News From Terre Haute, Indiana

September 16, 2012

Built-in Green: Historic attributes of older homes can be environmentally friendly

By Jane Santucci
Special to the Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Last summer Brendan Corcoran and his family moved into their new home — a historic one built in 1885 — in the Farrington’s Grove neighborhood.

He and his family value the individual aspects of older homes.

“Terre Haute has so many wonderful older properties; rarely do you see two that are alike,” Corcoran said. “They may have individual features that are similar, but the structures themselves are very distinct. We love that individual aspect of the older homes,” Corcoran said.

But those unique qualities also come with a learning curve: How does one utilize them in order to save on energy?

When Corcoran was looking into purchasing the Farrington’s Grove home, he was asked how much gas he would consume. He was informed he could spend a good portion of what the mortgage costs to operate the two gas furnaces in the house.

“When we moved in, we inspected the house carefully and really tried to winterize. That was a big process of learning the various attributes of the house,” Corcoran said.

Using windows

to control temperature

Corcoran quickly learned that the home he purchased had historic attributes built in that could naturally lower the amount of energy he would need to consume in order to heat and cool his home.

An easy one to spot was the 46 windows filled with wavy 130 year-old glass. He weighed the financial pros and cons of replacing or restoring the windows. In the end, he chose to keep the arched eight-foot-tall windows in working condition.

“First of all, you can’t get a double paned window that is as well made as these old windows. If you look at them closely, the best ones are not comparable in terms of craftsmanship.

“Secondly, the comparison between old windows that are in tact, coupled with good storm windows, offers a very similar ‘R-value’ to gas filled double paned windows,” Corcoran said.

R-value is the measure of effectiveness in stopping heat transfer, most often used to indicate the effectiveness of insulation. The higher the R-value, the less heat transfer there is.

Director of Western Regional Office of Indiana Landmarks Tommy Kleckner says many historic buildings have operable, double-hung or casement windows that were intended to provide natural ventilation.

“With some architectural periods, the styles of the buildings all took into account cross ventilation within a house. You would have window openings and door openings aligned so that you could open them and draw a breeze through,” Kleckner said.

A house does not have to be air tight to be energy efficient. In some cases it’s  as simple as making the current weather conditions work for you. One prime example is using windows to let hot air escape. Many older homes have 11-foot-tall ceilings. When heat rises, it gets trapped in the upper two feet of these ceilings. Corcoran uses his windows to let that hot air flow out.

“Many of the windows are seven-to-eight-feet-tall and they were designed for the top sash to be lowered and the lower sash to be raised. You would then allow the hot air to bleed out the top. You would get the cool air coming in and the hot air going out,” Corcoran said.

Using trees and porches

A lot of older homes have two things in common — trees and porches. Porches on the bottom floor served a social aspect, where families would spend more time outside. But they also provided shade for the front of the house. In the back of many historic homes you will also find porches off the second floor. These porches were used for sleeping when the house was too hot for comfort. Due to modern-day heating and cooling systems, Corcoran has converted his sleeping porch into a study.

Another way many historic homes keep their cool without using air conditioning is by caring for the trees on the property. Kleckner says many historic neighborhoods have a wonderful tree canopy.

“We love the trees,” Corcoran said. We want to put some other trees up. The trees definitely keep it cooler. They are a big help.”

The insulating factor

Corcoran’s home does not have any modern-day insulation between the walls and the outside. He says his walls are 14 inches thick of brick on the exterior walls. The thick brick walls trap the heat during the day. At night when the temperature drops, the heat leaves the brick. This system works quite well except for those few summer nights where it doesn’t cool down.

His brick walls also have lath and plaster on top. Lath and plaster was generally used in the 18th and 19th centuries. In good condition, it will assist thermal performance.

Lath and plaster is a building process that was used mainly for interior walls until the late 1950s. Drywall is now used in its place.

It may not fully reach modern standards, but removal should be resisted, as the detailing can never really be replicated economically, and the materials have an embodied energy cost associated.

Embodied energy is the sum of all the energy required to produce goods or services, considered as if that energy was incorporated or “embodied” in the product itself.

“With the green aspects of a historic structure we talk about embodied energy and that is the energy that went into constructing it to begin with, not just the manpower but the materials constructing the building,” Kleckner said.

“The embodied energy becomes really important when a building is lost. You lose all of that embodied energy. Most people when they consider the possibility of demolishing or completely renovating a historic house they don’t think about the loss of that energy. Then there is the fact that they are paying more to replace it. In addition, the materials now-a-days likely are not going to have the longevity of the original historic materials,” he said.

While choosing to purchase a historic home can eat away at your time and wallet, knowing you own a piece of one-of-a kind historic craftsmanship is invaluable.