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Newport Restoration Foundation Begins a Residential-Scale Energy Efficiency Study of Historic Properties

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In response to a quickly transforming real estate market, the Newport Restoration Foundation (NRF) has launched a multi-phase energy efficiency project to collect data to improve the sustainability of historic residential buildings. NRF is investigating non-intrusive interventions that are sensitive to historic fabric while also improving energy efficiency in historic structures. The first project site will be 38 Green Street, a c.1730 Newport cottage-style house in the Newport Historic Hill District. The project will be both a case study of the energy efficiency of historic structures and a prototype for solutions that will be beneficial for other homeowners seeking ways to reduce energy consumption and increase livability in their own historic houses.

Frankie Vagnone, President of the Newport Restoration Foundation stated, “One of the fundamental preservation goals of NRF has always been livability. Our founder, Doris Duke, did not simply want perfectly restored, doll house-like historic buildings. She wanted them to be lived in and enjoyed as authentic, contributing elements in the urban landscape. We are honoring her philanthropy by pushing to make historic homes more comfortable and energy efficient”.

38 Green Street was purchased and restored by NRF in 1983 and has remained an active rental in NRF’s tenant-stewardship program. 38 Green Street is typical of many historic houses in Newport, with 1,200 square feet of living space, two floors, and a basement. Just like 38 Green Street, many of Newport’s older houses are unable to meet modern building efficiency standards. In response, many historic homeowners believe their houses cannot become efficient without removing and replacing historic fabric. Historic windows, siding, and doors are often the first elements of a house replaced with modern, ill-suited alternatives to reduce air changes and lower utility bills. Too often, these new features are incompatible with older house construction techniques, fail earlier than the older components they replaced, and reduce the character and appeal of both the interior and exterior of important historic homes.

In Newport, the unique construction techniques of its intact 18th-and 19th-century buildings often lead to energy inefficiencies. Plank construction consists of vertical sheathing boards with clapboards or shingles nailed to the exterior and lath and plaster applied directly to the interior, leaving no wall void. Conventional techniques of adding insulation to the interior or exterior could greatly alter the historic appearance of a property and cause vapor barrier concerns. “Many Newport buildings are of plank construction, and typical interior insulation fixes aren’t always an option,” says Margaret Back, Preservation Projects Manager at NRF. “This study will explore new, innovative ways to both make a historic property more efficient while retaining its historic materials and character.”

NRF has awarded the project to Building Conservation Associates, Inc. (BCA) of Newton Center, MA, a national architectural conservation firm with experience in energy efficiency studies. The project begins in 2024 with a comprehensive energy audit of the study site and research of comparable buildings in Newport. With an understanding of the building and baseline energy data, BCA will propose a series of efficiency retrofits and alterations that consider new technologies and materials, protection of historic fabric, and socially progressive preservation concepts.

NRF will provide real-time updates on the process so that both local and broader historic preservation communities can benefit from the ongoing process of discovery. A successful final product understands there is no “one size fits all” approach but takes a balanced view of improving an energy baseline while sustaining identified historic materials and character.

We understand that as each historic property is unique, there is no “one size fits all” answer for improving energy efficiency. However, we are aiming to create and implement scalable guidelines that we and other historic property owners can implement to improve historic buildings while retaining the historic fabric and character.



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