Our Heating & Cooling Choices

Going into the renovation process we had never chosen a heating and cooling system before. Our tilt-n-turn windows meant we couldn’t have window air conditioners. And when I initially thought through the HVAC choices I wasn’t really in favor of forced air since it tended to be expensive, dusty, and take up a lot of space.

We wound up going with with hot water radiators plus mini-splits. Some of the money we saved going with rads, we spent on expensive European radiators (Runtal). We also didn’t go overboard on a zoned system with lots of thermostats. Instead we opted for pretty simple Danfoss valves. The end result looks like this…

runtal radiator with danfoss valve

The exposed pipes will be painted white when it’s all done. Most of the radiators in the house are two units high – that one is in the rental bedroom wall and shorter than the rest – so to get the same BTUs we have everywhere else we had to go with the model that’s 3 units high.

That’s inherently a pretty low-tech solution – a valve and a radiator. It’s just the radiator looks better than most and the valve is thermostatic – so it’s based on temperature works better than regular radiator valves.

[Incidentally – avoid steam radiators – there’s no such thing as a high efficiency steam boiler. To get high efficiency you need hot water radiators, not steam radiators.]

Because there’s a valve on every radiator we sorta get a zoned system where every room is a zone. It won’t work quite as well as a real zoned system with thermostats for every zone, but it also cost a lot less. And if we stay on top of it, it will probably perform about as well as a more sophisticated system.

There will be one thermostat for the heating system. A friend’s post on Facebook turned me on to the Nest thermostat. If you haven’t checked it out, take some time and watch the promo videos on their site – it’s incredibly cool. I can’t wait to get one.

The one “problem” that we’ve realized is the issue of curtains. With radiators under all the windows – if we hang curtains all the way to the floor they’ll cover the radiators…

runtal radiators below windows

That’s a bit of a problem because the tilt-n-turn windows limit our window covering choices. They swing inwards, so putting blinds at the top of the window framing is sorta impossible. We were thinking of doing a lot of curtains, but now worry the radiators won’t work very well when the curtains are pulled.

One area where a forced air system might be better is air exchange. Since the house is well insulated, we may not have enough fresh air entering the house. That is easier to solve with a forced air system – you just incorporate a fresh air intake. But honestly I don’t think we’ll have much of a problem – 2 people in 3,000 sq. ft. shouldn’t be a problem.

We are happy that we have mini-splits and that they’re both heating and cooling. The house is warm enough down to about freezing. It maintains 50+ degrees when it’s in the high 30s outside. That means we probably won’t turn on the boiler until it gets down around freezing. If we just need to take the chill out of the air in a single room (or if our tenant wants it to be warmer than we do) we can use the mini-split.

The mini splits are a bit of an eyesore – we tried to hide them the best we could, but they’re still there hanging on the wall. I don’t think that will bother us too much. To us the visual noise of the mini split unit isn’t any worse than the soffits you often have with forced air systems. If you’re the type who doesn’t want to see a mini-split hanging on your wall there’s always the concealed models you can tuck inside a closet. Those have the advantage of being able to cool/heat two rooms (like a bedroom and an en-suite bathroom) – but the concealed models aren’t quite as efficient due to the ductwork.

One other thing to mention is that we have radiators at each end of the house, and since the bathrooms are in the center of the house we were worried they could get a little cold. We were worried they could get a bit cold, so we put under floor heating pads in each bathroom with programmable thermostats. It’s not very efficient heat, but it won’t be used all that often – so it should be fine.


Some of the comments asked how the radiator piping was configured. Here’s a diagram to explain how it’s been done…

radiator heating diagram

The model numbers are Runtal unless except where they say Slant/Fin. Since we have exposed brick on one side, both pipes are actually on the same side of the building – right next to each other. There are also valves to bleed air from the system in key locations (such as at the top of each riser). Notice that each radiator / loop has a Danfoss valve on it, so we can (nearly) turn off the radiator in rooms and the other radiators will get more flow.

Bulkhead Is Giving Great Winter Light

Things are gradually taking shape – the staircase has been primed, so it’s pretty close to it’s final color. The steel needs to be painted, and the side panels need to be put in, but we’re starting to get a sense for the light that the bulkhead brings into the house. We opted for big windows in a bulkhead rather than the more traditional skylight because it should give more light in the winter and less in the summer.

Here’s a picture looking up, showing the bulkhead windows…

light from bulkhead windows

On a sunny winter day the light is really bright right at the top. On the opposite wall there’s the clerestory window into Dan’s “gallery” / “clean studio”…

bulkhead casting light on clerestory windows

It looks really dark below that flight of stairs, but actually it really isn’t… It’s just a bit of a photographic trick since the direct light is so bright it makes other areas look dark by comparison. As you can see below, there’s plenty of natural light one flight down where there’s a clerestory window into the den / TV room on our master bedroom floor…

stairs from 3rd to 4th floors

It’s only below that point that the light bulbs are brighter than natural daylight. [All of those pictures were taken within a few minutes of each other.]

Of course, the light will change when we put in the plexi panels on the sides of the stairs. We’ll either do a milk-white plexi or a frosted plexi – either one will block a lot of the direct light and make the light that gets through more diffuse.

I gotta say, I really like the whole clerestory-over-a-closet detail in the den. I wouldn’t want it everywhere, but it’s interesting. Here’s a couple pictures…

den clerestory window and down hallway

den clerestory window

Those pictures were taken a different day (the stairwell isn’t primed yet in those pictures) – and it was later in the day when there was less light coming down the stairwell. In person the clerestory window has more depth to it, which you can only sorta get from the pictures.

One thing we noticed a few months ago is that on summer mornings, when sun hits the front of the house, light goes from the den into the stairwell – opposite of what we expected. But we’ll need to wait a few months to see that happen again 🙂

And, in case you’re wondering, we’ll be putting wire glass (fire rated) fixed-pane windows into those openings.

Today they’re putting the first of two coats of ceiling white on the ceilings. And they’ve started tiling the bathrooms – I’ll do a post on that soon…

Art & Exposed Brick Walls

We like art. When we move in our walls will definitely not be bare. Plus, Dan has an MFA in sculpture from Cranbrook – that’s sorta the point of the entire top floor (his art studio). So one of the issues we had to resolve was hanging art on the exposed brick walls. We didn’t want to be putting nails into the brick, so we needed an art hanging system. Our solution looks like this…

picture hanging track

There’s some cleaning up to do (joint compound on the brick), but you can see the thin track right along the brick. There are special hangers you put into it that let you hang art – up to 65 pounds per hanger.

We did it a little differently than the architect planned. He proposed it be recessed a bit and hidden…

But the problem with that was that it was impossible to get the hangers into the track with his solution and even if it had worked, it was a lot more work for our contractor. Our solution is easier and since the track is so minimal it still looks pretty good.

Here it is going in. it has a flange to one side that gets taped and mudded to the drywall…

picture track installation

There was another type that could have worked well. It was much bigger and was made to go next to 5/8″ drywall. It would have worked, but it was 2 1/2 times the price and still only held 65 pound – so we stayed saved some money and went with the smaller one.

Decorative Iron Gates Go In

A lot has taken shape this week. Another fairly significant item is the decorative ironwork – gates and grilles. Some of our sibling townhouses still have their original gates and grilles – here’s one example of an under-stoop grille…

original grills

And here’s an example of the original gates under the stoop…

original gates under stoop on Harlem brownstone

We’ve modified that design slightly…

new under stoop gates on Harlem brownstone

While it’s generally similar (or at least “contemporary & compatible), our bent metal isn’t quite as elaborately bent and the openings are bigger than the originals. Those were both cost saving measures – though I have to say I prefer the bigger openings aesthetically.

Our gates are also different in that they open out rather than in as the originals did. For the little door into the apartment, opening in restricts the already small passage way – it just made more sense to open that one out. On the gate down into the cellar when we recreated the missing arch we modified it a bit and made it slightly higher than it was originally to get more light in under the stoop. Because the arch is higher, if we opened the gate in we’d hit the bottom of the stairs above. You can see on the originals that they lowered the arch and lowered the gates even further to avoid that problem. But opening out meant that we couldn’t take the gate below the bottom step as they did originally. One of the items they still need to resolve is to put a small “foot” on the gate so a small person can’t shimmy under it.

Because we had bigger openings in the ironwork, we needed to do something to prevent someone sticking their arm through and unlocking the gate from the other side (fire code requires that it be easily opened – not a keyed lock). In the picture below you can see the solution a fairly clearly… There are little spikes in the openings radiating out from the lock…

french door gates

It’s actually an approach that blends well with the overall design without blocking light as a plate would. If you look carefully at the picture of the gates under the stoop you’ll see our ironwork guy forgot that the right gate needed a radius to protect the left gate’s lock – he’ll fix that.

We’re going to paint the gates the dark bronze color that other metal work is painted, which will blend nicely with the brownstone color which still has yet to be applied (it’s too cold to do the work).

The other thing we were worried about was that the tenant would feel like they were trapped in a prison since every one of their windows and doors has an iron gate or grille on it. If we had gone with run-of-the mill vertical bars I’m sure that’s how it would have seemed. But when you have the window or door open the gate/grille is actually rather pleasant – almost pretty – you don’t think security when you see it – at least not too much.

looking out window gate

We also made it so the bedroom window grille (pic above) was operable. The tenants have the option of opening the gates and getting them completely out of the way so they’re not visible at all – probably something they’ll do when they have parties. Here they are closed…

rear gates closed

And here they are open…

rear gates open

Ever since we’ve been robbed (actually before then) I’ve been wanting the gates and grilles to go in. I’m glad that layer of security is almost complete – it’s one thing I’d get done earlier if I had to do it all over again.

Fire Stopping: Something You Don’t Think About

One of the many little things that goes into building a house in New York City is fire stopping. Not many of us stop and think like a fire would – about all the holes fire can find and spread through. We just think in terms of the obvious things like doors.

One of those little areas is the plumbing wall. There are big gaps around the pipes and fire likes to spread vertically. I didn’t see it going in, but they put some cement-like stuff in the wall around the pipes to stop fire from traveling up the pipes.

fire stopping around pipes in plumbing wall

The other area where you wouldn’t think of needing firestopping is between the brick wall and the subfloor. Here they put a special sealant that can withstand fire.

fire stopping subfloor brick

I can start to see how when a fire occurs it take fire fighters are always concerned about where it might be hiding after they’ve got the fire “out” – how it can smoulder in a wall and start back up. Fire is a tricky thing. But NYC’s code is relatively good – someone has to certify the fire stopping measures before the job can be signed off, so contractors can’t ignore it.