A tale of two farmhouses

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-117329734331945.jpg’, ‘Photos provided’, ‘The home of Roland and Birgit Wolff in the northwoods of Wisconsin, before renovations (above) and after (below).‘);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-117329735731945.jpg’, ”, ”);

Actually, one house, with two incarnations…

Ah, northwestern Wisconsin. Lake Superior. Pristine forests and rivers. This is the place where our hearts have always been, and to which we were happy to retire in 2002 after 28 years of job-enforced exile in Tennessee and Colorado. But we knew there was also another thing waiting for us up here: WINTER.

In planning our move to the northwoods, one of our top questions was whether to build or to move into and renovate the 110-year-old farmhouse on the property. It quickly became clear that our choice had to be the latter, hands down. For the more we thought about it, the more we realized how much we had grown to love that old house over the years when we’d come up every summer—and even a couple times in winter—to play. But our love, in this case, was not blind, for we knew we’d have some hard work ahead of us making the place both safe and four-season comfortable. Some of the old building’s character and charm we decided to leave as is, like the fact that there’s not a right angle to the place, which makes any repairs or building projects really fascinating. On the other hand, there were some things we decided to bring up to date right away, for safety’s sake, like the stairs leading to the second floor. As in all the original buildings here, those old stairs were steep as a ladder and so narrow you had to come down feet sideways. They had broken neck and lawsuit written all over them, and bringing them up to code was one of our very first jobs. With that done, our thoughts turned to the cold, dark months to come, and the need to make the place really winterproof. That would mean several major projects.

In the old days, nobody used insulation up here when they built, so the only thing between our living room couch and the frigid winter air was a layer of half-inch clapboard over some intermittent pine sheathing on the outside. Plus some ancient Swedish newspapers that the original owners had stuffed into the walls to keep the wind out—which, of course, didn’t work. In fact, sitting on that couch in winter, you’d swear that those original walls (and newspapers) actually somehow managed to intensify the outside cold before transmitting it into the house. Something had to be done about the walls.

Another problem was the original windows. When you walk around your living room with a candle, and it blows out as you go past a closed window, something needs to be done. And not just with a view to comfort, for those old single-panes would get so frosted up on the inside during cold weather, you couldn’t see out. This made you feel locked in, as well as cut off from what you knew was a beautiful winter landscape out there very much worth viewing.

For the walls, we A) blew in fiberglass insulation from the outside; B) put 1-inch insulation board, well taped at the seams, on top of the old clapboard siding—which we decided to leave on for an additional air space; and C) put a rough-cut 1 by 8 pine siding, well caulked, over the insulation board. All this, plus pine paneling inside over the original lathe-and-plaster, gives us outside walls that average 9 inches of raw insulating, wind-defying power.

The old windows we replaced with thermopane, and made sure the new ones were well sealed and caulked. No more blown-out candle syndrome for us.

There was also the old asphalt roof, on top of which we put 1-inch-thick nailers, with insulation board between them, and steel roofing on top of everything.

The result of all this is a house as cozy and warm as any we’ve ever lived in anywhere. We heat for the most part with a small but potent Quadrafire 2100 Millennium wood-burning stove (hard maple firewood only), with room-by-room electric baseboard backups, which we use only in the very coldest weather, and then rarely. With its insulation and tightness, the house is also as good as air-conditioned: One day during last July’s heat wave, we recorded 98 degrees outside and 72 in the living room. And the insulation and windows, combined with an inside finishing job, have transformed the grim old attic from a wintertime freezer and a summertime bat-infested hellhole into a living space fully as comfortable as the rest of the house. Not to mention the fact (which we were happy to discover by accident, afterward) that a well-insulated second floor/attic makes the first floor, where we do most of our living, ever so much easier to keep warm in winter and cool in summer.

We’re happy to say that life up here is fulfilling all our fondest expectations. And even when things get a bit chilly in winter, or hot in summer, we have our cozy, friendly old house to be happy and comfortable in. Plus, there’s the equally heartwarming impact on the energy budget: Our electric bill averages $100 a month, which includes the house, barn, outbuildings, chickens, sheep, and several freezers; and we spend $200 a year on firewood—cut, split and delivered. Plus, one more bonus: the wood stove even has a nice glass door to view the flickering, energy-efficient flames through on a gold winter’s night!

Roland and Birgit Wolff live on their old farmstead just south of Lake Superior in Bayfield County, Wis., and are loving every minute and every season of it.

From the March 7-13, 2007, issue

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