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Historic Preservation and Deep Energy Retrofits — Natural Enemies?

Historic House Preservation Deep Energy Retrofit Georgia Swayback

In one corner, we have a core of people who have dedicated themselves to preserving old buildings. In the other corner is a group that strives to save energy by making buildings more efficient. These two groups often charge out of their respective corners, not realizing at first that they were even in a boxing match, and snap to attention when a fist goes whizzing past their ear.

OK, maybe it’s not that dramatic, but historic preservationists and the advocates of deep-energy retrofits often hold different views on the best way to treat old buildings. Two of my best social media friends last week had a little chat on Twitter about this issue, and it has since moved to the blogosphere. (See the end of this article for links to the various parties and other resources.)

I think it started when Peter Troast (@EnergyCircle) tweeted about the benefits of a deep-energy retrofit (DER), and John Poole (@BirminghamPoint) responded. Peter is the champion of a DER of a historic building in Freeport, Maine. John, from Connecticut, loves—and lives in—historic homes.

Is it just deep energy retrofits?

First, let me say that the debate between the two sides isn’t limited to the extreme cases of deep-energy retrofits. As John puts it, historic preservationists “are obsessed with preserving as much of the original architecture and material of an historic structure as possible.” That means that any change to a building gets scrutinized, whether it’s part of a DER, a more modest energy improvement job, or even a small remodeling job.

But the reason we’re having this discussion about DERs is, as John wrote, “The term ‘Deep Energy Retrofit’ freaks historic preservation people out.” Why? Because most involve pulling the exterior cladding off of the house and adding exterior insulation. To do that, you have to mess with the windows and doors. Also, the house protrudes out from the foundation afterward, and it’s fair to say that these things change “the original architecture.”

What is a deep energy retrofit?

I’m not sure of the origin of this term, but it seems to mean different things to different people. My take on this is that to qualify as deep, the energy retrofit had to reduce energy use in the house by 70% or more. You’ve definitely got to do more than just replacing the windows, which, as everyone knows, can cut your bills in half. (Just kidding! It’s a rare case where that would work.)

Two of the main advocates of the DER are Building Science Corporation, which has been involved in a number of them, and Linda Wigington, who started thedeep energy retrofit exterior insulation joe lstiburek building science historic preservationThousand Home Challenge. On the latter site, you’ll find case studies of some of the projects that have gone through deep energy retrofits and how they did it.

The former is Joe Lstiburek’s company, of course, and one of his most recent projects was redoing a deep-energy retrofit of the barn at his house, which had originally retrofitted 16 years earlier. He’s written about the project and the lessons they learned in deconstructing the original work, and I got to see the re-retrofit last summer. The photo at right shows the exterior insulation with furring strips.

We’re working on a deep-energy retrofit right now, too. Chris Laumer-Giddens, our architect and HVAC designer, has completed the HVAC design with mini-split heat pumps for a historic home in Cranston, Rhode Island. We’ll post more about that project as it progresses.

A few questions

As you might expect, I’m more inclined to be in the deep-energy retrofit camp, but I have questions for both groups:

  • Is every old house really worth calling historic? It seems a bit of a stretch to me to slap the historic label on a suburban ranch house built in 1960, yet in some places, that can happen.
  • Are deep energy retrofits really worth the cost? Martin Holladay wrote an article recently called The High Cost of Deep-Energy Retrofits, and the numbers aren’t appealing.
  • Can preservationists be a bit more consistent? I taught a class in Savannah a few years ago, and one of the students was a historic preservationist. He described some of the restrictions they put on old buildings there, some of which seemed arbitrary, especially since the single step of allowing air conditioning in a hot, humid climate can be quite destructive.
  • Is it better to let an old building decay completely or modify the orginal architecture and material? Many old houses don’t get much love, so why not let someone who has the resources come in and save them, even if it does change the historical authenticity.
  • Is every old house worth saving? I think not. The popular saying that ‘the greenest house is the one that’s already built’ isn’t always true.

This isn’t a black-and-white issue. Both sides can learn from each other, but with the Long Emergency upon us, will historic preservation itself become a thing of the past?



Other resources in the Historic Preservation vs. Deep-Energy Retrofit Debate

The Mallett Deep-Energy Retrofit. An old building in Freeport, Maine undergoing a DER, spearheaded by Peter Troast of Energy Circle.

Deep Energy Retrofits and Historic Preservation: The Beginning of a New Dialogue, by John Poole

Deep Energy Retrofits – The Conversation, by Sean Lintow

Deep Energy Retrofits – A Twitter Conversation, by John Nicholas

The Thousand Home Challenge

Building Science Corporation

This Post Has 12 Comments

  1. It seems to me that the pros
    It seems to me that the pros and cons of doing a deep energy retrofit are about even when the historic building at issue is in decent shape. However, when the historic building is falling down, and the only person willing to fix it up is a member of the “DER” camp, it seems inconsistent for a preservationist to criticize his/her efforts. What’s the alternative? Let the building fall down? That surely cannot align with the historic preservationist’s goals, right?

  2. I like older buildings and
    I like older buildings and their architecture which has so much more to offer then a plate glass building, they just don’t much for me. 
    Let’s face it some buildings/homes are worth saving and some are not. With the rising cost of energy it just makes economic sense to bring in the bulldozers. 
    My home is now 10 years old and is designed and built with all the energy issues in mind, at the time. There are products now that I would add for even more energy savings.

  3. Allison, 

    This is a great article and a very fair treatment of the perspectives of both sides of this issue. Thanks very much for putting the time into this. Here are my responses to some of your questions. 
    First, there are specific guidelines as to what’s historic and what isn’t, and then more subjective notions. For example, if a house is on the National or state or local registries of historic places, you can say it’s officially historic, and any work done on it will usually be subject to some sort of restrictions. 
    On the other hand, homes that are extremely old, or have some significant history of their own, are often considered historic, even if not very old. For example, Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Falling Water” (I don’t think anyone is going to be performing a DER on that house, anytime soon). But beyond official designations, there’s no hard and fast rule for what might be considered historic or vintage. It all depends on the particulars of the situation at hand. 
    Secondly, I for one don’t feel that it’s better to allow a house to decay, rather than perform an extensive rehab or retrofit. And no one calling themselves a true preservationist would advocate that either. A worthy preservationist will debate the treatment to be used, but never advocate that treatment be withheld so that the building falls apart. More often than not, vintage or historic homes fall down because the owners neglect or abandon them or deliberately withhold treatments, often to the protestations of local preservationists. How often do you hear of situations where local preservationists band together to save a moribund property? Quite often. The notion that a preservationist would rather see a property decay than save it because of a stupid argument over how it ought to be treated is nonsense. 
    I fully agree that not all old buildings are worthy saving. It’s not always worth saving a particularly moribund one. But it’s also quite shameful how some owners won’t hesitate to knock a perfectly good old/historic building down (re: my blog post nearly one year ago about a c.1757 home torn down just to to build a restaurant). Preservationists try to prevent these sorts of things from happening.  
    I also agree that historical commissions appear not to always behave in a consistent manner, but remember that most act in accordance with established guidelines (the Sec’y of the Interior has established guidelines for both treatment and energy/sustainability — yes, that’s right — of historic properties. Nearly all preservationists base their decisions on those and the guidelines of their local and/or State Historic Preservation Offices. Not being familiar with those guidelines I believe in part leads to assumptions that preservationists are arbitrary and unreasonable. 
    Finally, my own objections are not toward DERs being performed on specific historic properties for which a DER might be a viable solution. Rather, the messaging I frequently hear that DERs are viable as general strategies for historic preservation, and are in fact, the only viable solution for making very old homes energy efficient and durable. And that the only thing blocking the widespread adoption of this thinking are those pesky preservationist Luddites. It’s this sort of messaging that I strongly object to and feel the need to challenge whenever it’s being actively promulgated in public settings. 
    In part, this is because there are a good many energy-savvy preservationists out there who are busily working towards developing DER-comparable performance solutions for older homes that are not as invasive as DERs and based on more traditional work methods and sustainable materials that are better suited for (most) vintage and historic homes.  
    In some forthcoming blog post of mine on this topic, I’ll cover some of these ongoing projects, and the current numbers they’re obtaining. Very few people in the home performance or building science worlds are even aware that this work is going on. 

  4. There will be an article in
    There will be an article in the July/August Home Energy on a deep energy retrofit on 100+ year old Victorian. I think it is great idea to keep this discussion going, as it is an important one.

  5. As someone who has worked on
    As someone who has worked on new construction, reconstruction and restoration projects I think that the important point for everyone to remember is that you need to find the right answer for each situation. 
    Buildings are a reflection of ourselves, our good and bad points and our ever changing values and situations. What we do with them says a lot about how we deal with the relationship between our past and present, and how we see our future. 
    Like people, buildings are entitled to reach their highest potential. Just as people should be able to expand their knowledge and understanding as they age there is no reason buildings should not do the same. 
    We build buildings to serve us and adapting them to the present is a very reasonable thing to do. I believe that it is possible to bring most buildings up to a standard that makes them good and productive citizens while still allowing them to remember and honor how they got there. 
    In John Poole’s comment he mentioned a house torn down to accommodate a restaurant. If preserving the house would leave it as an island amidst endless strip malls is there a point? Or could it serve a useful (non restaurant) function and provide a focal point for the area? 
    The “right” answer often turns out to be not our ideal but something more practical. If we embrace the idea that our history matters but we need to live in the present we might find the answers and compromises we need. 
    Bill S.

  6. I think there are fundamental
    I think there are fundamental differences between traditional building technology and modern building technology. Whenever (with very very few exceptions) modern technology is introduced into an early building, sooner or later it generates a conflict that results in significant damage to the building. 
    This idea is based on my own 45 years of working on older buildings as a tradesman, contractor, owner and consultant. I did many things to many older and historic buildings during the 1970s “energy crunch” that I, and in some cases, the building owners later regretted. These are important lessons to learn and pass along. 
    This is not to say that we should not do new things to old buildings, but we should be very careful and thoughtful about it, to realize what damage will be done and how significant it might become. I will admit that I am a “traditionalist”, but hope that I am not a “stuck in the mud” traditionalist. 
    You may want to check out my Old-House Mechanics Manifesto: 
    by hammer and hand great works do stand 
    by mind and heart we share the art 

  7. Bill Smith:
    Bill Smith: The house I am referring to was on a small promontory, in a semi-idyllic location, overlooking a river, and was highly visible. It was kind of the jewel of the neighborhood, so to speak. 
    The owner of a large, somewhat adjacent banquet/catering hall purchased this house and land with the intent of building an additional restaurant that the house would somehow be incorporated into. 
    But following the purchase, after several PEs determined that there was no way to get the house up to modern code to serve as a commercial structure, the owner tore it down.  
    Now, given the location and amount of land, the owner almost certainly could’ve retained the house, and made it a showpiece feature of his larger establishment. He could’ve, for example, transformed it into a museum for the public, or a place for wedding parties to take their photos. His ongoing retention and preservation of the house could’ve made for good public relations with the local community, etc. 
    Furthermore, this guy publicly assured local residents, on multiple occasions,that he would, in any event, be preserving the house in one form of another, so they needn’t worry about its fate. 
    Unfortunately, there were no covenants or restrictions on the place that might’ve protected it, or at least allowed for delay of demolition or public comment. Needless to say, there was quite an outrage amongst the locals after it was torn down with no warning. 
    I contacted the owner shortly after I’d seen the demolished home in the hope I might be able to at least recover some timbers. He told that, no, he was going to be using the timbers as decorative trim inside his new restaurant.  
    When I asked why he didn’t preserve the house as he had promised publicly, he replied “Well, I am preserving the house; by using the timbers as decorative trim in my new restaurant.” It’s precisely that sort of ad hoc redefining of the term “preservation” to suit ones needs that gets folks like me pretty riled.

  8. Good discussion, sorry I’ve
    Good discussion, sorry I’ve been too busy to chime in very much on the various blogs. I’ve always been a bit dubious about the DER fanatics. I think that some buildings are appropriate for it, but many are not and would be better served by deconstruction and replacement. Not to toot my own horn (OK I’ll do it) I did a post about green building and historic preservation a few months back that seems to fit in well with this discussion:

  9. John Poole: 
    John Poole: 
    I shouldn’t have jumped from your specific situation directly to a hypothetical. I didn’t mean to apply that to your situation. I will say that it sounds like the typical shortsighted approach that I see all too often.  
    If I wasn’t clear enough on where I stand let me say this: 
    Our stock of old buildings is a gift from our ancestors. It’s a way of understanding them, what mattered to them and, by inference, why. Those of us lucky enough to work on those buildings can meet the craftspeople who did the original construction. And of course those who have fixed or reconstructed it in the interim, for good or bad. 
    We get to judge whether their work will stand longer or be replaced and that is a responsibility that cannot be taken lightly. 
    Not every gift is a gem. Some will be, rightfully, allowed to pass. But those those that survive need to be respected, even if that means a less than pristine restoration. 
    Some buildings need to be preserved in as original condition as possible out of respect for our future generations. They should be available for people who may or may not be better equipped than we to understand our ancestors. 
    Some old buildings should be adapted to our more modern ways, but the buildings and the original builders should get all the respect they deserve. Any changes should be thoroughly documented and it should become part of the history book/operators manual that goes with every house. We live in a time when creating this type of document is easier than ever and I think that just making the history known would be a step forward in making people think about being stewards of their homes. 
    Of course we are wandering straight into the subjective winds here but there is no place else to go. What buildings are deserving of what level of preservation? When the world wises up and lets me make these decisions then all will be right. But unfortunately it looks like the world is going to be soliciting other opinions for a while so we need another approach. 
    One problem is that we divide buildings into to classes. Historic and other. That means that a lot of wonderful buildings that aren’t in the historic district or didn’t make the criteria for listing are lumped in with the buildings that were built 30 years ago. (the crappy ones I built back then) So if we want to do a sizable project on one of them we are subject to meeting the current building codes. I think we need (at least) another category: significant enough to do as much as we can without screwing it up. 
    I’m sure we can get that wording enacted into a law, don’t you? 
    But to avoid totally hijacking Allison’s blog I will end with a link to a project that I think represents a workable middle ground approach to DER in a historic area. I was not involved with this project although I know many of the people involved. 
    Not every bodies cup of tea but it got the job done and, in my opinion, showed some respect for the building and it’s builders. 
    John, I am thankful that there are folks like you who love these old places and understand them. Even if we might not agree on every detail I hope that we agree on the general direction.

  10. Bill Smith:
    Bill Smith: 
    Bill, I certainly never took anything you said (specifics vs. hypothetical) in a negative way. I was glad to further elaborate on that story, to the extent it got some of my earlier points across. 
    So much of what you state in the remainder of your comment above is so spot-on in illustrating the preservationist mindset (especially those of us with first-hand experience working on these properties), that I’d wish I’d written it myself. It’s perfect.  
    And I also agree with you about the dilemma of those homes which aren’t historic, but aren’t brand new, either, and as the years go by, slowly develop an identity of their own. I would agree with you that they perhaps clearly need their own class of reasonable variances in the interests of effectively maintaining them without undue burden. They are, afterall, the historic homes of the future. 
    Thanks for the blog link, too. I will definitely check it out. And thank you even more so the very good words. Yes, I’d say we’re certainly in agreement on the general direction. Very much so, Bill.

  11. Just to prove I can be brief;
    Just to prove I can be brief; thanks John.

  12. Likewise! You’re welcome, and
    Likewise! You’re welcome, and thank you, too, Bill.

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