice thing is that much of that effort is low-cost.     And most do not require a lot of elbow grease either.

All it requires is common sense routines that you can bank on year-to-year.      Routines such as removing window air conditioner units, shutting the chimney flue and close doors to unheated rooms like attics and basements.   And the best thing is to install storms  on all your windows to stop the air leaks.      

Take a candle and check your walls for gaps and along the sides of windows (often it’s the sides not the windows themselves that lets the air in)     If the smoke runs sideways, you’ve got an air leak somewhere.     Also, use your hands against surfaces during cold snaps.     

Once you have identified an air leak, there are several approaches: Use V-shaped tape on cracks in windows to stop the cold.     Use foam strips available at Lunt & Kelly’s to seal the front door and a front-door bottom sweep to seal out the cold when the door is shut.   I use rolls of play do-like Mortite.      It can be used on walls and concrete and windows (Be sure it’s the white version – brown looks awful on white windows.)  

So when these constant cold snaps strike, it’s time to stop huddling under a blanket!     Grab a candle and start looking.   Are the floors icy cold?     Are the walls cold? The more air leaks that can be tracked down, the warmer your house and your heating bill will go down too.

Then later, when Spring comes; you should call MassSave (It’s free for heaven’s sake) and have your home inspected for air leaks.    They’ll actually seal them for you and recommend who to use for seriously permanent situations.(Usually at discounted prices).

My wife and I did that long ago and where once it would be freezing outside and freezing inside; we now have a warm, comfortable historic home.     And every year we go through our routine of sealing air leaks and windows so that later when all these things are removed, our house can continue its important Breathing.

-P. Preservationist


About P. Preservationist

Dedicated to the Enrichment & Preservation of Newburyport
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