Historic homes and sustainability sometimes at odds

Historic homes and sustainability sometimes at odds

and Amy Mastin

Sue Hudelson wanted to save money on utilities and improve the look of her Indianapolis home by replacing her windows. The 20 steel casement windows, original to her 1928 Greek Revival, located in the historic Irvington neighborhood, were in need of major repairs. With radiators beneath the old glass - some missing panes - she literally saw her money going right out the window.

Twice a year, she lugged storm windows up and down basement steps, and at 70 years old, Hudelson was no longer up to the task. The $70,000 price tag for new steel windows was too hefty for the retired physical therapist and widow, so in April 2007, she replaced them with vinyl windows for $16,900. "The house was a lot warmer this winter, and I've saved nearly $500 on utility costs," she says. "I'm very pleased."

The Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission is not. Irvington became a designated historic neighborhood in October 2006. As such, any proposed construction or exterior alteration of the 1,700 homes in the area must be approved by the IHPC. The IHPC says Hudelson failed to obtain a Certificate of Appropriateness - a document approving the renovation - prior to beginning work. Hudelson says she thought the window company, APEX Energy Solutions, had filed it, which it did upon realizing the misunderstanding.

In September 2007, five months after the windows were installed, the IHPC ruled that Hudelson's new windows were unacceptable because they didn't maintain the home's historic integrity as they were beige, not black, and vinyl instead of steel. The case is pending and may be turned over to the Indianapolis City Prosecutor. IHPC Administrator David Baker won't speculate on the charges and/or fines facing Hudelson.

"We've been encouraging [her] to pursue every possible way to get APEX to accept some responsibility for installing the windows without approval," he says.

Hudelson says she's against the idea and doesn't want to replace her new windows. "They certainly can take me to court, but I don't know if they will," she says.

Disputes between owners of historic homes and preservation boards are inevitable as some modern improvements conflict with historic ideals. Skyrocketing home heating costs have many people looking for ways to go green and save money, especially those with older homes in need of updates.

According to a recent poll, 42 percent of Angie's List members who have homes 50 years or older have made green improvements. Only homeowners in designated historic neighborhoods, however, must answer to a local preservation commission. Six percent say they live in a historic district.

"Local commissions are quasi-judicial bodies [established] by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966," says Drane Wilkinson of the National Alliance of Preservation Commissions. "They're responsible for regulating exterior changes to maintain historic and physical integrity of the property. Once a commission says no, a property owner can appeal. It can ultimately go to the U.S. Supreme Court."

David Bannatyne of Concord, Mass., wanted to replace the original windows in his 19th-century home with energy-efficient, vinyl ones after his yearly heating bills topped $5,000 in 2006. The town's Historic Districts Commission denied his request because the new windows didn't blend in with the home's historic character. Instead of fighting the decision, Bannatyne agreed to restore them.

"My energy costs haven't gone down, and now I have windows I'm not happy about," Bannatyne says. "I'm not doing the global warming issue any favors."

Concord's Town Planner Lara Krizter says it's a misconception that newer is always better. "Windows are a very significant part of a historic home," Krizter says. "Oftentimes, fixing a window and putting in storm windows can give you the same cost savings as replacement. There are other ways to save energy like adding insulation. You don't have to chose between green and historic preservation - you can have both."

Emily Wadhams of the National Trust for Historic Preservation says it's been working on energy efficiency in historic buildings since the 1970s energy crisis.

"Three years ago, we saw this emerging emphasis on climate change and the assumption that you had to be new to be green," Wadhams says. "There was little mention of renewing energy in existing buildings."

Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, the U.S. Green Building Council's rating system unveiled in 2007, focused primarily on new construction. "We're concerned about that," Wadhams says. "The concept of recycling a building should be given more weight. Many older houses have built-in green features like awnings and shade trees."

The USGBC agrees and has collaborated with the NTHP to brainstorm ways to address this. It's revamping its rating system for LEED 2009 to give more points to the reuse of an existing building and plans to eventually add parameters to directly address historic homes.

"We've taken the first step toward honoring the environmental benefit of a historic building," says Brendan Owens, vice president of LEED Technical Development.

Roy Pachecano's newly renovated 1899 property in San Antonio's King William Historic District is on track as of press time to receive a LEED Platinum designation, despite an initial conflict with the city's historic commission. It denied his request to install 2,000 square feet of solar panels on the roof, saying there was no precedent, according to Pachecano.

"Rather than challenge it, I backed off," he says. "I placed small solar panels on the chimney caps that were out of sight and within the historic guidelines." The San Antonio historic commission couldn't be reached for comment.

"Wind turbines and solar panels are still pretty radical," says Jeff Echols, a LEED Accredited Professional. "Most greening is taking place on a smaller scale. There are a lot of sustainable things you can do that don't require approval, such as caulking."

Hudelson won't be making more changes to her home. She's spent $7,000 on attorney fees, which has forced her back to work part-time, and has no intention of pursuing litigation against APEX as the IHPC suggested. "The house is going to fall down around me, because I wouldn't even think of working on anything else," she says.

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