Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A Seasonal House

One of my sisters lives in a big old farmhouse in northwestern Missouri. She and her husband intend to eventually build a newer one on some adjacent land, but last year when she was pregnant they broke down and made some upgrades to the room that now serves as their nursery: they replaced a drafty window and walled over the door to the old "sleeping porch". A sleeping porch is just what it sounds like - a porch made for sleeping on. It is accessible through a door off of the master bedroom upstairs, and would have been used on summer nights before the days of air conditioning when it was just too hot to sleep indoors.

I'm thinking about the sleeping porch today because I cleaned my grill recently and started thinking about how much climate-controlled homes deprive us of the natural rhythm that used to pervade our lives. N and I have owned our home for four years now. It has no ductwork: the heating is a gas-powered boiler that warms radiators in every room, and there is a window air conditioner in each bedroom. After our third summer here we realized that the lack of air conditioning in the main part of the house was having a negative effect on our family relationships, and decided something had to be done: either we would go to the expense of installing ductwork, and central A/C, and probably some additional electrical capacity to run it, or we would make some adjustments to the way we live.

Being pretty broke at the time, we ended up going with option two. Back in the day, in houses like my sister's, the farmer's wife would often have a separate space for outdoor cooking during the summer, to keep the house from getting too hot. Following suit, N and I bought a nice gas grill, and a crockpot (which we can plug in on the screened porch). We started using the A/C unit from the downstairs bedroom to cool the air in the kitchen. As long as I don't cook indoors this keeps the kitchen temp below 80 F for most of the summer. We even changed our diet a bit, choosing to eat more foods that didn't require much cooking or could be cooked ahead (like at 10pm the night before). The effect of these small changes on our comfort level was pretty remarkable. I won't say we don't mind the heat - we both lived in Florida for several years and I would say that other than less frequent rain the summer weather is very similar, except in Florida almost nobody tries to live without A/C. But I think the seasonal variation in behavior has improved my life in some additional ways. I actually feel more connected to my world, more aware of the passage of time, more in tune with my own internal rhythms. I don't wonder where the year went the way I might have five years ago, because I made note of the passage of each season. When the days began to shorten and the leaves began to turn brown there was a blessing that came with what I normally find to be a very depressing time of year: the opportunity to bake a cake for my son's birthday, and make hearty soups and casseroles and mashed potatoes. I never noticed before this year that so many of the foods we prepare for Thanksgiving warm the house in their preparation. What a wonderful world we live in.

(For those of you who may be wondering, N and I did try sleeping on our screened porch once, before his parents gave us the big window A/C for the master bedroom. It was significantly cooler, but the raccoons rooting through the soda cans in the recycling bin were not conducive to sleep.)


  1. These are the kinds of seasonal changes that I really miss in Miami. I rarely feel the desire to make those heavy, warming foods around here.

  2. Yes, I do remember being surprised how much I enjoyed having seasons again when we left Florida, and I would bet it was much more seasonal where I was than you were. Recently my FIL from FL was having a discussion with my sister about which was the best apple variety, and I had to remind her that the selection in FL is just not as good as it is in IL.

  3. On the other hand, there is probably a reason we have few cultural traditions for preserving tropical foods - there's always something fresh to eat there!