Tuesday, March 4, 2014

a house that breathes

Jesse Partridge built this house for his young and new wife, Rebecca, in 1786.  We know, from reading historical documents held at the Maine Historical Society Library, that this house has been home to -- given its 230 year old life span -- a relatively small number of families. And until this century, it was passed to the next owners through a progression of death and marriage.  A pairing that explains much that happens in real estate.

Jesse died here in the house just after it was completed, and he is buried, alone, in the cemetery next door.  Rebecca then married the widower across the street, a Dole, and he brought his family of young children along with him.  The ownership of the house then passed through a series of names, ending with us.  A Geni search recently revealed that Jesse Partridge is my first cousin eight times removed's wife's second cousin twice removed.  That's stretching relatedness a bit.  Let's say that somehow, this is important.

What at first appeared to be a list of unrelated owners of this home, with a bit of research showed that the house had in fact stayed in the family, but had been passed from daughter to daughter and from widow to new husband, and thus, the last name of the owner had changed though the family within it had stayed the same.

These owners, most of them, all stand in a line in the cemetery facing the house.  I do not think it is a coincidence that they face here, while most of the other headstones face the other way, toward the street, originally a cart path that ran straight from the surrounding farm land of Portland into the port.

But by and large, we are all still here together, kind of.  We all coexist, moving around each other in the rooms, multiple child growth height charts, doodles on the undersides of built in bookcases, broken pottery bits in our garden soil, scratches fresh and old in the floor caused by furniture moving and wonderings of would this piece look better over here?  I hang our own family pictures on nails that are in the center of what was likely the outline of a family photo here before.

And each generation that lived here made their own changes to make the house work better for them.  A kitchen addition was added, and then a master bedroom above it.  An antique light fixture was moved from one room to another, but still used and treasured.  A barn that was once here is now the flat piece of earth where we have tucked a fruit patch.

As I was reading this essay today, by Zsofi McMullen, I was thinking about homes and the walls that hold us while we live there.  This house has held its families well.  Holding.  In terms of families and growing children.  It is a complicated business, isn't it?  Holding them strongly and firmly, and yet, allowing them, encouraging them, to move outward.

I think this house has gotten the paradox of family holding right.  Our walls are strong and thick, but our home, we are told, is like a sieve.

We had an energy audit here yesterday.  At one point there was a fancy orange tarp on our back door, like a hazmat seal, and we were the quarantined, the infected, placed in lock down.


We are told our house is like a person, without a hat and without socks.  As I write this,  I am wrapped in a hooded bathrobe that I would not be caught dead in in public.  But it is so warm.  Although my body is warm, I have lost feeling in my toes.  The cold air out of the basement and through the cracks between the wide plank flooring has frozen them.

This house inspires use of pricey wool socks, in layers.  And then up spring sock eaters to catch them and slash these socks open.

We have that kind of relationship with each other, this house and I, one of respect, acknowledgement of one's faults, and every so often a bite to let us know our coexistence is tenuous.

In a few weeks, we will receive a complete report detailing this company's suggestions about how best to improve upon the energy efficiency of our home and then, with this audit completed and guiding any changes we undertake, we will receive a rebate from Efficiency Maine.  It is very exciting to begin the process of working with what we have here and trying to make it work a little better for us, and improve upon our environmental impact.



What I heard most from this auditor was that we were lucky.  That this house did not have any of the obstacles that old homes can somethings throw up when owners attempt to green them, such as exposed lead paint, asbestos, and horsehair.  I guess exposed sock eaters don't count.

Our walls are solid.  The most costly intervention would be if we needed to insulate the walls.  Because they would need to be taken apart, the old wooden siding removed and then replaced, and likely given their condition, they would not survive the removal process.  I mentioned our limited budget, right?  But apparently, as he was able to see with his fancy infrared camera, the source of drafts and heat loss is not the walls, and not even to the original windows, desperately in need of repair so that they will open.



The walls are thick.  And insulated.  This likely explains why our cell service in the house is terrible.  Well, that and the masonry of the enormous center chimney.  And perhaps some hidden treasures.

And so, though this is just preliminary information, it is our basement and our attic that are the primary sources of heat loss.  This is not surprising given their completely raw and unfinished state of being.  And if herds of mice can move into the basement each year as the temperature begins to chill, so can the arctic air.  And the attic, a space of old and raw wooden beauty with exposed three foot wide beams and boards, with hand hewn nails and pegs holding them together, has tacks in the ceiling, which is so thin that the nails pop through from the shingles, revealing its thinness.

Our energy audit technician told us that when the warmer air rises, an event likely all of us remember from our middle school science classes, the house needs to refill itself due to that escaping air.  And so, with our leaky basement, it pulls in cold air like the images from those middle school textbooks.  I felt proud of myself that I was able to come up with the phrase convection.  But that's rather lame.  I think 7th graders know about convection currents.  Plus, while I was listening, I happened to be cooking Sculpey clay matryoshka dolls for Elliott in our new oven, the one with convection oven setting, labeled on its control panel.



Having spoken a great deal about our basement and our attic, I decided I needed to begin to own these spaces that kind of frighten me a bit, especially at night.  Let's all agree that these pictures are terrifying.  And that having seen them, we will never have any house guests again.  This is our basement. A baby, without booties.









Yet there are also incredible architectural details.  This barrel vault under the 27,000 brick chimney for example.



So, this is where the cold air and rodents of unusual size come in.  And then, the air moves to the first floor.  The seal between the basement and the first floor is problematic as well.

The floors are absolutely beautiful to look at, some of them wide enough to reveal that this home was built by a person in the mast trade, since trees of this width were supposed to be saved for the masts of British ships.



But when the lights are left on the the basement?  The cracks between the floor boards glow.

When standing in the basement and looking up and between these two planks, you can see the weave of the underside of the rug in the office.



I found myself looking at the tops and bottoms of doors, where there had been purple oozing air revealed by the auditor's infrared camera yesterday.





And then, we move to the attic, the hat, or bonnet, of this whole operation.





While up there taking pictures, I closed the door behind me to keep the cats from following me.  When I went back down the stairs, I realized something: there is no latch lifter on the inside of the door.  I was trapped.  I panicked.  Texted Jonathan.  Turned on my flashlight app for my iPhone.  And fashioned my best version of a car jacking lock opening wire thingy.  And wiggled it around in the crack between the door and its jam.  And escaped.  Thank goodness for these unsealed cracks.



The energy auditor also told us that though some houses need to worry about becoming overly sealed, that the home will become so airtight with some of these renovations that a ventilation system needs to be installed, we will not have this problem.  Apparently, despite our thick and insulated walls, we are essentially a colander here.  Our percentage of outflow when a fan was installed in our back door was extremely high.  When turned on the lowest setting, it quickly -- and I mean in a matter of minutes -- became the same temperature inside as it was outside.  At least it felt like that to me.

And I think this makes sense, given how we live here.  The easy movement between the outside and inside, and the movement of inhabitants in an out.  When he told us that there was a very strong and steady air flow outside our back door, coming up and off the open space of the river, the first thing I thought of was the effect of such a force upon the bees, and even the chickens who are facing in the same direction.  For me, home is not contained by the walls of this house.  It is the land and trees and animals that belong to us, both inside and outside these strong walls.

Apparently, given it's openness to air, our house agrees.  It is perhaps a house of change.  A house that adapts.  A house that deals with the changes and stresses and disrepair that its human occupants deal it.  It holds us and then allows us to pass, in and out.

Also?  It is a house of women, these women determining the ownership and care of this home.  Of mothers, gardeners, homesteaders, merchants, doctors, teachers, and cooks.  Our balance even now, with honeybees and hens and cats?  All are tipping the scale toward female.  Like a mother, this house holds us, and like the greatest challenge of motherhood, it knows how to hold us enough, and to let us go.

It is a house that breathes.

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