These days most of us live in either new or modernised houses. For most of us an open fire is a thing of the past, as are the draughts and smoke and dust and ashes that came with it. New materials and production methods now give us double glazing and door units that fit so well that draughts and external noise are all but eliminated. Central heating is just about universal. Our walls and ceilings are now insulated to very high standards. The standard of home maintenance is high enough that most of us don't know of anyone with a leaky roof, or a broken gutter. For most people, apart from the current economic situation, our houses are now cheap to heat, and the most comfortable that they have ever been. But for those of us with dodgy lungs, are they really good for us? I sometimes fear that the answer might be, 'Not really.'
Back in the days when most people had open fires, most families lived in the kitchen for most of the week, only going into the 'front room', or 'parlour', at weekends or on special occasions. Using that room usually meant lighting the fire. Think about what that entailed. The cost of the extra fire, coal was expensive to buy, wood was expensive in terms of time to collect. The best furniture would be exposed to dust from the fire. Many people would dress up to use that room. For some people, that meant washing extra clean! I can remember my grandfather complaining if a visitor was to call in the week! For a fire to burn properly required a well designed chimney to get the smoke out, and a good supply of air to keep it going. That good supply of air often was a draught under the door which usually someone would feel either on the back of their neck, or about their ankles. Comfort was rarely complete. The following day, someone would have to clean out and re-lay the fire.
Because of the intermittent heat in the front room, damp patches would often be a problem, particularly if the ground floor had solid floors. This would mean a chill could settle on the house quickly, as well as problems with mould and rot. People got by by wearing more layers, vest, heavy shirt, pullover or cardigan, jacket. Some people even wore house caps and gloves. Hard times for some. Better quality houses had a suspended floor at ground level, but as it was not much more expensive to build a cellar, this became a common option. The extra storage was valuable and the insulation due to the air space below meant these houses were easier to keep warm and dry. Bedrooms would always have a chill, and bedtime would be ritual of hot water bottles and warm drinks to take to bed. The first ten minutes or so until the bed warmed up, well, you had to live through it to know what it was like. Loft insulation is a relatively recent development.
Window frames then were made out of wood for choice. It lasted longest, was reliable and looked 'respectable'. Iron frames were for 'cheap' houses, and tended not to last very long before suffering from corrosion because the iron was usually low grade to keep the cost down, and poor maintenance would quicken the process through lack of paint or lack of lubrication causing hinges to wear or seize. Wooden frames had their own problems, mostly of swelling and shrinking according to whether the weather was wet or not. Sash frames could jam shut for days until they would magically free themselves, and then rattle in the slightest breeze.
Because in general we are so much more affluent now, and we have the advantage of living in a technically proficient society, most of us have moved on to a much better situation. For some of us though, have we moved in entirely the right direction? Yes, we have comfortable, draught free houses that are easy to heat and clean. But how many of us, particularly those of us with poor lungs, sometimes feel the need for a flow of fresh air. I have noticed since moving to our present home, that more often I feel that the air in the house is lacking sufficient oxygen. This house has new doors and windows that are totally draught free. They have built in ventilation pathways which we always leave open, but they are not enough. Even though I am on supplementary oxygen, at times I find my saturated oxygen level dropping well below what I consider to be 'normal at rest' for me. If I open the back door and some windows at the front of the house for a while, and fairly quickly, the air 'quality' returns to 'normal'. Is it good for us for our houses to be this airtight? I have my doubts.
Also we hear occasionally of people who have problems with fumes given off by materials used in upgrading wall insulation, sometimes for months or even in extreme cases years. This does not sound like a completely safe home to me. These issues are not as common as they used to be.
Are we better off than we were? My opinion is 'Yes', by an immeasurable amount. With a 'But'. That 'But' is that we need to make sure that those who are developing the next 'Best thing since sliced bread', really are making developments that are good for us. All of us.
Breathe easy, all of you.