[10 on Tuesday] 10 Ways to Green Your Historic Home

Posted on: August 14th, 2012 by Julia Rocchi 8 Comments


Job Corps students help restore Grey Towers National Historic Site to make it a more sustainable facility.

We walked you through 10 easy ways to weatherize your historic home a couple weeks ago. Now we want to help you take it a step further with these simple approaches to making your home more sustainable.

But what exactly do we mean when we say “sustainable,” at least in the context of historic preservation? Well, we’re talking about using what we already have -- in this case, buildings, and the features and materials that make them unique and historic. Many older homes were constructed with energy efficiency in mind (when home owners once had no choice, because things like central AC weren’t an option), so their “environmental friendliness quotient” is already high.

Today it’s up to us, the current caretakers, to continue retrofitting and reusing these places in ways that both honor their original construction and also reduce their environmental footprint in a modern world.

So let’s not waste any more energy -- here are 10 tips for greening your historic home.

1.    Keep original windows intact. Studies show that older windows can perform as well as vinyl replacements. Weatherstrip them so that they seal tightly, caulk the exterior trim, and repair cracked glazing or putty around glass panels. You'll reduce landfill waste and the demand for vinyl, a non-biodegradable material that gives off toxic byproducts when it's made.

2.    Use light paint colors for your house's exterior. Lighter colors reflect heat better than darker ones. Many older homes were typically painted with light-reflecting finishes, so you can be sustainable and accurate in one fell swoop.

3.    Insulate the attic, basement, and crawl space. About 20 percent of energy costs come from heat loss in those areas. Just take care to avoid materials that can damage historic fabric.

4.    Reuse old materials such as brick, stone, glass, and slate when making home improvements. You can also scour local salvage shops to find contemporaneous materials (and save it from going to a landfill).

5.    Plant trees. Evergreen trees on the north and west sides of your house can block winter winds, and leafy trees on the east, west, and northwest provide shade from the summer sun. Use old photos of your house to try to match the historic landscaping. (Don’t have photos? See our tips on researching your home’s history!)


Example of a well-shaded wraparound porch on a historic home in Oxford, North Carolina.

6.    When appropriate, open the windows and use fans and dehumidifiers, which consume less energy than air-conditioning. Many old houses were designed with good cross-ventilation; take advantage of your home's layout. Ceiling fans lower the perceived temperature in summer, lessening reliance on air conditioning and saving energy. And in the winter, they draw warm air down from the ceiling, saving on heating costs. So again, double benefit for one change.

7.    Keep doors airtight by weatherstripping, caulking, and painting them regularly. Recent studies suggest that installing a storm door is not necessarily cost-effective. Better to keep your doors in fighting shape -- and ideally in keeping with the character of the house.

8.    Install fireplace draft stoppers, attic door covers, and dryer vent seals that open only when your dryer is in use. An open dampener in a fireplace can increase energy costs by 30 percent, and attic doors and dryer vent ducts are notorious energy sieves.

9.    Restore porches and awnings. Porches, awnings, and shutters were intended for shade and insulation, plus they add a lot of personality to your home. To further save energy, draw shades on winter nights and summer days.

10.    Inspecting, maintaining, and repairing your existing roof is the best way to "go green" by using what you already have. Depending on the materials, installation, and ongoing maintenance, some roofs will last longer than others. We hope to present more info on solar-powered roof systems in future 10 on Tuesday posts -- stay tuned!

And as we mentioned in our weatherizing post, an energy audit is the best place to start. It will help you determine what you need to do now and exactly how much you’re likely to save.

Happy greening!

Want a ballpark estimate on the cost of going green? Check out our Green Guide to get a sense of how long it might take to recover the dollars you invest.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Julia Rocchi

Julia Rocchi

Julia Rocchi is the associate director for digital content at the National Trust. By day she wrangles content; by night (and weekends), she shops local, travels to story-rich places, and walks around looking up at buildings.

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8 Responses

  1. Phil Brooke

    August 17, 2012

    Install a clothesline outside. Save a 1,000 pounds of coal annually!

  2. Insulation

    August 22, 2012

    The insulation tip is a massive one in my view. So much money can be saved just by having adequate insulation installed. The loft is easiest of course, and can even be done by the homeowner if they are confident enough.

    I would recommend having pros come in for the walls though, especially with an older property.

  3. John Flanagan

    August 24, 2012

    If you caulk the junction betwen the house’s sill plate [the wood piece that holds the house to the foundation]siding and the foundation, it cuts air infiltration.

    Studies show that it can save you 4 to 5% on your heating bills.

  4. Michael Summerfield

    August 24, 2012

    Install interior storm windows to keep out drafts [easy DIY]. A window has nearly no insulating value, so anything you do – quilted shades, foam insulation inside shutters will have the most bang for the buck. Roaring fires are pretty but also an energy hog – inserts and stoves are more effective.

  5. Shauna Steadman

    August 24, 2012

    I am re-doing a 192(something)Arts and Crafts Bungalow (haven’t done the research yet). When I tore out the tile, lath and plaster in the up bath I put it in the back yard, thinking I would think of something to do with it. I did not want to put it in a landfill. My Gardens and walks created the solution. For the walks I screeded the larger stuff (the gravel from the floor) and used it over black plastic as a base fill for the walks. I salvaged the chips from a neighbors 60′ high Pine Oak. The small screeded gravel I mixed in with some more of the chips, and my clay soil (for all my garden beds). The local Agriculture agent told me not to do it, but I thought the lime in the mix would grow great stuff. You should see my gardens this year. It’s incredible and this mix maintains the moisture as well. Nothing went into the landfill because I kept the lath to fur out the new sheetrock. It was a lot of work, but worth the effort. I am a 71 year old single homeowner.

  6. Mark DeBacker

    August 25, 2012

    Here in mild coastal N. California, wall insulation retrofit is rarely recommended. Drilling holes in exterior siding just turns the felt weather barriers beneath into swiss cheese, while drilling blow openings on the interior ruins historic casework, paneling, tile and wallpapers. Diagonal bracing and blocking force large numbers of additional (interior or exterior) holes and you can’t insulate window weight pockets or mail slots anyway. We put our upgrade $ into attic work, enhanced ventilation, modern HVAC systems, shade trees and restoring historic awnings.

  7. Rosemary Small

    August 25, 2012

    When insulating our side attics and main attic , I used a stiff yardstick to stuff insulation down the edges of the attic floors and drilled holes in the side attic floors to blow insulation into the space between the floor levels of the house. Infrared photography shows that I manage to insulate over 80% of our wall cavities in our 2 story house.

  8. Catherine Brooks, Eco-Strip

    August 27, 2012

    Glad to see window restoration as #1. If only more federal tax credits could be directed away from replacement windows towards restoration, we would see more restoration. Can’t get stronger wood than the old stuff.