A couple of summers ago I was in Plano, Illinois for meetings at our mid-century modern masterpiece, the Farnsworth House, when I was trapped in town overnight because of flash floods. The only place I could find to stay was a lovely bed and breakfast on the edge of town. When the owner found out that I was the chief architect at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, he took me from room to room to show me the small, round Unico vents hidden throughout. He was proud of his Unico system because he was able to save all the historic plaster on the ceilings and afford to add air conditioning too. He said he learned about Unico by seeing an advertisement in Preservation magazine, which made him forever indebted to the National Trust. He refused to let me pay for my room that night and told me I always had a place to stay in Plano for free.
Now, I can’t promise you that you too will get a free hotel room if you mention “Unico” to the owner, but I can tell you that in the world of heating, ventilating and cooling systems, the Unico system can definitely be a strong alternative if you and your architect and engineer decide a mechanical system is needed. I learned this first-hand managing the renovations at President Lincoln’s Cottage, another of our National Trust Historic Sites.
The President Lincoln’s Cottage National Trust Historic Site is comprised of the Gothic stucco cottage that President Lincoln used as his seasonal home and the Renaissance Revival former administration building for the Old Soldier’s Home in Northwest Washington, DC. The cottage has been restored as a house museum and the administration building has been adapted for use as National Trust offices and a visitor center. The Robert H. Smith Visitor Education Center at President Lincoln’s Cottage in Washington, DC became the first National Trust Historic Site to receive LEED certification – LEED Gold. The cottage restoration itself did not register for LEED since the project was begun earlier than the VEC project, just as LEED was first coming on the market. But at the Cottage, the original passive design features such as operable windows and shutters were reactivated, and the Unico System was seen as the perfect way to supplement the heating and cooling of the building.
Before the renovation, President Lincoln’s Cottage used a steam heating system with radiators (not original to the home) and a few window units for air conditioning. The initial plan was to only install central heating because the home had natural ventilation due to its location on a hilltop and shutter system. However, The Unico System was easily adaptable for both heating and cooling by adding an air conditioning module at the fan end of the system, with no changes to the duct work. Unico’s easily-customizable circular outlets were stained to match the original wood floors on the first floor and the walls and ceilings on the second floor.
The system is fed by three 5-ton air handlers with chilled water coils that provide both heating and cooling. The air handlers are tucked away in the basement and third-floor servants’ quarters, while the chillers were installed remotely in a historic water tower structure away from the main building. Unico donated the equipment for this project which assisted in making this project manageable for us.
Today, the National Trust and Unico, Inc. announced that they were renewing their corporate partnership. I am grateful for Unico’s support of the National Trust and also believe that in the right circumstances it is a reasonable alternative to the big-ducted systems we’ve been burdened with for so long.
- Unico on PreservationNation
- Unico System homepage
- Unico's Case Study on President Lincoln's Cottage (PDF)
Barbara A. Campagna, FAIA, LEED AP, is the Graham Gund Architect of the National Trust in the Stewardship of Historic Sites office.