We New Englanders love our squeaky old farm houses, Capes and captain’s houses, and taking care of our historic homes is nothing short of a labor of love. But it’s not just about the hard work. While the carbon footprint of maintaining and inhabiting an old home is less than building a new one, the expense of heating, cooling and lighting these beloved structures can be nothing short of menacing.
There is also our own, personal energy use to consider. All residential buildings in the US use more energy than all commercial buildings combined. While we love our drafty fireplaces and single pane windows, none of us are looking to guzzle up the resources often required to make a New England winter manageable. That said, building a new and tightly sealed home can emit up to ten times more C02e (carbon dioxide equivalent) during construction than rehabbing an old one. So, while cutting household emissions can clearly make an impact, if your goal is to be the best global citizen you can be, older is better.
Enter home performance. An energy efficient home isn’t just for new construction. There are many ways to keep the charm and originality of your historic home while also saving a little fuel, a little electricity and potentially a lot of money.
Historic Homes are Different
There are considerations to make before moving forward with creating new efficiencies in your old house. It is important to remember that your 1800s home was constructed using different techniques than what contractors practice today. For example, if your home is a pre-1850s structure, its bones are likely post and beam instead of the more modern balloon framing. This will be important to consider when updating your insulation.
Another major consideration is temperature regulation and moisture levels. Historic homes were not built with the same static, comfortable temperature expectation as today. If you were cold, you put on a sweater. If you were hot, you opened a window. Thicker walls provided some insulation, keeping the home warmer at night and cooler during the day, but in general, air was allowed to move more freely throughout the structure. Adding insulation to your old home without considering the house as a system can cause moisture to accumulate and mold and rot to form.
The best thing to understand about owning an old home is that you live in a structure that has served well for 100, 150 or even 200 years. The charm of your home is not only an aesthetic consideration, but also an environmental one.
Now, to improve your historic home’s energy efficiency
It is important to be considerate of your surroundings as you move towards retrofitting your home. Old homes were designed to utilize their natural surroundings for temperature control. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to this project. Here are some first steps to having an energy efficient historic home:
- Get an energy audit. This is the first step to identifying leaks in your home. While many states offer free energy audits, it may be worth the expense of going to a professional when dealing with a 100 to 200 year old home. They will go beyond some of the more obvious energy upgrades and provide a complete roadmap for moving forward.
- Air seal. But not too tight! This is a one-step to significantly improving your home’s energy efficiency. Identifying and sealing the holes and cracks in your home’s exterior, doors, windows and even attic floor will make a huge difference. Sealing up these cracks can often be a DIY project. Energy Star offers a comprehensive DIY guide to get you through. During this project, keep the house-as-a-system approach in mind and work to strike a balance. The house still has to breath to avoid mold and rot.
- Keep it simple. Cut down on drafts by closing curtains, plasticing your windows in the winter, closing your fireplace damper and using door snakes. These methods may be simple, but they are cheap and surprisingly effective.
- Establish climate zones. Old homes are often comprised of many rooms. As winter approaches, identify which rooms you aren’t using regularly and consider shutting them down for the season. If you have an air-conditioned home, consider the same in the summer. Placing these rooms on separate thermostats will allow you to further control the climate.
- Consider a programmable thermostat. There are many options of varying cost out there, but the overall goal here is to decide what temperature your house should be at certain times during the day, and stick with it. The Nest thermostat seems to be getting the best reviews lately, but there are several options.
These are some basic, first steps you can take towards improving your historic home’s energy efficiency. Should you choose to get a professional energy audit, they will go deeper into your house’s needs and its possibilities, addressing big-ticket items like your furnace, windows, basement and attic, and even the possibility of purchasing renewable energy to power your home. There are a multitude of resources out there for homeowners with regard to sourcing contractors, DIY projects and even tax credits.