Gut Rehabilitation and the Energy Star Certification Program

The National Trust for Historic Preservation defines four treatment levels for historic properties- preservation, rehabilitation, restoration, and reconstruction. After graduation, I worked as an assistant project manager/architectural designer for a small affordable housing developer in Connecticut (NHS of New Haven), which specialized in neighborhood revitalization through the rehabilitation of dilapidated houses. Typically, the acquired property would be in extremely poor conditions; missing wall finishes and flooring and having significant structural and water damage. Because of their decrepit state, NHS preformed partial gut rehabs on these houses. Gut rehabilitation is taking a building down to its studs and structural members and replacing the old materials with new materials. This is often a red flag within preservation circles and the cause of many debates.

Before hordes of preservationists and Ruskin enthusiasts pick up their pitchforks and march towards New Haven, it is important to put things into perspective. The acquired properties were basically on their last legs and without intervention would have been demolished. It is also important to keep in mind that they had been significantly altered (particularly the interiors) and often not well done. These alterations did not contribute to a particular architectural style or an important expression of the historical or cultural value. In addition, much (if not all) of the original interior details had been stripped away. Even though our houses fell into the category of “gut rehabilitation”, our goal with every property was to retain as much of the historic fabric as possible and undo the jumbled layouts of previous renovations. After learning about the differences between the different treatment levels I wonder if gut rehabilitation is closer to restoration work then rehabilitation. (To see before and after exterior photos of some of the projects click here)

Some of the principles we tried to maintain in our houses were:

  • Reestablishing the original appearance of the exterior; which often meant repairing (and replacing were necessary) the original wood clapboard siding, reinstalling original fenestrations, and restoring or sometimes reconstructing front and rear porches.
  • Keeping any original trim work around windows and baseboard and if it could not be saved or wasn’t present, installing a period appropriate trim
  • If present keeping any unique features such as stain-glass/leaded windows, built in cabinets, and hardwood flooring.
  • Avoiding the removal stairs (because they were often one of the few remaining unaltered elements and their removal would require significant changes to the original layout).

In addition to rehabilitating these buildings according to the Secretary of Interior Standards, the houses (starting from 2011) were energy star certified; which created another layer of complication. Some of the traditional procedures one would use to achieve a high enough rating for certification (and to be eligible for rebates and incentives), would contravene principles of the Secretary of Interior Standards. The biggest issue we faced was how to seal the envelope of the building in order to achieve the necessary ACH (air changes per hour). Since the houses were constructed using plank sheathing, it was difficult to effectively seal the building without using a material like spray foam insulation. The problem with spray foam is that it’s considered a non-reversible material, and its use in historic buildings frowned upon. When I left NHS, this was an issue they were still trying to work out with SHPO.

Looking through the various requirements the EPA sets for Energy Star certification, it is obvious that these conditions were created with the mindset for new construction. The EPA does acknowledge that “the some of the current program requirements present unique challenges for existing homes, even those undergoing a gut rehabilitation”; so they developed alternative measures which they believe will make certification more attainable. The problem is that even with these alternative measures it is still very difficult to obtain certification and follow the Secretary of Interior Standards (see Energy Star website for more information on requirements). With requirements (particularly those for ACH) becoming more and more stringent I wonder if builders and developers in the preservation field will forgo Energy Star certification. Or maybe with enough pressure the EPA will create separate criteria and requirements for rehabbed properties which allows for a more level playing field.

Click here to read more about the Energy Star process for rehabilitated homes

Interior view of one of the 1st floor rooms prior to construction

Interior view of one of the 1st floor rooms prior to construction

Interior shot of the third floor den space before construction

Interior shot of the third floor den space before construction

Image of house before construction

Image of house before construction

After image of front fascade

Image of house after construction

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