Historic Green Remodel

Historic buildings possess many of the characteristics now being touted as green. Green remodels involving historic homes requires a careful balance of aesthetics versus efficiency.

October 31, 2008

Further reading/online


In some neighborhoods restricted by covenants, contractors have had luck gaining approval for solar panels by trimming them to look like skylights.

Historic buildings possess many of the characteristics now being touted as green. Local, non-toxic materials? Check. Environmentally sensitive design? Check. Those saltbox homes in the Northeast, rambling breezeways in the Southeast, and adobes in the Southwest were adaptations to the local climate using the materials at hand.

“Historical preservation addresses sustainability in many ways,” says Jennifer Buddendorf, program officer at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “Most historical buildings before World War II were built to be very durable, and with passive heating and cooling a part of the design. You're preserving pieces of history as you preserve buildings, and you're also keeping those building materials out of a landfill.”

But remodeling in a designated historic district brings with it a set of challenges new to many remodelers. Neighborhoods that are part of community associations with strict covenants for exteriors can be just as tricky. Though the objectives of historic preservation officials and green building advocates seem ultimately compatible, conserving precious, limited resources aesthetic restrictions can be stumbling blocks for even the most conscientious remodeler. But with more than 2,300 designated historic districts and more than 200,000 community associations nationwide, this is not a market to be ignored.

Turn those stumbling blocks into steps to a new niche market. Here's how.

1) Learn neighborhood renovation guidelines before getting clients excited about a design.

Scott Whipple, historic preservation supervisor at the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission, advises that if you've accepted a remodeling job in a designated historic district, the first thing you should do is contact the local historic preservation office staff to discuss design review processes and standards.

The same is true for neighborhood review boards. Make sure your designs are approved at the neighborhood level before developing construction documents; stories abound of renovations held up for weeks, mid-project, while review boards demand changes.

Mary Andrews, a homeowner in Silver Spring, Md., wanted to build an addition and upgrade the energy performance of her home but ran into such roadblocks.

“Our 1923 bungalow isn't in a historically designated neighborhood but is considered a contributing resource, so we had to go through the same process,” she says. “We didn't know that until the architect submitted the plans for permitting. We eventually got approval for the basic design from the Historical Planning Office,” Andrews says, “only to learn much farther down the line that they didn't meet local zoning guidelines.”


The interior storm windows on this renovated historic barn are invisible 

from the exterior, thus immune to restrictions imposed by the local historic preservation office. Installation of interior storms is much less disruptive than installing replacement windows.

Most historical planning offices use the U.S. Department of the Interior's “Standards for Rehabilitation” as a guideline for developing their own protocol, but these guidelines leave room for interpretation. The ninth guideline reads, “New additions … will be differentiated from the old and will be compatible with the historic materials, features, size, scale and proportion.” In some cases, this is interpreted to mean that additions must look similar to the existing home, but Andrews' designs got approval specifically because they were stylistically distinct from the existing structure. Knowing the aesthetic restrictions on your job is as important as knowing the local building code.

“If you start working with a client and collecting fees for a design without doing your homework, you are going to get yourself into a lot of trouble,” says Van Franke, principle of Franke Architects in Kensington, Md.

2) Give special consideration to the addition or replacement of windows.

Windows that meet both historic preservation guidelines and local energy codes can be very expensive. Solid wood, Energy Star-qualified windows come at a price. According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, even high-quality new wood windows (with the exception of mahogany) won't last as long as historic wood windows, which use dense, durable old-growth wood. “Windows and doors are always an issue we address early on,” says Franke. “They account for 10 to 15 percent of the average job's budget. Adding the price premium of solid wood, unclad windows can be painful to a client.”

For additions, you will probably need to buy new windows, but if your clients are considering window replacements to increase the thermal performance of their home, ask them to think about interior storm windows. They are nearly as efficient and usually more affordable than buying new, and you won't run into the aesthetic restrictions planning commissions often impose.

“Heat lost through windows (rather than around them) is a small percentage of a house's total heat loss,” says Whipple. “Historic windows — when restored to a proper operating condition, caulked adequately and a storm window is installed — can function approximately as efficiently as modern windows. Plus, the old windows don't end up in a landfill, which is better for the environment.”

A 1997 field study comparing various types of renovations and replacements in Vermont demonstrated energy savings of $16-19 per window per year with the installation of a storm window over a loose, single-paned window. Replacing a loose, single-paned window with a double-glazed, low-E window achieved savings of $20 per window per year. If the existing window is in good shape, the savings from adding a low-E storm window (compared to replacing the window with a double-glazed low-E unit) are almost the same — $6.20 per year for the storm versus $6.80 per year for the new unit — but low-E coated storms only cost half as much. Custom storm windows come in a variety of colors and materials and can be designed to fit odd, bowed or out-of-square openings.

A simple Web search for custom storm windows should turn up providers in your region. Also check historical window refurbishers. If you have a window representative, ask for leads.

3) Be wise about solar.

Architectural review committees (ARCs) are created by community associations to review construction plans with an eye to maintaining or increasing curb appeal and property values. But if you are dealing with an overzealous ARC, it may seem as if its purpose is to stonewall the solar market in your area.

In both historic districts and neighborhoods restricted by community associations, you'll probably face difficulties if you try to install solar panels on the front of the house, for example.


This historic home in Harper's Ferry, West Virginia shows how residents used stone, an abundant local resource, to respond to local climatic conditions.

Traditional New England saltbox homes have asymmetrical roofs with the lower side aimed north to act as a windbreaker.

To find out if your project has restrictive covenants in place, have your clients check their deeds and their neighbors' deeds. Some developers place restrictions on only certain properties, but, if contested, judges typically enforce specific restrictions for all properties in the development. Also check the recorded plan and the declaration of covenants. If they exist, these can be found at the local office of the recorder.

Some of the more common rules you may face for solar installations will be explicit restrictions on solar system placement, height, roofing materials, piping (for solar hot water) and placement of improvements.

If your project is subject to ARC approval, follow these guidelines to improve your chances of success with a solar installation:

1) Examine covenants first, and find out who has the right to enforce them. Knowing the motivations of enforcers can help you avoid potential roadblocks. Some states have laws overriding covenants that restrict solar installations.

2) Keep records of all communications with the ARC as you seek approval for the solar panel system. In the unfortunate event that the homeowner must pursue litigation to gain approval for the system, this documentation will form an important part of the evidentiary record.

3) Engage actively with the community association. Attend board meetings to present your case and answer questions. Some contractors have had success proposing oversized systems and then “reluctantly” agreeing to downsize (to the proper size) at the association's insistence. Other contractors have trimmed panels to look like skylights from the street view. Figuring out how to work within the system is always preferable to taking the issue to court.

If legal action is required, fear not; it's unlikely you'll ever enter a courtroom. In a survey conducted by the Community Associations Institute, nearly one-fifth of the associations responding indicated they had been involved in a dispute with a homeowner about rule violations. However, less than one-half of one percent of the associations reported being involved in a lawsuit that went to court.

With a little planning beforehand, renovating in an aesthetically restricted neighborhood could be a stepping stone into a new niche market: you could color yourself antique green.

Author Information
Kelly Cutchin is a former builder who advises the housing industry on cost-effective green practices. She is a consultant with D&R International, an environmental consulting firm based in Silver Spring, Md. Kelly can be reached at kcutchin@drintl.com.


Further reading/online

  • The U.S. Department of Interior's “Standards for Rehabilitation” (used as a guideline by most historic preservation offices). 
  • “Bringing Solar Energy to the Planned Community: A Handbook on Rooftop Solar Systems and Private Land Use Restrictions,” by Thomas Starrs, Les Nelson and Fred Zalcman. 
  • “Measured Winter Performance of Storm Windows,” by Joseph H. Klems. 
  • Historic Wood Windows: A Tip Sheet from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. 2008. http://www.preservationnation.org/magazine/2008/january-february/green-home-tips.html.

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