Greening Up Old Houses (Without Ruining Them)

DO YOU KNOW the website Rural Intelligence? Even if you’re not in the Hudson Valley, a lot of its coverage is of interest to old-house lovers everywhere.

I subscribe to their weekly e-mail newsletter. This week, Rural Intelligence, which is spearheaded by two former New York Times editors, digs deep into questions that perplex old-house owners when it comes to greening up their historic structures without robbing them of all character.

Read on for more:

This Saturday, October 24, Herrington’s, the local hardware chain, is hosting Lean Toward Green, a showcase of environmentally responsible home building products and systems that promise to make our houses more energy efficient and comfortable.  There will be special seminars on window replacement and insulation, where the tax incentives for doing both will be explained.  There are the right things to do.  Absolutely.  In theory.

But in fact, those who own the antique houses that give our region so much of its special character face greater challenges when it comes to “going green.”  Everyone knows that modern windows are tighter, but those leaky old ones with their narrow mullions and ripple glass look so right. And yes, walls thickly padded with insulation obviously cut down on fuel waste.  But to get them that way may require the destruction of plaster interior walls that have held their own, and lent character to the building, for a couple of hundred years.

If it were just personal taste vs. energy efficiency, there would be no question of the right thing to do.  But these houses contribute mightily to the commonweal.  They are historic relics, symbols of all that is right with this region, and a big part of why the Hudson Valley and New England hold such a special place in the hearts of our countrymen nationwide. So this isn’t just about us.  And this isn’t just about now.  Once these houses have been “upgraded”—once their interiors and all moving parts have been sucked out and replaced with modern materials—the entire region is one step closer to being just another American suburb filled with fake “colonials.” No one wants that.  On the other hand, no one wants to live in a museum—unless, of course, it’s the Bryant Homestead, in Lenox, above, which would almost be worth freezing for.

Rural Intelligence Style

So, on the eve of their Lean Toward Green symposium this weekend and to get a taste of the kind of advice we are likely to get there, we threw a tough one at the wise men and women of Herrington’s: If we are weighing historic preservation against energy conservation, is there an acceptable choice?

As it happens there may well be.  In an e-mail response, Herrington’s recommended various ways of tightening an older house without ruining it. Replace old windows with new, insulated ones, using a company that can replicate historical details.  Add loose fill or batt insulation to attics without any disruption to the structure.  Insulate the basement, and use rigid insulation on the exterior.  This last, of course, would require the removal of exterior siding, something purists prefer to leave alone until it rots.  Herrington’s even sent a link to the Building Science website that has an excellent article from Fine Homebuilding magazine with three case studies of upgraded older homes, and a list of priorities—first of which is to get more modern mechanicals.  No sentimental value there.

Go here for a bit more.