Oldies and Goodies: The Greenest Buildings Are Already Built

Posted by Pat Murphy on September 7, 2012 in Energy Matters

Older buildings are often unfairly maligned as great energy hogs and money pits that are too expensive to rehabilitate.  While not every building can be preserved, demolishing existing buildings to make way for new is costly, gobbles up new resources, and adds to the landfills of the country.  Many older buildings have irreplaceable architectural details and a strong sense of space and pride of place that is rarely found in new construction, no matter how "green."   

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, together with local preservation organizations such as the Cleveland Restoration Society and the Oberlin Heritage Center, are working to encourage property owners of older buildings to weatherize, retrofit and rehabilitate them in ways that both retain their character defining special features and adapt them for 21st century living.   Start by having an energy audit; you can call POWER at 440 789 4531 for a 1 hour assessment, or call Columbia Gas at 1-877-644-6674 to receive a thorough heat loss inspection. Then learn what you can about your building's history.  Get to know your building, inside and out.  Inspect it regularly, and be proactive in addressing maintenance concerns.  

Here are 10 tips from the National Trust for Historic Preservation to make your older home more sustainable:

1. Keep original windows intact. Studies show that older windows can perform as well as vinyl replacements. Weatherstrip them so that they seal tightly, caulk the exterior trim, and repair cracked glazing or putty around glass panels. You'll reduce landfill waste and the demand for vinyl, a non-biodegradable material that gives off toxic byproducts when it's made.

2. Use light paint colors for your house's exterior. Lighter colors reflect heat better than darker ones. Many older homes were typically painted with light-reflecting finishes, so you can be sustainable and historically accurate at the same time.

3. Insulate the attic, basement, and crawl space. About 35 percent of energy costs come from heat loss in those areas. Just take care to avoid materials that can damage historic fabric.

4. Reuse old materials such as brick, stone, glass, and slate when making home improvements. You can also scour local salvage shops to find contemporaneous materials (and save it from going to a landfill).

5. Plant trees. Evergreen trees on the north and west sides of your house can block winter winds, and leafy trees on the east, west, and northwest provide shade from the summer sun. Use old photos of your house to try to match the historic landscaping.

6. When appropriate, open the windows and use fans and dehumidifiers, which consume less energy than air-conditioning. Many old houses were designed with good cross-ventilation; take advantage of your home's layout. Ceiling fans lower the perceived temperature in summer, lessening reliance on air conditioning and saving energy. And in the winter, they draw warm air down from the ceiling, saving on heating costs. So again, double benefit for one change.

7. Keep doors airtight by weatherstripping, caulking, and painting them regularly. Recent studies suggest that installing a storm door is not necessarily cost-effective. Better to keep your doors in fighting shape -- and ideally in keeping with the character of the house.

8. Install fireplace draft stoppers, attic door covers, and dryer vent seals that open only when your dryer is in use. An open damper in a fireplace can increase energy costs by 30 percent, and attic doors and dryer vent ducts are notorious energy sieves.

9. Restore porches and awnings. Porches, awnings, and shutters were intended for shade and insulation, plus they add a lot of personality to your home. To further save energy, draw shades on winter nights and summer days.

10. Inspecting, maintaining, and repairing your existing roof is the best way to "go green" by using what you already have. Depending on the materials, installation, and ongoing maintenance, some roofs will last longer than others.

For more information about saving energy in your older home, visit www.preservationnation.org or www.oberlinheritage.org or contact the Oberlin Heritage Center at 440-774-1700.

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Pat Murphy is the Executive Director of the Oberlin Heritage Center. She enjoys preserving, living in, working in, and visiting historic buildings.

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Pat Murphy
Pat Murphy is the Executive Director of the Oberlin Heritage Center. She enjoys
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