Historic Home Performance: The Adoption, Care, and Feeding of a New Meme

My friends Peter Troast and Will Mallett of Energy Circle have been investigating and writing about branding issues, optimal website design, and search engine optimization (SEO) for the home energy industry for quite some time now. Peter has often pointed out that a major marketing issue for home energy professionals, as well as the customers seeking their services, is the industry’s sprawling nomenclature. And in particular, the lack of a single, strong, defining term for the work its practitioners actually perform.

Recently, in the Nov/Dec 2011 issue of Home Energy Magazine, Peter published an article entitled “Branding Our Industry: The Need for CONSENSUS“, in which he made a compelling case for the industry adopting home performance as its defining term. What’s nice about home performance is that it doesn’t overtly emphasize energy, so readily encompasses other concepts, like weatherization, indoor air quality, safety and comfort, etc. I’m personally convinced of this, and will use home performance in my own writings, wherever appropriate, from this point forward.

Memes Beget New Memes

However, for quite some time now, I’ve similarly been vexed by the elusiveness of a single term or phrase that adequately expresses the unification of historic preservation and home performance. Often, I’ve coupled the terms “historic preservation” and “energy efficiency” together in the same sentence, despite being bothered by the awkwardness and inefficiency of it all. But while reading Peter’s proposal, it struck me that simply attaching the modifier “historic” to “home performance” would give me the term I’d been looking for, and in a clean and logical way. So, I’ve now settled on historic home performance as my own defining term for the particular flavor of home performance that I’m most interested in.

SEO Worthiness

Peter and I both advocate the importance of building mind-share for such concepts via websites, blogs, and social media. So it seemed worth while to determine how both phrases measured up, in terms of online public awareness and search engine optimization. My own keyword analysis of home performance revealed that this term has about a medium level of search popularity within a collection of over a dozen industry terms of the same general meaning. I also found organic search competition for home performance to be fairly high, with about 115,000 webpages attempting to optimize themselves for this term. Paid search competition, on the other hand, was estimated as “low” by Google AdWords. (I’ll publish the details of my keyword investigation in a forthcoming post.)

Historic home performance, on the other hand, appears to have no significant search popularity, nor any one competing for its use. In fact, a Google allintitle search returned about 289 webpages containing the terms “historic”,  “home”, and  “performance” in their page titles, but none embedding the exact phrase “historic home performance”. So, does this mean my new favorite meme is sunk? No, I don’t think so. What it means to me, as its apparent original author, is that the responsibility for its proper care and feeding, going forward, rests squarely on my shoulders. It’s mine to actively promote, until the time comes when others are willing to embrace it as their own.

Of course, any truly successful meme requires a strong and clear semantic meaning behind it. So, in a forthcoming series of articles on this blog, I’ll attempt to paint a compelling vision of what I mean by historic home performance. But for now, here’s a summary of key points:

A Pocket Manifesto for Historic Home Performance

1. The overarching goal of historic home performance is not simply making older homes more energy efficient, but deeply integrating home performance concepts — energy efficiency, weatherization, durability, comfort, occupant safety, indoor air quality — with established principles of historic preservation.

2. Home performance retrofits requiring large-scale removal or replacement of original or historic material (windows, in particular), or significant alteration to scale or architecture, are not consistent with the tenets of historic preservation. A key objective of historic home performance is devising safe, low-cost, non-destructive, alternative strategies, that deliver comparable performance results.

3. Home performance retrofits must not introduce new risks to occupant safety, comfort, indoor air quality, or building durability.

4. The embodied energy of existing structures and materials needs to be preserved, as much as possible.

5. The use of non-sustainable or toxic materials, or materials requiring considerable amounts of energy to manufacture, package, or distribute, or that contribute significantly to green house gas production, must be avoided, as much as possible.

6. Renovations and retrofits for historic homes should be implemented in a reversible/re-treatable manner, to the extent possible.

7. The whole house, or house as a system, approach to home performance needs to be expanded into a house as an element of a broader ecosystem approach. It makes little sense to reduce the energy use of a house by requiring increased energy footprints elsewhere.

8. Life style changes, minimal-investment solutions for conserving water and electricity, reliance on natural and passive strategies for heating and cooling, leveraging existing energy conserving features of structures or landscape, and small-scale sustainable food production, should all be promoted as part of historic home performance.

9. Any viable methodology for historic home performance ought to take into account  principles of modern building science. However, it must co-opt these principles via implementation strategies that are appropriate for historic structures.

10. Finally, precise and repeatable measurement, testing, and modeling, and the open publishing of results and best practices, should be central aspects of an historic home performance methodology. This includes a post-retrofit program of ongoing home performance monitoring and reporting.

Summary

As always, please feel free to post any thoughts, opinions, criticisms, alternative suggestions, etc., you might have regarding this proposed manifesto, or the more general problem of combining historic preservation with energy efficiency and conservation. I look forward to your comments.

Postscript

Since originally penning this article, I’ve published a follow-on article that describes my keyword analysis of these various terms in considerable detail. See Rating Home Performance as an Industry Defining Term. I’ve also created a dedicated page that attempts to paint a vision of Historic Home Performance, re-published the manifesto separately as the Historic Home Manifesto, and have assembled a comprehensive listing of Historic Home Resources.

About John Poole

My interests include historic homes, architectural preservation and restoration, improving the energy performance of old houses, and traditional timber frames.
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9 Responses to Historic Home Performance: The Adoption, Care, and Feeding of a New Meme

  1. John I think this is a wonderful post and combining all of these various aspects will be a challenge but well worth the efforts. Older historic homes need to be kept and at the same time they need to be made more efficient given the the costs for heating and cooling. Anything that I can offer in helping this along for you, just ask.

    • John Poole says:

      Todd, thanks for all the good words, and especially for your offer to help. Very much appreciated. This is indeed a long term effort and a very challenging one. But I’m totally committed to this. Expect a good many more regular reports and postings in the upcoming months!

  2. John Leeke says:

    John, thanks for bringing your manifesto to my attention. In your #9, you bring up the principles of modern building science and suggest the issue of assuring that the principles implemented are appropriate for historic buildings.
    I take this notion a step or two further to recognize that there are fundamental differences between traditional building technology and modern building technology. Whenever (with very very few exceptions) modern technology is introduced into an early building, sooner or later it generates a conflict that results in significant damage to the building.
    This idea is based on my own 45 years of working on older buildings as a tradesman, contractor, owner and consultant. I did many things to many older and historic buildings during the 1970s “energy crunch” that I, and in some cases, the building owners later regretted. These are important lessons to learn and pass along.
    This is not to say that we should not do new things to old buildings, but we should be very careful and thoughtful about it, to realize what damage will be done and how significant it might become. I will admit that I am a “traditionalist”, but hope that I am not a “stuck in the mud” traditionalist.
    You may want to check out my own Old-House Mechanics Manifesto:
    http://historichomeworks.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=858

    John
    by hammer and hand great works do stand
    by mind and heart we share the art
    http://www.HistoricHomeWorks.com

    • John Poole says:

      Hi John,
      Thanks very much for the feedback.

      Unfortunately, in an attempt to impose brevity on my manifesto, item #9 probably doesn’t read quite as I intended. What I really mean is that it’s necessary to identify and abstract the “science” out of, and away from, modern building science (which I feel is not a pure science but invariably tied up in modern building techniques and materials, etc.), and then try to determine how the purer aspects of that science best fit, or project onto, or blend with, etc., traditional structures. So, just for example: Abstract building science might say that positive ventilation is fundamental to removing moisture, but we know that modern and traditional buildings are vented in very different ways, so the key is figuring out what are the means by which a traditional structure (or even some particular traditional structure) ventilates, and then ensure that that principle is not violated whenever some treatment is applied. That’s the kind of thinking I MEANT to convey, and I think that it’s in alignment with what you’re saying.

      But the fact that you didn’t pick up my fuller meaning in my manifesto means my messaging needs to be made clearer and more precise (while still being compact and concise). So I really, really appreciate your taking the time to read and comment, because feedback like this helps me move things closer to an ideal state.

      Like you, I also consider myself a strong traditionalist, but similarly not an inflexible one. I believe that best methods of the present should be thoughtfully combined with the methods of the past in some manner that produces the best results, and most importantly, causes no damage. I’ll take a look your Old House Mechanics Manifesto, and see if I can leverage what you have to improve my own.

      Thanks again, again, and I really appreciate the feedback!
      ~John

  3. Pingback: Deep Energy Retrofit’s – The Conversation | The HTRC: Homeowner's & Trades Resource Center

  4. John,

    Reading this as part of the #DER conv follow up. I think you have 10 very good principles here. I think they all apply to any energy efficient DER, not just those of historic properties.

    To a homeowner, the only home they really care about, is the home they live in. Be it 10 years or 200 years, is really irrelevant. The home owner has memories about the people and events that have occurred in the house, that is what makes it a home. Helping the home owner reach his goals, saving energy, increasing comfort, targeting money expenditures should all be guided by the home owner. They do not want to harm the memories of their home. Much of that memory is based on how the house looks.

    When those homeowners are long gone, as with the Mansfield House, how do we preserve the place that hosted those people and events? We have to advocate for the homeowner.

    • John Poole says:

      I totally agree with you on all points, John. You’ve expressed a concept of a long-term, and almost unconditional, stewardship toward the home (regardless of its age), something that I subscribe to myself. It’s the same sentiment expressed by that oft-cited quote of William Morris:

      “These old buildings do not belong to us only…they have belonged to our forefathers and they will belong to our descendants, unless we play them false. They are not in any sense our property, to do as we like with. We are only trustees for those that come after us”.

      So, yes. Folks like me and you are here to serve the homeowner, whether that’s the current homeowner, ourselves, or homeowners of many generations past. And how do we ensure that those who come after us will do the same? I think there’s no clear answer to that. We just have to leave these homes in the best possible condition, so as to inspire others to follow suit and do likewise. And we also need to leave a well-written, thoughtful record of these concepts that are so important, something I hope we’re in the process of doing right now, in our current written exchanges.
      ~John

  5. John Poole says:

    This post features my own Pocket Manifesto for Historic Home Performance, as well as a pointer to John Leeke’s Old-House Mechanic’s Manifesto. Now, here is a similar sequence of nuanced assertions on green building, authored by my friend Michael Anschel, and emitted some time back on his Twitter stream (@MichaelAnschel). I’ve compile them here so I have a place to return to view them or reference them, and borrow from them wherever and whenever I need to. I’m basically in complete agreement with all he has to say in this collection of missives:

    I am changing the definition of green building. Durability is its own category now. Community impact and Site impact also independent now.

    Green Building: Community Impact, Indoor environment, water conservation, Durability, Resource Efficiency, Site Impact, Energy Value.

    The first rule of green building. Be respectful of your fellow humans. Save the Humans.

    Second rule of Green Building: Don’t make your clients sick. Don’t diminish the quality of life of your occupants.

    Third Rule of green building. Take care of our MOST IMPORTANT resource. Water. Don’t pollute it. Don’t waste it.

    Fourth Rule of green building: Build the home so that it is appropriately durable. 150-200 estimated life span.

    Fourth Rule (cont.): Do not build overly durable homes. Do not build fragile over-designed systems that easily fail.

    Fifth Rule of Green Building. Understand and maximize the true cost of materials. (Resource and energy inputs, environmental impacts).

    Sixth Rule of Green Building: Build appropriately for the climate and community. Build to enhance and nourish the community.

    Seventh Rule of Green Building: Build to minimize the energy impact on the environment and people. (source and quantity).

    Seven categories. Seven simple rules. Green building just got a little bit better! woo hoo!

  6. John Poole says:

    Well, some of it is about computers and technology. So your understanding must be improving! As for the squirrels, they shall be (retro)fitted with little jet-packs, which means they’ll be able to run errands for me all that much more efficiently! :)

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