How to Live in a Cold House, or Love in a Cold Climate

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How to Live in a Cold House, or Love in a Cold Climate

I live in a very cold house. Our base temperature is 58 F (14.5C) and we rarely raise the temperature over 60 F. At night, much of the house drops to 55 F. And it’s an old house, which means there are some drafts, in spite of all our efforts over the years, and uneven temperatures. It’s a big house, and only a few of the rooms are occupied at any given time. Worst of all, we heat with two oil furnaces that are at least 20 years old. A serviceman praised them as the “Cadillacs of furnaces,” which made my heart drop. Converting to natural gas may be in the future, and I have a lot of other ideas about major energy changes, but in the shorter-term I’ve developed a long list of ways to stay comfortable in a cold house like this.

Space heaters! Our favorites are the inexpensive Longhi oil-filled radiators. They use remarkably little electricity. (One way to tell this, apart from your bills, is that their cords aren’t even grounded, and do not feel hot.) They take a while to get warm but produce a lovely radiant heat that warms rooms well.

Blankets! We have a big basket full of “yoga” blankets, quilts picked up at tag sales, and other small lap blankets.

Long, quilted bathrobes! A really warm dressing gown means I don’t even bother to turn on the heater when I go to my study in the morning.

Bed jackets! You can use any comfortable old cardigan or vest, but I found a pale pink satin bed jacket that makes me look like I’m waiting for a lover to turn up with a bottle of champagne.

Flannel sheets! I don’t know if these actually are warmer (it’s probably the other bedding that makes more of a difference), but they make a bed feel much cozier. I’ve bought them from Lands End but the best price/quality I found this year was at Eddie Bauer.

Hot-water bottles! These are still in common use in the UK, where they come with all kinds of wonderful plush or knitted covers. One of my friends has a knitted bunny cover from when she was a child. They’re readily available in the US, too, in any drugstore, for about $10, but sans cover. You can simply use a towel, or make a cover from an old sweater, or order an adorable one on Etsy.

Grain bags! These don’t stay hot as long as a hot-water bottle, but they are very nice, and also good for sore muscles – put one on your shoulders at your desk, or use it as a foot rest. Heat in the microwave oven.

Gloves! Fingerless gloves can even be worn indoors. Seriously. Though I do feel a twinge of guilt when I see my staffers wearing gloves at the computer. But we are sustainability publishers and try to practice what we preach, and my office is as cold as anywhere else.

Slippers! For warmth, get sheepskin or German wool clogs, or those thick Norwegian knitted slippers.

Hoods! My son swears by LLBean hoodies.

Hats! I hate hats myself, but lots of people love them and there are styles that can easily be worn indoors and all day. A soft cotton cap will keep you warm at night.

Vests and layering! Vests are good because they leave your arms free, but they’re just the top layer. I like to start with a silk undershirt and go from there, with at least one later of wool.

Long skirts! I have no idea if this is common elsewhere, but in New England I can easily pick up long knitted skirts at a secondhand store and they make a wonderful layer over trousers when I’m sitting at my desk and not moving around. Easy to get on and off.

And here’s a related section from my book The Green Home (1995):

Everyone has a different comfort zone, depending on time of day, season, and state of health, but in general the most comfortable heating for human beings is a combination of convected and radiant heat. Christopher Alexander suggests that this is biologically built into us by our evolution in the open air, with plenty of sunlight. Examples of this combination are sitting in warm sunshine on a mild spring day, or in front of a glowing fire in a fairly cool room. Think of your own experiences and try to produce an environment that is as consistently satisfying as possible, without excessive dependence on central heating.

Your personal comfort depends on the rate at which your body loses heat to the air, and this depends largely on the surface temperature of the objects around you. Although your body conducts some heat to the air around you, most of its heat is lost through radiation – just like a radiator. Radiation takes place through space, from one solid object to another, so the rate of radiation has to do mainly with the temperature of walls, floors and furniture, not the temperature of the air itself (which is what thermostats measure). Using plenty of natural, thermally neutral materials such as wood, cork and fabric – rather than brick and tile, enameled steel and glass which heat and cool readily – will enable you to maintain more even, comfortable environment.

The proper balance is a radiant temperature about 2  higher than the air temperature. This sounds terribly technical, but it simply means keeping room temperature quite low but having a heat source like a stove or an open fire, especially in rooms where people gather in cold weather. A fire provides a delightful focus to a room.

*Staying warm*

– How warm you feel depends on your metabolism, your body fat, your biological rhythms and on how much exercise you get. Do a little running in place to warm yourself up on cold mornings.

– Hot food and drinks are a great help. And you can use a mugful of coffee or vegetable broth to warm your hands.

– Dress with lots of layers. Tights or long underwear are good under trousers. Wool and cotton are warmer than synthetics, but it can be useful to wear a thin synthetic layer next to your skin when it’s very cold, with a cotton shirt outside (and whatever collection of jumpers seems necessary). Any sweat ‘wicks’ through the synthetic fabric and into the natural material, where it slowly evaporates while the layer next to your skin stays dry. And remember to keep your feet warm.

– Use and enjoy good, old-fashioned warming methods like soft car blankets to wrap up in when you are sitting at home in the evening.

– In bed, a hot water bottle is very comforting. We used to have an electric underblanket, but got rid of it after reading recent studies of the effects of electromagnetic radiation (one newspaper report was titled ‘Electric blankets in cancer enquiry’). Miscarriages are more common in couples who sleep with electric blankets.

– Thick cotton flannel sheets make the bed feel warmer – by comparison, poly-cotton sheets feel like sliding into a plastic bag. A flannel duvet cover can be made from a pair of sheets. Flannel – or 100% cotton – is soft and pleasantly absorbent in hot weather too. A wool blanket under the sheet seems to help the bed warm up too.

– Warm clothing at night certainly helps – socks, a sweater over your pajamas, even a nightcap (most heat loss is from your head).

I know, you’re still wondering about love in a cold climate. That was a teaser, pure and simple, the title of a novel about the English upper class by Nancy Mitford. My advice on the subject is not going onto the internet, but let’s keep in mind that Eskimos and other indigenous peoples manage to procreate even when they stay in the same clothes all through the cold months. Socks and a nightcap, anyone?

Sweet dreams!

“Heat Your Clothes, Not Your House”

My most recent book on green living is The Armchair Environmentalist (Hachette, 2008), about which Lester Brown, founder of the Worldwatch Institute and the Earth Policy Institute, and one of the world’s most prominent environmentalists, wrote, “”The Armchair Environmentalist is filled with wisdom for those who want to live an environmentally responsible life. Karen Christensen has incorporated more environmental advice in this crisp, tightly written volume than in anything I’ve seen to date.” And I’m working on a 25th-anniversary edition of my first book, Home Ecology.

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