Can We Save Old American Homes?

Posted by Woodrow Aames ~ April 12, 2010

Preservationists, ecologists, and homeowners of architectural era homes trying to meet their utility bills wonder if the costs of retrofitting a tired lady outstrip the value of completing the project. In response, the government provides subsidies for restoration, tax and financial incentives, and Property Assessed Clean Energy bonds. Maintaining aesthetics without gutting the architecture-and paying the whopping bill that accompanies it-is a key concern for all of us. That's because preserving these homes around the country still underlines our sense of who we are.

Scientific American writer George Musser has worked long and hard to restore a Victorian home, only to find they've reduced energy leaks by only 10 percent. Additional work to replace the old gas boiler and banging steam radiators with a geothermal heat pump costs more than he can consider, even though subsidies could cover half of the total $68,800 bill. The real question is whether his energy savings would make it worthwhile.

According to preservationist Patrice Frey, getting old houses to operate with sound energy efficiency means more than plugging air leaks and installing Energy Star windows. It means buying new HVAC systems and taking advantage of tax credits and programs to help pay for retrofits.

With the whole nation tasked for a 20-50% level of energy efficiency by 2012, HOME STAR programs are more interested in funding retrofits that provide efficiency, rather than whether they work on alternative fuels. The Architecture 2030 group believes that by 2030, all buildings will produce all the energy they use via alternative technologies. Even though many old homes can find exceptions by law, through grandfathering provisions, or by virtue of being part of a designated historical neighborhood, some building owners may be forced to sell because they can't foot the costs of energy upgrades and retrofits.

A reporter for The Los Angeles Times believes that most of the talk on high-percentage efficiency has been focused on new buildings, with historical structures getting a temporary time out. Often the energy requirements of a restored historical home depend on reducing the energy load for the home first, then determining energy solutions to power the load such as green roofing.

Recently, The International Code Council released the public version of its International Green Construction Code, which establishes baseline global guidelines for new green construction. The global movement toward conservation and sustainable building is picking up steam against a background of depleted fuel sources and dwindling natural construction materials.

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