On My New Found Love For Mechanical Systems...

In doing the budgeting for the townhouse renovation, I knew that one of my biggest expenses was going to be the MEP (Mechanical, Electrical, and Plumbing) work. One of the main reasons that I purchased the house is that very little work has been done to it in the last 130+ years. While this means that there is an abundance of beautiful detailing and craftsmanship, it also means that the MEP systems need maintenance and updating.

The Gold Coast was developed after the City of Chicago implemented a plan to raise the entire city 4’-14’ to install sewer pipes above the water table but below the city streets. There are many fabulous old images showing men physically raising buildings to meet the new street level. However, as the Gold Coast neighborhood was a planned development by Potter Palmer, the houses were built to accommodate modern plumbing. As one might expect, modern plumbing was a major selling point at the time.

For heating purposes, a steam boiler and radiator system was the fashion. The townhouse has a collection of magnificent cast-iron radiators situated below the windows of each room. While serving the practical function of providing heat to each room, the radiators are also highly ornamental, adding to the décor of each room. The pipes are filled with steam, and keep the house quite toasty in the winter.

As previously discussed, the townhouse was built as one of a series of five townhouses along Ritchie Court constructed together by Potter Palmer. This means that each building shares a wall on either side with the adjoining townhouse. The shared wall is referred to as a “party wall.” One of the beauties of the party wall is that it helps insulate each building, meaning that no outside air passes between the buildings, but rather the wall is kept warm by the house on either side. Therefore, only the front, rear, and roof facades are exposed to the elements. Interestingly, the practice at the time dictated to insulate the roof, but not the front and rear facades. Warm, moist air generated by the radiators is kept in the house by a thick sandwiched wall: first a layer of plaster, then an air-gap which works as an insulator, and then the masonry exterior. The result is that my plaster walls are in almost pristine condition, and the house maintains almost perfect humidity levels.

Enter the era of drywall. After WWII, houses needed to be constructed quickly for returning soldiers and their families. With no time for lath-and-plaster wall construction, a new product called drywall was invented. While drywall does ease construction efficiency, drywall does not have the same self-insulating properties as the more substantial wall constructions which came before. Walls now had to be insulated and mechanically heated through forced air systems. Many buildings also then installed humidifiers to help regulate moisture. While these buildings leak less air, they created a new set of problems. “Sick building syndrome” occurs when a building is too air-tight, allowing for mold and other bacteria to accumulate in the house. Also, more mechanized systems translate to increased opportunities for things to break, causing more time and money for the homeowner.

The majority of houses in the Gold Coast that I have visited have ripped out their plaster walls, constructed drywall in their stead, and added forced air systems. As a preservationist, I am inclined to mourn the loss of the ornamental plaster and cast iron radiators. However, sometimes we can all agree that the simpler system is the better system. There is no need to move to forced air, it dries both the building and your skin out. This is Chicago, you will be spending most of your days in heated interiors. Why not maintain the old system of steam radiators, which keep a great balance of warm, moist air in the house while also giving you pretty radiators to admire?

Therefore, the only major HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning) upgrade that needs to be done is the addition of air conditioning. When Ritchie Court was constructed, there were no high-rises along Lake Shore, so one could simply open their windows to get cooling lake breezes flowing through the house. As this is no longer the case, air conditioning is a necessary evil for summer comfort. So, where will an air conditioner go? Why it goes between the floor joists! A system called a “SpacePak” allows for small tubes to run parallel to the floor joists, puncturing through the ceiling where cold air needs to be delivered. Easy as pie.

One final note on amazing, antiquated mechanical systems. On the third floor of the townhouse is a small bathroom with a skylight. I was pretty sure that the bathroom was a later addition, but I could not resolve why there was a skylight in a bathroom. Well, in the house next-door, there is an original cedar closet in the location where my house has a bathroom. The cedar closet has a skylight. The reason, as explained to me by P.E. Mark Nussbaum, is that when a fine Gold-Coast lady was ready to bring her fur coats out for the season, she would air them out by simply opening the bedroom window and the skylight, and allow for air to brush by her furs to eliminate any stale odors. Imagine that!

 The Raising of Chicago: t he Briggs House—a brick hotel—raised, probably in 1866.

The Raising of Chicago: the Briggs House—a brick hotel—raised, probably in 1866.

 One of two basic systems heats your house: either a furnace, which heats up air, or a boiler, which heats up water.

One of two basic systems heats your house: either a furnace, which heats up air, or a boiler, which heats up water.

 
 Left: Typical masonry construction pre-1930s. Right: Typical masonry construction of today. Lesson learned: less is more.

Left: Typical masonry construction pre-1930s. Right: Typical masonry construction of today. Lesson learned: less is more.

 
 One of a pair of cast-iron radiators in the dining room.

One of a pair of cast-iron radiators in the dining room.

 Cast-iron radiator on the third floor.

Cast-iron radiator on the third floor.