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Winterizing Rhode Island’s Historic Homes

Saturday, November 17, 2012


Historic homes take a beating all winter long, and should get the right kind of care to prevent costly damage. Photo: Casey Shain/artandcolour.

Rhode Island has many older and historic homes, which require special care to protect them against the harsh elements of mother nature and to conserve energy. While many of these property owners value their home’s historic features, they may not be aware of how to maintain or update them for “green” living without making major renovations.

Sally Zimmerman, Manager of Historic Preservation Services at Historic New England advises homeowners through its Historic Homeowner program on how to better protect and preserve your home without sacrificing its historical or architectural integrity. GoLocal spoke to Zimmerman about winterizing before the first big storm arrives in Rhode Island.

Many Rhode Island homes are historic, and very old. What are the challenges for homeowners when it comes to winterizing these structures? And how do those challenges differ from those of contemporary homes?

In winterizing an old or historic house, it always makes sense to start with tried and true, traditional measures that do not require changing the fabric or operation of the house. Old houses aren't the place to test out the newest, shiniest green gadgetry. Instead, look to simple, reversible measures like good quality weather-stripping on windows and doors, air sealing the joinery around window and door casings and other exterior and interior trim with caulk, insulating the attic with batt or blown in insulation, and of course, using storm windows. All of these interventions will help to make the house more comfortable and reduce energy use without damaging its historic character.

Is weatherizing a historic home more costly? If so, by how much?

Weatherizing a historic home is usually less costly than weatherizing a more modern structure because the methods used are less invasive and rely on standard products that have been around for a long time. Other effective measures that cut drafts and save fuel costs are just part of normal, common sense maintenance and repair. For example, spring-bronze weather-stripping, used on windows and doors, is a durable but simple way to tighten up a leaky, drafty window. Pointing a foundation stops air leaks, but is good maintenance too. For more information on common sense approaches to weatherization, check out commonsensepreservation.org.

Are there smart, long-term investments an owner of a historic home can make when it comes to weatherizing their building?

Two of the smartest investments an owner can make are insulating the attic and keeping old wood windows in good repair. Removing old insulation from between the attic floor joists, sealing penetrations from wiring and plumbing with expanding foam insulation and adding dense pack blown in insulation will help prevent heat losses from the living areas. Old wood windows can easily be repaired to operate smoothly and fit well and will help retain the character and value of an old house. Adding sash locks, and using them to keep the upper and lower sashes snugly connected.  When investing in replacement appliances and heating and cooling systems be sure to use the most efficient, Energy Star rated products.

Often it seems that weatherizing is an aesthetic detraction from a historic home's exterior. What can an owner do to maintain a historically sensitive and beautiful exterior while protecting the house?

Interior storm windows are one way to keep the historic look of old windows and still gain important energy and comfort benefits. Interior storms are especially suitable for windows that aren't opened frequently or that won't be used for egress in an emergency. Using an interior storm significantly cuts down on drafts, noise and dirt, as well as improving energy performance.

What are the biggest threats to historic structures, when it comes to winter weather?

As we've seen in recent storms, falling limbs can do major damage to houses, new or old. It's best to keep limbs well trimmed back from the house. Cutting back overhanging limbs also cuts back on the leaves and debris that can clog gutters (and clogged gutters are a major source of ice dams, another winter scourge), encourages air circulation around the home and cut back on the mold, lichen and mildew that will mar the appearance and shorten the lifespan of your roofing shingles or paint job. And keeping limbs cut back discourages squirrels and other critters from taking up residence with you.

Photo: Casey Shain/artandcolour


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