This Cold House

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My family and I live in a 170-year-old house with a 60-year-old oil-fired boiler. And while the temperature outside is in the teens right now, that boiler isn't running. Every couple of hours I feed the wood stove, which keeps the first floor comfortable. Upstairs, it's cold, but no one goes upstairs until bedtime. When it's time for the kids to get ready for bed, we might dial the upstairs thermostat to 65 degrees. Before we hit the sack, we set it back to 62 again for the rest of the night. We operate this way to save money on oil and to reduce the amount of non-renewable fuel we burn, but it's really no hardship at all. In fact, in thermal terms, we live a pretty plush life.

A couple of years ago, when oil prices were going through the roof, I started to imagine how we would respond if we had to really compromise on comfort. What if we could only fire the boiler on special occasions? Others, of course, have pondered the same question. A few are actually living in cold climates--and in less-than-tight dwellings--with little or no heat.

This radio piece covers a Maine couple living the cold life. They're chronicling the experience on their aptly named "Cold House Journal" blog. The New York Times found a few more folks, both rural and urban, who don't take their coats off when they come inside.

There is more than a whiff of hipster contrarianism about some of these adventures, but I'm happy to see that people are testing accepted notions of indoor comfort. The luxury of maintaining a constant temperature in every part of one's home is a relatively recent development. Julius Caesar, Henry VIII, and Abraham Lincoln all lived more like these cold-house crazies than like us. My family and I have no intention of bricking up our boiler--there are plenty of winter days when we let the wood fire die and crank that sucker up--but most of the time we enjoy having parts of the house warmer than others. Our 7-year-old will go outside without a coat in any weather, but he also likes to lie on the floor in front of the hearth until the back of his shirt gets too hot to touch. Like uniformity of any kind, uniformity of temperature can be boring. --Bruce D. Snider




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