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Downtown View: Living Green

If you live in downtown Boston, you’re already living a green life. You probably walk more than you drive. About half of us don’t even own a car. Most likely, you’re living in an old building. That’s the greenest place to live since someone has repaired and restored the building rather than tearing it down and sending the mess to a landfill. Repairing, rather than replacing our homes, means we won’t cut down as many trees, and we don’t have to use fossil fuels to cart a bunch of building materials around on belching trucks.

The materials our houses are made of—brick, slate, copper—are long lasting, another green benefit.

Moreover, we live in row houses. Sharing walls cuts down on heat loss. In multifamily buildings we share roofs. Four households living vertically lose a lot less heat through their smaller roof than four households living next door to one another.

But now that winter is coming on, Mark Kiefer, a member of the Beacon Hill Architectural Commission, and Sally Zimmerman, senior preservation services manager at Historic New England, have a few tips about how to live even greener and more comfortably in our old houses.

Their first recommendation is insulation. This means wrapping hot water tanks and pipes. Whenever you have access to a wall or ceiling cavity, fill it up with insulation, says Zimmerman. Flat roofs are easy to insulate when a new roof is installed. Kiefer said one soil roof, planted with rain absorbing plants, was noted by the commission a couple of years ago when the owners came for approval for a rail, but not all homeowners are willing to go that far.

Aren’t some historic preservationists fearful that wall insulation will eventually harm the brick? Zimmerman said the circumstances differ in each case. Old houses that have seen much alteration do not have uniform conditions, so insulation may work in one part of a house, but not in another. Whatever you decide, it is important to be able to remove such material if it should become a problem. One side benefit of insulation is that it makes your house or apartment quieter.

But it’s not just the cavities, says Zimmerman. Pointing the brick or the brownstone and otherwise maintaining the masonry in good condition will go far in keeping out the weather.

Eliminating drafts is the next step. Zimmerman notes that windows make up a large proportion of the exposed surface in row houses. So it is on windows that you should focus. She recommends simply using the sash locks on windows to tighten the seal. You can apply weather stripping and caulking to further prevent cold air from coming in. Finally, you shouldn’t forget that heavy curtains that can be closed are a time-honored method for keeping out the cold air.

Storm windows are allowed in the historic districts, but the best for looks and efficiency, said Zimmerman, are those that mount to the inside of your windows. Several companies make such items, which can be removed in the summer months when you want the breezes to blow in. Of course, you have to find somewhere to store them when you’re not using them.

If you don’t like the looks of outside storm windows, you can also get custom, insulated replacement windows that are acceptable to the historic architecture watchdogs. The manufacturers use special techniques to hold the thicker glass in the muntins, also known as sash bars, so they are as thin as those in the original windows.

If you are remodeling a house or a condominium, Kiefer says you can do a greener job if you re-use old materials or search at salvage yards for historic architecture appropriate to your home. Salvaged brick, for example, might better match your home than would newly manufactured brick. And if you’re tearing out materials in your home, contact a salvage company to find out if they could use your leftovers.

Exchange your oil furnace for a gas one, says Zimmerman. It’s more efficient and, at the moment, much cheaper. Replace your incandescent bulbs with fluorescent or LED lights.

After you’ve done all this work to make your home greener, you’ll probably want to put your feet up in front of your fireplace. You might light the fire and realize that all your warm air is flying up through the chimney.

Forget it. You’re doing enough by walking everywhere, closing your curtains and wrapping your pipes. Not everything can be green.

Downtown View is a regular column by Karen Cord Taylor who founded The Beacon Hill Times weekly newspaper in 1995 and served as its editor and publisher until late 2007. She also founded and served as editor and publisher of the Charlestown Patriot-Bridge and The Back Bay Sun weeklies. Her column appears in those newspapers as well as the Regional Review, which serves Boston’s North End. These weeklies are now owned by the Independent Newspaper Group. She is the author of “Blue Laws, Brahmins and Breakdown Lanes: An Alphabetic Guide to Boston and Bostonians” and the co-author of “The Lady Architects,” a book about three women who practiced architecture in New England and elsewhere in the early 20th century. She lives in downtown Boston and blogs at BostonColumn.com.

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