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.