Energy Efficiency

Tombstone Door Construction.jpg

Energy efficiency is a top priority for today's homeowners, and rightly so.  Whether one's motivation comes from a desire to combat climate change or simply to save on fuel costs, efficient use of resources is just good sense.  This was the case long before Al Gore and $100-a-barrel oil, and it will always be true.  Wise use of resources, for us at least, boils down to an issue of respect.  It is disrespectful both to those who came before us and worked so hard to build the world we live in, and to those who must come after us, to waste wood, coal, iron, etc.  The supplies of these commodities are not inexhaustible and must be renewed or, failing that, used as sparingly as possible if we are to ensure the long-term viability of life as we know it.  This is the ethos that pervades our work.

Old houses are frequently condemned as being hopelessly profligate users of energy and people are often brainwashed into thinking that a new, super-insulated house is the only responsible choice. This notion, however, willfully ignores the larger picture.  As stated by a prominent preservationist, "The greenest house is the one that already exists." It takes a massive amount of energy to construct a home, and I'm not just referring to the carpenters' labour! From the concrete to the glass to the spray foam to the granite countertops, an incredible amount of fossil fuel is burnt taking these products from their component raw materials to their finished forms. So much, in fact, that one could heat a Victorian mansion with the windows open for 500 years and still not balance the equation. Any arguments about whether one's walls are insulated to R-12 or R-40 are completely missing the point: by choosing to restore an old house instead of building a new one you are automatically making the greener choice. Consider all the various ways in which energy is used during both the construction and the lifespan of a house: all the materials must be fabricated, shipped and trucked to the job site, workers must commute to the site for months on end and invest all their labour in the house during construction, and then the house must be heated, cooled and lit for hundreds of years.  Burning a couple of tanks of oil per winter heating a house is simply a drop in the bucket given the gigajoules of energy required to fuel a cement kiln or melt sand into glass. This is not to say that one must never construct new buildings but rather to ensure that all possible consideration is given to whether an existing building might fit the bill before going ahead with a new building.  It should also be noted that all of the foregoing applies even to super-insulated ICF houses covered in solar panels: the energy savings realized by these technologies will still never make up for the energy that was used in their production. That is, manufacturing concrete and solar panels uses more energy than will ever be saved by the house in its lifetime.  

All of this in no way frees old houses from the need to be more responsible energy-users.  Luckily there are several straight-forward ways to improve old-house performance, and relatively inexpensive ones at that (the cynically-minded might draw a connection here with the fact that big business pushes new homes, replacement windows, and such). Attic insulation is far and away the most important first step. A thorough program of air-sealing is the next priority, followed by wall insulation. Old wooden windows should be tuned up and storm windows added, but replacement windows are not a good idea (see article on windows). It may also make sense to replace inefficient furnaces and other appliances and to add additional heating devices, but this depends on your home's particular circumstances.  

At Edwards & Quarrie our approach to new construction is pragmatic. Knowing the "embodied energy" that goes into making concrete, we feel it is more sensible to frame a house or addition using wood, a renewable resource. This is a much cheaper option than building with concrete, of course, but we don't skimp on insulation - mineral wool batts are used between the studs as well as a continuous layer of rigid foam, which is applied on the outside over the sheathing boards. Painstaking attention is paid to proper installation of the insulations, as well as air-sealing with high-quality foams and caulks. That said, we never rely on spray foam or caulk to make up for deficiencies in the wood construction - all joints are tight and all openings are closed as much as possible with lumber before final crack-sealing is done. For further information on our methods and our mindset, please don't hesitate to get in touch!