Improving the Energy Efficiency of Historic Homes

From every media source we are challenged to find a way of living that will ensure the longevity and health of our environmental, economic, and social resources. We all want to do our part, but the plethora of information about “green” living, “green” technologies and “green” architecture can be overwhelming. Lucky for those of us with historic homes, our houses were built with many environmentally friendly assets that help us reduce energy consumption. Prior to the introduction of central heat and air conditioning, local builders used techniques that “green” designers are now advocating, such as deep covered porches and wide eaves, window awnings and shutters, and operable windows. While we may not be willing to turn off our air conditioners in August, these features do allow us to make the most of the more temperate seasons while reducing our energy consumption.

Front and rear porches served dual heat-related purposes for historic homeowners prior to the introduction of air conditioning. First, they sheltered the main building from the harsh sun, reducing heat gain and protecting interior furnishings from fading. In addition, porches provided an escape from the sweltering heat inside the home, providing a sheltered space to sit out of the sun while enjoying cooling breezes.

A series of techniques were used in conjunction with windows and doors to increase cooling effects. Awnings were historically used to protect windows from direct sunlight thus helping to keep interior rooms cool. Popular from 1870 to 1930, fabric awnings were made of canvas attached to a fixed or retractable metal frame and came in several colors and patterns to accent the home’s architecture. Metal awnings and Bahama shutters were common beginning in the 1940s and original versions are still seen shading many homes.

Windows in older homes were almost always all operable to allow cooling breezes to enter the home. They were typically covered with full-height wood framed screens to prevent pesky mosquito invasions. Screen doors were also installed on all exterior doors, again allowing breezes to enter the home without inviting bugs. Doors typically had covered overhangs when not already sheltered by a porch, protecting entrants protection from rain as well as sheltering the house from the sun.

In many early homes, sleeping porches were constructed for relief on hot summer nights. Usually located on an upper floor, these rooms typically either had rows of casement windows or screened openings to capture as much air movement as possible. As the name implies, rows of cots were set out to provide easier sleeping conditions during hot nights.

These are only a few of the methods typically utilized in older homes that are still effective today. We have become so reliant on air conditioning and heating that we sometimes forget to take advantage of the inherent good design found in our historic homes. As the weather gets more pleasant, consider taking a few steps to operate your historic house more energy efficiently, and save some money in the process. The following are some ideas to consider:

  1. Unstick any windows that are painted shut. It is almost a universal trait of old homes to have at least one window that won’t budge, but when more than half aren’t functioning, it’s time to take action. A web search for “windows painted shut” brings up countless websites with step-by-step instructions for loosening stuck windows, including HGTV and This Old House (they offer a video). Releasing a stuck window is not rocket science, but it generally requires some muscle and patience. Professional help can be called in, particularly if you need to reattach the counter weights; just beware of anyone telling you to replace your wood windows. There are good contractors that can repair your windows, preserving the character and integrity of your home as well as keeping dollars in your pocket.
  2. Install wood framed screens on windows if they are missing. You are more likely to open those unstuck windows if you aren’t worried about welts from mosquitoes. As a bonus, wood window screens add historic character and an additional accent color to the building exterior.
  3. Install wood screen doors on all exterior doors. Wood screen doors should be heavy duty since they open and close as often as the primary door; if the model you see is made with thin, finger-jointed wood or comes with a diagonal wire support, don’t expect it to function properly for more than a season or two. Choose self closing spring hinges rather than ugly vacuum bars for a more authentic design for your historic home.
  4. Install ceiling fans and use in conjunction with open windows and doors.
  5. Install awnings, operable shutters or blinds over openings on south and west elevations. When appropriate for your house style, they provide a nice architectural accent in addition to functioning as a shading device. Close shutters and blinds during the hottest parts of the day.
  6. Install a solar powered ventilation fan in the attic to help remove excess heat. Turned on by a temperature sensor, this relatively inexpensive project will help reduce your cooling load next summer.
  7. Caulk or foam-seal penetrations into your house (where the cable enters, water lines penetrate, etc.) and install weather-stripping around windows and doors. Air infiltration is good when you can control it by opening windows and doors, but bad when the air you paid to heat or cool escapes.
  8. Insulate your attic space; most heat loss and gain comes through your roof. If you expose exterior wall framing during remodeling, install insulation as part of the project. Don’t remove plaster walls just to insulate though; plaster is a surprisingly good insulator and reduces noise transmission from room to room.
  9. Plant some shade trees on the south and west sides of the house. Trees are a long term investment in the environment, providing cleaner air, habitat for wildlife, reducing soil erosion and sheltering from the sun. Your historic house has shown that it appeals to multiple generations already, so even though the trees you plant today may not have much effect on energy bills for a while, the next owners will thank you.
  10. Sit on your front porch rather than watch TV in the early evening a few nights a week. We tend to decorate our porches with inviting rocking chairs and beautiful potted flowers, but rarely take advantage of the peaceful atmosphere they provide. In addition to the pleasure of a cool, relaxing evening, you might find one of the other benefits of living in a historic home: friendly conversation with your neighbors.

The High Cost of Doing the Perfect Basement Remodel

Turning your basement into a showplace that you can use for entertaining will most likely be a big job, especially if there have never been any previous renovations done in your basement. There are many precautions you want to take prior to starting any basement remodel, and if you want to use high-end flooring, furnishings, and accessories like you have on the upper floors of your home, you have to expect to pay a good price for them. The good news is that with enough time, effort, and money, you can turn your old basement into extra floor space that’s even nicer than what you have in the rest of your home.

To start with, you need to take a good look at your existing basement. What kind of shape is it in? Are there cracks in the foundation, water seepage, uneven floors or walls? All of these structural issues will need to be addressed before you can start adding sheetrock and carpeting or finishing the space in any other way. You also need to look at plumbing, wiring, and duct work to see if any of it needs to be altered before you can go ahead with your project. If you can do some of the work yourself, you’ll be able to keep costs lower. If not, you will need to pay a contractor to take care of any problems you have.

Sometimes the hardest part, however, is picturing how you want the new space laid out. You will probably want to reserve space for a full bathroom and possibly extra sleeping space for guests or a teen’s room. Do you want a wet bar? If so, you need to plan a layout that will include one in an easily-accessible spot. Of course, every addition you make is going to make your basement remodel cost more, but if the perfect end result is what you’re after, then you want to make sure and include everything you will need. It will be easier to add things now than having to remodel around them again later.

Maybe you’ve seen pictures online that show just how gorgeous your basement space can be. It’s difficult to tell from many of the photos that these rooms are actually in basements, because they look just like the rooms upstairs. This perfection is all in the planning as well as the amount you’re willing to pay for the perfect basement remodel.

Enjoy the Beauty and Durability of a Soapstone Fireplace Or a Soapstone Counter

Soapstone is a versatile rock that has many uses around the home. If you are building a new home or remodeling your current one, you might consider the addition of soapstone to your home decor. A new soapstone fireplace or soapstone counter offers many advantages that homeowners are looking for in top-quality home furnishings and finishes.

Soapstone is a wonderful material for use in fireplace and stove construction. Because it is a relatively soft mineral, it can be carved into unique, customized shapes and designs, making it a popular choice with interior designers. Soapstone has the distinctive ability to retain, absorb and conduct heat well, and this has several advantages for use in fireplaces and stoves. Fuels of many kinds burn very cleanly and efficiently in a soapstone fireplace. After the fuels burn, the fireplace or stove will absorb the heat easily and conduct it effortlessly, thus keeping your rooms warm long after the fuel has been exhausted. Although an entire stove can be constructed from soapstone, thin sheets of the mineral can also be used to line your fireplace, thus giving the same benefits that come from a stove application.

The rock can also be used for making countertops. A soapstone counter is a lovely addition to any bathroom or kitchen. Many people use this stone because of its durable nature. It comes in many attractive shades, ranging from light to dark natural stone colors. The stone also features distinctive veining, making for a unique look in whatever application it is applied. Dark colors of the stone do not show stains, and this is one reason why it can be used to great effect in high-use areas of the home, such as the kitchen and the bathroom. This tough stone surface lasts for the long term when used as a soapstone counter.

You can also match your soapstone counter to other room features. Sinks and tiles can be made from soapstone, for example, and they add to the continuity of design in any room. Sinks can be carved from solid blocks of stone, or they can be made from thin slices of stone that are professionally adhered together, forming a sink basin. Tiles from soapstone can be used in many lovely ways, including intricate mosaics that can be featured as the backsplash behind your stove top or on the fronts of stair risers, adding complementary color and style to your home.