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Deep Energy Retrofits and Historic Homes, Can We Do This?

The Northeast Sustainable Energy Association sponsored the Building Energy Conference and trade show this March in Boston, bringing together building technology experts, HVAC engineers, architects, designers and green energy companies and others from near and far. It also brought a mix of historic preservationists and educators, looking to glean a few facets of new information about the direction of building design, policy direction and new products. A number of symposiums with detailed case studies looked at deep energy retrofits of commercial, residential and historic buildings. With rising energy costs, more and more pressure is put on our historic resources, pushing them towards economic obsolescence, due in part to their higher energy consumption. Whether from existing fossil fuel sources or renewable energy sources, there appears to be a great movement forward in development of more efficient heating and cooling equipment and controls, and a great interest in designing more efficient buildings in both residential and commercial applications. System integration of renewable energy and energy saving components that may be compatible with historic house energy retrofits include solar electric, solar hot water, geothermal heating, air-to-air, and air-to-water heat pumps, low flush toilets, low flow showerheads, LED or compact fluorescent lighting, gray water irrigation and many other unique technologies and integrated products. The potential benefits of applying new technology to historic buildings are multifold: they contribute to make existing buildings more efficient, more sustainable, more affordable and more liveable. A potential conflict does arise. How do we integrate new energy conservation measures into existing buildings while preserving the historic character and the important architectural legacy that is a vital part our New England landscape? The solution is to find the overlap between good stewardship and good energy conservation that can work together. Many would argue falsely that new technology is rarely compatible to historic preservation. The facts illustrate that new technologies have been adapted and implemented in most structures since we began creating the built environment. American housing stock, previously heated by fireplaces were retrofit with wood or coal furnaces beginning with the development of the first central heating systems patented as early as the 1840’s. As electricity came to town, modern lighting fixtures and appliances were rapidly integrated into homes, and the ubiquitous three-seater privy was soon replaced by advent of indoor plumbing. All of which brought substantial rapid change. One of the cardinal rules of good preservation and change is reversibility. If change is applied to a building in an attempt to add either functionality or present technology, the changes made should be able to be undone without the destruction or loss of important historic details. Most of the items that get renewed in an existing home are items that have a finite service life - those items which get worn out or become obsolete. Examples include wiring, plumbing and heating systems, and areas of constant use, which are likely to have improved functionality and design over their useful life, like some bathroom and kitchen fixtures. The renewal of roof surfaces and upgrades of electrical systems at about twenty-five year intervals are both examples of systems that are candidates for replacement and upgrade. Most other elements of the house are more durable, including windows, doors, siding, interior woodwork and architectural adornments, and most structural framing, and stonework. Planning a deep energy retrofit should involve energy professionals who will start by completing a comprehensive energy audit. Sensitivity and understanding of important historic elements should always be considered when working through energy retrofit planning. Older windows are probably one of the most important architectural elements and also one of the less energy efficient parts of an old house. They are also the most maligned by many contractors, designers and engineers who do not necessarily value their contribution to the architecture of the building. If the eyes are the windows to the soul, then windows are the soul of house design. Great care should be taken before ever considering replacement of windows. Most often after analysis, other conservation measures will yield greater efficiency and a better payoff than replacing historic sash, such as high tech weather stripping and interior or exterior storm sash. Use of modern insulation can in many instances be introduced to create a tighter building envelope without disturbing historic details. This is an area that should be carefully evaluated, because doing it wrong can cause a host of problems including air circulation and ventilation issues, promotion of mold, paint failure and structural framing compromise. A group of architectural specialists have been working towards homes that can be built and occupied that produce as much energy as the home uses, thus the name net zero. Minimization of air infiltration and the elimination of thermal breaks are twin design considerations used in the development of the net zero house design. For the past few years, NESEA has held a contest awarding the design firm a prize for these extremely efficient designs. The lessons learned through the design and study of these homes is bringing new technologies and ways of thinking about energy conservation in historic buildings. Policy changes beginning with new energy standards written into building codes to energy audits being mandated on larger residential and commercial buildings in cities like New York should all begin to have a cumulative effect on reducing energy waste. Early New Englanders were frugal by nature and by necessity. We certainly could benefit by taking a page from their book by looking more closely at our own consumption habits. NESEA was established in 1974, and has been a continuing advocate for energy conservation. For further info about NESEA, check out their website at Historic New England, the oldest and widely respected preservation organization provides valuable information and access to resources for the long term care and maintenance of historic buildings. For more information visit them at