Green Remodeling on a Budget

Woodrow Aames

Most people agree than green remodeling is an admirable goal, but when it comes to older homes, some preservationists wonder if a narrow focus on going green obscures the historical value of many old homes.

"Perhaps the most likely outcome of a large-scale push toward deep-energy retrofits of older homes is an increase in whole-house teardowns," preservationist Sally Zimmerman wrote in an article in FineHomebuilding.

Older homes--if not retrofit--are among the least energy efficient of all American homes. Homes built before 1939 use "50 percent more energy per square foot" than homes built after 2000, Time Magazine reports.

Time recently reported that America has over 100 million homes, and nearly half the nation's housing stock is more than 35 years old. The costs associated with bringing these old homes--58 million of which are reported to have zero insulation--in line with today's energy-efficient standards run far beyond dollar signs. Ironically, green remodeling can have an environmental impact as well.

According to Time, "It would take an average of 65 years for reduced carbon emissions from an new energy-efficient home to make up for the resources lost by demolishing an old one. So in the broadest sense, the greenest home is the one that has already been built."

Try Lite Green Remodeling for Your Old Home

Owners of older homes can face financial burdens when attempting to green their homes. Government stimulus programs come with certain restrictions, and if you're the owner of an older American home, you may not qualify for some incentives, making it difficult to afford the green remodeling upgrades to button up your house from energy leaks.

Given the high cost a major retrofitting can involve--see homeowner George Musser's chronicle of his attempts to seal up the leaks in his Victorian-era home at Scientific American--some experts recommend more modest renovations.

The truth is, many old homes can curb energy consumption without having to embark on expansive green remodeling projects. The high cost of large renovations can often spell the difference between upgrades and demolition of historic homes.

Zimmerman and other experts suggest a modest approach to greening old homes, including:

  • Caulking windows and doors
  • Adding storm windows
  • Planting trees
  • Painting a home's exterior in a light color
  • Repair of old wood windows for leaks
  • Selective replacement of old windows and doors

Where to Start with Greening Your Home?

Most green preservationists call for zipping up a leaky home before plunging into a deeper restoration. The first step for any owner of an older home is to conduct an energy audit to size up the extent of the leakage. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), through its Energy Savers Web site, offers guidelines for doing your own home energy assessment.

Since drafts can account for up to 30 percent of energy loss a year, the DOE says to begin by checking for air leaks along places like baseboards, mail slots, electrical outlets, window frames, attic hatches, fireplace dampers, and window-mounted air conditioners. Outside, do a walk-around of exterior corners, intersections of siding and chimneys, and where foundations meet siding.

Basements should have insulation of R-value of 25 under the flooring. Water heaters furnace ducts, and hot-water pipes should get new, improved insulation. Then, inspect your lighting. Since lighting uses as much as 10 percent of your electric bill, downsize the wattage of your bulbs or replace them with inexpensive compact fluorescent models.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation claims you can lose 20 percent of your heat through the roof, so insulate attics and install new attic door covers or fireplace draft stoppers where necessary.

When it comes to green remodeling and old houses, start with the basics and work your way up.

Do a Home Energy Audit • http://www.energysavers.gov/http://www.energysavers.gov/ • U.S. Department of Energy,
Greening This Old House • http://www.time.comhttp://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1893514,00.html • Time Magazine,
Sally Zimmerman • Taking Issue: Energy Upgrades Threaten Older Homes • Apr 29, 2009 • http://www.finehomebuilding.comhttp://www.finehomebuilding.com//item/6812/taking-issue-energy-upgrades-threaten-older-homes • FineHomebuilding,
Are old houses doomed? The conflict between historic preservation and energy efficiency • http://www.scientificamerican.comhttp://www.scientificamerican.com/blog/post.cfm?id=are-old-houses-doomed-the-conflict-2010-03-26 • Scientific American,

About the Author

Woodrow Aames has written articles and profiles for Yahoo, Microsoft Network, Microsoft Encarta, and other websites and print magazines around the world. He holds an MFA degree and has taught English abroad.

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