What If You Could Build an Old House From Scratch?

By: Brett Freeman , Contributing Writer
In: Old Houses, Home Improvement Tips, Old House Musings, Green Renovations

Following my sophomore year of college I,  returned home to discover that my dad had treated himself to a really…cool…toy. It was a 1961 Corvette. Dad had briefly owned a ‘58 ‘Vette in college–until his roommate totaled it–and I think he bought this one as a way to even things out. (Well, maybe not, but that sounds a whole lot better than making an obvious reference to the onset of a mid-life crisis.)

Anyway, I immediately fell in love with the car. And then I drove it. To understand the experience, you need to understand a few things about early ’60s Corvettes. The concept was simple: make a lightweight car, and give it a big engine. The 1961 Corvette had an available 283 cubic inch, 315 horsepower engine. But this wasn’t good enough for the car’s previous owner, who had instead installed the 327 cubic inch, 340 horsepower engine that was available in the 1962 Corvette. They were also front engine, rear-wheel drive cars, so the power and balance made them…squirelly.

Dad's car had the opposite paint scheme--white body with red scoops.

Dad's car had the opposite paint scheme--white body with red scoops.

Oh, and they were built on a truck chassis, which I noticed almost immediately on my maiden voyage, because, as sleek and sexy as it looked, that car’s handling was exactlywhat you would expect of a 40-year-old truck. That is, a 40-year-old truck with a rocket engine. Exhilarating? Sure. Terrifying? Yes, and then some!

“Someday,” I thought to myself, “when I’m fabulously wealthy (I’m still working on it), “I will have a modern chassis custom built for this car’s body and engine, so it will looklike a 1961 Corvette, but handle like a modern sports car.”

Which brings me, finally, to old houses. If people weren’t in love with the look of old houses, they wouldn’t buy them, because, like old cars, they cost more to maintain, are not terribly efficient, and lack many of the modern conveniences that folks in new houses take for granted. But at the same time, modernizing an old house is a lot more practical than modernizing an old car. For one, your old house still needs to be able to stand up to everyday usage. Actually, unlike old cars, your old house is almost certainly more sturdy and relaible than newer versions–does anyone really expect that the McMansions that have popped up over the last decade will last 100 years or more? Also, fixing up a classic car is something you do with disposable income, because that is quite literally what you are doing with the money. But modernizing your house is something that can pay you backvia lower energy costs, while at the same time making the house more eco-friendly.

So how would I go about modernizing an old house? I’d start with insulation and weather-stripping around doors. I’d also add basement insulation and cover it with interior walls. And I’d start replacing the windows one-by-one in order of draftiness. I think one of the biggest difference between old houses and new ones is that the new ones are simply much tighter. They keep the conditioned air in, and the elements out.

Also, old houses look a lot cooler.

What about the rest of you? Anyone have stories about home improvements that resulted in notable comfort and efficiency improvements? I’d love to hear about them.