In many aspects of AARCH’s work — lectures, tours, workshops, advocacy, and other educational offerings — we make the case for the preservation of historic buildings.
• Historic buildings have aesthetic appeal.
• Buildings and places connect us to our history as well as shaping our individual and collective identity.
• Historic preservation is rich in new economic opportunities.
• The preservation of historic buildings can be transformational for communities.
• Using existing buildings and concentrating new growth in already settled areas is both good for the vitality of a community and helps to protect wild and open spaces.
And all of this helps to make our communities better places to live, work, and visit.
One of the things that has, thankfully, changed in the last few decades is a greater interest in energy conservation, climate change, and sustainability. But in many ways this change has not been good for historic buildings, as they are often portrayed as hopelessly antiquated and energy inefficient. It’s difficult these days to even have a rational conversation about keeping versus replacing historic windows, for instance, because there is so much hype and misinformation out there, mostly from replacement window manufacturers, even when the objective data shows that the energy payback of a replacement window could be as much as 50 years. And this for a product that may only have a life of 30 years!
So we increasingly make the case for reusing existing buildings from the point of view of energy conservation and sustainability and we try to show that historic and existing buildings can be made to be energy efficient. But these structures also have one other important thing going for them compared to new construction. That is that the energy used to make the materials for these existing buildings — the masonry, glass, metal and wood products, and plaster — has already been spent. This is the “embodied energy” contained in a building. For new construction, a significant amount of new energy has to be spent to produce the building materials used in the project and it can take decades of comparative energy savings in performance to recoup the initial energy expenditure in new materials.
This article is not about making a historic building more energy efficient. This process — adding insulation where it makes the most difference, weatherstripping windows and doors and installing storms, improving the efficiency of heating systems, and stopping air infiltration wherever possible — will likely be covered in a future newsletter. Instead this article explores the very nature of a historic building — where the materials came from, how it was made and who made it, and the idea that existing buildings contain a tremendous amount of embodied energy, energy spent a long time ago.
That historic buildings, especially those up until the turn of the 20th century, were largely a product of the local environment in which they were made is also an attribute we should appreciate as one of their greenest features.
Many may know of the movement to eat only, or primarily, food grown within 100 miles of where you live — the 100-Mile Diet. This diet is healthier, has a much smaller carbon footprint, and has a greater positive impact on the local economy.
There is a corresponding, although much smaller, movement in house construction —the idea being to build a house only from, or primarily from, materials acquired within 100 miles of where you live — the 100-Mile House. This has the same kinds of big impacts, including a smaller carbon footprint, a bigger local economic impact, and a healthier and more aesthetically pleasing building. When new construction is one’s only option, this is, of course, a great way to go. But most 19th and early 20th century buildings are already 100-Mile Houses because most of them were made of local materials and constructed by local builders. And the energy spent to create the materials often came from renewable local sources and was spent a long time ago.
So let’s look at the anatomy of some typical existing homes in the region and explore what these buildings are made of, where the materials came from, how the work had been done, and what this means in terms of energy and climate issues.
Until the turn of the 20th century, most foundations were made from local stone. Depending where you were in the Adirondacks, the stone was sandstone, granite, marble, limestone, or fieldstone. Sometimes it was quarried, but most often it was easily available, scattered across the ground, and often was the product of making land suitable for agriculture. This stone was quarried or was gathered using human and animal labor, with simple machines, and delivered to the work site by teams of horses or oxen, fed by locally grown grain, grass, and hay.
Besides being used for foundations, stone was also used for entire buildings. This is especially true in communities where stone was abundant — sandstone in Keeseville, Peru, and Potsdam and limestone in Chazy and Willsboro. It was also used for specialty items, often within brick buildings, like sills, lintels, and steps. This was both an aesthetic touch and because the cut stone is stronger and can be more easily shaped into regular blocks.
In many regional communities, a tradition of making buildings from brick existed and, through much of the 19th century, this was a locally produced product. All it required was a source of clay. The bricks might have been made right on the property where a building was being constructed, but more often they were made at a local brickyard where clay was dug from the ground, mixed with sand and water in a pug mill powered by horses or mules, and baked in kilns fueled by wood or charcoal from hardwood trees in the local forests. The mortar for the stone and brick work would have been made locally, too, by burning limestone in kilns to make lime and then mixing it with sand and water.
The predominant building material in the Adirondack region was wood and almost every community, especially those with water power, had a sawmill. Here rough sawn lumber was milled from local white pine and spruce trees, cut by axes and sawn by hand, transported to the mills by water or horses, and milled by machines powered by rivers and streams. Skilled carpenters could transform rough sawn wood into most anything, but many communities also had businesses that made finished wood products — windows, doors, cornice trim, clapboard, cedar shingles, hard and softwood flooring, and interior moldings.
Especially in the eastern Adirondacks, where iron ore was abundant, local iron also supplied blacksmiths with the raw materials to make nails and most wrought iron work for house and barn like hinges and latches, as well as tools and agricultural implements.
So what in a typical 19th century house or barn wouldn’t have been made right within this 100-mile or even 10-mile radius? Perhaps the window glass, the finer door and window hardware, and the plumbing and kitchen fixtures. And this might not have come from all that far, perhaps from Burlington or Albany or Syracuse. To get here it would have traveled by some combination of train, lake boat, or horse-drawn conveyance.
This is to help us appreciate that a large percentage of the materials used for most 19th and early 20th century houses in the Adirondacks came from a stone’s throw away and that all the energy expended to make it came from the sweat of animals and people, from the flow of the river, and from the heat of wood and charcoal and it was expended more than a century ago. So, in addition to all the other ways that we appreciate historic buildings, we should celebrate their green qualities: that they were likely made with local materials, labor, and energy; that they were truly products of the places and people in which they were built; that they contain a significant amount of embodied energy.
Photos from above: A farmhouse in Keeseville (l) and Warrensburgh (r); Energy Use for Building Construction chart, 1976; and quarry workers.