Traditional Building Portfolio

Historic materials not only contribute to the character of historic buildings, but their preservation also saves the energy required to replace them with new materials.



Energy-Saving Answers

The push to save energy can threaten the integrity of an historic home and potentially rob it of that which makes it truly historic.

By John H. Cluver

It has never been easy being an old house. The subject of undying love and adoration the day it was completed, it has seen this initial devotion challenged by myriad forces. The aging of materials tarnished its original splendor. Leaks and rot led to hasty repairs that left noticeable scars on a previously unblemished façade. Upgraded utilities required internal surgery that left unsightly bulges and protrusions in odd places. And ever-changing tastes and needs generated accretions of new paint, fittings and additions that increasingly misfit its aging frame.

To this list of challenges facing the traditional, historic house, a new threat can be added: the desire to save energy. Actually, this is not really a new threat. There have long been efforts to modify existing houses to reduce the amount of heat necessary to keep our homes comfortable in the bitter winter months, or cool during those long summer days under an unyielding sun. Some past efforts (attic insulation) have been truly beneficial, without hurting the house's historic character. Others (wood storm windows) have been visible, but effective and done in such a way as to complement the original design.

What is new, however, is the current push to save energy, which can threaten the integrity of the historic home and potentially rob it of that which makes it truly historic. It is taking various forms, such as replacement windows with insulated glass, vinyl siding backed with rigid insulation and embossed fiberglass doors with insulated cores. The problem is, if you replace the siding, windows and doors with materials that belong in the 21st century instead of the 19th century, can you still honestly call the house historic?

The appeal of saving energy is understandable. Not only can it save money with lower energy bills, but there is also the added advantage of doing the right thing by reducing the need to consume non-renewable energy sources. And it is easy to do. There are countless manufacturers and installers ready to help you replace your windows, doors and siding (not to mention innumerable advertisements to remind you how negligent you are for not doing so). The government also wants you to do the right thing, offering income-tax deductions for, among other things, replacing old windows and doors.

Is it possible that owning an historic house with traditional materials has become irrespo nsible, and that, perhaps, we are at a point where the moral justification for preserving our historic legacy is about to be passed by the higher cause of preserving our planet? And if we truly are standing at the crossroads of saving energy and saving history, which road should we choose? Do we choose energy, and live with the loss of our heritage in air-tight shells of plastic? Or do we choose history, and live with the cost and guilt of throwing energy out the window? The answer is that this is not an either/or question. Therefore it is possible to go, guilt free, down the road of history, because in doing so, we are also saving energy.

It is possible to have an old house that is as energy efficient as a typical new house if you are willing to expand the standard understanding of energy efficiency. The key lies in recognizing three basic principles: it takes energy to make new materials; preserving traditional designs has inherent energy-saving advantages; and some improvements are more energy efficient than others.

The true measure of energy savings does not begin and end with the monthly energy bill. Energy is required to make new materials, transport them to the site and to install them. If these new materials are replacing an existing material, then it also takes energy to remove it, haul it away and dispose of it. None of this energy is spent when an existing material is preserved. In the case of a replacement window, there are millions of BTUs of embodied energy required to remove and replace an old window, which puts the new window at an energy deficit compared to an exiting window. True, there is some energy required to maintain a material, but typically it is a fraction of that required to install its replacement.

Exacerbating the energy required for a replacement product is the realization that this "new and improved" product will not last as long as the original did. Failed insulated-glass units must be replaced to retain their energy efficiency and faded and cracked vinyl siding cannot be repaired. One-hundred-year-old pine is more durable than that which is used today – it will continue to be sound long after new wood or vinyl has come and gone. Other examples of the energy benefits of traditional techniques can be more subtle, but no less important. A storm window in front of an historic, single-glazed window can match the U-value of a replacement unit while providing an air pocket that can be warmed by the winter sun and sealing the window from cold winter winds. Wood siding swells when wet – providing a tight barrier against wind-driven rain – then curls slightly when dried to allow any moisture trapped between siding and sheathing to dry. Vinyl siding, on the other hand, rattles in the wind while letting the rain through to the sheathing below.

Finally, there are ways to save energy that are more effective than whole-scale replacement of historic elements. More attic insulation is easy to install and can reduce the heat loss at a key location. A new boiler or furnace will instantly improve the energy efficiency of the whole house, and can do so without altering its historic character. Weather-stripping around the windows and doors will reduce drafts and energy loss. And switching to a renewable source of energy for the home's electricity can be done in a way that does not require a single change anywhere on the property. Buying wind-based power from the local utility or renewable energy credits from a third-party vendor can reduce the pollution and non-renewable resource depletion that is typically created by electricity generation. These alternative energy sources can be utilized in a typical old house at an annual cost that is less than the cheapest replacement window, all while retaining the property's historic integrity.

The owner of a traditional home should take pride in the inherent energy savings of his or her home. And while improving its energy efficiency is something that can and should be done, realize that it does not have to be at the expense of its historic character.  


John H. Cluver, AIA, LEED-AP, is a senior associate and director of preservation at Voith & Mactavish Architects, LLP, of Philadelphia, PA. He received his professional degree in architecture from the University of Notre Dame, and a Certificate in Historic Preservation from the University of Pennsylvania. Cluver has worked on a wide range of rehabilitation projects for a variety of educational and commercial institutions in the extended region, both as an architect and preservation consultant.


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