Sustainability starts with preservation

Guest Blog | August 6, 2014 | Energy Efficiency

This guest post was written by Sean Stucker, Director of Facilities for Historic Columbia Foundation in Columbia, S.C., The piece originally appeared in the Columbia Star newspaper on August 1. In 2013, SACE completed an extensive renovation of our historic home office in Asheville, N.C. to maximize the efficiency of the space and blogged about it here.

Workers repairing plaster walls at the Woodrow Wilson Family Home in Columbia, S.C.

Now more than ever, energy consumption and conservation are topics of interest to people the world over, and in the 21st century, “carbon footprint”, “sustainability,” and “green home” are just a few of the terms that have entered our common parlance. While there is no arguing that technology and innovation continue to find and create new and better ways to both generate and consume energy—from solar panels, wind turbines and geothermal extraction to hybrid electric vehicles, LED bulbs, and EnergyStar appliances—preserving your historic home and increasing its energy efficiency are some of the most impactful things that anyone can do.

One of the most important things to remember when renovating an old house is the fact that it contains a great deal of embodied energy. Defined as the amount of energy used to extract, process, manufacture, transport, and install building materials, it is estimated the average building constructed in the 20th Century costs 5-15 gallons of petrol per square foot. When you consider this, combined with the time and energy expended in demolishing a house to build a new one—even a LEED certified one—in its place, even the “greenest” builder on Earth couldn’t avoid leaving a sooty and deep carbon footprint!

With this in mind, the foundation of your renovation plan should be deciding the best ways in which to use what you already have. Imagine your renovation project as a research paper. The first step in that process is an outline; the same principles apply here too. Take inventory of what you have and of what you need (what you want comes last!), and then prioritize your needs. For example, structural and mechanical projects—like a new roof or proper climate control—might not be as much fun as choosing wallpaper, but these major issues should be addressed first since their functionality and proper operation are integral to the preservation and continued operation of the rest of your house. And, when it comes to architectural features, original hardware or other historic elements of your house that have gone missing over the years, you might be surprised by what you can find in the attic or the basement. So, have a look around your house before either visiting an architectural salvage store or going online.

If you’re considering an interior redesign or an addition, remember that neighboring properties are generally of the same era, and you can often find a nearby house with your same floor plan that may have already added that master bathroom or redesigned the kitchen for modern needs. Neighboring properties may also give insight into how your house might have looked prior to a renovation, and sometimes ghost lines across a floor or a different molding in one area of a room can reveal clues about the history of your house.

Somewhere between history class and detective work, renovating your historic home the right way can save you time and money, and it is hands-on proof that #preservationiscool. Moreover, employing preservation techniques based on the maxim “repair rather than replace” can instill an ethic of care that will preserve your historic home for the next generations.

In the next installment of “Sustainability starts with preservation,” we will look at more specific upgrades and repairs you can make to improve your home’s energy efficiency.

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