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Historical buildings were built when neither advancements in technology nor construction technology was in abundant supply.  Early designers made the most of building materials and design options to construct buildings with a powerful combination of harnessed natural resources and innovative design that worked together to maximize energy efficiency.

Everything from exterior paint colors, locations of balconies, numbers and placement of windows, to physical placement of buildings on lots was carefully considered to maximize heating, lighting, and ventilation in traditional construction.

The results are astounding, and studies have shown that properly restored and maintained 18th-, 19th, and early 20th century buildings can be just as energy efficient as new construction, and in many cases even more efficient.

The historical wood windows in your building contribute to that energy efficiency, and, contrary to urban legends, new replacement windows are not more energy efficient than historical wood windows.  Typically, studies that conclude such a finding have compared new replacement windows with historical windows that have not been maintained or restored, are decaying, and have no complementary energy retrofits, such as weather-stripping and storm windows.

Studies on energy efficiency also usually fail to consider “embodied energy”. Embodied energy represents the energy it took to manufacture a product.  They say the greenest building is the one already built.  This is true when you consider the embodied energy – an existing energy investment that will never be able to be recaptured once you destroy the product it’s embodied in.

Historical wood windows have an embodied energy value that includes all the energy from harvesting and milling the wood to transporting and manufacturing the windows to installing them in your historical building.  Preserving existing windows conserves that embodied energy and eliminates the need of additional energy to manufacture replacement windows.  When you take all energy into consideration for defining the energy efficiency of windows, historical wood windows are far more energy efficient than replacement windows.

Tips For Improving Energy Efficiency

Here are some tips for improving the energy efficiency in your historic home.

  1. Have a maintenance appraisal performed.  When not properly maintained, there are many ways a historic home’s energy efficiency suffers – such as air leaks into and out of the home.  A maintenance appraisal performed by a qualified contractor will locate any source of air leakage and provide you with a plan-of-attack to remedy the problem without damaging the historic aspects of your home.
  2. Schedule an energy audit.  This could really be tied for the #1 spot; both the maintenance appraisal and an energy audit are absolutely essential things that need to be done BEFORE you implement any energy improvement measures.  The energy audit will evaulate your home’s current energy performance and identify any deficiencies in both the envelope of your home and/or mechanical systems.
  3. Implement these findings.  Hire a qualified contractor to eliminate any air infilitration, repair windows and perform the other maintenance affecting your home’s energy efficiency.  Hire a qualified energy contractor to replace any mechancial systems found to be deterimental to your home’s energy efficiecny.  Make sure both of these contractors have a proven track record of working with historic buildings in a way that does not damage the architecture and its features.
  4. Change your habits.  Install timeers or motion detectors on lights, attach self-closing mechanisms on doors that might otherwise hang open, install fans and raise your thermostat temperature, use LEDs in your lights and turn off “vampire” devices that use electricity in standby mode or that use electricity in standby mode or whenever that are plugged into an outlet.
  5. Install insulation. Ther is a lot of misinformation regarding the best ways to insulate your house, and some of them can even damage your home.  Have the historic contractor and energy consultant you hire work together to devise an insulation plan specifcially tailored to your home, so you won’t compromise its architectural integrity.

About Danielle Keperling

Danielle Groshong-Keperling has worked full-time in the restoration industry since 2001, but her education in the traditional trades, construction industry, and historical preservation was built from an early age through her Father's work in the traditional trades and her Mother's love of historic architecture. Now, with Jonathan (an artisan craftsman in his own right), her partner in business and life, they work together to help historic building owners restore and preserve their piece of our built history.

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