Olympia Historic Homes That Are Green? Yes!



By Natasha Ashenhurst

Mark Rentfrow and his wife purchased a classical revival home in Olympia’s South Capitol neighborhood in 2007. While beautiful, the house was expensive to heat due to an antiquated heating system that used oil. Insulation was minimal and winters were cold.

Mark had two goals in mind when he purchased the home. First, he wanted to lower his carbon footprint by making his home green through energy upgrades. And second, he wanted to register his home on Olympia’s Historic Home Registry. Some may say the goals were incompatible, but Mark learned that they are, in fact, complimentary.

Mark’s first step towards a green historic home was scheduling a Thurston Energy HomePLUS Energy Evaluation. Thurston Energy* connected Mark with a trained energy expert who evaluated his home’s energy performance, using high-tech diagnostics such as blower door tests and infrared photos that identified air leaks and heat loss. Mark’s home received a numerical Energy Performance Score (EPS), and Mark received a cost-effective strategy to improve his home’s energy efficiency.

Jennifer Kenny is an Associate Planner with the City of Olympia and a member of the Olympia Heritage Commission.  She works with homeowners, like Mark, to review suggested energy upgrades and make sure the upgrades compliment the historic home. Jennifer and the Heritage Commission also review applications of homes that may be included on the registry.  The commission also advises homeowners about proper ways of weatherizing historic homes to extend the life of the house and improve historic integrity.

“Houses are built to work as a system and take into consideration airflow, breathability and insulation. When you change out individual elements it can disrupt the way the system was designed to work. For example, if a homeowner inappropriately replaces siding that does not allow a 100-year-old home to breathe as it was designed to, mold and decay can result,” said Jennifer.

historic homes olympia waSome upgrades require a permit by the City of Olympia. If an historic home owner requests a permit, that permit must be reviewed by the Heritage Commission before it is approved. The commission will make sure that the upgrade does not hurt the integrity of the home. For example, roof replacement, siding and window replacement need permits. Each of these upgrades can be done properly, but guidance is needed. “My first question to home owners is ‘What are you trying to achieve?’ I will help you meet your goals of comfort, cost reduction and aesthetics without damaging the historic resource. Historic homes retain their value more than non-historic homes. We try and preserve your return on investment,” she said.

Now, let’s get back to Mark and his home. He completed the home energy audit and was familiar enough with the requirements of the Heritage Commission to know how to proceed.

“The first thing we did was de-commissioned the oil heating system and replaced it with a duct-less heat pump. Next, we had our attic air sealed. Then, we had dense-packed cellulose insulation added to the attic floors. We immediately noticed a huge difference in comfort as well as lower energy bills,” he said.

At one point Mark also replaced a large single-pane front window to a double-paned energy efficient window with aluminum cladding and wood interior.

“The Olympia Heritage Commission is a great resource to make sure upgrades are period correct,” he said.

There are numerous examples in the South Capitol neighborhood of homes that have had window retrofits that comply with historic home requirements. Vendors such as EcoWoodworks are experts at improving the efficiency of a home while preserving the homes historic integrity.

In 2009 Mark’s home was put on the historic registry, and you can see the commemorative plaque by their front door.

Today, Mark and his wife are pleased with their home and all they have achieved, but they have other upgrades in mind. “Thurston Energy has some great rebates available right now that we plan to take advantage of. We want to insulate the floor and install a new water heater that takes advantage of the rebates as well as green energy tax incentives,” he said.

Jennifer loves the enthusiasm of homeowners like Mark. She repeats a saying that was developed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation & Green Lab: ‘The greenest home is the one that is already built.’

“I would like to see the community view the Heritage Commission as a way for us to take care of our historic homes. The owners are caretakers of this important community resource and should have as much support as possible,” summarized Jennifer.

Jennifer and Mark, through their work preserving historic homes are reducing our energy consumption while preserving character-rich neighborhoods, a plus for all of Thurston County.

*Mark is an employee at Thurston Energy.

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