Tree House Gets a Furnace (But Not Without a Lot of Problem Solving)

Talking about Tree House’s new HVAC system might not scream exciting!, but it is (very, very) exciting to rip off that expensive bandaid and allow this home to be warm and cozy year round! As a refresher, Tree House was considered a three season home when we purchased it, with very hot-to-the-touch baseboard heaters to get us through fall and chilly spring mornings – yet likely not warm enough to get us through a freezing day in the middle of winter. However, each baseboard heater needed to be turned on individually from room to room, and the thought of accidentally forgetting to turn them off was a fire hazard waiting to happen. Adding a furnace and air conditioner was one of the first items on our to-do list, and while we were at it, we also decided to remove the space hogging water heater in favor of a tankless. But like most things, it wasn’t as simple as hiring a contractor, paying the team and continuing on our merry way.

There were a few small-ish challenges to get us from to A to B, which looked a little like this:

  • First, we called the gas company to request that a gas line be run from the street to our home. This was surprisingly less than we thought it would be (around $200 plus $10 for each additional foot over 100′).
  • While we waited for that to happen, we called at least five contractors for the job, and we were able to meet with three of them.
  • The first contractor backed out at the last minute and the second contractor wasn’t local (and therefore, less familiar with code and permits in the area), but the third contractor stuck. He was professional, friendly and made us feel pretty comfortable with signing on the dotted line. See more of our tips on hiring and working with contractors in this post!
  • Meanwhile, the supply company ran the gas line, and we were, mostly, off to the races! From the first phone call to the day our contractor started was a little over 2 months.

But by far, the biggest challenge was figuring out where in the world everything was going to go while maintaining the lofty, cabin vibe we first fell in love with! (You can view an entire video tour to get a sense of the space, if you’d like.) The main living space has pretty exposed beam ceilings, and the very last thing we wanted was to start running drywall soffits around the perimeter. While that would have been the easiest solution, we were adamant about keeping these ceilings clutter-free:

Between the three contractors we met with, we spent hours (upon hours upon hours) problem solving the best way to work around the ceilings. Several solutions were brought up, most of which still required a drywall soffit or two, and maybe we were being stubborn (us?!), but we wouldn’t settle until we could all agree on a plan that would be as energy efficient as it was aesthetically pleasing – no small feat.

Finally. We came up with a workaround that made us pretty happy, which was a mixture of exposed ductwork, small vents and a furnace return that wouldn’t stare us in the face. By installing a horizontal furnace in the attic (directly off of the sleeping loft), our contractor was able to conceal the majority of the ductwork in the attic itself while running the ducts around the rooms that surround the perimeter of the living room. Phew. I realize that might not make the most sense unless you’re standing in the home, but essentially the furnace looks like this:

And the vents for the rooms directly under the attic look like this:

While the vents in the living room are very discreet, just as we wished (look how tiny!):

Meanwhile, the only room where we had to compromise was the master bedroom. You guys, I was so torn on this, as I don’t necessarily think exposed ductwork has a place in this home, however, it was either exposed ducts or a drywalled soffit (trust me, we ran through every option under the sun to work around this old house!). The master was an addition of the home at some point over the decades; it’s essentially a box that sticks out of the side of the house. To keep the integrity of the ceilings in the living room, the ductwork in this bedroom looks like this:

It’s not my favorite, but Scott has agreed that we’ll do our best to conceal it with paint to match the walls when the time comes. We all know that paint is the most magical tool of all, so fingers crossed we’ll make it look like it was always meant to be there! Aside from the master, there’s a small elbow of ductwork in the kitchen and smaller bedroom, both of which were unavoidable due to our home’s attic configuration. Luckily, the kitchen elbow will be completely concealed with cabinetry, and we’ll simply paint the elbow in the small bedroom.

The air conditioner was the least dramatic decision to make, and it’s tucked neatly along the side of the home. Eventually, we’d like to create a large gathering space in the backyard (seen below) with pavers and a fire pit – among a thousand other updates – so our main goal here was to keep the AC unit out of sight:

The last obstacle was finding a home for the tankless water heater! We decided to spring for the tankless for a few reasons. First, we didn’t want to be paying for hot water in a big, honking tank while we weren’t using it (we’re not living here full time, after all), and two, the tank we inherited took up an entire closet in the mudroom. The mudroom has the potential to be the sweetest little entryway, and it was an easy decision to nix it in favor of something small that would save us money in the long run, too.

The tankless’ new home is in the bathroom closet, located directly beneath the attic where the furnace lives. (The original huge tank was removed from the mudroom, giving us a blank slate in there – hooray!) All of the lines for the entire HVAC system run through this closet as well, which can ultimately be drywalled in with, get this, a vertical soffit. Ha! However, this soffit will be tucked away behind closed doors, and when we eventually renovate the bathroom, we already know that we’ll need to figure out a clever shelving system. Although a bathroom overhaul will be a while down the road, we feel confident that this location is so much better than the front mudroom.

To top off the new system, our contractor installed a Nest thermostat that we had purchased prior through a rebate program, saving us $100 off the top. Although it still needs an internet connection to control while away (which we don’t have at Tree House – yet!), our goal is to put systems in place for a smart home down the road, similar to the one we’ve created in our Chicago homeNote: Scott’s itching to remove that backplate, which was installed before we had a chance to notice!

And that, friends, is the story of how we took Tree House from a three season home to a year-round retreat. Well, step one of many, anyway! We took these photos last weekend, and while we were there, we recruited two friends to help us demo the mudroom and kitchen (among a few other things!). If you followed along on our Stories, you know that things escalated quickly, but we have so much more to share – soon.

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  • Deb11.9.17 - 6:07 AM

    I rather like the exposed ductwork. It does give an urban look but, gosh, I can’t wait to see how it all turns out!ReplyCancel

    • Eric11.10.17 - 8:10 AM

      I agree with the sentiments on the exposed ductowrk – It fits with
      your style and Looks great! Good decision. Should I go on and on? Nice job!ReplyCancel

  • Carrie11.9.17 - 9:09 AM

    So, we havea second home, and would love to convert to a tankless, but it seems like it is going to require and upgrade to our breaker panel to a higher amperage (which also entails a higher base electric bill each month). Since you guys did both the tankless and the HVAC, did you have to upgrade your panel? If so, do you mind sharing the cost and considerations?


    • Kim11.9.17 - 10:10 AM

      Oh, that’s such a great question! We had to do quite a few electrical upgrades to the panel to accommodate all the new additions. It’s tough to break down that cost, since we lumped it into a handful of other issues – new outlets, moving things around, problem solving existing switches – and it’s going to vary greatly depending on location as well. We ended up paying an hourly rate to a local contractor, which was somewhere around $65/hour + materials.ReplyCancel

    • Ryan11.9.17 - 5:08 PM

      If you have natural gas you can do a tankless gas water heater. We’re going to be replacing our aging electric tank heater with a gas tankless heater in the next year. We’re also building a small studio apartment over a garage and I’m trying to decide between gas or electric for the water heater in that unit.ReplyCancel

  • Julie11.9.17 - 9:29 AM

    I definitely think that ductwork can blend in once paint is applied. A Firepole in the Dining Room painted their ductwork ( and while they wanted a more loft-inspired look you can look at their photos to see how their ductwork really does blend in thanks to paint + finding better things to attract the eye. I can’t wait to see how you make it work in a space like this!ReplyCancel

    • Kim11.9.17 - 10:12 AM

      That’s so true! We love those guys. They did such a great job with paint throughout their whole home. Thank you for the inspiration!ReplyCancel

  • Marti11.9.17 - 10:38 AM

    Love those circular vents! And I agree that the exposed ductwork looks a-ok: cabins should be all about function. Nice work!ReplyCancel

  • LmIA11.9.17 - 11:41 AM

    One of my biggest pet peeves in our house is the giant “vertical soffit” previous owners installed to run central air, so your solution is great! Every now and then our circular vents unscrew themselves.. either that or we have ghosts?ReplyCancel

    • Kim11.9.17 - 11:51 AM

      Ooh, spooky! I have no idea how they could unscrew UNLESS it was ghosts! ;)ReplyCancel

  • Sharon11.9.17 - 12:38 PM

    It is super smart to get the big things off the list first, and everything looks great – plus it’s up and running as a year round house. Awesome! Honestly, I’m just impressed you’re doing all this in your last trimester!ReplyCancel

    • Kim11.9.17 - 2:55 PM

      We’re both just so excited about getting as much done before baby! But I go to bed very, very early. :)ReplyCancel

  • Caitlin11.9.17 - 2:50 PM

    What a smart first step to the updating at the cabin! Now you can build an Ikea kitchen or tile away all through the winter without freezing your butts off.

    Also – in case you were curious, vertical soffits are usually referred to as a ‘chase’. Chase walls typically enclose ductwork, plumbing, or any other utility-related products. :)ReplyCancel

    • Kim11.9.17 - 2:54 PM

      I was having a hard time figuring out what to call the vertical soffit! So does that mean we won’t be adding any soffits at all? Hooray! HahaReplyCancel

  • Lana11.9.17 - 5:14 PM

    Hi there,

    Asking because we too have a second home in a cold climate – will you be keeping the place heated all winter, or shutting off the water main and draining the pipes every time you leave?


    • Kim11.9.17 - 5:19 PM

      We’ll be keeping the nest set to around mid-50s and shutting off the water every time we leave for now!ReplyCancel

  • Stacy G.11.10.17 - 6:21 AM

    Hooray for warm houses! I have a feeling that, after time, the exposed ductwork will just recede into the background of your cozy, comfortable days. Form follows function, right? I know that you will make the surrounding room look terrific. Ductwork? What ductwork? :)ReplyCancel

    • Kim11.10.17 - 10:03 AM

      Haha, thanks, Stacy! We sure hope so.ReplyCancel

  • Julie Marquez11.10.17 - 3:12 PM

    I might be the only one, but I love posts of this content.
    So since gas is new to your home, what is the hook up fee from the utility company?
    Did you look at ductless heat pumps? For the size of your space I would imagine that it would be a good option and they run on electric and provide heating and cooling in one!
    I know you don’t have a lot of floor space, but you could build a thickened wall to cover that duct work in the master. Do they make thin, oval ducts?
    Also, we have a tankless hot water heater, and I love it, except it takes a long time to get hot water. I’d suggest a little on-demand one at the kitchen sink for when you need a quick hot rinse. And instant hot tea!
    It’s looking so good!ReplyCancel

    • Kim11.10.17 - 4:40 PM

      Hi Julie! We did consider ductless, but we wanted to have gas run to the house regardless (for the stove, dryer, etc), plus we personally just didn’t love the look (and would have had to find a way to incorporate that into the main space. And yes, that is a downside of the tankless – taking longer for the hot water to reach you – but the cost savings in the end felt well worth it to us (plus the space savings!).

      Oh, and the cost was noted above in the bullet points – $200 to run the line plus $10 for every foot over 100′. We needed an extra 19′, unfortunately, but we’re just so glad these costs are behind us now, and we can have a year round retreat!ReplyCancel


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