House renovation: How to cope with cold weather

When snow blows and temperatures fall, tips for coping with the cold and continuing a house renovation over winter.

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    Jason Folick of Sima Drilling keeps a fire going in a metal barrel in order to stay warm in sub-zero temperatures while working on the renovation of Sheep Dog Hollow, a 1902 farmhouse in Connecticut.
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Ah, the snow is flying and the roofers who were to start mid-December are now talking about coming in mid-January due to delays on other jobs caused by previous snows. But work at Sheep Dog Hollow, the old farmhouse we’re trying to renovate in a green and economical fashion, lumbers on (as it were.)

The carpenters have been busily preparing the exterior walls for the new energy-efficient windows, putting in new support beams, and tearing out rotted lumber and reframing where it needs to be done. In all, we’re talking about a month’s worth of labor (times four carpenters, each at a good hourly wage) that we had not expected. And now there is also the cold to deal with.

Recommended: Think you know the odd effects of global climate change? Take our quiz.

Martin’s nephew Liam O’Connor, who's a contractor in New York City, had one piece of advice for coping with the cold in January and February: “Shut the job down,” he said. “It’s too cold to work efficiently.”

Indeed, winter cold does cause construction delays. I even found a book written about the various lawsuits that have been filed by disgruntled homeowners who were furious that contractors did not get things done in a timely fashion and thus cost them extra money. (Ah, litigious America…)

In one case, an expert witness testified that “labor productivity was reduced by a third during the first winter period” and that it was reduced by “20 percent in the second winter period” because of working in only a partially constructed building.

Well, since we’re sort of the general contractor on this job ourselves, I can’t imagine that it would make much sense to sue ourselves. Plus, in general, I was raised to believe in forgiveness and understanding in lieu of litigation. And then there’s the fact that we still need to get a new roof on the house and new windows put in.

Oh, and did I mention that we have one of the best carpentry teams around? It might be cold, but they still move, and move fast.

And so, since we’re going to keep working at least through part of January, I’ve checked out some tips for working in the cold. Most of the advice is common sense, like wearing layers, extra socks, and keeping your head covered. (Didn’t your mother always tell you that 40 percent of your heat loss is from your head?) And, of course, using space heaters where possible.

But the National Utility Contractor’s Association also had some other advice [PDF] I hadn’t heard before:
– Take frequent short breaks in a warm shelter to allow the body to warm up.
– Avoid exhaustion or fatigue because energy is needed to keep muscles warm.
– Drink warm, sweet beverages and avoid drinks with caffeine or alcohol.
– Eat warm, high calorie food such as pasta dishes.

The website ContractorTalk also has a great discussion board with advice for keeping warm while working in the cold. My favorite post is from a guy who works in Saskatchewan:

I am in Saskatchewan Canada, which is to say I work in the cold. In the -30c range here now with -40's for wind chill. (-30c is -22f -40c is -40f )
I now use fishing gloves. 'Bushline' is the brand. they are the green ones from Wall-mart. Used them in -20c all day and my hands warm. Plus I can handle nails/screws with them on. I used to use a 'liner' glove on my nail hand and 2 on the hammer/drill hand.
Also got a balaclava that snowmobiler's use. Some high tech material. Used it tonight outside in -28 for over an hour and my face was really warm. Still use a fuzzy hat as this is usually worn under a helmet and is not warm on the top. Really thin material there.

And so, the cold wind blows and the snow falls while work continues at Sheep Dog Hollow.

Here’s hoping for a warm snap so this latest snow melts before the roofers arrive in mid-January. It would put a real damper on things if they couldn't start until mid-February. Plus, think how cold they’re going to be up there!!

Editor’s note: Alexandra Marks blogs on Tuesdays and Thursdays about her green and budget-friendly restoration of a 1902 farmhouse in Connecticut.

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