Greening This Old House

Saving money and the planet by upgrading older homes

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Photo-Illustration by Viktor Koen for TIME

Would Abraham Lincoln have gone green? Frank Milligan thinks so. Milligan is the director of President Lincoln's Cottage, a Gothic Revival mansion on a breezy hill a few miles from the White House, where Lincoln and his family sought relief from the summer heat during the Civil War. The cottage and its surrounding buildings were made a national monument in 2000, and in preparation for its opening last year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation carried out a multimillion-dollar renovation. But preservationists didn't just restore the buildings. They greened them, beginning with the Beaux Arts house next door that now serves as a visitors' center. Renovators kept 98% of the house's existing walls, roofs and floors and used recyclable material for the rest. Large windows were put in to reduce the need for artificial lighting, and low-flow plumbing was installed to cut water waste. The renovations earned the visitors' center a gold rating from the U.S. Green Building Council--and made the site a model for historic buildings in need of a face-lift. "Lincoln was always ahead of his time," says Milligan. "And going green is the future."

When we think of green buildings, we tend to think of new ones--the kind of high-tech, solar-paneled masterpieces that make the covers of architecture magazines. But the U.S. has more than 100 million existing homes, and it would be incredibly wasteful (not to mention totally unrealistic) to tear them all down and replace them with greener versions. An enormous amount of energy and resources went into the construction of those dwellings. And it would take an average of 65 years for the reduced carbon emissions from a new energy-efficient home to make up for the resources lost by demolishing an old one. So in the broadest sense, the greenest home is the one that has already been built. But at the same time, nearly half of U.S. carbon emissions come from heating, cooling and powering our homes, offices and other buildings. "You can't deal with climate change without dealing with existing buildings," says Richard Moe, the president of the National Trust.

With some exceptions, the oldest homes tend to be the least energy-efficient. Houses built before 1939 use about 50% more energy per square foot than those built after 2000. The main culprit? Tiny cracks and gaps that expand over time and let in more outside air.

Fortunately, there are a tremendous number of relatively simple changes that can green older homes, from historic ones like Lincoln's Cottage to your own postwar abode. And efficiency upgrades can save more than just the earth; they can help shield property owners from rising power costs. Moreover, a nationwide effort to improve existing buildings could create hundreds of thousands of green jobs. (In addition to using less raw materials, renovations are often more labor-intensive per dollar spent than new construction is.) "There's an enormous opportunity here," says Lane Burt, an energy-policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Energy efficiency is a way to spend now to create jobs, while still saving down the line."

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