On most days, visitors traipsing up the doorsteps of Roy and Kim Fox’s home in the historic Portland, Ore., neighborhood of Piedmont, revel in its stunning Victorian architecture. But on one rainy Saturday afternoon in May, 100 visitors came for a valuable lesson: How to achieve energy improvements in older homes without damaging their vintage character.
"Lots of people come to see our house but these people were here to see weatherization," Roy says.
The crowd of Portland homeowners and business people toured the Foxes’ residence for the Holistic Weatherization Meets Historic Preservation project hosted by Portland’s Architectural Heritage Center, highlighting the work of residential contractor EcoTech.
Old home – huge inefficiencies
“We had a blower door test in the mid 1980s and we knew we had a hole you could drive a truck through,” Roy says of the home that he has lived in for 30 years.
The Foxes were aware of inefficiencies at their 1884 home for a long time. “We have done things like the floors and we have put in minimal attic insulation but I have always known that the walls and leakage were a problem,” Roy says.
As the years passed and home energy efficiency technology improved, the Foxes revisited the idea of making upgrades, says Roy. “It was clear it was probably safe to insulate the walls and now is the time to think about doing it."
Protecting vintage homes
The Foxes turned to EcoTech and team leader Marshall Runkel, who Roy says were “confidence inspiring" and used innovative approaches to weatherization. EcoTech avoided methods such as window removal that would sacrifice the home’s Queen Anne-style exterior. “We figured out a way to insulate the walls without drilling,” Runkel says.
EcoTech developed a unique tool to spray insulation into hard-to-reach areas. “We modified our insulation blowing equipment,” says Runkel. “On the nozzle we attached a really long tube that we could fit down from that attic to the basement.” Workers utilized the home’s unique shape while insulating it. “We took advantage of the balloon framing of the house. In some sections we were able to literally insulate the wall system from the basement through the second floor to the attic,” Runkel explains.
Roy says the contractors were thorough and installed a hot roof, which involves filling the empty space between rafters with insulation. Runkel's team used rigid foam insulation for the roof. The product formed a complete air barrier and provided "excellent insulating qualities," says Runkel.
In addition to insulation, a smaller, more energy efficient furnace was installed. “They were able to resize the furnace based on the rest of the weatherization that was going on,” Roy says. The Foxes’ previous furnace was 15 years old and 90 to 91 percent efficient. “They put in a 96 percent efficient furnace,” adds Roy.
Roy estimates the improvements could cut his power bill by at least 30 percent. He says the upgrades will make the home more comfortable in the winter. “We have these big pocket doors and you can feel air moving through them before they did this. The fix to that was insulating the walls, that provided the air seal.”
Simplifying energy improvements
When the city rolled out Clean Energy Works Portland (CEWP), a loan program that provides residents financing for energy efficiency upgrades at no upfront costs, the Foxes seized the opportunity. Roy says he was intrigued by the prospect of getting the “whole house evaluation done and really do everything that we should do at one time.”
The program made the process of obtaining funds for energy upgrades easy, according to Roy. “The financing package and loan application were incredibly simple.” Roy says the application was only two or three pages long and spelled out what the loan amount was and how the incentive payments were used in clear language.
One of the highlights of the CEWP program, Roy says, was the comprehensive energy review of the house conducted EcoTech. The company did “a blower door test, walked through the whole house with us, talked about all the options that we have and made specific recommendations as to what we should do.”
The review made it easier to decide what steps to take, according to Roy.
Runkel says the Weatherization Meets Historic Preservation event was a “great educational tool.” The majority of Portland’s homes were built before World War II and residents are worried about destroying the “historic character” of the homes if they make improvements, he says.
The event provided a way to introduce a discussion about home energy upgrades, Runkel notes. “It gave them some handholds and footholds of understanding the concepts of energy efficiency.”
“And it was a lot less intimidating to consider what could be done,” he adds.
Runkel praises the homeowners for the success of Weatherization Meets Historic Preservation. “This is one of those cases where it really was the initiative of the Foxes.”
The project was important, Roy explains, because it proved energy efficiency upgrades could be done in a way that doesn’t harm historic homes. "If people are willing to do a little creative thinking, you really can leave the old fabric of the house intact.”