Urgent Historic Home Sale

SANFORD/BRISTOL HOUSE. Double Dutch gambrel colonial home (c. 1789) for sale. 2388 square feet. 0.3 acre lot included. Located at 111-113 North Street in Milford, Connecticut Historic District. A scenic area with Wepawaug River view, and home values ranging from $500K-$750K. Must be sold as is, with no contingencies, before January 13th, 2014, or will be demolished. $200,000 cash, firm. Home convenient to highways, train, Long Island Sound and beaches. 90 min. to NYC. Excellent opportunity for preservation-minded restorationist-reseller, or home owner willing to reinvest for future returns while residing in a beautiful location.

Contact philip@walkerlawofficellc.com (860 693-1313) or emarchitto@cttrust.org ASAP for details.

Image of the Sanford-Bristol House.

The Sanford-Bristol House, c. 1789 (Image Credit: Connecticut Trust For Historic Preservation/Greg Farmer)

View of bridge and river from Sanford-Bristol House (taken from public sidewalk).

View of bridge and river from Sanford-Bristol House (taken from public sidewalk).

View of river and park from Sanford-Bristol House (taken from public sidewalk).

View of river and park from Sanford-Bristol House (taken from public sidewalk).

Sanford-Bristol House from directly across North Street.

Sanford-Bristol House from directly across North Street.

Sanford-Bristol House, as viewed from the park, and across North Street.

Sanford-Bristol House, as viewed from the park, and across North Street.

Sanford-Bristol House amid fall colors (Image credit: Tim Chaucer).

Sanford-Bristol House amid fall colors (Image Credit: Tim Chaucer).

#oldhouse #historicbuildings #preservation #thisplacematters #MilfordCT #CTHistory

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Phelps Mansion Remembered

Phelps Mansion (c. 1826) was an impressive, three-story, Greek Revival home, that had once stood proudly at 1738 Elm Street, in Stratford, Connecticut. Unfortunately, the home was torn down in 1972. But as a young lad, I had the rare privilege of actually “touring” this home, just a year or two before its demise, along with my father, and three or four of my schoolmates. But more on that later.

According to Wilcoxin’s History of Stratford, the home was built by General Mattas Nicholl, as a gift to his daughter and son-in-law, Captain George Dowdell, who was about to retire from life at sea. The center hallway of the home, designed by Mrs. Dowdell for her husband, was reminiscent of the main deck of his clipper ship: twelve feet wide, and seventy feet in length, with twin staircases leading to the “upper deck”.

Old drawing of Phelps Mansion on Elm Street, Stratford, Connecticut.

Rendering of Phelps Mansion, from Lippincott’s Magazine of Popular Literature and Science, Vol. XXIV, 1878, p. 34.

Six large chimneys and their fireplaces served the home, with three situated at each end. The front entry was comprised of a classical pediment, supported by four, massive Doric columns, and the interior also featured much fine elaboration, including chandeliers, and finely carved paneling and molded plaster work. All in all, Phelps Mansion had been an exquisite example of the high Greek Revival architecture of its day.

Following the deaths of Mr. and Mrs. Dowdell, the home was sold, in 1849, to Rev. Eliakim Phelps, a Presbyterian minister who moved his family down from Massachusetts. The Phelps family resided there until 1859, when they had sold the home to Moses Beach, founder of The New York Sun. The home was later taken over by Moses’ son, Alfred, who had been a long time editor of The Scientific American, and also ran a private school out of the home, called The Stratford Institute.

Then, in the 1940s, Phelps Mansion was converted into a rest home for the aged, and ultimately became the Restmore Convalescent Home. It was operated as such until the late 1960s, when it was purchased by Alliance Medical Inns, who intended to construct a new hospital on the property, while utilizing the home for office space. But financial problems prevented this from happening, and the home was boarded up and abandoned in 1970. A series of set fires and much other vandalism took a considerable toll on the place, and Phelps Mansion was finally demolished, in March of 1972.

Photo of Phelps Mansion, from Wilcoxon's History of Stratford, Connecticut.

Photo of Phelps Mansion, on Elm Street. From Wilcoxon’s History of Stratford.

Now, those of you familiar with the legend of Phelps Mansion (often referred to as “The Stratford Knockings”) will recall that it was during the Phelps family’s tenure there, in the early spring of 1850, that all the “trouble” began. For it was at this time Rev. Phelps began making claims of other worldly goings-on in his home, which grew over the upcoming months to include stories of continual knockings on walls, objects launching of their own accord and hurtling through the air, windows and furniture being smashed, Phelps children being levitated and carried by unseen forces across rooms, and groups of mysterious effigies formed from the family’s clothing and positioned in ways that appeared to mock Christian mass.

Reports of this activity continued until the end of October of the same year, when Mrs. Phelps and her children left their home to winter in Philadelphia. They returned the following spring, in 1851, and the Phelps family continued to reside at their home on Elm Street, peacefully, for another eight years. But all of this led to Phelps Mansion receiving much notoriety at the time, and, indeed, forever after, as a haunted house. In fact, it’s often cited as one of the worst cases of malevolent poltergeist activity ever recorded, with many contending this haunting to have even been demonic in nature.

Photo of the interior of Phelps Mansion, showing the first floor central hallway and double straircase.

Photo of the interior of Phelps Mansion, showing the first floor central hallway and double staircase. From Wilcoxon’s History of Stratford.

Now, as a committed rationalist and unapologetic disbeliever, I don’t buy these stories; in fact, I categorically deny these events ever happened. As far as I’m concerned, they were fabricated by Rev. Phelps, a man well noted for his fascination with occultism. His family undoubtedly colluded with him in this hoax, and their wild tales were readily received by an enthusiastic public, who in turn were enabled by a press that seemed fully determined to convince its readership of the truth of these fantastic claims.

In fact, if you study the original newspaper and journal articles of the day, you’ll find the reporters relied heavily on hearsay and second-hand testimonies of various “invitrants” to the home, many of whom went unidentified. Profuse and deferential pleadings as to the “high stature” and “unquestionable integrity” of Rev. Phelps, his family, and even the unidentified “eye witnesses”, were used by the reporters to bolster their accounts. This style of reporting is completely at odds, of course, with modern standards for objectivity, accuracy, and independent verification, and hardly would’ve lent itself to piercing the thin veil of a hoax.

Beginning of an article from the Cambridge Chronicle, Vol. V, No. 18, May 2nd, 1850.

Beginning of an article on Phelps Mansion from the Cambridge Chronicle, Vol. V, No. 18, May 2nd, 1850. Note how the article begins with a plea for its own veracity, by claiming the authority of its sources.

But things seemed much different to me, back when I was about ten or eleven, and I was captivated by these supernatural stories. My friends and I often rode our bikes past the boarded-up and vandalized Phelps Mansion, and occasionally stopped there. The front doors were always open, but we could never muster the courage to get beyond the front foyer and into the central hallway.

One day, my dad, clearly intrigued by our quixotic tales of tilting at poltergeists, proposed taking me and my friends there, so we could properly explore the place. So, armed with many flashlights, and my dad, we finally made it into the house, thoroughly investigating the first and second floors. I recall a relatively modern kitchen in the rear, with subway tile and steel sinks. Then we ascended one of the double stairs, and found a number of old steel bed frames and wheelchairs in the various second floor rooms. When we finally reached the third floor, we encountered some squatters up there (all of earthly origin, and smoking weed), and sensing it was time to leave, finally descended the other stairway, and headed out.

The following year or so didn’t bode very well for Phelps Mansion. I recall passing it one day and noticing that one of the large Doric columns had been pulled out of place by vandals, and was left lying on its side, on the stone porch. Reports of flagrant vandalism, fires, and squatters continued, and when it was announced the home would be demolished, a number of local residents fought to save it, but to no avail.

Image of the demolition of Phelps Mansion.

Demolition of Phelps Mansion in 1972. (Image Credit: New England Society For Psychic Research).


In my opinion, the real tragedy here (beyond the demise of the home itself) is that Phelps Mansion will never be remembered as anything other than a haunted house, all because of one nineteenth century owner’s elaborate hoax, and a gullible public who, back then as now, were all too willing to embrace, elaborate upon, and perpetuate that hoax. To this day, the Phelps Mansion hoax continues to be expanded in small increments, in online forums and blog posts, by the dwindling few who remember the place.

Furthermore, the entire corpus of searchable information on this lost Greek Revival mansion is focused exclusively on the paranormal manifestations that were claimed to have taken place there. Nowhere does one find Phelps Mansion mentioned in any of the architectural surveys and inventories of the previous century. Nor did any of the famed architectural historians of the early twentieth century (J. Frederick Kelly and Norman Isham, in particular) ever visit or record this home (as far as I’m aware) during their visits to Stratford. Did they deliberately avoid it because of its tainted history? Probably not. But it’s still unfortunate that none of them had considered including it in their surveys of historic Stratford homes, because Phelps Mansion would then have had at least some other account of note, beyond its alleged paranormal manifestations.

Did Phelps Mansion’s paranormal reputation hasten its demise? Absolutely. When I was young, and the mansion was still extant, everyone, but everyone, in town knew of it, and knew its story. When the home was finally boarded up and abandoned by Alliance Medical Inns, that highly publicized, paranormal cachet made the place a powerful magnet to all the local vandals and other miscreants who couldn’t resist it. And they managed to completely destroy the home over the course of two years. I know this for fact, because I’d witnessed this history first hand. In the end, this fine home was destroyed by humans and their collective foolishness, and not by poltergeists.

Do I think people should refrain from perpetuating stories of paranormal manifestations in certain historic homes, in the interest of protecting them? Absolutely not. We live in a free society, and people are (and should be) free to express, disseminate, and even embellish these claims, as they please. But by the same token, rational preservationists need to proactively call out the folklore and local myths for what they are, and educate the public that these stories don’t represent the true cultural value, meaning, and histories of these buildings. It’s unfortunate, but the idea of a “haunting” is just one more of those ingrained prejudices that many harbor against old homes, right along with “they’re cold and drafty”, “difficult to maintain”, and “impossible to adapt to the requirements of modern life”.

In a forthcoming article, I’ll walk you through the more prominent of the original, published accounts of “The Stratford Knockings”, and point out the numerous credibility gaps that make these old reports completely collapse under a critical eye. I’ll also take you through some of the more ridiculous embellishments to the earlier tales that have been floated in more recent times.

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Sanford-Bristol House: Connecticut Trust Joins The Fight

Today, the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation joined the Milford Preservation Trust as a co-plaintiff in their legal fight to save the threatened Sanford-Bristol House (c. 1790), of Milford, Connecticut.

Rather than write my own version of this, here’s the complete, public announcement, as posted on the Connecticut Trust’s Facebook page, and also in a recent press release:

Image of the Sanford-Bristol House.

(Image Credit: Connecticut Trust For Historic Preservation/Greg Farmer)

The Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation joined the Milford Preservation Trust as co-plantiff in their legal action to save the Sanford-Bristol house, 111-113 North St. Milford from destruction. The house is a contributing structure in the River Park National Register of Historic Places district.

On October 11, 2013, two days before a local delay of demolition period was set to expire, the Milford Preservation Trust filed suit under Section 22a-19a of the CT Environmental Protection Act, which allows citizens to challenge unreasonable destruction of historic buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In response to the filing, the court issued a temporary restraining order forbidding any demolition before a hearing could be held, currently scheduled for October 28 2013.

A hearing on the issue is set for October 28, 2013 to determine if the destruction is unreasonable and if there exists a prudent and feasible alternative to the destruction. 

Helen Higgins, Executive Director at the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, supports the Milford Preservation Trust, explaining, “Protection of Connecticut’s historic resources is our highest priority at the Trust. We join this suit to continue to support our local partners as they strive to preserve a significant building in historic Milford.”

Please call The Trust at 203.562.6312, or email EMarchitto@cttrust.org with questions.

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Sanford-Bristol House Demolition Blocked (And Yet…)

Milford’s Sanford-Bristol House (c. 1790), has temporarily been saved from demolition by the efforts of Milford City Historian Richard Platt, and the Milford Preservation Trust. A temporary injunction, filed under the Connecticut Environmental Protection Act (CEPA), was served to owners William and Gwendolyn Farrell late last week. The ninety day demolition delay ordinance, previously invoked by Mr. Platt, expired just this past Sunday (October 13th). And a preliminary court hearing will be held on October 28th.

But Mr. and Mrs. Farrell apparently believe they can play by their own rules, and had demolition contractor James Mallico show up today with a small backhoe, to begin the process of digging and cutting utility lines. Michele Kramer, a Milford Preservation Trust board member and historic district resident, was alerted to the activity, and showed up on site with a copy of the court order to show Mr. Mallico.

Image of Sanford-Bristol House, backhoe, and campaign signs.

A small backhoe parked behind one of Bill’s Farrell’s campaign signs. (Photo credit: Kara Flannery)

Mr. Mallico did the right thing, however, and backed away at that point, sparing both his clients and himself the risk of a possible contempt of court charge. Milford police had also been  summoned, but didn’t arrive until after both Mrs. Farrell and Mr. Mallico had left the area. Milford Preservation Trust members and neighborhood friends will continue to keep a close watch on the home.

Some words of wisdom

Res ipsa loquitur — Roughly, “the thing speaks for itself”.

Remove not the ancient landmark, which thy fathers have set — Proverbs 22:28.


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Shadow of the Season

Today, I drove past 111 North Street, Milford, Connecticut, and couldn’t help but notice the campaign signs adorning the front lawn of the doomed Sanford-Bristol House (c. 1790), promoting Bill Farrell’s run for a seat on Milford’s District Five Planning and Zoning Board (unfortunately, the signs didn’t come out very clearly in the photo below, so I’ve circled them in red; you can double click the image for an expanded view).

Now, it’s Mr. Farrell’s property, of course, and he’s free to do as he wants — who am I to take issue with this? But you’ve got to admit there’s a profound irony here, in that the guy who’s unflinching in his resolve to demolish a rare, 18th century home, also aspires to a position of influence over property use in the very same district. Not to mention that the only suitable (and final) use he’s found for his 223 year old home (which had well served its many generations of past owners) is to promote his campaign.

Image of Sanford-Bristol House with campaign signs on lawn.

The Sanford-Bristol House, and owner Bill Farrell’s campaign signs on the front lawn.

Equally ironic is that his rival for the P&Z seat, incumbent Terrence Copeland, lives right next door (that’s his “Blake for Milford” sign, near the curb). A local acquaintance of mine described Copeland as being “tepid” on historic preservation, and recalls him expressing approval of the proposed demolition in the June 24th public hearing.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on the Sanford-Bristol House. The current demolition delay runs out on October 13th. The season for elections is upon us, and not a single politician (with the exception of Ron Goldwyn, a District Two candidate) has taken any meaningful position on the state of historic preservation in Milford, Connecticut, including Ben Blake and Peter Spalthoff, the two mayoral candidates.

So, if you’re as befuddled as I am by Milford’s excessive tear down culture, perhaps you need not look any further than the current crop of politicians, who not only enable, but, in some cases, actively participate in, the ongoing destruction of Milford’s dwindling, vintage housing stock. Will these campaign signs remain on the front lawn while the backhoe goes to work on candidate Farrell’s house? That certainly would make for a painful collection of photos, but photos I’ll take, nonetheless, if things come down to that.

Image of pumpkins and fall flowers at the Rev. Richard Mansfield House, Ansonia, Connecticut.

Various shadows of the season, at an historic home that’s NOT going to be demolished by its owner.


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Milford Faces Yet Another Historic Teardown

Yet another historic Milford, Connecticut home is now officially under threat. This time, it’s the former summer residence of Gen. Joseph R. Hawley. This Borough of Woodmont home was purchased on the 23rd of August, 2013, by Milford resident Doreen Watmough. On September 25th, Ms. Watmough filed for a demolition permit, citing the home as being in “irreparable condition”.

Gen. Joseph R. Hawley was an abolitionist newspaper editor who served as a Brigadier General in the American Civil War. Following the war, he became Governor of Connecticut, and then later served as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Finally, he served for twenty years in the U.S. Senate. He was also responsible for building the Hartford Courant into a major newspaper.

Image of General Joseph R. Hawley .

General Joseph R. Hawley (Image Source: connecticuthistory.org).

There’s little doubt local investors are now emboldened by the ongoing Sanford-Bristol House situation, in which an historic home with significant legal protections was declared “appropriate for demolition” by Milford’s Historic District One Commission, after new owners William and Gwendolyn Farrell easily convinced them that the home was “beyond saving”.

[ I say "easily" because the due diligence applied by the Milford HDC in reaching their conclusion was, in my opinion, sadly inadequate; in fact, the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation's recent article "Local Historic Districts: Protecting Neighborhood Character" (Connecticut Preservation News, September/October 2013), cites the Sanford-Bristol House situation as a specific example of the need for much tighter decision-making criteria by HDCs, in general. ]

Mr. Farrell, who’s First Vice President of the Milford Historical Society (try figuring that one out), a candidate for a seat on Milford’s District Five Planning and Zoning Board, and teaches real estate investment classes in his spare time, publicly claimed he’d had no idea of the home’s condition before he purchased it. Yet, at the first pubic hearing on his demolition request, he’d readily presented his architect’s plans for a new, replacement home that would be reminiscent of the original, and these plans were subsequently found acceptable by the HDC.

Image of Gen. Joseph R. Hawley Summer Residence, Milford, CT.

Gen. Joseph R. Hawley Summer Residence, Milford, CT (left of photo). (Image Source: REODEV.com)

Unfortunately, the Gen. Joseph R. Hawley residence has no legal protections beyond the ninety-day demolition delay ordinance, which has been enacted by Milford City Historian Richard Platt. So the only hope for this home’s survival is for its new owner, Ms. Watmough, to have a change of heart, perhaps after Woodmont residents have had a chance to voice their opinions on her proposed demolition.

For a town so rich in history, Milford is rapidly losing its vintage housing stock — as are many other Connecticut towns — at the hands of real estate speculators, local politicians, and their various appointees, who seem largely indifferent to the value of their city’s built heritage. Both the current Mayor of Milford, Ben Blake, and his challenger, Peter Spalthoff, have been oddly silent on these tear downs. Neither has yet expressed any substantive position on the future of historic preservation in Milford, Connecticut.

Postscript [ December 5th, 2013 ]

Ms. Watmough applied for a demolition permit for the Hawley House on September 25th, 2013, against which Milford City Historian Richard Platt subsequently invoked a ninety day demolition delay. Ms. Watmough stated she’d sell the home to any buyer willing to pay what she’d paid for it. So far, no such buyer has materialized (although the home doesn’t appear to have been actively marketed, either). If no purchaser is found, the Hawley House most likely will be demolished sometime after December 25th, 2013.

Post-Postscript [ March 5th, 2015 ]

The Hawley House was eventually torn down in late 2014, by Milford builder Greg Field.

#ThisPlaceMatters #HistoricBuildings #Preservation #MilfordCT #CTHistory

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Environmental Impact of Demolishing and Replacing the Sanford-Bristol House

Recently, I’d conducted a formal study of the gross environmental impact of demolishing the Sanford-Bristol House (c. 1790) of Milford, Connecticut, and replacing it with a smaller, replica home. What follows here is a brief synopsis of my findings. A link to the full study, which in turn links to all sources cited here, is provided at the end of this post.

The term “environmental impact” is defined here as a combination of 1) wasting energy already embodied by existing construction, 2) expending energy for new construction, along with its resulting carbon debt, and 3) solid waste generation. My analysis is based on well-known planning models and empirical construction data published by the U.S. Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP), the Energy Research Group of the University of Illinois’ Center for Advanced Computation, The Greenest Building .org, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The table below summarizes and compares my results for two specific scenarios: 1) An extreme rehabilitation of 90% of the Sanford-Bristol House, and 2) demolition and removal of the Sanford-Bristol House, followed by construction of a new home that’s 80% of the original footprint. Note that my assessment of “90% rehabilitation” is a hypothetical, worst-case estimate that I’ve arbitrarily chosen just to make a comparison. The home most likely requires nowhere near this degree of rehabilitation, but a more realistic estimate would require direct inspection of the home, something I’m not in a position to do. Also note that the term “rehabilitation”, as defined by the ACHP models, and used here, refers to the systematic repair and restoration of an existing structure, and does not imply a one-for-one replacement of a building’s original components:

Sanford-Bristol House: Comparison of environmental metrics for rehabilitation, versus demolition-replacement (based on ACHP models and The Greenest Building .org calculators).

Sanford-Bristol House: Comparison of environmental metrics for rehabilitation, versus demolition-replacement (based on ACHP models and The Greenest Building .org calculators).

What the above comparison reveals is that even an extreme rehabilitation of the Sanford-Bristol House, based on a hypothetical, worst-case assumption of 90% of the home having to be rehabilitated and restored, would still incur only about 1/2 the energy loss and carbon impact of a complete demolition and replacement, and generate only about 4% of the solid waste of a complete demolition and replacement. 

It should be noted that the ACHP’s concept model of embodied energy, which was the one used in this study, produces relatively course-grained estimates of energy loss and costs, based on building type and gross square footage. It’s perfectly suitable, however, for historic preservation planning purposes, and has been used by the ACHP in that capacity for many years. Two additional, more finely-grained models, whose calculations require lengthy inspections of building details and components (again, something not practical in this particular situation), have also been published by the ACHP.

My complete report, containing my assumptions, step-by-step calculations, and references to all published information sources, may be found at:


A complete archive of all Sanford-Bristol House articles posted here may be found at:


John Poole
Preservationist/Architectural Historian
Derby-Ansonia, Connecticut
20 September 2013

Posted in Sustainability | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Another Perspective From Phil Russo

Here’s yet another great perspective on the Sanford-Bristol House controversy, submitted by Phil Russo, a former Milford, Connecticut resident, and founding member of the Milford Preservation Trust. Once again, I’ve shared his words as a full posting to enhance their visibility:

I am biased. I love history. Reading about it, going to a house where a particular person lived, walking the grounds, going to the cemetery, and seeing their name carved in slate. Reading about HOW a house was built, finding the actual tools, and learning how to use them. Even the 1885 Morgan dollar I carry in my pocket everyday. History is in everything all around you. You just have to look, you have to WANT to look. It’s a cycle.

There are certain people who have this passion, and frankly people driven only by greed and the plows and wrecking balls of “progress” who’ll push over the past to make way for a temporary built future. A mere momentary structure—never to stand as long and as tall as the one that was razed to make room.

One need only open the pages of Early American Life magazine to see articles about people who bought an old barn and transformed it into a show piece. Or a house empty for decades inhabited only by raccoon, snakes, weeds and trees growing through the structure, only to lovingly restore it. and have it featured in a national publication!

The point to all my rambling here is I have that passion. The Sanford-Bristol House is EASILY restored, PERIOD. Unfortunately the man who purchased the house lacks the same passion as myself, or that of the people who rescued those barns and reptile and weed infested hulks that they live in today that shine like new and are warm, welcoming peeks into the past….not to mention the people who pile their children into cars and drive by “the old house,” in their neighborhoods full of vinyl sided plywood boxes, who then, in amazement, say “Mom, houses used to look like that? Can we get one?”

- Phil Russo

Thank you very much, Phil, for once again choosing to share your thoughts here. It’s truly appreciated by me, and by many of the like-minded readers of this journal.

Image of Sanford-Bristol House and bumper sticker


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Environmental Impact of Demolition-Replacement: Sanford-Bristol House Case Study

Preservationists and residents alike have spoken at length in support of the recently threatened Sanford-Bristol House (c. 1790), of Milford, Connecticut. An architecturally unique and irreplaceable historic home, it’s also a highly visible element of Milford’s River Park Historic District. These considerations alone justify the effort to save this unusual homestead.

However, there’s another compelling reason to save the Sanford-Bristol House, as well as other, similarly threatened historic homes, that’s not often raised in our public discourse, and that’s the environmental impact of demolishing these homes and replacing them with new construction.

Image of the Sanford-Bristol House (c. 1789-90).

The Sanford-Bristol House (c. 1789-90). From “History of Milford, Connecticut: 1639-1939″.

Embodied Energy

Here’s a brief summary of the scientific underpinnings of my argument: Back in the early 1970s, a team at the University of Illinois investigated the energy typically used in construction [1]. They focused on the concept of embodied energy, which is the total energy required to create something new from raw materials, plus any additional energy expended in further transforming the new object’s state. Their research culminated in a published inventory of embodied energies for typical construction materials and methods.

What’s so powerful about the idea of embodied energy is it enables one to assign a measurable energy cost to the current or projected future state of any manufactured product. And since embodied energy can never be recovered, this cost also includes the energy lost from destroying that product and replacing it with a new one. Furthermore, how a product’s actually made makes no difference (in principle) as far as its quantity of embodied energy is concerned; the same amount of energy is required to form a given object, whether made by machine, or human hand.

But where manufacturing processes differ are in their relative degrees of environmental sustainability. Human labor, for example, is reasonably sustainable, as long as adequate supplies of food and oxygen are available. By comparison, fossil fuels, which power most of our machinery today, are a one-shot deal; although highly energy-dense, they’re limited in quantity, and irreplaceable. Furthermore, extracting and refining fossil fuels damages the environment, while burning them produces CO2, methane, nitrous oxide, and other green house gases.

The ACHP and The Greenest Building

Now, as you can imagine, buildings possess tremendous amounts of nonrecoverable, embodied energy. In fact, the ongoing creation, augmentation, and replacement of all that embodied energy in the built environment of the United States currently consumes about 37% of our annual, non-renewable, fossil fuel-based energy production [2], with a direct consequence being a proportional amount of environmental harm.

So, from the standpoint of environmental sustainability, an important question to ask is: What’s the net energy expenditure of rehabilitating an old building, versus demolishing and replacing it with a comparable, new structure? We can quantify this question by recasting it in terms of embodied energy: What’s the net energy expenditure of conserving and possibly augmenting an existing store of embodied energy, versus disposing of it and creating a new store of comparable size?

In the late 1970s, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation set out to answer these questions by developing a computational framework to estimate and compare the relative energy costs of rehabilitation versus demolition-replacement for historic buildings [3]. Their published framework consisted of several mathematical models that leveraged the University of Illinois’ inventory of embodied energy data.

The ACHP publication included a case study evaluating three diverse historic buildings using these energy costing models. For all three, it was found that rehabilitation incurred a much lower net energy expenditure than demolition and replacement, the lower cost of rehabilitation being directly attributable to conserving the large quantities of embodied energy carried by each of these existing buildings [4].

Finally, in more recent times, the May T. Watts Appreciation Society created several online embodied energy and demolition energy calculators, based on the ACHP models. They also created construction and demolition waste calculators, based on published EPA data on non-hazardous waste generation [5], [6]. These calculators, and much background information on them, can be found at The Greenest Building .org [7], [8].

The Sanford-Bristol House

As a real-world example, let’s see what results the embodied energy, demolition energy, and construction and demolition waste calculators return for the Sanford-Bristol House.

Energy Cost of Demolition

According to Zillow.com, the Sanford-Bristol House has a gross area of 2388 square feet. Supplying this value and the basic house type to the embodied energy and demolition energy calculators gives us the following:

Embodied energy and demolition energy calculator panes, supplied with design values for the Sanford-Bristol House.

Embodied energy and demolition energy calculator panels, supplied with design values for the Sanford-Bristol House.

The Sanford-Bristol House stores about 1,671,600 MBTUs (thousands of British Thermal Units) of embodied energy. That’s the energy equivalent of about 288 barrels of crude oil, since a barrel of crude oil yields about 5.8 million BTUs. This is the total amount of non-recoverable, embodied energy that will be lost (or more accurately, made forever inaccessible/unavailable/unusable), should the Sanford-Bristol House be demolished.

The demolition energy (the energy required to destroy a structure and dispose of the waste material) for the Sanford-Bristol House is considerably less: 7402.8 MBTU, or about .4% of the home’s embodied energy. So, the total energy cost of demolishing and removing the Sanford-Bristol House is about 1,679,003 MBTU, or just one more barrel of oil over the cost of the home’s embodied energy.

Replacement Energy Cost, Final Energy Cost, and Carbon Debt

Mr. William Farrell’s application to the Milford Building Department to build a new home at 111-113 North Street specifies a single family home of 1900 square feet. To determine the energy required to build this new home, we enter the gross square footage and building type into the embodied energy calculator:

Approximate energy expenditure to build a slightly small replacement of the Sanford-Bristol House.

Approximate energy expenditure to build a slightly smaller replacement of the Sanford-Bristol House.

So, the energy required to build the new home is about 1,330,000 MBTU.

However, assessing the final energy impact of Mr. Farrell’s proposal using the ACHP model requires summing all three energy costs, since the embodied energy of the Sanford-Bristol House will be lost during its demolition:

1671600 MBTU + 7402.8 MBTU + 1330000 MBTU = 3009002 MBTU.

Thus, the final energy cost for the complete teardown, haul-away, and replacement of the Sanford-Bristol House is approximately 3,009,002 MBTU, which is equivalent to about 518 barrels of crude oil.

Now, I should point out that the embodied energy of the Sanford-Bristol House represents an environmental debt (mostly resource extraction and depletion) that’s already incurred, and furthermore, had largely been incurred during the days of manual and animal labor. But the energy driving demolition and new construction today will be obtained primarily by burning fossil fuels, and these processes will incur a significant, additional carbon debt that’s proportional to the amount of energy expended.

That required energy is about 7402.8 MBTU + 1330000 MBTU = 1337403 MBTU, which is equivalent to approximately 231 barrels of crude oil, which, in turn, is equivalent to about 218,257 pounds of CO2 [9]. This is the same quantity of CO2 that would be released by an average U.S. single family home over a time span of about 83 years [10].

While this estimate of carbon debt is just a broad approximation, it provides a reasonably good idea of the magnitude of environmental impact of the current proposal for the Sanford-Bristol House, something which otherwise would not be at all obvious.

Demolition and New Construction Waste

Building demolition and construction waste currently accounts for about 40% of all solid waste generated annually in the United States [2]. Minimizing its production, therefore, is another key environmental justification for building conservation and preservation.

How much solid waste would be generated by demolishing and replacing the Sanford-Bristol House? The Greenest Building .org’s construction and demolition (C&D) waste calculator estimates combined demolition and new construction waste, and demolition waste alone, based on building type and gross floor area. If you want to find the waste generated by new construction only, simply take the difference of these two values.

Here are the C&D waste calculator panels, supplied with design values for both the Sanford-Bristol House and its proposed replacement home:

Estimated construction and demolition waste for the Sanford-Bristol House teardown and replacement.

Estimated construction and demolition waste for the Sanford-Bristol House teardown and replacement.

Demolishing the Sanford-Bristol House will produce about 133 tons of waste, which must be dealt with (either reclaimed, recycled, or carted off to a landfill), while building the replacement home is estimated to produce about 4.2 tons of waste. Recall that debris removal energy costs are factored into the demolition energy estimates, but this doesn’t include post-removal energy costs for recycling.

A third panel of the C&D calculator estimates the equivalent amount of trash produced by a single U.S. citizen in years:

Trash production per person equivalent of the construction and demo waste estimates for the Sanford-Bristol House.

Trash production per individual equivalent of the construction and demo waste estimates for the Sanford-Bristol House.

So, demolishing and replacing the Sanford-Bristol House will produce a quantity of solid waste that’s approximately equivalent to what an average U.S. citizen would produce in about 163 years. Again, this is yet another metric illustrating a potential environmental impact of the Sanford-Bristol House proposal that’s otherwise not immediately obvious.

Rehabilitation Energy Cost

If you’ve managed to stick with my (admittedly dry and clinical) analysis up to this point, you’re probably beginning to suspect that rehabilitating the Sanford-Bristol House might have considerably less of an environmental impact than demolishing it. And you’d be right about that. So let’s see what the ACHP model has to say about the energy costs of rehabilitation.

The Greenest Building .org doesn’t offer a rehabilitation energy calculator, but we can easily compute this estimate using the embodied energy calculator and the ACHP concept model. The ACHP concept model defines rehabilitation energy as the embodied energy of the existing building, multiplied by the percentage of the building requiring restoration. Scientifically, this amounts to augmenting the embodied energy store of the existing building by that percentage, but otherwise conserving the embodied energy already present.

Now, coming up with a reasonable estimate of that percentage is essential for an accurate calculation. Doing so in this case would require a comprehensive inspection of the Sanford-Bristol House itself, something I’m not in a position to do. But in lieu of that, I can still calculate rehabilitation energies for arbitrary lower and upper bounds of that percentage, and use them to make useful comparisons.

Proponents of replacing the Sanford-Bristol House have publicly claimed that only a small percentage of the home can actually be saved. “Ten percent” is one estimate that seems to keep coming up in the various news reports. Personally, I don’t buy this. But let’s assume, for the moment, that it’s true. This means 90% of the existing Sanford-Bristol House needs to be rehabilitated (which, by the way, doesn’t necessarily mean replacing board-for-board and post-for-post, as some people might claim).

According to the ACHP model, the rehabilitation energy would then be estimated as:

.9 x 1671600 MBTU = 1504440 MBTU

which is about 1/2 of the total teardown and replacement energy cost of 3002340 MBTU that we’d calculated earlier, and clearly 1/2 the associated carbon debt, as well.

This estimate shows, then, that rehabilitating the Sanford-Bristol House, even to an extreme degree, would result in far less environmental degradation than tearing it down and replacing it, even with a 20% smaller replacement home.

Rehabilitation Construction Waste

Finally, let’s consider the quantity of construction waste that would be generated by such an extreme rehabilitation of the Sanford-Bristol House. The C&D waste calculator doesn’t include a panel for rehabilitation. But we can still get the answer we want simply by using the percentage of the original square footage that needs to be rehabilitated as the replacement square footage:

Construction and demolition waste estimate for rehabilitating 90% of the Sanford-Bristol House.

First step in estimating the construction waste of rehabilitating 90% of the Sanford-Bristol House.

Subtracting the original demolition waste estimate out of this result gives us an estimate for the solid waste generated by rehabilitating the home:

137.60 tons – 132.89 tons = 4.71 tons

This is just slightly more than the construction waste generated by building the new replacement home, but two orders of magnitude less than the total construction and demolition waste that would be produced by a full teardown. So, here we have yet one more comparative measure of environmental impact that supports rehabilitation over demolition and replacement. And once again, without this detailed analysis, none of this would’ve been obvious.

Environmental Impact: Summary and Comparison

The following spreadsheet summarizes and compares the main results of the preceding analysis of the Sanford-Bristol House:

Sanford-Bristol House: Comparison of environmental metrics for rehabilitation, versus demolition-replacement (based on ACHP models and The Greenest Building .org calculators).

Sanford-Bristol House: Comparison of environmental metrics for rehabilitation, versus demolition-replacement (based on ACHP models and The Greenest Building .org calculators).

Embodied Energies of Early Historic Buildings

It should be pointed out that, while conceptually correct, the ACHP computational framework, and the online calculators based on it, provide rather broad estimates of embodied energies and related costs. One concern about this model is how accurately it represents the embodied energies of very early historic structures, such as eighteenth century timber-framed or masonry homes.

In an APT Bulletin article published in 2005 [11], architect Mike Jackson spoke to this concern. He’d suggested that the embodied energies of early historic buildings are most likely underestimated by these models, given their generally over-built construction, and use of greater amounts of materials, than for similar structures of more modern vintage.

If Jackson is correct on this point (and I believe he is), then the case for conserving early historic buildings is even stronger than what the ACHP framework suggests. A good empirical investigation of the embodied energies of the earliest materials and methods would go a long way toward verifying what seems to be a credible assessment by Jackson.


Those determined to destroy historic homes and replace them with new housing often rely on whole litanies of platitudinous claims to justify their proposed actions. Their goal, of course, is to gain public approval by playing on popular misconceptions about the nature and operation of historic homes, as well as our deeply ingrained cultural bias that acquiring something new is always preferable to perpetuating something old.

Often, they’ll claim that replacing the older home with a new one will provide some great benefit to the surrounding community, either in terms of enhanced neighborhood value, or improved health and safety. And, in fact, if you peruse the various news articles and accounts of public hearings on the Sanford-Bristol House, you’ll find this particular claim central to Mr. Farrell’s argument, and one that was readily embraced by the Milford Historic District Commission.

What I’ve provided here, however, is a reasoned argument, based on long-established and well-understood scientific models and data, that the public is quite likely being asked to accept the scenario that incurs the greatest degree of long-term, environmental degradation. It’s unfortunate, of course, that this possibility only becomes apparent following a lengthy analysis, and that this analysis most likely will still prove unconvincing to those more comfortable debating in platitudes.



[1] Hannon, Stein, Segal, and Serber, Energy Use For Building Construction, Energy Research Group, Center for Advanced Computation, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, February, 1977.

[2] Carroon, Sustainable Preservation: Greening Existing Buildings, Wiley, November, 2010, pp. 5-6.

[3] U.S. Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, Assessing the Energy Conservation Benefits of Historic Preservation: Methods and Examples, January, 1979.

[4] Ibid, pp. 57-91.

[5] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, C & D Waste.

[6] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Municipal Solid Waste.

[7] May T. Watts Appreciation Society, The Greenest Building .org.

[8] May T. Watts Appreciation Society, The Greenest Building is the One Already Built, November, 2007.

[9] U. S. Environmental Protection Agency, Clean Energy Resources.

[10] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Clean Energy Calculations and References.

[11] Jackson, Embodied Energy and Historic Preservation: A Needed Reassessment, APT Bulletin Vol. 36, No. 5., 2005, pp. 47-52.

[12] Alter, Embodied Energy and Green Building: Does it matter?, TreeHugger.com, January, 2012.

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Hurricane Sandy Repair Grants For Historic Structures

The Connecticut State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) requested several of us to help them get the word out about the forthcoming availability of grant money for repairing historic structures damaged by Hurricane Sandy. A total of about $8 million dollars in grant monies will be made available to owners of National Register -listed or -eligible properties, for either emergency repairs or technical assistance. Individual awards will range from $2,500 to $500,000.

Below is the official flyer released by the Connecticut SHPO.  Public information hearings will be held in Milford and New Haven, with specific dates announced in September. Please email or phone the SHPO using the contact information at the bottom of the flyer for more information.



More detailed information, including scheduled public sessions, grant applications, and guidelines, etc., has been posted on this Connecticut Offices of Culture and Tourism page.

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