When we first purchased our home less than three years ago, it was a charming four bedroom, two bathroom, Dutch colonial bungalow, built in 1920. It was a complete flip, featuring laminate flooring, faux granite countertops, and some, shall we say, interesting additions and subtractions. What I mean by this is that we had a few new walls where there used to not be any and a few original walls that were taken down or partially removed. The home advertised new carpeting, flooring, windows, and siding. Most importantly for us, though, it came with new plumbing, electricity, and mechanicals. The property included a garage and a shed. It was built on a nice, over-sized lot, located in a town of approximately 1,000 people that is over an hour away from any major cities. As a bonus, it has a fairly good-sized Amish community in the outlying areas. This gives us access to a wide variety of hand tools, instructions on getting things done without electricity, and bulk products. While we would have preferred more land further out in the country, we felt that we made the best decision, based on our budget. Since purchasing the home, we have made several discoveries that we believe are greatly assisting us in our preparations.
- Outhouse. We discovered the original, brick-lined outhouse pit and the sidewalk leading from the house to it. We confess that we initially thought that we were digging up the original well. We dug it all the way to the bottom of the brick lining– approximately eight feet deep, six feet long, and four feet wide. Once cleaned out, we refilled it with sand to create a sandbox for our kids to play in. On our to-do list is to build a little “playhouse with a bench” cover for the “sandbox”. If we had to, we could remove the sand with a long hard day of shoveling, cut out the holes in the bench, and reassemble a fully-functioning outhouse with no visual change to our yard and landscaping.
- Bartering Supplies. As a bonus of digging up the outhouse, we also found over 200 glass bottles of myriad shapes and sizes. Based on our research, most of these bottles date from the early 1900’s to the 1940’s. We have over half of the bottles cleaned and categorized. While we do not have any corks or tops for them, we have plenty of plastic and small rubber bands. We believe that they might come in handy for dispensing a variety of goods in a bartering economy, such as: alcohol, medicine, liquid soap, cooking oil, and so forth. All of the bottles appear to be made of a stronger, thicker glass that is fairly durable. After all, it survived being thrown into an outhouse pit, sitting for approximately 75 years, and being dug out with a garden shovel.
- Water Access. As I mentioned, we thought we were digging up the original well when we discovered our outhouse. Since then, we have found the well. It is a sandpoint well with a three foot by three foot square brick-lined area that is about seven feet deep. Unfortunately, we are running into some government red tape in getting it approved to be used “to water the garden”. We have measured and determined the type of pump that we would require to access the water without electricity, but unless we can get the sandpoint unplugged, we will have to continue to work with our local bureaucracy to get it legalized. Of course, should society disintegrate, a bullet and the hand pump will get us water pretty quick.
- Inconspicuous Storage. While technically not a part of the house, one of the advantages to purchasing our property was the two-story garage. Smaller than the typical garage, it has in interior ladder leading to the very short second floor. This has given us a lot of storage space for things that are not impacted by extreme temperature fluctuations, such as toilet paper, paper towels, clothing, diapers, and metal spare parts. So, unless someone recognizes the ladder for a ladder, opposed to a tool rack, the space falls into the out of sight, out of mind category.
- Fruit Cellar. The house included a storage area in the basement that was built separately with NATCO hollow tile bricks and included a door. The interior space measures about 8 feet long and 6 feet wide. It originally had a few scrap wood shelves, but not much else. After speaking with a relative of the original builder, we learned that this particular room was the fruit cellar. Using a bunch of wood that we pulled from our interior demolition projects, we rebuilt shelving for all four walls of the room, customized to fit various sized home canning jars, storage containers on wheels, and antique, wooden food crates. Each shelf was built with recycled wood but strong enough to hold our weight while jumping on the shelves. We wanted to ensure that each shelf would be able to hold 50 to 75 glass jars full of food. Our total cost for this project, not counting the food, was the price of three boxes of wood screws. So far we have over 2,000 items in the pantry, with room for more. When we work to refinish the basement, we plan on discretely disguising this space and showing stored food in a much smaller quantity on shelves.
- Cold Cellar. While speaking with the extended family of the home’s builder, we also learned that the first owner never owned a refrigerator, and neither did the second, because “he didn’t trust all those new appliances”. Following their instructions on how to get to the cold cellar, we removed the carpeting in the basement and noticed a portion of the basement’s cement floor was not a consistent color. A few bangs with a heavy sledge hammer and we busted through a thin layer of concrete. We had to remove three Rubbermaid totes of rock, gravel, and cement chunks, but we eventually dug it out. It measures approximately three feet wide, two feet long, and three feet deep with a sand bottom. We need to finish some minor repairs to the edge of the cold cellar to make it smooth again. We also found some drawings for building a dumb waiter using a pulley system to raise and lower certain foods into the cellar. In the meantime, we are tracking the temperatures to ensure what the average temperature is during the four main seasons. Thus far, it has been comparable to a typical refrigerator.
- Rainwater Cistern. Our home was originally built with a rainwater cistern in the basement, beneath what is now the first floor bathroom and kitchen. Three of the walls are in as good a condition as when the house was built. The fourth is missing. We have measured the spacing of the fourth wall so we know how many cinder blocks and masonry materials we need to acquire in order to replace the missing wall. The original pipes that connected to the gutters are still accessible, simply packed with a tin can and newspaper. We also have a gutter legally installed but strategically placed, so that it could very easily be re-routed and connected when necessary. Rainwater cisterns are illegal where we live, so we obviously cannot rebuild the missing wall until things get really bad. For us, this is our second option that we would implement only if we could not get the original well to work.
- Chimney. Our house was built with a wood-burning furnace for heat. That has since been replaced with a new, fuel-efficient, gas forced-air furnace. We believe that it also used a wood-burning stove in the kitchen, since we discovered the original stovepipe still in the chimney during our demolition and remodeling phase. The bad news is that the hot water heater vents through this same chimney, and someone ran some electrical conduit through it too. We are currently researching how to make the chimney safe and legal to use again. In the meantime, we used a china plate to cover the original stove pipe. Worst case scenario, we can easily break the china plate and connect a wood stove to the chimney. Who cares about conduit and water heaters if the power is out indefinitely. At least we will be warm and able to cook hot meals. Using our connections in the Amish community, we have spread the word that we are looking for a wood cook stove with at least two burners that is also big enough to heat a home with our square footage.
- Natural Temperature Control. We noticed that our house felt stuffy and overly warm year-round. It was almost as if we were suffocating. We noticed that we had some exposed brick around the front porch. After climbing around a bit, we came across the name of NATCO. After more research, we discovered that our entire house was built with NATCO hollow tile brick, most likely shipped in by train from Chicago. The most common finishing treatment of this brick was a stucco overlay. A peek behind some of the vinyl led us to discover that our house was wrapped, top to bottom, with styrofoam and vinyl siding. It took a while, but we eventually uncovered the entire house, restoring it to its original stucco finish. We were also able to improve the overall air flow throughout the house by carefully reviewing the floor plan and removing walls that were added to the house over the years. This opened up the house considerably, enabling air to flow from room to room, taking advantage of any good breezes. Now, the house stays relatively warm and comfortable in the winter, and it is also cool throughout the summer, even without an air conditioner. The materials used originally work much better, since the house was built before any of the modern conveniences related to air conditioning were invented. Plus, the brick walls retain the heat from our furnace very well. We assume the same would be true for a wood stove.
- Wood Floors. Many people do not take into consideration how hard or easy it would be to maintain a fairly clean environment within a home without electricity. When we purchased our home, it came complete with new carpeting and laminate flooring. One of the first things we did was start ripping out all of the carpet, exposing the original two and half inch maple floors. Next to go was the laminate flooring with the same results– more wood flooring. While the flooring was not in the best condition cosmetically, and the most likely reason for why it was hidden, we found that with a little elbow grease, a heat gun, dawn dish soap, hydrogen peroxide, baking soda, and olive oil, we could make the floors clean enough to be livable until we can properly refinish them. While I currently prefer to use a vacuum to keep them clean, I also use just a broom from time to time. Should the electricity ever go out, sweeping and cleaning the floors is a breeze with a simple vinegar and water solution.
We recognize that determining what type of home you will buy includes a wide variety of factors to consider. We also understand the appeal of a newer versus an older home. At the same time, we have found so many hidden benefits to our home. To determine if you home is a likely candidate to have hidden opportunities, like ours did, we recommend that you research three things before making your purchase. Look at:
- the year the house was originally built, prior to any major modifications;
- the year that municipalities, such as water and sewer, became mandatory; and,
- if possible, the access to and ability to communicate with any of the original owner’s relatives, if they are still alive.
As I said, our house was built in 1920. Water and sewer connections became mandatory for our block around 1935. This meant that there was a 15 year window in which alternative plumbing options had to be available. This house was functioning during a prime time for outhouses, wells, and rainwater cisterns. Finally, we were introduced to the nephew and former resident of the original master mason who built and owned the house. He was able to provide us with literal step-by-step instructions to things like the well, cold cellar, and more.