“Mechanicals” New House, Old Soul – Ep. 10
Foreword by Ian Thompson, Editor
In today’s latest New House Old Soul episode we dive deep into the intricate process of infusing modern homes with a timeless, classic appeal. This episode, hosted by Brent Hall.
In this episode, we shift our focus to a critical, yet often overlooked aspect of home design – the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system. The HVAC system is not just about making a house comfortable; it plays a significant role in preserving the ‘old soul’ of the house while ensuring its energy efficiency.
Brent, who comes from a historic preservation world, shares his unique perspective on striking a balance between modern HVAC systems efficiency and the classic aesthetics of older homes. From exploring the spectrum of houses pre-1950 with no insulation to discussing the challenges of contemporary design in hot climates like Texas, USA. Brent takes us on a deep dive into HVAC’s role in creating a new house with an old soul.
This episode further takes us behind the scenes of various projects, from a Pennsylvania farmhouse to a 1970s house that incorporated architectural salvage from a 1930s Detroit mansion. Brent shares the innovative solutions they employed, such as creating dedicated mechanical spaces and using the high-pressure small duct system from Unico.
Through this exploration, Brent emphasizes the importance of strategic planning and collaboration with experienced HVAC professionals in achieving the desired balance between beauty and energy efficiency. This process includes thinking ahead about duct placement, finding ways to conceal HVAC components, and choosing systems like Unico that offer more flexibility and efficiency. This is a process that can if done wrong make interiors look disjointed and less appealing.
We invite you to join us in this insightful exploration of merging modern HVAC systems with classic home aesthetics. Whether you’re a homeowner, a builder, or an enthusiast, there’s a wealth of knowledge to gain from this episode.
Over to Brent Hall’s latest video in our Build Diary series.
Hey guys, welcome back to New House Old Soul. Today we’re going to be talking about HVAC, the Mechanicals Heating and Cooling, how to make a house comfortable but still giving it that old soul.
Build the original series hosted by Brent Hall, New House Old Soul, sponsored by Stellar Floors and the Unico system.
Really, to dive into this deal, I’m on the Build show. I got to lay out my bias right. My bias is that I come from a historic preservation world, and Steve and Jake and Matt are this way, and you know, they’re, you know, if this is the spectrum of houses and efficiency and everything else, they’re out here as far as passive design and things like that. I feel like I’m maybe in here. I think the extra effort to get there isn’t worth it. And so I also look at the Spectrum of all houses in America, and I’d say that most houses are in here, right? Because most of the houses pre-1950, they don’t even have insulation. And so HVAC and things like that is somewhat new. We’re also in Texas, okay? And so we’re in zone three. It’s hot, but we don’t really have heavy cold. And so our median temperatures here, I think, is like 68 or 70 degrees. When we build a new house with an old soul, trying to not have a system that is just gross, right? Not to have a system that uplink vent covers. And I’m trying to balance the inner Energy Efficiency with beauty and with making it look good. And so there’s a lot of ways to do that. We’re going to look at a number, and we’re going to talk about a number of houses that we’ve done. We did that house in Dallas, or the Pennsylvania farmhouse we talked about at the beginning. Both of those are pier and beam construction. And so, you know, we encapsulated the floor system in there. We actually dug out that house in Dallas. We dug down so we could hang the units in that space. We dug down, then we concreted it, then we put it in. We put French strains in that stuff. Really complex system there in order to build our HVAC in an effective way.
Think about the barn. The barn, we actually created a war room. We created a nerve center where all the HVAC equipment could be in one place with the heating and air conditioning and electrical and plumbing. So what I’m trying to say is that I’m evolving as a builder, right? When I first got to know Matt and then started listening to Jake and Steve and those things, I’ve been pushed farther down that way. At the same time, I want to balance. I don’t want to have to build a house that requires a motor to keep the air flowing, right? I’ve come from that preservation world. In order to build a new house with an old soul, I’m wanting to balance. I’m wanting a balance between an HVAC system that’s super efficient, dual motors, a tight envelope with a smart HVAC system. But I’m also trying to balance that with the air grills and where they go. I’m also trying to balance that with comfort for the homeowner and things like that. So realize that I’m not going all the way out to 11, right? All the way up to where those guys are. But I’m trying to strike this balance between beauty and energy efficiency. And, you know, us building our houses at that, you know, 89, 92 percent of where those guys are going is a house that, in my mind, balances the beauty, gives you that old house, gives you that old feel, without, you know, going too far.
Now we’re going to go look at this 1970s house that’s a new old house in many respects because they took a lot of architectural salvage from that 1930s house in Detroit. It was the Dodge mansion, and brought it up here as a Texas oil and gas person who made a lot of money, and he built this amazing house. And so you’re going to see in that house that it’s concrete foundation, concrete slab floors, pyramid construction with a full basement underneath. And the HVAC system in that house is unbelievable. There’s no flex ducting in there. It’s all built in an incredibly 100-year kind of manner. We’re also going to go look at Thistle Hill, which is a 1904 house, right? And we’re going to be problem-solving how to do a sensitive HVAC system in that house, which has been bastardized in some ways with the chiller system, the HVAC units that take out entire closets. We’re going to talk about how to more sensitively build an HVAC system into that house and yet still have that historic charm for…
An amazing mechanical space. This really is the nerve center. This really is where everything happens. And you can come down here and fix everything, right? Because everything is in the same place. Electrical, plumbing, HVAC, and Mechanicals, data wires. And so we’re going to walk, and I’m going to show you how far this extends. It’s kind of crazy. We can go to another air handler on the other side of the basement to show you the expanse of this. Remember, this is a 20,000 square foot house. And so heating and cooling it is not a traditional system. That’s why they’re using the chiller system here. But let’s go check it out.
So now we’re on the other side, right? So you see the plumbing lines here, and every plumbing line goes into its own bathroom so it can be shut off. Got another air handler here. This is a big mechanical space, okay? This is another level of mechanical building but something that speaks to the quality. I mean, there’s not a flex duct in this house. I mean, it’s all steel duct with dampers pneumatically operated. And so you’re looking at an incredible house, a well-built house, a well-designed house. Hope you guys enjoy it. I want to go over to Thistle Hill because the same kind of system we have, actually, have a chiller system. It’s a little bit older. It’s not quite as elaborate as this. But it’s also something we should check out.
Okay, guys, so we’re at Thistle Hill. It’s a… I wanted to come here because this is a house that’s 1904 redone in 1911 that has a lot of the changes and adaptations that were taking place with historic properties as we think about heating and cooling them. This house never had air conditioning, right? Air conditioning, as we talked about, isn’t until the ’50s or ’60s, that right there is called a chiller, okay? And a chiller system is a more efficient air conditioning system. It was put in in ’85. And so most likely this house had window units for a long time as a cooling mechanism. But it was always heated. The other thing is that there’s an opening right here. It would have been a coal shoot, okay? So they have a boiler downstairs that we can still see. Lumber companies and things that were also provided coal, and they would come by, and there would be a little window there, and they’d open the window and shoot coal down there, call it a coal shoot. So there was ways of heating and cooling before air conditioning, before gas. So we’re going to look at this HVAC system and think through some of the different ways that we can make more efficient use of the space, especially in a historic house like this. So come check it out. We’re going to go inside. We’re going to go down to the basement, look at the original guts of this house, talk about how they heated and cooled this house and how it’s changed over time.
Okay, so we’re standing in a Billiards room, and I want to point out the things that you are and are not seeing, okay? There’s a grill down here on the ground, right? That’s originally where heat would have risen up into, okay? There’s a fireplace. In fact, there’s one, two, three, four, five fireplaces downstairs, and actually, there’s old fireplaces upstairs. So we’re getting a glimpse to do how they would have heated it. Look too, they’ve got a radiator system as well, so most likely these were added at a little bit different time period. But you’re looking at three different ways of heating this place. Now, we’re in Texas, okay? And so heat may be a problem for two months out of the year. It isn’t something that you need every day, you know? Here we are in the summer, and you don’t need it. Now, my point is, is that when you look at, you know, how they originally heated this thing and you think about how I’m going to cool, how I’m going to bring things into this house today. So, especially when we’ve got air conditioning as a, you know, new technology that we can use. I’m going back with looking at this kind of show, okay, to hide my grates, okay? What you don’t want in a room like this, a great comfort ceiling is the standard stamped white grill that’s all over everybody’s house. Okay? So here you are, you know, thinking about custom grills. There’s a great system that we use called the Unico system. The Unico system is a high-pressure small duct system, and those ducts are about this big, okay? That duct is something that you could hide inside these beams and things like that as a great way to be unobtrusive in the way you heat and cool. They have little thin ducts, they have round ducts, and so they actually have duct covers that you can even get them in quartersawn oak. You can get them in maple. You can get them in mahogany so that they can really blend in. So what I’m thinking about is I’m building a new house with an old soul is how to communicate this age, okay? How do we communicate this in a new house? I’m going to do it with fireplaces. I’m going to do it with custom grills, and I’m going to hide those things as much as possible so that we don’t have these white grills everywhere. Here’s what happens: the HVAC contractor comes in, he puts the load in your house. He says, “I need grills all over the house, right?” Usually they’re in the ugliest places in the house. Usually too, they’re huge. “Well, I need a 15 by 16, you know, return air area.” “Okay, well, you know, do we have to have that?” “Yeah, I have to have that.” “Okay, can we split it up?” “Yeah, you can split it up.” “Okay, can we move it today? Is there, yeah.” So see what I’m doing there? I am understanding the problem, but I’m trying to solve it not by just letting the sub-drive ugly. Right? I’m trying to drive that beauty, trying to hide those things so that our house has an old soul, so those things go away.
So we’re in the coal bin area, right? There’s your coal shoot. There’s your coal. Would have come down here, there would have been a big pile of coal, okay? So they would have filled this thing up. It would have been a big pile of coal. And look at there’s my boiler right there, okay? Taking a shovel of coal, throwing it into that bottom door that’s open right there, that thing would have lit up. That would have boiled the water. It would have then run through all those radiator heaters that you hear. So it’s a hot water system that was going on here. So here you’re seeing the guts of the house. Here you’re seeing the structure of how this thing would have heated. The other thing you’re seeing here is are these pipes, okay? Now, these pipes are with the chiller system, okay? Your typical HVAC system works because of the use of freon. Now, when freon goes from a liquid to a gas state and a gas to a liquid state, it gets hot and it gets cold, okay? And so when it gets cold, it freezes up all those pipes. You blow air across it, and that’s how you get cold air, is because of the chemical change that’s happening with freon. But chiller system is basically the same thing. It works on freon, but it works, it’s a more efficient unit. This house, our Italian Revival house, and the great 1970s house all are working on a chiller system. Why? Because those houses are 15, 20,000 square feet, and it’s a more efficient cooling system for such a large space. That 70s house was a 70 ton. Okay? So these are cold water pipes, okay? And these are running to the blowers, okay? And the blowers blow across that, they blow cool air into the house. And so one of the things we’re doing on our builds right now is really thinking through spaces like this, like we’re in a great historic house, and they have dedicated a lot of space to mechanicals. They’ve dedicated a lot of space to the workings, the guts of the house. And so we’re trying to incorporate that as well. A lot of our projects five, six, eight years ago were AC over here, you know, AV here, and you know, electrical and tankless water heaters spread out around the house. Now we’re trying to have a main center for lack of a better word where all these things are labeled, organized, kind of put together so that one, they’re hidden, okay? And you’re not opening a closet and they’re like, “Ah, what am I looking at here?” They’re organized, right? And so I look at this space and how they built this house, and I go, “It’s pretty organized the way they were thinking through all of this. I’ve got my electrical panels over here. I’ve got my heating and cooling stuff going on.” So we’re trying to think about that and doing that. Thinking ahead of how the house is going to finish out, where ducts are going to go so that you don’t have to build in drop-down ducts and things like that. You’ve actually already thought about those kind of things so that you are being proactive instead of reactive. You’re not going into the Dodge and the HVAC guy goes, “I don’t have room for that. I’m gonna have to go right through your kitchen.” He’s like, “Ah, no. You actually already thought through those things, and we’re going to put the ducts here, put the ducts here or wherever you’re going to do them. But that it should be part of the thinking if you want that old soul in a new house. Now, let’s go upstairs. I want to show you a room to show you the consequences of that and how this house was heated so you can think about the historic precedent as we think about building our new house with an old soul.”
Okay, so I want to tell you about the Unico system. When I was at North Bennett Street 30 years ago, Unico was just coming out, and they had this small duct system. And in the preservation world, that’s a big deal because, you know, ducts have to be this big, and these ducts were this big. And if you think of a joist cavity in a house like this, it’s probably 2 by 12 at the most. And we don’t have web trusses back then. We don’t have big joists. If you go back even earlier, timber frame houses, you know, you might even have that kind of joist space. So this product, I remember my instructors raving about how this saves historic houses. Here’s an example, okay? Here’s a closet on the upstairs. And uh-oh, we’ve lost the closet, right? Because we’ve got now this huge air handler in here that is taking over my closet and is running all through this house. And so if I had a smaller system, I could push this thing back there, actually still have my closet and not have to have this behemoth thing in my closet. I’ve got another one on over there, I’ve got another one over here. And so these end up taking up a lot of room. I don’t know if you guys have, you know, been in your attic, and certainly we’ve worked with, uh, you know, when we’re putting the HVAC in the attic, dropping the cold air down. You go upstairs, and there’s this octopus of flex ducts going around the thing that’s just basically takes over your attic. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a small system that sat on the ground and webbed out to all the different places in your house and didn’t take over your attic, right? So high-pressure small duct system like the Unico is a great solution for historic houses like this, but even for new houses, we also get into situations where we are trying to hide ducts, trying to hide things, make things like there’s no ducts in this space, right? There’s one up high here, there’s no ducts in this space, right? And so if we had come in and we didn’t have this kind of grill to shoot our ducts into, you know what would we do? So it becomes a great solution for new houses as well and, uh, as far as how we’re going to use that and we’ve used it in the past very effectively. Part of what we’re doing, new household soul, is we are, you know, historic houses used to be designed from the outside in, right? They were, they were much more conscientious of how things look from the exterior than than we are today. There’s a stain-grade window in the closet of McFarland over here in Fort Worth. We’re like, “Why would they do that?” And then you go outside and you look at the cemetery and everything else that it created, and you’re like, “Oh, yeah. So they were thinking much more about outside in.” And so when we’re doing that with the new house and we’re thinking about how it’s going to look from all these different angles on the outside, sometimes we have to condense the space or sometimes we lose a closet, we need duct space. And so when you’re building that way, you can sometimes get into trouble, not big trouble, but trouble that you need a small duct system that could help you overcome some of the challenges that happen when you build it with an old soul.
Mechanicals, I was talking about the Unico system when we were looking at that HVAC system in the closet. And the really genius thing about this high-pressure small duct system is that it can go anywhere. And this is a system I learned about at North Bennett Street a long time ago. Great for historical houses, but it’s good for new houses. I’m going to take you over and show you a project that we did a few years ago, finished up, where we used the Unico system and it was a great solution for us. The ducting was great, the size, we just didn’t have a lot of room there. We were able to put the unit in a horizontal position. It’s more efficient, there’s less duct leakage. There’s so many great opportunities and benefits of the Unico system. I’m a big fan. You guys check this out. Let me know what you think.
In the grill work underneath those chairs and things is a return air system. So, because this is all glass, we actually use the Unico system in this addition so that we could have an almost invisible HVAC system that still cools this place. As I said, it’s going to be 107 today, and it’s very pleasant inside here. There’s a screen system that really helps, but how do we do that? What you’ll see is, if talking about the HVAC, see those little black slots? Okay, those are the supplied, and they go around this whole thing. So basically, there’s duct works in this kind of furred-down area, and then our return air is in this side over here. So we’re pulling air from this side up into this area. If this was a conventional system, not only would the, you know, air handler need to be found someplace, but I could, I wouldn’t have room to have the return and the supply lines coming through the same areas. And it wraps it around that other side that really allowed this project to happen. Really, it allows you to be successful because those ducts were so small, and we were able to integrate it so seamlessly. You know, one of the tricks of building a new house and old soul is that a lot of times with the engineering that happens with new houses with web trusses, you end up with these huge spans, and you end up with joist spaces that are 16, 24 inches deep. And that really messes up the scale of that old house. And so old houses didn’t have that. You didn’t have web trusses, and so typically the biggest span was about 12 inches. And so what that means is that your room sizes shrink a little bit if you’re trying to build that new house with the old soul and you try to do it with these new building systems, you can end up with funky wall systems on the outside, windows that look too small for the wall because so much of it is taken up with the web trusses. And so to me, it’s really not the scale, the web trusses, the lighting, the ceiling, the fenestration, the windows, the scale of the house, how it sits on the lot, is really, really important. All those things make it look old and that it has an old soul.
And so we were able to do that here because that ceiling was 10 feet tall. You see it’s kind of cool, the ceiling is 10 feet tall on the first floor, 9 feet tall on the second floor, and it gives it just a little bit different feel. But we were able to do that because those trusses are small enough. This project is on our website. It’s our Victorian-inspired house. It’s not necessarily an old house, it’s Victorian-inspired. It has a lot of details from different Victorian houses. It has a lot of interesting things in it. I’ve got a lot of time for houses that are Victorian, Victorian architecture. I’m not saying I would build that way today, but it’s really interesting to think about all the different kind of spaces that people created with their houses in that era and think about how to bring that to a new house. So if you’re thinking about building a house with an old soul, hope some of these tips have helped you out. Be sure to check out Unico. It’s a great system. We’re very successful with it. And remember, when you’re building a house, build what you love. Thanks for watching.
Okay, guys, that was a deep dive into HVAC. It’s a really important topic to consider when building a new house with an old soul. Finding that balance between efficiency, comfort, and aesthetics is key to achieving the desired look and feel of an older home while still enjoying the benefits of modern heating and cooling systems. Whether it’s using high-pressure small duct systems like the Unico system or strategically placing and concealing ductwork, there are various ways to make HVAC less obtrusive in your home. Remember that thoughtful planning and collaboration with experienced HVAC professionals can help you achieve the best results for your project. Thanks for tuning in to New House Old Soul. We hope you found this episode informative and inspiring. If you enjoyed the show, please like, share, and subscribe, and stay tuned for more episodes where we explore the art and science of creating new houses with old souls. If you have any questions or topics you’d like us to cover in future episodes, please leave a comment below. We’d love to hear from you. Until next time, keep building with passion and purpose, and create homes that capture the essence of the past while embracing the innovations of the future. I’m Brent Hull, and this is New House Old Soul.