Let There be Light

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Drafty.

That's one of the realities of living in a 150+ year old house - the wind cuts through in a thousand little places, and a few really big ones as well.

This old house has a beautiful set of double-doors at the front of its formal entryway. As with many of the windows, they appear to be original to the home. And, as with most of the wood in the house, they appear to be made of pine. There is a lot of charm to the pine(1) in the home. It's a very warm wood when treated with stain, and the original pine floors carry incredible character - unlike with a modern, smooth floor you can feel the individual grain as you walk through the home in bare feet, see the evidence of traffic from generations past(2).

However, even with proper care, the pine pieces that have been exposed to the elements have aged less well than other materials might have. This is true of our windows, and certainly true of the front double-doors(3). As a result, a big part of each autumn has been going through and winterizing the areas that we can identify as major points of heat loss. This involves a lot of plastic window kits (I can officially verify that the off-brand kits are just as good as the ones from 3M, at significantly less cost), and closing off parts of the home that we are not yet using. Because we have a second, back stairwell and were not using most of the rooms upstairs, this included completely closing off the front formal entryway in order to keep from having to heat the space with the double-doors. While it is a beautiful entryway, the doors face west, the predominant wind direction in our area, and in winter you can literally stand in front of them and feel the wind coming through. Occasionally one would need to go into the front hallway to go upstairs and get something after it had been closed off for the winter. It was like stepping into a walk-in freezer.

This winter was different. For the first time in the five years since we'd moved here we had a reason to be upstairs: we had finished the master bedroom. This meant that we either needed to become immediately independently wealthy to afford the increased heating bill(4), or we needed a different solution for those doors.

I've tried a variety of ways to address the doors over the past five years, with varying degrees of success - closing off the hallway is always a part of it, but decreasing the airflow through them is always better even if we aren't using that space. Most of those attempts have involved heavy-duty plastic sheeting. My earliest efforts included putting plastic over the outside of the windows, with the reasoning that the ideal approach was to keep the wind from entering the house at all.

Putting plastic up over the outside of the doors took me hours to do(5), and involved a lot of moving a stepladder around on steps in a fashion that would likely have made an OSHA investigator break out into cold sweats. Once finished it would certainly not have been considered an enhancement to the attractiveness of the house, but I was ultimately pretty pleased with the results.

It lasted about a week. Mother Nature is a harsh mistress.

Subsequent efforts have typically involved putting plastic over the inside of the doors, which does work (and takes considerably less time and requires no questionable ladder-dancing), but the volume of wind coming through the doors is so great that the plastic often billows out several inches into the hallway at the center of the doors. It also has to be checked and re-taped periodically, as sections fail due to the ongoing stress. If we were going to be leaving the entryway open and moving through it regularly we needed a better answer.

Where I ended up with this was taking rigid foam sheeting - the insulated panels used underneath siding - cut to size to cover the doors. The idea here was that the foam would both cut down on the temperature exchange better than the plastic, and would stand up better to the onslaught of the wind.

I cut the panels to size and secured them to each other with Frogtape - this is actually a painters tape, but the important property here was that it is designed to be gentle to painted surfaces, and I was going to be connecting this contraption to wood that had last been painted many, many years ago. I wasn't sure how it would manage the cold, but it seemed like it was worth a try, and if it failed I always have duct tape(6).

When I first put it up, I covered the entirety of the door opening, including the transom window. However, this made the front hallway utterly, depressingly dark, so I compromised and put a sheet of plastic across the top to let in light.

 Not a work of art. Some idiot couldn't even make sure that the foam panels were both right-side up.  

Not a work of art. Some idiot couldn't even make sure that the foam panels were both right-side up.  

It wasn't pretty. Not even a little bit. Over the holidays MLW and LB tried to make it a little better by decorating it in extra ornaments.

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It was effective though - it worked far better than I'd hoped (I get lucky once in a while). The rigid panels did bow out a bit on windier days, but they held and did not intrude into the hallway in the way that the full sheet of plastic did. The Frogtape held nicely. And our heating bill, though up somewhat due to the general increase in heated space (adding the entryway and upper stairwell about doubles the area of the house we were using in the winter), did not bankrupt us.

The weather over the past week or so has reliably been in the 50's and 60's during the day. As effective as this was, this solution was not something we wanted to leave in place any longer than absolutely necessary. So, yesterday it came down.

As in previous years when we decided it was time to open up the central hallway, removing this contraption seemed to cause the entire home to breathe a sigh of relief. The light coming in through the doorway effectively triples, and the hallway becomes a place you actually like to move through, rather than something you scuttle through as quick as you can. In a lot of ways, for our little family this heralds the coming of Spring.


1: Homes of this era were often built from locally sourced materials. Pine everything was a pretty common thing in our area.

2: Many would see these as flaws... "Character" includes the drag marks from furniture that was moved, and the wear indents from years of foot traffic. To my mind it simply tells the story of the house.

3: These large, formal double-doors on the front of older homes are sometimes referred to as Coffin Doors, with the idea that they afforded the opportunity to easily remove the occupant from the home in his or final box. However, this person suggests that this term may actually be a myth.

4: Didn't seem very likely.

5: As I mentioned in Adventures in Plumbing, I have learned how do do this sort of work, but I am nothing like fast at it.

6: Always. Literally.