Historic Preservation Public Policy

Cash for Caulkers: What About Cash for Weatherstrippers?

by Michael R. Allen

Today President Barack Obama spoke in favor of an energy efficiency program dubbed “Cash for Caulkers.”

Where did this speech take place? Outside of a Home Depot store in Virginia. Not a good sign. Where does the program leave the millions of Americans who resident in historic houses?

We aren’t sure yet. The Climate Change bills that stalled in the House and Senate actually included a bikk called Retrofit for Energy and Environmental Performance (REEP) that provided specific incentives for achieving energy efficiency in historic buildings.

The new administration program should carry over language that allows historic building owners to get incentives for making more sensitive and effective repairs to their buildings. Home Depot is a fine place to buy caulk, but it is also fairly useless to someone who wants to retain and repair a wooden window made from 125-year-old virgin growth timber.

If the new incentive would reward someone for removing a window that could be as old as a century and replace it with a window that probably won’t last 20 years, but won’t reward someone for retaining and repairing existing windows, then it should be called “Cash for Home Depot.” Removal of existing building material that can be saved is a waste of natural resources. Replacement of that material with materials designed to last less than two decades increases one’s carbon footprint in the long run.

Historic windows are often the first things to be removed in a rehabilitation project. They almost never get replaced with anything that will have the same durability or longevity. A wooden window can be maintained for well over a century, and can be kept weather-tight with proper glazing, weatherstripping and the presence of an interior or exterior storm window. The thermal properties of wood are actually quite good, especially when that wood has the dense grains found in the old-growth wood available to builders in the 19th and early 20th century. Your windows are second-nature natural resources, and their destruction has an environmental impact no matter how “energy efficient” contemporary windows’ manufacturers claim they can be.

Scratching your head at my logic? I offer a Energy Efficiency Tips for Historic Homeowners, a document published by the City of Albany, New York. There is also a short article by architect Curtis Drake entitled “Making Your Historic Home More Energy Efficient” that appeared in Save Our Heritage Organisation Magazine.

Hopefully President Obama will support an energy efficiency program that makes sense for all buildings and all remedies — even those that can’t be purchased at the Big Orange Box.