As you may have gleaned from reading my previous posts, most of my work is on older houses. I do occasionally run into houses younger than me, but they are the exception. It’s not uncommon for me to work on houses that predate the Republic.
The big picture is that old houses survive because they’re built entirely differently from new houses. It can be amazing—basements with standing water in houses with no significant rot; century-old windows with no modern flashing tapes to keep out water, yet with sound wood all around; wood or slate roofs that admit pinholes of daylight.
In the absence of serious neglect or poor remodeling, these houses stand and watch history pass by.
Old houses leak air in ways that new ones don’t. Lacking plywood, the board sheathing (if there is sheathing under the siding at all—often there isn’t) and board flooring in a typical old house provide miles of cracks for air leakage. But all that air flow kept them dry, so the siding and roofing details that often leaked in ways that would destroy a modern home weren’t problems a century and more ago.
Both expectations and possibilities were different until recently. For example, we all know that fireplaces aren’t the best of heat sources. But in say, 1821, a Rumford fireplace was the height of technology. Any room without one wouldn’t be much warmer than the outside during the winter; and even in those with fireplaces, standing 10 ft. away from the hearth wouldn’t have qualified as “toasty.” There was good reason Jimmy Carter advised us all to put on sweaters.
No one expected to be warm all the time in the winter because the available technology couldn’t provide that warmth. Now, we are spoiled…