Button Up Vermont Workshop

Last week I attended a Button Up Vermont workshop, hosted by Efficiency Vermont, geared toward those affected by the recent Irene flooding.  Efficiency Vermont is an organization committed to teaching Vermonters how to reduce energy costs, choose more sustainable energy sources and to increase the use of local energy. Many flood victims are forced to rebuild portions or all of their homes, choose new heating systems, choose new insulation, buy new appliances and much more; therefore, Efficiency Vermont is aiming to guide people to energy efficient choices.

The workshop announcement sparked my interest for three reasons. (1) Since the workshop was geared towards post flood recovery, it would discuss cleanup such as mold and moisture concerns, which is currently one of my main concerns. (2) We do need to buy a new heating system, and we are trying to decide between oil or wood pellets or both. (3) Also, I was curious to hear what they would say about windows and historic materials. Would they advocate replacement or maintaining what is existing?

To my delight, one of the first things the presenters discussed was mold and moisture. Fun, right? Much of it was geared toward wood and fabric, not concrete. But, I think here is where I solidified my idea to scrub the basement walls. More on that particular endeavor another time. It was generally helpful in the sense that it made me feel better as we had done many of the right things so far. And, it was a good reminder of what we still needed to accomplish. Many people had questions about dirt floor basements or mold on furniture.

Regarding heating systems, it is something I know little about (first time homeowner here!) so I appreciate any discussion on the different systems. Efficiency Vermont offers rebates and incentives to buy certain systems (that goes for appliances, too).

Now, about windows. I am relieved and proud to hear that Efficiency Vermont said that new windows are not worth it; the payback required for the ridiculously expensive windows is much too long. Hooray! That was exciting for me, a historic window lover.

The main part of the workshop (it was more like a lecture, than a workshop) was the discussion about insulation, specifically spray foam insulation. Yuck. I do not like any of it, partially because I have a hard time believing that it’s not toxic in some way (off gases?) and partially because I think it’s ugly. All insulation is generally hideous looking, but something about spray foam creeps me out. Am I crazy? Anyway, while I know energy efficiency is related to insulation, I tend to care less about wall insulation because I want my house to breathe. So if that means a drafty house, I am okay with it. (I know, I expect a lot of disagreement here.) I was disappointed by the emphasis on this insulation, but a lot of people do have to replace the insulation on their first floors, so the discussions were appropriate for the setting.

Overall, I’m glad I attended the workshop. After all, maintenance is preservation and preservation is maintenance, right? Has anyone else been to something similar? What did you think?

Lecture: “The Power of Preservation”

The Yestermorrow Design Build School in Waitsfield, VT is hosting a summer lecture series addressing sustainability through different avenues. One of those avenues is historic preservation.

On July 27, Jean Carroon (FAIA, LEED AP) presented “The Power of Preservation: Understanding the Environmental Value of Older and Historic Building Conservation.” Carroon is a principal at Goody Clancy in Boston, MA; she is well known and highly regarded for her work combining historic preservation, sustainability and architecture. Her book, Sustainable Preservation: Greening Existing Buildings (Wiley & Sons) was published in 2010.

Chances are, if you are involved with historic preservation or sustainability or a related field, you have heard the same facts and theories over and over.  As a profession, we are still struggling with green initiatives and compromise and doing our best to decide if the long term benefits are in fact what they say they are. It’s going to take some time before we can evaluate the best practices of today.

While lectures can blend together, Carroon gave a superb presentation, one that sounded fresh and insightful. Her words proved way above the same old ideas. I thoroughly enjoyed the entire lecture. She began (1) by asking the audience if we believed in flossing our teeth and then (2) saying that preservation is shooting itself in the foot. What an intriguing beginning!

Rather than reiterate the presentation, I thought I’d share some snippets that I found particularly interesting and thoughtful (I’m a habitual note taker to insure that I do not forget anything — though my disclaimer is that these bullet points are not exact words from Carroon; some may have my interpretations. Read her book for her exact words!)

* Preservation is the keystone to sustainability. If you want to save the earth, then you have to save the largest objects on it – buildings. You have to save buildings in order to save the earth. In the 1970s, the motto “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” came about, though we have since dropped reduce and reuse. We should always reduce and reuse before we have to recycle (i.e. in the case of buildings, before we have to tear apart a building for salvage). Similarly, if you want to save the polar bears, you have to save the buildings. [We’re all connected!]

* Today’s work on buildings is often taking out the “miracle materials” of yesterday. New materials should always be suspicious, even the green products can have environmental impacts. New construction is the #1 source for toxicity according to the EPA, which places it ahead of coal fired electric plants.

* Sustainability is not about embodied energy; it is about avoiding impacts.

*Sustainability is not something that is finite. It means stewardship. We’ll never be done with it; just like building maintenance and historic preservation is never done. There is no such thing as a maintenance free world  (hence, the flossing).

*The GSA has documented evidence that its older buildings are 20% easier to clean (20% less chemicals are required). The older materials are more durable, cleaner, and can be repaired.

*Regarding the non-historic building stock, such as those from the 1960s/70s: these present more of an opportunity because there are fewer aesthetic negotiations.

*Why don’t we talk about building density? A “Zero Energy” doesn’t mean anything, especially if it’s not populated. These are not sustainable. Buildings should function as networks, not individuals. Smart streets planning and complete streets projects are undertaking such ideas.

*Sustainability is also about the sustainability of institutions and the quality of life of people who live/work/play there. A sustainable area means nothing if it’s not inhabited.

* Sustainable = stewardship = daily action = great rewards.

*The preservation community needs to be a compromising agency, not an agency of no. If we keep fighting battles (i.e. windows), we’ll lose the war.

*We need to create a culture of reuse or repair. We need to recognize what we have and what exists.

If you ever have the opportunity to hear Carroon speak or to say hello to her, you should. She is lovely and brilliant.

One reason I’d recommend hearing a talk by Jean Carroon is due to the fact that she dazzled me as a listener, but her talk also inspired me to internally ponder and respond to issues she mentioned. Keep reading for my response to an issue that struck me as important.

I found Carroon’s talk to be refreshing, especially the discussion about sustainability never being reached (in the sense that it will always require stewardship). However, I strongly disagree with her about the windows battle. Everyone has a different opinion, but replacement vinyl windows will never be okay according to my own preservation standards. Reproduction windows are a different story. To me, windows will always be important because they define styles. They tell stories. Windows are not the greatest cause for lost heat in a building. Once they’re gone, it cannot be undone.

I do not find historic preservation to be an agency of no; though I see how it comes off that way. But, I imagine, any time that a resource is being protected, there will be the word “no” involved. And although as preservationists it is imperative to get a grasp on sustainability and to learn to work together with environmentalists and professionals of similar fields (and really all fields), we must remember that it is still our mission to protect and preserve our heritage. The definition of historic preservation is drastically different than it was 50 years ago, but I believe that the roots of the field still take top priority. Roughly, I refer to the roots as the documentation, sharing, teaching and caring of buildings, trade, culture and landscape. Preservationists before us understand that so much of value could be lost without their efforts and at the same time, so much of the past could be valuable to the present and to the future.

Thus, I mean to say that I am constantly amazed by the intertwined existence of professional fields today and how well we can mesh; I love how preservation can be a huge umbrella, as can environmentalism and sustainability and planning and so many others. It proves how connected we are. Yet, I believe that historic preservation must remain true to itself. We can rethink and adapt and fit with other fields, but let’s be sure that historic preservation is still historic preservation and not a green retrofitting fad with history on the side.

What do you think?

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If you have the opportunity to attend a lecture at Yestermorrow, I’d highly recommend it. Yestermorrow is a lovely, intimate venue for lectures

Save the Windows

Historic windows are being massacred across the nation. They are the scapegoat for energy efficiency problems. Windows are the first to go. The media and the vinyl replacement window business seem to scheme together to get the general public to believe that vinyl double pane or triple pane windows will solve homeowners’ problems and save them a bundle. Rather than considering other solutions and analyzing whether or not replacement windows achieve their claims, beautiful, character defining windows are ripped from their frames and tossed to the curb.

A building that loses its historic windows loses so much of its character. Architectural styles are very much defined by window type: shape, frame, number of panes, type of glass, inset depth, and how the sash operates. The typical single pane replacement windows just destroy a building’s image. Interested in understanding why? Read “Repair or Replace, a Visual Look at the Impacts” — a colorful, image-filled, 18 page booklet put together by the NTHP. Want to learn about window styles and architectural styles? Read “Window Types – A Residential Field Guide” — a beautiful, colorful, helpful guide put together by the NTHP that will take you through window vocabulary and the uniqueness of each style

As a preservationist, I know I am not alone when I say that the windows suffering as the scapegoats makes me furious. The National Trust for Historic Preservation is continuing their stance on the benefits of historic windows with their new Save the Windows site — http://www.savethewindows.org. Why? Historic buildings are losing to new windows at an alarming rate and the amount of misinformation being shared is ridiculous relating to energy savings, sustainability, and historic preservation.

Quite often, WINDOWS ARE NOT THE CAUSE OR SOLUTION TO YOUR ENERGY PROBLEMS.

First of all, heat escapes through the roof. Is the roof insulated? What is in the attic?

Second of all, why would everyone believe all of the made up or likely altered statistics about windows spouted by the commercial industry selling vinyl replacement windows? Well, if you ask the industry, of course the new windows are better. It’s corporate America, people. What do you think they are going to say?

Third, new windows are NOT GREEN. Read this from the National Trust:

Tearing out historic windows for replacements wastes embodied energy – the energy required to extract the raw materials, transport them, make them into a new product, ship the product, and install it. What’s more, when we keep our existing windows, we avoid all the negative environmental impacts associated with the manufacture of new windows. For example, the manufacturing of some windows produces toxic byproducts. And, the new wood that manufacturers use today can’t begin to match the quality of old growth wood in older windows.

And here’s the kicker. New windows will often have a life span of just 10 to 20 years. Historic and older windows, when properly maintained, can last for many more decades. Furthermore, studies have shown that with proper weatherization and use of a good storm window, older windows can be made nearly as energy efficient as new windows – even in severe climates such as the Northeast.

Fourth, new windows are only maintenance free in that YOU CANNOT MAINTAIN THEM. They will have to be replaced, not repaired. From the National Trust:

Vinyl, aluminum, fiberglass, and composite windows are manufactured as a unit and are maintenance-free only because, in most instances, the components cannot be repaired. When a part fails, or the insulated glass seal breaks, the entire unit must be replaced. By comparison, older wood windows are composed of interlocking parts made from natural materials, and any part can be repaired or replaced.

Fifth, new windows will NOT SAVE YOU MONEY. Again, from the National Trust:

Window manufacturers are quick to tell you that their products will save you money. While replacement windows could save you about $50 a month on your heating or cooling bills, those savings come after you spend $12,000, on average, for replacement windows for the typical home. So if you heat or cool your home, say, six months a year, the savings are about $300 annually. At that rate, it would take 40 years to recoup in energy savings the amount of money spent on the new windows! And, by that time, your replacement windows will have needed replacing!

Did you see that — new windows will take 40 years to earn their keep. 40 YEARS!! There are so many things wrong with that. Are you even going to live in your house for 40 years? The savings only come after you’ve spent a ton of money on windows. And what happened to those old windows? They are sitting in a landfill, right? Well then you’ve used twice the energy: from the embodied energy of the existing windows and the resources required to manufacture new windows. And those new windows are likely off-gassing chemicals that you do not want floating around your house and in your lungs.

Do not believe everything (or dare I say anything) you read from new manufacturers.

How can you help? Share the information about the many, many benefits of keeping historic windows (financial! environmentally! historically!) by visiting Save the Windows, sharing it on twitter, on facebook, sending emails to your friends and family, sending a quick note to your senators, and by talking about historic windows!

Learn what you can do to keep your windows, save your money, and improve your energy efficiency. Start here: TEN REASONS TO REPAIR YOUR OLD WINDOWS.

Be green, be thoughtful, be respectful – save the windows! Love the windows!

Historic Windows

It’s that time of year; the temperature drops at night, your house feels drafty, and around mid-October the heat turns on (unless you’re way down south). You wonder why your house is so cold and how you can make it warmer. Everywhere you read about new energy efficient windows and you consider replacing your windows.

Before you replace those historic wood windows, STOP! Your house is not losing its heat through windows; but rather, mainly through the roof and uninsulated walls. Keep those historic beauties in their frames! And if you have windows with real muntins and individual window panes, then you definitely have something worthwhile. The cost of replacing your historic window could take 100 years to make up for its cost.

Don’t believe me? Check out the Historic Windows Resource Page from Preservation North Carolina, and pay special attention to the NCPTT Testing the Energy Performance of Wood Windows in Cold Climates report and the replacement cost calculator from Historic Omaha. Note that it will take 41 years for the windows to pay for themselves!

Okay and aside from cost, we have to recognize the aesthetic value of historic windows and the historic value of these windows. Once removed, it is a part of the building that is gone forever. Windows are a very important part of architectural style. Take a look at this brief slideshow from the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota titled, “Historic Wood Windows: Why They Matter and How to Save Them.” Lastly, for a thorough review of why to retain and maintain historic windows, answers to your questions, window vocabulary, and resources, see the National Trust’s Window Tip Sheet. For repair information see Preservation Brief 9: The Repair of Historic Wood Windows from the NPS.

Do your research before believing the gimmicks of “energy efficient” window manufacturers and sellers. After all, they WANT you to replace your windows.