May 17, 2022

digmydog-Design

Anything but ordinary

How We Made Our Old House Warmer

Who’s feeling the cold right now?

Yes, I know the whole running joke about people in winter in Perth, where it gets to 16 degrees (60 Fahrenheit for those of you overseas) and people start squawking and moaning that they’re freezing to death. To give people overseas an idea, it never snows in Western Australia.

But can I just say that when you have grown up in a city that has warm Mediterranean climes most of the year, when it DOES suddenly get cold, it’s hard to bear!

Winter in Perth… it wasn’t cold enough to stop Nala going swimming.
Winter walks
A chilly evening in Perth.

The other thing is, is that unlike our European, Canadian and U.S house nerd mates, most older houses and buildings in Perth were generally NOT designed for the cold. Heat, perhaps.

But keeping out the chill? Most older Australian houses were not really designed well for frosty winters. Most Perth homes aren’t built with things like double glazing or built-in radiators that seem to be common in much of Europe. Orientation to sun wasn’t given too much thought. And older Australian homes in particular – it’s not uncommon, for example, for toilet windows to have a permanent gap for ventilation (hello freezing chills in winter).

I went to the launch of the new Roxby Lane showroom with my friend Nelly Reffet the other night and it was six degrees. “It’s freezing,” I moaned as we sat in my car, then realised I was talking to a French woman from Arles, where it actually snows. “You are probably thinking, ‘Zees ees not cold’,” I added in a (bad) French imitation.

This is Nelly by the way! One of the best people I’ve met through writing this old blog. Painting by Alisha Falconer, sofa by Globewest at Roxby Lane.

Nelly kindly said nothing about my attempt at an accent. “No. It is COLD,” she declared. (She actually said another word before ‘cold’, but, you know, excuse our French).

So there. Even a bona fide French person thinks it is ******* cold in Perth right now.

Our home was built in the 70s, in an era when it was really rare for project homes to be built to consider things like solar passiveness, orientation to northern light etc – I don’t think energy star ratings were even a thing for homes built 40 years ago.

If we do nothing to warm our house, it’s REALLY cold in winter. I don’t know what it is about our pocket of Perth but I swear, it gets colder here than it does in other parts.

There have been so many times I have driven home from a friend’s house or dinner in the city to notice the temperature drops as we get closer to home, gotten to our suburb to notice the temperature has dropped, turned onto our street to find it drops again.

Once we pulled into our driveway, put the car in park and the temperature dropped ANOTHER degree! It was a full six degrees colder at our house than at our friends place 25 minutes drive away.

Over the years, as we’ve been able to afford it, we’ve made changes to our old home to make it warmer, and today I thought I’d share them for those of you also residing in similar, older Aussie homes.

The winter night we brought Miss Nerd home.

WE ADDED DOUBLE GLAZED WINDOWS 

Ok so this is a big one and one we spent a lot of money on.

As anyone who’s ever gotten a quote for a new window will tell you, new windows are NOT cheap.

But in an older house, new windows can be a game changer.

We used to have old typical 1970s aluminium windows with 3mm thin glass. You would walk past a window and literally feel the chill seeping in on cold nights.

Getting in new windows with double glazing has made a massive difference, not just in temperature control, but in sound reduction (although as a severely hearing impaired person, you can’t take my word for it – you’re taking Mr Nerd’s). I’m sure the neighbours still hear us yelling every day though.


I have had a few questions about our house’s two solid-pane ‘picture windows’ as they’re called. We replaced two traditional windows with modern picture windows.

People presume they cost a lot more money but the opposite is usually the case. They can actually be more affordable because it’s just one huge piece of glass as opposed to a window with openings and screens and sliders.

An older photo of one of our picture windows in my study. Photo by Heather Robbins

And let’s not forget thick window coverings! Adding thick curtains and blinds (think blockout-type materials and layers) will also help keep the cold from seeping in.

In our bedroom, I have three different types of curtain on the window – sheers for daytime privacy, white linen but also one big blockout curtain. Always at night-time in winter, we pull the blockout curtain closed and the linen curtains over the top. Doubling up makes a big difference to how much cold seems to comes in (and it doesn’t look weird in the day when the curtains are open, because the white linens hang over the blockout).

I just use a blockout from IKEA, but there are also specially made thermal curtains and blinds on the market.

POST UPDATE: I got so many reader comments and messages about this story on social media (thank you!) and a lot of DMs asking for a Perth double glazing window recommendation. When we did our double glazed windows, we used a WA company that was thinking about venturing into smaller residential homes but decided not to in the end so even though we love our windows and doors, I can’t give you a personal recommendation unfortunately.

I wanted to share, instead, some of the reader recommendations for Perth double glazing companies that were passed onto me. Obviously, I can’t vouch for any of these personally as we haven’t used them ourselves, but readers were very happy with them:

DuoGlass
Thermaglaze
Oceanside Glass and Aluminium
Vision Double Glazing
West Coast Double Glazing
Magnetite Windows
NuLook Windows

SEAL UP GAPS

Once our new windows were put into our old house, fairly inevitably, from removing the old windows there were a lot of little gaps where the cold would whistle in and we plugged these with caulk. We also re-sealed the front door to help block out drafts.

WE HAD OUR OLD FIREPLACE REFURBISHED

“You have a fire going!” our friend said in astonishment when she dropped by one evening. “I always thought that little fireplace was just… well…. for show.”

I laughed because space is at a premium in our house now with two kids and if that little wood stove wasn’t working or used, I would have passed it onto someone else – however, we have a fire going in the colder seasons ALL the time.

It is an old vintage cast iron Jøtul fireplace from Norway. We put our kettle on the top for tea. (We use a whistling stovetop kettle). We dry our clothes by it and Nala warms her bum in the mornings.

Woodburning fireplaces are a lot of work (my hubby is the fire master, I am terrible at remembering to keep it going) but ours keeps the house at a consistent temperature for far, far longer than our split system does, so we wake up in the morning and the house is still warm. It also has so much ambience.

Having it refurbished in the past year with a new flue and chimney has made a big difference and hubby fixed up the woodburner itself with new lining. This is what it looks like now, with a new chimney and top. Look at the old one in the bottom pic – it was falling apart when we moved here. I liked the old copper chimney, but it had had its day – it was so rusted at the back.

We make sure to leave biscuits by the chimney for Santa at Christmastime of course, although we can’t guarantee that the dog won’t eat Santa’s dessicated coconut bootprints.


No fireplace in your old house? My friend lives in a cute Cottesloe apartment and has the cutest electric, plug-in ‘faux fireplace’. Honestly it keeps her place warm and even though it’s not ‘real’ it still gives her place that cosy atmosphere.

WE FINALLY GOT A SPLIT SYSTEM

I have complained about our old crappy evaporative air-con on Instagram before, when I celebrated the day my hubby finally tired of me whining about it (success) and got a split system installed in our living room. Like a lot of 70s houses, our house is pretty open-plan so this split system is big enough to heat all the living spaces.

Of course I don’t love what they look like on the wall (who does?) but this is Australia and to me air-con is a must, unless you live in a super well-designed house.

We had all the old evaporative vents professionally filled and patched up and that made a big difference to keeping the cold out too.

WE MADE ALL OUR BEDS WARMER WITH LINEN BEDDING

I have to talk about blankets for a while, because while they don’t technically make your HOUSE warmer, I have not had to use the split system heater in our room since putting linen on the bed.

I genuinely think it’s easier to stay warm in winter (and cool in summer) with good quality linen on your bed and sofa and now I am a total convert to linen.

I find it really interesting how pure linen is made. Once you know how long the process takes from growing the flax plants to harvesting them to weaving, you’ll understand why good linen tends to come with a high price tag!

One of the most amazing things about linen sheets (and why I have converted to linen after formerly being an Egyptian cotton nerd) is that pure linen is the most thermoregulatory fabric on the planet.

Basically that means linen thermoregulates, which means when you sleep in it or wear it, it keeps you cool in summer and warm in winter – without getting sweaty the way you might from other materials, because linen lets your skin ‘breathe’. Fabrics that are thermoregulating allow air to flow around your body while you sleep. I honestly think I sleep more deeply and wake up in the night less in a bed made up with linen. I think it’s easier to keep warm in winter (and cool in summer) with good quality linen sheets.

I am lucky as my friend Julie runs an amazing business called Bedtonic selling top-quality French flax linen bedding and clothing – you might have heard me sing her praises before. I recently did some “hand modelling” for Julie’s latest Bedtonic campaign (ha!) but seriously. Those are my muscled mitts in her latest campaign shots. If you need something tucked or buttoned, I am your girl.

Julie, being the very generous friend that she is, has gifted me some linen pieces over the years and I have purchased pieces from her as well, slowly working my way through a list of pieces I want to buy for our home. Recently I bought both kids linen sheets from Bedtonic for their birthdays and they LOVE them. They feel so good and soft. I actually genuinely think both of my kids sleep better and deeper when they sleep in linen sheets. Far less running into our bed in the middle of the night complaining that they’re cold!

The gamechanger for our winters was a Bedtonic pure linen bespoke blanket – you will stay so much warm under one placed on top of your doona, and ever since we got it we’ve never needed to use the split system heater in our room in winter. They are an investment, but they’re fab and you will keep it forever. We have a really big oversized one that we love.

Some people have asked me if it is worth making the swap to investing in linen because they know I like it so much! But because good linen is definitely an expense, I would advise starting with a small piece first (ie: a pillowcase or European cushion cover etc) to see how you like it first.

Also, do your research because I have noticed some brands label their sheets “linen” or “linen-look” or “stonewashed linen” and when you look closer at what they’re made from it’s not actually linen at all but a cotton or synthetic blend!

ADD RUGS OR CAULK YOUR OLD FLOORBOARDS TO DECREASE DRAFTS

I’m adding rugs to this list even though we don’t have any rugs in our house. My husband (and Miss Nerd) have asthma and allergies and we notice a massive difference in his overall health when we stay in placed, like holiday accommodation, with rugs or carpeting, or even old window drapes.

So, as much as I would LOVE a big, plush rug to sink my toes into, we don’t have one. (Goodbye, my beautiful old vintage Persian rug).

Rugs can make a big difference to how warm your home feels, particularly if you have an older home with a suspended floor.

In Australia, a whole lot of older homes, particularly weatherboard and fibro cottages, were built on what are often known as suspended floors. I’m no chippie, but it basically means when the house was built, timber stumps were sunk into the ground to help make a platform with the timber bearers and joists for the floorboards to be attached to.

Generally these houses are timber framed. (Later, in the 70s and 80s, building houses on a concrete slab become far more common).

A timber framed Perth cottage. Photo Heather Robbins

So basically there is nothing between the ground and the timber floorboards (usually jarrah or pine) in a house with a suspended floor. Sometimes these homes manage to achieve a perfect balance, with the air pocket acting as an insulator in both summer and winter to keep the home fairly comfortable internally.

In other cases, drafts can whistle up between cracks in the floorboard and make the inside feel colder. When this happens, you can add caulk between the old floorboards to stop drafts or add rugs, which will also help.

ADD INSULATION INTO YOUR ROOF CAVITY (OR WALL CAVITY, IF POSSIBLE)

Three years ago we overclad our double brick house. (You can see that reveal post here). We did it for looks and street appeal, to tidy up a messy-looking DIY render job, not because we were thinking about ways to add insulation to our house. But after we did it, we did notice a difference in how our house felt in summer – much cooler than before.

I think it was partly because (in keeping with our contra contract with Scyon, where we had to demonstrate to people how the product should be correctly applied to a new home) the house had to be wrapped in HardieWrap, which is a non-perforated weather barrier that basically protects against cold and heat.

library-attic-book
I mean…. come on! An attic conversion would be so cute. Photo source.

Now I’m not saying go out and overclad your brick house (a costly renovation) just to get the benefit of very slight thermal benefits. But after researching it further, I found out that up to 25 percent of heat energy can dissipate through uninsulated walls, which is substantial.

So if your type of home does offer a wall cavity, considering whether you can add insulation into it, whether its rockwool, natural wool, glasswool or cellulose, might be worth the expense for the savings you might make on your electricity bills.

This article on the different types of insulation is a good easy read, although take into account it’s American. Despite its cons (there are cons to all, I think) I think my preference would be to do natural wool in our ceiling, when we eventually replace its very old insulation.

Actually, my preference, to be really honest, would be to convert the roof space into an attic! How good would that be. A cosy reading nook or secret kids play space with a view across all the beautiful big trees around here.

But, you know, $$$$. I can see Mr Nerd rolling his eyes already.

Do you have a weatherboard house? I’m updating this post with a reader tip (I got so many good ones via social media) – thank you Jessica! “This year we installed UNDERfloor insulation and it’s made such a difference,” she wrote. “They spray expandable foam under your house. It’s perfect for my weatherboard home.” She used Tates Coating.

FLEECY TRACKIE PANTS THAT ARE ACTUALLY WARM

Oh, I have so many gripes about women’s clothes and fashion, as my husband will tell you. And so I must vent. They seriously DO NOT MAKE women’s clothes as warm as mens. Why? I so often feel like a huge majority of womens winter fashion is just made for looks only. Mens winter clothes are far more practical, comfortable and properly lined and warm.

The other week I was in Kmart and noticed that almost all of the women’s tracksuit pants (winter pants) are unlined, or they were only available in that thin French terry fabric. Yeah, they looked nice. But it means you’ll wear them and not actually, you know, feel warm when it’s 5 degrees and your house is freezing.

Meanwhile the mens tracksuit pants were not only lined with that cosy, soft fleece that always reminds me of new school jumpers as a kid, but they were CHEAPER too. It’s so rude. Especially when you consider that for numerous reasons, women feel the cold more than men do – a study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology found men’s resting metabolic rates are on average 23% higher than womens, plus womens hands and feet tend to be colder than men’s by a few degrees. Ok, rant over.

By the way, I ended up buying tracksuit pants… from the men’s section. Slim cut joggers. They were like $15, and they’re great. Go get yourself some mens clothes.

A warm hat will also help.

Tell me how you’ve made your home warmer! Next on our eternal to-do list is replacing the insulation in our roof cavity. Maya x