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Going green with home preservation

For the Darling Wright House in Claremont, architect Devon Hartman balanced energy efficiencies with maintaining the home’s historic and aesthetic integrity.

March 27, 2010|Susan Carpenter, Los Angeles Times
  • Blenda Wright, sits on a recently constructed stone wall at her energy efficient renovated historic home on North College Avenue.
Blenda Wright, sits on a recently constructed stone wall at her energy efficient… (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)

Many building professionals will tell you: The greenest home is the one that's already built. The energy costs of mining raw materials, manufacturing them into construction products and building them into houses far exceeds the "embodied energy" of existing homes.

Home preservation: An article in Saturday's Home section about making green retrofits to historic homes said that many of the homes restored by architect Leo Marmol are in L.A.'s Historic Preservation Overlay Zones; none of them are. The article also said that a Greene & Greene restoration in Claremont had insulated the floors; the floors were air-sealed. The insulation used in the walls, ceilings and ducts was made from cellulose, not recycled blue jeans as the article said. —

Yet existing buildings are also problematic. According to the Department of Energy, 43% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are caused not by transportation but by the operation of buildings, many of which leak hot and cold air through walls and ceilings or gobble electricity with energy-hogging appliances and light fixtures.

Increasingly, these twin realities are colliding, especially in historic homes. Is "old" really the new "green?" Many historic preservationists believe that is the case and are working to rehab old houses in a way that balances green principles with the aesthetic and historic integrity of the original structures.

"A lot of the talk about energy saving and going green has been focused on new construction," said Emily Wadhams, vice president for public policy of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington, D.C. But with the economy still sluggish and new construction in the dumps, "we can't build our way out of this climate crisis," she said. "We have to conserve our way out."

One of the greatest acts of conservation, Wadhams said, is preservation, especially when the preserved home can be enhanced with modern technology.

The question is: How? Although solar panels and new windows are getting attention thanks to generous federal tax credits, they come with high costs and challenging aesthetics. Bulky photovoltaics don't mesh with the shake roof of a 100-year-old Craftsman, and double-paned vinyl windows don't fly on a midcentury modern classic, no matter how energy efficient the glass may be.

For the restoration of a 1903 Greene & Greene in Claremont, architect Devon Hartman focused on efficiencies. According to Hartman, the energy required to operate a home trumps the amount of energy that went into its initial construction, and that's why his rehab strategy is to simultaneously increase the durability of the building and decrease its long-term energy consumption.

"We're trying to help the preservation argument by helping people understand the order in which they should do things," said Hartman, whose firm, Hartman Baldwin, spent two years retrofitting Greene & Greene's Darling Wright House. The architect of record for the project was Alan Brookman, also of Hartman Baldwin.

Windows account for just 10% of a typical home's energy loss, according to the Department of Energy. Proper insulation is even more important, Hartman said, allowing homes to use smaller heating and cooling systems because insulation is so effective. For the Claremont Greene & Greene house, Hartman insulated the walls, ceilings, floors and ducts with a dual layer of foam and cellulose, the latter of which was made of recycled newspapers and blue jeans.

For electricity, he didn't even consider unsightly photovoltaics. Instead, he focused on LEDs, which use 20% of the energy and last 10 times longer than compact fluorescents and 60 times longer than traditional incandescent light bulbs. LEDs were used throughout the 3,000-square-foot house, including the replica Greene & Greene stained-glass lighting fixtures in the kitchen and dining room.

"We're really focused on the adage of reduce and produce — reduce the load on the house as far as possible, and then, ultimately, if solar panels are desired, you'll need far fewer of them," Hartman said. He added that producing a kilowatt of power with solar panels is five or six times more expensive than simply using a kilowatt more efficiently.

To maintain the period feel of the home's three bathrooms, the toilets are replicas of 1921 commodes that are also low-flow designs, from Bathroom Machineries in Murphys, Calif. The water fixtures are low-flow retro models manufactured by St. Thomas Creations.

The lush landscaping is native, for the most part, dotted with hop seeds, flax and a heavy dose of mulch, and watered with drip irrigation. Most, though not all, of the copper rain gutters and downspouts are used for irrigation.

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