Preservation Brief: Conserving energy in historic buildings

The Old House Web

NPS Preservation Brief #3
By Baird M. Smith, AIA

Inherent energy saving characteristics of historic buildings | Passive measures | Preservation retrofitting | Retrofitting measures | Mechanical equipment | Summary | Taking it further

With the dwindling supply of energy resources and new efficiency demands placed on the existing building stock, many owners of historic buildings and their architects are assessing the ability of these buildings to conserve energy with an eye to improving thermal performance. This brief has been developed to assist those persons attempting energy conservation measures and weatherization improvements such as adding insulation and storm windows or caulking of exterior building joints.

In historic buildings, many measures can result in the inappropriate alteration of important architectural features, or, perhaps even worse, cause serious damage to the historic building materials through unwanted chemical reactions or moisture caused deterioration. This brief recommends measures that will achieve the greatest energy savings with the least alteration to the historic buildings, while using materials that do not cause damage and that represent sound economic investments.

front porch
Front porches and wide overhangs were common in homes of the early 1900s, like this Takoma Park, Maryland, bungalow. In the days before home air-conditioning, such features helped keep homes cool.
Photo: The Old House Web

Inherent energy saving characteristics of historic buildings


Many historic buildings have energy saving physical features and devices that contribute to good thermal performance.

Studies by the Energy Research and Development Administration (see bibliography) show that the buildings with the poorest energy efficiency are actually those built between 1940 and 1975. Older buildings were found to use less energy for heating and cooling and hence probably require fewer weatherization improvements. They use less energy because they were built with a well-developed sense of physical comfort and because they maximized the natural sources of heating, lighting and ventilation. The historic building owner should understand these inherent energy saving qualities.

The most obvious (and almost universal) inherent energy saving characteristic was the use of operable windows to provide natural ventilation and light. In addition, historic commercial and public buildings often include interior light/ventilation courts, rooftop ventilators, clerestories or skylights. These features provide energy efficient fresh air and light, assuring that energy consuming mechanical devices may be needed only to supplement the natural energy sources. Any time the mechanical heating and air conditioning equipment can be turned off and the windows opened, energy will be saved.

Shutters can be used to minimize the problem of summer heat gain by shading the windows.
Photo: NPS files

Early builders and architects dealt with the poor thermal properties of windows in two ways. First, the number of windows in a building was kept to only those necessary to provide adequate light and ventilation. This differs from the approach in many modern buildings where the percentage of windows in a wall can be nearly 100%. Historic buildings where the ratio of glass to wall is often less than 20%, are better energy conservers than most new buildings. Secondly, to minimize the heat gain or loss from windows, historic buildings often include interior or exterior shutters, interior Venetian blinds, curtains and drapes, or exterior awnings. Thus, a historic window could remain an energy efficient component of a building.

There are other physical characteristics that enable historic buildings to be energy efficient. For instance, in the warmer climates of the United States, buildings were often built to minimize the heat gain from the summer sun. This was accomplished by introducing exterior balconies, porches, wide roof overhangs, awnings and shade trees. In addition, many of these buildings were designed with the living spaces on the second floor to catch breezes and to escape the radiant heat from the earth's surface. Also, exterior walls were often painted light colors to reflect the hot summer sun, resulting in cooler interior living spaces.

Winter heat loss from buildings in the northern climates was reduced by using heavy masonry walls, minimizing the number and size of windows, and often using dark paint colors for the exterior walls. The heavy masonry walls used so typically in the late 19th century and early 20th century, exhibit characteristics that improve their thermal performance beyond that formerly recognized. It has been determined that walls of large mass and weight (thick brick or stone) have the advantage of high thermal inertia, also known as the "M factor." This inertia modifies the thermal resistance (R factor) (1) of the wall by lengthening the time scale of heat transmission. For instance, a wall with high thermal inertia, subjected to solar radiation for an hour, will absorb the heat at its outside surface, but transfer it to the interior over a period as long as 6 hours. Conversely, a wall having the same R factor, but low thermal inertia, will transfer the heat in perhaps 2 hours. High thermal inertia is the reason many older public and commercial buildings, without modern air conditioning, still feel cool on the inside throughout the summer. The heat from the midday sun does not penetrate the buildings until late afternoon and evening, when it is unoccupied.

(Note: R factor is the measure of the ability of insulation to decrease heat flow. The higher the factor, the better the thermal performance of the material.)

Although these characteristics may not typify all historic buildings, the point is that historic buildings often have thermal properties that need little improvement. One must understand the inherent energy saving qualities of a building, and assure, by reopening the windows for instance, that the building functions as it was intended.

To reduce heating and cooling expenditures there are two broad courses of action that may be taken. First, begin passive measures to assure that a building and its existing components function as efficiently as possible without the necessity of making alterations or adding new materials. The second course of action is preservation retrofitting, which includes altering the building by making appropriate weatherization measures to improve thermal performance. Undertaking the passive measures and the preservation retrofitting recommended here could result in a 50% decrease in energy expenditures in historic buildings.

brick walls
Heavy masonry walls and few windows serve to maximize warmth inside.
Photo: HABS collection, NPS

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Passive measures



The first passive measures to use are operational controls; that is, controlling how and when a building is used. These controls incorporate programmatic planning and scheduling efforts by the owner to minimize usage of energy-consuming equipment. A building should survey and quantify all aspects of energy usage, by evaluating the monies expended for electricity, gas, and fuel oil for a year. and by surveying how and when each room is used. This will identify ways of conserving energy by initiating operational controls such as:


  • Lowering the thermostat in the winter, raising it in the summer
  • Controlling the temperature in those rooms actually used
  • Reducing the level of illumination and number of lights (maximize natural light)
  • Using operable windows, shutters, awnings and vents as originally intended to control interior environment (maximize fresh air)
  • Having mechanical equipment serviced regularly to ensure maximum efficiency
  • Cleaning radiators and forced air registers to ensure proper operation


The passive measures outlined above can save as much as 30% of the energy used in a building. They should be the first undertakings to save energy in any existing building and are particularly appropriate for historic buildings because they do not necessitate building alterations or the introduction of new materials that may cause damage. Passive measures make energy sense, common sense, and preservation sense!

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Preservation retrofitting


In addition to passive measures, building owners may undertake certain retrofitting measures that will not jeopardize the historic character of the building and can be accomplished at a reasonable cost. Preservation retrofitting improves the thermal performance of the building, resulting in another 20 to 30 percent reduction in energy.

When considering retrofitting measures, historic building owners should keep in mind that there are no permanent solutions. One can only meet the standards being applied today with today's materials and techniques. In the future, it is likely that the standards and the technologies will change and a whole new retrofitting plan may be necessary. Thus, owners of historic buildings should limit retrofitting measures to those that achieve reasonable energy savings, at reasonable costs, with the least intrusion or impact on the character of the building. Overzealous retrofitting, which introduces the risk of damage to historic building materials, should not be undertaken.

The preservation retrofitting measures presented here, were developed to address the three most common problems in historic structures caused by some retrofitting actions. The first problem concerns retrofitting actions that necessitated inappropriate building alterations, such as the wholesale removal of historic windows, or the addition of insulating aluminum siding, or installing dropped ceilings in significant interior spaces. To avoid such alterations, refer to the Secretary of the Interior's "Standards for Historic Preservation Projects" which provide the philosophical and practical basis for all preservation retrofitting measures (see last page).

The second problem area is to assure that retrofitting measures do not create moisture-related deterioration problems. One must recognize that large quantities of moisture are present on the interior of buildings.

In northern climates, the moisture may be a problem during the winter when it condenses on cold surfaces such as windows. As the moisture passes through the walls and roof it may condense within these materials, creating the potential for deterioration. The problem is avoided if a vapor barrier is added facing in.

In southern climates, insulation and vapor barriers are handled quite differently because moisture problems occur in the summer when the moist outside air is migrating to the interior of the building. In these cases, the insulation is installed with the vapor barrier facing out (opposite the treatment of northern climates). Expert advice should be sought to avoid moisture-related problems to insulation and building materials in southern climates.

The third problem area involves the avoidance of those materials that are chemically or physically incompatible with existing materials, or that are improperly installed. A serious problem exists with certain cellulose insulations that use ammonium or aluminum sulfate as a fire retardant, rather than boric acid which causes no problems. The sulfates react with moisture in the air forming sulfuric acid which can cause damage to most metals (including plumbing and wiring), building stones, brick and wood. In one instance, a metal building insulated with cellulose of this type collapsed when the sulfuric acid weakened the structural connections! To avoid problems such as these, refer to the recommendations provided here, and consult with local officials, such as a building inspector, the better business bureau, or a consumer protection agency.

Before a building owner or architect can plan retrofitting measures, some of the existing physical conditions of the building should be investigated. The basic building components (attic, roof, walls and basement) should be checked to determine the methods of construction used and the presence of insulation. Check the insulation for full coverage and whether there is a vapor barrier. This inspection will aid in determining the need for additional insulation, what type of insulation to use (batt, blown-in, or poured), and where to install it. In addition, sources of air infiltration should be checked at doors, windows, or where floor and ceiling systems meet the walls. Lastly, it is important to check the condition of the exterior wall materials, such as painted wooden siding or brick, and the condition of the roof, to determine the weather tightness of the building. A building owner must assure that rain and snow are kept out of the building before expending money for weatherization improvements.

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Retrofitting measures


Installing batt insulation in an attic
Photo: Karen Doherty

The following listing includes the most common retrofitting measures; some measures are highly recommended for a preservation retrofitting plan, but, as will be explained, others are less beneficial or even harmful to the historic building:


  • Air infiltration
  • Attic insulation
  • Storm windows
  • Basement and crawl space insulation
  • Duct and pipe insulation
  • Awnings and shading devices
  • Doors and storm doors
  • Vestibules
  • Replacement windows
  • Wall insulation--wood frame
  • Wall insulation--masonry cavity walls
  • Wall insulation--installed on the inside
  • Wall insulation--installed on the outside
  • Waterproof coatings for masonry


The recommended measures to preservation retrofitting begin with those at the top of the list. The first ones are the simplest, least expensive, and offer the highest potential for saving energy. The remaining measures are not recommended for general use either because of potential technical and preservation problems, or because of the costs outweighing the anticipated energy savings. Specific solutions must be determined based on the facts and circumstances of the particular problem; therefore, advice from professionals experienced in historic preservation, such as, architects, engineers and mechanical contractors should be solicited.

Air infiltration: Substantial heat loss occurs because cold outside air infiltrates the building through loose windows, doors, and cracks in the outside shell of the building. Adding weather-stripping to doors and windows, and caulking of open cracks and joints will substantially reduce this infiltration. Care should be taken not to reduce infiltration to the point where the building is completely sealed and moisture migration is prevented. Without some infiltration, condensation problems could occur throughout the building. Avoid caulking and weather-stripping materials that, when applied, introduce inappropriate colors or otherwise visually impair the architectural character of the building. Reducing air infiltration should be the first priority of a preservation retrofitting plan. The cost is low, little skill is required, and the benefits are substantial.

Attic insulation: Heat rising through the attic and roof is a major source of heat loss, and reducing this heat loss should be one of the highest priorities in preservation retrofitting. Adding insulation in accessible attic spaces is very effective in saving energy and is generally accomplished at a reasonable cost, requiring little skill to install. The most common attic insulations include blankets of fiberglass and mineral wool, blown-in cellulose (treated with boric acid only), blowing wool, vermiculite, and blown fiberglass. If the attic is unheated (not used for habitation), then the insulation is placed between the floor joists with the vapor barrier facing down. If flooring is present, or if the attic is heated, the insulation is generally placed between the roof rafters with the vapor barrier facing in. All should be installed according to the manufacturer's recommendations. A weatherization manual entitled, "In the Bank . . . or Up the Chimney" (see the bibliography) provides detailed descriptions about a variety of installation methods used for attic insulation. The manual also recommends the amount of attic insulation used in various parts of the country. If the attic has some insulation, add more (but without a vapor barrier) to reach the total depth recommended.

Problems occur if the attic space is not properly ventilated. This lack of ventilation will cause the insulation to become saturated and lose its thermal effectiveness. The attic is adequately ventilated when the net area of ventilation (free area of a louver or vent) equals approximately 1/300 of the attic floor area. With adequate attic ventilation, the addition of attic insulation should be one of the highest priorities of a preservation retrofitting plan.

If the attic floor is inaccessible, or if it is impossible to add insulation along the roof rafters, consider attaching insulation to the ceilings of the rooms immediately below the attic. Some insulations are manufactured specifically for these cases and include a durable surface which becomes the new ceiling. This option should not be considered if it causes irreparable damage to historic or architectural spaces or features; however, in other cases, it could be a recommended measure of a preservation retrofitting plan.

Storm windows. Windows are a primary source of heat loss because they are both a poor thermal barrier (R factor of only 0.89) and often a source of air infiltration. Adding storm windows greatly improves these poor characteristics. If a building has existing storm windows (either wood or metal framed), they should be retained. Assure they are tight fitting and in good working condition. If they are not in place, it is a recommended measure of a preservation retrofitting plan to add new metal framed windows on the exterior. This will result in a window assembly (historic window plus storm window) with an R factor of 1.79 which outperforms a double paned window assembly (with an air space up to 1/2") that only has an R factor of 1.72. When installing the storm windows, be careful not to damage the historic window frame. If the metal frames visually impair the appearance of the building, it may be necessary to paint them to match the color of the historic frame .

Triple-track metal storm windows are recommended because they are readily available, in numerous sizes, and at a reasonable cost. If a preassembled storm window is not available for a particular window size, and a custom-made storm window is required, the cost can be very high. In this case, compare the cost of manufacture and installation with the expected cost savings resulting from the increased thermal efficiency. Generally, custom-made storm windows, of either wood or metal frames, are not cost effective, and would not be recommended in a preservation retrofitting plan.

Interior storm window installations can be as thermally effective as exterior storm windows; however, there is high potential for damage to the historic window and sill from condensation. With storm windows on the interior, the outer sash (in this case the historic sash) will be cold in the winter, and hence moisture may condense there. This condensation often collects on the flat surface of the sash or window sill causing paint to blister and the wood to begin to deteriorate. Rigid plastic sheets are used as interior storm windows by attaching them directly to the historic sash. They are not quite as effective as the storm windows described previously because of the possibility of air infiltration around the historic sash. If the rigid plastic sheets are used, assure that they are installed with minimum damage to the historic sash, removed periodically to allow the historic sash to dry, and that the historic frame and sash are completely caulked and weather-stripped.

In most cases, interior storm windows of either metal frames or of plastic sheets are not recommended for preservation retrofitting because of the potential for damage to the historic window. If interior storm windows are in place, the potential for moisture deterioration can be lessened by opening (or removing, depending on the type) the storm windows during the mild months allowing the historic window to dry thoroughly.

Basement and crawl space insulation. Substantial heat is lost through cold basements and crawl spaces. Adding insulation in these locations is an effective preservation retrofitting measure and should be a high priority action. It is complicated, however, because of the excessive moisture that is often present. One must be aware of this and assure that insulation is properly installed for the specific location. For instance, in crawl spaces and certain unheated basements, the insulation is generally placed between the first floor joists (the ceiling of the basement) with the vapor barrier facing up. Do not staple the insulation in place, because the staples often rust away. Use special anchors developed for insulation in moist areas such as these.

In heated basements, or where the basement contains the heating plant (furnace), or where there are exposed water and sewer pipes, insulation should be installed against foundation walls. Begin the insulation within the first floor joists, and proceed down the wall to a point at least 3 feet below the exterior ground level if possible, with the vapor barrier facing in. Use either batt or rigid insulation.

Installing insulation in the basement or crawl space should be a high priority of a preservation retrofitting plan, as long as adequate provision is made to ventilate the unheated space, perhaps even by installing an exhaust fan.

Duct and pipe insulation. Wrapping insulation around heating and cooling ducts and hot water pipes, is a recommended preservation retrofitting measure. Use insulation which is intended for this use and install it according to manufacturer's recommendations. Note that air conditioning ducts will be cold in the summer, and hence moisture will condense there. Use insulation with the vapor barrier facing out, away from the duct. These measures are inexpensive and have little potential for damage to the historic building.

Awnings and shading devices. In the past, awnings and trees were used extensively to provide shade to keep buildings cooler in the summer. If awnings or trees are in place, keep them in good condition, and take advantage of their energy-saving contribution. Building owners may consider adding awnings or trees if the summer cooling load is substantial. If awnings are added, assure that they are installed without damaging the building or visually impairing its architectural character. If trees are added, select deciduous trees that provide shade in the summer but, after dropping their leaves, would allow the sun to warm the building in the winter. When planting trees, assure that they are no closer than 10 feet to the building to avoid damage to the foundations. Adding either awnings or shade trees may be expensive, but in hot climates, the benefits can justify the costs.

storm door
Storm doors have been added on the inside of this historic building as an energy-conserving device.
Photo: NPS files

Awnings reduce heat gain in the summer. When awnings are raised in the winter, radiant heat from the sun warms the building.
Photo: NPS files

Doors and storm doors: Most historic wooden doors, if they are solid wood or paneled, have fairly good thermal properties and should not be replaced, especially if they are important architectural features. Assure that the frames and doors have proper maintenance, regular painting, and that caulking and weather-stripping is applied as necessary.

A storm door would improve the thermal performance of the historic door; however, recent studies indicate that installing a storm door is not normally cost effective in residential settings. The costs are high compared to the anticipated savings. Therefore, storm doors should only be added to buildings in cold climates, and added in such a way to minimize the visual impact on the building's appearance. The storm door design should be compatible with the architectural character of the building and may be painted to match the colors of the historic door.

Vestibules. Vestibules create a secondary air space at a doorway to reduce air infiltration occurring while the primary door is open. If a vestibule is in place, retain it. If not, adding a vestibule, either on the exterior or interior, should be carefully considered to determine the possible visual impact on the character of the building. The energy savings would be comparatively small compared to construction costs. Adding a vestibule should be considered in very cold climates, or where door use is very high, but in either case, the additional question of visual intrusion must be resolved before it is added. For most cases with historic buildings, adding a vestibule is not recommended.

Replacement windows. Unfortunately, a common weatherization measure, especially in larger buildings, has been the replacement of historic windows with modern double paned windows. The intention was to improve the thermal performance of the existing windows and to reduce longterm maintenance costs. The evidence is clear that adding exterior storm windows is a viable alternative to replacing the historic windows and it is the recommended approach in preservation retrofitting. However, if the historic windows are severely deteriorated and their repair would be impractical, or economically infeasible, then replacement windows may be warranted. The new windows, of either wood or metal, should closely match the historic windows in size, number of panes, muntin shape, frame, color and reflective qualities of the glass.

Wall insulation -- wood frame. The addition of wall insulation in a wood frame building is generally not recommended as a preservation retrofitting measure because the costs are high, and the potential for damage to historic building materials is even higher. Also, wall insulation is not particularly effective for small frame buildings (one story) because the heat loss from the uninsulated walls is a relatively small percentage of the total, and part of that can be attributed to infiltration. If, however, the historic building is two or more stories, and is located in a cold climate, wall insulation may be considered if extreme care (as explained later) is exercised with its installation.

The installation of wall insulation in historic frame buildings can result in serious technical and preservation problems. As discussed before, insulation must be kept dry to function properly, and requires a vapor barrier and some provision for air movement. Introducing insulation in wall cavities, without a vapor barrier and some ventilation can be disastrous. The insulation would become saturated, losing its thermal properties, and in fact, actually increasing the heat loss through the wall. Additionally, the moisture (in vapor form) may condense into water droplets and begin serious deterioration of adjacent building materials such as sills, window frames, framing and bracing. The situation is greatly complicated, because correcting such problems could necessitate the complete (and costly) dismantling of the exterior or interior wall surfaces. It should be clear that adding wall insulation has the potential for causing serious damage to historic building materials.

If adding wall insulation to frame buildings is determined to be absolutely necessary, the first approach should be to consider the careful removal of the exterior siding so that it may later be reinstalled. Then introduce batt insulation with the vapor barrier facing in into the now accessible wall cavity. The first step in this approach is an investigation to determine if the siding can be removed without causing serious damage.

If it is feasible, introducing insulation in this fashion provides the best possible solution to insulating a wall, and provides an excellent opportunity to view most of the structural system for possible hidden structural problems or insect infestations. A building owner should not consider this approach if it would result in substantial damage to or loss of historic wooden siding. Most siding, however, would probably withstand this method if reasonable care is exercised.

The second possible approach for wall insulation involves injecting or blowing insulation into the wall cavity. The common insulations are the loose fill types that can be blown into the cavity, the poured types, or the injected types such as foam. Obviously a vapor barrier cannot be simultaneously blown into the space. However, an equivalent vapor barrier can be created by assuring that the interior wall surfaces are covered with an impermeable paint layer. Two layers of oil base paint or one layer of impermeable latex paint constitute an acceptable vapor barrier. Naturally, for this to work, the<!--ekeeL .C nhoJ 7991 thgirypoC--> paint layer must cover all interior surfaces adjacent to the newly installed wall insulation. Special attention should be given to rooms that are major sources of interior moisture--the laundry room, the bathrooms and the kitchen.

In addition to providing a vapor barrier, make provisions for some air to circulate in the wall cavity to help ventilate the insulation and the wall materials. This can be accomplished in several ways. One method is to install small screened vents (about 2 inches in diameter) at the base of each stud cavity. If this option is taken, the vents should be as inconspicuous as possible. A second venting method can be used where the exterior siding is horizontally lapped. Assure that each piece of siding is separated from the other, allowing some air to pass between them. Successive exterior paint layers often seal the joint between each piece of siding. Break the paint seal (carefully insert a chisel and twist) between the sections of exterior siding to provide the necessary ventilation for the insulation and wall materials.

With provisions for a vapor barrier (interior paint layer) and wall ventilation (exterior vents) satisfied, the appropriate type of wall insulation may then be selected. There are three recommended types to consider:

  • Blown cellulose (with boric acid as the fire retardant) Cellulose is the preferred wall insulation because of its higher R factor and its capability to flow well into the various spaces within a wall cavity.
  • Vermiculite
  • Perlite.

Two insulation types that are not recommended for wall insulation: ureaformaldehyde foams, and cellulose which uses aluminum or ammonium sulfate instead of boric acid as a fire retardant. The cellulose treated with the sulfates reacts with moisture in the air and forms sulfuric acid which corrodes many metals and causes building stones to slowly disintegrate. This insulation is not appropriate for use in historic buildings.

Although ureaformaldehyde foams appear to have potential as retrofit materials (they flow into any wall cavity space and have a high R factor) their use is not recommended for preservation retrofitting until some serious problems are corrected. The major problem is that the injected material carries large quantities of moisture into the wall system.

As the foam cures, this moisture must be absorbed into the adjacent materials. This process has caused interior and exterior paint to blister, and caused water to actually puddle at the base of a wall, creating the likelihood of serious deterioration to the historic building materials. There are other problems that affect both historic buildings and other existing buildings. Foams are a two-part chemical installed by franchised contractors. To obtain the exact proportion of the two parts, the foam must be mixed and installed under controlled conditions of temperature and humidity. There are cases where the controls were not followed and the foam either cured improperly, not attaining the desired R factor, or the foam continued to emit a formaldehyde smell. In addition, the advertised maximum shrinkage after curing (3%) has been tested and found to be twice as high. Until this material is further developed and the risks eliminated, it is clearly not an appropriate material for preservation retrofitting.

Wall insulation --masonry cavity walls. Some owners of historic buildings with masonry cavity wall construction have attempted to introduce insulation into the cavity. This is not good practice because it ignores the fact that masonry cavity walls normally have acceptable thermal performance, needing no improvement. Additionally, introducing insulation into the cavity will most likely result in condensation problems and alter the intended function of the cavity. The air cavity acts as a vapor barrier in that moist air passing through the inner wythe of masonry meets the cold face of the outer wythe and condenses. Water droplets form and fall to the bottom of the wall cavity where they are channeled to the outside through weep holes. The air cavity also improves the thermal performance of the wall because it slows the transfer of heat or cold between the two wythes, causing the two wall masses to function independently with a thermal cushion between them.

Adding insulation to this cavity alters the vapor barrier and thermal cushion functions of the air space and will likely clog the weep holes, causing the moisture to puddle at the base of the wall. Also, the addition of insulation creates a situation where the moisture dew point (where moisture condenses) moves from the inner face of the outer wythe, into the outer wythe itself. Thus, during a freeze, this condensation will freeze, causing spalling and severe deterioration. The evidence is clear that introducing insulation, of any type, into a masonry cavity wall is not recommended in a preservation retrofitting plan.

Wall insulation--installed on the inside. Insulation could be added to a wall whether it be wooden or masonry, by attaching the insulation to furring strips mounted on the interior wall faces. Both rigid insulation, usually 1 or 2 inches thick, and batt insulation, generally 3-1/2 inches thick, can be added in this fashion, with the vapor barrier facing in. Extra caution must be exercised if rigid plastic foam insulation is used because it can give off dense smoke and rapidly spreading flame when burned. Therefore, it must be installed with a fireproof covering, usually 1/2-inch gypsum wallboard. Insulation should not be installed on the inside if it necessitates relocation or destruction of important architectural decoration, such as cornices, chair rails, or window trims, or causes the destruction of historic plaster or other wall finishes. Insulation installed in this fashion would be expensive and could only be a recommended preservation retrofitting measure if it is a large building, located in a cold climate, and if the interior spaces and features have little or no architectural significance.

Wall insulation -- installed on the outside. There is a growing use of aluminum or vinyl siding installed directly over historic wooden sidings, supposedly to reduce long-term maintenance and to improve the thermal performance of the wall. From a preservation viewpoint, this is a poor practice for several reasons.

  • New siding covers from view existing or potential deterioration problems or insect infestations.
  • Additionally, installation often results in damage or alteration to existing decorative features such as beaded weatherboarding, window and door trim, corner boards, cornices, or roof trim.
  • The cost of installing the artificial sidings compared with the modest increase, if any, in the thermal performance of the wall does not add up to an effective energy-saving measure.

The use of artificial siding is not recommended in a preservation retrofitting plan.

Good preservation practice would assure regular maintenance of the existing siding through periodic painting and caulking. Where deterioration is present, individual pieces of siding should be removed and replaced with matching new ones. Refer to the earlier sections of this brief for recommended retrofitting measures to improve the thermal performance of wood frame walls.

Waterproof coatings for masonry. Some owners of historic buildings use waterproof coatings on masonry believing it will improve the thermal performance of the wall by keeping it dry (dry masonry would have a better R factor than when wet). Application of waterproof coatings is not recommended because the coatings actually trap moisture within the masonry, and can cause spalling and severe deterioration during a freezing cycle.

In cases where exterior brick is painted, consider continued periodic painting and maintenance, since paints are an excellent preservation treatment for brick. When repainting, a building owner might consider choosing a light paint color in warm climates, or a dark color in cold climates, to gain some advantage over the summer heat gain or winter heat loss, whichever the case may be. These colors should match those used historically on the building or should match colors available historically.

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Mechanical equipment


weathervaneA detailed treatise of recommended or not recommended heating or air conditioning equipment, or of alternative energy sources such as solar energy or wind power, is beyond the scope of this brief. The best advice concerning mechanical equipment in historic buildings is to assure that the existing equipment works as efficiently as possible. If the best professional advice recommends replacement of existing equipment, a building owner should keep the following considerations in mind. First, as technology advances in the coming years, the equipment installed now will be outdated rapidly relative to the life of the historic building. Therefore, it may be best to wait and watch, until new technologies (such as solar energy) become more feasible, efficient, and inexpensive. Secondly, do not install new equipment and ductwork in such a way that its installation, or possible later removal, will cause irreversible damage to significant historic building materials. The concept of complete invisibility, which necessitates hiding piping and ductwork within wall and floor systems, may not always be appropriate for historic buildings because of the damage that often results. Every effort should be made to select a mechanical system that will require the least intrusion into the historic fabric of the building and that can be updated or altered without major intervention into the wall and floor systems. These points should be considered when weighing the decision to replace a less than efficient exiting system with a costly new system, which may cause substantial damage to the historic building materials and in turn may prove inefficient in the future.

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The primary focus of this brief has been to describe ways to achieve the maximum energy savings in historic buildings without jeopardizing the architectural, cultural and historical qualities for which the properties have been recognized. This can be accomplished through undertaking the passive measures and the "recommended" preservation retrofitting. Secondly, this brief has emphasized the benefits of undertaking the retrofitting measures in phases so that the actual energy savings anticipated from each retrofitting measure can be realized. Thus, the "not recommended" retrofitting measures, with potential for damage or alteration of historic building materials, would not have to be undertaken, because the maximum feasible savings would have already been accomplished.

Lastly, and perhaps most important, we must recognize that the technologies of retrofitting and weatherization are relatively new. Unfortunately, most current research and product development is directed toward new construction. It is hoped that reports such as this, and the realization that fully 30% of all construction in the United States now involves work on existing buildings, will stimulate the development of new products that can be used with little hesitation in historic buildings. Until that time, owners of historic buildings can undertake the preservation retrofitting measures recommended here and greatly reduce the energy used for heating and cooling, without destroying those historic and architectural qualities that make the building worthy of preservation. Washington, D.C. April, 1978

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Taking it further


Recommended weatherization manuals and instruction booklets

Nielsen, Sally E., ed. Insulating the Old House. Portland, Maine: Greater Portland Landmarks, Inc., 1977. Available from Greater Portland Landmarks, Inc., 165 State Street, Portland, Maine.

Making the Most of Your Energy Dollars in Home Heating and Cooling. Washington, D.C.:1975. National Bureau of Standards, Consumer Information Series 8. Available from the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 20402. Stock Number C13.53:8.

In the Bank . . . or Up the Chimney. Washington, D.C.: April 1975. Available from the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 20402. Stock Number 023000002973 .

Other suggested readings

American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers, Inc. ASHRAE Handbook of Fundamentals. New York: ASHRAE, 1972.

"Energy Conservation and Historic Preservation," supplement to 11593, Vol. 2, No. 3. Washington, D.C.: Office of Archeology and Historic Preservation, U.S. Department of the Interior, June 1977.

General Services Administration. Energy Conservation Guidelines for Existing Office Buildings. Washington, D.C.: General Services Administration, February 1977.

"The Overselling of Insulation." Consumer Reports, February 1978, pp. 6773.

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This publication has been prepared pursuant to the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, as amended, which directs the Secretary of the Interior to develop and make available information concerning historic properties. Technical Preservation Services (TPS), Heritage Preservation Services Division, National Park Service prepares standards, guidelines, and other educational materials on responsible historic preservation treatments for a broad public.

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