Another Opinion on ‘This Old Wasteful House’

April 8, 2009

This op-ed piece in Monday’s New York Times has people all over the historic preservation community talking. So, I figured I’d chime in.

In said piece, Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, stresses the importance of energy efficiency to historic homeowners. While most were quick to agree with him (at least those I monitor), others had a different opinion.

Those over at Preservation in Mississippi voiced their disappointment with Moe’s slightly one-sided point-of-view pointing out what they considered an inappropriate use of the word ‘wasteful.’

“Twice with the word “wasteful”! Seriously, is this the best way for a preservationist to frame the issue of how preservation and environmentalism intersect? Why are we all buying into the notion that being an environmentalist or Green, whichever you prefer, pretty much exclusively means that your house is ‘energy efficient’?”

I have to agree with them on this point. It’s not all about energy efficiency. Getting an energy audit and insulating your house isn’t the ‘be all, end all’ to owning a green home. They then go on to talk about the importance of sustainable building products, which is where I get passionate about the subject. While I don’t think Moe was advocating the demolition of old buildings to replace with new, ‘energy efficient’ ones, I do think he missed an opportunity to point out that the materials these old houses were built with have a proven track record, unlike many of the newest energy efficient materials.The fact is, historic buildings are sustainable buildings. It takes more energy to tear down an older building and erect a new one on top of it than it does to upgrade that existing building to today’s energy efficient standards.

On the flip side, the folks over at the Thin House blog agreed with Moe’s opinion about the importance of energy efficiency.

“We agree with the author, Richard Moe, when he points to what he thinks is the most important first step in greening an older home. It is not screwing in CFLs or putting a stake through the hearts of energy vampires, or tossing bricks in your toilet tanks or even wrapping your water heater. It is easier than any of those, and cheaper.In fact it’s usually free. The answer is . . . (drum roll, please): Get a home energy audit from your local utility company. This is not a sexy, techy, go-out-and-buy-a-new-gadget solution, but it is a solid and necessary first step. A good audit will uncover issues you didn’t know you had, pinpoint effective solutions, and inform you about programs in your area that might help cut the cost of putting those solutions in place, from tax breaks on solar to incentives for energy-efficient appliances. It will put you in touch with people who are on your side, give you a sense of perspective about your projects, and will, we hope, inspire you.”

I must say I stand somewhere in the middle and identify with both opinions on the subject matter at hand. I say, let’s make the conversation a little more well-rounded and discuss the incredible sustainability of our historic buildings over time AND tell people how to make older homes more energy efficient while we’re at it.I think this discussion should continue as everyone sees these issues in a different light. What do you think of Moe’s piece? What would you like to see added to the conversation?