New York Times on Living Chilly

Just over a week ago, I re-ran a post "How Not to Freeze" about what to do if you don't have central heating in the winter in cold places. I was fascinated by the responses I got from people who by necessity and desire were living with minimal heat.

My assumption about "how not to freeze" was that most people wouldn't being doing this by choice. And that's probably true but I found yesterdays New York Times article, about people who trade warmth for aesthetics, bigger spaces or other considerations to be fascinating (and not just because they gave some cred to La Crunch for her "Freeze Your Buns Off" Challenge)

The article profiles people - most of them living in extremely hard-to-heat spaces, who have voluntarily foregone central heating in cold places.

"SERIOUS cold, Justen Ladda said, is when the sponge in the kitchen sink feels like wood or the toothpaste freezes or the refrigerator turns itself off, as it did one particularly frigid day last winter. Not that Mr. Ladda, a 56-year-old sculptor who has lived heat-free in his Lower East Side loft for three decades, is bothered by such extremes. "Winter comes and goes," he'll tell you blithely, adjusting his black wool scarf and watch cap. (Along with fingerless gloves, long underwear and felt slippers, they are part of Mr. Ladda's at-home uniform when the mercury dips.)

Mr. Ladda, whose work is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, decided long ago to live without central heating. Proper temperature control, you see, would require insulating his wooden ceiling, and ruining its fine acoustics. "I know this sounds really lame, but I listen to a lot of music and it just sounds better," he said. Also, the rent on his unimproved live-work loft is only $300, well below many people's winter utility bills.

But beyond thrift and acoustics, what is perhaps most notable about Mr. Ladda's chilly interior is that like, say, tepee-dwelling Mongolian reindeer herders, or perhaps some very rugged environmentalists, Mr. Ladda has come to thrive in the cold.

As Americans across the country wrestle with spouses and their thermostats over how low to go -- as they join contests like Freeze Yer Buns, now in its third year, a challenge posed by Deanna Duke, a Seattle-based environmental blogger who calls herself the Crunchy Chicken, to lower the thermostat to around 55 degrees, or follow the lead of the Maine couple trying to live comfortably in a furnace-free house and blogging about it in their Cold House Journal -- there are those who are living nearly without heat by choice, and doing just fine, thank you very much. Indeed, 55 degrees would qualify as sauna conditions for Mr. Ladda and others whose interiors hover around the 30- or 40-degree mark in deep winter. "

I'm a little wary about talking about my own house temperatures. As some of you will remember, last year I got burned in a New York Times Profile - a writer claimed to be talking about "the kind of changes we're all going to have to make" but turned out to be writing about "carborexia" or the pathological inability to use enough energy. The author used the term "huddle together for warmth" to describe my children, who voluntarily sleep together most nights, summer and winter, and implied that we were borderline abusive because we heat with wood, and while the house has extremely warm spots (near the stoves) it also is quite cool in some areas. Several people threatened to call Child Protective Services, and we spent an anxious week waiting for a call.

I realized afterwards that the most ardent of these people assumed my children must feel cold all the time. In fact, that's not the case - and proof positive that one does adapt to the temperatures around you. My son Simon is actually chronically warm. When temperatures pushed up to the high 30s last week, he asked me if he could wear a t-shirt - outside, with nothing over it. I declined. But while all my kids enjoy time in front of the fire, my skinny (my kids tend to the long and lean) boys also go out in the snow in their pajamas if I let them (or don't catch them), and beg to wear less clothing.

While we don't do without heat as some of the people profied do, we do use primarily radiant heat - mostly wood from our own property or cut down the road by a neighbor who sells firewood for a living. We have two wood stoves, and almost never run both at once. In the spring and fall, we use our wood cookstove mostly to take the chill off. In the dead of winter, the larger of our two stoves is started in late afternoon and early evening, as we are finishing cooking dinner and letting the cookstove go out. The big heating stove, which is sited in a room with excellent insulation is used to heat one area of our house until it is quite warm, at which point we close the doors and allow the stove to burn down, and the heat is generally retained into the next afternoon. In the morning, we start the cookstove, to maintain temps in the house, and again, run the big stove in the evening. This reduces our use of wood to a comparative minimum for our large house, means that when we are tired and less able to regulate our body temps, we can retreat into a warm spot, and keeps the house tolerable.

We do not heat the upstairs sleeping spaces, and all of us have strongly come to prefer this. I find it very difficult to sleep in a room above 60 degrees in the winter. I also work in my bedroom, a room that is a comfortable 50 degrees right now for me - dressed as I am in sweats, warm socks and a fleece bathrobe over it, with a cup of hot tea next to me and a blanket on my lap.

The fact is, I like it cold - I'm not as hardy as some of those profiled in the Times story, but I enjoy the cool air, the sensation of my nose being cold under a pile of warm blankets at night, the agreeableness of having my husband and cats against me. I enjoy coming down to the cookstove to warm my hands and get more tea water, and then I also enjoy going back up to the refreshing cool of my office. And apparently, I'm not the only one.


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We keep our house around 66 degrees. We continually have our daughter ask if she can take her clothes off. Clearly... we don't keep it cold enough for her. Despite that, my husband is continually telling me how we have to keep the house even warmer for the children. Honey... if the children were miserable, they wouldn't be running around the house in short sleeves and no socks and stripping out of their clothes.

I would probably keep it a little colder than 66 if I was on my own but my husband likes it warm so 66 is our compromise.

I just moved from Texas to Iowa, and I'm finding it difficult to get warm enough to function. I could make it through a Texas summer without air conditioning on all but the worst days (when it's over 100 with 99% humidity...) but I'm finding it difficult to make it through winter without the heat turned up to 70 degrees. Any suggestions for acclimating faster? I know that I have poor circulation, and that factors in too, but I just can't seem to get warm, even with 4 full layers of clothes. I'm extremely jealous of your children :).

How wonderful to find others who keep the heat set low. I'm at 63 degrees in the winter in Michigan. I don't turn on the furnance until 1 December (well actually I do turn it on briefly at Thanksgiving for the elderly relatives) and the furnance goes off again on March 31st.
For some odd reason, my metabolism likes the coolness (an no it's not hot flashes). As a child, my mom was always telling me to put on my jacket when I ws outdoors. To this day, I rarely wear a jacket when outdoors in the winter for less than a 1/2 hour.
Two good things about keeping the thermostat low: lower fuel bills and fewer visitors!

We keep our house at 65. Hubby would like it warmer, I'd like it colder. My kids spend their days in their underwear, unfazed by anything. (we're also crazy homeschoolers) It keeps my MIL away, which is an awesome thing. Most of my friends continue to come over, and just wear a sweater. I still end up with the entire neighborhood over playing in my even colder basement. I check on my chickens and do odd jobs outside in my bathrobe. You get used to the cold. I think we're actually healthier for it.

My husband and I live in a 30' yurt in Maine and heat primarily with wood. We've developed a winter rhythm over the last 5 years and I find I feel closer to seasonal cycles this way. In the morning we stoke the fire before work and damper it down when we leave; when we get home 11 hours later, the temps are often in the 40's, so we just keep our coats on and do housework for about a half hour, by which time the yurt is around 60 degrees (and gets warmer over the evening, but banks down over night to a nice, cool sleeping temperature). Gets the dishes done and the wood hauled in and generates body heat to boot! The one room we heat with a tiny propane heater is the bathroom - the only room that holds a consistent temperature - around 63 - for aging our homebrewed mead and beer. :) Anyway, it's not as hard as people think to live with cooler temperatures - cats and silk long underwear help!

@ Susan,

I moved to northern Oklahoma 10 years ago - from Phoenix, AZ. My last summer in Phoenix the A/C went out - the 28th of July, with temps at 117 F. I went from Thursday to Monday without - and wasn't horribly stressed. OK was a change.

But I grew up in northwest Iowa, so I add a layer of clothes in winter, pick my jacket and sweatshirt for the day's weather, keep up with fluids and eating kind of appropriately. But I am older now, and do feel the cold, especially if I sit for any length of time.

Probably the first thing you need is to ask your doctor what to do about poor circulation. I can't think there will be much warmth without that. I found washing my hands in warm water will warm them for a time, or holding a cup of hot tea (I like Celestial Seasonings' Honey Lemon Ginseng, with a big dollop of honey). Look at curtaining off rooms that need warmed. I like the oil-filled "DeLonghi" heaters to warm a room, even though they *don't* create a warm spot to dry gloves or warm your toes. T'ai Chi movements can be great for warming, and walking and stairs, too.


Our wintertime heating pattern is a lot like yours. We live in eastern Massachusetts. We have a small Nectre Bakers Oven wood stove that's rated to heat 750 square feet, but we find it is quite adequate for our 1300 square foot home. We fire it up in the morning over breakfast before we go to work and school, then let the fire go out while we're away. I pick the kids up from school in the early afternoon and then rekindle the fire, usually cooking dinner on the wood stove and in the oven, and we let it go out after we go to bed around 10:00. The thermostat at the other end of our house from the wood stove registers between 52 degrees (first thing in the morning) and 65 degrees (an hour or two after we start the fire), though it can be much warmer right next to the stove. We have hung heavy curtains at the bottom of the stairs to keep the warmth downstairs, so the bedrooms upstairs are more or less constantly cool at 50-55 degrees, which is how we prefer it. We have the thermostat set to turn the natural gas furnace on if the downstairs temperature drops below 50, as we are afraid of freezing the pipes, but it has only come on once overnight this winter. I expect we'll go through about two cords of wood this winter, which from what I understand is pretty frugal. We began heating this way just last year, so the children remember central heating, and they tell me they are more comfortable now and like wood heat better. I like it better too. And our cat the furry hearth ornament definitely approves. :-)

I think it is terrible that people threatened your family over your wood heat. I can't blame you for being shy of talking about it now. What they don't understand is how radiant heat can be good for a family, in the way it brings family members to spend time together. I grew up with radiant heat and even as a prickly teen, if I wanted to toast myself I had to come downstairs and be with the rest of the family. I have happy memories of kids around the dining room table doing homework or reading, Mom and Dad doing chores or crafts or reading nearby. We also went camping a lot and shared one big cabin tent. :-) I think my family's closeness today has something to do with being raised like this and I witness it happening again as my husband and I raise our children.

Our HVAC is in need of replacement, so we are using our wonderful wood stove to heat our home. It does an excellent job. I have no desire to drop the money needed to replace our heat pump, even if it means living without AC in the summer. The hard part of not having AC is dealing with other people's comfort when they visit. Any ideas on how to deal with heating and cooling when we have visitors who are not accustomed to the higher/lower temps?

BTW, I love warmer inside temps in the summer because it makes working outside much more comfortable.

We keep things around 62 here. If I feel chilly I bump it up to 64 and find that it's too warm for us. Our 1955 house is brick with all wood floors and 2700 sq ft. We don't heat the upstairs at all, everyone sleeps downstairs. We are installing a wood stive since we get free wood from my in-laws. The babay tends to get cold hands and ears, but we just snuggle till she warms up;)

I hope that NYT reporter feels some shame over what he/she put your family through. Appalling. Fortunately your Child Protection folks seem to have more sense than some of the readers of that article.

I used to be chronically cold, so it took a lot of convincing for me to have the thermostat down, but I'm learning. Last year we had it at 17 C, this year at 16 (60.8F), and today I'm inspired to go lower, 15 C. There, just turned it down. I've learned the tricks - long undies, sweaters, fleece-lined pants, that it is not a hardship to wear a hat inside the house. I used to freeze when I went out to dinner or visiting friends and family, now I cook. My husband laughs as I excuse myself to the ladies room to remove layers of clothing :) So surprising that I adapted because I'm the one who likes it smoking hot outside. It's amazing. I'm not colder than I was before, and sometimes I'm a lot warmer. And of course the heating bill isn't even worth discussing anymore!

Amazing how survivalist types always seem to blame women for being too attached to their comforts, yet comments here so far come from women who are adapting fine while their hubbies want more heat. Mine likes to sit around in his long undies grousing that he's cold ... well, honey, why don't you PUT SOME PANTS ON? :)

My husband's on a business trip at the moment, and when he called last night from the hotel, he complained mightily about how hot it was in the room. He was having trouble sleeping because the thermostat in the room only allowed him to lower the temp to 68 degrees, and the windows were completely sealed, so he couldn't even crack them an inch or so to let in some cold air. Since our bedroom is routinely cold enough to see your breath on the coldest winter nights, he's sweltering in Boston right now.

We haven't turned on the heat this year, so "thermostat" is kinda moot. Indoor temps (Phoenix, mind) are hovering in the 62-68 F range.

It's really disturbing to be out in the garden on a beautiful day and hear all of the heat pumps in the neighborhood roaring like the takeoff queue at a busy airport.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 22 Jan 2010 #permalink

Right now I'm in a very good place wrt heating. You see, it's an old place built in 1900. It uses steam heat. So when my upstairs neighbor is running theirs, I don't have to run mine. Plus I've got a nice southern/southwestern exposure. Keeps the house at a comfy 63F to 70F.

We only have central heating, no wood stove. I wanted to experiment with keeping the house cooler this winter, for several reasons. One was to save money. Another was to reduce our carbon footprint (our heating fuel is natural gas, and the furnace is forced air so it requires electricity to run). A third was so I won't panic the next time the electricity goes off in the middle of winter, as it did during the 2006 ice storm. So when we managed to get through nearly till Thanksgiving with practically no heat, we left the thermostat set at 55F most of the day. We do turn it up to 60F from 5-10 p.m. because it feels colder when it's dark, and when we've been cold all day.

As a result, I've learned to function pretty well at 55F, and this coming from someone who prefers feeling hot to feeling cold. It took until late December, however, before I stopped feeling too cold and therefore feeling sorry for myself, wondering how I'd ever get through the rest of winter and early spring. I don't know if that's because I finally got adapted to the temperature by then, or if it had more to do with the new pairs of thermal underwear, the sock liners, the fingerless gloves, and the bootie slippers that I got and started to use at that time.

I'll agree that a cool bedroom is good for sleeping, as long as the bed has enough coverings to hold in body heat; when I'm in bed is the only time I feel comfortably warm during the winter. I won't go so far as to say I prefer a cool house, however. I like going to relatives' and friends' houses who keep them warmer in winter; I just remove a layer or two on top (I've got 5 layers on at home, so that's easy to do). I also don't feel OK about making visitors freeze their buns when they come over, so we will raise the thermostat to 65-68F or even warmer depending on how tolerant I think the visitors are to cold, or if they act too cold. I offer to provide sweaters, blankets, and such, but I think people who are used to warmer temperatures don't find they help that much. It's easier to raise the thermostat for awhile.

I am a lot more confident now that we could go indefinitely through the winter even without central heating ... we'd be cold, I'd need to wear my down coat all the time in the house for 3-4 months, but we could do it. That's quite a liberating insight. Although at the moment it's our choice to reduce our use of fuel, it could easily become an economic necessity before too long, the way the signs are going. We are considering getting a small wood stove, but at least I know we don't have to have one to manage. Also we are planning to glass-in the south facing front porch to collect some solar heat - not that it would have helped this winter, which has been much cloudier than normal. In the meantime, it was pretty nice to get a natural gas bill that was $85 for a month with 1207 heating degree days, the highest monthly total of heating degree days we've had since January 2001.

laughing at some of these comments.So glad I'm not alone. Husband keeps turning the heat up, I keep turning it down ... augh. Double augh!!! when he leaves the door to the uninsulated garage open, so the house heat will warm up the garage, where he does his woodworking. Drives me nuts. What's funny is that a few years back, I was turning the heat up while he kept turning it down.
Susan, I imagine you'll adapt over time; the body adapts to its local climate. My aunt in Florida, who grew up in upstate New York, now thinks she's freezing if the temperature drops below 80. In the meantime, keep your feet warm! If you start out cold and put on layers, sometimes you stay cold, so try to start out warm and then stay that way. Put on extra layers of socks -- even better if they're warm when you put them on -- and wrap something warm around your neck; it's amazing what a difference those points on the body make. If you can, when you get dressed, warm the bottom layer of clothes up by the heater or something, put them on, then quickly add additional layers. Flannel is good - flannel sheets on the bed are great. Wool sweaters will keep you warmer than cotton ones, even multiple layers of cotton. Also, I find that washing dishes makes me feel much too warm, because my hands are immersed in hot water. Put a hot water bottle in the bed before you get in, too, and wear socks to bed. Hope that helps.

We have two sources of heat in our house - a woodstove and a slate floor over 6" of cement. We lower thermal shades at night to cover the two banks of huge windows that let the sunlight in to heat the slate floor. When it is sunny, as it has been in northern NY for the past few days, I may make a small fire in the morning and none at night, especially if I've used the propane oven during the day.

Keeping the objects warm and the air cool makes a house more comfortable. We also paid close attention to detail when we insulated, creating a fairly tight envelope around the living area, and leaving storage areas unheated.

My mother-in-law is chronically cold, wearing layer upon layer in the winter. She always enjoys visiting: she can sit near the stove if it's really cold, and the tight construction and open floor plan means that even the corners aren't very drafty.

We have to do this to make up for the selfish and the clueless. Yesterday - suburban DC area parking lot - jumbo Chevy Suburban idling away. Inside - nanny and toddler, bundled up as though they were in Antarctica. Nanny speaks no English and unwilling to turn off car. I wait 20 plus minutes and Boss Lady finally shows up with second toddler in tow. Looking a whole lot like she could be on the Real Housewives of Washington, DC (actually like a wrinkly Michaela Salahi). I say quietly "oh I was so worried someone would steal your car with your child inside." She laughs and says "but my nanny is in the car." Right. Like no one ever carjacks a car and shoves the occupant out. So then I say, very quietly, well I was also worried about your polluting the air your children breathe. Whereupon she says with disgust, "Oh come on." I say "no, really...we all have to breathe this air, and it is also contributing to global climate change and wasting fossil fuel." Whereupon she starts saying that I am a crazy lady screaming at her in the parking lot, laughs, and drives away. I went home to my comfortable 60 degree house. First I screamed and then I cried.

Perhaps the chilly livers have developed brown fat, the highly metabolically active fat that protects newborns from losing heat and that up until recently, scientists believed adults had none of. Look it up on Wikipedia, or just Google 'brown fat'. It burns calories like crazy and keeps you warm, and one way to develop it, or activate what you have, is by remaining for long periods of time in a rather cold environment. Strangely, it's the sort of fat that keeps you from getting fat, and all you really need is a few ounces. I would bet that the chilly posters have developed those ounces, and that's why they feel warm in environments the rest of us might consider uncomfortable.

By zephyr haversack (not verified) on 24 Jan 2010 #permalink

OK, those of you who swelter obscenely in sauna-like 55-degree temperatures, whatever do you do in the summer?

By speedwell (not verified) on 25 Jan 2010 #permalink

Well, I try not to live in Texas ;-). And amazingly, I'm succeeding. Otherwise, I adapt the same as everyone else (no a/c) - human beings are adaptable and it would be silly to argue that you can endure low temps in the home but not high ones ;-).


OK, you are more successful than I am at avoiding Texas. I live in Houston, where it is a constant 72 degrees year-round.

Outside? What's that? (Native Houstonians will laugh.)

By speedwell (not verified) on 25 Jan 2010 #permalink

I live in South Dakota, where it has been plenty chilly this winter. I've been dealing with ice dams on my roof, so turned down the temp on the main floor to 66, and keep the upstairs at 59-60, all in an effort to prevent further ice build up until I can deal with the insulation/ventilation issue. I grew up in Houston (hot and humid) so I have been so surprised by how comfortable I am at my current temps! In fact, I plan to stick with it, as I haven't slept so well in years. I just burrow under a mound of covers, and run a space heater in the bathroom for five minutes to take the chill out of the air in that small room first thing in the morning. :)

By ctenotrish (not verified) on 25 Jan 2010 #permalink

Flip side of coin: Summer in muggy DC. No AC. Here's how: Close all windows and blinds in early morning when still cool. After dark, open them. Cool air comes in. Many nights, nearly chilly. There are some hot spells when the house gets too warm in the afternoon, in which case we turn it on (but at high temp) for a few hours because otherwise the house will not cool down enough overnight and it will be hard to sleep. I think we had the AC on for 4 or 5 full days last summer, and perhaps another 12 days when we did the afternoon-to-evening routine.