Primum non nocere “First do no Harm”

The question regarding whether or not to insulate brought up an age-old dialog in the design/construction industry regarding the pros and cons about adding new insulating systems to a historic structure.

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Teitsch-Kent Fay Architects, P.C. are pleased to be working with St. Bernard’s Catholic Church in Waterville, New York. We previously assisted St. Bernards with some masonry restoration work, and are now assisting with the replacement of their existing roof. During a site visit, Dan had the opportunity to crawl into the roof/attic area and review the existing conditions. A question was raised about options to add insulation to this more than hundred year old structure. The configuration, as shown in the attached photographs, is a series of riveted trusses with lath and plaster groin vaults in-between.

The question regarding whether or not to insulate brought up an age-old dialog in the design/construction industry regarding the pros and cons about adding new insulating systems to a historic structure.

Sometimes jumping in and adding insulating materials, without looking at the larger picture can do more damage than good. A historic building is a very complicated microcosm of interrelated systems, and changing one element can have unforeseen implications to other portions of the building. Each element must be reviewed and considered, with the end goal always being what will best protect the (possibly fragile) existing historic fabric of the building.

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On a positive note, historic buildings often have inherent energy efficient qualities. The following is an excerpt from the Secretary of the Interior’s Preservation Brief:

“Before implementing any energy conservation measures, the existing energy-efficient characteristics of a historic building should be assessed. Buildings are more than the sum of their individual components. The design, materials, type of construction, size, shape, site orientation, surrounding landscape, and climate all play a role in how buildings perform. Historic building construction methods and materials often maximized natural sources of heat, light and ventilation to respond to local climatic conditions. The key to a successful rehabilitation project is to understand and identify the existing energy-efficient aspects of the historic building and how they function, as well as to understand and identify its character-defining features to ensure they are preserved. Whether rehabilitated for a new or continuing use, it is important to utilize the historic building’s inherent sustainable qualities as they were intended to ensure that they function effectively together with any new treatments added to further improve energy efficiency.”

Preservation Brief 3 “Improving Energy Efficiency in Historic Buildings
National Park Service, US Dept. of the Interior

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Upgrading components in historic buildings to improve energy efficiency can fall into two major categories: Requiring minimal intrusion or alterations: such as reducing air leakage, and sealing and insulating ducts and pipes. And, requiring more significant intrusion: such as adding interior vestibule and window replacement (which has its own series of issues.)

The issues raised in these situations can be further complicated by the fact that there are often competing interests that contradict one another. The key issue for designers and building owners in this, and any, building decision, much like the Hippocratic Oath is “First Do No Harm.”

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