Making Your Older Home a Little More Green

A rare example of wooden row homes from the 18th Century.
A rare example of a wooden row house from the 18th Century.

The Philadelphia Preservation Alliance offers free workshops for homeowners in Philadelphia. The workshops are a great opportunity to learn more about preserving and maintaining older and historic homes. The Alliance hosts knowledgeable speakers and offers supplemental materials for further research. A full schedule of workshops is listed on our calendar.

Sara Sweeney, an architect and owner of Eco Vision, spoke on Wednesday, April 15, 2009, at the Wiccacoe Community Center in Queen Village, Philadelphia. She explained that residential homes are responsible for a lot of energy usage, surprisingly, even more than transportation. As energy costs rise and more homeowners become increasingly environmentally conscientious, many are looking to make their homes as efficient as possible.

Ms. Sweeney, who lives in a semi-attached house in Collingswood, New Jersey, outlined some of the steps she is taking to reduce her home’s environmental footprint. She is an expert on “greening” residences and conducts environmental audits for homeowners through her company.

When she bought her home, her first instinct was to remove the drop ceilings and wood paneling that had been installed throughout the house. However, as she progressed, she discovered that these hid additional insulation that was keeping the energy consumption of the house lower. So she put the ceilings and paneling back, replacing the outdated styles with more contemporary options. For example, dropped ceiling panels come in patterns that resemble stamped tin which offer a vintage look with the insulating properties of a dropped ceiling.

Additionally, Ms. Sweeney is attacking all the gaps in her house. She explained that if all the gaps in a typical home were combined, there would be a hole over two square feet big which is like having a window open constantly. Proper insulation makes a huge difference in the amount of heated or cooled air that escapes from a house. There are many products homeowners can use to fill spaces such as batted fiberglass insulation, expanding foam, sprayed cellulose, cotton batting or newspapers. The choice of materials used depends on budget and
type of gap and if there has to be special sensitivity to historic surfaces.

Another project Ms. Sweeney had done was to replace all the windows with double pane, vinyl replacement windows, specially treated for efficiency. Obviously, new windows are far more efficient than older, often single pane windows but replacing windows isn’t always an option in a historic house. It’s also important to consider that the space around the window can also been drafty. There should be no gaps between the window casing and the walls. Use caulk to seal any cracks. Another solution is storm windows. Typically for double hung windows,
there are options for pre-colonial windows which involve one large panel of glass, fitted into the space of the window and secured with fasteners. These offer similar protection but blend in well with the architecture. Finally, working shutters are a great way to protect your windows and block drafts and heat transfer from sun.

Aside from the windows, doors can also be very drafty. Weather stripping is a great barrier and won’t affect the appearance of an older home. Damaged and old thresholds should also be replaced to reduce gaps. Another culprit of heat escape? Mail slots. Replace with a newer one than has a two flap system that blocks drafts.

Once a house is sealed up tight, homeowners have to consider how the house will breathe in order to prevent condensation which can lead to masonry damage and mold. Ms. Sweeney suggested a small ventilation fan in a central spot in the house.

Another way to improve a home’s efficiency is to install “green” appliances and look for systems with low impact. If a row house has a flat roof, it’s a great opportunity to look into a solar water heater. A new trend in heating and cooling systems is replacing big units with smaller ones that allow the owners to control usage so that only the rooms being used are using energy. Another energy efficient appliance is an on-demand water heater which is also much smaller than traditional tank water heaters.

Besides large improvements, there are small things homeowners can do. Don’t be quick to blast the heat or air conditioning. Use curtains to block the sun in the summer and open curtains to allow the sun to warm the home in the winter. Utilize a rain barrel for collecting rainwater for watering plants. Roof run-off can also be used for a rain garden, which is a special garden with flowers and plants that work well when occasionally flooded.

Usually it’s pretty easy to tell where the drafts are but if a homeowner wants to know exactly how the energy is being used and wasted in their home, they can work with a licensed professional who conducts residential energy audits.

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