Built to Last
New Orleans is a city of old housing stock. Here are some tips to keep your house – and your family – healthy.
By American standards, the 75-year-old house I live in today is old.
The average age of owner-occupied homes in the U.S. is 32 years, according to the Census Bureau. The average American house was built in the heyday of Rod Stewart and Blondie and Jimmy Carter.
Mine was built in the heyday of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and Huey Long.
But by New Orleans standards, where one-third of the housing units were built before World War II, my house is a youngster. A Creole cottage I owned several years back was built nearly 100 years earlier, when people were playing Chopin on the parlor piano and voting for the Whig Party.
That old house is still rock-solid after 170 years, which makes me wonder: Will my current house, a century its junior, still be standing strong 100 years from now?
Robert Anderson is an engineer with 46 years of experience dealing with residential construction. He’s known in his field as an expert on home foundation design. And he’s a lifelong New Orleanian. Here’s a man who ought to know how to make a home last.
As you might expect, Anderson believes a solid home starts with a good foundation. The challenges, he says, vary from place to place. On the south shore, for example, settlement is an issue, especially in low-lying areas closer to Lake Pontchartrain. This problem can be addressed by driving pilings prior to construction of a new home. On the Northshore, settlement issues relate to what is known as “highly plastic clay,” particularly in the areas around Covington and Mandeville. Houses on the Northshore should be built on special slabs that can ride the waves as this special clay expands and contracts, Anderson says.
After preventing apocalyptic foundation problems, what can a homeowner do to keep a house healthy?
Rule No. 1, Anderson says, is to keep moisture away. Moisture invites the other three horsemen of the New Orleans residential apocalypse: rot, termites and mold.
So Anderson calls first for proper drainage around the house. The ground should slope away from the dwelling. If that’s impossible, you should install French drains to capture the water flow. Up above, the roof needs gutters and downspouts, unless the eaves overhang the house by at least 18 inches. And you need to clean the gutters annually to ensure they’re effective.
As New Orleanians rebuild, Anderson says, pier-supported houses are becoming more popular. But homeowners should ensure that the underside of the house has good ventilation. If it must be closed up for aesthetic reasons, Anderson suggests installing a power fan on a timer to circulate air underneath the house a few times a day.
Otherwise, you’ll be sealing in a destructively damp atmosphere.
One downside of pier-supported houses: cold floors during the winter. If you want to keep your tootsies toasty, you have to insulate the underside. Back in the days of the Whigs – or, for that matter, Fred Astaire or Rod Stewart – this was not an option. Standard insulation under the house acts like a sponge, trapping moisture. But very recent advances in technology offer a few options much less likely to cause moisture problems. If you want to insulate, Anderson says, splurge on closed-cell spray foam insulation. He also suggests putting Visqueen on the ground to block the dampness.
Anderson also recommends a yearly check of weather-stripping and caulking around windows. The seams around windows are vulnerable to aqua intrusion.
And go easy on the AC. Anderson says he often walks into homes he’s inspecting, “and it feels like a refrigerator.”
Going overboard on air conditioning invites moisture problems, particularly on hardwood floors, commonly manifested in cupping of the floorboards. He suggests keeping the thermostat at 68 degrees in the winter and 72 in the summer to save money – and your floors.
Anderson emphasizes that moisture poses a risk not only to the health of your house but also of its inhabitants. He says health-conscious homeowners and those with respiratory issues should install a de-humidifier with a HEPA filter and a UV filter and keep it set at 45 percent. Mold, he says, cannot grow below 50 percent relative humidity.
He estimates it might cost about $5,000 for a 2,500-square-foot house but argues that it will pay off in health benefits.
Along the same lines, Anderson recommends professional carpet cleaning once a year and changing the air filters on your HVAC system once a month. Fresh filters pick up more dust particles, pollen and mold spores.
They also decrease energy consumption and make life easier on your blower system.
The climate being what it is, termites are likely to find a juicy morsel of wood somewhere in your house, even with protective measures. So another of Anderson’s rules is to maintain your termite contract. “A lot of people
could save a lot of grief if they did that,” he says.
Beyond these measures, Anderson recommends putting together a regular to-do list with items such as oiling the garage door and annual pressure-washing to extend the life of your paint job.
With the right preventive measures, who knows? Maybe in the year 2111, somebody will be living in your house, wondering how it lasted so long.