The Challenges of Maintenance to Historic Homes
Returning home for the Thanksgiving holiday, I took the train from New York back towards Boston where my father was waiting for me at the station. As we made the short drive home I heard about how the repainting of the house—a multi-month endeavor that seemed to progress at a snail’s pace—was finally complete, finishing the exterior facelift to a home that approaches its 100th birthday.Despite the devoted attachment that the majority of Americans have to historic, residential archetypes, the evolution of building materials and practices continue to make it more difficult to maintain our older building stock in an authentic way. Though the ideological split amongst designers for whether new buildings should be crafted in a contemporary or historic image, the industry’s feelings about preserving older buildings that already exist is less contentious. As work performed on these period homes becomes more expensive, so too does it discourage maintenance and upgrades integral to keeping these homes from bleeding energy.
Upon turning into the driveway, my eyes naturally darted across the façade of the house in silent inspection. The painters did a great job. It was when I threw my bag over my shoulder and walked towards the front door that something caught my eye. The headlights from cars at the intersection in front of the house gleamed off a glossy material at the base of the roof line. In short order I found out that part of the exterior restoration included replacing the gutters on the house, and the new ones were painted aluminum rather than replacing the wood ones that were there before.
The purist in me made my stomach turn. My parent’s house was built c.1917 and stands as a unique combination of period styles including Greek Revival, Federalist, Dutch Colonial and Georgian. The entire front is wood clapboards with a pair of large ionic pilasters and a front porch with smaller ionic columns. I have to believe that the contrast between the shiny metal gutters and the rest of the house would be apparent even to someone not in the field of architecture. Their foreign nature has trouble blending in with an otherwise well-maintained façade.
The move also seemed out of place for my parents who had already done a considerable amount of restoration work such as new decorative capitals for the pilasters, restored leaded glass sidelites around the front door and new clapboard work that required a custom size to match the house (clapboards have gotten smaller and thinner than their predecessors). Why switch now to the glossy modern upgrade? The answer was as quick as it was simple: cost. For the gutters in the front and back of the house (not an amazing amount of linear footage) the estimate for new wood gutters was $25,000. Even as an architect I was a bit blown away by the number. No matter how much of an enthusiast I was, it is difficult for me to lobby for $25K on gutter work, knowing that even after installation the insides need to be oiled and even then would not last as long as their aluminum counterparts.
Quite simply, the market has priced out this kind of work for the vast majority of Americans. The house also has an asphalt roof, which has always bothered my mother. It was clearly not the original roof of the house. She took the time to inquire about the prospect of returning it to a slate roof more in keeping with the rest of the building. The results were even worse: $75,000-$100,000. While slate roofs outlast asphalt shingles by a long shot, the price booted the prospective upgrade out of feasibility.
Hardest to Help the Ones that Need it the Most
So what does any of this have to do with sustainability? The worst that happens is beautiful homes suffer some scars of time, right? The attention given to old homes goes beyond just their appearance. Maintaining and upgrading older residences is the pivot point for their energy performance. According to the Department of Energy’s Building Energy Data Book, as of 2005 20% of the homes in the U.S. were built before 1950. Another 23% were built between 1950 and 1969. Despite the fact that older homes tend to be smaller than new ones, on a per square foot basis the ones built before 1950 use 66% more energy per square foot than ones built after 2000. These houses leak like a sieve, bleeding energy.
The lagging performance is undoubtedly largely attributed to insulation (or lack thereof) and windows—essentially the envelope of the house. At the same time, these things are not always easy to fix. For my parents house, the roughly 35 windows would all constitute custom attention given their sizes and irregular lite configurations. Though they would make a notable difference over the single pane & storm windows they have now, the cost would likely be prohibitive. My parents did re-insulated their roof, but the walls are a more complicated venture. The most likely option would be coring into the cavity of the walls and blowing insulation in from the outside, careful enough not to damage the historic detailing and materials.
Ironically, the better the condition of the home the harder it is to work on them affordably. I am currently working on a brownstone in Brooklyn Heights that was in a terrible state of repair, prompting a get renovation of virtually the entire interior. Naturally, this made it easy for us to put new insulation inside all of the building’s exterior walls.
This type of market evolution is unavoidable, but it casts a shadow of uncertainty over the older homes of our country. While energy upgrades can make sense for newer homes with more stock components, the cost of replicating materials and configurations may not justify the possible energy savings of similar modernizations for older homes. The holistic preservation of older homes may become a responsibility that only the country’s wealthy can afford to uphold. While deconstructing older houses to make way for newer replacements could make for a more efficient building stock, what cultural value would we be sacrificing in the process?
Image Credit: apartmenttherapy.com
Sustainable Cities Collective